HC Deb 05 March 1990 vol 168 cc602-9

'For the purposes to which this Act applies, the Secretary of State may give a direction in writing to any person who operates, owns or manages a fixed platform, requiring him to take such measures as are specified in the direction.'.—[Mr. Doran].

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Doran

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 13, in clause 10, in page 15, line 6, leave out 'or by threats of any kind'. No. 14, in clause 11, in page 15, line 27, at end insert— '(c) by its nature or design, is intended to raise the apprehension that it is intended to destroy or damage a ship or fixed platform, or endanger the safe navigation of a ship, or safety of a fixed platform.'.

Mr. Doran

New clause 3 relates to discussions that we had in Committee, when I set out in detail events when a hoax bomb was planted on a gas production platform in Morecambe bay.

One matter that caused me concern when I read the details of the event was trying to relate it to what the Government propose in the Bill, which creates more that 40 new offences—some of them serious and carrying the most serious penalties—and a mass of restrictions and regulations, and a bureaucratic system of direction and enforcement. However, nowhere in the Bill have the Government or industry been given the responsibility to do the simplest thing—to train and to prepare for the type of events that occurred on that platform.

New clause 3 requires the Secretary of State to give directions which would apply to owners and managers of fixed platforms to meet the gap in the legislation.

For the benefit of hon. Members who were not able to hear the Committee proceedings, I shall summarise the circumstances surrounding the events on the CCP gas production platform in Morecambe bay which was operated by a subsidiary of British Gas.

On 9 October 1989, at about 8.30 am, a suspected bomb was found on the platform. None of the men on the platform was notified until about one hour later, and then they were not given detailed reasons why they were expected to gather at the muster points and life stations. It was not until a quarter past ten in the morning that the men were told that a bomb had been found, and that caused some alarm. It transpired that a taped package, measuring 6 in by 7 in, with wires that appeared to be a timing device attached, had been found in a cellar close to one of the 26 in gas riser pipes coming on to the platform. A number of such high pressure pipelines come on to the platform and all the men knew that they were of the same sort that exploded on the Piper Alpha platform and caused that tragedy. Therefore, there was some concern among the work force.

The men were kept at the muster stations in the recreation area until 2.30 pm, when the installation's operations manager decided to address them. He told them little more than they had been told in the morning, but he confirmed that the bomb had been found and that bomb disposal squads were not expected until 4 o'clock. Again, that caused some concern.

The men were aware that the package had been discovered at 8.30 am, and they were also well aware from all the hectic activity around them—the naval vessels and helicopters—that experts who would have been able to deal with a bomb were in the area because of the Conservative party conference which was taking place a few miles away in Blackpool. They could not understand why the experts could not reach the platform any sooner than 4 o'clock, despite the fact that the bomb had been found about eight hours previously.

The men were not told until 6 o'clock that the bomb disposal squad had decided to try to blow up the suspected bomb, and that also caused considerable concern. The men were aware that attempts had been made to depressurise the pipelines, but one had not been depressurised and the consequences of a bomb exploding in those circumstances would have been horrific.

Throughout the day, there had been some panic and pressure from the men to get off the platform, but none was allowed to leave. They were threatened that if they went off they would not be allowed back. Effectively, they were told that their jobs were on the line. I have told that story because it is a graphic example of a real emergency. I understand that legal proceedings are likely to follow.

As it took place on an offshore installation, the incident relates at least to part II of the Bill. According to the evidence that I have been given so far, the management dealt with it in a way that could not possibly be described as skilful; it could, indeed, have been calculated to cause the maximum distress. The men had no idea what to do. The arrival of the specialist bomb disposal experts was considerably delayed, and all their requests to be evacuated were refused. Although the package proved eventually to be a hoax, no one knew that until the disposal squad had dismantled it; meanwhile, unnecessary distress was caused. That could easily have been dealt with by management, who could have evacuated the platform.

In the Bill, the Government have created more than 40 new offences. They have also created a very bureaucratic system of direction and enforcement notices, yet the Secretary of State has not been given the simple power to require training and exercises to deal with such incidents. The problem is not hypothetical; oil and gas platforms are vulnerable, volatile and dangerous. In the event of a further hoax, or even the placing of a real explosive device on a platform, the men must not be subjected to such pressures again.

In Committee, the Minister said that he would contact the Department of Energy as a matter of urgency, and I shall be interested to learn whether the Department has any lessons to pass on. In the meantime, the new clause would allow the Secretary of State to enforce a requirement for training and exercises.

Amendment No. 13 would deal with a problem that was raised on Second Reading—threats against the work force. Industrial disputes have occurred on offshore installations, and I fear that there will be more this summer as a result of offshore unrest and dissatisfaction. Few people in the industry do not expect that to happen. On previous occasions, men working on North sea platforms have been subjected to intimidation of which an offshore management would not be capable.

I can give two examples. The first relates to industrial action taken on MSV Stadive earlier this year. The ship is used in the northern sector of the North sea, in the Shetland basin, as a special response vessel: it is expected to respond to emergencies, and its crew have already dealt with two highly publicised incidents. The first involved the Chinook helicopter disaster in 1986, when they were required to collect bodies; the second was the serious blow-out 18 months ago on the Ocean Odyssey drilling rig, in which a radio operator was killed.

The vessel's crew were required to remain with the vessel, which was positioned over the blow-out well for about three weeks until the emergency had been dealt with and the well capped. It was a dedicated crew. The men were employed by a company that acted as contractor for Shell UK Ltd. Recently, Shell UK Ltd. decided to dispose of that contractor and to employ a new one. Most of the men had worked for the contractor for nine years; some of them had been there for 15 years. All were told that they were to be made redundant. If they had been working onshore, they would have had certain rights; their employers would have been under an obligation to them.

As the men appeared to have no rights, the employers entered into a battle about who would be responsible for redundancy payments. The men were left high and dry in the middle. Industrial action followed. Every member of the crew was intimidated and threatened with the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act 1970, which provided for a maximum fine of £2,000. That ended the industrial action. All the men were sorely intimidated.

4.30 pm

According to the drafting of the provisions, an employer faced with industrial action would be entitled to threaten his men with the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, which might lead to a £2,000 fine, and with the provisions of clauses 9 and 10, and to say that an offence had been committed. The maximum penalty in that case would be life imprisonment.

The Minister has told me that any prosecutions under this measure would require the sanction of the procurator fiscal or the Crown Office. That would carry little weight with a work force that was engaged in an industrial dispute that was perfectly legal onshore. The evidence shows that employers would use such threats and that the work force would be intimidated. For that reason, therefore, we have tabled amendment No. 13.

Amendment No. 14 is designed to deal with what was perceived in Committee to be a major gap in the legislation. I relate it to the incident in Morecambe bay. The Bill deals adequately with threats and offences. However, it does not deal with the hoax which, as the Morecambe bay incident showed, can be just as alarming as a real threat or incident. According to the amendment, any substance or package that raises the apprehension that it is intended to destroy or damage a ship or fixed platform, or endanger the safe navigation of a ship, or safety of a fixed platform would also constitute the kind of offence that appears to have occurred on the CCP platform on 9 October. In Committee, all sides appeared to accept that that was a serious gap in the legislation. I shall be pleased to hear the Minister's response.

Mr. Portillo

I remind the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) that part II is intended to allow the United Kingdom to ratify and implement the provisions of the convention for the suppression of unlawful acts against safety of maritime navigation, which is known as the Rome convention, and the linked protocol, which is known as the Rome protocol. The hon. Gentleman will remember that, in Committee, we laid considerable emphasis on the need to establish in law very exact wording that was in line with the convention and the protocol. Under the convention and the protocol, all those who ratify the convention should introduce legislation that is more or less identical, so as to ease the extradition from one country to another of those who have committed offences. If the offences are defined in exactly similar terms, that process is considerably eased. For that reason, we are reluctant to deviate from the wording in part II. I admit that the part of part II relating to warships is outside the convention, but it does not touch in any way upon the wording of agreements under the protocol. I have difficulty with the hon. Gentleman's proposals on that point.

I shall take the amendments in reverse order. The matter raised in amendment No. 14 is already covered by section 51 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. I did not say to the hon. Gentleman in Committee that I thought there was a gap. The hon. Gentleman will know rather better than I do that United Kingdom law applies on platforms by virtue of the Continental Shelf Act 1989. Subject to further comments that the hon. Gentleman might make, his point about somebody introducing a package which is meant to look like a bomb and cause anxiety or fear is extremely serious, but is already covered in United Kingdom law which I hope applies to platforms.

Mr. Doran

The Criminal Law Act 1977 certainly applies to gas platforms in the southern sector and to the gas platforms in Morecombe bay, but it would not apply to installations in the Scottish section of the North sea—those lying off Aberdeen and Shetland. There may be an equivalent measure, but that is a different point.

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Gentleman helps me by saying that there may be an equivalent measure. I suspect that that is the case, but I shall try to get him some verification of that.

On amendment No. 13, I had hoped that, when we discussed the matter in Committee, I had gone a considerable way to allay the hon. Member's fears. I had hoped that I had gone so far as to make it possible for him not to introduce a further amendment on the subject. Perhaps I can remind the hon. Gentleman how far I went in Committee: I offer the hon. Gentleman some further comfort by telling him that, in Scotland where prosecutions are initiated by procurators fiscal, they have considerable discretion but are subject to directions from the Lord Advocate. When a new Act is introduced, the Lord Advocate circulates information and sets out the policy on prosecutions. I shall draw his attention to this part of the Bill and ask him to take account of the point that it gives effect to a convention on terrorist acts and is not intended to be used in industrial dispute cases. The hon. Gentleman was generous when he said at column 105: I am especially grateful to the Minister for suggesting bringing the matter to the attention of the Lord Advocate…I am still concerned, although not enough to wish to press the matter to a vote"— and at column 106: I take on board all the points that the Minister has made and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment"— [Official Report, Standing Committee A, 13 February 1990; c. 104–106.] I cannot say any more to the hon. Gentleman today than I did on that occasion. It is perfectly clear—as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State confirmed a moment ago in answer to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes)—that the Bill is about terrorist acts and security, and part II is about the Rome convention and protocol. If the Bill becomes an Act, I shall have no hesitation in fulfilling the undertaking that I gave to write to the Lord Advocate and point out to him the purpose for which the Bill is intended.

In regard to new clause 3, I well understand why the hon. Gentleman was so concerned about the incident which he reported to the Committee, and to which the Committee listened with great interest, and I understand why he would want to raise the matter again. I confirm that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy to draw to his attention the points that the hon. Gentleman made in Committee and to ask him to consider the matter.

I also remind the hon. Gentleman of the point that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State made in Committee: there is a distinction between the measures proposed in the Bill to render more secure a platform, ship, aircraft or installation against attack or infiltration and the procedures that should be in place so that an installation may be evacuated in case of emergency. Sound evacuation procedures must be available to deal with a bomb, fire or another emergency.

The matters raised by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South go beyond the scope of the Bill. They apply to the security of platforms against not only terrorist attack but natural threats such as fire and explosion. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has issued the directions necessary for the purpose. Having received the letter from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and read the remarks of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, he may wish to reflect further on them, but at present he believes that new clause 3 is unnecessary.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is responsible for the safety of fixed platforms. He takes the view that a special regime for them is no more necessary than for, say, a large chemical factory on the mainland.

In important respects, fixed platforms differ from ships and aircraft. They do not move, except between operations, and they do not carry passengers or, equally important, passengers' luggage. There is little or no international element involved in them. Although the objectives of new clause 3 are laudable, they are outwith the scope of the Bill.

Although fixed platforms may appear to be sitting targets, they are, fortunately, difficult to approach. or to board uninvited. With sophisticated equipment on board, platform managers know what is approaching and can communicate quickly with the mainland. The police can use their normal powers on platforms, and the ordinary criminal law applies.

I am not saying that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South does not have an important point. He was right to raise his concerns, and I do not blame him for using the opportunity in Committee and on Report to do so, but the proposal to tighten platform managers' response to an emergency is well beyond the scope of the Bill. I hope that the regulations made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy will cover those procedures. The hon. Gentleman has given my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the opportunity fully to consider those matters, but at this stage he does not wish to establish the special regime proposed in new clause 3.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I must admit to being disappointed by the Minister's response. He rested his case for not accepting new clause 3 or the amendments on the fact that they are well beyond the scope of the Bill. That defence carries little weight, because, had they been outwith the scope of the Bill, they would not have been accepted for debate. They are well within its scope and well worth arguing for.

It is difficult for hon. Members to appreciate the feelings of workers in the North sea. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) and I have had varying contacts with the survivors of Piper Alpha and of incidents such as Ocean Odyssey. Hon. Members think that they have some understanding of the psychology of workers in the North sea, but none of us appreciates the lingering horror for people directly involved in Piper Alpha or for anyone who lived through those dreadful hours from the moment when it was thought to be a minor incident to the sudden realisation of its full horror.

To some extent—perhaps this is a difficult argument to put—the fear of those not directly involved in Piper Alpha is greater than those directly involved. People's minds work differently. Those who have been through a traumatic incident often come to terms with it—some of those involved in Piper Alpha have returned to work in the North sea— whereas others who perhaps only saw what happened are more fearful. That uncertainty is of immense concern.

We are all worried about the time it takes to decide whether to evacuate. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South spoke of an incident involving a hoax bomb. Hon. Members' blood must have chilled at the prospect of people hanging about not knowing what was happening, not knowing the location of the suspected bomb and not knowing what might happen if wrong or precipitate action were taken. The security of workers on a platform must be as important as any other consideration.

4.45 pm

A fatal accident inquiry is about to begin into the Ocean Odyssey incident. That inquiry should have begun earlier, but the problem is how all the different arms of Government should dovetail to work together on security.

The Minister takes too narrow a view of security. I understand that the aim of the Bill is security and that its main provisions aim to avoid risk to life and prevent attack from another source. He said that fixed platforms are different from aircraft and ships, because they do not carry passengers and they move only rarely. Nevertheless, baggage is taken on board, and security measures are necessary to check it. If necessary, we must advocate overkill.

The Minister argues that the Bill covers all eventualities, that we are being too cautious and that perhaps we are asking for measures that would be better covered by another Bill, but there are few opportunities to rectify anomalies or loopholes. Goodness knows when we shall consider another Bill on offshore installations.

I hope that the Minister will not close his mind to accepting new clause 3 or the amendments. I hope that he will carefully read Hansard and accept that we must cover every possible eventuality and ensure that decisions to evacuate are taken earlier rather than later. We all hope that there will not be another major incident, because it is no good saying afterwards, "If evacuation had taken place half an hour earlier, the incident would have been avoided."

We should act quickly and positively on security. That may sometimes mean platform owners bearing a cost that they would rather not bear, but the safety and security of the individual is far more important than temporary loss of production, although that may be expensive.

I hope that the Minister will accept the amendments, which are not harmful or redundant. They offer an extra safety net, and the Minister would do well to accept them; he can do no less if he is interested in the safety and security of workers in the North sea.

Mr. Doran

I should like to take the Minister's points in order. He rightly reminded me of my comments in Committee and of my gratitude to him for saying that he would emphasise the position to the Lord Advocate, but the hon. Gentleman ignored the thrust of my speech, which concerned not so much legal powers and provisions as the way in which they could be used to threaten the work force in a way that would not arise onshore. I do not resile one bit from my comments then. I should be delighted to note what response the hon. Gentleman gets from the Lord Advocate, but that still does not mean that the work force will not be intimidated by the threat of prosecution under these serious provisions.

On the Minister's points about new clause 3, of course the Department of Energy is mainly responsible for the security of offshore platforms. However, I recently received a letter from the Minister which seemed to deny that responsibility. The hon. Gentleman also ignores his Department's responsibility to offshore platforms. As I understand it, the Department of Transport is responsible for firefighting, life-saving and evacuation equipment, and for standby vessels, supply boats and so on. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) made clear, we get few opportunities to raise such issues in the House. Nothing in our discussions has suggested to me that the new clause and the amendments are inappropriate.

The Minister must bear the views of the work force in mind. Nearly 30,000 people work in the offshore industry. The hon. Gentleman said that it was difficult to board an offshore platform and to put on board the type of device that would create problems similar to those in Morecambe bay. He again ignored the practical experience in the North sea. Nearly two thirds of the men who work offshore are employed by contractors, and there is little check on their record. Any sensible terrorist would find that that work provided the easiest route onto the platform. He would not follow the official route or try to sneak up in the darkest hours but would get a job on a standby vessel or with a contracting company. As we noted from the Morecambe bay incident, it is not difficult to get devices on board. Someone learned his way around a platform and planted the hoax device.

I wanted to make two points. First, this matter comes within the Department's responsibility. Secondly, it is clear that there was a breakdown in communications between the management of the platform and the authorities responsible for dealing with the emergency created on the Morecambe bay platform. It is not good enough for the Minister to say that this is the responsibility of the Department of Energy; his Department has responsibilities.

In the light of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North about the attitude of the work force offshore after the Piper Alpha disaster, it is not good enough to say that management and the Department of Energy will sort these matters out. Some of us have little confidence in the way in which that Department performs its functions in the North sea. To say the least, there is great scope for improvement, and this is just one example.

We do not intend to push the new clause to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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