§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Neil Hamilton.]4.22 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. John Wakeham)
I am very grateful that time has been found for a full debate on this important subject. There are, as always, a great many demands on the time of the House, but this is a matter which deserves our particular attention, involvement and action.
I received a letter last week from the widow of one of the victims of the Piper disaster. She said that, two and a half years later, his family and friends miss him as much as ever; but they felt that the issue of North sea safety was in danger of being forgotten by the press, the public and Parliament. I said to her, and I say to the House today, that the Government have not forgotten. On the contrary, we are pressing ahead in the endeavour for better arrangements for safety, not least through the prompt and effective implementation of the Cullen report.
The House will recall that I announced on 12 November the Government's immediate acceptance of Lord Cullen's conclusions and recommendations. Since then, the reputation of Lord Cullen's report has grown, and there is no danger of exaggeration in saying that it has won acclaim and respect from all sides.
The report confirms where responsibilities for safety should, and must, lie; and reformulates those responsibilities in a way which will have far-reaching effects on the way in which offshore safety will be organised in the future. It amounts to a fundamentally new regulatory system centring on requirements for operators of offshore installations to carry out formal and comprehensive safety assessments of their operations. These should be presented to the regulatory body as a safety case, demonstrating the adequacy of the company's safety management system; the identification and control of risks to personnel from potential major hazards; and the provision, in the event of a major emergency, of temporary safe refuge for the personnel on an installation, and of means for their safe and full evacuation, escape and rescue.
In the light of those far-reaching recommendations, Lord Cullen considered the most appropriate location of regulatory responsibility. He concluded, on balance, that it would be best located in a separate and identifiable division within the Health and Safety Executive.
Many Members will be particularly interested in this transfer of responsibility, and I think it right to mention at this point that the transfer has been an urgent priority since the publication of the report. Excellent progress has been made on the large number of organisational changes and agreements that are necessary. Subject to the agreement of the Health and Safety Commission, I hope to announce shortly the date on which the transfer will take effect. I hope that that date will be before the end of April.
That transfer to the HSE of the day-to-day responsibility for regulating safety on offshore installa-tions on behalf of the HSC can be effected by administrative action. Consideration has also been given to the legislative implications of Lord Cullen's report, and a package of necessary changes has been identified. I hope those can be introduced as soon as practicable. However, they are mainly technical changes to existing statutes to 474 reflect the intended reallocation of responsibilities, and to lay the foundations for a future programme of new regulations in line with Lord Cullen's recommendations.
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
Will the Secretary of State say a little more about the likely location of the health and safety inspectorate? Is he aware of the strong feeling among Scottish Members that it should be located in north-east Scotland, with the front end of the industry? It is not just a question of geography but of oil industry psychology. A health and safety inspectorate located in north-east Scotland, where the oil workers are, would have more contact with and knowledge of the industry than if it were located in London, where the oil company executives and headquarters are.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I understand that view—it has been put to me several times—but the location of the new offshore safety division is a matter for the Health and Safety Executive. The chairman of the Health and Safety Commission has said that he sees the need for a substantial increase in present staff numbers in Aberdeen but that a comprehensive relocation of existing staff at present would cause serious difficulties. It is he who will have the responsibility of deciding.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
I shall return to this question later, but before the Secretary of State leaves the issue of transfer of responsibility from his Department, will he say whether agreement has been reached about extra costs necessary to provide the safety regime? Can he confirm that the total amount sought by the Health and Safety Executive has been made available?
§ Mr. Wakeham
Satisfactory progress has been made on all the negotiations, which has enabled me to say what I said about making transfers next month. A few minor matters are still to be finalised, but I understand that they do not involve any dispute about money. Therefore, there is broad agreement on all those matters, but there are procedures to deal with them.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) need not be concerned. The Government have made it abundantly clear that those arrangements will not be held back through lack of resources; adequate resources for the purpose will be found. I have also said that the other matter that could delay the arrangements—the legislative implications of Lord Cullen's report—affected mainly technical issues, and will not delay the transfer to the HSC.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I think that I had better make a little more progress. I shall give way in a moment.
Safety in offshore petroleum operations is, of course, and always has been, the responsibility of the operators themselves. Lord Cullen makes it clear that a regulator cannot be expected to assume direct responsibility for the ongoing management of safety. There may be circumstan-ces in which inspectors can and should take direct enforcement action, but those are the exception. He says that, for all practical purposes, the management of safety is and remains in the hands of the operators.
Lord Cullen's conclusions draw on, and confirm, the conclusions of many eminent committees and inquiries, not least those of the Robens committee, whose recommendations formed the basis of the Health and 475 Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. Lord Cullen goes on, however, to propose a sharpening of the operators' responsibilities. He says that specific duties should be laid upon them to organise their operations in a systematic way; management should structure and document their systems for securing safety, analyse the hazards present or foreseeable, and implement the necessary controls. Most crucially, they should monitor their own performance in every aspect of the system. The role of the regulatory organisation should be to probe the adequacy of the assessments and the controls, audit the monitoring and test the actual results.
The essence of such an approach is not that the regulatory organisation should produce minutely detailed rules prescribing for every necessary safety procedure and every situation. That would in practical terms be impossible, because of the enormous variety and complexity of the actual working situations on offshore installations. Worse, it would be self-defeating, because it would obstruct the flexibility which is necessary to make use of new technology and advances in safety techniques.
The oil industry is one of our most dynamic industries. It has shown great inventiveness and resourcefulness. It ought to have the freedom to apply that drive and ingenuity to providing the best resolution of safety problems.
It is tempting to say that there must be detailed rules and a clearly prescribed approach, but in real life—not least in the very complex and closely packed circumstances of offshore installations—safety objectives often conflict with each other. Achieving a better standard of safety depends on finding the best balance between different approaches or aims, not on some prescriptive, rule-book approach. The right role for Government is to provide a broad framework to ensure that the operator fully discharges his responsibilities for securing safety.
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
I think that it is right to make the companies responsible for their own safety. However, does not the Secretary of State acknowledge that one problem on offshore installations is the division between the employees of oil companies as operators and contractors? Is there not a case for making oil companies or the operators legally responsible for all personnel on their platforms and for the conditions under which they operate, including their working conditions and their pay?
§ Mr. Wakeham
That question is not exactly correct— the employer has considerable legal responsibilities. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If he expands on his case, we shall listen to it with interest and take note of what he says.
Effective safety depends on the active involvement of every worker. Each must know what his role is and what is expected of him, and he must be able to contribute from his experience and have a voice.
Where I think that there is a difference between the Government's approach and that of the Opposition is in the necessity that they see for trade union recognition. They believe that there is an inevitable equation between involvement of the work force and representation of trade unions, and that only recognised trade unions can effectively represent the work force in these matters
§ Mr. Wakeham
If the hon. Gentleman will let me continue a little longer, I shall then give way.
The Government's approach is based on the conviction that effective involvement of the whole offshore work force is essential to the promotion and improvement of safety. Every employee working offshore has a right to be represented on a safety committee and to make a positive contribution to improving health and safety in his workplace, whether or not he is a member of a trade union.
§ Mr. Strang
No member of the Opposition would say that an offshore oil worker who is not in a trade union is not concerned about his safety. We are saying that if an independent safety representative has the backing of a trade union, he is more likely, on average, to be effective and to have power where it matters when compared to one who does not have the backing of a trade union. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Cullen report was not as clear-cut on that issue as we might have wanted, as was made clear in our exchanges on 12 November. I suggest that there is a strong case for extending the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 to give offshore oil workers the same rights as onshore oil workers. Will the right hon. Gentleman at least say that the Government are prepared to continue a dialogue on the issue?
§ Mr. Wakeham
I understand the strength of the hon. Gentleman's views, and he has a perfect right to them, but they are not supported in Lord Cullen's report. The Government's position is closer to Lord Cullen's.
§ Mr. Strang
I shall not intervene again.
Constituents come to our surgeries who are blacklisted by the oil companies or who know that the oil companies have secret information about them from the first day that they start working for them. We know that the companies pursue that policy; that is why it is essential that trade unions should be a countervailing force as, for example, they are in the Norwegian sector.
§ Mr. Wakeham
Those people should produce evidence to back their allegations. We will not tolerate victimisation, and we should take a serious view of it if it were proved.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that there is a climate of fear among contract workers in the offshore industry. They live in the knowledge that, if they ask questions—even about safety—they will have "not required back" put on their file. That makes people sceptical about the possibility of raising safety issues. Many people who come to my surgery —and to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang)—live in such a climate. Some are faced with the prospect of long periods of unemployment simply because they raised their head above the parapet on issues such as safety.
§ Mr. Wakeham
The hon. Gentleman speaks with much conviction. Almost every hon. Member has constituents employed in the offshore industry. I believe that, if anybody had evidence of victimisation, he would produce it. Somebody must have some evidence if the allegations are true. It should be sent to us, and we shall deal with it.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman about the matter, and his reply can be summarised as, "It is nothing to do with me: it is a matter for the employers."
§ Mr. Wakeham
That is not necessarily an accurate summary of either my reply or of the question. I am trying to be as conciliatory as I can. I do not deny that trade unions can have a valuable contribution to make in improving safety. I had a useful discussion with Mr. Norman Willis and a delegation from the Trades Union Congress safety committee the other day in which we had a fruitful exchange of views. The trade unions already play a role at the highest level through their representation on the Health and Safety Commission.
§ Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)
I have never worked offshore on a platform, but I have worked in the chemical industry for many years, operating the type of plant on land that the platforms use offshore. Will my right hon. Friend therefore accept from me that safety represen-tatives, when putting their case to the employer, want not power but common sense? Their employer wants to listen with good will, and both need to take a responsible attitude.
§ Mr. Wakeham
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We also believe that representatives offshore should have the added authority of being elected by all the staff who work offshore. That is the best way in which to do it.
I referred to the valuable role that the trade unions play in improving safety. Some unions have drawn together real expertise on these matters, and many have relevant expertise to contribute. They can make representations on health and safety matters to the offshore employers at any time and there are established channels of discussion through, for example, the oil industry advisory committee of the Health and Safety Commission. If these unions make genuine representations, there and elsewhere, on behalf of their members, they will have my full support. If they make representations on behalf of offshore workers who are not their members, they will also have my admiration.
As Opposition Members have regularly quoted Lord Cullen in support of their views, I have refreshed my memory on just what he has to say. At paragraph 21.83 of his report he explains that his remit did not extend to matters of industrial relations and that he was therefore not concerned with the merits of the recognition of trade unions offshore. He thought that the appointment of offshore safety representatives by trade unions—I quote his precise words—could be of some benefit".However, he went on to recognise, in paragraph 21.85, that the position offshore is complicated by a number of factors: the limited extent of trade union membership in relation to the total offshore work force, the limited recognition of trade unions and the complex structure of offshore employment.
Lord Cullen did not favour replacing the 1989 regulations with the extension offshore of the 1977 regulations. That would remove safety representatives from a large part of the work force and would undo the progress that was achieved by the making of the 1989 regulations. He endorses the Government's intention to review their effectiveness two years after their coming into force. I think that it is fair to say that that is a pragmatic and balanced view. The Government's approach to the appointment of safety representatives and the constitution of safety committees in this industry is no less pragmatic and balanced. Under the 1989 regulations, safety representatives are elected by the whole work force. That 478 ensures their effective involvement in the development and improvement of health and safety procedures, and promotes co-operation between management and work force towards the common goal of a safer offshore environment. The regulations mark a significant advance towards the greater involvement of the work force, which Lord Cullen's report recommends. The trade unions will have a full opportunity to present their views during the review.
I now turn to the steps that the Government have taken to implement Lord Cullen's recommendations and to the way in which we see this going forward. I have already mentioned progress with the transfer of regulatory responsibilities to the HSE. Lord Cullen commented that this change would take time to implement and would inevitably involve disruption. That is only realistic, but I must point out that we are doing all we can to keep the necessary time, and the extent of disruption, to the minimum.
Intensive and urgent discussions have been going on between my Department, the Health and Safety Executive and the other bodies concerned on the best strategy for taking forward the implementation of the report and on the resources that this will require. We have also been doing all that we can to strengthen and expand the safety directorate. Safety has been upgraded to a full division to reflect the importance of its work. That will also help to pave the way for the transfer.
Mr. Tony Barrell, lately head of the HSE's technology division, has been appointed to head the new offshore safety division. Proposals will shortly be put to the Commission on its organisation. Further staff have been recruited to strengthen the division in its existing tasks and to tackle the new responsibilities recommended by Lord Cullen. A major recruitment programme is under way to provide the right mix of skills in a further strengthening of the division. Urgent steps are also being taken to expand the training and instruction of the inspectors, and to reinforce the capacity to probe and assess management's arrangements to secure safety in their operations.
Those important steps have involved close co-operation between the Departments involved, with my Department taking the overall lead. Once the transfer takes place, it will, of course, be for the Commission and the executive to consider the priorities for the work of the offshore safety division and for the broader implementation of the report.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for showing his characteristic courtesy.
Will the inspectors he mentioned a few seconds ago be concerned with the assessment of standby vessels? Surely the Secretary of State will recall that one of the major criticisms of Lord Cullen's report was directed against the inadequacy of the aging side trawler Silver Pit. It should never have been used as a standby vessel.
How many similar aging side trawlers are still engaged in the operation of standby vessels in both the southern and northern sectors of the North sea? How many purpose-built standby vessels have been ordered by the companies in addition to the one that is to be built in my constituency at the Ferguson shipyard? I suspect that the single vessel ordered at Ferguson is the only new standby vessel that has been ordered since this terrible tragedy.
§ Mr. Wakeham
Yes, standby vessels will be of concern to the Health and Safety Executive. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that one of its first tasks will be a full review of the standby vessels. The hon. Gentleman makes some points that are highly relevant to that review, but I do not have the detailed answers, which will come up in the review, which has not taken place yet. I have some expert advisers near at hand, but they cannot tell me the answers to a review that has not taken place. That is beyond even them. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and the matters are of concern.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross
The Secretary of State described how the transfer will go ahead and how his Department and other departments—he mentioned the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive—are involved. He will know that Lord Cullen specifically identified one individual—Mr. Rimington, the director-general of the Commission—as responsible for ensuring that sufficient funds are available so that he, as director-general, can carry out his new responsibilities. However, the director-general reports to a different Secretary of State.
Does the Secretary of State accept Lord Cullen's directive that Mr. Rimington will be responsible, as he does not negotiate with the Treasury? The Secretary of State for Employment will have to negotiate with the Treasury. If the Secretary of State for Employment does not find enough money from the Treasury for Mr. Rimington to carry out his responsibilities, how can he be held responsible? Is the Secretary of State for Employment involved in the continuing dialogue during the transfer period?
§ Mr. Wakeham
Mr. Rimington, who is a senior and experienced man, and I have had discussions, as has my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The hon. Gentleman is concerned that there should be adequate finance for the tasks that the Health and Safety Executive will have to carry out. Obviously, Mr. Rimington would not accept responsibility for carrying out tasks if he did not have adequate finance. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that adequate resources will be made available. When all the loose ends have been tied up, the transfer will be made. There is no problem about dealing with these matters.
§ Mr. Ross
Either the Secretary of State does not want to answer the question, or he does not understand it. Lord Cullen identified Mr. Rimington specifically as the person whom he will hold responsible if there are not sufficient funds. If the Secretary of State for Employment is to negotiate with the Treasury, how can Mr. Rimington be held responsible?
§ Mr. Wakeham
Mr. Rimington is a very senior person in the Health and Safety Executive, but as he does not have resources, the Government will have to ensure that he is given sufficient funds for his task. He and the Health and Safety Commission must be satisfied that they have adequate resources. Those are the arrangements that we are making. There will not be a shortage of finance. This is not a personal responsibility of anybody.
§ Mr. Wakeham
If the hon. Gentleman were to listen, he would realise that I am giving a very satisfactory answer to the question whether there will be sufficient resources to implement the recommendations of the Cullen report, which the Government have accepted. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no problem about finding adequate resources—no problem for Mr. Rimington, no problem for me, no problem for the Secretary of State for Employment, and no problem for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. We all agree on the arrangements that should be made.
The hon. Gentleman can phrase his question 15 different ways, but he will get the same answer. As the Secretary of State who will be responsible for these matters until they have been transferred, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that proper arrangements have been made.
It will be for the Commission and the executive to consider the priorities for the work of the offshore safety division and the broader implementation of the report. I understand that strategy proposals are to be put to them, in parallel with the detailed proposals for the transfer of responsibilities. Clearly it would not be right for me to anticipate any of that strategy in detail until they have been able to consider it. I can say, however, that priority is being given to developing the centrepiece of the new regulatory system—that is, the new requirement for safety cases—with a view to putting forward early drafts of the necessary regulations and guidance.
I should like to conclude by saying a few words about two particular aspects of the new regulatory system, and specifically about what should be expected of the companies. These two aspects are the safety cases and the process of learning from experience.
What the safety cases really require is that each operator should assess the risks of its operation, ensure that every measure has been taken to reduce these risks, and demonstrate that it has discharged its responsibilities properly. A safety case should identify all major accidents that could pose a threat to human life, and analyse the causes and consequences of these accidents. Our objective itself is enough to enable all operators to put work in hand straight away towards the preparation of future safety cases. Indeed, I should be very surprised if any operator on the United Kingdom continental shelf had not already initiated work in this direction.
By assessing the risks, companies can then carefully consider ways in which they will control and minimise those risks, and ensure that safety measures and operational procedures are adequate to secure safety in operations and are carefully monitored. Although drawn up and submitted at one point in time—in particular, in the case of a new offshore installation, it will be required that a submission should be made before operations start —a safety case will not be a one-off exercise, an exercise that is carried out once, put on the shelf and forgotten. It should be a live document that develops as the operations, the techniques and the potential control systems, and the men and management themselves, change and evolve. It should reflect a continuing process of improving the controls and reducing the risks in the light of practical experience.
This feedback should come from many sources. It should come from the operator's auditing and monitoring of his own systems, on which Lord Cullen has placed particular stress. That auditing should not be merely a 481 routine check, but should include serious probing of the earlier thinking. One of the most important sources of feedback should be the analysis of incidents.
For every serious accident, there are many minor accidents or dangerous occurrences, which, although they may not themselves have serious outcomes, can be analysed to uncover weaknesses in the systems, which on some other occasion might lead to serious injury or even fatalities. But the largest and broadest resource out of which lessons can be learned is the work force itself. Every operator should have arrangements for gathering and making use of the experience and observation of the work force. Every worker should have something to contribute, and should have, albeit in a small way, a role as safety inspector.
In conclusion, I again welcome the opportunity for the House to debate a matter of absolutely central importance to the deeply felt issue of offshore safety. I have to own that the timing of the opportunity is not quite ideal for me, in that I am not quite at the point of being able to announce the final details of the agreement on the transfer of regulatory responsibility to the Health and Safety Executive. But hon. Members will make good use of the chance to put their concerns to the Government before the arrangements for the transfer are fixed. I shall consider carefully the matters that have been raised by hon. Members before giving final approval to the necessary arrangements.
§ Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)
On the night of 6 July 1988 there were 226 men on the Piper Alpha platform, where they earned their living. At 10 o'clock that night 62 men were working, and 164 men were off duty. Just after 10 o'clock there was an explosion and a fire. Further explosions followed, and the platform became an inferno as gas from other installations continued to be pumped to Piper Alpha. Only 61 of those men survived —scrambling and leaping to safety as best they could. Of those who died, 14 perished while trying to escape. The fire was so intense that it melted the structural steel of parts of the platform, and literally laid waste the fire protection that was intended to help survival.
No words can describe the horror of the explosions and the fire, but the horror can perhaps be gauged by the fact that some of the survivors, and, indeed, some of those who died, jumped into the sea from high up on the platform, although, in training, they had been warned that this would mean almost certain death. Five people even jumped from the heli-deck 175 feet above the water. Great courage was displayed by many on the platform, and this was matched by the bravery and self-sacrifice of the crews of the rescue vessels, some of whom laid down their lives attempting to save people from Piper Alpha.
Lord Cullen's inquiry set out to answer two questions. First, why did the disaster happen? Secondly, how do we try to avoid a future disaster? Lord Cullen's report catalogues fatal shortcomings in the design and operation of the Piper Alpha platform; unforgivable negligence on the part of the operators, Occidental Petroleum; and equally unforgivable failure on the part of the Department of Energy to do its job properly.
482 The immediate blame rests with Occidental Petroleum. In law and in practice, the primary responsibility for safety rested with it. It failed to discharge that responsibility. Piper Alpha was not a safe place to work. On the fatal night of 6 July, the night shift did not know what the day shift had been doing. The result was a gas leak and the first explosion. The automatic fire pumps did not work because they were switched to manual control. Piper Alpha had no means of stopping gas from being pumped on to the platform. Other installations continued to pump gas to Piper Alpha and so discharged yet more gas on to the already blazing platform.
Safety and rescue equipment on Piper Alpha did not work. Life rafts did not inflate. Lifeboats could not be launched. Practice emergency drills had not been carried out. Staff were not properly trained for the emergency. The standby vessel Silver Pit was, in the words of Lord Cullen,essentially unsuitable for the purpose of effecting the rescue of survivors.The searchlight was not working. The Silver Pit was not sufficiently manoeuvrable. Its bow thruster broke down within five minutes, making manoeuvring it even more difficult. Its layout was unsuitable for handling the injured. The Department of Trade and Industry boat was unsuitable, unserviceable and could not be launched and the crew was seriously undermanned.
I have a question for the Secretary of State: is it true that the Silver Pit, found by Lord Cullen to be essentially unsuitable for effecting the rescue of survivors and for handling the injured, was subsequently bought by Cam Shipping of Grimsby, was renamed the Cam Spirit, and is once again on standby duty in the North sea? Has the Cam Spirit been surveyed? If so, does it meet the standards which Lord Cullen said should be required of standby vessels? In other words, does it meet the standards that he laid down in recommendation 89?
Is the vessel highly manoeuvrable and able to maintain its position? Is it rigged out is such a way that it provides full visibility from the bridge of the water line in all directions? Does it have at least 360 degree searchlights, capable of being remotely controlled? Does it have two fast rescue craft fitted with VHF radio and an adequate portable searchlight? Is there a means of rapidly launching those fast rescue craft? Are there adequate means of communication by radio between the Cam Spirit and its fast rescue craft, the installation, nearby vessels and the shore? Does the newly rigged Cam Spirit have at least two methods of retrieving survivors from the sea?
If the Cam Spirit does not meet all those requirements, it makes a mockery of the Government's claim to have accepted all Lord Cullen's recommendations. I am not in a position to answer the question myself because when I approached the Cam Shipping company yesterday, one of its staff was eventually told by the boss that he could not talk to my office. But above and beyond those individual items, however important, Occidental Petroleum was responsible for safe operation, safety training and the arrangements for dealing with an emergency.
Lord Cullen's report referred to failures in training, failures to resolve technical problems, superficial attitudes and deficient practice. He said that the system for coping with an emergency was almost entirely inoperative and little command control was exercised over the movements of personnel. The importance of that is highlighted by the fact that most of those who followed the emergency procedures laid down perished in the fire. Most of those 483 who survived are alive because they decided instead to chance it. There can be no greater indictment of those responsible for the safety of the platform than that the emergency arrangements led to mortal danger and almost certain death.
In the light of that fact, the Secretary of State was right last November to refer Lord Cullen's report to the Lord Advocate for him to decide whether to prosecute Occidental Petroleum. Almost four months have passed but the Lord Advocate has not yet taken action. I only hope that the delay means that he is building up an unanswerable case and that Occidental will be brought to book. Is a company which runs a rig in the way in which Occidental ran Piper Alpha fit to continue operating in the North sea?
Occidental does not bear all the responsibility for the disaster. Some of the blame lies at the door of the Department of Energy because of its abject failure to establish and monitor a safe system of working in the North sea. Responsibility for that failure does not lie only with the safety directorate or other officials of the Department. It also lies with successive Secretaries of State for Energy and other Ministers at the Department.
Under our system of ministerial accountability, it is Ministers who take the credit when things go well and it is they who must take the blame when things go wrong. According to the Government's own figures, at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster there were 217 installations in the North sea. To inspect those 217 gigantic and complex structures, the Department of Energy employed just six professional full-time field inspectors. Lord Cullen found that their inspections weresuperficial to the point of being little use … the inspectors were inadequately trained, guided and led … Persistent under-manning had affected not only the frequency but also the depth of their inspections.Only 40 per cent. of fatal and serious accidents were investigated because, in Lord Cullen's words,Limitations on manpower prevented the Department from investigating all accidents.He went on even to doubt whether the type of inspection practised by the Department was in any case an effective means of assessing or monitoring the management of safety by the operators.
Since Lord Cullen reported, questions that I and others have tabled have revealed further inadequacies in the Department of Energy as a supervisory body for offshore safety. For example, the Department cannot say how many prosecutions of operators have followed accidents and how many have resulted from routine inspections. We know that no prosecutions resulted from routine inspections in 1987, 1988 or 1989 but that seven accidents in that time led to prosecutions.
The Department's statistics currently do not distinguish between accidents to operator staff and accidents to contractor staff, information which everyone recognises as vital to any assessment of the state of offshore safety. The Department does not even seem able to distinguish between the number of serious accidents and the number of casualties. It holds no information on the hours spent on each inspection, whether routine or following an accident. No record has been kept of prohibitions issued under the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Act 1971. All that we know is that only 13 such notices have been issued offshore under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 in the past 12 years.
484 Lord Cullen's criticisms go much deeper than that. In 1980, the Burgoyne committee reported on offshore safety. It was dissatisfied withThe current arrangements for offshore safetywhich hadbecome a tangle of divided responsibility.It laid down that the role of the Government—I emphasise this—was toset objectives designed to achieve a uniformly high standard of safety throughout the Industry and to ensure their achievement through monitoring and enforcement procedures.It recommended that the Government should discharge that responsibility for offshore safety via a single agency, whose task would be to set standards and to ensure their achievement.
The only dispute on the committee was about the role of trade unions and whether that single agency should be the Department of Energy or the Health and Safety Executive. All the members of the committee agreed that the tasks laid down for the agency were so important and immediate that no delay in dealing with them could be allowed.
Lord Cullen took a hard look at what had happened to the Burgoyne committee's recommendations and com-pared the development of safety offshore with the development of safety onshore during the last decade. He concluded harshly that the Department of Energy policy over the last decade hadset back the development of the offshore safety regime by many years.He found that, although Burgoyne had recommended that future regulations should specify objectives, there had beenvirtually no progress towards the creation of new goal-setting regulations since the publication of the report of the Burgoyne Committee.Lord Cullen went on to say that the effect of the policy of the Department of Energy had been to distance offshore regulation from the influence of the mainstream of practice in modern regulations on health and safety. He also concluded that nothing appeared to have been learnt from the experience of the Norwegian Government's petroleum department, with which the Department of Energy was in regular contact. Despite all that, the present Secretary of State was reported by the Financial Times as denying that the Cullen report was an indictment of his Department and inspectors.
Lord Cullen endorsed the main recommendations of the Burgoyne committee and accepted the view of the minority report to the Burgoyne committee that the single offshore safety agency should be the Health and Safety Executive and not the Department of Energy. That is the policy of the trade unions involved and the Labour party —a policy for which we voted on 6 November 1980, and which five of the present Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, voted against. I am glad to report that on that occasion, before you reached your present elevated position, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you voted with us for what Lord Cullen said was the right thing.
Why, despite the eminently sensible recommendations of the Burgoyne committee, did the safety directorate of the Department of Energy fall so far short of the standards required? Some blame must attach to some of the officials concerned, but more blame attaches to the politicians. Clearly, none of the succession of Tory Secretaries of State for Energy gave offshore safety the priority it deserved.
485 Four people served as Secretary of State for Energy between the publication of the Burgoyne report and the Piper Alpha disaster—Messrs Howell, Lawson, Walker and Parkinson. All must take some share of the blame. So must the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the present Secretary of State for Wales, all of whom served in the Department of Energy at what the lawyers would call the material time. None of them gave top priority to offshore safety.
When we last debated Piper Alpha—on the day of the statement in November—I asked the Secretary of State what was given a higher priority by his predecessor than offshore safety. Answer came there none. Since then, I have discovered a public insight into what those priorities were. In May 1983, the right hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) was asked what had been the principal achievements of his Department. Similar questions were put to the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) in May 1984 and March 1985. Reams of self-congratulation followed—2,405 words in total—but one word was missing, and that word was "safety."
There was much crowing about privatisation, much talk of market forces and whole paragraphs were devoted to oil exploration and development and its benefits to the British economy, but there was not a word about the safety of the 30,000 people whose hard and dangerous work make it all possible. Implementing the recommendations of the Burgyone committee on offshore safety got no mention.
Similarly, no priority was given to safety by other Government Departments. Part of the responsibility for that lies with Lord Young, now discredited as a liar by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. At his instigation, the Government produced the scruffy document that I hold in my hand, a White Paper published in July 1985 entitled "Lifting the Burden." Its stated object was to reduce what it calledburdens on business imposed by Government regulations.All that contributed to the atmosphere in which those civil servants responsible for safety, including those at the Department of Energy, had to do their work. In relation to safety, that document encouraged employers to question inspectors' decisions and called for employers to be advised on how to question inspectors. It also called for clearer guidance on the law governing the onus of proof. That was intended not to stimulate the zeal of the inspectors but to stiffen the resistance of the inspected. It was all part of the atmosphere which allowed the development of an ineffective offshore safety directorate.
It is said that when a fish deteriorates, the rot sets in at the head. It is the same with Government Departments. Lord Cullen exposed all of that. He answered the first question about why the disaster happened. He dealt equally incisively with what must be done to try to stop it happening again. He rightly placed great emphasis on the requirement to prepare a safety case—the approach that has been applied successfully onshore and which, to their credit, has been developed by some offshore operators.
Each operator would be required to produce a safety case for each installation, detailing how specified safety objectives have been met in the design and construction, and how they will be met in the operation of the installation and all its equipment, identifying potential 486 major hazards and risks to personnel and providing for measures to protect staff in the event of a major emergency.
That will require a great deal of expertise and effort by the contractors and the regulatory body, now to be the Health and Safety Executive. The report makes a large number of recommendations, but the shift of approach to the safety case and the shift of responsibility to the Health and Safety Executive are probably the most important.
The Government say that they accept all the recommendations, but we must be vigilant. They said the same about the recommendations of the Burgoyne committee in 1980. In 1989, the year after Piper Alpha, the number of serious accidents per 1,000 employees in the North sea fell only from 2.9 to 2.8, and the number of dangerous occurrences per 1,000 employees shot up from 7.7 to 10.2, the highest level ever. There is clearly a long way to go.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) will deal at length with the future arrangements for offshore safety, so I shall confine my remarks to what I see as a number of especially important points. The offshore safety division of the Health and Safety Executive will have an enormous task on its hands. North sea safety arrangements have been shown by Lord Cullen to be a mess. A massive amount of work needs to be done in three spheres—safety cases submitted by operators will need to be assessed, accepted, amended or rejected; new and improved regulations and guidance will have to be drafted; and much more, and better quality, inspection must be carried out.
§ Mr. Mullin
Is my hon. Friend aware that, even after the Cullen report, things have not changed much on some rigs? I was contacted in January of this year by someone on Brent Bravo who had inquired about how long it would take to allocate the 150 men on his shift to lifeboats in the event of an alert. He was told that it would take between one and a half and two hours. When he said that that was not satisfactory, he was told that the matter was being considered. He made repeated representations to everyone in authority over many days, but he received more or less the same answer, which was capped by, "We're not breaking any law." On 12 January, there was an alert on the Brent Bravo, when about 150 men were stranded for many hours because there was no way to get them off. Is that satisfactory in the light of what we now know?
§ Mr. Dobson
The situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) is clearly unsatisfactory. I hope that Ministers and those who are here to advise them will have heard what is happening and will ensure that a special visit is paid to that platform to discover exactly what is happening and to ensure that standards are improved.
There is an enormous amount of work to be done. The decision to require the submission of a safety case—which is the correct decision—for all existing and new installations has created an instant backlog that will take a long time to clear. That will be bad enough for the operators responsible only for their own installations, but it will be a truly awesome task for the safety directorate, which will have to cope with all the installations. The likely top priorities will be the oldest installations and those currently being built.
487 The high level of activity in the North sea will also create additional demands on the time of the offshore safety directorate. The task is enormous and of immense importance. It must be done well, thoroughly and as quickly as possible.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
The death of one of my young constituents, to whom I have referred before in the House, demonstrates the need for that job to be done properly. However, would it not be odd and inconsistent for the Government, the Department of Employment and the Health and Safety Executive to be undertaking that task offshore while they were at the same time relaxing, dangerously and excessively, the safety regulations in the mining industry onshore?
§ Mr. Dobson
I have made it clear to the management and to the workers and their representatives in the offshore industry that I regard the transfer of responsibility for safety from the Department of Energy to the HSE as a necessary, but insufficient, change. The HSE is conniving with British Coal to reduce in British coal mines safety standards which at present are the highest in the world. I want those standards to remain the highest in the world, and so do the miners. Apparently the HSE does not.
There are no guarantees of North sea safety simply because of the transfer of responsibility to the HSE. There must be commitments, one of which must be a Treasury guarantee that the HSE will be given the financial resources to recruit, train and, equally important, retain the staff necessary for the job. Such a guarantee must be made in public before the HSE takes on the job.
However, money may not prove to be the biggest problem. The biggest problem is likely to be finding enough staff with the experience and qualifications to perform the various tasks required. The tasks demand the application of complicated analytical techniques which will have to be applied to every installation. In the light of recent history, it is vital to the restoration of confidence among the work force in the North sea that the HSE adopts a high-profile approach to offshore safety.
That would be assisted if the main office of the offshore safety division was located in Aberdeen. That would also have obvious practical advantages. Equally, it will be necessary not to ignore the needs of the southern-basin gasfields and the interests of the staff involved must also be borne in mind.
People with some or all of the expertise will have to be drawn from the chemical and nuclear industries and their inspectorates, and possibly from the Norwegian sector if they can be spared. They must be drawn from anywhere that the best people are available. It is important riot to forget the contribution that can be made by those who earn their daily living in the North sea and who know what they are talking about.
The general principle behind Lord Cullen's report is to apply offshore the safety regime which has been applied onshore. We believe that that will be assisted by the application offshore of the trade union rights to recognition and involvement in safety that apply onshore. Whatever this Government may decide, that is what the incoming Labour Government will ensure.
Good industrial relations are good for safety. Bad industrial relations are bad for safety. Industrial relations in the North sea are bedevilled by the multitide of 488 contractors whose employees do most of the work on the rigs, barges and platforms, and whose relationship with the operators is at times somewhat strange.
The difficulties of organising trade unions on so many separate, distinct and distant workplaces are made worse by the varying interrelationships between the seven unions involved, and between them and the offshore industry liaison committee.
In November, we urged the Secretary of State to take the opportunity presented by Lord Cullen's report to make a fresh start, to call together all involved and to end the blacklisting. He has done little or nothing. Indeed, he denied that there was any blacklisting. The blacklisting, which was admitted by those who were doing it, was ended but more as a result of representations to the oil companies by me and some of my hon. Friends than by anything that the Government did. We have been promoting meetings and discussions between all concerned, and we hope that they will bear fruit.
Our country needs the oil and gas in the North sea, but we do not need it so badly, or so cheaply, that our fellow citizens have to die to get it for us. Lord Cullen has done a fine job in producing his report. We must ensure that those who contributed to the disaster are rightly punished. We must also ensure that future accidents are not allowed to turn into disasters through the fatal combination of poor design, faulty operation and equipment failure revealed in this case.
§ Dr. Godman
On the basis of his negotiations with the Secretary of State and other Ministers, can my hon. Friend confirm whether a copy of the Cullen report has been sent to the European Commission? Has not the Commission drawn up a draft directive on the health and safety of offshore installation workers as well as for miners and others? Surely that draft directive must take cognisance of the very important recommendations contained in the Cullen report.
§ Mr. Dobson
I hope that the Secretary of State or officials at the Department of Energy have done what my hon. Friend has suggested is necessary to ensure that the Commission and ultimately the European Parliament are fully aware of Lord Cullen's excellent report and first-class recommendations. I assume that that has happened. However, I have not had talks and negotiations about blacklisting and such matters with the Secretary of State and his colleagues, because it is difficult to have discussions about something with people who deny that it exists. We had discussions with leading people in the oil industry who have actually done something to get rid of the blacklisting.
§ Mr. David Porter (Waveney)
With regard to trade union membership, when the hon. Gentleman raised the mythical spectre of the incoming Labour Government, did he mean to imply that he would force all offshore workers to be members of trade unions?
§ Mr. Dobson
We could do without such clownish interventions. The hon. Gentleman should know that onshore workers have the right to join a trade union but are not obliged to do so. We agree with Lord Cullen that onshore safety measures should also apply offshore, and the right to trade union recognition and the involvement of trade unions in safety measures onshore and offshore— [Interruption.] There seems to be some deafness among Ministers. I am not attributing those remarks to Lord 489 Cullen, but they follow the principle that he enunciated. Lord Cullen's impeccable logic would lead all but the prejudiced buffoons on the Government Front Bench to conclude that trade union recognition is good for safety.
The least that we can do for the memory of those who died unnecessarily on Piper Alpha is to ensure that the safety motto of du Pont de Nemours, the owners of Conoco, is applied on every North sea installation:Nothing is so important that it can't be done safely.
§ Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside)
I have a considerable and direct interest in this subject. As I have declared previously, I have some interests in the offshore industry, the most important of which, especially in the light of the speech of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), is that I was responsible for it in the early 1980s. Like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I do not duck any responsibility that I may have had. By accepting all the recommendations of the Cullen report, he has shown beyond peradventure that there is no question of anyone trying to duck their responsibilities.
I was a little disappointed by some of the speech of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
There have already been many interventions, and I should like to get on with the debate.
I should not like to let the opportunity pass without recording my sympathy, and I believe that of the whole House, for those who were involved in the Piper Alpha accident. I visited all the families in my constituency who were affected by it, so no one is more conscious than I am of what the tragedy meant in human terms.
I add my praise for those who were involved in the rescue. I pay tribute to the crew of the Silver Pit, regardless of the deficiencies in its vessel that were identified. I am sure that I express the view of the whole House when I say that I recognise the gallantry of those who were involved, which was recognised in the recent honours list, and the involvement of those on the shore. Those who have been recognised represent only a tiny fraction of the number who showed gallantry and total disregard for their personal safety in the operation that followed this tragic incident.
Once the moments of emotion and publicity of accidents such as Piper Alpha and the Chinook accident, in which families in my constituency were involved, have passed, there is an understandable feeling among the families of the victims that they have been forgotten. The Piper Alpha support group in Aberdeen was outstanding in supporting the families of the victims. Its work has become an example for others and was copied in the Lockerbie air disaster. The Rev. Andrew Wylie, industrial chaplain to the North sea installations, made a tremendous contribution during and after the accident. The services that he conducted and his continuing commitment to the interests of offshore workers are an example to everyone.
I pay tribute to Lord Cullen not only for the way in which he conducted the inquiry but for the lucidity of the 490 report and its findings. The report will go down in the annals of public inquiries as one of the best conducted and presented. I have heard no criticism of it, and I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to him.
Everyone shares the objective of ensuring safety onshore and offshore. There will be times, alas, when deficiencies arise, but the Government, the industry, offshore workers and the unions have a common interest in ensuring that safety is paramount. We must always ensure that that interest is shared. We must make the North sea a safer place in which to live and work. To that extent, I welcome my right hon. Friend's immediate acceptance of all the recommendations.
There is no question but that the Cullen report revealed deficiencies, but I suggest that they related more to the safety structure rather than to those in the Department of Energy who had the daily task of carrying out safety functions. The Burgoyne committee was set up to examine and to make recommendations on safety. The fact that 69 of its 70 recommendations were adopted shows that, on the basis of the best knowledge and experience available at the beginning of the 1980s, the Government set up what was thought to be the correct structure to ensure safety in the North sea.
Perhaps insufficient attention was paid to the fact that safety is a continuing consideration. With the benefit of hindsight and the Cullen recommendations, perhaps steps should have been taken in the mid-1980s—I accept responsibility for this as much as anyone else—to see whether the Burgoyne recommendations were working properly. That is a fair criticism.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross
Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that there is insufficient distance between the regulatory body and the body that was responsible for safety? Those who carried out the investigations into safety were subject to the same pressures as those in the Department to achieve the maximum extraction and finance, which the Treasury wanted to use for a range of matters. The oil companies themselves wanted to exploit the extraction rate. We argue that the control of the examination of safety should be within another Department.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
I disagree totally with the hon. Member. He is wrong. I shall deal now with objectivity, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Burgoyne committee—with a minority report, which I acknowledge, from only two members—recommended that responsibility for safety should rest with the Department of Energy. Therefore, the Government acted on a clear recommenda-tion. At a meeting in the House a few months ago, Dr. Burgoyne said that he did not move subsequently from the original recommendations. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that basic but important historical fact. There are reasons now for a change, which I shall deal with, but that was the basis of the best recommendation and the best advice available at that time.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
Is not the real issue the fact that the Government have twice been faced with majority recommendations—first by Burgoyne and then by Lord Cullen—and that on both occasions they have accepted the recommendations?
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
That is significant. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention.
491 I might point out that, in the Department of Energy, I worked with staff in the inspectorate who dealt with safety. I want to make it clear that I have rarely worked with a body who, as individuals, showed greater integrity or higher objectivity. When it came to the crunch, and prosecution was under consideration, I never found any of them with any fear of pursuing prosecution if they felt that it was necessary. It would be unfair if criticism were directed at any of those individuals.
I should like to comment on the main thrust of the report. The most important point identified by the report is the importance of human motivation and human involvement in safety. If Lord Cullen has done one service beyond any other, it is to establish that fact, which many people acknowledged and to which many people paid lip service before, but which has never been enunciated so clearly or with so much authority as it was by Lord Cullen.
We can have the best equipment, the highest technology and the safest in terms of hardware and everything else, as many of our platforms had, yet the installation is only as safe as the weakest operator or the weakest individual on it. That will always remain the case. We can never legislate totally for human or individual failure.
The report recommends, and my right hon. Friend is implementing, the safety case approach of Lord Cullen. That is the right approach. Working through a safety management system should ensure that safety becomes a philosophy and a major motivation of every individual, not just from the offshore installation manager right down to the most junior operative on the platform, but also right up to the senior management of the oil company.
Given the safety case approach that Lord Cullen advocates, we must make certain that it is comprehensive and involves everyone. When I say "everyone", I mean not only those employed by the oil company but also contractors, subcontractors and their staff who work on an installation. I am glad that many offshore operators have already adopted much greater vetting of contractors. With new arrangements for longer contracts, the operator is taking much more responsibility for contractors and the conditions of work of contractors' staff, rather than being concerned just with oil company staff.
I regret that on some installations there has been too much of the culture of "them and us"—the oil company staff on the one hand and the contractors' staff on the other. Once people are offshore, no matter who their ultimate employer is, they must belong to one team, with the same responsibilities. Let us never forget that the buck stops with the operator. Therefore, it is on the operator that responsibility must be placed to make sure that every individual is involved. If contractors or subcontractors are not prepared to comply with that, I hope that operators will get rid of their services and ensure that there is co-operation.
The safety case approach must not be a once-and-for-all new idea. It must be continuing, and it must develop as experience develops in future.
I wish to make two other points of substance.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
I would rather not give way, because many hon. Members wish to speak, and I have spoken for long enough.
We do not want to underestimate the importance of the establishment on installations of safety committees. The 492 possible role of unions in safety committees is a central point in the debate. There may be a role for unions, but I am not convinced that it has to be prescribed in legislation.
Coming back to the main thrust of Cullen, I do not believe that the involvement of unions would mean that everyone on a platform would be involved. There will always be on platforms individuals who are not members of unions. The current system of the election of safety committees, which thankfully has been developed since Cullen, gives the opportunity to anyone, whatever his interest, to become involved in the safety of the installation.
Victimisation is a question that we cannot ignore. Although I have heard many allegations, I have seen very little substantiation of them. There has to be a system, such as was set up following Cullen, whereby individuals can make complaints anonymously, through a telephone number or whatever, so that the authorities have the opportunity to investigate whether there is substance behind a complaint. Victimisation may be overdone, but I do not think that it can be ignored.
Transfer of responsibility for safety to the Health and Safety Executive has been raised. Here I come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross). Experience post-Cullen shows that it is important that whoever is responsible for offshore safety is objective —having worked with the staff of the safety inspectorate within the Department of Energy I know that they were objective—but Cullen underlined the need for them to be seen to be objective as well. That is important for credibility. That is one thing which Cullen brought out, and I endorse his recommendation on it.
The new offshore safety division will be only as effective as the quality of its staff and the skills that they have. I say to my right hon. Friend, and through him to the Health and Safety Executive, that they must be people with technical skills equal to those of the inspectorate staff who have to deal with safety in the oil companies. They must be able to deal on equal terms with the oil companies. To use the analogy of the petroleum engineering division of the Department of Energy, its strength, recognised by oil companies around the world, is that its staff match the quality of staff in the oil companies. We must ensure that in the inspectorate there is the same matching of staff both in quality and in technical qualifications. That will mean paying salaries equivalent to those in the oil companies. There must be no economies in acquiring staff of the right quality and number.
The offshore safety division should be situated in Aberdeen because the interplay between those involved in the regulation of the industry and those who are working at its sharp end is important if those in the inspectorate are to know and understand what is happening in the industry. I am not pleading for one particular area of Britain against another; I am seeking to make the inspectorate more effective than it might otherwise be. I beg that that be given the most serious consideration possible.
I am glad to have been able to contribute to the debate. Again I emphasise that I hope that we have a continuing interest in offshore safety. Even one accident offshore is one too many. If it is humanly possible, it must be our objective to eliminate such accidents altogether.
§ Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)
I am most grateful for being called to speak today. This is one of the most serious debates that there has been in the House for many a long year.
It is appropriate for me to declare my interest as a member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and honorary secretary of the AEU parliamentary group, although I receive no funding or considerations. Nevertheless, I have an interest in the engineering industry and a feeling for the people who perished on the night of the terrible disaster.
First, I want to pay tribute to Lord Cullen. He has produced in a highly professional way two of the most detailed volumes that I have ever seen. I think that all hon. Members will agree that it was well worth waiting the 18 months that it took to prepare them.
I also want to pay tribute to the television companies. They made a valuable contribution in bringing home to the general public the danger faced by our engineers and the contribution that they make on offshore oil rigs. I am sure that many hon. Members saw the documentary that was made about the disaster, which showed the horrendous conditions that existed and the horrendous mistakes that were made on that night, from which all the consequential suffering ensued.
The Piper Alpha disaster occurred in July 1988. Only the other day I found myself comparing the 167 fatalities which resulted from that disaster, probably within one hour, with the number of British fatalities in the Gulf war. During the Gulf war, people have been glued to their television sets, watching events day by day and worrying about our casualties, but, thankfully, British fatalities, after all those weeks, were only one quarter of those that resulted from the Piper Alpha disaster.
It is recognised that Piper Alpha was the biggest offshore oil disaster that the world has ever known. It left many dead. It also left survivors, some of whom are still under medication. They will be haunted by the disaster for the rest of their days. The disaster also left widows and orphans, and no financial compensation will replace the loss of their husbands and fathers.
The report is a complete catalogue of sloppy and indifferent management, even wilful neglect bordering on sheer wickedness. People who read the report of this debate will not necessarily appreciate the contents of that document. The right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) said that everyone was doing his best and that there were some of the best conditions and the best safety possible. I contend that that was not the case. There is no doubt in my mind that the evidence shows that that is not the case, and that view is confirmed by the Cullen report.
For the sake of the record, therefore, it is important that I, as an engineer, extract one or two references from the report rather than simply say that we have the document, that nothing was wrong, that nothing could be done and that it was a pure accident. Many of us do not feel that it was a pure accident at all. It was partly due to wilful neglect.
Page after page of the report refers to the permit to work system. The system being used—or not used—regarding the issuing of permits when there was a change of shift from one group of engineers to another became the big issue.
494 It is important to note that most of the dead—79 out of a total of 167—died in the accommodation as a result of being overcome by smoke. The death toll could have been lessened had safety training been more effective. The report says that, as those men innocently waited in the accommodation for their instructions, their chances of survival were diminished and they perished.
Chapter 6, page 121, says that the contractor responsible for carrying out the maintenance on the valve had not received training in the permit to work system from his own company. Cullen finds that the failure of the permit to work system led directly to the accident, particularly in the light of the fact that a fatality had already resulted from a breakdown of that system in 1987.
In chapter 7, Lord Cullen states:The strong impression with which I was left after hearing the evidence as to the response of Claymore and Tartan was that the type of emergency with which the senior personnel of each platform was confronted was something for which they had not been prepared.He then talked about poor Occidental management.
Chapter 11 again refers to the permit to work system and shift takeovers. On pages 194 and 195, Lord Cullen concludes that there was no adequate training procedure for the permit to work system, that much reliance was placed on ad hoc methods and/or "on the job" training and that the permit to work system was not adequately monitored by the rig's safety department. The deficiencies in the permit to work system are constantly mentioned.
Page 196 of the report states that the system of shift handovers was a major factor in the disaster, and mentions critical comments by a Mr. Clark, who was a survivor of the disaster, and criticised the operation of the permit to work system in a meeting with senior Occidental management in early 1988. No action was taken.
Page 197 of the report mentions the death of Mr. Sutherland, in 1987. He was a rigger who died after falling from a canopy above a pump while carrying out maintenance. Occidental was prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 for failing to ensure that persons in its employ were not exposed to unnecessary risks. Occidental pleaded guilty and was fined £400. The crucial factors in that incident were shortcomings in the permit to work system. The report states:The complaint to which Occidental pleaded guilty also specified 'inadequate communication of information from the … day-shift to the night-shift'.So, once again, the permit to work system is mentioned.
§ Dr. Michael Clark
I agree with the hon. Member about the permit to work regulations. As a practical engineer who has worked in plant and on shift, does he agree that if a company cannot get its permit to work handovers working satisfactorily, and if it cannot get shift handovers organised, it is right at the bottom of the safety league?
§ Mr. Eastham
I certainly do. I am trying to demonstrate that this was not a one-off mistake. There was case after case of sloppy management. The company was not administering or managing the rigs as they should be operated, even though the permit to work procedure was laid down to establish that a certain valve was safe, or had been disconnected, so that at the beginning of his 12-hour shift the next operator knew what was going on. I am trying to show the importance of the Cullen report and to shoot down any idea that everything was good and that 495 the report says that the accident was an act of God. It was not an act of God—it was management neglect, and as Members of Parliament we must do something about it.
I do not want to bore the House, and I apologise for going on, but it is important to deal with the parts of the report which examine emergencies, fatalities and the seriousness of the situation. Chapter 13 deals with training for emergencies. Page 214 mentionsunderstanding on the part of all personnel as to how to react in the event of an emergency.The significance of that is that it appeared that people who died in the rig's accommodation were waiting to be rescued by helicopter, unaware that smoke from the fire made such a rescue impossible. Cullen believes that, if more of them had tried to make their way out of the rig, more could have survived—that assumes that they knew how to escape.
Chapter 14 concerns Occidental's management of safety and is so critical of the company that it should be re-titled Occidental's "mismanagement" of safety. I am giving chapter and verse because this is important and I do not want hon. Members to think that it is all in my imagination.
Page 227 of the report states that Occidental Commissioned a report on the risk of riser ruptures and the effects that they might have on rigs. Mr. Saldana prepared a report which states that ruptures represented a more serious hazard than Occidental had thought. Occidental's senior management responded by questioning Mr. Saldana's qualifications and experience. That provokes the question, why was he Commissioned to write the report in the first place if the management intended to ignore it because it did not like some of his conclusions? That is a complete contradiction. Occidental nominated him to undertake the study.
On page 235, the report mentions that a large maintenance programme was being carried out on Piper Alpha at the time of the disaster and yet oil production continued at the maximum. Lord Cullen describes that as "puzzling". Some people might call it reckless, and I might even call it sheer greed—the company could not even turn the taps down during a major maintenance operation to ensure that less fuel was flowing. The company was extracting the maximum amount of fuel, even though a vital valve was being worked on when the horrendous accident happened.
On page 251, the report says that there was a shortfall in the number of safety inspectors in the North sea. Two out of five inspectors' jobs had remained unfilled for two years before the disaster. The report says that safety inspectors were, and are, inadequately trained and that persistent undermanning has affected the frequency and the depth of inspections.
Chapter 20 refers to evacuation, escape and rescue, and says that it is a statutory requirement for every rig to have a standby vessel. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) described the type and quality of standby vessels, sp I shall not bore hon. Members with the details, but it is all there, chapter and verse, in the report.
Lord Cullen considers union involvement in the offshore oil industry in chapter 21. Although he recognises that industrial relations are outside his remit, he makes a number of statements which could be used to show the benefits for safety of a well organised union structure.
496 The Director-General of the Health and Safety Executive said that in the onshore industry union-appointedsafety representatives could play a valuable part in the promotion of safety and in relation to inspections".The United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association, however resisted the appointment of similar personnel offshore on the ground that there were very few installations with recognised trade unions. That prompts a reasonable question—why were those unions not recognised?
The remains of Piper Alpha are still at the bottom of the North sea, despite protests by environmentalists, the Royal Navy and local fishermen. Leaving those remains rotting in the sea may even violate the 1958 Geneva convention.
Anyone who considers the tone of the Cullen report to be less than scathing must not have read the same document as me. It is critical from start to finish, and tonight no Minister will be able to avoid making a commitment about the Government's future conduct.
The offshore oilfields have experienced major difficul-ties for some time. The Amalgamated Engineering Union —my union, and a very responsible one—has used its best endeavours to be helpful and co-operative. In the months following the disaster I was contacted by the engineers' executive council, which seemed alarmed about the indifference of the employers. As secretary of the AEU parliamentary group, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Energy; he was courteous and co-operative, and I was grateful for that. We had two meetings. The Secretary of State invited three members of the executive to join us at the first meeting, and two attended the second. I took the minutes. The Secretary of State said that he had accepted all the recommendations in the report, and that good progress was being made. He also mentioned the transfer of responsibilities to the Health and Safety Executive, and told us that Mr. A. Barrell had been appointed head of that organisation.
One of the executive councillors, Mr. James Airlie, said that he recognised the difficulties relating to, for instance, resources and training. He also inquired about visits to installations, and about the location of the HSE in Aberdeen and Morecambe. The question of health and safety committees on individual sites was raised, as were the issues of victimisation and short-term contracts. As we explained to the Secretary of State, the position was ludicrous: many engineers were on two-week contracts, and any engineer who complained about matters of safety could be sure that his contract would not be renewed.
§ Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)
My hon. Friend gained day-to-day experience of the trade union movement before he came to the House. Does he agree that such attitudes on the part of these firms were greatly encouraged by legislation enacted not only in the past 11 years, but by the 1970–74 Government, who seemed to regard the union movement as a group of extremists determined to bring down British industry if they could? The Government entirely ignored the daily bread-and-butter work done by the unions every week of the year, which is of such value not only to union members but to all the workers in the oilfields and elsewhere—and, indeed, to the country as a whole.
§ Mr. Eastham
I entirely agree. We observe the Government's anti-union attitude day in, day out. They 497 seem to hate trade unionists, and not even to consider them British. That attitude changes only in times of emergency. When there is a war and they want engineers to work in munitions, it is all shoulders to the wheel, and trade unionists suddenly become good workers—people with whom the Government can negotiate and do business.
At the meeting, the Secretary of State made three points. First, he assured us that there would be no lack of resources. Secondly, on personnel, he said that a practical regime would be introduced, and that its organisation would be left to the HSE. Thirdly, he accepted Lord Cullen's recommendations about safety representation. Mr. Tom MacLean, a member of the executive, mentioned inspector understaffing and the quality of staff. The Secretary of State said that he had already improved pay and that he "was not hanging about", which pleased us greatly.
I mentioned the excessive hours worked by the men on the rigs, and the consequent risks to safety and efficiency. The Secretary of State said that he too considered that important. When he made his first statement about the disaster, I told him that engineers on the North sea oil rigs were working far more hours per year than those in the Norwegian fields. That still requires earnest consideration. Later, the Secretary of State wrote to me privately, saying that directives were being issued containing work guidelines.
We appreciated what seemed to be co-operation from the Secretary of State, and felt that the exercise had been useful. Since then, I have received some encouraging letters, but I hope that we shall soon get down to practicalities.
I made some other approaches, again with the help of the executive of the AEU. I received a letter that concerned me greatly. It did not make good reading. The executive referred to continuing anxieties long after the Piper Alpha disaster.
In February 1990, I received a letter from Mr. Tom MacLean, who has responsibility for the construction industry in the AEU, in which he drew attention to correspondence relating to the Montrose platform and asked me to note an enclosed copy of a fax dated 26 February 1990 from the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee. It said that there were deficiencies in Amoco's working practices which were a source of great concern and that the committee called on the right hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Morrison), who was then the Minister with responsibility for oil installations, im-mediately to shut down the Montrose platform until Amoco's fitness to manage had been reassessed. It also argued that new fireproof accommodation should be installed.
That was picked up by the newspapers. On 25 February 1990, there was a report in Observer Scotland under the headlineRig gas leak 'a whisper away' from second Piper".I thought that I ought to approach the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association to see whether we could get together to talk about these serious matters. On 7 March 1990 I wrote to Dr. Hughes and said:we are now wondering whether it would be possible to convene a meeting at your offices to discuss further some of the issues which are seriously concerning our members. We 498 have also exchanged correspondence with our Executive Council who obviously are most interested in the pursuit of some better arrangements. Ideally, from our point of view, I should like to suggest a deputation of 3 AEU MPs plus 3 Executive Council members with a special interest in the subject.Although some organisations profess that they want to co-operate, the message that came back to me from UKOOA was that it would meet the three AEU Members of Parliament but it refused point blank to meet the three AEU executive council members.
Despite UKOOA's refusal, the three AEU Members of Parliament thought that it would be wise to meet UKOOA at its offices. The three hon. Members were my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and me. No trade union officials were allowed to be present for the discussion. We were received courteously. Dr. Harold Hughes is the chairman. Mr. Christopher Ryan, a director, said that there are 36 companies in the industry, all of which are members of UKOOA. The companies are members of an association; I wonder whether the engineers on the oil rigs would have been regarded as more acceptable if they had been members of an association rather than a trade union. UKOOA might then have been prepared to meet them. An association does just the same work as a trade union. We were told that there are 160 platforms and that the total investment amounts to £166 billion. That is a lot of money. We recognise how important the industry is to the United Kingdom.
We gave notice to Dr. Hughes that the engineering group intended to raise the profile of this very serious problem. I told Dr. Hughes—it is quoted in the Glasgow Herald of 28 February 1990, long after the Piper Alpha incident—that certain rigs were working with faulty electrics and that a survey had revealed that 95 per cent. of the explosive-proof equipment in the Brent field had faults. The article also referred to the fact that workers were convinced that faults had shut down Cormorant Alpha and Brent Charlie and that similar electrical faults were to be found on at least three other Shell installations.
The issue rumbled on in the House of Commons for a long time after that. One of my hon. Friends tabled an early-day motion on North sea safety and trade union recognition, after which I received a letter from UKOOA. I was told that all workers offshore had the right to elect their own safety representatives and that there were safety committees on every platform. The letter also pointed out that a recent study by the Institute of Offshore Engineering, an independent body, had reported similar accident rates in both Norway and the United Kingdom. The implication was that the number of fatalities and accidents was just as great in Norway as in the United Kingdom. According to the information that we have received, that is nowhere near the truth. The letter said that £750 million was being invested to redress some of the problems. In an important paragraph, UKOOA said:As far as trade union recognition is concerned, all workers have equal rights offshore—including the right to join a trade union and join safety committees. Recognition is a matter between workers and their employers, the contractors. You may be interested to know that there is an obligation under every licence for the operator to provide facilities for trade union officers to go offshore for the purposes of recruitment.499 That is a bit rich when we know what happens if full-time trade union officers attempt to get to the rigs, even to speak to the workers.
When I replied to Mr. Ryan's letter I referred him to an article in The Scotsman dated 26 October under the headingNorth sea men face worst death risk in the world.An independent team of analysts—Smith Rea Energy—calculate that the average cost to United Kingdom-based companies in lost production and compensation amounts to £180 million a year. That was before the Piper Alpha disaster, which raised the 1988 total to £1.2 million. Surely there must be something wrong with the rigs if so much money is lost, if there are so many fatalities and injuries, if so many rigs are closed down and if so much energy is lost. I base my argument not on my assumptions or calculations but on those of so-called experts.
The House will appreciate that my correspondence with UKOOA has been going on for some time. In November 1990, I received a letter saying:Since Lord Cullen reported, all engaged in the offshore industry have adopted a very positive approach to the recommendations made and there is a common desire to implement the report in the interest of North Sea safety … Therefore UKOOA would be pleased to host a farther meeting with you and your AEU colleagues.That was a breakthrough; it was the first time that UKOOA had said that it was prepared to meet members of the executive as well as AEU-sponsored Members of Parliament. The letter concluded:I will telephone you upon your receipt of this letter.UKOOA never telephoned me; I am still waiting for the call.
A letter from the AEU executive illustrates the brutality of what was happening in the oilfield. [Laughter]. I know that this seems a bit of a joke to those who do not work in the oilfields, who simply do not understand. Perhaps if they got themselves a boiler suit, rolled up their sleeves and did six months' work in the North sea, they would appreciate how much engineers contribute to oil companies' wealth.
The letter from the executive, dated 3 December 1990, illustrates the brutal hire-and-fire policy in operation in the North sea. One can hardly say that 3 December 1990 is a long time ago and that matters have improved. The letter refers to dismissals following the dispute about safety on oil rigs. It gives a breakdown of dismissals following the stoppages. Apparently 534 Offshore Construction Contractors employees were dismissed. There was no mutuality and there were no negotiations. It seems that the companies have returned to their old ways—the practices that we have tried so hard to leave behind us. They merely say, "There is no job for you. Too bad, you're off." To this day, there is no consideration and no understanding.
In January, I received another letter from UKOOA, in which Mr. Ryan wrote:My purpose in writing is to invite you and your colleagues to meet us … when we could brief you on UKOOA's reaction to the current recommendations and discuss other matters of mutual interest. You may recall that we were of a mind to suggest a meeting with appropriate AEU national officials".UKOOA was "of a mind" to do that and said that it would call me. The last sentence of the letter reads:I will get in touch with you on your receipt of this letter.Once again, I never received the call. Perhaps UKOOA keeps that line on its computer—"We will get in touch with 500 you after you have received this letter." I want to make it public, therefore, that the AEU Members of Parliament and the union's executive council would very much appreciate a meeting. It is not difficult to get in touch with me. Everyone else seems to be able to get in touch with me and I can always be left a message. If I receive that call, I shall be only too pleased to meet UKOOA's representatives.
Allegations of blacklisting have sometimes been denied. Hon. Members may be aware that the Select Committee on Employment undertook an inquiry into recruitment practices. We dealt with the employment of the disabled and minority groups and decided to have a look at the Economic League and at blacklisting. I have a letter here —[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh no."] This is important. I am trying to illustrate that this is fact; it is not in my mind. The Employment Select Committee received a letter from one of the unions about blacklisting of anyone who dares to complain about safety on the oil rigs.
Those who complain get worked off. The Select Committee was sent a transcript of some of the communications that such people had received. The unions are getting a bit more skilled at recording these things and, in this case, they also recorded telephone conversations. The transcript proves that on North sea oil rigs, blacklisting continues apace.
I know that people say that blacklisting does not exist but we know that it does. Paragraph 30, on page 392 of the Cullen report, says:Safety representatives should be protected against victimisation by a provision similar to … the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978".Even Lord Cullen, who said that he did not propose to become involved in discussions of blacklisting or the trade unions, recognises that it is going on and thinks that the workers should have some protection.
I refuse to believe that nobody is to blame for the disaster. The Cullen report certainly concluded that people were to blame. We need better management. North sea oil workers are entitled to full trade union rights. We want less secrecy regarding safety problems and adequate health and safety resources. Above all, we ask for increased co-operation, despite Conservative Members' laughing and tittering about the livelihoods and working conditions of those who work on the rigs.
There is nothing irresponsible about our desire for more co-operation. We are trade unionists and we are far more responsible than some of the hooligans on the Conservative Benches when it comes to dealing with the serious matter of the loss of hundreds of lives. None of those on the Conservative Benches will die on the oil rigs because none of them wear boiler suits and none of them have ever taken such jobs. It is the workers who do that, and that is why we want more co-operation in future. Trade unionists are entitled to work in dignity, and the whole House should be determined not to allow a repeat of Piper Alpha.
This afternoon I was passed information by a colleague who has a relative in a senior position in the oilfields from which I discovered that compensation has still not been paid to all the survivors of the disaster, which occurred in July 1988. We are now in March 1991. I was also horrified to learn that it is believed that the new replacement platform is of the same design as the original Piper Alpha platform, yet one of the main criticisms concerned the type 501 of accommodation on the platform. If that is the case, it is a complete disgrace and the Minister should do something about it.
There is no doubt that Occidental has a dreadful record. It is interesting that, although some of the other oil companies, such as Esso, have already held one-day conferences on safety, Occidental has still to hold its first safety conference.
I could talk about many things. I could speak for about two hours on some of the deficiencies and scandals in the North sea oilfields. It is time that we put a stop to all that.
§ Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)
I shall certainly follow what the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) has said, but I shall do so later because I too must begin by saying that that few disasters have had more impact on us or have been more distressing than that which occurred on 6 July 1988 in the North sea and in which, as the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said, 167 men died. The hon. Member for Blackley put that number in the context of the casualties of the Gulf war.
It may surprise the hon. Member for Blackley to know that I have worked in a boiler suit and have worked shifts. I have not done so offshore—I doubt if I ever will now because what is left of my hair is too grey—
§ Mr. Eastham
I am grateful to learn that and I am greatly encouraged by it because as a result of that experience the hon. Gentleman's understanding of this matter will be very different from that of his hon. Friends sitting beside him.
§ Dr. Clark
As I have said, I have worked in boiler suits and have worked shifts in the chemical industry onshore, but not offshore, and I should like to take up some of the time of the House to describe two accidents of which I have knowledge. I was not responsible for them, but I was involved, in the aftermath. Neither was anything like Piper Alpha—the results were a fraction of what happened on Piper Alpha—but I know something of the distress that any accident causes to the surviving work force, the managers and, above all, the relatives.
In 1965 on Teesside, there was an accident at an ICI plant when a pressure vessel was about to be cleaned out. It had been used for the polymerisation of hydrocarbons and for making polymers. As it was known that some hydrocarbon would be left in the vessel, permit-to-work chits were issued so that men could go inside it with bronze spades to clear it out. The spades were bronze because it was known that a metal spade would cause sparks and that a spark would probably cause an accident. To show that it was thought to be a safe procedure, the manager of the plant went in the vessel first. He cleared out some of the debris from the bottom of the vessel for an hour before any other man went in—[Interruption.] I am sorry that those Opposition Members who have accused Conservative Members of not having any industrial experience do not wish to listen to an account of the little industrial experience that we have had—it would encourage us to gain more such experience if Opposition Members would listen when we talk about it.
502 After the manager had tested the vessel by working in it himself for an hour, two members of the work force went in, using the proper equipment and following the proper procedures, but they disturbed a pile of highly unstable peroxides which immediately exploded. One man was blown out of the vessel dead. The other was blown out on fire, severely hurt, and was in hospital for a long time recovering from appalling injuries.
I was not the manager of the plant at the time, but I became the manager three months later and I know of the effect that that accident had—three months later—on the rest of the work force. They were dispirited and demoralised. There was also compassion for the relatives and sadness about the incident.
What happened there is a classic example of what Lord Cullen described in his report. I refer to the difference between safety through regulation and safety through having a safety case. On that plant, everything had been done right by regulation. All the permits had been signed, all the working methods had been approved, and all the regulations had been abided by, but a proper safety case had not been made for working inside that vessel. After the accident, the scientists and chemists at ICI investigated how it could have happened and found a type of chemical —a highly unstable peroxide—which had not been known about before the accident and which exploded when it was simply disturbed. The work that was carried out after finding that highly unstable peroxide showed that men should never have entered that vessel at any time.
Some people talk about being wise after the event, but I do not think that that is a correct analysis. Instead, we learn after the event. We do research and carry out investigations after the event which, if we had safety case procedures, we would carry out before the event. We should investigate all possibilities. All the scientific research and engineering possibilities should be carried out and ascertained before the event—and they would be if a safety case procedure were in existence instead of a regime of regulation which simply tells people, "You will work in a certain safe way", or in a way that is presumed to be safe. That is one of the main points of Lord Cullen's report.
Immediately after the Piper Alpha disaster, the Government set up a technical investigation. The Government, the Department of Energy and the Secretary of State at the time are to be commended for the speed at which they set up that technical investigation and for the speed at which it reported—in September the same year, just over two months after the incident. Although the inquiry reported quickly, there is no evidence to suggest that it reported in a slipshod way. In fact, the evidence shows that it reported as professionally and as thoroughly as it could in the time available. In his own painstaking report, Lord Cullen praised that technical inquiry.
Lord Cullen's report became available to us on 12 November. He concluded that an initial explosion set in train an escalating series of fires. He showed how there was a series of events, happenings or situations, each of which on its own might have allowed a certain amount of occupational leeway which would not have led to the accident. However, as was stated by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras when he went through the series of events involving negligence, neglect or forgetfulness, that combination and series of events allowed the fire to escalate and the explosion to take place. And so it is with most accidents. One event on its own can probably be 503 accommodated by the safety procedures, by individuals, and by experienced operators, but accidents happen when several things occur simultaneously—as with Piper Alpha.
I will give the House an example of another accident, which occurred 10 years after the one that I have already described. Although I like to think that I was not directly responsible for it, I have to take some responsibility because I was the plant manager at the time. A man started working on a mixer which was used to mix plastic materials. He did so without permission. The fuse had not been withdrawn from the electric motor. Unknown to him, the mixer blade had jammed the last time it was used and the motor was switched on with the blade in that jammed position. The man broke all regulations by placing his hand in the mixer to try to make the blade go round, and it started to go round because the motor was still switched on and the fuse had not been withdrawn. The man was not wearing gloves and when the blade went round, instead of the gloves taking the shock of the mixer, his hand took the shock and he lost fingers from his right hand.
Had any one of those five things not occurred, the accident would not have happened. If the man had applied for permission to work, he would not have got it, so he would not have had the accident. If he had been granted permission to work, the fuse would have been withdrawn from the motor. If, by chance, the blade had not jammed when the last person used it, the mixer would not have been jammed with the motor still switched on. If he had not placed his hand in the mixer, there would have been no accident. Had he been wearing thick leather gloves, the blades would have taken the gloves into the mixer and his hand would have been bruised but he would not have lost his fingers. Five separate incidents happened in that accident. If any one of them had not occurred, the man would not have lost his fingers.
Lord Cullen described many such accidents in his report. Procedures can be made to work to a degree and must be made to work so far as they are relevant. We must not work on probability, with a safety ethos to the effect that the probability of an accident is only 0.1 per cent., so if three mechanisms are operated and there is a 0.1 per cent. risk on any one of them the probability of an accident is negligible. At some time, the combination will occur —if one spins a coin enough times it may come down heads 10 times in succession. We want safety not by probability but by safety-case analysis—safety by design and by engineering. In the last resort, we want safety by regulation and procedure--but built into equipment, not worked into it by human and fallible operators.
There are three roles on any operating platform or in any factory—those of operators or employers, those of employees, and collective responsibility. The Government do not have a monopoly on the role of collective responsibility. It applies to many places of work and, in some ways, applies least of all to the Government.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) said, the operators or employers know that the buck stops with them and that we cannot legislate to prevent accidents. We can legislate to ensure that certain types of equipment are available on a platform but we cannot legislate for its reliability. We can legislate that there should be systems, such as alarms, safety systems or fire systems, on a platform, but not for their complexity. We can legislate that manuals must be written—even that they should be read—but we cannot legislate for their quality, nor for the quality of the 504 teaching when their contents are transferred to the minds of the employees and plant operators. Furthermore, we can legislate, through the Department of Energy or the Health and Safety Executive, that checks should be carried out on all equipment, but not for the enthusiasm with which the checks are carried out. In other words, we cannot legislate for safety culture, which is so important if we are to have safe working practices, not only in the North sea but in the use of complex equipment on any plant.
In his report, Lord Cullen says that operators should sharpen their responsibilities for analysing hazards and documentation of systems—and so they should. Operators in the North sea should never forget that 36,000 people work offshore there. The Government can provide a framework for the employment of those people, but it will be a broad framework and there can be no alternative to operators sharpening their procedures, awareness and responsibilities. The Government must be responsible and diligent in pursuing the analysis of documentation and equipment, but the quality of both and the responsibility for the employees who work on the platforms must rest well and truly with the operators.
The employees, whether they are platform managers or those who prepare food in the mess room, are entitled to trade union recognition if they so wish, but trade unions should not necessarily represent employees with regard to safety.
§ Mr. Salmond
The hon. Gentleman says that he is prepared to support workers' rights to trade union recognition. How does he think that that could be brought into effect? How could workers' opinions on the matter be properly tested, and what legislation or moves does he suggest should be made to put that theoretical right to trade union recognition into practice?
§ Dr. Clark
Recognition must be twofold. First, the work force must be organised; secondly, it must seek recognition from the employer. I support everyone's right to trade union membership, but recognition is a matter between the trade union and the employer. The trade union would probably find it difficult to achieve recognition if the number of its members was well below the majority of those working on the platform. All workers have a right to trade union membership, but recognition depends on the size of the representation and will be negotiated between those who belong to the union and the employer on whose premises they work.
When I worked for ICI in County Durham and north Yorkshire, way back in the early 1960s, we had a successful system of safety committees. ICI's safety record was second to none. When the Health and Safety Executive was established some years ago, ICI's model was taken into account, as it was considered to be the best practice at that time. As a manager, I had regular meetings with the trade unions—especially the Transport and General Workers Union—and with the safety committee. There were sometimes trade union shop stewards on the safety committee. I found that their style and presentation were more appropriate to trade unions which deal with terms and conditions of employment. They enabled them, as trade union representatives, to present their case in a manner best able to achieve what they sought, and with a negotiating stance generally understood by the manager. Some shop stewards were robust and could put a case 505 forcefully. They often asked for more than they expected to receive and a compromise would be reached. However, such a negotiating method is not always a suitable tactic when seeking to achieve safety.
When one asks for safety, it should be because it is needed and it should not be negotiable. Even if, in the debate, it is found that there is a better way to overcome a safety hazard or problem, the person asking for the safety of himself and his colleagues must believe that it is needed and will not be watered down through negotiation. The type and style of negotiating that would usually be expected from a health and safety committee representa-tive and a trade union representative may thus be quite different. Therefore, I do not regard it as essential to have safety representation through trade unions, but I believe that it is essential to have such representations through safety councils, with people who are diligent, known for their common sense, trusted by their fellow employees and respected by the management at their workplace.
The third category is collective responsibility. In my place of work I always tried to get rid of the feeling of "us" and "them" and to create a feeling of "we". There is no issue on which a feeling of "we" is more important than safety, especially on a platform in the North sea where everyone is together. People may have different coloured boilersuits, hard hats, salaries and jobs, but on the safety issue we must think in terms of "we" because everyone is in the same boat—literally, if there is a disaster such as the Piper Alpha. Collective responsibility is of paramount importance. The Government have told us that they believe that every employee has a right to be represented on a safety committee, and the committee members should be elected.
Several letters have been read out to us and discussed by the hon. Member for Blackley. I, too, received a letter from the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association and found parts of it distressing. The letter is dated 6 March and was sent not only to me, but to all hon. Members, although the copy that I have here has my name at the top, as it was sent to me.
I realise that the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association is a trade association, representing most of the companies which operate in the North sea. The letter states, as though it were something to be proud of:as at December some 900 elected safety representatives were involved"—in safety committees—of which over two-thirds had already received formal training to help them in their responsibilities.The Piper Alpha disaster was two and a half years ago, but only two-thirds of the 900 safety representatives are properly trained. If we accept, as I think we probably can, that more than half of them were trained before the disaster because some operators would have sent safety representatives on training courses, there have been only an extra one-sixth trained during the past two and a half years. I say to UKOOA and, more importantly, to its members, "What have you been doing for the past two and a half years? Why have not 100 per cent. of the people been trained and a further 10 per cent. held in reserve ready to go on the safety committees if anyone drops out or resigns from the company?" It is not good enough.
The letter also states:Chief among these"—506 the Cullen recommendations—is the systematic use of the Safety Case and Formal Safety Assessment, the full acceptance by the Operator of his responsibility for the safety of his installation and of the workforce, and the change away from the present prescriptive regulation to goal-setting regulations.That is fine—those are Lord Cullen's recommendations, which we all applaud—but the letter then state:All these had been UKOOA recommendations in evidence to Lord Cullen.It is incredible that when Lord Cullen set up his inquiry, the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association was able to make to him—or so it claims—three recommendations which are now acknowledged as the main recommendations of the Cullen report. If it was able to do that after 167 men had died, what were UKOOA and its member companies doing before July 1988 and before 167 men died? It is not something to be proud of to be able to say, two and a half years after such an accident, "Those are the recommendations that Lord Cullen made, we made them to him and we are proud that we did so." The association should have made them five years earlier. If it had, we probably would not be having today's debate and, hopefully, the men would not have been killed.
Phrases such as "safety cases" and "formal safety assessments" sound like, and probably are, new phrases, but the ideas are not new. The North sea is a hostile environment, the technology is sophisticated and the consequences of failure are severe. But there are other industries with those characteristics—the space and nuclear industries. I know from experience that the nuclear industry has safety cases, safety assessments and designed-in safety. Although I do not have personal experience of it, I have no doubt that the space industry has the same features. Why has it taken so long for the safety case assessment to be brought to North sea platforms, when so many characteristics of work in the North sea are similar to those of the nuclear and space industries? Thank God—and I really mean that—that we have brought pressure to bear now, but what a shame that we did not bring it to bear some time before.
§ 7.6 pm
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
The concluding comments of the hon. Member for Rochford (Dr. Clark), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy, are pertinent to the issue not only of where we are now, but of where we are going. By way of introduction, it is important to say that the fact that the Cullen report is excellent and the Government have accepted all its recommendations can, in some ways, be a danger rather than a benefit. There is a tendency for people to think that we have looked at the safety issue, that it is all there in the book—we have agreed to it. When the debate continues, some people, for example in the media, often ask why we are asking for this and pressing for that, because surely all has been taken care of by the Cullen report. The answer is that such matters will be taken care of only when the industry gets it all together. That will not happen overnight—we must ensure that as much is done as fast as possible and the regime is brought up to a higher standard than existed before.
It is not surprising that no fewer than five Members from Grampian region are seeking to speak in the debate, of which I am the second to have spoken, when we consider the basic importance of the industry to our district. When I checked the most recently available figures, I found that, in Grampian region, 51,200 people 507 are employed in the oil and gas industry and a further 18,400 in related jobs—a total of 69,000, or 33 per cent. of the total work force. Therefore, the issue is in the minds of a high proportion of that region's population, because they are directly or indirectly involved in and concerned about what goes on offshore and the safety standards that operate.
I shall not make general accusations, but until the moment that Piper Alpha went up there was a general belief that the safety regime, while not perfect, was good. There were incidental accidents, but nobody believed that the Piper Alpha disaster could happen, and nobody went offshore worrying about it. However, now that it has happened, nobody can go offshore again without being aware that it has happened and that, no matter what the regime, it could conceivably happen again. Such thoughts concentrate the mind, but it is an awful way to have it concentrated.
In my intervention in the speech of the Secretary of State, I said that I wholly supported the idea of the safety case. I was aware that it was promoted in the industry before the Piper Alpha disaster—I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Rochford. It is a pity that the procedure was not established earlier, but it is the right approach to say that operators must look at every aspect of the design and operation of their platforms and imagine all possible events to ensure that all factors have been taken into account. That does not preclude the modification of design factors and regulations.
It is still a matter of concern to me that I have not yet received a satisfactory answer to a question that I raised as a direct consequence of the disaster. The Piper Alpha platform was substantially modified from its original installation, and it appears that the modifications contributed to the scale of the disaster. It has not been satisfactorily explained who approved the modifications and why. Those questions were not asked, but I am sure that a safety case regime would have demonstrated that the modifications were risky and unsatisfactory. That led to questions about escape mechanisms from platforms.
I asked a senior executive of Occidental Petroleum (Caledonia) Ltd. why no downward escape routes, as well as escape routes via the heli-deck, were incorporated into the design and into evacuation procedures from the platform. I was amazed to hear him say that he thought there were. That shows some of the problems that existed before the disaster. I believe that the safety case approach is correct.
I want to speak briefly, and perhaps predictably, about the case for locating the offshore safety division of the Health and Safety Executive in the north-east of Scotland. I have believed for a long time—before the Piper Alpha disaster—that there was a case for separating the offshore safety role from the Department of Energy. The right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) acknowledged that point towards the end of his speech. He said that the real point was not necessarily that the Department of Energy was compromised—although it may have been, and some people say that it was even though the right hon. Gentleman, who held office in that Department, said categorically that it was not—but that it was seen to be compromised. The offshore safety role should be taken away to ensure that such confusion does not arise.
The case for putting the centre of gravity of the offshore safety division in the north-east should not be lost. The 508 arguments that I hear suggest strongly that the centre of gravity is likely to be in London, with subsidiary operations in Bootle and Aberdeen, but I am not convinced that the case has been made properly.
In a reply to me on 21 January 1991, the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), while suggesting that he would not preclude the decision and that it was a matter for the HSE, nevertheless wrote:The need to recruit scarce specialist staff and the location in London and the South East of most oil companies will require that a major part of the operation will continue to be based in London".I wholly refute that. I do not understand why, if executives have to travel to London, they cannot be expected to travel to Aberdeen. The fact that the oil companies have a substantial part of their headquarters in London does not negate the fact that the operational headquarters—which is what we are considering—are in Aberdeen. That is where most of the people concerned with safety in the industry are based.
That idea is reinforced by the survey Commissioned by the Aberdeen centre for offshore safety, of which I am sure that the Secretary of State and the Minister are aware. The centre was recently set up by a number of bodies, including Grampian regional council, the trades council, the chamber of commerce and Aberdeen city council. It is a fairly representative body, which has, I accept, a clear objective—to persuade the HSE to make Aberdeen its location. It has asked most operators in Aberdeen for their views and preferences and, bearing in mind what the Under-Secretary of State for Employment said, there seems to be a contradiction.
The survey states:71 per cent. of the sample … confirmed that the key leadership locus for the Formal Safety Assessment Task Force structure is, or will be, in Aberdeen.In addition, 67 per cent. of the sample reported that the previous interface in Aberdeen with the Department of Energy was inadequate because of inadequate levels of skill and the inadequate seniority of the Aberdeen staff. If we are to be told that the HSE must locate its operations in London because the Department of Energy has not transferred its key personnel to Aberdeen, then we have the cart the wrong way round in relation to the horse.
There is a supposed commitment to move civil servants and jobs out of London to the regions and provincial centres. Logic dictates that that is the way it should be done, and that it is a practical way of improving the efficiency of the operation in every sense, as well as transferring the centre of gravity from London. The Secretary of State has already said that it is a matter for the HSE, but I hope that it will read the report of the debate and take on board what has been said.
We accept the role of the skilled people in Bootle and the role of London, but I for one am wholly unconvinced that that means that the centre of gravity must be in London rather than in Aberdeen. I believe that we are entitled to press the case, as we in the north-east are doing.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
Would it not enhance the operating level of those who work in the oil companies in Aberdeen if the senior level of control of the offshore installations were in Aberdeen too? Would not that contribute to a greater commitment to safety at senior levels in the oil companies?
§ Mr. Bruce
I wholly agree. My point is that, if the Department of Energy and the HSE inspectorate were to make a move, the oil companies would be forced to follow through. Some already have, and are complaining that that is where their centre of gravity is and that too many people have to travel south. The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that a move would bring everything together. The efficiency of the industry would be enhanced, and it would seem to be in everyone's interest. The industry could concentrate on developing particular aspects of the safety regimes.
Another relevant issue is the relationship between oil company workers and workers in the contracting companies, which has become a major bone of contention. I was pleased to hear the Under-Secretary of State for Energy say in Aberdeen that we needed to ensure that the status of all offshore workers was indistinguishable. That was the purpose of my intervention on the Secretary of State. There is considerable worry about the way in which the relationship between the oil companies and the offshore contractors has developed and its effect on the morale of the workers, which I am sure has implications for safety as well as for efficiency.
When the previous downturn in oil prices took effect the oil companies put a real squeeze on the contractors, which had several consequences. They invited contractors to make bids for maintenance work, for example. A price may be based on man hours or it may be fixed—there are various ways in which to proceed, but the prices are very hard fought. In such circumstances, the contractors are often forced to change the working conditions of offshore workers. They often made the workers self-employed so that they would not enjoy holiday pay or sickness benefits in full or, if they did, they had to pay for them themselves.
That caused considerable resentment among many of those people. When they found that the oil companies were looking after their own and putting on the squeeze further down the line, it created a real problem. It made blacklisting, which arose in the industrial dispute last year, a particularly offensive issue. Shell ultimately realised that it was counter-productive for its corporate image. Companies told contractors, "We invite you to provide a competitive tender to do a job on our platform. You must determine the parameters of that contract, whom and how many you employ, as long as you meet our price and conditions." Then they said, "However, you cannot employ certain named individuals because we don't regard them as desirable."
Apart from the very dubious legality of such behaviour, the morality and ethics are extremely questionable. That is beside the point, in a sense. The effect on the relationship, on the climate and on the way in which different workers see themselves is negative and has contributed to a deterioration of morale and industrial relations offshore, which must be sorted out.
I want to mention an issue which may seem tangential, but which is of concern to me and relevant to offshore safety as it relates to helicopters. The House will be aware that there is a severe shortage of air traffic controllers throughout the country, which has led to some pressure on staffing levels. I accept that that has happened to try to ensure that training is carried out to bring the level up to acceptable standards. However, I represent Aberdeen airport and I am not at all happy about the cuts that have been imposed there. I have had extended correspondence with the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority on the 510 matter. Suffice it to say that we are now agreed on the facts. We have 28 controllers out of a full complement of 32—in other words, we are four short in practical terms, without going into the details.
That shortage affects helicopter training at the airport. The air traffic controller in charge has to say to helicopter companies, "You may not be able to carry out training at certain times of the day, because we do not have enough air traffic control cover to do it." I am not suggesting that there is an immediate safety problem at Aberdeen airport. I am assured that there is not and I accept that assurance. However, if, by definition, helicopter companies are having to cut training activity, safety in the offshore environment must be affected. I know that colleagues who represent neighbouring constituencies are well aware of people's concern that the means of transport to work offshore is helicopters.
Helicopters are an inherently less safe method of travel than fixed-wing aircraft are. It is interesting that the experiment with the idea of long-haul helicopters, embarked on a few years ago, has been substantially abandoned in favour of going back to using Sumburgh and Unst for the northern field, with fixed-wing aircraft and transfers. That minimises the time that has to be spent in helicopters.
I am anxious that there should be no compromise on helicopter training at Aberdeen airport as a result of general cuts in air traffic controllers. It is unfortunate that that should happen at a time when Aberdeen is the only airport in the United Kingdom that is enjoying a growth in traffic. Yet it gets a share of the cuts, which does not seem to take account of that growth.
My most important point is to suggest that, given that the safety regime will continue to change and that the implications of the Cullen report will take some time to put in place, we need some other body to try to ensure that offshore safety is monitored, developed and advanced continually. I should like further consideration to be given to the recommendation, which I have made before, of establishing an independent offshore safety trust. I put forward that idea some months ago.
I have written to a number of interested bodies, such as the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association, the trade unions and oil companies, to suggest that the idea should be given serious consideration. The response has been by no means hostile. It has led to a certain grinding of axes—perhaps predictably. Trade union interests have tended to say, "We believe that offshore trade union recognition is the determinant of offshore safety. That is what we are campaigning for, and we do not wish to be sidetracked from that." I must make it clear that I support the campaign for trade union recognition. My idea would not get in the way of that. However, I do not accept that trade union recognition could be the sole determinant of the offshore safety regime, although I believe that it could make a contribution.
By the same token, the employers have tended to say, "We think that the offshore safety committees are the answer." Again, there is some doubt about the full role of offshore safety committees. The hon. Member for Rochford has pointed out that such committees have not yet been fully implemented.
The idea of an offshore safety trust, located in Aberdeen, which would draw representation from across the spectrum—from oil companies, from trade unions, from local authorities and from the Health and Safety 511 Executive—would provide a useful focus for monitoring offshore safety. Any individual or company could report concerns about safety, whether they related to design, or to operating standards and practices, with absolute anonymity and knowing that there was protection. Concerns could be investigated and people could be identified if they wished, but only at their discretion— anonymity would be guaranteed otherwise.
The avenue of the Department of Energy has not wholly worked, and the Department is not seen to be sufficiently detached. The body that I suggest could produce a quarterly report which would summarise the issues that had been raised with it. That would help to identify the areas of concern, raise standards and ensure a focus of debate. It is a constructive suggestion. The cost would be minimal in relation to the industry and it could be financed by all those who took part.
I want to anticipate any questions. The fact that we have had the Cullen report, that its recommendations have been accepted and that various measures are in hand is not enough. We need another vehicle through which safety can be channelled and to which people feel that they have absolute security to report concerns. They will know that those concerns will be investigated and that their own position will be protected. I commend that idea to the House.
In one sense, this debate is overdue. However, I accept that, from the point of view of the Secretary of State, other matters need to be reported as we go on. It has been established that regulation does not solve the problem, and that everyone involved in the industry must accept total responsibility for safety. That requires a degree of trust across the board. I have raised some of the issues that undermine that trust and that must be addressed if full trust is to be established. It is not healthy to have continuing industrial disputes, to have low morale and to have inequality between oil company representatives and contractors. All those issues need to be resolved, and they will not be resolved quickly. I have made some constructive suggestions about how we can advance safety and ensure that we have a continuing and dynamic debate so that we never experience such a catastrophe again.
§ Mr. David Porter (Waveney)
The hon. Members for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) referred to north-east Scotland as the front line of the United Kingdom oil industry. I am sure that Ministers will not accept that as the whole picture. Clearly, north-east Scotland is the front line, but I hope that hon. Members do not mean to imply that the southern North sea sector is only the back end of the industry. As with the fishing industry, Scottish Members surely recognise that other parts of the United Kingdom are involved in similar activities. The oil industry is an example of that. The lesson of the Cullen report is vital to every part of the North sea sector.
It has been suggested that Aberdeen should be the base for the Health and Safety Executive. Although I represent an East Anglian constituency, I have no objection to it being sited in Aberdeen, provided that it is borne in mind that the field extends to take in most of East Anglia as well. It is important that I contribute to this debate to put the view of the southern North sea sector.
512 In my own constituency and in Great Yarmouth, the oil industry has been one of the biggest employers for many years. In addition to the point made in the Cullen report, it must be said over and over again that for many people, often in the comfort and safety of their armchairs, the North sea is just a sea—an attractive asset to an east coast seaside holiday, or a tiresome hurdle to be crossed before one can enjoy a European holiday.
From time to time, however, there is a dramatic and devastating tragedy in the North sea. Those of us who live by it and work by it, or who live on it and work on it, have learnt a healthy respect for that sea. Whether we are talking about fishing in it, defending our shores from its ravages, or extracting gas and oil from it, we must realise that the North sea is, as has been said, a very hostile environment. In that environment, safety can never be absolutely guaranteed. It is right that we bring the matter to public attention today.
A new safety culture is abroad in the population at large. It rightly pervades much public thinking. However, there has always been a certain safety culture and a strong safety incentive among those who work offshore. It has been, and must continue to be, a mutual incentive. In effect, if a working practice endangers one man, it endangers all men. That covers every aspect of the operation—from the helicopter out, to the use of the accommodation modules once the men are at sea. However, there is never an ultimate level of safety. Safety can always be improved. The lessons from Piper Alpha have been an important lever with regard to all aspects of the industry.
Shell UK has had an exploration base at Lowestoft in my constituency for 25 years. Its contribution to the local economy has been immeasurable—running into millions of pounds, directly and indirectly. Its contribution to the social, cultural and educational fabric of the area is equally immeasurable—running into hundreds of thousands of pounds over the years. I am not here as the mouthpiece of Shell UK, or any of its partners in EXPRO, but I have to say that I am very grateful to it and am impressed by its commitment to the local community and to the wellbeing of its work force, among other things. Shell UK made a submission to the Select Committee on Energy in connection with that Committee's inquiry into the management of offshore safety. The submission opened with the following words:The nature of the regulatory regime, as envisaged by Lord Cullen, in our view, correctly places responsibility upon the operator to competently conduct his operations, utilising appropriate procedures and equipment, together with appropriately trained people, to design, construct and operate the facility.The key phrase is "places responsibility upon the operator"—in Cullen, as before Cullen.
The preparation of the comprehensive safety case—of which mention had been made—with regular reviews, will widen confidence in the safety regime for all men who venture offshore. To that end, EXPRO has set about implementing the recommendations with some gusto. Management has taken a direct interest in ensuring that the company, at all its levels, meets all its operator's requirements. It has highlighted a key conclusion in Cullen —that flawed procedures and practices were a greater contributor to the Piper Alpha disaster than was hardware. With total commitment of staff, and with training, it is possible to improve procedures faster than to finalise hardware modifications. The respective roles of the 513 safety committee, the safety representatives and super-vision are recognised as vital, and all contractors must have easy access to that chain.
I am not persuaded by the argument about victimisation. I have had no evidence presented to me, but I have heard the remarks of hon. Members in this debate. It has been said that people have been victimised for raising a genuine safety worry. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) mentioned the so-called climate of fear. As I have already said, safety is interconnected. It is not in the interests of management that any plant should cease production for any reason whatever—and that includes a disaster. I believe that EXPRO itself will have implemented all recommendations in due course, and without any regard to cost.
In this context, recognition of the links in the safety chain are essential for every person. To this end, I welcome the advent of a single regulatory body—the Health and Safety Executive. I am a great believer in the principle of one body, one buck-stop. I take every opportunity to promote one body—the National Rivers Authority—to take full responsibility for national sea defence. However, returning to the question of offshore safety, I should like to put something to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Does not relative confusion sometimes inevitably arise over safety and general regulatory functions? I refer to the fact that the Department of Energy, the HSE, the Department of Employment, the Department of Transport, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Department of Trade and Industry all have their fingers in the North sea pie.
A large number of jobs in Waveney depend on the standby-vessel aspect of the industry. Boston Putford Offshore Safety, which markets the safety services of shipping companies, Britannia Marine, Putford Enterprises, Warble Shipping and Breydon Marine have just won a £10 milion three-year safety contract with Shell UK. It is a welcome deal, on which they are to be congratulated, and it will secure the jobs of about 100 seamen. Under this contract, there will be three main mother ships capable of launching fast daughter craft for close in-cover work next to the platforms. The mother ships are all highly manoeuvrable converted supply boats, in line with the Cullen recommendations. Three conventional former trawlers will provide additional standby cover.
We heard about converted trawlers earlier in the debate. In recent months, a spate of mishaps and unhappy experiences involving other converted trawlers for standby work culminated in the loss, around Christmas, of one Lowestoft-based vessel in heavy seas. This all now raises the question of the validity of old fishing boats being used, and the need for purpose-built standby vessels. In view of the fact that there are shipbuilding facilities in my constituency, I certainly do not object to the argument that all boats should be purpose-built. However, old trawlers have served us well and should not be contemptuously dismissed. I understand that the use of these old boats in the North sea has resulted in the saving of about 100 lives since Piper Alpha. They were, after all, built to withstand the rigours of the North sea.
Some time ago, in response to the debate about new-build, Putford Enterprises produced a paper which 514 argued that new vessels should be designed not only to service offshore installations but also to serve likely purposes of the Royal Navy—for instance, minesweeping. The paper was submitted to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement, who has argued that the Royal Navy has identified sufficient vessels for all assumed purposes. That is the kind of short-term answer that I would expect, but I hope that it will not be the last word. The long-term needs of any ocean-going activity must surely be considered with reference to multi-purpose vessels.
It is reasonable to say that the findings of the report have been widely welcomed. We are dealing with a widespread industry, encompassing many skills, and as virtually all the southern North sea sector is serviced from Waveney and Great Yarmouth, it affects every corner of life there. There is a heliport at Ellough, near Beccles, and there are the supplying and equipping back-up industries in Lowestoft and Yarmouth. I have already mentioned the standby vessels. There are engineers and electrical and specialist oil and gas workers. SLP Limited has the only major offshore module fabricators south of Teesside. The Lowestoft college has one of the best offshore survival training courses in Europe. Myriad large and small firms depend wholly or partly on the offshore industry. Safety is the binding thread which links all those separate parts.
We can never say that there will not be another major North sea incident like Piper Alpha. We can never say that a couple of young men from my constituency will not be tragically killed when an unexpected wave pushes a davit to crush them while it is being raised to the mother ship. However, we can take all reasonable and realistic steps. By accepting the Cullen recommendations, the Government have shown that they are prepared to give a lead. That, of course, will have to be reflected throughout the industry, and not just within Shell. The Government are to be congratulated.
Like the hon. Member for Gordon, I hope that the Government will not rest on their laurels but will move forward as fast as possible to ensure that safety remains the top priority. Technology apart, safety culture apart, human training and error apart, there is environmental evidence that the North sea is getting rougher. Technology, safety, training and human factors must take account of that. Although neither the weather, the wind nor the sea itself destroyed Piper Alpha, they must never be underestimated.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
This is an extremely important debate. I hope that the House will forgive me if I start on a note of disappointment. I pay tribute to hon. Members who have spoken already. They have displayed great sincerity and a deep interest in this subject, but I have to express personal dissatisfaction that there are so few hon. Members in the House. The subject is far more important than is suggested by the attendance. I confess that I was one of the hon. Members who lobbied hard for a two-day debate. I am grateful to the Government for tabling a motion that enables us to continue to midnight. I understand that there is much pressure on the time of hon. Members on both sides of the House. Perhaps everyone thought that so many hon. Members wanted to speak that there was little prospect of being called.
515 The imprint of Piper Alpha is for ever seared on our minds. We are reminded of it in all sorts of ways—some of them totally unconnected with the North sea, although clearly connected with the oil industry. I hope that hon. Members will not think me parochial when I tell the House that the first thing that the television pictures of the burning oil wells in Kuwait brought to my mind was Piper Alpha. That is a reason for great sadness for those who, like me, are distraught at what happened in the Gulf. None of us wanted to see such events, although we knew that they were necessary. The image of the burning oil wells brought to mind the image of Piper Alpha on fire.
I join those who have already paid tribute to Lord Cullen, his staff and all who gave evidence to the committee. It has already been said that it was an extremely comprehensive report. It was well argued and well laid out. Although I do not necessarily agree with all its conclusions, I recognise that the report was extremely valuable in concentrating our minds.
Several questions arise out of the Piper Alpha tragedy. Could the accident have been foreseen? Could it have been avoided? Can a future tragedy be prevented? What lessons can be learnt for general offshore safety in the aftermath of Piper Alpha? If we are realistic, we must accept that we can all be wise after the event. There has never been an accident or incident where people have not drawn conclusions afterwards which they might not have drawn beforehand. In all honesty, the ferocity of the explosion and the extent of the damage were beyond all imagination. Everyone was shocked by it. However, the answer to my second question is yes, Piper Alpha could have been avoided. It could certainly have been avoided if sub-sea isolation valves had been fitted from the beginning.
It is true that emergency shutdown valves have been relocated in a safer place on almost all platforms. Some sub-sea isolation valves have been fitted, but very few. One of the most important steps that must be taken is to fit every platform, both old and new, with sub-sea isolation valves. I accept that it is an enormously expensive programme, but it is vital. A tragedy of such proportions must never happen again if anything can be done to prevent it.
The four questions which I asked at the beginning of my speech run into one another. They are all interlinked. Certainly, we believe and fervently hope that a similar tragedy can be avoided in future, but one inescapable conclusion cannot be overridden or forgotten; it is proved by both the technical report and Lord Cullen's major report. It is that the tragedy occurred as a result of the failure of safety procedures in the first instance. That was the cause of the whole episode. The echoes and multiplications of the explosions occurred as a result of that failure.
Anyone in engineering should know that failures in safety procedures often occur at shift changeover periods. We all understand that. It is a considerable number of years since I worked in industry but I recall, because it has stuck in my mind so vividly, an incident that occurred when I was an engineering apprentice in a rubber factory in South Africa. One of the jobs that we had to do from time to time was to replace the guards which prevented rubber from being squeezed into the bearings. It was normally a 10-minute job done as part of routine maintenance but occasionally there was a failure and the job had to be done immediately.
516 I remember one Friday evening at 10 minutes to five —I was 17 or 18—when another apprentice and I were told, "The number two bearing guards have gone. You had better go and put them back." We were washing our hands. I do not want to spell out in detail the thoughts which passed through a 17-year-old's mind late on a Friday afternoon. The last thing on our minds was work. We went down to replace the guards. The safety procedures were clear. We would throw the switch off, open the fuse box, pull out the fuses, put them in our overall pockets, shut the box and hang on the machine a notice saying, "Do not start this machine" and go to work on the machinery.
The two of us were sitting working away between the big rolling mills. As was inevitable, the holes had not been bored exactly right. Instead of simply slipping in, the bolts were awkward. When one has other things on one's mind at the age of 17, the job becomes more difficult. Every engineer knows how difficult it is to finish the job when one becomes irritated.
We could not smoke in the building because of the volatile fluids used for mixing the rubber. I said to my mate, as people have probably heard me say more recently, "I am going for a smoke." We nipped out to a safe place and had a cup of tea and a smoke. The shift changed at 6 pm and when we came back the mill was running. We had not pulled the fuses out. It was a chance that we went for a cigarette. Cigarettes are not always lethal. If we had not gone for a cigarette, I would not be here and my mate would not be alive either.
That simple episode shows how easy it is for strict safety procedures, which we all know and understand, to be forgotten and for fatal damage to result, especially at shift changeover times. If the shift had not changed the mill would not have been started. The operators on the previous shift knew that we were working there because they had reported the breakdown. Shift changeovers are extremely difficult.
We should not delude ourselves that if it had not been for the sequence of events, unparalleled in the offshore industry, the failures in safety procedures, while still serious, might have been comparatively less significant. At one time people might have said that Piper Alpha was a freak accident which could never happen again. They might have thought that they did not worry too much because there was only a chance in 100 million, or whatever, of it happening again. We are also concerned about general safety procedures. Every life lost is one too many and every preventable injury gives rise to serious anxiety among all of us.
All operations on production platforms must be meticulously examined. Those examinations must be carried out, as I know that they are. By operations, I mean not just equipment but labour. The safety assessment or risk analysis survey—call it what we will—must be carried out on the basis of envisaging the worst consequence. Every function must be subject to a failsafe examination. For example, the systems must be examined. If equipment A fails, is equipment B adequate and satisfactory to limit the damage? If item B is also put out as a result of the damage, is equipment C capable of stopping the damage from spreading? Every single function, however simple or complex, must be worked through.
I know that to some extent such functions are being examined. Oddly enough, although we have been 517 extremely critical of oil companies, especially in the wake of Piper Alpha and the evidence from offshore, and of the way in which safety functions have been examined, we must remember that some things have been done properly and well. It appeared that they were done properly and adequately before Piper Alpha.
I went to one platform. We were told and shown that the fire control systems which operated the deluge system were situated in a different module from where the deluge system was located, so if a fire took place and it was recognised that there might be an explosion, the control system for the deluge could be operated from another module and would not be affected immediately. The control was separate from the equipment, so it should have been possible to operate the equipment. The irony is that in some cases such matters have been examined carefully. Nevertheless, the most pessimistic approach has to be brought into play in the necessary reassessment.
It is often argued that there is little difference now between the oil companies, the Government and the Opposition about the need to ensure that safety is paramount.
The oil companies got as big a shock as anyone as a result of the incident. All the oil company people to whom I have spoken since Piper Alpha have said, in effect, "We thought our systems were safe and that we had done everything we possibly could." When they examined the systems on Piper Alpha and other platforms, they said, "In the light of Piper Alpha, we have suddenly realised how far we have to go." That was an honest admission and those who made it should be given credit for being honest. Clearly, Piper Alpha has had an enormous impact on people's perception.
We must make sure that the overall safety assessments and provisions and the way in which they operate and are monitored, supervised and controlled are satisfactory. For some years, great dissatisfaction has been expressed in question and answer sessions across the Floor of the House about the Department of Energy having both the production responsibility and the safety remit. Concern has often been expressed lest conflicts of interest should arise between the needs of production and the need for safety. That theme—the possible conflict of interest of operators in terms of production and safety—has existed throughout, the fear being that production needs will override safety needs.
I do not believe that anyone in industry says, "We don't care if this is dangerous. You must do it because production needs come first." Nobody in industry has ever said that to me, but in many ways the position is more sinister. The attitude among those concerned builds up to their believing, "We must get this production out and we can't afford to shut down." I fear that such a sentiment can impinge on the thoughts of all involved in production. I repeat that we must be sure that there is no conflict of interest between production and safety.
Lord Cullen recommended—I concede at once that the Government have accepted the recommendation—that the Health and Safety Executive should now assume direct responsibility for offshore safety. It is sometimes forgotten that the Department of Energy undertook the safety remit as an agency acting for the HSE in the first instance. In any 518 event, it is now universally accepted that the transfer should take place, and the Secretary of State said that he would make it happen.
I am pleased to say that there is unanimity on that, and the matter was put to Lord Cullen by the trade unions and by the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association. That having been agreed, we are now only awaiting the starting date. On that, the Minister made out the best case he could. He said that he could not say precisely when the new arrangement would start but that it would be fairly soon.
A number of questions remain unanswered. We are familiar with the shortage of inspectors. During the remit of the Department of Energy, there were problems in that respect. The shortage must not be allowed to persist. It is often said that a real shortage of expertise will exist, and the question, "From where will the experts come?" is frequently asked. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said that money was not the only problem. That may be so, but it is a key to the answer.
While I would like to see the job done entirely by the Health and Safety Executive, and an increase in the number of expert personnel so that eventually we have a sufficient body of expertise, it may be necessary for expertise to be bought in in the first instance, perhaps on a consultancy basis. If experts are available in, say, the United States or Norway, we should bring them in to help. If they cannot be employed directly by the HSE, we should hire experts and pay the price, for no excuse must be allowed to delay the essential work that has to be done.
The Secretary of State, previously and in his remarks today, said that the demands of safety are so imperative that a shortage of money should not inhibit safety supervision, provision and operation. The right hon. Gentleman now needs to be forthright about that. I understood him to say that broad agreement had been reached. I cannot accept that statement in its entirety. I am not satisfied with the reaching of broad agreements on an issue such as this. I want to be told clearly and without equivocation the budget that the Health and Safety Executive requested of the Treasury and the amount that the Treasury agreed to provide for the HSE. There may have been broad agreement, but in terms of civil servants talking to each other and Treasury Ministers talking to departmental Ministers, reaching broad agreement could mean that the Treasury has screwed down the amount of money that will be made available, and such a situation would be wholly wrong.
The Minister should be open with us on this issue, although I accept that it might be difficult for him to do that. Promises are no substitute in this instance for hard cash. We must be sure that the amount of money sought by the HSE has been, and will be, made available. Indeed, we must also be sure that as the HSE carries out the work In the months and years ahead, more money will be made available if it is needed. There must be no equivocation about that.
As some of my hon. Friends have said, we should be told where the new headquarters will be. Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear me say that logic suggests that they should be in Aberdeen. I understood the Minister to say that there would be a substantial presence in Aberdeen, but he could not say whether the headquarters would be established there. Any hon. Member might make a cheap debating point and say that I am expressing the 519 parochialism of the Scots, in particular those in north-east Scotland. That is not the case. I am simply expressing the logic of the situation.
It is sometimes argued—
§ Mr. Hughes
I think that my hon. Friend has anticipated me wrongly on this occasion. I do not think he intends to argue the point that I am about to make.
It is sometimes argued that modern technology has shortened the lines of communication to the extent that it is not necessary to have people nearby to do the job. There is some validity in that. Indeed, some hon. Members may regret the way in which modern technology has brought us into much closer contact with our constituents. They can get in touch with us too readily, some might say. As irony is never reflected in print, I hasten to add that that comment was made in jest—just in case anybody reads the Official Report of my comments.
There is no substitute for having the personnel and expertise we require close to hand so that there can be adequate communication with them. I say that because we need a stronger hands-on approach to safety in place of the hands-off approach of the past. We need people on the ground. The availability of headquarters staff would provide a permanent stimulus to safety. That is probably the best practical way to foster safety in the future.
Some may not accept my view that a more definite hands-on approach is necessary. Indeed, some may say that we have not had a hands-off approach in the past. I believe that we have. The oil companies have argued —I believe that they still argue that—the problem of safety in the North sea arises in part because of the detailed regulation. Perhaps they are not arguing that the problems arise because of detailed regulations. However, they certainly are arguing, as they argued before Lord Cullen, that the detailed regulations instil a negative philosophy and a negative psychology towards safety.
I need not read into the record all the references to that in the Cullen report, but it is referred to in paragraphs 21.40 and 21.42. In the latter paragraph, Lord Cullen, following up the oil companies' idea that regulations lead to less safety rather than more, recalled the evidence of Mr. McKee:Regulations need to be less prescriptive and detailed, more objective and broader based. Over time as you layer more and more prescriptive types of regulations onto the overall regime it probably takes away from the overall objective of total safety.I do not accept that. Nor do I accept the oil companies' implication that operators decide that, provided they have satisfied the regulations as a minimum, they need not do any more.
The oil companies identified that danger. They said that if companies simply followed the regulations, they might stop thinking about safety beyond what is written on paper. There may be a case for strongly attacking the oil companies for that, but I would restrain myself from doing so. I believe that that is an interesting admission about the psychology which may have developed.
I want to consider a counter-proposition from UKOOA—that the operators should accept responsibility for total safety with a minimum of detailed regulation. I have always accepted, and will always accept, that employers have a legal and moral duty to ensure the safe operation of their industries for the benefit of their 520 employees, the company and, in the case of onshore installations, the safety of those who reside in the vicinity of dangerous operations.
The responsibility is and always has been that of the companies involved. On the other hand, we should not conclude from that that the detailed regulations should he diluted. I hope that the Secretary of State or the Minister will assure us that detailed regulations will remain in force and that, as and when necessary, new regulations will he laid.
Regulations on safety and necessary procedures must be set out clearly. There can be no serious dispute about that. There must also be unanimity that safety depends on those who must implement the system. I accept what several hon. Members have said—that there is a joint responsibility. Managers, operators, owners and workers have a combined responsibility. None of us can escape that responsibility.
Safety is a state of mind. We are all familiar with the syndrome in which there is a heightened interest in safety or security after a major incident, but that is followed by sad and serious lapses as the incident fades from memory. There is a cycle in which people suddenly become interested in safety after an accident, but that interest wanes as the memory fades.
I do not intend to be derogatory about those who work in industry when I say that they cannot maintain the fever pitch of interest in safety that follows a major incident. It is a natural function of human resilience that the capacity to overcome danger allows us to set those dangers aside; otherwise, we would become too scared to do anything. My thesis is that we should encourage all organisations and harness all our energies towards safety.
The involvement of the trade union movement is of paramount importance. It is essential to improving general safety. The Government have maliciously cultivated an image of the trade union movement as short-sighted and concerned solely with immediate issues, such as wages and protecting its own power base. That is a wholly malevolent image which is ill deserved and a perversion of the truth.
Of course trade unions are interested in wages and conditions. They must have an interest in improving the standard of living of our members. When I say "our members", I should declare an interest as a member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. I declare that interest not defensively, but as a matter of pride.
Trade unionists have always had a legitimate and abiding interest in safety at work. They have always run safety courses for shop stewards and other members, many of which are at local and national levels and sometimes even at international level. There has been a lamentable lack of understanding, perhaps even hostility, between the oil companies and the trade union movement. I cannot understand why that has happened.
Many of the oil companies that function in the North sea have onshore installations or onshore projects in which they coexist quite happily with trade union membership, where trade union membership is the norm, where there is trade union recognition and where there is much union-management co-operation. No one has been able to explain to me why a different view should be taken with regard to activity in the North sea. That is completely beyond my comprehension.
However, I believe that attitudes may be changing. I am grateful to UKOOA for meeting my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), my hon. Friend the 521 Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) and me and for the further invitation to meet us again with representatives of the AEU executive council. I hope that that meeting takes place soon and that, no matter what harsh words have been spoken here today, the cooperation and dialogue that has started over the past few months will not be set aside.
I hope that our discussions will continue and that they will be fruitful and co-operative. I hope that those discussions will lead to proper trade union recognition. No one is saying that everyone must be a trade union member. We seek proper rights to be trade union members and proper recruitment rights and co-operation by the oil companies to allow recruitment in the North sea.
I do not blame people who have been offshore for a fortnight if they make a dive to get home as soon as they get off the helicopter and do not wait to speak to the trade union representative who wants to recruit them. It is ridiculous to claim that the opportunities to recruit offshore workers are the same as those to recruit onshore workers.
I hope that we will no longer hear stories about particular platforms on which the number of trade union members is growing, and where, if one or two of those members begin to show some militancy, they find that they are not required for two or three months or are split up on to different platforms where there are very few, if any, trade union members. I hope that the oil companies will allow opportunities for recruitment. It is in their interests as much as it is the interest of the offshore workers.
I am optimistic that there is a change of understanding and a belief that the trade unions have a place and must be recognised. However, having said that, I remain convinced that the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 should be extended offshore.
In paragraphs 21.84 and 21.85, Lord Cullen accepts the value and validity of trade union membership and representation providing a backup and a bolster for those who might be afraid of dismissal or afraid that they might not be taken seriously. He accepted the validity of the argument but qualified it by saying that most of the evidence came from the trade union movement; but it could not come from anywhere else. I regret that he did not recommend that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 should apply to offshore installations and that he did not deal with the issue of industrial relations. I ask the Government to put that piece of the safety jigsaw in place. It fits with the general thesis that safety is everyone's responsibility and with the legal requirement, which should be as clear as possible, to make safety an issue about which workers are not afraid to speak out.
The awful impact of Piper Alpha will be with us for ever. We are constantly reminded of it, as we were recently by the burning of Kuwaiti oil wells. Piper Alpha should not have happened and must never happen again. No opportunity should be left unexplored in the drive to achieve the highest safety standards. If the lessons of Piper Alpha are learnt and applied, life offshore will be safer for those who earn their living there.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)
I recall contributing to the debate on the Burgoyne report on 6 November 1980. I have quickly read the five or six-minute speech that I made. I hope to speak tonight for eight or 10 times as long.
The trade union to which I belong was heavily involved in the early 1980s in the offshore and onshore oil industry. It made recommendations which almost second-guessed the tragedy that was about to happen. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who was concerned about transport matters, and I wanted to establish a charter for offshore workers in the North sea. Many of my constituents were employed on offshore installations.
The Burgoyne committee was established by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) when he was Secretary of State for Energy. If the Conservative party had not won the 1979 election, many more of Burgoyne's recommendations would have been im-plemented. For instance, more attention might have been paid to recommendation 564.
Although I have much admiration for the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and for others who worked for the Department of Energy at that time, they must carry the can because they were responsible. They failed to understand the need to separate responsibility for the running and the financing of North sea oil and the way in which that running and earning was administered on behalf.of the people who did the running and earning and who o tragically paid with their lives on Piper Alpha.
To give an example, paragraph 5.64 of the Burgoyne report says:One of the 'grey' areas referred to above is the overlap in responsibility between the PED and the Certifying Authorities, in respect of the pipeline riser and other pipeline equipment on the installation. Although forming an essential part of the pipeline system, it clearly has a bearing on the integrity of the installation.Nothing could be more relevant to the debate than that paragraph. The failure to ensure safety allowed that grey area to turn into the Piper Alpha disaster. Conservative Members cannot hide from their responsibility. Those grey areas were highlighted in the Burgoyne report, but nothing was done to ensure safety inspections.
In the debate in 1980, I expressed my concern about a Department paying public funds for another arm of Government to carry out work on its behalf without checks being made to ensure that those public funds were being well spent, and that safety inspections were being carried out. I have told the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission numerous times when they have appeared before the Select Committee on Employment that they will have to carry the responsibility for the breakdown of safety, because they paid money for the petroleum engineering division to carry out work on its behalf which, as Piper Alpha showed, was not done as it should have been.
At long last, 11 years after the debate in 1980, the Government have accepted that responsibility for safety should pass to the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission., which will perhaps prevent tragedies in future. That does not help those people who lost their lives on Piper Alpha.
In the early 1980s, my union, Manufacturing, Science and Finance, was two separate unions—the ASTMS and 523 TASS. One of the assistant general secretaries of the ASTMS, Roger Lyons, was involved in producing a minority report because he disagreed with the decision to contract out responsibility for safety to two arms of Government. If his comments had been noted, we might not be holding this debate.
Cullen's recommendations have significant implica-tions for the resourcing and staffing of the Health and Safety Executive. Because of its expertise, some of its staff will have to transfer to the new offshore division. We are concerned to ensure that the remainder of its staff do not suffer as a result of that transfer and that the new division is not financed from its current budget. The Secretary of State sought to assure the House that the HSE and offshore workers would be all right, but Lord Cullen identified Mr. Rimington, the director-general of the HSC, as the person who would be held responsible. However, as a civil servant he will be unable to say to the Treasury, "We need more money".
I am not confident that the Secretary of State for Employment will have that ability. Therefore, I am concerned about the financing of the new division. It will take more than the honeyed words of the Secretary of State for Energy, who will be giving up responsibility on 1 April, to reassure me about the proper resourcing of the new division.
We are also concerned that the new division may seek to draw staff from other parts of the Health and Safety Executive. For example, the CIMAH inspectors, who deal with the control of major accident hazards, are the most likely people to be drawn into the new division. That would immediately affect the necessary work that that part of the HSE is carrying out.
Can the Minister tell us how the discussions are going? What numbers of staff are we talking about? If the Minister thinks that I am exaggerating, he need only ask his hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens), who was a member of the Select Committee. We regularly heard from Dr. Cullen, when he was chairman of the HSE, and Mr. Rimington that they were finding it difficult to attract health and safety inspectors in the numbers and with the experience that they required. I notice that the hon. Member for Nuneaton is slumping slightly. Obviously he does not intend to intervene to disagree with me. He knows the position, and he can tell the Minister about it. He might even get the Select Committee minutes, which would show what was said.
The Health and Safety Executive has increasing difficulty in attracting properly trained staff to carry out its functions. It will be in the full glare of publicity with its new responsibility. I am not suggesting that it should not place major emphasis on getting the new division Up and running, but that cannot he at the expense of any other part of the HSE. We want to know what the Government are doing about investigating that problem. We should like assurances tonight.
If we are to attract staff of the proper calibre, the remuneration must be right, as the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside pointed out. Remuneration of offshore inspectors has been given as the principal reason for the inability of the Department of Energy to maintain a full complement of inspectors. The remuneration should be high enough to ensure that high-calibre, qualified candidates are attracted to the work.
The right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside identified the need for the inspectors to be of sufficiently 524 high calibre to raise issues, where appropriate, with the highest management of multinational oil companies. If they cannot do that, we will have no confidence in their ability to carry out their functions. Cullen's emphasis on safety management requires an inspectorate which is confident about its role, determined to seek a real operating culture and unperturbed by the industry and the Department, which are often united in formidable opposition to safety requirements which are likely to inhibit the work of contractors.
I hope that the Minister will assure us that the salaries being offered will attract the highest calibre of staff. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said, if that means seeking assistance on a temporary basis, I do not think that there would be opposition to that. That should not stop the Minister telling us that a training programme is already under way to ensure that highly qualified staff will be available quickly.
Recommendation No. 1 is that operators should submit a safety case for each installation. That means that the new division must have considerable expertise in safety management and risk assessment. The Cullen inquiry showed only too clearly that that expertise was not present in the Department of Energy. The new division must be able quickly to build up expertise in that essential area. How will the new division attract suitable candidates? Can we have an assurance that the existing expertise of the HSE will not be diluted and left unable to deal adequately with major hazards onshore?
On the size of the inspectorate, we do not believe that its effectiveness should be measured by the frequency of visits to platforms and rigs. Each installation should have a full inspection at least every year, with further inspections being dependent on the results of that inspection and on the number of accidents, complaints and near misses reported to the inspectors. Those requirements should be the only determining factors for the size of the inspectorate.
The inspectors in the Department of Energy did not show evidence of a strong approach to enforcement—for example, in the issuing of prohibition notices and the institution of legal proceedings. Indeed, we believe that the culture within the Department of Energy did not encourage the use of the full range of legal powers available to inspectors under section 20 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, on the powers of the inspectorate. We want a guarantee that the Minister will insist that they use all their powers. Not only should the Minister say so, but the culture within the Department should change. Cullen identified the fact that the culture did not exist in the Department.
Inspectors may require further legal training to enable them to make full use of those powers. The use of legal powers has significant resource implications. The change in the approach to enforcement of health and safety requirements offshore must be recognised by increased resources for the new division. We want to hear whether the Government have taken that into account when they have been discussing resources with the Treasury.
With regard to the role of the certifying authority, Cullen did not make a specific recommendation. The current system needs reform. The new offshore division of the Health and Safety Executive should have a specific role in licensing the certifying authorities. The present relationship between the offshore operator and the 525 certifying authorities is too close. Such an additional role for the HSE would also have resource implications which the Minister may deal with later. The Norwegian system, where certification is carried out by the regulatory body, is very resource-intensive.
With regard to consultation with employees' represen-tatives and the disclosure of information, we will expect the new offshore division to carry out full consultation at national, regional and installation level. Extensive and valuable consultation takes place at present with the Health and Safety Executive. That should be extended to the new division.
At installation level, we will expect inspectors to carry out their duty to disclose information to employees in accordance with section 28(8) of the 1974 Act, whether or not there are trade union representatives on the installation. We also expect employees or their represen-tatives to receive, as a matter of course, copies of any enforcement notices issued and written details as set out in section 28(8) of the Act.
We are concerned at the lack of adequate disclosure of information to employees and their representatives offshore. In view of the remote location of offshore installations, we believe that contact with workers is extremely important. Consultation and disclosure have resource implications, but their inclusion in the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act shows the importance that Lord Robens believed that they should be given.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend and close colleague the Member for Aberdeen, North is not present at this moment; however, I see that my hon. Friend and close colleague the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) is here. I do not subscribe to the belief that the health and safety offshore division should be transferred to Aberdeen. I do not deny that I speak as the chair of the MSF parliamentary group, whose membership extends through-out industry.
We are concerned about the Health and Safety Executive and the Health and Safety Commission. They have their own culture within that organisation. I have served my time in a shipyard and part of the culture of becoming a tradesman was working with other tradesmen. We do not believe that it is in the best interests of the new division to be simply moved to Aberdeen. We have identified London and Bootle as places where it might work best. That is where the majority of the Health and Safety Executive is. Clearly, the division needs a big expansion on the ground in Aberdeen to show the Government's determination, but we do not believe that it is not in the division's best interests for it to be moved to Aberdeen. If that were to happen, there would be the possibility—I put it no higher than that—that we might make the mistake that we made with the Burgoyne report. It might be too much like an extension of the Department of Energy. The new division is most likely to find its roots if it is clearly within the HSE, within that culture, in the same offices, with inspectors who deal with other hazardous areas. However, we do accept that there needs to be an increased presence in Aberdeen. I hope that I have not lost two friends.
I come now to the response of management in the oil companies to Cullen's recommendations on the manage-ment of oil safety. Cullen's recommendations affecting 526 offshore operators can be divided into three broad categories. First, there are the recommendations upon which immediate action can be taken without waiting for regulations or interim guidelines from the enforcing authority. Secondly, there are recommendations for regulations to be made, but which operators can act upon when provided with interim guidelines by the enforcement authority. Thirdly, there are recommendations which require regulations to be made but to which operators should be considering and planning their responses.
The Secretary of State has said that he is not willing at this point to tell us how everything will work. We want to spell out some of the areas to which we want the Minister to respond today or to which we want responses when the Secretary of States gives us his considered opinion. I therefore come to some of the key recommendations of the Cullen report and the action that we believe operators and the Department of Energy should have taken.
We believe that the Department of Energy should, immediately after the publication of the Cullen report, have made clear in writing to all operators the recommendations upon which it expected immediate action to be taken. Most of those recommendations require action to be taken, in the words of the Cullen report, forthwith—without the need for regulation or interim guidelines from the Department. The Department of Energy should have drawn up interim guidelines on some recommendations and required operators to take action to implement the advice. Has that occurred, and if not, why not?
The Department of Energy should have given operators a clear timetable for the above steps to be taken and, in the event of such steps not being taken, enforcement notices and, in particular, improvement notices should have been issued under sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974. To date, we have not heard of any such notices being issued and we are concerned that the timetable for Cullen's recommendations to be complied with may be lax.
We are also anxious that inspectors should use their full powers under section 20 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act to ensure that the immediate improvements recommended by Cullen are implemented. A clear programme and timetable for the legislation recommend-ed by Cullen could and should have been drawn up and published so that the consultative process could be put fully into action. I hope that when the Minister replies he will tell us his views on that.
Recommendation 54 concerns the fire risk analysis. Companies should have been instructed by the Department of Energy to undertake fire risk analysis and given a date by which that should have been completed. Companies not complying with the date should have been issued with an improvement or prohibition notice. Has that happened, and if not, why not?
Recommendation 76 concerns the evacuation, escape and rescue analysis. Companies should have been instructed to complete the analysis forthwith. The Department of Energy should have agreed the timetable for completion, taking into account Cullen's recommenda-tion that it should be completed quickly, and at least by November 1991. Are they on schedule, and if not, why not? The Minister will understand that that applies to operators with a large number of installations. We need to know just how far that timetable has got and how effective the Minister and the Department of Energy have been.
527 Enforcement notices should have been issued where companies have not responded positively and with sufficient urgency.
Recommendation 60 concerns smoke and gas ingress assessment. Companies should have carried out forthwith an assessment of the risk of ingress of smoke or gas into accommodation and fitted smoke and gas detectors and implemented ventilation shut-down procedures as in recommendation 57. Has that happened?
Recommendation 69 concerns an emergency systems review. Companies should have carried out a review forthwith of the ability of emergency systems to withstand severe accident conditions. Has that happened, how often and where? If not, why not, and what has happened since then?
Recommendation 44 concerns sub-sea isolation valves. Although Cullen allows a safety case to demonstrate whether sub-sea isolation valves are required to be fitted, there are some cases where the need for them to be fitted is in no doubt. Those include the main export lines from distant installations which will hold large inventories of gas or oil and where a large proportion would be liberated if there were a rupture. Examples include Forties Charlie to Cruden Bay, Claymore to Flotta, Cleeton to Dimlington, and the Brent export gas pipeline to St. Fergus. Others can readily be identified. Have all those sub-sea isolation valves now been fitted? If not, has the Department of Energy issued enforcement notices? We need to know.
Recommendation 85 concerns personal survival and escape equipment. Has everyone on board an installation now been issued with the equipment detailed in the recommendation—in particular, a personal survival suit, a smoke hood, a torch, a life-jacket, and fireproof gloves? Does the Minister know? We need to know today whether the recommendation has been implemented.
Recommendation 34 concerns permit to work systems. Has the industry drawn up harmonised systems as recommended by Cullen? Is the Department of Energy satisfied with the revised system? We need to know today.
On recommendation 27—safety committees and safety representatives—what steps have companies taken to support and encourage the involvement of offshore work forces in safety, as laid down in recommendation 27? I see the Minister relaxing, but there is plenty more to come. What evidence can companies provide to demonstrate their efforts? What are companies' objectives? Does the Minister know? I look forward to hearing exactly what they are in some detail, and to what extent they have been achieved.
Those are some of the comments which it is important to put on record and which, I hope, will prompt some answers from the Minister during the debate.
Industrial relations, health and safety and the offshore environment clearly affect all hon. Members and the people they represent. They affect people's working lives and, in the case of Piper Alpha, they cost people their lives. We therefore need to know what the Government have to say about those issues. The state of industrial relations has a proven impact on health and safety onshore and its impact can be crucial offshore, as Piper Alpha demonstrated. Pursuit of high levels of health and safety offshore is in part due to the appalling experiences of recent years, but more so than onshore the isolation of platforms and their residential status frequently reminds workers of the potential hazards.
528 Can the Minister give answers to the following questions? Health and safety committee representatives onshore operate under regulations promulgated under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. While the Act applies offshore, regulations under the Act apply only if they say so—there is no such provision under onshore regulations. Until 1989, there were no statutory provisions for health and safety representatives or committees. A number of operators instituted committees on which their own employees were represented, whom they nominated. There was no training for representatives and they had no rights.
There were two exceptions. First, in relation to Phillips Petroleum, my union—the MSF—won bargaining rights for the Hewett field off the Norfolk coast in 1978. The company agreed to set up a safety committee with union-nominated representatives as though it were onshore. Representatives all received time off with pay to attend union-organised safety courses. The system worked well, although contractors were not represented.
Secondly, MSF won representational rights with Occidental Petroleum for the Piper Alpha installation. As a result, a consultative committee was established to deal with all matters, including health and safety. The committee broke up when the company failed to provide representatives with a copy of the report on the 1984 explosion. That may well be one of the reasons why we are having this debate today.
As regards safety committees, where do the difficulties lie at the moment? The problem has largely been the relationship between contractor and operator, usually represented on the installation by the offshore installation manager, whose word—as everyone knows—is law. In a few cases, the employee may have had a right established by agreement to raise safety issues, but only with his employer and not with the operator. The contractor-employer then had to raise the issue remotely with the operator and put relationships at risk, which could threaten future contracts and commercial relationships. As a result, onshore arrangements have never been successfully carried offshore. One cannot wonder at that —if there is a possibility of the contractors losing future contracts, there is no way they will push too hard against the wishes of the company concerned.
We need to know what the Government are doing to change that. We need to know how that pressure can be taken off. Clearly, one way is for companies to accept that they are the employer, or to insist that the contractors employ best practices while they are on the platform. If that were part of the contract, we might find that a different relationship existed offshore.
The priority when dealing with health and safety problems has to be the health and safety representative. While committees have a role, they cannot deal with issues which require immediate action. Therefore, represen-tatives must be provided with facilities to do the job. First and foremost is the freedom to perform their role without hindrance or fear. Any representative has to guard against such pressures, but one who works for a contractor has two potential problems. The first is the ending of a contract. The client—the operator—will usually veto all those contractors putting up for any new job and can, without the employee knowing, veto anyone of whom the operator disapproves. Clearly, if the operators have that power there will be pressure upon any individual representative. Those of us who have been trade union 529 representatives before coming here and have spent our lives representing others know that if one puts oneself forward to represent a group of workers one always has that fear—wondering what the management's reaction will be. In an industry where bad practice exists or which is badly regulated—an industry with old-fashioned equipment where change has to take place—pressure on individuals might take the form of a fear that their careers in the company might quickly end when they stop being representatives. They might think that their careers would end if they took on such responsibilities.
As my hon. Friends demonstrated earlier, we know that an unknown number of persons—there is no record—are now permanently unemployable offshore because they were prepared to take up responsibilities, whether as health and safety representatives or simply trying to represent workers at a trade union level.
Black lists need to be abolished, for the benefit of the industry. If they do not go, the industry cannot function properly. The climate on installations will never improve while the company, through the contractor, can take action against a person rightly raising concerns on behalf of other workers. The Government need to play their part in that.
As we move to the next stage of operations in the North sea, and to the end of those operations, whenever that will be—no one wants it to reach that stage quickly—there will be more and more pressure on companies to ensure that there is little or no opposition to what they want to do. We have to ensure that those problems are tackled.
The second area of concern for a safety representative is the power of the offshore installation manager. I did not meet such a creature on the one visit that I made to an offshore facility. No one seemed to have horns or a tail, or walk about with a big stick, so I am not sure what oil installation managers actually look like. Nevertheless, the stories that I have heard suggest that they can be quite alarming, and their powers are certainly alarming if not exercised properly.
One of the benefits of a debate of this kind is the opportunity that it gives us to cite our wider experience and knowledge. The Select Committee on Employment, for instance, has been considering recruitment practices in industry generally. All the evidence suggests that the way in which an organisation operates depends entirely on the extent to which its chief executive is involved. There can be no improvement unless oil installation managers—who are bound to have responsibilities of one kind or another, and who are directly responsible for recruitment in some instances—are shown that the way in which they operated before the Piper Alpha disaster is no longer acceptable. Their performance must be monitored, and the Government have a role to play in that regard.
Training is essential for health and safety represen-tatives. Even when they are elected, the facilities for their training are largely controlled by their employers. Training is predominantly technical, and involves little instruction in presentational skills. The TUC and individual unions organise onshore courses, and have successfully trained many thousands of representatives over the past 15 years, but offshore representatives are denied such courses. All courses must be approved not by the employer but by the operator, and attendance on an unapproved course could 530 result in the representative's not being paid. If the Minister doubts that, he should note that Shell issued a directive to that effect to its contractors in 1990. In many cases, not only will representatives be unpaid, but they will not be required to return when their contracts have expired.
Whether Conservative Members like it or not, no offshore environment will change without proper union recognition. The companies and operators concerned must accept that. I remember making many representations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield about offshore union representation when he was at the Department of Energy; it is a shame that we were not able to achieve our aims before he left the Department.
We are very unhappy about the Government's failure to involve themselves in the issue. The operators have argued that they cannot implement the onshore regulations because there is so little union recognition offshore, implying that that is due to the low level of union membership. However, when it has been possible to test the level of membership by means of checks or ballots, widespread support has been shown to exist. On seven Shell installations, ballots of the work force demonstrated levels of support as high as 85 per cent. As a result of those ballots, Shell agreed to representational rights on conditions and pay, but not on health and safety.
MSF has a long-standing agreement with Phillips Petroleum for the Hewett field, which has almost 100 per cent. union membership—that includes the oil installation managers. Phillips recently agreed to union recognition, in response to the demand of 83 per cent. of its employees on the Maureen platform. According to the management, Occidental's recognition agreement expired when the platform was destroyed, which seems rather tragic.
Conservative Members may feel some concern about our demands for trade union recognition. We have made it clear that we will allow ACAS to ensure that ballots are run properly, and that the questions on the ballot paper are acceptable to everyone. We may even allow ACAS to determine what constitutes significant union membership. I believe that 40 per cent. membership would allow us to claim that a ballot should take place. What is the Minister's view?
We have held seven ballots and won them all, with majorities as high as 80 per cent., but other companies are not prepared even to discuss the holding of such ballots. Following recognition claims made more than four years ago on the Viking Loggs and Hutton TLP fields, Conoco has made it clear that it does not want any third party intervening. We asked the Minister's predecessor—the right hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Morrison) —many times to intervene on our behalf, but the Government—who are supposedly so keen to ensure that ballots are held, and that people are allowed to exercise their individual rights—have done nothing to help. At one stage a clear majority of Mobil workers on the Beryl field wanted trade union membership, but the company refused. We asked the Government to help us, but met with no success.
We are also concerned about contract employees. If they are not given the training and representation that they need, they may suffer. I am glad to see that the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside has returned, as I had intended to make this point during his speech. We want a skilled work force in the North sea, and we believe that that will be possible only if that work force is trained and experienced. Continuity of employment is the best way to 531 achieve that. At present, more and more companies are trying to move towards a single contractor, without considering the implications of the change that that involves.
When employees are employed by a new contractor, they lose their right to redundancy pay and representation regarding pay and conditions. That does not lead to improved skills and the continuity of employment on North sea installations that is required. For example, Shell told Press that it would like it to become the main contractor in the Lemen and Indefatigable fields. One of the contractors at present is McAlpine, which provides good training for its crane drivers and mechanics. Shell has suggested to Press that if it gets the contract it might subcontract some of the work to McAlpine and keep the work force on the platform. If the negotiations do not go well, however, and Press becomes the sole contractor, all the skill and expertise of the work force will be lost—as well as their trade union rights and their right to redundancy pay. Some of these people have served McAlpine for eight years.
Does the Minister believe, as we do, that companies such as Shell should employ their work force directly and ensure that they are given training? They ought, at least, to be made responsible for ensuring that the contractors provide training.
We are happy for the services of ACAS to be used to determine whether there should be trade union recognition on any particular platform. We have never been afraid to use the ballot box so that offshore workers can demonstrate that they want trade union recognition. Furthermore, we have never been afraid to argue that industrial relations are good on platforms where there is trade union recognition. We do not want a repetition of what happened last summer. I met the Minister's predecessor, together with some of my trade union colleagues, and warned him that he faced a summer of problems if he did not do something about trade union recognition. As he was about to visit various offshore platforms, he agreed to look into whether there was any aggro or dissatisfaction. After he had visited those platforms he said that nobody had asked him about trade union recognition. There was an immediate denial of his statement by individuals who, despite the fact that action could have been taken against them, were prepared to identify themselves and say that they had asked the Minister for trade union recognition. The Minister seemed to want to act like the three wise monkeys—to hear nothing, to see nothing and to say nothing—but the issue will not go away and we shall continue to raise it. Moreover, trade union recognition is in the Government's interests as well as in the interests of the economy and industry.
The operators have arranged a cartel among themselves. They provide a package of similar terms and conditions for their own employees, but do not allow contractors to enter into single bargaining agreements. There are only two exceptions. The first relates to the offshore construction contractors. For some years there was a trade union agreement covering the hook-up period. It ran from the contract being placed to the start of production. Even though the same workers were employed to do exactly the same work after production started, they would go on to a set of non-negotiated and worse terms.
The hook-up period was crucial to the operators' cash flow. After that, any industrial action was unlikely to affect 532 production. The second concerned caterers. An agreement exists covering catering workers—in the northern sector only and even then not on drilling rigs. A combination of industrial action and high labour turnover produced that agreement. For either agreement to work, the operators must agree to accept bids for work only from conforming contractors.
Early in 1990, the principle of an agreement covering all contract workers on the United Kingdom continental shelf was put to a number of bodies, including the Offshore Construction Contractors. Only half an hour before a joint meeting to discuss the proposition, the OCC was telephoned by a representative of UKOOA and told that UKOOA could not agree to go along with it, thus making any agreement worthless. A summer of industrial action followed, and that will be repeated unless such problems are tackled.
A negotiated agreement would provide a number of measures which would have an immediate impact on health and safety. Among them is reduced labour turnover, which would retain skills and experience in the industry, the absence of which leads directly to an unsafe workplace. Improved morale would increase cooperation and concentration, particularly among contractor staff. It would remove the need for the 1989 regulations and enable the 1977 regulations to be used to provide union safety representatives. Such representatives, rather than the employers, would have the right to choose trainers and would receive the backing of their union, thus reducing victimisation and providing the resources and independent advice needed properly to perform the safety role.
Those are small measures, but we believe that if the Government supported them and argued with us that the companies should accept them, we could improve both the environment and the chances of the returns from the North sea continuing to help the economy.
When the recommendations in the Cullen report are finally implemented, all installations will be required to possess a safety case, provided by the operator and vetted by the Health and Safety Executive. It seems likely that the safety committee will have access to it only after it has been agreed. It looks as though, even for existing installations, the safety committee or individual representatives will have no say. For new installations, there will be no safety committee whose representatives can be consulted. In Norway, safety committees are consulted on such issues. For new platforms, the unions themselves are consulted about the initial design philosophy.
As I have said, MSF held recognition for Occidental employees on Piper Alpha. When the replacement platform was being designed, MSF asked to discuss the design philosophy—in particular, its view concerning a separate accommodation unit, bridge-linked. We were told that it was nothing to do with us. The recognition agreement died with our members on Piper Alpha. That is something with which the company and the Government will have to live. I am not saying that the Government were directly responsible for Piper Alpha, but had it not been for their failure to understand that they needed to play a role in convincing the contractors that they—the contractors—should involve those whom they employed on a facility through their recognised union representatives, the Piper Alpha disaster might just not have occurred. The fact that, in this case, we can show that the 533 accident might not have happened had we been involved is of greater concern and is even more hurtful to the families of the victims, who will read our debate tomorrow.
With such a high proportion of offshore employees being contractors whose employers will not be known until well after the installation is completed, it is vital that union representatives should be involved at the earliest possible stage. The inter-union offshore oil committee represents unions with direct involvement in the oil and gas construction and production industries, and could be a suitable body for involvement in such consultation processes.
The recommendation by Lord Cullen concerning the appointment of offshore safety representatives has been dealt with by my hon. Friends, and I shall not refer to it again.
The haphazard approach to industrial relations led to industrial action being taken during the past few summers. That action did not seek directly to improve safety, but the participants believed that the continental shelf agreement would bring about a safer environment. If we are not to see a repetition of such action, union recognition should be granted where support for it can be demonstrated. We are not asking for something for which we cannot show that there is support, but where such union support can be demonstrated, recognition should be granted. There will then be a willingness and enthusiasm on the part of the work force to be more actively involved in what should be a joint role to improve safety in the workplace. Once recognition is granted, there will be every reason why the 1977 regulations should apply. The safety representatives need the support of those regulations and recognition for the trade unions if they are to perform their vital functions and to assist with the necessary and dramatic improvements in safety.
As I said earlier, I did not intend to be brief because I have been thinking back to my short contribution on 6 November 1980 when we discussed the Burgoyne report. We all stand accused of not working harder and of not pressing the Government harder on that occasion. Those of us who were part of the trade union side which produced the minority report, and the Opposition Members who agreed with that minority report and said that changes should be made, will never know whether we could have achieved what the minority report recommended if we had been able to demonstrate the case and to articulate it more clearly in the Chamber at that time. What we do know, however, is that Piper Alpha occurred.
Although the Government have said that they will accept Lord Cullen's recommendations, we must ensure that they examine them closely. As the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside said, with the support of one of his hon. Friends, although the Government accepted quite a lot of the Burgoyne report, but not the minority aspect, Piper Alpha occurred. There have also been other accidents, but not quite so bad as Piper Alpha, such as helicopters going into the North sea and incidents on other platforms. This time we in this place had better ensure that we do not allow our enthusiasm for Lord Cullen's report and its worthwhile recommendations to blind us to the fact that we need to ensure that those recommendations are sufficient. My hon. Friends and I will continue to make the points that I have made today on behalf of my trade union 534 and those whom we represent. Unless we do so, we believe that, although Lord Cullen's report will always be a good report, the implementation of its recommendations will not really do the job that we are convinced that Lord Cullen intended.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
It is to the credit of the House that we are debating this issue almost three years after the Piper Alpha tragedy. That shows the extent to which the House recognises the importance of the issues that it raised and the lessons that we need to learn from what happened on 6 July 1988. I first raised this matter in the House on 19 December in one of the debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill. There has been more interest in this matter tonight than there was then, but I had expected that more hon. Members would wish to participate.
As has been said, all hon. Members have constituents who work in the North sea. They are spread right across the United Kingdom, and travel out to Aberdeen and other parts. As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, both my father-in-law and my brother-in-law have worked at various times in the North sea. My father-in-law worked for 25 years for the Kuwait oil company. I am sure that he would want me to place on record the fact that he is sickened by the devastation of all the oil wells in Kuwait.
Lessons can be learnt from the Piper Alpha incident, and we must keep certain aspects in perspective when deciding what should happen now. We should recognise that offshore installations present unique safety problems. A production platform is a community. Within a small area of just 100 ft each way there are drilling operations, a refinery and all the facilities of a hotel. On land, those operations would cover tens of acres. Oil platforms are not only compact; they must be self-sufficient in an emergency. There is no question of waiting for the fire brigade or other emergency services to arrive. Means of survival while staying on the platforms are crucial and critical, as are means of escape and evacuation.
The House must recognise that oil and gas platforms are extremely complex pieces of technology, sited in a uniquely hostile environment. When I look out to the North sea from my constituency on the north Yorkshire coast, particularly in some of the grey sombre weather that we have had this winter, I am amazed that oil and gas installations can be maintained at all when one considers the weather with which some of those chaps must contend.
Many tragic incidents involving loss of life have occurred over the years—I dare say too many—of which the Piper Alpha disaster was perhaps the worst. It is important to stress that when the Cullen report was published on 12 November last year, the Government immediately accepted all of its recommendations. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State will no doubt confirm tonight, there is no question of picking and choosing between Lord Cullen's recommen-dations.
Many of us feel that the Piper Alpha tragedy, in which 167 men lost their lives, was the worst in the history of oil exploration and extraction, not only in the North sea but in the world. As I said in our brief debate in December, such a disaster must never happen again. Too many tragedies have occurred in the North sea. I refer to the incident on the Shell Brent Alpha platform, which was 535 evacuated after a gas explosion, the serious fire on the Ocean Odyssey, several helicopter crashes and the Safe Gothia incident.
Since oil and gas exploration began in the 1960s, some 500 lives have been lost in the North sea. That is a daunting and tragic total. As I am sure many other hon. Members have said, the whole House pays tribute to the bravery of the men who help our economy and put up with such dreadful conditions. Moreover, we again extend our sympathy to the families and loved ones of all who have died in the North sea over the years.
I have always felt that the tragedy of the Piper Alpha disaster, like so many disasters, is that if more had been done beforehand, the accident might have been avoided. That is part of the benefit of hindsight. However, if Lord Cullen's recommendations had been in place beforehand, the disaster might have been avoided. That is true of so many other disasters—one thinks of the two dreadful accidents that occurred in football grounds at Bradford and Sheffield, of the Clapham train crash, the King's Cross fire and of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. Had greater attention been given to safety details, loss of life could have been prevented. Conservative Members part company with one or two Opposition Members about what conclusion should be drawn from that. I do not believe that one should simply blame the Government. As I said, we have the benefit of hindsight.
Today we heard an extraordinary explosion from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who seemed to say that, because the Government did not implement the minority Burgoyne recommendations, the Ministers in office in 1980 were responsible for the disaster. I hope that when I reread the Hansard report I will find that I have got that wrong, but I listened to the hon. Gentleman and that is my impression of what he said.
When I intervened during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) I said that, on balance, the Government accepted the majority recommendation of the Burgoyne report. I do not see how the Government could be expected to accept both the major recommendation and the minority recommendation. There seems to be a contradiction.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), who clearly studies these matters in considerable detail. In 1980, the Government did what they could and accepted the majority recommendation. I do not see how they could have been expected to do more. As the hon. Gentleman said, the minority recommenda-tion clearly contained a valid argument. The hon. Member made that point forcefully in his speech, and hon. Members who took part in the debate 10 or 11 years ago were right to make that argument. We warned that there was a problem, but we differ from them over whether the Government should be blamed for accepting the majority, rather than the minority, view.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross
Having spoken for so long earlier, I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I ask him to reflect on this point. We thought that it was wrong that the Government should ask the same Department that had responsibility to maximise the financial potential of the North sea to regulate and inspect itself. There was clearly a possible conflict, and we argued then that it existed. We 536 accept that our view could have been right or wrong, but in the light of that experience we do not want the Government to make the same mistake again.
§ Mr. Greenway
I said that the hon. Gentleman had made his point well, and now he has made it twice. The majority Burgoyne recommendation was that, on balance, it was better to leave safety in the North sea to the Department of Energy, which is what the Government did. We cannot blame the Government for accepting that majority recommendation. The view of the hon. Member for Dundee, West is that, with hindsight, that was perhaps the wrong recommendation and the minority one was correct. That is something on which the House, people in Scotland and those whose loved ones were killed on Piper Alpha will want to reflect. No blame attaches to the Government for accepting the majority Burgoyne recommendation to leave safety as a matter for the Department of Energy.
Now, 10 years later, Lord Cullen has recommended that there is a case for transferring responsibility to the Health and Safety Executive.
§ Mr. Greenway
Yes, on balance, but there have been changes in the past 10 years. The Health and Safety Executive has developed its expertise beyond that which it had 10 years ago. In addition, in his report, Lord Cullen found no evidence that the Department of Energy put production matters before safety matters. That seems to be the burden of the argument of the hon. Member for Dundee, West.
I hope that the House will agree that the Government were right to send the report about whether Occidental should be prosecuted to the Lord Advocate. Lord Cullen has concluded that there were significant flaws in the way safety was managed by Occidental. I know that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today to comment further on whether Occidental would be prosecuted. I do not believe that we can press the matter. We must leave it with the Lord Advocate, although many of us believe privately that perhaps there is a case for prosecution.
We have looked back—what must be done in the future? The House will want assurances that North sea operations will be safer than they have been and that safety will be paramount. We all recognise the inherent dangers of working in the North sea, but we must not take unnecessary risks with other men's lives. If the Piper Alpha disaster suggests that we may have done so in the past, we certainly must not ever do so again.
The House has rightly given a warm welcome to Lord Cullen's most impressive and penetrating report. He has provided the most comprehensive analysis possible of conditions necessary for the safe management of offshore installations. I am sure that the report also contains lessons for the safe management of. other industrial activities. It rightly concludes that safety in such a demanding environment as the North sea cannot be secured by fixed rules or off-the-peg solutions, but that it needs a flexible approach and the ability to evaluate what is the best compromise between often conflicting safety objectives.
The solutions that are implemented must take account of the varying circumstances of individual installations.
537 That is why Lord Cullen was right to say that every installation must be assessed. He outlined some of the ingredients that would help to ensure that a safety management programme was as comprehensive as it should be—the organisational structure, management, personnel standards, training for operations and emergencies, safety assessment, design procedures, procedures for operations and maintenance modifications.
The involvement of the entire work force is especially important and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made that point strongly. The entire work force—operators and contractors—must be involved in accident and incident reporting, investigation and follow-up, the monitoring and auditing of the operation of the system and in the systematic reappraisal of the system in the light of the experience of the operator and of the industry. The important objectives, which Lord Cullen rightly identified, place the responsibility where it belongs—with the owners and the operators of the installations.
The oil industry is one of our most dynamic industries and has shown great inventiveness and resourcefulness, not least in maintaining the economic viability of North sea production when world prices fell sharply in the mid-1980s. The Government also deserve credit for keeping an open mind on taxation and for making adjustments when necessary. Genuine adaptability and ingenuity have been shown by the Government and by the oil industry as a whole.
It is tempting to say that there should be definite rules and a clearly prescribed approach to safety in the future, but such an assertion would be unwise. In real life—in the practical world—reasonable safety objectives often conflict with each other and Lord Cullen has recognised that. The better standards that we want depend on our achieving the best trade-off between those conflicts and not having a prescriptive, rule book approach.
There must be proper controls and monitoring of safety standards in the North sea. As I have said, they must be more flexible than they have been in the past. We can still learn a lesson from the findings of the Robens committee, which began its work 20 years ago. It highlighted the disadvantages of over-detailed legislation.
It is accepted by hon. Members of all parties that companies must involve all their workers. The hon. Member for Dundee, West made a strong argument about union recognition on North sea installations. I believe that that is a separate issue from safety. Whether members of staff, employees, production workers or sub-contractors, and whether members of unions or not, all on installations must be properly involved in safety. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have something to say about the right of representation of every worker on a safety committee. That is the Government's argument about safety and it is somewhat different from saying that people must be members of a trade union to have their safety interests represented.
Every worker must also perceive his own proper contribution to safety, and must have the knowledge and training to play his part. That must mean better communication. When we ask ourselves why the Piper Alpha disaster happened, the one conclusion that we reach is the one that Lord Cullen put his finger on. He said:From the evidence I conclude that this"—the failure of the system— 538was due to a failure in the transmission of information under the permit to work system and at shift handover.We must learn the lesson from that. Even at the most mundane level of operations, communication between staff, with each member of staff understanding the other's role and the importance of every procedure that other members of staff carry out, cannot be given too high a priority. Safety must not be sold merely as a philosophy or as some vague concept by exhortation to the worker. Dialogue with the worker and involvement in everything that he does is essential to a safe working environment.
The Cullen report is especially to be welcomed because if faces up to those difficulties and tackles them squarely. It proposes a framework that is flexible and avoids detailed prescriptions. There must be real dialogue and not a rigid imposition of predetermined rules. It is no good having a manual of principles, endorsed by management, standing on the shelves or in the workplace gathering dust. The principles must be put into, and kept in, effect.
The Piper Alpha disaster was an offshore incident. I recognise that part of the difficulty has been whether offshore installations are as safe as those onshore. Right now in my constituency, the reverse question is being asked. People ask, "Are onshore operations as safe as they should be?" As the Minister knows, a consortium headed by Kelt UK Ltd has sought planning consent to build a gas-fired electricity generating station on the road between Malton and Scarborough, which would harness various pockets of gas, mostly sour gas, which are to be found throughout the Vale of Pickering. The sour gas, which is the majority of the resource, has 1,250 parts per million hydrogen sulphide which, as my hon. Friend knows, is an extremely dangerous substance. The proposal is that the gas would be piped over several miles and that it would be used to fire two gas turbines to generate electricity for the national grid.
I am not exaggerating when I say that, because of what happened on Piper Alpha as much as because of anything else, local people are petrified by the risks that may be associated with the process. Time and time again, one hears a question consisting of three short words—"Is it safe?" My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and his colleagues say that, according to the Health and Safety Executive, it is safe. My constituents are demanding much more definite assurances.
My hon. Friend was closely involved in the passage of the Electricity Act 1989. That Act provides for these matters to be considered at a public inquiry before a decision is taken. Having considered all these issues over a period of several months, I believe that a public inquiry is essential before any planning permission is granted in respect of the West Knapton site. Ministers in the Department of Energy deserve some credit for the introduction of this new procedure, but it is there to be used, and it would be in the public interest for all the issues relating to this application to be fully considered and fully challenged at a public inquiry.
The delay that such an inquiry would involve is inconsequential when set against the risks associated with such an operation, including the risks to the economic interests of the area. Agriculture and tourism are dependent on a pollution-free environment. It has been suggested by some critics of the proposal that the technology that would be used is relatively untried, as sour 539 gas contains such high quantities of hydrogen sulphide. The prospect is not one that my constituents view with much relish.
Then opening this debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that, for every serious accident, there were many minor accidents from which important lessons could be learnt. On land, there must not be any accidents involving facilities surrounded by farms, homes and villages. I accept that the scale of what is proposed at West Knapton is considerably smaller than platforms in the North sea, but I am sure the Minister agrees that nothing should be left to chance and that any risk is unacceptable. The whole safety issue must be dealt with exhaustively at a public inquiry. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to confirm tonight that, should a public inquiry cast any doubt on the safety of this operation, he will not hesitate to refuse consent.
Many chapters of the Cullen report deal with emergencies and with the action that should be taken when emergencies occur: with this application, one question does not seem to have been properly tackled; what emergency arrangements do we need to have in place in north Yorkshire to deal with a potential disaster involving gas pipelines? Moreover, how much will it cost and who will pay?
In reply to the debate that I initiated on 19 December 1990, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State outlined a number of crucial matters relating to pipeline safety. He said thatapparatus … for the testing, inspecting or maintaining of the pipeline shall not be introduced or recovered from the pipeline, unless such introduction or recovery is essential to maintain the safe operation of the pipeline."—[Official Report, 19 December 1990; Vol. 183, c. 395.]The operation is referred to as pigging, but pigging creates problems. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, there is a potential safety hazard in the opening and closing of pipelines and pressure valves. Pigging is a cause of great concern among my constituents in the Vale of Pickering, not least because of the hydrogen sulphide content of the gas. I do not think that any of my constituents are satisfied that the problem of pigging has been considered properly. I think that my hon. Friend agrees that a public inquiry would be a good means of dealing with the problem. I apologise to my hon. Friend
the Minister for being so robust and forceful about the Vale of Pickering project, but he will understand that safety is paramount. My constituents expect nothing to be left to chance.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) made a telling point in his interesting speech when he said, about Piper Alpha, that we thought that we had done everything that we should. That is what worries my constituents about the West Knapton project.
The oil and gas industry is important to our economy. It has made a major contribution in the past decade and I am sure that it will continue to do so in the next decade and into the next century, but it is a dangerous industry. We must maintain proper standards in a dynamic system capable of growing and being flexible. The Cullen report provides the basis for ensuring safety. We must be under no illusions about what it will cost. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has painstakingly said at every opportunity that cost will not be a problem.
The House has had an opportunity tonight to consider matters which are crucial to the people who work out in 540 the North sea. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister recognises that the work that they do demands that safety is not left to chance and that we must never again have a repeat of the Piper Alpha disaster.
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
I join in the general praise for Lord Cullen's report. The document becomes all the more impressive each and every time that it is read. I also join the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) in saying how disappointing it is to see such a low attendance for tonight's debate. It should be put on the record that the hon. Members for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) were anxious to contribute to the debate; perhaps if slightly more consideration had been shown by one hon. Member in particular earlier in the debate, they would have had that opportunity.
I intend to make a brief speech, because, along with other members of the Energy Select Committee, I shall have the opportunity to pursue these matters in the inquiry into offshore safety management which we shall begin a week on Wednesday. I look forward to closely questioning Ministers, the Health and Safety Executive, the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, the trade unions and other interested bodies about progress or otherwise in implementing the Cullen recommendations, and some important issues which go beyond the Cullen inquiry.
Like many hon. Members who have spoken tonight, I have constituents who died in the Piper Alpha disaster. Also like other hon. Members, I decided that the best, indeed the only, thing that I could do in memory of those constituents was to seek to ensure that such a disaster would never happen again, that the Piper Alpha inquiry would be used as a springboard to take matters forward and make the environment in the North sea safer. I decided that the fact of the disaster should indeed make a difference, which is the only proper and fitting memorial to those who died.
I wish to raise three matters which must be taken forward. First, there is a general and unanimous welcome for the Cullen recommendation, which will be implement-ed, that the safety inspectorate should be independent of the Department of Energy. I agree that the perception of independence is as important as the reality. It is important that oil workers have confidence in the inspectorate. We should not blind ourselves to the fact that the previous arrangements came in for trenchant criticism in the Cullen report.
I intend to argue along with other Members from the north-east of Scotland that the geography and location of the nerve centre and headquarters of the safety inspectorate are important, However, I want Ministers to understand that it is not just an argument about geography. It is also an argument about the psychology of the industry and the degree of commitment that the safety inspectorate has to being part and parcel of the sharp end of the oil industry in Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland, as opposed to being headquartered where the oil companies' headquarters and executives are, by and large —in London.
I hope that the Government paid attention to the remarks of the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) about a survey conducted by the Aberdeen centre for offshore safety which showed that 70 per cent. of the 541 companies operating in the North sea believed that their personnel primarily concerned with safety matters were located in the north-east of Scotland. I see little argument for tolerating a safety inspectorate which continues to be cocooned in London, away from the sharp end of the industry.
Many people in the north-east of Scotland have suspicions about the attitude of the Department of Energy to these issues because successively, in discussing the location of the petroleum engineering division or the offshore licensing division, good arguments about locating them in the north-east of Scotland and Aberdeen have been turned aside for what seems no more than civil service prejudice to be close to the political decision-makers in London.
It would be a lost opportunity if such prejudice were to affect the decision on the location of the headquarters of the safety inspectorate and if solid arguments for putting that inspectorate where it belongs—in the north-east of Scotland, along with the front end of the industry and the oil workers—were overruled because people wanted to hang on to their London base.
Of vital importance is the question of human relationships in the North sea. There is a general admission that, regardless of the safety regime and the recommendations, in terms of the safety equipment in the North sea, unless there are satisfactory human and industrial relations in the area, we shall never have an environment as safe as it could be.
Many people had hoped that the Cullen report would herald a new era, a fresh initiative and a new dawn for industrial relations in the North sea. Indeed, when Shell in December agreed to relinquish the formal blacklisting of trade unionists involved in the industrial action of last year, we hoped that the companies had realised that this was a time to start to create that new atmosphere in the North sea.
It is with sadness, and some anger, that I report, from the offshore information centre, the belief that, while the formal blacklisting has ended, it continues informally through contractors in the North sea. The centre is documenting 73 cases which it believes show that there is a continuing blacklist, with continuing discrimination and victimisation of oil workers who took part in the industrial action of last year.
The Secretary of State said that the Government took a grim view of victimisation in the North sea. Will the Government promise that, when those 73 cases have been documented by the information centre, each case will be investigated to see if victimisation can be substantiated and that, if it is, the Government will back up their fine words with action to ensure that the practice is rooted out? There can never be a satisfactory safety environment in the North sea until human relationships between workers and companies are improved to a position of greater trust than exists now.
The question of trade union recognition has been raised by several hon. Members. I was surprised to hear the Secretary of State argue that somehow the Cullen report had been a setback for the cause of trade union recognition. On the contrary, I should have thought that, given the strictures and limitations on the remit of the report, what Lord Cullen said, particularly about trade 542 union representation on safety committees, went a long way to show that he believed that the most satisfactory thing would be for trade unions to have representatives on safety committees. Paragraph 21.84 states:I am prepared to accept that the appointment of offshore safety representatives by trade unions could be of some benefit in making the work of safety representatives and safety committees effective, mainly through the credibility and resistance to pressures which trade union backing would provide.In that statement, Lord Cullen showed a keen appreciation of the central difficulty in terms of safety reporting in the North sea. Many offshore workers believe that to be concerned with safety is a blight on one's career and job prospects.
I want to refer to correspondence that I received this afternoon. By way of caution, I must state that I have not had an opportunity to investigate the case fully. However, it is worth referring to as an example of the fears expressed by offshore workers at the moment.
I have received a copy of a certificate of election in the name of Mr. G. Moore of Moodiesburn in Glasgow. On 17 February, Mr. Moore was elected as a safety representative on one of Aker Lasalle's platforms in Morecambe bay. I also have a copy of a document dated 21 February which notifies Mr. Moore of the termination of his contract of employment. I do not know whether those two events are totally connected. There may be other reasons for that sequence of events. However, I am absolutely sure that Mr. Moore and many other offshore workers believe that to be active in safety matters in the North sea when employed by some companies—and I stress "some companies"—is a passport to being left ashore when the present trip ends.
Until that atmosphere of fear and trepidation in the North sea is properly overcome, we will not have the safety environment for which hon. Members on both sides of the House have called this evening.
It is very easy for hon. Members to use fine words and say that we must make safety a priority in the North sea. This is a very comfortable and secure environment in which to say that. I suspect that the perception is completely different for someone working offshore on a platform. Those workers still believe that being involved with safety matters is not conducive to keeping one's job or securing career prospects. I suspect that we are talking about only a few companies, but until that atmosphere is confronted and overcome, there will not be a genuinely safe environment.
I accept that there is a multitude of contractors and indeed unions operating in the North sea. It is not easy to find a quick way forward in terms of trade union recognition. However, I am convinced that, if the Government could guarantee a secret ballot of offshore workers now, the overwhelming majority of them would want to be represented collectively rather than individually before their employers.
How do we secure that collective representation? It is not good enough for the oil operators to say that that is not their concern but that of the oil contractors, and then for the oil contractors to say that they would have conceded trade union recognition, but they believed that that would penalise them with regard to the oil operators. It is then not good enough for the Government to say that it is a matter for the companies involved and not for Government policy. There should be a genuine attempt to secure for offshore workers the same rights that are 543 expected and demanded by onshore workers. Why should offshore workers, who work in an insecure and unsafe environment, be denied the rights that we would guarantee onshore workers, who work in most cases in a safer environment?
There have been 25 years of continuous oil development in the North sea. We have taken a long time to learn some of the lessons that are so clearly spelled out in the Cullen report. The self-congratulatory nature of the Government's comments since Cullen reported shows that there is every danger that once again complacency is setting in. The empty Benches tonight show that that is true; hon. Members should know better. It would be a betrayal of those who died on Piper Alpha and of those who still work in the dangerous environment offshore if tonight's low attendance were to show a lack of concern among hon. Members about the safety of offshore installations.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
In my brief speech, I shall not rehearse the technical arguments that have been advanced so eloquently by hon. Members but will remind the House of exactly what happened on the night of 6 July 1988 and why we as elected representatives must quickly take firm action.
The television pictures of what was Piper Alpha are indelibly imprinted on our minds. We remember the deaths that occurred and the harrowing faces of the relatives of those who died and of those whose bodies have never been recovered. Hon. Members who attended the memorial service in Aberdeen had the harrowing experience of meeting mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, wives, grandchildren, nieces and nephews who could not comprehend what had happened.
Hon. Members who lost constituents in the Piper Alpha disaster are aware of the survivors—young men who hear the physical and psychological scars and who wonder why they escaped while their friends died in tragic circumstances. I pay tribute to the social work of the voluntary and statutory organisations in the north-east of Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, who have done so much to help those people, and to the nursing and medical staff who attended the victims as they were brought to the shore. Those memories should never be forgotten.
Hon. Members must act to ensure that such a disaster never happens again. It is often said, "We hope that it will never happen again", but I hope that there will be genuine commitment to implement all the Cullen recommenda-tions speedily and effectively.
Offshore workers in the oil and gas industry are angry because the industry generates millions of pounds for the Exchequer, yet they are asked to work in the most difficult circumstances without guarantees of health and safety. One need not be a first class honours economics graduate from the university of Harvard to understand that oil and gas mean a great deal of money, yet those workers are being asked to work in difficult circumstances.
Mothers and wives have asked me, "Is it safe for my husband or son to work offshore?" Piper Alpha has destroyed the confidence of many families in the industry. Therefore, I ask the Minister to emphasise to those people that the safety aspects will be given priority. When the oil industry started in the North sea there was a desperate 544 rush to have access to the wealth of the industry. The speed with which we went ahead to extract the oil was measured against the prospect of ensuring a pace of development which would allow safety as well as environmental aspects to be taken into account. Surely it is not contradictory to balance the wealth of the industry against the safety of the workers and the future of the environment.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
That, at this day's sitting, the motion in the name of the Prime Minister for the Adjournment of the House may he proceeded with, though opposed, until Twelve o'clock.— [Mr. David Davis.]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. David Davis.]
The issue of union recognition on rigs and platforms has also been raised. Those who have fought hard and long for union recognition have not done so because of a selfish attitude but because they genuinely want to enter into a dialogue with the oil companies about how the best working conditions can be achieved, as well as considering other aspects such as wage levels, hours and so on.
Many workers in my constituency believe that since they took industrial action they have been blacklisted. That is difficult to prove. When one writes to a company about an individual case, the company claims that it is not blacklisting the individual, because he has been subcontracted through another organisation. Trying to establish what has happened is like punching at cotton wool.
Union recognition on rigs and platforms would go much of the way towards resolving the problem. So long as there is a feeling that blacklisting operates, people will not have confidence in the system. I have written to various companies about constituents; I believe that there is blacklisting, and that many people have been struck off lists, although no one will admit it.
Reference has been made to the establishment of a centre for safety. I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) that it should not be established in Aberdeen. Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe. Given that it was the centre from which most of the men who worked on Piper Alpha flew to their fate, one of the most fitting memorials that we could establish to those men and to their families would be to set up in Aberdeen a centre for excellence, which would attract the best people from all over the country to work close to the oil industry. That is an important aspect of the debate. It would do a great deal to restore confidence in the oil and gas industries if the Government were to announce that that centre will be established in the oil capital of Europe.
§ 10.3 pm
§ Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South)
We have had a useful debate on an extremely important subject. There have been speeches of extreme value from both sides of the House. I do not want to criticise the size of the turnout. The main point is that all hon. Members who have spoken have shown a deep interest in and a deep knowledge of the subject. I prefer quality to quantity. It is important to make that point.
The subject is important because of the huge amount of revenue which the country has earned and is still earning 545 from the North sea and because of the dramatic consequences of the events of 7 July 1988 on the lives of many people.
There are more than 35,000 workers in the oil industry in the North sea and they all feel the impact of that disaster. The relatives of the victims will never forget what happened on that night. They will bear the scars of it to the end of their days, as will the survivors, most of whom will never be able to go back to work, certainly offshore. I feel tremendous sympathy and empathy for the relatives and survivors in view of what they have to bear and will continue to have to bear. I have regular contact with many of them.
The issue has dragged on for a long time. I blame no one for that, but since the disaster in 1988 the relatives and survivors have had to cope with the strain of intense publicity of all events offshore. A rash of incidents seemed to follow the Piper Alpha disaster, the most serious of which were the death of Timothy Williams on the Ocean Odyssey and the Brent Spar helicopter disaster. There were a number of other deaths on various platforms offshore. All have meant a constant awareness of the way in which a relative has been lost or the way in which survivors have lost their livelihoods and many of their friends and colleagues. They have also had to cope with the glare of publicity that was focused on Lord Cullen as he went about his work so ably in Aberdeen during his inquiry.
The issue of prosecutions, which was referred to by the Secretary of State in the debate on the report when it was published in November, is still outstanding. The papers were referred to the Lord Advocate at that time and we were informally led to understand that a decision on whether prosecutions would be proceeded with would be made some time in January. The latest date is April. I urge the authorities to speed up and to ensure that there are no delays. It is important that all these public matters are dealt with because of the trauma that they cause relatives and survivors, quite apart from all the other reasons.
Many tributes have been paid to Lord Cullen for his report. I have paid such tributes publicly and they have been echoed today. They are well deserved. However, when we rush to congratulate Lord Cullen and wallow —as one hon. Member suggested—in the new-found attitude to safety in the North sea, we should not lose sight of the real importance of safety. It is easy to become complacent and there is already a sense of that creeping into the industry.
I want to spend most of my time tonight considering some of the things that have happened since the Piper Alpha tragedy and trying to look ahead. It is important to recognise the status of the industry. Opposition Members frequently refer to the amount that the Government have earned in oil revenues from the North sea—more than £80 billion since they took office in 1979. I shall not make the usual comment about where that money has gone, but it is clearly a significant amount. There is a huge amount of employment associated with the oil and gas industry. The most recent survey, referred to earlier by the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and published by Grampian regional council, which suggests itself to be the most thorough recent survey, shows that more than 100,000 546 people in Scotland are employed in the industry, more than one in 20 jobs in Scotland. That is a significant proportion.
Lord Cullen recognised the importance of the industry. It is important to take such points on board because when we talk about the problems of the industry, we are not talking about an industry which is isolated from the rest of the country, as it effectively has been legally by the way in which the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 has been operated, certainly by this Government. All the oil companies which have operations offshore have operations onshore and they cope with the onshore legislation effectively and adequately. That is a point which I shall emphasise later.
The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) referred to the Burgoyne report. That is part of the history of the matter and has been mentioned frequently tonight. Certainly it was referred to at length by Lord Cullen. The hon. Member for Ryedale seems to have some difficulty understanding why we criticised the Government. It is correct to say that the Government accepted the recommendations made in the Burgoyne report. I have read statements made in the House by the Minister of the day, now Lord Gray of Conting, when he introduced the report in 1980. It is clear that the Government accepted the report but that they did very little about it.
On the day of the Piper Alpha disaster, numerous agencies were involved in offshore safety. The Department of Energy's petroleum engineering division was respon-sible for health and safety, the Department of Transport was responsible for fire fighting, safety, standby vessels and deluge equipment on the platforms, the certifying authority was responsible for the integrity of the platform, and the pipelines inspectorate was responsible for the integrity of pipelines.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) referred to paragraph 5.64 of the Burgoyne report —in which Burgoyne drew attention to the grey area at the interface between the pipelines inspectorate and the certifying authorities. He referred to that, because ignoring that advice, and the note from the Burgoyne committee, led to inefficiency, which led directly to the Piper Alpha disaster. The gas risers blew on that platform and that is the reason for the scale of death' and destruction.
We are perfectly entitled to point to Government inadequacy. It is fine for the Government to say that they accept this or accept that, but they did not do what they said they would do, and the Burgoyne report was not implemented as fully as it should have been. For those reasons, my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friends the Members for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and for Dundee, West, were perfectly entitled to point to the Government's guilt, and I do not demur from that.
Many serious problems still exist in the North sea. It is important to continue to draw attention to them. We shall do that. Standby vessels were mentioned in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). I did a survey of standby vessels last year and asked certain questions of the Department of Transport. At that time there were 154 registered standby vessels in the British sector of the North sea, only seven of which were less than five years old. Nearly half of the fleet —54 vessels, or 48 per cent.—were more than 25 years old and 28 vessels were more than 30 years old. The oldest standby vessels which are still in operation, I understand, are the Euan, which was constructed in 1936 and is 547 operated by Garcia Limited; the Grampian Osprey, which was licensed in 1937 and is operated by George Craig and Son; the Tamito, built in 1945 and operated by Tamis Limited; the Silver Pit, which has now changed name and owner and was referred to at length in Lord Cullen's report, registered in 1947; the River Grampian Rose, built in 1949 and operated by George Craig and Son; the Grampian Hawk, built in 1950 and operated by George Craig and Son; and the Deveritel, which was built in 1953. Those boats still operate in the North sea as standby vessels.
We have heard of efforts by the Department of Transport to review regulations and guidance notes which apply to those boats. It is my understanding that a draft document was published in May 1987. It was revised in March 1988 and, obviously, everything went on ice after the Piper Alpha disaster. In August 1989, a further draft was published and there was yet another in September 1990. When I pressed the Department, asking what had happened about standby vessels, I was told that it was considering the Cullen report. Here we are two years after the Piper Alpha disaster, at least four years since the Department of Transport saw fit to review the regulations, and nothing has been done.
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce
The hon. Gentleman will recall that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) read out the criteria that Lord Cullen recommended as the basis upon which standby vessels should perform. Will he acknowledge, and will the Minister take this on board when he replies, that it is impossible for the boats that he has described to meet those criteria, and that the Government must say why they continue to operate?
§ Mr. Doran
Although it is not his direct departmental responsibility, I hope that the Minister will reply to valid questions like that, which are relevant to safety in the North sea. As long as the Government continue to dither —whichever Department is involved—we shall continue to doubt their sincerity.
We have heard a good deal about health and safety representatives. The Opposition have argued for a long time that the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 should be extended to cover the North sea. The Government, or at least the Minister's predecessor, used to come out with the standard response that the Act had already been extended in 1977. Of course we knew that. What we wanted was the extension of all onshore regulations to those working offshore, and we saw no reason why that should not be possible. Of course special circumstances exist on offshore platforms, just as they exist inside chemical works and refineries, but I for one have never been able to understand why companies such as British Petroleum are able to operate separate regimes onshore and offshore.
Eventually, the Government decided to produce regulations in 1989. We criticised those regulations at the time, and we continue to do so. They are a much watered-down version of the onshore regulations, and they do nothing to deal with offshore problems. Lord Cullen rightly recommended a review of the regulations, arid I wish that that could happen sooner—there is another year to go before the review is undertaken.
One of our main objections to the regulations lies in the exclusion of the statutory trade union representative. 'The 548 Government accuse us of being interested only in jobs for the boys—in protecting our union colleagues. That is very far from the truth. I strongly believe that every individual should be entitled to belong to a trade union, and to be represented by that union. We have the example of the onshore regulations, which allow the union statutory involvement and require the HSE to take a tripartite approach to safety. That has led to a considerable improvement in safety measures.
We have argued that there are two strong reasons for the unions to be involved. First, they are independent of the employers, and have the resources to set up training courses. They also have the technical expertise to advise workers and to provide advice on technical matters. That independence is crucial. The second major benefit is the support and assistance that unions can provide to prevent the intimidation of elected representatives. That operates very effectively onshore, and there is no reason why it should not operate just as effectively offshore.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who is not in the Chamber now, mentioned a letter that he received from the offshore information centre in Aberdeen. I received a copy of the same letter. It concerned Mr. Gordon Moore, who was employed by Aker Lasalle. On investigation, I managed to find out that Mr. Moore was a time-served tradesman—he considers himself to be a craftsman—with 12 years' offshore employment and a considerable track record. He decided that he wanted to be elected as a health and safety representative for the platform where he worked, in Morecambe bay. Having sought election, he was duly elected and appointed, and the necessary certificate was signed and issued by the installation manager.
On 22 February, Mr. Moore was sent a letter by his employers, which was signed by Mr. A. B. J. Kammer, human resources manager. The letter said:Further to discussions with the writer and our Mr. Allan Cunningham, we regret that we are unable to retain your services on the Morecambe Bay Contract due to unsatisfactory references being obtained from your previous employers.Mr. Moore has tried to find out what those unsatisfactory references were. His employer refuses to tell Mr. Moore about them. He has therefore come to the inevitable conclusion that he has been victimised because he decided to try to become a safety representative on an offshore platform. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Mr. Moore is justified in feeling that he has been victimised.
Three workers on the Brent Bravo platform decided to stand as safety representatives. Mr. Jake Boyle, Mr. Graham Macdonald and Mr. Dave Glen sought election and were elected. Within 10 days of their election they were made redundant, despite the fact that there were numerous vacancies. Indeed, there was an upmanning on that platform.
In a statement, Mr. Boyle said that he started his employment on Brent Bravo on 3 October 1990, that there were hardly any safety representatives on the platform at that time and that, on his second trip—on 5 November —he took out nomination forms and was duly nominated. He returned for his next trip in December. He noticed that there were still notices for safety representatives, but he had received no intimation of what had happened to his nomination. When he inquired, he was told that his form had been lost. He left the platform after being renominated. When he returned on 27 December there was 549 still no nomination on the board, so he approached the installation manager who told him, "I've lost your form." After he complained very strongly about that, the form was mysteriously found and he was told that if there were no other nominations he would become a safety representative on 23 January.
On 19 January he received a letter from his employers, who were contracted to Shell, saying that he had been downmanned, despite the fact that upmanning had occurred on the platform in his trade. There was no particular reason for him to be sacked. Therefore, he has reached the conclusion, as have Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Glen, that they were sacked because they sought to represent the work force.
In recommendation 30, Lord Cullen recommended that protection similar to that contained in the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 against unfair dismissal for membership of a trade union be extended to employee representatives. Both the Secretary of State and the Minister say that they accept in full Lord Cullen's recommendations. I hope that the Minister will say that that recommendation will be enshrined in legislation. I hope that he will also say when it will be enshrined in legislation and what he intends to do about people such as Mr. Boyle, Mr. Macdonald, Mr. Glen and Mr. Moore.
Mr. Boyle took matters into his own hands. He decided to write to the Department of Energy, he was so concerned about the situation in which he found himself. He received a reply to his letter on 5 February 1991 signed by Mr. R. D. Jenkins, who described himself as a senior inspector in the petroleum engineering division. The letter says:I have spoken to the management of the Brent Field on this subject, and I am informed that it is considered that you were down-manned for operational reasons—i.e. Vauldale"—who were the employers—had considered that your employment was of a short term nature and you were replaced by someone who had different conditions of contract.There has been no investigation by the Department of Energy. No protection has been offered to Mr. Boyle. I appreciate that the Department is to give up its responsibility for safety fairly soon, but I assume that Mr. Jenkins, together with the other inspectors, will be transferred to the Health and Safety Executive. Such behaviour should not be tolerated. These cases must be investigated.
The Department of Energy accepted the version of events provided to them by the employers without carrying out any further inquiries or investigations. That is unsatisfactory and is not conducive to safety. If Mr. Boyle's case is as accurate as I think it is after my discussions with him and those who represent him, it is no wonder that Opposition Members and offshore workers have no confidence that their interests will be protected by the Department of Energy. They want major changes to be made when responsibility for safety is transferred to the Health and Safety Executive. We certainly intend to pursue those issues.
I said that I intended to discuss the operation of the Department of Energy. The Minister will be well aware that I have had—and have deliberately sought—a high profile on offshore safety issues. That was a personal 550 decision, consistent with the interests of my constituency, where there are a large number of offshore workers and where many of the major companies are located.
Over the years, as I have presented cases such as those of Mr. Boyle, Mr. Moore and the other gentlemen I mentioned to successive Secretaries of State for Energy, I have had no confidence whatever that they have been properly investigated by the Department. Secrecy has been endemic in the Department's approach to its tasks. It has been impossible to escape the impression that there is connivance—almost collusion—with the oil industry.
I do not make that charge lightly. I know that officials at the Department of Energy are anxious to do their job properly. I know that they find it difficult because they are thoroughly under-resourced and have been for many years and have received no political support. Nevertheless, the responses that I have received from various individuals who have occupied offices in the Department have not filled me with confidence. Their approach has been offhand and they have left me with no confidence that any attempt was being made to take complaints seriously.
With one exception, I have never presented a case to the Department without thoroughly investigating it myself. Every time I have presented a case, I have done so because I have been satisfied that there has been some cause for the complaint. I can recall no case on which I have received a satisfactory response from the Department.
Mr. Vaughan Mitchell, a welder employed offshore, was sacked because he refused to do a job which he strongly believed was likely to lead to serious problems on the platform. We investigated the case thoroughly, took statements and presented all the evidence to the Department. The response, after an "inquiry", was that the Department was satisfied that no injustice had occurred. Mr. Mitchell, through his trade union, is now pursuing the matter legally. He attempted to get support from the Department—to find out the results of its investigation at least—but the Department has consistently refused to release the papers.
There is also the recent case of the Ocean Alliance. Just over a year ago, I wrote to the then Minister, drawing to his attention a catalogue of problems associated with the conversion of the Ocean Alliance drilling rig, which had been secured on contract by BP and which was lying at Invergordon undergoing a major refit to make it suitable for deep-level drilling in the North sea—a process that required the installation of a lot of high-pressure equipment. The allegations were checked again. I spoke to the individuals involved. A full submission was made to the Department, and I also contacted BP as the eventual operator of the installation. I received the same reply from both sides—"There is no problem; there is nothing wrong."
My views and the responses that I received were then fed back to the health and safety committee, which raised merry hell with the employers. A new catalogue of complaints was received and submitted to me. I passed the information on to the Department of Energy and to BP. This time, some honesty had to creep in. We received apologies from BP, and even BP's house magazine had to carry the tale that there were things that were badly wrong with the drilling rig. I raise that case because when I first referred the matter to the Department of Energy there was virtually no response and, so far as I could see, no serious investigation.
551 Another case which the Department was forced to take seriously was that of the Amoco, Montrose and Arbroath platforms. The Department took that case seriously only because a Department of Transport inspector had managed to visit the Arbroath platform and had discovered a collection of problems which were detailed in a long memorandum that found its way into my hands. Eventually, the Department took action. It could not refute the evidence because it was specific, but that is one of the few cases on which we have managed to stir the Department of Energy into some action.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West referred to the report into the incident on Piper Alpha in 1984. It is important to consider that report in the context of what I am saying now because it was held in secret by the Department of Energy, which refused to release the papers. We have found it difficult to understand why. The existence of that report was certainly known prior to the 1988 disaster. I am intrigued to know why it has not been brought into the public domain, given the disaster on Piper Alpha, because it may have had some relevance to the explosion in July 1988. A lot of pressure was applied. I spoke privately to the Secretary of State about releasing the report, but he refused to do so.
However, on the day that Mr. Petrie's interim report was released in September 1988, the Department sneaked the 1984 report into the public domain. I already had some idea about what was in the report because I had spoken to some of Occidental's executives, who had given me the shocking news that there had not been a Department of Energy investigation into the 1984 Piper Alpha explosion. I was staggered by that news, but I was bound by confidence not to do anything about it because it was a private discussion.
When the report was published in September 1988, I saw why the Department had not been keen to release it. Under the heading "Legal Conclusions", it had concluded that there was a catalogue of four possible or probable breaches of the various regulations that would have justified a criminal prosecution. However, the Department's own inspector, Mr. Bainbridge, who is still a departmental inspector based in Aberdeen, concluded in paragraph 5.2:had we decided to institute proceedings it would have been proper to conduct our own research rather than to rely entirely on the research findings of Occidental. I therefore propose no further actions other than a letter to Occidental.I repeat that after a major explosion on that platform which, as we know, was destroyed in July 1988, the company had carried out its own investigation. I gather that it employed outside consultants to carry out that investigation and to prepare two reports for the Department. When the Department's inspector had reviewed the matter, it was concluded that there were several possible or probable breaches of the regulations, but those papers were not passed to the Procurator Fiscal for prosecution or brought into the public domain so that lessons could be learnt. Why? Because the Department of Energy had not held its own inquiry. We can envisage the embarrassment that that would have caused.
I concluded not long ago that there was no longer any point in taking up these matters with the Department of Energy. It is easy to get a cheap press headline bringing a "shock, horror" story to public attention, but when one batters one's head against a brick wall with virtually no sign of the brick wall yielding, no matter what pressure is 552 applied, one eventually decides that it is a waste of time to continue to raise such matters with the Secretary of State for Energy because the Department seems to have no interest in dealing properly with them or in acting as a public inspector of safety in the North sea. It seems to be assumed that any complaint is unjustified if the oil companies say that it is unjustified.
I have taken a different approach. I have decided to contact the oil industry direct. Whenever a problem occurs on a platform or a drilling rig, I make every effort to persuade the oil company that those allegations are well founded and that it should take action against its contractors, employees or whoever is working for it.
I can give a recent example of the way in which that method operates. I recently had occasion to complain to an oil company about the operation of a drilling rig, the SEDCO 706. Unfortunately, there was a death on that rig after I had made complaints to the oil company involved, although it was unconnected with my complaints.
About a fortnight ago I telephoned a senior manager in the company and listed the complaints to him. He replied within about 15 minutes and told me that the company was sending a team of medical experts and environmental specialists to check out the complaints and that he would report back to me as soon as possible. He did so, and told me that many of the complaints were founded and the company was dealing with them. That was a refreshing approach, and not one that I have ever had from the Department of Energy. I hope that it is a sign of what will happen to the oil industry, particularly when it comes under the supervision of the Health and Safety Executive.
The most recent information that I have about the SEDCO 706 is that Total, the oil company involved, has decided to bring the drilling rig back into Invergordon so that proper remedial work can be carried out. That is a refreshing approach that contrasts starkly with that generally taken by the Department of Energy. I am pretty confident that if I had gone to the Department, no attempt would have been made to make a serious investigation. All credit should go to Total for the way that it operated.
For the future, we want a completely new approach from the Health and Safety Executive. We want openness, the dispensing with the secrecy that has surrounded safety, and public scrutiny and control of safety in the North sea. I hope that we will get that. After my discussions with Dr. Cullen, the chairman of the Commission, and Mr. Rimington, I have no doubt that they share my hope that we will be able to open up the industry. If an industry operates in a vacuum without proper scrutiny, terrible things can happen, as we saw on Piper Alpha. The approach taken by the Department of Energy has been totally discredited, not only by my experiences, but by Lord Cullen's report.
The oil industry has raised concerns with me about the transition to the Health and Safety Executive. I am extremely disappointed that, this close to what we all expected to be the transfer date, the Secretary of State was unable to make any positive statement about the arrangements. I understand that negotiations must take place and must be concluded. I was pleased that he said that finance was not a problem and that there would be proper resourcing, but I thought that we would have had some more positive information from him about a start-up date and what detailed arrangements are to be made.
At no time has the Department sought to give any programme for the implementation of the Cullen 553 recommendations. It would not be beyond it to produce a detailed programme of how it sees the legislation being introduced and dealt with, and how Lord Cullen's 106 recommendations are to be implemented.
The oil industry is entitled to a little certainty about the future and an idea of what to expect and in what time scale it has to operate. Huge investments and many jobs in the north-east of Scotland depend on the industry. We want that industry to thrive; we do not want it to be worried. We want investment programmes and to have some idea of how the safety regime is to develop over the next few years. It is clear that that is the time scale involved. Will the Minister give us some idea of the time scale that he envisages for implementation of the recommendations? We need a little more than the vague suggestions that have been made.
As the Minister and his predecessors have frequently made clear at Question Time and on other occasions, the North sea has a bright future. Many marginal fields are being developed and many proposals are being presented to the Department for approval. I had a discussion earlier this week with a senior executive from one of the major oil companies. He was deeply concerned that the system that operated well for his company—and, I am sure, for other companies—seemed to be in some difficulties because of the transition.
Before the submission of an annexe B application, it was normal to have preliminary discussions with the Department, and among the issues discussed would be safety and the implications of the design. At that stage, it was normal for the Department to give an informal view of the design and how it saw its safety implications. The Department would then say whether the design would be acceptable.
At present, the Department seems not to feel able to give informal directions. I have a major worry—which was not expressed by the individual with whom I spoke this week—that the Department's approach may inhibit investment in some of the marginal fields, on which many jobs depend. If the Mininser cannot say anything about that today, I should appreciate his looking into the matter and seeing whether there is any justification for that suggestion.
Several hon. Members have talked about the location of the offshore safety division. I will briefly put my Front Bench hat aside because I have a personal interest in that I represent Aberdeen, South. I want merely to say that I do not accept the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West, who spoke from a particular perspective. It is important to stress that if the HSE is successfully to implement the safety regime that we want in the North sea, it must be visible. The place where it must be visible is the centre of the oil industry, which is the city of Aberdeen.
Clearly there will be facilities elsewhere. I have had discussions on the matter with representatives of the Commission and of the executive. They have made it clear that they intend to have a substantial presence in Aberdeen. We are looking for more than that. We want to see a high profile there, and I want the headquarters to be based in Aberdeen, which would make a significant improvement to the attitude to safety. We know that if the headquarters are based in Aberdeen—and certainly if the 554 Labour party's dispersal programme is implemented and we are able to transfer the petroleum engineering division jobs to Aberdeen—there will be a follow through of oil industry jobs as headquarters are moved to the centre of the industry. In this day of instant communications, there is no good reason why the headquarters cannot be in Aberdeen. If I can come to this place at the beginning of every week and go back at the end of every week, I am sure that the oil industry, Government officials and HSE officials can manage.
We must look ahead. Various issues need to be dealt with. I and other hon. Members have mentioned the problems of the contract labour system in the North sea. I do not want to go into too much detail on that because enough has been said already, but we must recognise that the root of the safety problems that still exist in the North sea is employment practice. I understand fully why oil companies use contract labour and why they do not want to have a permanent staff, whom they would have to recruit and lay off, when they can buy in the expertise. It makes for good management in their terms. However, it has a serious impact on safety, especially when we are dealing with such a hostile environment and such a stressful occupation.
We must also recognise that many employers in the North sea are good employers, and many are based in my constituency. There are also many bad employers. I have come across two examples recently of appalling practices. They concern two catering companies—Trinity Catering and Caterae. Both are small-scale catering companies which have managed to win contracts in the drilling industry. There are many problems with those companies, but I want to mention one practice that they have in common.
The offshore survival certificate is mandatory. Most employers in the North sea ensure that their staff have such a certificate. The companies pay for it because they recognise that it is mandatory and they want everyone to have the best training. The Robert Gordon institute in my constituency provides what many regard as the best training in that respect—certainly it is the best in this country. The two companies in question, to cut their labour costs, have decided that employees will pay for the certificate. The companies take on the men, put them through the course, pay for it, and then deduct the cost from the men's wages.
I and the trade unions have tried to get some response from the companies about their practices. They refuse to give the men itemised statements, so the men cannot claim tax rebates. They are totally disillusioned with their employers. Of course, they have the option of giving up their jobs, but this is the first employment that many of them have had for some time. They are being totally exploited. I suspect that, so far as the Inland Revenue is concerned, something is happening. I realise that that is a serious accusation, but I have no inhibitions about making it. The way in which these companies operate—including their failure to provide itemised statements and to respond to any reasonable requests for information—strikes me as questionable. An investigation is needed. When he is considering offshore safety, the Minister must ask what contribution companies that exploit their work force in this way make to safety in the North sea.
There are similar companies operating in other parts of the North sea. I have other examples that I do not intend to mention tonight. Such companies have men on every 555 platform, and they cause problems on every platform. The problems have nothing to do with the attitude of the men, but it is difficult to keep the morale of a work force high when it is being exploited.
The contract system will have to be examined carefully. I know that certain companies have already started on that process. I have already paid tribute to Shell and BP—the two largest operators in the North sea—both of which have instituted programmes of long-term contracts. They are also providing training for the staffs of their contractors, with a view to improving skills to meet company requirements. That is certainly the way ahead.
I have no doubt that, as long as such companies make an effort and can show how the benefits of long-term contracts work their way down to the ordinary offshore worker, there will be significant improvements in the offshore safety system. It is an attitude that needs to be adopted by other companies. I know that firms such as Chevron and Conoco have a fairly enlightened approach to safety. Their approach is rooted in continuity of employment, and they make serious efforts.
The problems of stress offshore must be considered. I have made inquiries about the research being done in this area. Sadly, I can find no record of any Government-sponsored or oil company-sponsored research. Mrs. Joy Sutherland of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology has done some work, and a social worker in my area recently sent me a document detailing stress effects, but it is an area that needs to be studied. I should like the Minister to say something about what efforts the Department will make, and what efforts it will encourage the HSE to make, to find out more about the problems of stress offshore. The working conditions in the North sea are unique, as are the stress factors. I am thinking in particular of offshore workers who have had to cope with the serious problems of accidents and deaths on their platforms.
There are several other isssues on which I should like the Minister to comment. On 14 July 1988, I wrote to the then Secretary of State on the subject of sub-sea valves. I received a very encouraging response from Mr. Petrie and one of the then Ministers concerning the Department's attitude. Since then, the attitude has been watered down. I understand that Mr. Petrie still insists that the Government intend at some stage to introduce regulations on sub-sea valves. However, we have heard very little. We have seen regulations providing for the relocation of the 556 emergency shut-down valves. That is not the safest method in all cases. It is accepted that sub-sea valves provide the safest method. I should like to know exactly what is happening in that regard.
Funding of the Health and Safety Executive has been mentioned. The Secretary of State said that finance would not be a problem, but it is important that we should know how the Minister views the future of the HSE, and what improvements he thinks it will make in the existing system.
I have a severe case of the wobblies about safety cases. I accept the philosophy and Lord Cullen's reasoning behind them but it is not the only answer or the only solution. I want to hear the Minister's views on what other steps are necessary to ensure that safety cases do not become a simple panacea and that people do not become complacent because safety cases are in order.
We are well aware that serious problems with implementing Lord Cullen's recommendations are caused by the shortage of skills in safety matters on not only the public but the private side. I know that the industry is trying to get up speed quickly, but the resources are limited. It will be important to ensure that the safety case is properly scrutinised and that there are experts on the public as well as the private side.
We have raised the issue of trade unions and health and safety committees. All the statements which have been made by the Secretary of State and the Minister were about the operation of the present system, which is under their control. What are the views of the Health and Safety Executive? Do Ministers expect that, as part of the legislative process that we shall experience, there will be a full extension of the onshore provisions?
As I said earlier, this is an important debate. Important things have been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is important that we do not become complacent. A genuine sense of frustration and anger lingers in the north-east of Scotland and among oil workers. It is felt that the position of employees is riot taken seriously. There have been industrial disputes in he past two years. There may be another one this year. That would have a serious impact on the oil industry. We all want to avoid that. The best way to do that is for the Government to use their power and authority to ensure that the grievances of North sea workers are dealt with.
Lord Cullen's report presents one way forward. It is one that we are all prepared to support, but it demands not merely words but action from the Government.