HC Deb 10 February 1992 vol 203 cc667-718

Order for Second Reading read.

4.6 pm

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Howard)

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

The principal purpose of the Bill is to enable many of the recommendations of Lord Cullen's report into the Piper Alpha disaster to be implemented. The events of the evening of 6 July 1988 led to an explosion and fire resulting in the deaths of 167 men. The disaster was the most serious in the history of offshore development. It was a dreadful reminder that safety can never be taken for granted. We must never forget the tragedy and distress that it brought to the families of those who died or were injured, to all the survivors and to those who took part in the rescue operation. Every possible step must be taken to prevent such a tragedy in the future.

A week later, Lord Cullen was appointed to lead a public inquiry to establish the circumstances and cause of the disaster. The inquiry also examined what could be done to prevent similar disasters. It was extensive and thorough, taking more than two years to complete.

The report was published in November 1990. It was an outstanding piece of work. I add my personal tribute to the many already paid to Lord Cullen by those involved in the offshore industry and many others. The fact that the Government immediately accepted all 106 recommendations in his report is a tribute to its breadth and quality and reflects the seriousness with which we take these matters. The offshore industry also accepted the report in its entirety.

Since the report into the Piper Alpha disaster was published, a great deal has already been done to implement the report's recommendations. I shall refer to three matters by way of illustration of progress so far.

First, on 1 April last year, responsibility for offshore safety was transferred to me from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. This responsibility is administered on my behalf by the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. The transfer was agreed on the basis of extra staff and resources for the enforcement of offshore safety legislation. In addition to this, the Government have increased the resources available to the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive to finance their other tasks arising from Lord Cullen's recommendations. The total resources allocated for offshore safety in 1991–92 are £20 million, an increase of some £8 million from the previous year. This budget will rise progressively to £35 million by 1994–95. As stated in the explanatory and financial memorandum, none of the Bill's provisions involves any additional resources in itself, because the transfer of responsibility for offshore safety has already taken place by administrative means.

That increase in resources will allow for a fourfold increase in the number of Health and Safety Executive people working on offshore safety. Of course, new recruits will require full training in specialist inspection techniques and clearly there is a limit to the number of persons that can be effectively trained and supervised at any one time. The Health and Safety Executive aims to recruit new staff at the fastest rate possible within these constraints. The recruitment targets are ambitious, and with a view to achieving them a review of grading has already been completed. A review of pay based on the grading review will soon report to the Health and Safety Executive.

Secondly, a revised code of practice on standby vessels was published jointly by the Health and Safety Executive and the Department of Transport last July. It incorporates improvements in the design and provision of equipment on these vessels as recommended by Lord Cullen.

Thirdly, many of the 106 recommendations require action from the offshore industry itself—for example, the preparation of an evacuation, escape and rescue analysis for each installation. The Health and Safety Executive is in regular contact with the industry to monitor progress and to ensure that these analyses will be completed without delay.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The Bill says: Clause 1 extends the general purposes … of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 … to cover the safety, health and welfare of persons on offshore installations". Will the Secretary of State confirm that that includes divers and diving operations, as well as the crews of standby vessels?

Mr. Howard

My understanding is that both the categories identified by the hon. Gentleman are included in the provisions of clause 1.

It is neither desirable nor practicable to use the Bill to implement all the remaining recommendations of Lord Cullen, who himself made it clear that many of his recommendations should be introduced by regulations rather than primary legislation. Additionally, the recommendations for reform of existing offshore legislation require full study and wide consultation and Parliament has placed the general responsibility for developing reforms of health and safety law with the Health and Safety Commission. So, for example, new provisions on fire and explosion protection and evacuation, escape and rescue offshore will be made by regulations under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act as Lord Cullen intended.

Many of Lord Cullen's other recommendations do not require any form of legislation. I have already referred to the standby vessel code; other new initiatives taken forward since publication of the Cullen report include the issue by the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association of revised guidance on offshore emergency training, and the publication of guidance on work permit systems by the oil industry advisory committee of the Health and Safety Commission.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Can I take the Secretary of State back to the staffing of the new offshore inspectorate under the HSE? He will remember that the Select Committee on Energy looked at this matter last year and advised that secondment from oil companies should be only a temporary solution because of the possible conflicts of interest, and that there should be an extensive training programme to train potential recruits with wide offshore experience to widen the pool of people available to become inspectors. In their reply, the Government were brief, but said that they were sympathetic to a new training scheme. Has anything been done since the Secretary of State's reply to the Committee?

Mr. Howard

My understanding is that that training programme is in hand and it is fully recognised that there is a need to train people who will be in place as soon as possible to discharge these onerous responsibilities.

In other cases, more information is needed before we can decide how best to implement Lord Cullen's recommendations. He recognised that further research work was necessary, for example, to determine how best to minimise the pipeline connections to platforms.

Lord Cullen also endorsed the commitment given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy in September 1989 to review the Offshore Installations (Safety Representatives and Safety Committees) Regulations 1989. This review is under way. The Health and Safety Commission considers that the review should be informed by an in-depth factual study of the practical working of the regulations. The HSE has now appointed an independent research organisation, Aberdeen university's offshore study group, to carry out this study. Work will start shortly and the study is expected to last nine months. The HSE will then consult a wider range of interested parties before making recommendations to the commission.

Lord Cullen also recommended that the Offshore Installations (Safety Representatives and Safety Committees) Regulations 1989 should be modified so that training of safety representatives should be determined and paid for by the operator. I have already mentioned that a review of the regulations is under way. As soon as the review is complete, the Government will implement this recommendation together with any other necessary changes. In the meantime, the issue is not being allowed to stagnate. I welcome the joint initiative by the main industry associations in issuing a charter of health and safety rights. This makes it clear that, among other matters, safety representatives must have industry-approved training, and paid time off for training.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Perhaps the Secretary of State will tell me that I am wrong or that I am being unduly harsh, but discussions have been going round and round, as it were, ever since the Burgoyne report. Why has the procedure taken so long? Am I missing something or am I asking a reasonable question?

Mr. Howard

That is a reasonable question to ask and there is a simple answer. The answer is that since we have had Lord Cullen's report everything has been done and is being done to implement the recommendations as soon as practicable. The discussions and the review to which I have referred are focused on the most effective way of implementing the recommendations set out in the report. Lord Cullen recognised that it would take a considerable time before these matters were put in place. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that responsibility for taking forward the recommendations is rightly in the hands of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware of the tripartite composition of the commission.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Will the Secretary of State explain why proper legislative protection against victimisation is almost the only recommendation of Lord Cullen that the Government have still not implemented?

Mr. Howard

As it happens, I am just about to deal with victimisation. The hon. Gentleman will see that his question is answered.

As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has said, another of Lord Cullen's recommendations was that safety representatives should be protected against victimisation. In order to fulfil this recommendation, the Government intend to amend employment protection legislation to ensure that representatives who have been dismissed or otherwise victimised because of their safety role can gain redress through an industrial tribunal. But such legislation falls outside the scope of the Bill, which deals with safety matters rather than employment issues. We shall take the matter forward as soon as a suitable legislative vehicle becomes available.

Victimisation of workers who raise safety concerns is completely unacceptable. It undermines the objective of increased safety awareness. Where there is clear evidence of intimidation, the HSE will investigate it because it could indicate weaknesses in the safety management system. The name and address of an offshore inspector is displayed on every offshore installation and if workers contact the HSE anonymity is guaranteed if requested. If health and safety standards are being threatened, the HSE would take the necessary enforcement action where there is sufficient evidence of intimidation.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I think that there will be a general welcome from hon. Members on both sides of the House for my right hon. and learned Friend's announcement that there will be further legislation to cover employment matters. Will the information that is made available about health and safety and the inspector be made available also on onshore, non-oil areas of employment? To take up his remarks about operators being required to finance the training of safety representatives, do the Government intend to continue their funding of the trade union movement so that trade unions can undertake some of the training themselves and give support to the non-oil related representatives at the workplace as well?

Mr. Howard

On my hon. Friend's first point, I have recently received a request from the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress for the Government to continue their grant towards its training activities. I am considering that request and I shall make my response known in due course. On his second point, I am not entirely convinced that it is necessary to have the same information available at all onshore facilities, but I shall consider the matter.

Mr. Salmond

The Secretary of State says, as he has before, that the victimisation investigated and established is unacceptable to the Government. He said that there would be an amendment to employment legislation to allow the matter to go to industrial tribunals. What penalties would be available against either the operators or the oil companies that were found guilty of victimisation of workers, whether or not they were safety representatives? If the Government find victimisation so unacceptable, what penalties will be available under the changes that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is proposing?

Mr. Howard

If, for example, a worker were dismissed because he had made a complaint to the HSE, he could bring proceedings for unfair dismissal on the basis of constructive dismissal. He could obtain considerable compensation from an industrial tribunal.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, in a sense, legislation to deal with that issue is at least as urgent as the need for the Bill? He will be aware of the case of Mr. Colin Jewell, which has been well publicised. He took his complaint about safety faults to the HSE. It was investigated and upheld, but he is now unable to find employment in the North sea. He has no compensation and no security. Because of that, many people are not prepared to make complaints about safety problems and safety design faults, even though they see them every day.

Mr. Howard

I agree that it is important that Lord Cullen's recommendation is put into effect as soon as possible—and it will be as soon as a suitable legislative vehicle is available. The Bill does not provide that vehicle. We shall ensure that the law is changed to provide the protection to which hon. Members have referred, as soon as it is possible to do so.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

I apologise for interrupting the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Will he confirm that there are no procedural reasons why the issue of victimisation should not be included in the Bill? If someone is being victimised, and he is a safety representative, surely it is as important for safety reasons as for employment reasons to ensure that the matter is covered in the Bill.

Mr. Howard

The safety aspects have been considered and, as I have said, they are covered by the extent to which anonymous complaints can be made to the HSE. Therefore, the direct safety aspects are covered already. We have been advised that the matter is outside the scope of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman will readily appreciate that a Bill that covers employment issues would be subject to amendment on a whole range of issues. That could delay the passage of the Bill, to which we attach considerable importance. I must make it clear that we intend to legislate to cover Lord Cullen's victimisation recommendation as soon as it is possible to do so.

Mr. Robert Hughes

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's reply simply does not wash. He knows that both the long title and the short title of the Bill are entirely in the Government's hands and that there is no statutory reason why the Bill should not cover victimisation. I accept his point that if employment provisions were attached to the Bill that could widen its scope, but he knows that the Bill has the good will of the House and that we would not want to delay it. It was irresponsible of him to suggest that the Opposition would create procedural difficulties to delay the Bill; it was wrong to give that impression. With the agreement of the Opposition, the issue of victimisation could be dealt with here and now.

Mr. Howard

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman fully understood the point that I was making. I certainly was not making any accusations about the Opposition's attitude. Employment issues arouse concern in all parts of the House, and many individual right hon. and hon. Members—regardless of the attitude taken by members of the Opposition Front Bench—might want to use employment legislation as a vehicle for changing employment law in one of a number of respects. That is clearly a possibility, in respect of which it would not be possible for members of the Opposition Front Bench to give any assurance, and it could lead to delay. We want the legislation to be on the statute book as soon as possible —and we do not want to risk delay on that account.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I ask my right hon. and learned Friend, who makes a fair point, to consider that when the employment legislation comes forward it should be made retrospective to this month. We would hate any suggestion of people in the offshore industry, or in any other, being inhibited in speaking plainly on safety matters. I will not ask my right hon. and learned Friend for an instant response, but I ask the Government to consider that aspect.

Also, the legislation that would be required under an ordinary employment Bill could be relatively simple. It might be possible for a Back Bencher in any part of the House to present a Bill which, if it raised no objection and was simple, could go through the House and another place without difficulty. I do not expect my right hon. and learned Friend to answer immediately, but perhaps he will consider those suggestions and answer at the end of the debate, or in a day or two.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend was kind enough not to ask for an immediate response to his points. He sought an assurance about the retrospective effect of any such legislation. I cannot hold out any great hope of any breach in any constitutional principle and precedent to that extent. I repeat my earlier point: the safety aspects are currently covered by the arrangements for anonymous complaints to be made.

My hon. Friend suggested also that it might be possible for a Back Bencher to bring forward appropriate legislation. As I understand it, it is the intention of a Back-Bench member of another place to introduce legislation that purports to cover the point. It would not do so satisfactorily, and it is technically defective. However, I am prepared to listen to the debate in another place in relation to that legislation, and to take into account the points made this afternoon, before determining the Government's final attitude to the Bill that is to be brought forward in another place.

Mr. Dalyell

Perhaps I may disabuse the Secretary of State on the question of anonymous complaints. A number of right hon. and hon. Members represent consitutents who work in the North sea, and know very well the reality of anonymous complaints. If one rings the HSE, one is asked, "Where, when, and who?" If one cannot answer, one is bombed out and is told that as there is no proof, the complaint cannot be backed up. On one occasion, I revealed, with the consent of the person involved, the full nature of the complaint. The next time round, such an individual has it taken out on him. Life is pretty rough. The Secretary of State talks about anonymous complaints being a kind of safety valve, but that is not how it works in the North sea.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman does not give full credit to the Health and Safety Executive and its ability to investigate. If a health and safety risk, a breach of regulations or some other undesirable practice is drawn to the executive's attention, it has widespread powers to investigate, and it does so. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to give the impression that it is pointless for complaints to be drawn to the attention of the Health and Safety Executive, as I believe that that would be very damaging to the cause of safety. It is not pointless, and I want to encourage the making of complaints to the HSE, so that they can be investigated properly.

As I have said, we shall take into account everything that has been said this afternoon, and also what is said in another place, before finally determining our attitude to the legislation that is being presented in another place.

Mr. Blair

If we tabled an amendment in Committee to deal with the victimisation point, and if that amendment was in order, would the Secretary of State at least undertake to accept it?

Mr. Howard

If that is possible—which I doubt—we shall of course give it careful consideration. The hon. Gentleman may conclude, however, that the legislation being presented in another place is a more promising vehicle, although I do not think that it is very satisfactory in its present state.

Let me make a further point about victimisation. If a safety representative has been victimised to the point of being unable to carry out his functions, the installation operator and owner are in breach of the Offshore Installations (Safety Representatives and Safety Committees) Regulations 1989 as things stand, and enforcement action can be taken on that basis.

Other recommendations involving work force involvement in safety are aimed principally at the industry: they refer to the involvement of the whole work force, the role of first-line supervisors and line management. These matters are an essential part of an effective safety management system, recommended by Lord Cullen as one of the key features of the safety case. These recommendations will be implemented by the forthcoming safety case regulations and accompanying guidance. I shall outline the purpose of the safety case in a moment; the Health and Safety Commission is making this its first priority.

The task before us is extensive. Lord Cullen himself said recently that nobody could underestimate the magnitude of the task which faces the Health and Safety Executive". Much, therefore, remains to be done, in particular to improve and reform the existing health and safety legislation which applies to offshore installations.

Lord Cullen saw two main elements. First, regulations should be made to require the operator of every offshore installation, fixed or mobile, to submit a "safety case" for acceptance by the Health and Safety Executive. I repeat that that is taking top priority. The commission plans to issue a consultative document, with draft regulations and guidance, on 24 February. The new regulations would be implemented progressively for new and existing installations, starting in 1993.

The second main element recommended by Lord Cullen was that existing offshore health and safety legislation should be progressively replaced by new regulations. Those new regulations should set operators objectives to be achieved, rather than prescribing detailed measures to be taken. Lord Cullen called them "goal-setting" regulations. They will underpin the new safety case regime by defining the necessary standards to apply to every installation.

The purpose of the Bill is to pave the way for the second of those main legislative tasks—the reform of existing offshore health and safety legislation. In doing so, it implements recommendation 18 of Lord Cullen's report, and enables new regulations to be developed by the Health and Safety Commission to implement many other recommendations. The Bill is an essential step towards constructing the new goal-setting regulatory regime. It will not of itself alter the existing regime; it deals with the technical legal changes that are necessary to allow the development of the goal-setting regime to take place. It is an important first stage in the process.

Let me now briefly outline the main provisions of the Bill. The primary objective of clause 1 is to make existing offshore safety legislation into what the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 refers to as "existing statutory provisions". That will allow the existing offshore safety legislation to be replaced progressively by new regulations made under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act.

Clause 2 extends the "general purposes" of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act to cover the safety of onshore pipelines and the prevention of damage to such pipelines; and the protection of the public from the dangers of the transmission and use of gas.

Clause 3 contains a number of provisions consequential on clauses 1 and 2. The principal change removes any requirement for the Secretary of State for Energy to consider safety when exercising his licensing functions. This is to effect the "clean break" between the Secretary of State for Energy's petroleum exploration and development licensing regime and health and safety, as recommended by Lord Cullen. But clause 7(3) provides for revocation to come into force only by my order. I can give the House an assurance that that will not be done until the safety case regulations are in place, considerably strengthening the safety regime.

The Government have also taken the opportunity presented by the Bill to introduce measures relating to penalties for health and safety offences, security and application of the Bill's provisions to Northern Ireland.

Dr. Godman

Will the Minister give way on clause 4?

Mr. Howard

I am just coming to clause 4, if the hon. Gentleman will contain himself.

I know that many right hon. and hon. Members are particularly interested in clause 4, which deals with penalties for certain health and safety offences, whether on or offshore. Prosecution is, of course, only one of the enforcement tools available to inspectors. But prosecutions have an important part to play and the Government continue to be committed to good health and safety standards, supported by significant penalties for those who fail to meet those standards. The main provisions in the clause will raise the maximum penalties in two categories.

The first category of offences is under sections 2 to 6 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, for which the maximum fine that a magistrates court may impose will be increased from £2,000 to £20,000. The maximum penalty for these offences in a Crown court of an unlimited fine will remain unaffected. Offences under these sections are likely to be more serious than other offences, and therefore more deserving of a higher penalty, because cases are brought under them when there is a general failure to manage health and safety adequately.

The second category of offences is failure to comply with an improvement or prohibition notice, or to comply with a court remedy order made under section 42 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. For these offences, the penalties on conviction will be increased in a magistrates court from the current maximum of £2,000 to a maximum fine of £20,000, or six months imprisonment, or both. On conviction in a Crown court, these offences will carry a maximum penalty of an unlimited fine or two years imprisonment, or both. These offences are especially serious because they show at best culpable neglect and at worst deliberate flouting of a duty under law by the employers, despite specific issues having been brought to their attention by an inspector. Of course, the increased maximum penalties will also apply to cases taken in sheriff courts in Scotland. I suspect that that may be the point that the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) wishes to raise.

Dr. Godman

Will the Secretary of State confirm that under this clause proceedings can be instituted in sheriff courts in Scotland and, perhaps, in the High Court? With regard to the Piper Alpha tragedy, many of us firmly believe that the directors of Occidental should have been brought to the High Court in Edinburgh to face a charge of culpable homicide. That was not possible, because there is no vicarious responsibility in cases of this kind. The Secretary of State mentioned Crown courts in England and sheriff courts in Scotland, but what of the High Court in Scotland?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman is raising a slightly different point when he introduces the issue of vicarious liability. I shall have to check the precise jurisdiction of the High Court in Scotland on these matters, but in England proceedings can be brought in both magistrates courts and Crown courts, depending upon the seriousness of the offence.

Mr. Dalyell

It would be unreasonable to expect the Secretary of State to make pronouncements on Scots law, but it would be useful if there were to be a statement from the Crown Office on its attitude to these matters. They are not hypothetical but very real and very important matters.

Mr. Howard

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland—my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart)—who is on the Front Bench at the moment, will have heard the hon. Gentleman's question and will no doubt take it into consideration.

Every accident is a tragedy not just for the person injured but for family, friends and colleagues. Accident prevention must be the first priority for employers, workers and the regulatory bodies. These new penalties are a signal to those with health and safety duties that the Government are determined that those duties should be taken seriously.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that responsibility both for the safety case and for the safety of workers and sub-contractors' employees will always remain with the employer and the operator and that in no sense will the health and safety inspectorate take responsibility?

Mr. Howard

Not only does safety remain the responsibility of the operator, but the purpose of the legislation is to reinforce that responsibility and to increase the penalties for failure to discharge it.

Clause 5 deals with security of oil and gas installations. Similar statutory provision already exists for the telecommunications, electricity and water industries. The clause is closely modelled on those provisions, which have proved satisfactory to date.

The purpose of the clause is to empower the Secretary of State—in this case my right hon. Friend, the Home Secretary—to issue directions to operators of an offshore installation, onshore terminal or oil refinery to maintain their security. Before issuing any such directions, the Home Secretary would be required to consult the operator concerned and the Health and Safety Executive.

Clause 6 deals with the parliamentary mechanism for extending the provisions of the Bill to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has a separate system of health and safety law, and it is therefore appropriate for the Bill's provisions to be applied to Northern Ireland as necessary by a separate Order in Council. Clause 6 provides for the use of the negative resolution procedure, enabling this to be done with the minimum possible delay soon after the Great Britain legislation becomes effective.

Clause 7 deals principally with the short title of the Bill and the necessary repeals. For the most part, the Bill will come into effect on Royal Assent. The exceptions are those parts dealing with the model clauses—to which I have already referred—and those parts dealing with gas safety. Clause 7 also limits the application of the Bill to Great Britain.

I hope that I have left the House in no doubt that the Government intend to fulfil their commitment to implement all of Lord Cullen's recommendations. The Bill and the Health and Safety Commission's forthcoming consultative document on the safety case regulations are evidence of our concern and intention to implement as fast as we possibly can. Where specific proposals are not being implemented at once it is for good and valid reasons. Our priority is to set in hand, as soon as possible, the major safety improvements recommended by Lord Cullen, and that is what we are doing.

The Bill is an important part of the implementation of the recommendations of the Cullen report on the Piper Alpha disaster, providing for the highest standards of offshore safety for those who work in our vital oil, gas and related industries. It is an essential underpinning of the offshore safety regime, outlined and recommended by Lord Cullen, and depending on the integrity, commitment and excellence of our Health and Safety Commission and Health and Safety Executive. I recommend the Bill to the House.

4.42 pm
Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

This is an important Bill, and at the outset I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friends, both Front-Bench and Back-Bench Members, who have done so much to campaign on the issues relative to it. Their work has been of invaluable assistance throughout.

On 6 July 1988, on the Piper Alpha platform, there occurred the worst disaster in the history of offshore oil production. Of the 226 men working on the platform, 165 died. A further two—members of the crew of the Sandhaven fast-rescue craft—were killed in a brave attempt to rescue survivors. Following the obvious and natural public outcry over the disaster, an inquiry was established. Chaired by Lord Cullen, it lasted more than a year. Lord Cullen's report has rightly been the object of very wide praise, and in this regard I entirely concur with the remarks made by the Secretary of State. Lord Cullen made 106 recommendations about improvement of the offshore oil safety regime for the North sea. This Bill represents one part of the implementation of the Cullen recommendations. Although there are reservations, and in one case an important addition that we would canvass, we support the Bill in general, of course, and want to see it introduced quickly.

North sea oil is, and has been, of fundamental significance to the United Kingdom economy. It generates wealth to the Exchequer, profit to the oil companies, and employment for many thousands of people. However, it must be said that oil production is a frontier industry. Its employees work in extreme conditions, often in circumstances of great danger, and in a market that is both volatile and highly competitive. There must be no possibility at any time of profit being put before the welfare of those in the industry who create the profit. Those brave men and women who work offshore are entitled to the highest possible standards of safety and to the full guarantee of the state that it will police those standards, enforce them rigorously and prosecute any who break them.

The Piper Alpha disaster revealed failures in the formulation and application of those standards at almost every level—failures in the safety systems, in the personnel implementing them, and in Government supervision of them. The Cullen report pointed out those failures, and its recommendations were designed to deal with them. The central point that we would make, however, is that it is not merely in the form of legislation or in the writing of the rules that safety will be secured. The form must be accompanied by the content, and the writing by insistence on implementation down the line on the offshore platforms, where it really matters.

I recall very clearly becoming the shadow Secretary of State for Energy shortly after the Piper Alpha disaster. Obviously, the matter was very much in the minds of all those working in the industry. It became clear to me, first, that, certainly at a senior executive level, a severe shock had been suffered throughout the industry as a result of Piper Alpha. There was total commitment, on paper at any rate, to a review of safety procedures. But, equally—and this is the point—the men working on the platforms were often faced with down-the-line management which was under enormous pressure and which the men said was willing to take liberties with the rules. I think that I am right in saying that about two thirds of those working on the Piper Alpha platform were contractors not directly in the employment of the companies themselves.

We can have the very best onshore safety procedures in the world, but they are useless unless they are followed by managers offshore, down the line. It should be said that there is still considerable concern among the men about whether the theoretical commitment of senior management to offshore safety is shared by all those who have the practical job of implementing it and extracting the oil.

A claim made repeatedly throughout the Cullen inquiry, by trade unions and others representing the men, was that there was widespread intimidation of employees with respect to safety matters. In particular, it was claimed that those raising safety issues could in certain instances be regarded as troublemakers, and the letters "NRB"—not required back—could be entered on their employment card. It is said that those subject to NRB were, and are, effectively black-listed in respect of employment. It is in the nature of those claims that they are difficult to prove, but it is clear that they exist and are genuinely believed by many working in the industry, and often by those representing the workers.

Such feelings were bound to be especially acute when, in many cases, the men were denied the full involvement of their trade unions at the workplace even though they believed that such involvement was an essential part of the guarantee of good safety standards. I simply say to the Secretary of State that these pressures still exist. Indeed, they may well intensify, as, I understand, a feature of the most recent oil exploration and production is that, although the amount extracted will be greater, and although the production period will be longer than was originally thought, the new developments tend to be on smaller fields. Therefore, the costs of extraction are greater, and pressure on profit and cost is more intense. That is why we must examine all related issues raised with a determined scepticism to ensure that the fine promises made are delivered in the necessary way.

The accident on Piper Alpha occurred at about 10 pm on 6 July when there was an explosion in the C module caused by the ignition of a low-level cloud of condensate that had leaked from the condensate injection pump. One pump had tripped and another pump, A pump, was started up. Unknown to the operators, the pump had been shut down for maintenance and its pressure safety valve was off. Instead, at the site of that valve was a blind flange assembly, which should have been leak tight. However, it was not, so the condensate escaped. The operators should have known of the unsuitability of the pump through the permit-to-work system by which essential work is regulated through permits. In this instance, the permit to work had been suspended as the maintenance work was incomplete, but it appears that that fact was not properly communicated to the operators.

The condensate that leaked ignited and the explosion in C module led to a fire in B module about 20 minutes later—at about 10.20 pm there was a second explosion. As the Cullen report found, there was no systematic attempt to evacuate accommodation. Survivors essentially made their own escape; there were problems with standby vessels, and training for evacuation and fire fighting. It would not be putting it too strongly to say that those who survived did so mainly through luck and their own devices.

There were failures within the safety system, and of procedures for dealing with the consequences of a disaster once it had occurred. Responsibility for policing the offshore safety regimes of the oil companies on the platforms lay mainly with the Department of Energy, although other organisations did have some locus in relation to different safety aspects.

In his report, Lord Cullen dealt with the record of the Department of Energy in relation to inspections on Piper Alpha by saying that the findings of inspections done in the year preceding the disaster as a result of an earlier incident. were in striking contrast to what was revealed in evidence at the Inquiry. Even after making allowance for the fact that the inspections were based on sampling it was clear to me that they were superficial to the point of being of little use as a test of safety on the platform. They did not reveal a number of clear cut and readily ascertainable deficiencies. While the effectiveness of inspections has been affected by persistent under-manning and inadequate guidance, the evidence led me to question, in a fundamental sense, whether the type of inspection practised by the Department of Energy could be an effective means of assessing or monitoring the management of safety by operators.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

My hon. Friend may not be aware that, prior to the Piper Alpha disaster, divers' associations, in evidence to the Select Commmittee on Energy, expressed concern that the programme of inspection and maintenance was influenced by the price of oil. If the price dropped, inspections were shoved back towards the five-year period and did not take place annually as they should have done. Will the Minister say whether that practice still exists?

Mr. Blair

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is anxiety throughout the industry that, in a volatile market where profits fluctuate tremendously with the price of oil, there is always a danger that corners are cut. I mention to the Secretary of State, although I do not expect an immediate response, that there has been concern among deep sea divers about the effect of European safety regulations on the operations of deep sea divers. Perhaps if I or one of my hon. Friends writes to him he will investigate the matter.

There can hardly have been a more comprehensive criticism of each stage of the procedures affecting safety than that made by Lord Cullen. His recommendations bear out the severity of the criticism and cover every part of the operations. Although this is something of an oversimplification, there are effectively two parts to Lord Cullen's recommendations: first, the transfer of regulatory powers from the Department of Energy and other organisations to the Health and Safety Executive, and the full application of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 to offshore work; secondly, the development of a new regime of offshore safety, through the formulation of safety cases prepared by platform operators in respect of each installation, to be certified by the Health and Safety Executive, which will cover all aspects of offshore safety.

Trade unions, many of my hon. Friends and other interested parties have long campaigned for the Health and Safety Executive to undertake responsibility for offshore safety and the regulations previously in the hands of the Department of Engery. The Burgoyne committee produced a minority report more than a decade ago, under the lead of two trade union representatives, Mr. Lyons and Mr. Miller. It specifically called for such a transfer to be made. Clause I of the Bill is designed to achieve that aim which we clearly welcome. The Bill should enable a much clearer chain of command and implement the idea of one agency to cover all aspects of safety.

The Health and Safety Executive will bring forward regulations under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. Safety will be central to those regulations, which will deal both with the design of the operation and its safety procedures, including the permit-to-work system and temporary safe refuge.

Mr. Dalyell

I am not a great one for saying, I told you so" but, following discussions with Mr. Miller, I had an Adjournment debate on the precise subject of the minority report. I urged the Government of the day to do exactly as he wished. Had that been done, the story might have been a little less tragic.

Mr. Blair

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point in respect of the transfer of the safety regulations to the Health and Safety Executive. The position was always strange and unsatisfactory, first, because the Department of Energy was close to the producer interest and, secondly, a plethora of organisations, not just the Department of Energy, dealt with safety aspects. It was unsatisfactory that more than one agency should handle safety matters.

The safety cases are due to be updated every three to five years. In addition, new regulations under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act cover construction, fire fighting and standby vessels—all aspects in which key problems were identified. Another secton of the safety case will involve training for emergencies—an important deficiency recognised by Lord Cullen.

There is one conceptual difference between the Cullen recommendations and the usual method of procedure: the notion of the regulations being not prescriptive, but goal-setting, so that their flexibility allows them to deal with varying circumstances. Judgments will be made as to the practical effect of each safety case in turn rather than an attempt being made to legislate for every last detail.

That process may be sensible, but it will surely have the consequence of contralising the inspection and enforcement procedures of the regulatory organisation. It is a judgmental system and it will require the most careful investigation before a judgment is made. That, in turn, puts pressure on the staff and financing of the Health and Safety Executive.

We have been told that, by 1994–95, the section of the Health and Safety Executive that deals with offshore safety will have a budget of about £35 million and staff of more than 400. I trust that those additional staff and resources will not be taken from anywhere else in the Health and Safety Executive. The programme should be carried through as quickly as possible. By 1994–95 it will be six years or more since the Piper Alpha disaster. I appreciate that there have been staff recruitment problems, but the additional staff should be in place as soon as possible. If the process is to involve goal-setting regulations, rather than prescriptive procedures, it is vital that there are the necessary staff and resources to implement the proposal properly.

There are two substantial points about the detail of the Bill. Clause 5 will permit the Secretary of State to give directions to preserve the security of any installation. He is then obliged to lay before Parliament a copy of the direction unless he is of the opinion that disclosure of the direction is against the interests of national security or the commercial interests of any person. The Secretary of State knows that concern has been expressed in the other place about a possible conflict between the issue of safety, the security of the installation and the direction that might be given under clause 5. That makes scrutiny of any direction all the more important. To protect it for national security is one thing, but to protect it for commercial interests is another. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

The second fundamental point became the subject of exchanges during the speech by the Secretary of State. Unless there is action, we must register strong disagreement with the Government's course. Recommendation No. 30, one of Lord Cullen's crucial recommendations, was that safety representatives should be protected against victimisation by a provision similar to section 58 of the Employment Protection Act 1978. It is important to understand that section 58 protects employees against dismissal for trade union activities. Most importantly, it also provides that the two-year qualifying period to claim unfair dismissal does not apply in the circumstances of dismissal for trade union activities. The protection is immediate and the penalties are far larger than those for ordinary cases of unfair dismissal.

Lord Cullen believed that immediate protection should apply in respect of complaints about safety as it applies in respect of dismissal for trade union activities. That is vital because if a safety representative can be dismissed or disciplined because of complaints about safety, a major part of the safety regime is subject to collapse. Recommendation No. 30 is missing from the Bill.

We have heard the explanation from the Secretary of State today. If there is truly a procedural bar, we should investigate it carefully because I cannot believe that it is beyond our wit to frame an acceptable amendment which would implement recommendation No. 30. We will do our best to frame such an amendment.

The more substantive point made by the Secretary of State is that victimisation is an employment issue rather than a safety issue. In our view, it is plainly a health and safety matter if someone is victimised as a result of complaining about health and safety matters. It is an employment matter, but it is also a matter that has a direct bearing on the efficacy of the safety regime. If people can be disciplined in such a way, clearly there is something deeply wrong with the safety regime that is being implemented by the company. The Secretary of State has not given an acceptable reason for not legislating.

Dr. Godman

The fears of offshore workers are widespread. At my most recent surgery, a constituent came to see me with a specific concern and complaint about standby vessels and the unsuitability of some of them. He implored me to give no suggestion of his identity and he said that even referring to a "constituent" might place his job in some jeopardy. Those decent, honourable and fine men are very frightened of the wrath of their employers if they bring complaints to light, even to Members of Parliament in their surgeries.

Mr. Blair

The House will have heard my hon. Friend's point. Hon. Members who have constituents who work offshore are familiar with such cases. It is deeply worrying that such practices continue. My hon. Friend underlines the point that I have sought to make, which is that, however many regulations one has, if there is not proper protection for people making complaints, it becomes difficult for the regulations to be implemented. It is a matter of deep concern.

I met some people in Newcastle a short time ago who work offshore. They had no axe to grind, but they believed that they had been subject to blacklisting by companies as a result of trade union activities or for raising matters in relation to safety. It is in the nature of things that such claims are difficult to prove. However, the clamour and the degree of complaint are such that we should be unwise to treat the matter other than seriously.

The absence of a clause embodying recommendation No. 30 is a considerable worry. North sea oil contracts are often short-term contracts, so it is especially important that such a clause is included. Procedural matters may be involved, but I believe that the clause should be added because its absence will have an effect both on the estimation of the Government's sincerity in introducing the Bill and on the efficacy of the regime as a whole.

No prosecution has resulted from the Piper Alpha disaster, and it would not be right to complete a Second Reading debate without raising that point. I am advised that a prosecution could have been brought either under the specific regulations dealing with offshore matters or under the general provisions of the health and safety legislation relating to safe places of work and to safe systems of work. The case was fairly clear. On the basis of the Cullen report, the permit-to-work system was subject to repeated failures, the fire water system was flawed in spite of an audit recommendation before the disaster that it should be changed, and the training for emergencies was deficient. In general, Lord Cullen found that the Occidental management adopted a superficial attitude to the assessment of the risk of major hazard. In those circumstances, it is scarcely believable that no prima facie case could be found against the company or against anyone connected with it in relation to the disaster. I ask the Minister to deal with the point about the absence of prosecutions when he winds up the debate.

We seek answers on the staffing and resources of the Health and Safety Executive, the impact of clause 5 on the safety regime, the absence of the Cullen report's recommendation No. 30 and the failure to prosecute. Those matters do not vitiate our support for the Bill, but they are serious and they require answers. Those points bring us back to the recurring theme of all debates since the Piper Alpha disaster. The Piper Alpha disaster arose out of massive deficiencies of safety management, supervision and regulation. On the face of it, the Government are committed to remedying those deficiencies in accordance with the Cullen report. However, among many who work in the industry, whatever the Government's acceptance in theory of the need for radical change, there remains doubt about the practical implementation of that radical change.

It would be wrong not to welcome the Bill, but it would equally be wrong not to signal eternal vigilance on our part until every last recommendation of the Cullen inquiry is implemented and acted on so that the 30,000 people or more who even now work offshore to produce the nation's oil do so in conditions of safety. They deserve no less.

5.8 pm

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

I welcome the Government's commitment to offshore safety not only on my own account, but on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) who, because of his ministerial responsibility, cannot speak on the matter although he has it very much at heart.

I was glad that the Government immediately accepted the 106 recommendations of the Cullen report. It always seemed to me a rum do that safety was not in the hands of the Health and Safety Executive and I am glad that one of the first things that the Government did in April 1991 was to take administrative steps to remedy the situation. I am glad that the Bill, which will transfer statutory responsibility, is before the House.

I am glad that the penalties are to be so substantially increased and that they are to include a hefty slice of imprisonment. People working in an industry as wealthy as the oil industry might turn up their noses at a fine, or brush it off light-heartedly. They will not brush off a term of imprisonment of six months, still less of two years. As the Minister said, those who are culpably negligent, despite the instructions of the inspectors, deserve the maximum sentence of two years.

I would not do the job that these men do for all the tea in China. They are quite exceptionally brave, not just on the rigs but in travelling to and from them. It must be a nightmare for them and it must be at the back of their families' minds. I hope that the helicopters by which they are transported will be examined most carefully.

Mr. Salmond

The hon. Lady has made a good point about the penalties for the breach of health and safety regulations. What penalties would she think it appropriate to apply to a company found to have discriminated against an employee because he has raised a safety concern?

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

I should have thought that that was a matter to be dealt with in the Bill that will probably come before this House, which is currently before their Lordships. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said, that Bill may be amended to cover such matters. I should have thought that there should be a substantial fine, but that will be for the other place to decide and for us to consider when the Bill comes before us.

One matter that has been raised with me repeatedly—although I do not have as many constituents engaged in offshore activity as some hon. Members—is the ease with which work permits could be obtained, to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred in his opening remarks. It seemed to me that one could more or less get one in the pub, in exchange for a packet of fags, and I wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend's predecessor on the matter.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Perhaps the hon. Lady is referring not to permits to work—issued under a regime operated on the platforms themselves—but to the necessary safety certificates required before people can work offshore.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

The hon. Gentleman is much better informed about these things than I am. He is exactly right that that was the point that I raised with the previous Secretary of State. It is extremely important.

Like the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), I agree with the Minister that it is a good idea to set operators objectives to be achieved but not to set out exactly how that should be done. Offshore installations vary widely in their conditions, and an inflexible regime would not be as effective as the one proposed in the Bill, which is flexible but none the less strict.

I hope that the Bill will bring to a group of extremely brave men and women safety and the peace of mind that must have been blown away by the horrible Piper Alpha incident and others, and I wish the Bill godspeed.

5.13 pm
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

All hon. Members realise that the Bill has arisen out of the worst possible North sea tragedy at Piper Alpha. The survivors and the relatives of those who died live and relive that horrendous event and cannot erase the trauma from their minds. Nor should we seek to do so. We have an awesome and enormous responsibility to ensure that every effort is made to avoid the peril of such an incident ever being repeated.

The offshore industry is probably unique, both in the hostile environment in which it operates and in its employment practices. The seventh report of the Select Committee on Energy in 1990–91 points out that at that time the offshore work force in the United Kingdom sector was more than 36,000. Of those, only 25 per cent. were oil company employees. The Select Committee drew attention to the fact that half the offshore installations registered in the United Kingdom are owned and operated by contractors. Some 50 to 90 per cent. of the work force on those platforms is made up of contractors, some of them working under very short-term contracts—for a few days or a few weeks—and some under long-term contracts.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from that experience. There are pluses and minuses in the way in which the offshore industry operates. There is a floating population of people who move from platform to platform and take their experience with them. It can be argued that that is a benefit and is good for the safety regime because people pick up experience as they move. On the other hand, one of the problems is that many of the individual oil companies have developed their own safety systems, and confusion sometimes arises as between one practice and the other. We certainly need some uniform guidelines in the industry.

The United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association has helped with guidelines on training and so on and on the permit-to-work system. Work has also been done to try to achieve greater uniformity between operators on emergency warnings and such matters, and that can certainly bring a net safety benefit.

There is widespread concern, however, about the squeeze on tender prices. Since the drop in oil prices in 1986, contractors have found that their competitive bids have been under intense pressure, and the work force has been the first to suffer. Its remuneration has been squeezed, in real terms, to the levels that it reached during the peak offshore construction periods of the 1970s. Conditions are actually worse than they were then. With contractors having their margins squeezed, everything has had to be pared and corners have had to be cut. There is real and widespread concern that the margins are so small that safety will suffer.

It has also been pointed out that one of the problems arising from the shortage of the margin in tendering is that good-quality standby vessels are lying idle while inferior vessels are still in use. In some cases, licences have been withdrawn, and that is good. But the standby vessel system is still not as it should be.

It is indicative of the way in which these things operate—although to a certain extent this is a peripheral point—that many offshore vessels are built abroad. I asked a prominent Aberdeen trawler owner who is now in standby vessels—to spare his blushes, I shall not mention his name—"Why not build new vessels, and build them in Britain?" His answer was simple, blunt and straightforward: "I will build new vessels, and I will build them in Britain, if I get a good enough subsidy from the Government." If that is the attitude of those responsible for supplying standby vessels offshore, it should be deprecated.

It would be churlish not to recognise that there have been improvements in general safety offshore. Anyone who said that nothing had changed would have his credibility as a witness to argue and advocate the case for safety destroyed.

In general terms, I welcome the Bill, although I am not wholly convinced that the abandonment of detailed regulations in favour of the safety case is absolutely correct. I have my doubts and am hesitant about that. I still believe that the regulatory regime should be more strict in terms of practices. However, I accept the path down which we are to proceed. I shall do everything to ensure that the safety case works. There is no reason now or in the recent past to condemn the safety case outright. We must give it a good try and make sure that it works because so much is at stake if it does not work. I pay tribute to the industry for what it has done so far. I hope that it will consider the safety issue with continued vigour and that it will always be alert to the dangers.

One would expect unanimous enthusiastic support for the provisions in the Bill. There is certainly support, but there is a glaring anomaly and deficiency in the Bill. There is still no legal protection against unfair dismissal of safety representatives or trade unionists. That is a matter of great concern and disquiet. That lack of protection is extremely unhealthy for the safety regime. That problem could so easily be corrected and the fears dispelled if it were not for the Government's blinkered ideology. That is the only reason why they are not dealing with protection against victimisation.

As the Front-Bench spokesmen and others have said, proving victimisation is extremely difficult. We have all heard of cases in which people have been dismissed where it is almost impossible to prove with certainty that there has been victimisation. I want to summarise case S/3497/91, an industrial tribunal case which took place in Aberdeen on 28 November of last year. It was a claim for unfair dismissal by Mr. Douglas Steele against Srnedvig Limited of Altens in Aberdeen.

Mr. Steele was dismissed for an alleged serious breach of safety regulations on 5 June 1991. He had been employed as a lead hand with the company since 3 May 1988. He had been working on rig 1, north-west Sutton, where it had been reported that he and another man had been seen to cross handrails separating rig 2 from the helideck on rig 1. Mr. Steele was interviewed by Mr. Richman—I hope that I have pronounced his name properly—who was the senior tool pusher on rig one.

Mr. Steele admitted that he had crossed the handrails, but said that that was a common practice and was a short cut. Mr. Richman telephoned Mr. Coyle onshore, and it was decided that Mr. Steele should be removed immediately from the platform and that his dismissal should be discussed once he was onshore. If I have read the tribunal report correctly, before he left the rig, he was given a reference from Mr. Richman which concluded by wishing Mr. Steele well in his future employment. That is a back-handed way of saying that Mr. Steele had been given the sack.

Mr. Steele was dismissed and no action was taken against the other person who had been seen with Mr. Steele crossing the handrail. In fact, as the tribunal reports, the other individual was retained by the company and subsequently promoted to fill the vacancy left by Mr. Steele's dismissal. That is very odd. The tribunal found no clear evidence that Mr. Steele or anyone else had been warned about the dangers of crossing the handrail or that crossing the handrail was an offence that could lead to instant dismissal.

At this point, I want to interject a few comments. I accept that it can be argued—and I would argue—that safety is a matter for every individual, whatever his or her particular job may be. I accept that workers should be aware that crossing a safety rail is dangerous. It is obviously there for a specific purpose. I do not dissent from the general proposition that safety is as much a matter of individual responsibility as of corporate responsibility.

However, if a dangerous practice is commonplace, that represents a serious defect in the safety procedures. The employer's immediate response should be to investigate the circumstances fully so that such a breach does not recur in future. The tribunal evidence clearly shows that the company did not follow up the matter prior to Mr. Steele's summary dismissal.

The tribunal found that the dismissal was unfair and Mr. Steele was awarded £11,925 compensation which was reduced by 25 per cent. as it was held that he had contributed to his dismissal. The company has said that there is no job available for Mr. Steele. Mr. Steele and the tribunal accepted that the downturn in offshore operations meant that he would be unable to get work elsewhere.

An industrial tribunal simply records the facts. It makes no judgment or comment on an extraordinary case. Mr. Steele was summarily dismissed for breaches of safety procedure. The other offender took over his job temporarily until the end of the trip and was then permanently promoted to the job for the next trip offshore. What possible explanation can there be for what I can only describe as that company's complete irresponsibility?

A clue to the answer to that question might be found in point D on page 2 of the tribunal report which states: There was no evidence to support the suggestion in his originating application that there had been some kind of plot to get rid of the applicant and equally there was nothing to show that his election as a safety representative was a reason for his dismissal. The man certainly believes that he was dismissed because he was a safety representative. That charge was not pursued at the industrial tribunal. I checked to discover why and Mr. Steele's lawyers said the case for unfair dismissal was so strong and clear-cut in its own right that there was no point in pursuing victimisation because that is much more difficult to prove. If one were to lose that part of the case, one might lose the whole case for unfair dismissal. Therefore, the case was pursued simply on the ground of unfair dismissal. There is, however, little doubt that Mr. Steele was sacked because he was a safety representative. In fact, the company has said so. The company tried to stop the man from receiving benefit after he had been sacked. It wrote to say that he was dismissed because he was a safety representative. It then tried to cover its back by claiming that his was an exemplary sacking. He was sacked because he was a safety representative and, although that was not victimisation, an example was made of him.

The company might be entitled to say that someone who breaches a safety regulation should not be a safety representative. That might have been a reasonable conclusion. It might also have been reasonable for the company to say to Mr. Steele, "Well, we no longer accept you as an elected safety representative." Further, it might have been all right for the company to tell those who elected him, "We have no more confidence in him as a safety representative, do you want fresh elections?" That at least would have been open and above board and it might have been sustainable if the matter had been handled in that way. However, what happened does nothing to dispel the widespread feeling offshore that to become a safety representative is to put one's head on the chopping block. Every excuse will be used to get rid of a safety representative. That is certainly true if trade unionists are involved in safety work. Sooner or later that leads to dismissal. Sooner or later an excuse will be found to get rid of those people.

If someone loses a job in those circumstances, it will be almost impossible to find another job. Companies put their hands on their hearts and swear that there is no victimisation or blacklist. They say that it is unfortunate that there is a downturn in the industry and there are not many jobs to go around. If a safety representative has been sacked and his face did not fit, companies say that it is just hard luck and coincidence that no other work is available. Many of the people affected are highly skilled and they have great experience of the industry. They find it very hard not to believe that such things are happening because they are safety representatives. It is not good enough for companies to behave in that way if they are to dispel the current climate of distrust.

Lord Cullen's recommendation 30 is quite unambiguous. It states: Safety representatives should be protected against victimisation by a provision similar to Section 58(i)(b) of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 (para 21.86). That provision deals with trade union representation. It states that the dismissal of an employee shall be considered unfair if the reason for it is that the employee had taken part, or proposed to take part, in the activities of an independent trade union at an appropriate time. That provision has not been carried forward in the Bill any more than the issue of the protection of safety representatives. Given that recommendation 30 has not been implemented—it must be the only one that has not—one can hardly expect people to believe that there is no conspiracy within the industry to blacklist people. People have good grounds for believing that the Government have a marvellous opportunity to make major changes in legislation on offshore safety, but they have left it out of the Bill. People are saying that the Government are tacitly accepting that there can be blacklisting. The Government must do something.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Eric Forth)

Lest there is any mistake, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not intend it, but I am concerned that he is using words such as "conspiracy". My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State made it very clear a few moments ago at the Dispatch Box that it was our intention to legislate thoroughly, comprehensively and effectively in this matter as soon as we properly can. His judgment and his advice was that this Bill was not an appropriate vehicle by which to do that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept our good faith. It is our intention to legislate properly on this matter as soon as we reasonably can.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to the Minister for his intervention. It leads me to the point that I was about to make.

It will not do for the Government simply to say that they are not ignoring the recommendations on victimisation. It will not do for the Government to say that the Bill is not an appropriate medium. It is a totally false distinction that this is a safety Bill and that the protection of safety representatives and unionists is an employment measure. That just will not wash. All the rules and regulations, all the safety case assessments, and all the pious assertions that safety is paramount are hollow unless all those working offshore are fully committed to safety and unless all the trade unions and all those working offshore have confidence that their employment is not jeopardised if they commit themselves to exposing unsafe

Similarly, it is in the interests of good industrial relations if active trade unionists have protection from dismissal. We know that the Government's idea of good industrial relations is different from ours. Their idea of good industrial relations is either a non-union passive work force or a union work force who are passively willing to accept whatever indignities the employer wishes to impose upon them. A prerequisite for good industrial relations is the active participation of a vibrant and vigorous trade union movement. Such a trade union movement will lead to an improvement in the safety culture and confidence in the safety regime. It must be backed by strong anti-victimisation legislation to protect trade unionists in their general activities, not just in safety activities, because that is essential for safety representatives.

The Government have fallen down on the issue. I hope that they will amend the Bill accordingly. In today's proceedings, the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary said, "We have good faith; we would like to change it, but there are procedural difficulties." If there are procedural difficulties, they are of the Government's own making. The Government are responsible for drafting the long and short titles. The Bill states that it relates to health and safety matters "and connected purposes". Whether that would allow an amendment to be in order is neither here nor there. The Government could table an amendment to include an appropriate provision.

The Secretary of State, anxious to show how open-minded he is, fell into a trap of his own making. First, he said that Baroness Turner of Camden was bringing forward a Bill in another place to deal with that point. He said that her Bill was ineffective, deficient and technically incompetent and that therefore there was no route down that way. Secondly, he said that he did not want to put such a provision in this Bill because Baroness Turner's Bill provided a better avenue and a better approach. He cannot have it both ways. Either Baroness Turner's Bill is no good or it is. He argued himself into a corner.

However, I agree with the Secretary of State that there is no case for delay in implementing recommendation 30. He could still do so by amending the long and short titles. He knows that the safety culture and the whole issue of safety in the North sea is a matter of confidence, a matter of people being prepared to work together, and a matter of being prepared to show that they are serious about safety. Anything which leads people to a mood of distrust and fear is to be deprecated.

The Secretary of State has an opportunity with this Bill. Almost at a stroke he could dispel concern and fear by introducing legislation to put the matter right. He says that he wants to do it, but the only thing that is holding him up is the title of the Bill. It will not wash. That is a great pity. He has missed this opportunity to remedy a wrong which is long since overdue to be put right. Let him now use the opportunity to do so.

5.36 pm
Mr. David Porter (Waveney)

The House last debated offshore safety on 7 March last year. I felt then that there was a danger that everyone would think that gas and oil are available only from Scotland. I do not feel that that will be the case tonight, as there are so few Scottish Members present. I felt that it was important to emphasise then, and I do so again now, that there is an important sector of this great British industry—

Mr. Salmond


Mr. Robert Hughes


Mr. Porter

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond).

Mr. Salmond

I am sure that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) will speak straight after me, but I assure the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not in a position to give such assurances. Will he get on?

Mr. Salmond

The hon. Gentleman must have noticed that while, admittedly, there is a sparse attendance on both sides of the House, there are four Opposition Members from Scotland present but there are no Conservative Members from Scotland present.

Mr. Porter

I had certainly noticed that, but the point that I was trying to make was that in the debate on 7 March, hon. Members spoke as though we were discussing a Scottish industry. The point that I made—there were some nods of agreement from Opposition Members—when we started to talk about moving the offshore safety division headquarters to Aberdeen was that there was and is a very important sector of the industry in the southern North sea—[Interruption.] I speak for the southern North sea sector, and that is the point that I am trying to make. It is clearly not as large as Scotland, but it makes a valuable contribution to the industry.

Locally, in my neighbouring port of Great Yarmouth and in my constituency port of Lowestoft, literally hundreds of jobs directly and indirectly depend on the offshore industry. Shell UK, for example, has been based at Lowestoft for more than 25 years. We reckon that it must have pumped directly and indirectly into the local economy more than half a billion pounds in that time. SLP—Sea-Land Pipelines—at Lowestoft has the biggest offshore module manfacturing capability south of Teesside. Clearly, that is another sector of the industry which is concerned about the Bill, and it is a big employer.

Smaller firms all over Waveney are dependent on the offshore industry. The offshore standby vessels that have been mentioned continue to employ large numbers of people, and Lowestoft has been the main base of the offshore standby industry ever since there has been such an industry. Equally, in Beccles, in my constituency, is the heliport of British International Helicopters, an absolutely vital part of the supplying, moving and equipping of the industry. Tragically, that company is one of those which have fallen victim to the grasping of the late Robert Maxwell. Coincidentally, I happen to be a member of the Select Committee on Social Security, which was considering occupational pensions when Robert Maxwell died. Now we are trying to do what we can to help BIH staff and others with their stolen pensions or—as I like to put it—we are trying to tear the mask off the unacceptable face of socialism. However, I stray from the Bill.

Since I became a Member of Parliament, and indeed before, I have heard the constant cry that there is some sort of conspiracy—the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) mentioned that word several times—to cut corners on safety among offshore operators and somehow to terrorise offshore workers into keeping silent on safety fears. We hear odd stories, but I challenge whether they are widespread. We hear stories at our surgeries, but are they truly widespread throughout the industry? Surely it is in no one's interests when there is an accident, or when a unit is put out of production or—in the case of Piper Alpha—is destroyed. The safety culture is not a luxury. It is not a bureaucratic imposition or an irrelevance. It is as essential as food and water. Surely we can all agree on that.

The Bill has rightly received a general welcome from all sides of the industry. I know that Shell was involved in ideas for its early drafting and, in so far as the Bill implements the Cullen recommendations, it will be absolutely accepted. Only when it is accepted will it be possible for it to work.

Tony Barrell, the chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive's new offshore safety division, reckons that the offshore industry presents a uniquely concentrated combination of hazards. He feels that it is his job to achieve an improvement in safety and to apply a continuing improving influence, as we have already witnessed in the nuclear and chemical industries. Further, Mr. Barrell believes that commitment to safety has to begin at board level and that what is good for safety is good for business. If clear objectives for safety are set out and then achieved it will be accepted and will work. I especially welcome the HSE's plans to increase staffing. It has been said that it will be increased to more than 400 in three years' time. A proportion of that number will be working on research and I understand that there will be a real increase in the number of inspectors.

The argument for operators to produce individual safety cases is won on the one count alone—if not on all the others—that everyone concerned is and has to be involved.

Some people feel that training is insufficient and the lack of workers' voices is an often expressed worry. From what I have heard about the filling in of a blank sheet of paper handed to the offshore safety division of the HSE, in the wake of Cullen, I believe that they have those challenges very much in mind.

In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the charter. There has been an outbreak of charters in the North sea. Thirty-five thousand copies of a charter of rights have been printed and circulated to all offshore workers. Rights have to be linked with responsibilities and that is what the document, "Safety Representatives and Safety Committees—A Guide for Offshore Personnel" does precisely. The United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association is committed to the document, believing that it should lay to rest some of the stories that we have heard again tonight about victimisation and lack of commitment to safety. Even the union, Manufacturing Science Finance, has given it a cautious welcome.

There is also a widespread worry that the decline of our merchant shipping fleet is being reflected in the offshore support and standby vessels sector. Crews are being replaced by large numbers of Portuguese and Norwegians. There are Danish, German, Dutch and even Russian and Yugoslavian boats in the business. The fear is that with language problems and different safety cultures from our own we could need some measure to protect the British sector. However, we know the experience of trying to do that for British fishing through the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 and its subsequent outlawing by the European Court. In any case, that is outside the Bill, but I felt that it was worth flagging up.

It is right for me to express a worry which has been mentioned widely in the other place. Since May 1991 the industry has been aware that the Government intended to introduce a security clause into the Bill—clause 5. The UKOOA view is that such legislation is unnecessary. The offshore industry has shown responsibility in the past in accepting proposals made by the security services for the provision of both physical forms of security and the establishment of security-related procedures and standards. It does not feel that such differences of opinion as may have arisen from time to time about the extent of those provisions need to have been dealt with by the blunt instrument which the Bill represents.

The upstream oil and gas industry is not a public service. It consists of private sector companies continuously involved in making economic judgments about the preservation of assets and the protection of employees. Many of them have to make such judgments on an international scale and are therefore familiar with international norms and risks. Therefore, they come from a background of informed analysis of their own position and interests. Anything thought to be necessary above such provisions is a matter for the Government's judgment and they think that it should be subject to Government funding.

The industry is also concerned about the possibility of the coverage of the legislation being extended as time moves on. They have been provided with an initial list of installations which will be subject to it, including 18 onshore terminals and refineries, most of which are not designated national economic key points. Several of those are in the downstream sector. We have to be aware that there is a tendency to add to such lists. They believe that that should be done formally between Government and the industry and that the reasons for the inclusion of any further installations on the list should be made explicit.

Finally, the industry is concerned about what it calls "tests of reasonableness" regarding the application of legislation to particular sites. If the question of Government funding is to be resolved, a reasonable process of cost benefit analysis has to apply to decisions taken through the legislation at the request of the security services.

It has been right to dwell on those matters in some detail as they were put to me by Shell in my constituency, because they are so important. For more than 25 years, while the offshore industry has made an increasing contribution to the national wealth, it has become more complex and bigger in size and value. It can only get more so in the next 25 years, so the Bill is timely. I join my hon. Friends and others in hoping that we can get it on to the statute book as speedily and as safely as possible.

5.45 pm
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Like many other hon. Members, I have been calling for the transfer of offshore safety operations and their supervision from the Department of Energy to the Health and Safety Executive for a long time. Naturally, I welcome the fact that the Bill is formalising that process. Obviously my regret is that it was not done a great deal earlier. As I often said at the time, it was not necessarily a question of the Department of Energy being compromised, but that it was always seen to be compromised. That situation could not be sustained.

A number of hon. Members have properly referred to the fact that this legislation stems from Lord Cullen's report, which in turn stems from the tragedy of Piper Alpha. Those of us with constituents who were lost in that tragedy know too well that every time that that matter comes up for debate it reopens a great deal of agony and many wounds. It may seem a rather odd thing to say, but I hope that if there is any reporting of this debate the television companies will restrain themselves and will not again show films of that disaster. Every time that that happens we hear that it causes great distress to those who are left behind. We do not wish to provoke those feelings.

I do not know whether my constituency has more offshore workers than any other, but it certainly has a great many. Since I was elected the electorate in my constituency has increased from 56,000 to 80,000 in eight and a half years. That is almost entirely due to the oil-related expansion of the economy in north-east Scotland. Clearly a large number of the people who live in the constituency and who have moved there are offshore workers engaged in the offshore oil and gas industry.

It has become apparent in the industry in the past 10 years that it has moved from its infancy almost into middle age. A great many things have been learnt in that time, but a great many problems have been discovered which were not apparent in the early days and are now much more in the minds of people working in the industry. One practical fact is that many installations operating in the North sea have been there for a long time, which means that they have been subjected to a great deal of wear and tear and weathering. The problems of maintenance and consequential implications for safety are a matter of great concern. One hears some quite alarming stories on occasions about what companies may have to do to ensure the life of those platforms is maintained for the productive life of the oil and gas field on which they are located. One thing that has become apparent—the reason why I support the basis principle of the safety case approach—is that one has to create a climate of safety in both the design and operation of facilities which are used offshore. The safety case approach puts pressure on operators to consider every aspect of their designs and their operating facilities. It means that they must accept full responsibility for the techniques and procedures which are followed.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) reasonably said that he was not sure about that approach, although he said that he was not against it. He felt there was a great need for regulation, but the regulations in the Norwegian sector of the North sea have not always prevented accidents. People sometimes believe that such regulations automatically provide for safe operation. In a sense, that lowers their threshold of responsibility. There is room for both approaches, but I believe that the safety case approach is worth pursuing.

A number of incidents have been brought to my attention that suggest that the climate of safety in the North sea is a long way short of what we would want. It has deteriorated, partly because of the age of the industry and partly because of the consequences of the oil price collapse of about six years ago. Practices changed as a result of that collapse arid that undermined morale and confidence among the oil companies and, much more important, among the suppliers, contractors and people involved in that side of the industry.

In an earlier intervention to the Secretary of State I raised the case of Mr. Colin Jewell, which has received publicity. He is a design engineer whose work relates to the North sea. He believes that nothing is done to consider the design of platforms from the outset and the safety implications of that. He was a member of a design team and he saw that there were immediate design problems with the work. One hundred engineers were involved in that design work and Mr. Jewell felt that none of them, if they were at all competent, could have failed to notice the inherent design faults in that work.

When Mr. Jewell attempted to draw attention to those faults, he was basically told, "We are paid to give the management the drawings that they want, not to question whether they will work."' He raised the issue with the Health and Safety Executive in advance of the explosion on Fulmar Alpha, which confirmed the design fault that he had exposed and which had been built into other platforms in the process of design.

The HSE investigated Mr. Jewell's complaint, as he had failed to get it resolved internally, and upheld his findings. However, it was unable to do anything when he found himself effectively blacklisted from working in the North sea because of what he had done.

One of Mr. Jewell's proposals is that North sea design engineers should be subject to an independent code of practice, which makes them legally responsible for promoting good and safe design, and that they should not simply fulfil their contract to a company for which they work.

Reference has been made to the fact that there has been a development towards relatively short-term contracting whereby people are taken on to do a specific contract for a matter of weeks or months. Therefore, one does not need to blacklist a person; one simply does not renew his contract when it expires. One also lets it be known to others in the industry that he is not a desirable character to have on board because he is inclined to rock the boat or expose problems within the system. We must find a way in which to provide adequate protection as well as ensuring that people can be held responsible for their actions.

I must tell the Minister that what I am saying is not new—such cases have been reported extensively outside the Chamber. That is exactly the problem, because other people see what happens to those who complain. Consequently they keep their heads down and they do not complain. For that reason, the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) was able to ask whether such cases were widespread or odd examples. In one sense we will never know. One is led to believe that such problems are widespread, but most people are unwilling to put their heads on the chopping block. Who can blame them, especially given the current serious recession which means that alternative employment to that offered by the offshore industry is not as readily available as it was in the past?

The market climate and the skills shortages in the North sea are also important factors because they may enable companies to operate draconian regimes in terms of intimidating people who blow the gaff on matters of safety.

I do not accept that there is a conspiracy. Nobody is deliberately trying to suppress safety in terms of operation or design. It is in nobody's interest to do that. I accept that a major accident offshore is a disaster for management, shareholders, the work force and everyone else. However, if the climate and culture are not right, mistakes occur and the consequences can be catastrophic. I hope that the Bill will address the problems, but we are moving slowly. We have a long way to go before we establish a climate of safety in design operation in the North sea that will make us believe that major disasters will not happen again.

I regret to say that, in the past three or four years, we have had a series of incidents offshore that suggest that the problem is getting worse. In every case the problem seems to be one of a basic fault in design or in safety procedure, which is avoidable, but has not been avoided. I hope that the Minister will accept that we have not got anything like the safety regime established in the North sea that we need and to which we should reasonably and properly aspire.

It has been suggested to me that the Piper Bravo platform, which is not even in place yet, has design faults. I am not sure how such things can be properly confirmed or investigated. Some people argue that we do not seem to learn from mistakes.

The hon. Members for Waveney and for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) referred to helicopter operations and their safety. I am not sure, but I suspect that that is outside the scope of the Bill, because responsibility for helicopters rests with the Department of Transport. However, I hope that I will not be ruled out of order when I say that the problems of British International Helicopters, whose operational headquarters are in my constituency at Aberdeen airport, is a matter for considerable concern. Inevitably that must have some potential implications for safety. I have been immensely impressed at the determination, fortitude and calmness of the pilots of those helicopters who operate a taxi service to and from the rigs and platforms in the North sea.

I am sure that, like me, other hon. Members have received letters from those pilots expressing concern about their futures. We must consider what is going on in the mind of a pilot aged either 51 or 52 who knows that he will be retiring in three years but does not know whether he will have any pension to retire on. It is a matter of urgency that that matter should be resolved, so that the future of the company can be resolved and so that the operating climate for its helicopters can be clarified. It is not in anyone's interests that that situation should continue for much longer. I hope that the Government will continue to use every measure at their disposal to bring the matter to a speedy conclusion. It is an awful mess.

Against that background it is important to consider the proposal for an offshore safety trust which I have put forward on a number of occasions, including when my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and I met the Minister. I am not convinced that the HSE can, as proposed in the Bill, meet all the safety considerations and provide the absolute safety valve for the people who need it. I am not sure that it can ensure that those people's complaints are addressed in confidence, that what can be learnt from those complaints is thoroughly investigated and that we can all benefit.

I have already quoted the example of one offshore worker who suffered as a result of taking his case to the HSE and who has now effectively lost employment in the North sea. The proposed oil industry safety trust parallels an established practice within the civil aviation industry which has been extremely beneficial. It has encouraged people to be honest and they have acknowledged that some practices were inherently unsafe and that something should be done about that. They have also acknowledged that they have experienced design faults and that they should be corrected. People are positively encouraged to go to an outfit in which they can have confidence.

Enough examples have already been given—the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) referred to some—of people who have gone to the HSE and found that by maintaining their anonymity they effectively cannot get their cases followed up. Only by revealing their identities can such people get cases followed up, and the consequence of that is that they are blacklisted and cannot get employment. We must get out of this vicious circle if we are to advance the safety of operations in the North sea.

The Bill is useful and builds on the findings of the Cullen inquiry. It is important, without in any way detracting from the value and qualities of the Cullen report, to recognise that, although it was a comprehensive inquiry into the consequences of one disaster, it did not cover every aspect of all operations and designs in the North sea. It would be dangerous for the Government to regard the Cullen report as the definitive blueprint for all safety operations in the North sea. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that that is not the case and that, valuable as Cullen is, there must be a much wider continuous review of safety operations in the North sea, and a willingness to bring forward whatever legislation is necessary to create a climate that will restore confidence in the safety operations in the North sea. That confidence has been shattered and all the evidence that many of us have from constituents working in the offshore industry shows that it has not been restored. Welcome though the Bill is, in itself it will not restore that confidence.

6 pm

Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)

I reinforce what the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) said. The Bill is not a magic answer to the safety problems in the North sea.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the operation of helicopters. It is incumbent on us to ensure, with this move towards the Health and Safety Executive covering safety, that it will look at all aspects and not just at North sea offshore oil installations. That should include the standby vessels, about which there have been complaints this evening. Can we ensure that safety is looked at across the board? The "Herald of Free Enterprise" disaster taught us lessons and there are now better requirements for life jackets, for the regular testing of life rafts and the provision of them. I hope that the HSE will look at the transport implications as well, including back-up vessels, because safety is important across the board.

I am delighted that support for the Bill goes across the Floor of the House, although there is disagreement on one measure—the employment of safety representatives. I think that Opposition Members would like to see that always done through trade unions.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce


Mr. Dover

Well perhaps sometimes.

In 1989, Ministers made a commitment, which was endorsed by Lord Cullen, to review the operation of the 1989 regulations governing the appointment of offshore safety representatives. When the transfer of these responsibilities takes place, it will be up to the Health and Safety Commission to oversee the review and to decide whether to propose any changes to safety regulations. The commission considers that the review should be informed by an in-depth factual study of the practical workings of the regulations. The study will be commissioned shortly from an independent research organisation and is likely to last around nine months. We cannot dive in quickly and bring in a method of appointing safety representatives that applies onshore when that study must first be undertaken.

A major factor that must be taken into account is that there is limited trade union representation in the North sea industries. There is sometimes limited union recognition, which I deplore. I like to see trade unions in operation at the workplace, making sure that the working conditions and in particular the safety conditions for their members are of the highest standards. However, there are many subcontractors and myriad firms operating out there who do not have any trade unions to represent their work force. Therefore, we should be creating difficulties if we laid down that safety representatives had to come from, or be appointed through, trade unions.

Mr. Salmond

I note that the hon. Gentleman is sympathetic to trade union representation offshore. He will have seen the unanimous recommendation of the Select Committee on Energy—obviously, a recommendation approved by Conservative Members—that the Government should clarify by what mechanism offshore workers can have ballots on trade union recognition. Will he add his voice to that call from the Select Committee?

Mr. Dover

I certainly add my voice to it. As a civil engineer for 20-odd years in the construction industry, admittedly mainly onshore, but often on rigs, I approve of trade union activities in all sectors, provided that they are constructive. It has been said in the debate that people cut corners on safety in order to cut costs, but in all my decades of experience, I have always found that the safest way is the cheapest way. It is of fundamental importance that safety matters are tackled in a workmanlike way, and the best way to do that is to have line managers who work hand-in-glove with the trade union representatives.

However, with the move to the HSE being responsible for these features in the North sea, I should like to add one proviso. Sometimes health and safety inspectors on building sites are not reasonable. They are academic and sometimes do not have much practical experience, but still lay down specific rules. I can give an example of this, although it is not connected with the North sea. Last week, a few miles outside my constituency, some cables had to be unearthed. The inspector accepted that everything had been done properly, but insisted that two steel spikes were put on each side of the high-voltage cable. That was a recipe for disaster. The third or fourth spike went through the cable and cut off the power supply for about a quarter of the town of Bolton. That shows how inspectors can sometimes be a hindrance rather than a help. I hope that they will play their part constructively in the North sea, which is such an unsafe working environment.

I have some reservations about clause 5, which says: The Secretary of State shall lay before each House of Parliament a copy of every direction given… unless he is of the opinion that disclosure of the direction is against the interests of national security or the commercial interests of any person. I should like to see the earliest possible laying down of directions if they are needed. We do not want the delay inherent in laying orders before both Houses of Parliament. That may take a month or two, when action should be taken at the workplace.

I am delighted to give my full backing to the Bill. I am a great one for preventing accidents and I am glad that the Government have endorsed all the recommendations of the Cullen report. I compliment the commission, which has done a marvellous job to ensure that safety in the North sea will improve all the time. I am pleased that we have made great progress since that most unfortunate accident.

6.8 pm

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover) said that he had considerable sympathy for trade union recognition in the workplace. For many trade unionists offshore, the objective is to obtain the same agreements with management that are enjoyed by their colleagues ashore. If employees in refineries can be taken into the trust of management and work on safety committees, the same should hold on the offshore platforms. BP, for example, has already recognised that there should be equality of treatment. Unfortunately, that does not hold for the whole of the offshore gas and oil industry, and that is a matter for considerable regret. I share the hon. Gentleman's opinion on that.

Is the Minister satisfied that the provisions in the Bill are wholly compatible with the relevant articles of the draft directive on the protection of workers in extractive industries? I refer to Com (91) of 493 final. I believe that I am right in saying that an amended version of that draft directive was sent to the Council on 13 January—I refer to Council document 4126/92. I believe that I am correct in saying that that has still to be considered by the Select Committee on European Legislation. I have been informed that the Department of Employment has still to provide the Select Committee with an explanatory memorandum on the directive. As the Minister is not disputing what I am saying, I take it that the Bill is wholly compatible with the provisions that are contained in the draft directive. Perhaps the Minister will respond to my question when he replies.

The Commission's amended draft states that the new proposal, which takes account of the European Parliament's report on the draft, has been amended to reflect the Piper Alpha disaster and Lord Cullen's excellent report, and especially the recommendations contained therein.

In terms of matching the Bill with the draft directive, the Commission appears to be of the view vis-a-vis the directive that maximum discretion, in line with the doctrine of subsidiarity, should be left to the member state when enacting legislation on safety in extractive industries, expecially the offshore industry. I ask the Minister to confirm that the Government intend to abide by the concept of subsidiarity when it comes to enacting the Bill.

Some of my constituents have complained bitterly about the cost of obtaining an offshore safety certificate. If the costs of travelling to Aberdeen and lodgings are taken into account, about £500 has to be found by those who are anxious to obtain a certificate. Many of the men in my constituency who are in that position are unemployed, but they still have to find the money. Why cannot the local enterprise companies or the Department meet the cost of this essential training certificate? It seems that the LECs or the Department could provide much more assistance.

I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State confirm that the provisions of clause I are designed to protect both divers and the crews of standby vessels. Last week I asked the Minister for Shipping about custom-built standby vessels. Everyone taking part in the debate knows that the fleet of standby vessels is an ageing one. There are still far too many side trawlers working in the North sea. For understandable reasons, the side trawlers are known on Humberside and elsewhere as side winders. These vessels are too old. I accept that they have been converted, but some of them were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Two Departments are involved with standby vessels. First, there is the Department of Employment, which is responsible for the Bill, but the Department of Transport, too, has a deep involvement. I am concerned that some laudable objectives might not be realised because two Departments are involved. I would prefer the operations of standby vessels to come wholly within the remit of the Health and Safety Executive.

Last week, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport how many of the vessels were custom built. He replied: The number of vessels certificated for the first time for use in the United Kingdom standby industry in the past three years were eight vessels in 1989, 24 in 1990 and 30 in 1991. Of these vessels the vast majority, some 61 vessels, were converted for the purpose. Only one was purpose built as a standby vessel and this may not have been directly for the United Kingdom industry, but may have previously served as a standby vessel in Norway or elsewhere. No custom-built vessels were constructed in United Kingdom shipyards".— [Official Report, 3 February 1992; Vol. 203, c. 39.] That matter causes me deep regret. We have specialist shipyards that can easily produce such vessels, and they are required by the industry. There is a fleet of 200 and I think that I am right in saying that this year about 70 of the older vessels will have to be laid off or scrapped. In fact, some of them were already tied to the quay. Their scrapping will not be before time, and I am sure that the House is aware that Lord Cullen was deeply critical of this fleet of vessels, and particularly of the Silver Pit. He praised the remarkable bravery of the crew of that vessel, but took the view that it should not have been crewing such an inappropriate vessel. In other words, that old side trawler should not have been operating as a standby vessel. Lord Cullen said: I strongly urge that the standard of the existing SBV fleet"— that is the standby vessel fleet— is improved with despatch, although it is obvious that this cannot be done at once. I know that progress is being made, but there are still major problems with the standby fleet. If the Secretary of State is correct in saying that the standby crews and their vessels come within the ambit of clause 1,I think that I am in order in concentrating my brief remarks on these vessels.

Recommendations 88 and 90 of the Cullen report are, in effect, demands for changes in the regulations and are aimed at improving the quality of standby vessels. That is how it should be. To be fair, some standby vessel operators have sought to make improvements to their vessels. They have made every effort to meet the new regulations. Speaking as a former shipwright, I accept that many of their vessels are of an acceptable standard. I am told, however, that at a ceremony in Aberdeen for the renaming of the standby vessel Cam Viking, the managing director of Cam Shipping, Mr. Bruce Claridge, complained about companies that were getting away with chartering vessels that did not meet the requirements of the new regulations. If what Mr. Claridge said is accurate, it is a matter of considerable concern.

The Minister may say that that is a matter not for his Department but for the Department of Transport. If that is so, I urge him to bring my remarks to the notice of his ministerial colleagues. Mr. Claridge has made a serious complaint in the light of what happened to the poor souls on Piper Alpha and to the poor and remarkably brave souls on the Silver Pit. If the accusation has merit, as I believe it has, it should be investigated.

It has also been brought to my attention that the oil and gas companies are imposing low charter rates on the standby vessel operators. Those rates are putting severe cost restraints on the operation of standby vessels. That is the view of the offshore industry liaison committee and it was also the view expressed in the Aberdeen petroleum report of 5 February. It said that the standby vessel operator Farstad UK's new deal on terms and conditions for crews meant that they would suffer a reduction in their wages. Having spent many thousands of pounds in bringing its vessels up to and beyond the requirements of the new regulations, the company had to reduce costs because of the low charter rates being imposed by the client companies.

That is a serious allegation, not against the standby vessel operator but against the offshore oil and gas companies. If they are inflicting low charter rates on standby vessels, and if that results in a diminution in the terms and conditions of employment, how on earth can we expect those crews to show loyalty to their employers or to be motivated as they go about their difficult work? Cutting wages in that way, even in such a deep recession, will lead to a high turnover in the crews of standby vessels. It may also lead to companies cutting their training programmes for the crews.

I have never forgotten the time when, 12 or 13 years ago, a standby vessel lost a man overboard. The vessel was so poorly equipped that the fatal accident inquiry in Aberdeen was told that it took the crew 30 minutes to get the man back on board. Everyone in Aberdeen knows about that scandalous case. The man was the mate on that vessel, but even his own crew could not rescue him. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) can confirm that he died of hypothermia.

Farstad UK acknowledges that, because of the low rates being imposed on standby vessel operators, costs have to be reduced. Farstad's deputy managing director, Captain Peter Maudsley, is reported as having said: Keeping crews of our standby vessels on the same terms and conditions as the rest of our fleet proved impossible. It is a deeply disturbing position. Cutting wages diminishes both motivation and loyalty and it increases labour turnover. The standby vessels and their crews should be seen as integral elements of the productive activities offshore. If that means the Department of Transport giving up some of its responsibilities to the HSE, so be it.

Many standby vessels will have to leave the fleet before the end of the year, and in a way that will be a blessing. We need a highly efficient fleet that meets the recommendations laid down by Lord Cullen, the first of which—recommendation 89—was that there must be a high degree of manoeuvrability. Side trawlers, even with bow thrusters installed, do not meet that requirement. The safety case approach should include standby vessels.

I welcome the Bill, but with some reservations. It seeks to enhance safety offshore and to punish those who place their employees in danger. One reservation is that the Bill fails to deal with the genuine and legitimate fear of victimisation, which is being experienced by many people offshore. Time and again, people at my surgeries say to me, "I dare not speak up because I will lose my job and if I come back to Inverclyde I will never get a job in this area." That fear must be acknowledged and measures must be generated to deal with that. Men must have not only confidence in their employers but pride in their work.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think that it is within the knowledge of some hon. Members that a tragic explosion has taken place in the dock at Grangemouth. Up to eight people are missing and others have severe burns. I think that the Scottish Office industry Minister is aware of the incident. I wonder whether it would be appropriate for the Government to make a statement at some stage this evening, at the Government's choosing.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

The Treasury Bench has heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I cannot take the matter any further at this stage, other than to say that no request has been received, as yet, for a statement to he made.

6.26 pm
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Earlier, the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) appealed to the press to use some discretion in its coverage of tonight's debate on the ground that scenes from the Piper Alpha incident inevitably would be harrowing for the relatives of those involved. That is true, and many of my constituents are in that position. However, it is most important that there is coverage of tonight's debate because the most pressing danger is that of complacency creeping into both the activities of the offshore industry and our proceedings tonight. It is not without significance that throughout the debate there have never been more than half a dozen hon. Members on either side of the House.

As was said earlier, since the Piper Alpha incident there has been a succession of serious incidents in the North sea, although obviously not on the same scale as Piper Alpha. Nevertheless, they have been potentially major incidents. The statistics for "dangerous occurrences" show that they have been increasing during the past few years—so there is no ground for complacency.

An industry that deals with petroleum products tends, by its nature, to be inherently dangerous. As the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said, news is coming through about a serious incident in Grangemouth tonight. I join with the hon. Gentleman in saying that we would appreciate a statement to Scottish Members at some point. The North sea industry is also inherently dangerous and there can be no complacency in the safety regime that we are imposing upon it.

There is a danger that. three and a half years after the Piper Alpha tragedy, some of the scenes—although etched on the memory—are fading from front-line political significance. If we judge the commitment to offshore safety by the amount of money that is spent on it, it would be a strong indictment of the level of concern of this House and of the Government. During the 1980s, only a tiny fraction of 1 per cent. of Government revenue from the North sea was spent on implementing and enforcing the safety regime in the North sea. Even on the increased expenditure levels expected by 1994–95, it is probable that only 1 per cent. of Government revenue will be expended on enforcing the new, beefed-up safety regime in the North sea. If we project that against total revenues expected in that year, it amounts to about one single day of revenue being allocated to the budget to implement the safety regime in the North sea.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for interrupting his speech. I refer to the serious incident in my constituency. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for raising with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the question whether a Government statement can be made later tonight. I have been in contact with the authorities, and particularly with the police in my constituency, who have been as helpful as they can in all the circumstances. Obviously, the emergency services are run off their feet. I hope that it will be possible—though I shall understand if it is not—for a Minister to come to the House to say something about that major incident, which involved the jetty at Grangemouth, which is part of the dock and BP complex.

Madam Deputy Speaker

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised a point of order on that matter a few moments ago—but as the hon. Member for Falkirk, East represents the constituency concerned, it is understandable that he wants to raise it again, and in a most helpful manner. I repeat that, at this stage, Mr. Speaker's Office has not been informed that a Minister wants to make a statement. One may come later—we must wait and see.

Mr. Salmond

A number of right hon. and hon. Members' constituencies include major petroleum production facilities, so I am sure that we all share the concern and anxiety felt by the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing). A statement would be appreciated by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House.

I was making the point that if we judge concern for safety by the money spent on it, then by any measurement or definition, it is a sad indictment of the official concern expressed in the 1980s. A mere fraction of North sea revenues is to be spent on enforcing the safety regime.

When the Select Committee on Energy took evidence, many oil companies said that a huge amount is currently being expended on safety. The Committee was given a figure for new safety expenditure arising from the Cullen report of £850 million, perhaps rising even to £5,000 million over the next 10 to 15 years.

Later evidence established that 70 to 80 per cent. of that expenditure will come from the Exchequer through offsets against petroleum revenue taxation. We are talking not about an industry in decline—no matter what some right hon. and hon. Members may think—but about one in which oil and gas production will rise from more than 2 million barrels a day now to a new peak of almost 3 million barrels a day by the end of the century.

There will be many more production platforms established as smaller accumulations are identified and exploited in the North sea. Because of that, the cost of supervising and enforcing even the new goal-related safety regime will be higher. I am not convinced that, even on the projected budget for the mid-1990s, the budgetary emphasis on safety can yet be considered adequate.

The Bill's provisions are not controversial. It has widespread support in the House as far as it goes, but missing is legislation to protect against victimisation. With respect to the Secretary of State, I believe that most right hon. and hon. Members found very unconvincing his explanation as to why such a provision could not form part of the Bill.

That goes hand-in-hand with the case made for trade union involvement in oil and gas industry activities. Lord Cullen believed that his remit did not allow him to move too far into the question of labour relations, and said so in paragraph 21.83 of his report. However, even given that restriction, the report gave more than a nod and a wink in the direction of the collective security that trade unions could provide if they nominated members of safety committees.

As a member of the Select Committee, I was extremely concerned when Mr. Rimington, Director General of the Health and Safety Executive, revealed in his evidence that he had not been aware of the restrictions that Lord Cullen felt had been placed upon him in respect of investigating labour relations. Lord Cullen's point that trade union involvement gives an enhanced feeling of collective security to offshore employees is one that should be widely recognised.

I am not necessarily holding any brief for some of the activities of certain unions with members working in the North sea. My own view is that, with one honourable exception in the Manufacturing Science Finance union, most of the unions involved in the North sea have not always represented their members effectively, and part of the present response made by the offshore industry liaison committee on moving to trade union status is a reaction to that situation.

None the less, all Select Committee members felt some frustration in trying to identify which procedures would allow offshore workers to apply for trade union recognition, and enforce the general wish for union recognition upon employers. We have received no convincing answers either from UKOOA or the Government as to the procedure that needs to be observed to ensure that offshore workers not only enjoy the right to be trade union members but can have their trade unions recognised by their employers.

In conjunction with the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion), as a member of the Select Committee, I visited a BP platform. The company extended good facilities to speak to its employees and to members of the platform's safety committee in private. A number of issues arose that emphasised the difficulties that safety committees encounter because of the absence of trade union representation.

It should be said that the platform in question was a good, functioning platform, and the safety committee was in general happy with its work and remit, and with the employer's response. However, the committee pointed out that in the absence of trade union involvement, it often found itself faced with broader issues of terms and conditions. The committee was becoming caught up in issues that did not fall within its remit. That is another argument for the clarification of how offshore workers should go about securing trade union rights and recognition.

Dr. Godman

The confusion to which the hon. Gentleman refers does not exist at any of the BP refineries that I have visited.

Mr. Salmond

Yes, I am sure that is so. The Select Committee made the point that, if onshore workers have certain rights, offshore workers should, all the more so, enjoy the same rights. No convincing reason has been given for treating onshore and offshore workers differently—often by the same company.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Is the hon. Member aware that the companies argue that responsibility lies not with them but with their contractors? We pointed out to the companies that they let the contracts, and could therefore require trade union representation as a condition of awarding them.

Mr. Salmond

I agree. It is similarly unconvincing for UKOOA to say that it is not within its remit to consider trade union or labour relations when the Select Committee was presented with a previous UKOOA agreement and understanding dating from the 1970s, which dealt with exactly these points. Unfortunately, it was never implemented.

As to discrimination, we are not necessarily talking about someone being fired, sacked, or NRB'd. There are many more subtler forms of exerting pressure and discrimination. An employee might believe that his promotion prospects hung on the extent of his activity in pushing for trade union recognition or safety provision.

An offshore worker has presented me with a detailed file containing his experiences as a safety representative. I shall not mention his name, for obvious reasons, but his case is now being considered by the HSE. As is well documented in the case evidence, that worker was not suddenly sacked but was transferred to another platform without reasonable cause. When unhappy circumstances befell him, he was treated differently from other employees in the same circumstances. He believes that the subtle discrimination practised on him resulted from his active role in a North sea safety committee.

Whatever Conservative Members may believe, I can assure them that there is a climate of fear among offshore workers who believe—rightly or wrongly, but I think rightly—that many employees are subject to discrimination because companies or contractors consider that they have placed too much emphasis on safety matters.

Another notable example relates specifically to some of the points made in the case study to which I have just referred. When Shell and UKOOA—representingall the major companies—appeared before the Select Committee, they were astonished that anyone should suggest that they, as operators of various North sea fields, could not be approached by any employee, regardless of whether that person was employed directly by a company or employed by a contractor.

As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has pointed out, about a quarter of offshore workers are employed by the major companies, while the remaining three quarters work for contractors. It is clear, however, that in this case the contracting company felt extremely nervous when it found that representatives of a safety committee had gone straight from the employer to the ultimate operator in the field. Its anxiety and the pressure that was placed on the safety committee representatives speak volumes: they reveal that not everyone is treated equally in the North sea, and that, on some North sea installations, there is still a marked divergence between the recourse available to those working for the operator and that accorded to those working for contracting companies.

My final point relates to the penalties that will be employed when North sea workers are eventually given some sort of legislative protection against victimisation. When I asked earlier what those penalties might be, I was fobbed off with the answer that the matter would be referred to the industrial tribunal, and that the worker involved might receive some form of compensation.

Perhaps, if Ministers are preparing legislation, they will take note of my view. I believe that, if it is established through a proper investigation that a company has been victimising workers for reporting safety concerns, that company—whether it is a contractor or an operator—must be in exactly the same position as an employee who has jeopardised the safety of a platform. Given that such an employee would face dismissal if that were proven, a company should face no less than severe curtailment of its operations across the North sea.

Unless we, as legislators, are prepared to treat such circumstances with that degree of seriousness, rather than allowing fines even in the low thousands to be imposed, we are unlikely to secure the safety culture to which North sea workers are, sadly, not accustomed but are certainly entitled.

6.43 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I wish to make three points. First, I believe that I speak for a number of my hon. Friends when I say that we want the Bill to reach the statute book, come what may, in view of the approaching general election, and I hope that it will be given a fair wind. If it is thought that the politicians have dithered in any way, we shall be slaughtered on the anvil of public opinion and informed opinion in the oil industry. People will ask, "Are they more concerned with their politics than with recommendations that must be implemented as a matter of urgency?"

Mr. Robert Hughes

I hope that my hon. Friend will dispel any notion that the Secretary of State may have sought to introduce to the effect that the passage of the Bill would be seriously delayed if we examined the important question of victimisation. The Bill could, with our support, be amended speedily, and we certainly will not hold it up in any circumstances.

Mr. Dalyell

That brings me to the second issue that I wish to discuss—the question of anonymity, which the Secretary of State mentioned several times in his opening speech.

According to my experience—and, I believe, that of my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)—there is no such thing as anonymity. We find, in our day-to-day constituency work, that if we complain we are asked—quite understandably—to produce more facts: we are asked for the basis of the complaint. If we give the basis of the complaint, however, it is very easy for employers to look down the list and find out which employee comes from Linlithgow, Greenock and Port Glasgow, Aberdeen, North or Banff and Buchan. It is not difficult to put two and two together.

I do not say that people "have it taken out of them" for making a complaint at the time when that complaint is made, but there may be a problem the next time something happens. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned promotion, for instance. All these things enter into such considerations, and the proverbial black mark may be recorded. It is very difficult to pursue an issue when it is impossible to produce a detailed case. Ministers should take on board this message from those of us who speak for people with whom we come into contact in our day-to-day work: something must be done about victimisation, and it must be done quickly. It cannot be postponed.

I cannot stand here and say, "You will not get your Bill through unless you do something about victimisation." That would be a very empty threat. I believe, however, that when it is felt almost unanimously in the House of Commons that something should be done—on a "no-line Whip"—Governments have at least a moral obligation to answer questions properly.

My final question is rather more specific. It relates to recommendation 57 of the Cullen report. Let me yet again express the view that Lord Cullen and his staff have produced a document of world-class significance—in, given the circumstances, a remarkably short time. In view of the time that other reports have taken to produce—I attended day 167 of the Layfield committee inquiry on Sizewell recently—it is enormously to Lord Cullen's credit that he has produced such a detailed and worthwhile document so quickly.

Paragraph 57 says: For the purpose of maintaining breathable air within the accommodation, it should be required by regulation that the ventilation air intakes should be provided with smoke and gas detectors and that on smoke or gas alarm the ventilation and dampers should be shut down". That refers to paragraphs 19.171 and 19.172. Paragraph 19.171 states: The need for an integrated approach is illustrated by the ventilation system. It is clearly essential that smoke should not be sucked into the accommodation through the ventilation intakes. On the other hand, positive pressure maintained by the ventilation system allows the use of air locks to prevent smoke entering through main entrance and evacuation doors. The power supply for the ventilation system introduces another factor, since it is essential that emergency power to other functions in the accommodation should not be jeopardised. In short, the ventilation system needs to be thought through to minimise the chance either of its being ineffective or defeated or of its actually making things worse. Paragraph 19.172 states: There is, however, one specific measure which I am satisfied I should support. The air intakes of the ventilation system should be provided with hydrocarbon gas and smoke detectors and on alarm the ventilation and dampers should shut down. I note that the draft fourth edition of the guidance notes to the Construction and Survey Regulations contains provisions on this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) and other colleagues know what it is to which I refer. It arises from constituency surgeries. Very considerable concern has been expressed about the ventilation systems, not least in relation to the lavatories on some of the platforms.

I do not intend to go into too much detail. The Department knows the precise field to which I refer. I shall tell the Minister afterwards. I hope that he will be able to say that great attention is now being given to Lord Cullen's concerns about the ventilation systems.

6.51 pm
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

This debate, which essentially arises out of the Piper Alpha disaster, has been given even greater poignancy due to the reports that we have received of a major explosion at Grangemouth. Points of order have been raised, asking for a statement tonight. The Opposition appreciate, however, that it may be premature for the issue to be raised in Parliament tonight while there is uncertainty. However, may I ask the Minister to take on board the fact that it would be appropriate for a statement to be made to the House tomorrow.

The debate is important and has led to keen observations being made on both sides of the House. I repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) said: the Opposition have absolutely no intention of trying to block the Bill. It is an important Bill even if, as it stands, we believe that it needs to be improved. It is also important because it arises out of the death of 167 people in 1988 after the Piper Alpha explosion. It is important, too, because it arises out of Lord Cullen's report which focused on other accidents in the oil industry, and elsewhere, as well as on the Piper Alpha accident.

The Cullen report is widely recognised as one of the most excellent reports that has ever been produced on matters that affect industrial safety. The report is important because it makes it clear that where safety is not given priority by both management and the regulatory authorities—in this case the Department of Energy and the Government—things begin to go badly awry. The Minister said earlier today that he hoped it would be accepted that the Government had come to the House in good faith. However, we judge the Government's good faith in terms of their track record.

In many ways it has considerable weaknesses. I point to the fact that both the Department of Energy, in its failure to prioritise safety within the oil industry, and more generally the Government, supported by Conservative Members, in their consistent failure throughout the 1980s to provide a framework for safety, contributed to a number of major disasters. Piper Alpha is significant tonight, but the Herald of Free Enterprise and the King's Cross disasters can be attributed, to a considerable extent, to the Government's failure to give priority to safety. Faced with the pressure resulting from those disasters, we know that the Government have begun to try to undo some of the damage. However, the rising level of deaths and serious injuries in industry generally is a matter of great shame to us all, but it is a matter of great shame in particular for those who can be held to he responsible. There is an enormous cost in terms of both human tragedy and the economic implications, through days lost through sickness and ill health. The provision of an overall health and safety regime is considerably less today than it once was. That ought to concern us all.

I hope that the Minister is able to deny newspaper reports about the Government's attitude to safety. According to those reports, almost incredibly the Government are even now considering the privatisation of the electrical equipment certification service. That service did a considerable amount of work after the explosions on Piper Alpha. Since then, the service has been greatly involved in the certification of electrical motors on offshore oil and gas platforms in order to ensure that that area of danger is minimised. In the light of Government protestations that safety is of the highest order, the idea that that service should be privatised is brought into focus. Is the Minister in a position to confirm that the Government intend to privatise that important part of the health and safety regime? If it is true, I repeat that it does not square up with the Government's protestations about their concern for safety.

Safety in the oil industry in general is still far from perfect. I understand that during the past 12 months there have been three gas leaks, two in the southern sector and one in the northern sector. The leaks had great similarities with Piper Alpha. Thankfully, they did not lead to the same tragic results. We know that the Government still justify regulation dispensations for the oil industry. I refer to a parliamentary answer that was given to me by the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth). I asked under what circumstances dispensations from the health and safety regulations were given by the Department to offshore oil companies. The Minister replied: Each application is carefully considered and only granted subject to equivalent or higher alternative safety arrangements being in place."—[0fficial Report, 22 January 1992;Vol. 202, c. 266.] North sea operators are given dispensations, not only when there are equivalent or higher alternative arrangements in place but in some cases when it is well known to the authorities that the platforms are operating at a level that would not be allowed if they were completely new platforms. I refer the Minister to the specific case of the Amoco Montrose platform—now, thankfully, closed—which was given dispensation for nine years although it was known that the accommodation facilities did not meet the fire regulation standards that apply to platforms. However, it had been built when the new fire regulations had been well trailed. We cannot accept seriously the argument that an overwhelming case can be made that the Government regard safety as a matter of the greatest priority.

The most important single factor in terms of the Cullen report and the Bill is, inevitably, the movement of responsibility for health and safety in the oil industry to the Health and Safety Executive. We welcome that. It is right and proper that there should be one regulatory agency. Furthermore, it finally resolves the conflict between the Department of Energy, as the producer Department, and the Department of Energy as the Department that is responsible for monitoring safety. I draw the attention of the House and of Ministers to the fact that in that context it seems to make no sense whatsoever that one regulatory authority responsible for safety—the maritime inspectorate—should still remain within the Department of Transport. I hope that the Ministers will seriously consider that the time has come to tidy up that particular aspect of health and safety.

One of the Cullen report's most important contributions to safety has been the development of the concept of a safety case. That is widely accepted by all those involved in health and safety both in Britain and throughout the world. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) made an important point when he referred to the need for health and safety to be designed in from the beginning. It is quite obvious that in many cases health and safety cannot be bolted on, as an afterthought, to the basic design. That is why the concept of the safety case—a case going back to the very essentials of design—is so important.

I want to put a specific question to the Minister. It is clear that, in the development of the safety case regime, time is of the essence. I hope that that is accepted on both sides of the House. We recognise the complexity of the situation and the fact that there is a shortage of skills, so we make no criticism of the time that this process has taken. It is to be hoped that everything possible is being done to bring forward the safety regime as quickly as possible. It is likely that outside consultants will be employed by the Health and Safety Executive. If so, a conflict may well arise between the work of the consultants in their capacity as testers of design for the private operators and what they do for the HSE to determine whether the safety case is well established. It is not a conflict which will lead inevitably to problems, but it should be recognised at an early stage and rectified by the Government.

The safety case regime in the North sea is based to a considerable extent on the CIMAH regulations—the major accident hazard regulations as applied to industry on land. At present, only 18 people in the Health and Safety Executive are working on those regulations, and even though the provisions have been in operation for about two and a half years, fewer than one third of the safety cases have been accepted as being proper working documents. We welcome the emphasis on safety in the North sea, but we expect a parallel prioritisation of the extremely dangerous potential accident sites onshore, and we expect to see an improvement in that situation.

In the Cullen report and in the House today we have witnessed an important debate about the role of safety representatives. It will come as no surprise to the Minister to hear that we have always taken the view that safety representatives are at their best when backed by a trade union, of whose resources and training they are able to take advantage. If I pursue this issue, the Minister will refer me, as the Secretary of State referred the Select Committee, to the current review of the safety representatives and of the safety committee regulations. While I accept that, I have to say that we expect those undertaking the review to have complete power to look into all areas and, specifically, to consider whether safety representatives who are not backed by a trade union are in a position to give the same kind of expert advice as would be expected from safety representatives appointed by a trade union. If the review is to command the support of all sides of industry it must be seen as being thorough and in-depth. Otherwise it will be flawed. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate when the whole review process is likely to be completed. It seems that matters have fallen behind schedule and need to be put back on the rails.

Many issues have been raised in this debate. Obviously victimisation is a very relevant matter, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) made a number of important points. I do not want to go over that ground again; suffice it to say that we accept the Secretary of State's assurance that the Government are making a genuine effort to find a mechanism to implement Lord Cullen's recommendation 30.

The Select Committee drew attention to the underreporting of accidents in the oil industry. Clearly, part of that under-reporting comes down to the fear of victimisation. Surely there can no longer be any argument about the fact that the RIDDOR regulations, which make compulsory the reporting of all serious onshore accidents, should be applied directly offshore or be paralleled by the introduction of equivalent offshore regulations. The House would welcome a statement that the Government intended to pursue that line.

Another important area in terms of safety in the offshore industry is the COSHH regulations, which all parties in this House claim is one of the great steps forward in health and safety provision in this country. Of course, the COSHH regulations do not apply offshore, and the Minister ought to consider whether it is time to provide such protection for those who work in the offshore industry.

We shall save for the Committee stage the debate about the level of penalties that are appropriate under the Bill. It is important that we accept that the central thrust of the measure is about the offshore industry. The Bill arises very much out of the Piper Alpha incident. Many lives were lost in that incident, and we have an obligation to the 30,000-odd people working in the industry, as well as those who lost loved ones in the tragedy. We must provide a framework for an enduring safety regime for the offshore industry.

We intend to ensure that the Bill passes speedily. In no circumstances shall we frustrate its progress. On that basis I hope that we can look to the Government to ensure that recommendation 30 of the Cullen report is implemented simultaneously. That is a matter of great importance. If we can have such an assurance we shall be able, for once, to say that the Bill has bipartisan support.

7.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Eric Forth)

This has been a serious and well-informed debate, arising, as many hon. Members have said, from one of the most serious and tragic accidents that we have experienced in our generation. Hon. Members on both sides, particularly those whose constituents were most directly affected, have made valuble contributions to the debate. Indeed, we have seen the House at its best.

With regard to the incident at Grangemouth, to which two or three hon. Members have referred, I should say that we are receiving information almost by the minute. Indeed, the situation changes every time we receive further word. The location and seriousness of the incident are still in some doubt. I am sure that one of my ministerial colleagues will want to inform the House tomorrow. Health and Safety Executive inspectors are already on their way to the scene. I hope that Opposition Members accept that were we to attempt a rushed account this evening it would of necessity be incomplete. I am sure that hon. Members would prefer to hear a more considered account tomorrow. It is such an account that my colleagues would prefer to give. I hope that that is acceptable to all hon. Members.

In the time available to me I shall answer as many as possible of the points that have been raised. If I should miss any, I shall write to the hon. Members concerned as soon as possible—if possible, before the commencement of the Committee stage so that any information that I can give may be used in Committee.

At a very early stage the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) raised the question of resources. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the offshore safety division is a separate, discrete, independent division of the Health and Safety Executive. All the posts in it are additional. There have been some temporary secondments to ensure that the division is staffed as effectively as possible and that the experience available is as approprite as may be. However, the officers are all additional. To date, 84 are in post, and 51 offers of posts have been made. So we are well on the way to achieving the recruitment targets that have been set with a view to making the decision as effective as possible.

Clause 5 was commented on by the hon. Member for Sedgefield and by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter). I wish to make it clear that it is a safety net clause which follows on similar provisions made for the telecommunications, electricity and water industries. Experience has taught us that it has not been necessary to invoke the similar or parallel provisions made for those industries. It is not envisaged that we would have to use them for the offshore industry, but the provisions provide a safety net.

We see no conflict between security and safety. The hon. Member for Sedgefield questioned the commercially sensitive nature of the provision. There will be no compromise between safety and commercial motivation, but occasionally the divulging of information might be commercially damaging to the business involved. I do not think that anyone would believe that that was either necessary or sensible. Therefore, there is no conflict between commercial viability or motivation and safety, but we believe that the security of the installations and of those who work in them should be a legitimate purpose of the Bill and the provisions in clause 5. I hope that all hon. Members will accept that that is the motivation behind the clause; it is a last resort provision which we hope will not be required.

I shall try to allay hon. Members' understandable anxieties about the subject of victimisation. I shall not mention each one individually, but almost all contributors to the debate have touched on the issue and made no secret of their concern. Indeed, they made the extent of their anxiety explicitly clear. I regret that there was some suspicion in the minds of Opposition Members.

It is important to make it clear that, within the existing regime, if a safety representative has been victimised to the point of being unable to carry out his functions as a safety representative, the installation operator and owner would be in breach of the Offshore Installations (Safety Representatives and Safety Committees) Regulations 1989. In that case, enforcement action could be taken under that provision.

If safety standards are threatened by the alleged or actual act of victimisation, offshore safety division inspectors have the powers, under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, to issue improvement and prohibition notices. They have further powers, under the Mineral Workings Acts, to require improvements to be made or an activity to be stopped. In that sense, powers exist to cover that issue.

Mr. Dalyell

How often have those powers been used?

Mr. Forth

From memory, I believe that six incidents have been reported in the past year. A number of investigations have been made by the Health and Safety Executive. As has been mentioned, one problem is that, when such cases have gone to tribunal, there has not been an overwhelming success—

Mr. Dalyell

Of course.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman says, "Of course". The hon. Members for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) spent some time describing in detail cases with which they were familiar. As tribunals are totally independent of Government and are judicial organisations, they must have the power—and the House must respect that power—to investigate such matters and come to a conclusion. It is a bit unfair of Opposition Members to ask Ministers to make judgments on or second guess what tribunals do. That cannot be our role.

Mr. Salmond

The Minister is always making the case there there is no need for legislative change. I hope that he will veer away from that argument and say why legislative change is needed. If he were a safety representative on a platform and, without explanation, he were transferred to another platform run by the same operator or service company, how would an industrial tribunal or any other organisation be able to prove that the reason for his transfer was that he was making a nuisance of himself over safety matters? How does the Minister intend to deal with that?

Mr. Forth

That constraint would apply to almost any regime. The hon. Gentleman is unfair to claim that we have said that we shall not take action. My right hon. and learned Friend has said more than once, and I have repeated it, that it is the Government's avowed intention to deal with that subject. However, we want to take the right action, and to do so properly and comprehensively. Our view, and the advice given us, is that the Bill does not represent a suitable way to deal with that problem.

We share the desire of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) to get the Bill on the statute book before any interruptions caused by imminent events. In order to do so, given the stage that the Bill has reached, it would be risky to start seeking to extend its scope or coverage, play with the long or short titles or introduce new sectors in the Bill, for whatever reason. Not only would there be great procedural difficulties in doing so, but there would be political difficulties. We want to guide the Bill through all its stages and for it to be properly scrutinised in Committee. With the help of Opposition Members, who have generously said that they will help, we hope to see the Bill on the statute book as soon as possible. I do not want to do anything to jeopardise that process. Therefore, my right hon. and learned Friend has given an undertaking that we shall proceed with legislation as soon as it is reasonable to do so, but the Bill is not the appropriate way.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I took the opportunity in the interval between speaking and listening to the Minister's wind-up to consult "Erskine May" on the subject of changing Bills' titles. "Erskine May" states clearly that amendments may be made in Committee even if they are not within the Bill's scope according to the long title. Thereafter, once the Bill is amended, the long title may be changed, but only to take account of the amendments that have been made. Therefore, I believe that we can square the circle and there is no reason to say that, by widening the scope of the Bill's long title, it would open the issue so much that the Bill's progress to Report would be unnecessarily delayed.

Mr. Forth

I have not been in the House as long as the hon. Gentleman and I defer to his experience. In addition, I have not had the opportunity to read "Erskine May" during the debate, as I was listening attentively to contributors. However, what the hon. Gentleman says is a new one on me, if I may put it as basically as that. I have always been led to believe that we must pay due regard to a Bill's title. If what the hon. Gentleman has just said is true, surely it would mean that any Bill could be amended in almost any way in Committee, and one could subsequently play around with its title in order to accommodate the amendments. That does not accord with my experience, however brief, in the House or in Committee.

Mr. Robert Hughes


Mr. Forth

I do not want to get bogged down in that subject as I want to press on and try to answer questions asked.

Mr. Hughes

I hope that I did not give the impression that a Bill could be amended in any way at all as that is not so. It can be amended even in a way not covered under the Bill's title if the amendment is connected with the Bill's purpose. However, I think it is Standing Order No. 62(b) which states that a Committee can amend a Bill and change the long title for that purpose. If the Minister checks "Erskine May", which I can gladly provide for him, I believe that we can reach common ground on this if there is the will to do so.

Mr. Forth

I shall certainly look at that, but this is exactly the sort of issue in which I do not want us to get involved. What we must do—until today there has been a broad measure of agreement on this—is to try to focus attention on the Bill's aims and motivations. We must ensure that it makes proper progress through the House, receives proper scrutiny and is on the statute book before any rude interruptions. I fear that if we are tempted to act as Opposition Members are trying to tempt me to do now, we might jeopardise the Bill's progress. I accept the offer of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) as given in good faith, but there are 646 hon. Members—I exclude you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues for this purpose—and we cannot necessarily rely on them all to show such restraint and singlemindedness as the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

May I press the Minister on the assurances given by the Secretary of State? I hope that the Minister is not back-tracking on them because we would take a dim view of that.

I suggest that the Minister talks to his departmental officials at the earliest opportunity to find out whether my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) is right. I give the Minister the assurance that, as we have already said, we have no intention of frustrating the Bill. If any strange event were to take place, the Bill would be given the quickest journey through the House and, I hope, through the other place. There is no question of any hon. Member trying to frustrate the Bill. I urge the Minister to consider seriously whether the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North is possible.

Mr. Forth

I accept the hon. Gentleman's offer on the basis on which it was made. The hon. Gentleman knows that it would be more than my job was worth to attempt to go back on undertakings given by my right hon. and learned Friend. He can be certain that that will not happen. I hope that Opposition Members will accept in good faith the undertakings given by my right hon. and learned Friend and myself and that they will accept that we seek to find the best possible way forward to meet the important points about victimisation. We do not dissent from the arguments of substance which have been made, but we ask Opposition Members to allow us to deal with the matter in the most effective way available to us.

The hon. Member for Sedgefield raised an important point about why there had been no prosecutions following Piper Alpha. As he is an expert on such matters, the hon. Gentleman knows better than I that public prosecutions in Scotland are a matter for the Lord Advocate. He decided in the Piper Alpha case that there was insufficient evidence to establish beyond reasonable doubt whether there was any criminal responsibility for the disaster. Applying the ordinary standard of proof in civil cases to the evidence presented at the public inquiry, there had to be proof on the balance of probabilities. Regrettably and tragically, there was no direct evidence in the Piper Alpha case because little equipment was recovered and many of the key people involved tragically lost their lives in the accident. No new evidence came to light after the disaster, so the burden of proof was dependent on inference. The view was taken that a successful criminal prosecution required evidence to establish beyond reasonable doubt the cause of the disaster and that evidence simply was not available.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South)

As a Scottish lawyer, may I make the simple point that the Lord Advocate looked carefully at the question of a prosecution for culpable homicide? I agree with his decision that there was not enough evidence for all the reasons that the Minister has given. Our quibble is with the Lord Advocate's decision not to prosecute under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 for which there is ample evidence as shown by Lord Cullen's report.

Mr. Forth

It would be inappropriate for us to dwell on the matter unnecessarily or to attempt to second-guess the decisions of the Lord Advocate in Scotland on the matter. However, I will ask my colleagues to consider again the hon. Gentleman's point to see what substance we can make of it. I have attempted to reply to the point raised by the hon. Member for Sedgefield by putting on record the reasons why some people may find it difficult to understand why no prosecution was pursued.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) made a detailed point about certificates and the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) also touched on that point. The difficulty is that the two contributions made opposite points. My hon. Friend seemed to say that it was too easy to obtain the certificates, and that they were handed out with packets of cereal or like confetti. The hon. Gentleman then implied that it was difficult for people to obtain certificates because of the cost of obtaining the qualifications. I suppose that the true position lies somewhere between the two. The offshore petroleum industry training organisation has now established a data base to provide details of the courses attended. The idea is that it can check more accurately whether people have done the courses, and I hope that that answers the point made by my hon. Friend. She gave me her apologies earlier for being unable to be here for this stage of the debate.

I will look again at the point made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow. It is worrying if people are being deterred from obtaining such a certificate of qualification by prohibitive costs. The local enterprise companies in Scotland would want to consider the matter, although I doubt whether at this stage we should want to regard it as the responsibility of the LECs to give individual support or subsidy to people seeking such a qualification. I do not rule that out completely, but I believe that we should consider the matter carefully before going down such a route.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful for the Minister's sympathetic response to my point. In a constituency such as mine there are many highly skilled men, such as shipbuilders and welders, out of work. In many cases, because they are unemployed, they are deterred from seeking the vital certificate because of the cost involved in having to travel to Grampian to undertake the training at the Robert Gordon institute of technology. That is the problem.

Mr. Forth

If the hon. Gentleman waits for a few days, he may be made aware of developments emanating from a source not far from me now which may interest him and which may deal with that point. The issue has an application wider even than the application that the hon. Gentleman describes. We are very much seized of that point and we want to take action as soon as possible on it. I am being terribly careful in what I say and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands why.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I hope that the Minister is not speaking about the date that must not be mentioned.

Does the Minister agree that when individuals have raised money to pay for the offshore survival course, it is disgraceful that they should be denied unemployment benefit on the basis that they are unavailable for work while they are on the training course? Is that still the case? Will the Department change that rule?

Mr. Forth

That is not my direct responsibility, but I will ask my colleague the Under-Secretary of State to reply to the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to give an inaccurate answer from the Dispatch Box. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a reply as soon as possible.

Mr. Salmond

Given that the Minister is in such expansive mood I will press him on the matter of training. The Minister may not be aware that Scottish Enterprise is considering a proposal at present. Although we have some excellent training establishments onshore, there may be a gap in the market, not only for the North sea, but internationally, for training that mimics offshore conditions on semi-submersibles. Would the Department of Employment be willing to co-operate on that?

Mr. Forth

Certainly it would. However, I believe that if Scottish Enterprise has the matter in hand, it could not be better dealt with. I shall introduce a tiny degree of controversy by saying that some of us south of the border are always envious of the resources and resourcefulness of those north of the border in dealing with such matters. I will go even further while I am in an expansive mood and say that we often look at what happens north of the border to give us inspiration and we then follow. In this case, we may want to follow.

I will move on rapidly and I will deal with the points made by—I seem to have dealt with all of this already—[HON. MEMBERS: "The peroration."] No, it is not yet the peroration. I will deal with the important points made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow about standby vessels. Following the recommendations by Lord Cullen, that is one of the points in which I took a particular interest. I think that Opposition Members have accepted that we have had to strike a careful balance throughout between using the maximum speed in improving the standards of standby vessels and not imposing impractical standards which might reduce the number of vessels available. That could jeopardise the number of installations which could operate and, therefore, the number of jobs that people could do.

There is a balance to be struck between the absolute imperative of safety and the practicability of moving forward on this basis. The Health and Safety Executive looked at the matter and last July—partly, if I may say so, at my urging—issued a new code defining new standards for standby vessels. As I am sure the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow knows, the first trip date was 1 January 1992, by which time matters of equipment on the vessels had to be dealt with. The further vital date of 31 December 1992 is the date by which all vessels must comply fully with the requirements. The United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association—the industry organisation—has undertaken to charter vessels only if they comply with the code.

I believe that substantial progress has been made—and probably the most rapid progress that could reasonably have been expected in this difficult area. There were many years of neglect on which to catch up. I believe that we have done that promptly and thoroughly and—this is important—have carried the industry with us. That was the right way in which to proceed as I hope the hon. Member for Port Glasgow agrees. It is certainly a matter on which we shall keep a close eye because we do not want there to be any suggestion that there is any backsliding. So far no such suggestion has been made, and I hope that the Opposition will accept that we are striking the right balance, making progress where it can be delivered practically in terms of vessels in attendance on installations.

Let me repeat what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said about the review, which is a matter highly relevant to hon. Members' comments about the role of trade unions and trade union members in health and safety representation. My right hon. and learned Friend referred to the commitment, given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy in September 1989, to review the Offshore Installations (Safety Representatives and Safety Committees) Regulations 1989. We have honoured that commitment, and the review is now under way. It commenced only recently and will take about nine months to complete. The Health and Safety Executive will then want to consult a wide range of interested parties and will then make its recommendations to the commission—the tripartite body on which trade unions are represented. At that point, a balanced judgment can be made on the best way forward. I hope that the Opposition agree that that is a reasonable way to proceed. I believe that it is. The review will be impartial, thorough and professional and will then be dealt with by the commission, which is independent of the Government and in a good position to decide the best way forward.

I hope that I have dealt with the point raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow about our shared desire to see the provision on the statute book. I can give an absolute commitment that it is the aim of my right hon. and learned Friend and myself that the measure will reach the statute book as soon as it has been given due scrutiny in Committee and with the co-operation of all hon. Members involved. I am pleased that the Bill has had such widespread support in the House.

Knowing the hon. Member for Linlithgow as I do, I think that he will understand that I should like to reply to his question about recommendation 57 in writing. It is an important point, and I want to deal with it properly and in detail.

Mr. Dalyell

indicated assent.

Mr. Forth

I am pleased to see that the hon. Gentleman has accepted that.

Dr. Godman

Will the Minister now confirm that the Bill is utterly compatible with the draft directive?

Mr. Forth

The answer is yes. I am sorry that I had missed that point, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of it.

The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) asked me about a newspaper report concerning the alleged privatisation of the electrical equipment certification service. I should have thought that, having been in the House and in politics for so long, the hon. Gentleman would know that he must not believe all that he reads in the newspapers—indeed, I am sure that he does not. The service is under review by the HSE and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will want to await the outcome of the review, in which a wide range of options will be looked at and in which recommendations will be made as to how best to proceed. That will be done against the background of the fact that the very existence of the executive is predicated on the assumption that we must maintain the highest possible health and safety standards at all times. Nothing that the HSE would do or recommend would prejudice that.

The hon. Member for Stretford also referred to a rising tide of death and injury in industry. I have heard him say something similar before, and have been disappointed for a number of reasons. There is no statistical or factual evidence to suggest such a rising tide. Moreover, the mapping exercise done recently by the Health and Safety Commission compared our health and safety record with that of France, Italy, Germany and Spain and found that we were as good as any of them and better than most. I am disappointed, therefore, that the hon. Member for Stretford should repeatedly make such allegations both inside and outside the House. That does no good to the HSE or the country, and it is simply not true.

I am grateful to all those hon. Members who have participated in the debate for the positive way in which they have lent their support to the aims and objectives of the Bill and, indeed, to most of its contents. If the House gives the Bill its Second Reading, I hope that we shall continue in this constructive spirit in Committee, seeking to fashion a Bill that will make a major contribution to the health and safety of all those operating offshore. The best thing that we can do for the relatives of the victims of the Piper Alpha tragedy and for those who survived it is to produce a good Bill in a timeous fashion. I hope that the House will share that aim and will give the Bill its Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).