§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]6.59 pm
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
As I hope I shall explain in this debate, my constituent, Mr. Robert Nortcliff, has suffered an intolerable experience to which Parliament should attend. I hope that the attention that is given will lead to the view that his fate was unacceptable. I believe that my constituent acted as a responsible man in a matter that should be considered to be of serious public importance; and I believe that he has suffered a grave injustice. Perhaps the Minister would be good enough to agree with my assessment. I intend to raise a number of matters relating to Mr. Nortcliff's experience, and I hope that I will receive a clear and helpful response from the Minister.
Mr. Nortcliff is an engineer. His earlier industrial career was in the mining industry, in which he reached a responsible position. That experience is relevant, for it meant that he was brought up in a culture of safety which has been responsible for the dramatic improvement in mine safety since 1947—a culture underpinned by regulation, which led to the National Coal Board becoming the safest deep-mine operator in the world. This safety record was achieved, and it continued even when production records were repeatedly shattered. There remain misgivings about recent changes, as the Minister may be aware, but the safety culture in which Mr. Nortcliff gained his first industrial experience meant that he was well aware of the importance of a proper attitude and of decent priorities.
With the closure of the collieries, Mr. Nortcliff decided to pursue a career in the oil industry. He secured employment in the middle east and gained valuable experience there. Returning to Britain, my constituent obtained a position with a contracting business engaged in offshore activity, Nabors of Aberdeen. He was engaged to work on the Elf platform Piper Bravo as an electrical supervisor. He joined the project in 1991 and was dedicated to it from the shipyard right through commissioning to production. I have heard no complaint concerning my constituent's abilities, commitment or expertise.
Unfortunately, Mr. Nortcliff observed dangers and an inadequate response to the arrangements made to safeguard those employed on the platform, and he felt that he had to draw the attention of the management of his company and of the platform's proprietors, Elf, to the risks that he perceived arising from the practices that he observed.
Mr. Nortcliff's oral representations and advice had little or no effect. He then submitted a written memorandum, again achieving little—except perhaps a degree of irritation on the part of the people who should have paid much more attention to his advice. The memorandum was dated 24 February 1993. It pointed out that proper technical judgment had been ignored in the interests of production. He felt that the contracting company, Nabors, was too ready to ignore relevant technical advice.
Not long after, my constituent found that his desk had been moved to another room, but he continued to work with diligence and enthusiasm even though there was little change in his employer's approach. Cynics will know how to respond to the fact that, at the next employer appraisal, it was noted that Mr. Nortcliff's performance had dropped remarkably. That was the first sign that he had of any employer dissatisfaction with his work, and it may have 1622 been related—I believe that it was—to the fact that he had drawn senior management's attention to certain deficiencies, submitted in the written memorandum.
My constituent took the view that this criticism was related to the fact that his professionally necessary and technically competent memorandum had created resentment, perhaps because it was seen as a challenge to those who were not paying adequate regard to the permit-to-work system which is supposed to govern the conduct of operations on a platform.
Mr. Nortcliff then felt that he had little alternative but to inform the Health and Safety Commission's offshore division of his concerns. This was after Nabors had suggested that he move to another oil field. It suggested that he went to the Ninian field, a much older, declining field. Mr. Nortcliff, who was passionately involved and interested in the development at Piper Bravo, felt it right to decline this offer.
Then, in December last year, my constituent was told that he was no longer the Elf Piper Bravo electrical supervisor and that he had to transfer to the Ninian field. He then appealed to his employers and asked that they look into his safety concerns again, pointing out to them that he would have to refer the matter to the Health and Safety Executive if things were not put right. Nabors suggested that he had no proof and that he could not substantiate his fears. The company stood by its decision to replace him as electrical supervisor. I contend that Mr. Nortcliff had no alternative but to draw these serious matters to the attention of the Health and Safety Executive.
My constituent was most concerned and felt, given the company's insistence that he be degraded and removed, that he had no choice, in his own interests, but to inform the relevant parts of the media about his employer's actions. Apparently a senior member of staff at Nabors told him, "You must do what you feel you must do." He did, and immediately informed the relevant newspapers.
The HSE continued its investigation and Mr. Nortcliff remained suspended while it proceeded. Meanwhile, Nabors continued to deny that his suspension had any connection with his removal from the platform or his referral of these matters to the HSE. However, Mr. Nortcliff feared that the conclusions of the health and safety examination would result in his dismissal.
At this point Mr. Nortcliff contacted me, and I wrote to the managing director of Nabors, Mr. Heidt, about my constituent's position. Mr. Heidt replied:There is no question of Mr. Nortcliff being disciplined for his disclosures to the Health and Safety Executive.A very short time later, however, Mr. Nortcliff was dismissed on the ground that he had spoken to the media in breach of his contract. He does not deny that there was a breach of his contract, but he did inform Nabors of his intention to release the information, and he still believes—I agree with him—that he had no alternative but to pursue that course of action.
Most fair-minded people, knowing the treatment that he received, would consider that he acted quite properly. As a qualified, skilled and experienced engineer Mr. Nortcliff was fully aware that giving production an overriding priority above safety can cause and has caused, far too often, tragedies in industrial and offshore operations.
Hon. Members will recall that for quite a few years many of us felt that the HSE's role should be extended to cover North sea operations. The accident rate offshore justified 1623 our call. Many hon. Members will know of constituents who suffered death or injury offshore. That concern led to calls from many of us for improved safety checks—apparently those requests went unheard and unheeded for a long time.
I was concerned not least because of an earlier tragedy when a fine young man from my constituency lost his life on Piper Alpha. I recall that I sought to comfort his bereaved parents by saying that that tragedy would lead to an improved safety regime offshore, which would mean that many more lives would be saved. Yet here we are, a few years later, and I am describing a case concerning not Piper Alpha but Piper Bravo.
The health and safety investigation was concluded in March and further unsatisfactory developments followed. I understand that Nabors claimed that the health and safety report gave it a clean bill of health; in effect implying that Mr. Nortcliff's representations were utterly unfounded. The person responsible for that claim was the personnel manager, Mr. Paterson. He was Mr. Nortcliff's superior and was the official who had instructed Mr. Nortcliff to leave Piper Bravo and transfer to the Ninian field.
I then wrote to Nabors about Mr. Nortcliff's position. I was unaware then that the same Mr. Paterson would also serve as judge and jury as well as supervisor and reporter.
Following Mr. Nortcliff's dismissal, I expressed serious concern to the company and I said that I thought the case should be aired in the House of Commons—perhaps after Mr. Nortcliff's dismissal had been considered by the employment appeal tribunal. I was then astonished to receive a letter from Nabors' solicitor, Mr. J.K. Tierney of Paul and Williams, of Aberdeen. He stated that Nabors would defend the case of unfair dismissal. He also went on to state:I also consider that it would be inappropriate for the matter to be raised in the House of Commons, but this is doubtless a matter which is governed by the House's own rules of procedure.I found that response astonishing because that solicitor should have known that whether powerful individuals or organisations like it or not, the House provides an opportunity for the plight, difficulties or injustices experienced by our constituents to be aired. We must be able to raise matters affecting our constituents, especially when they experience the type of unfairness that Mr. Nortcliff suffered. I was astonished to receive such a letter from someone who, were he a Member of the House, might possibly be called learned.
At the beginning of the long recess we were awaiting the hearing at employment appeal tribunal. Nabors had already said emphatically that it would contest the case. I welcomed that decision, because it meant that the truth would be established in a public arena. Just before the tribunal hearing, however, Nabors settled. That may have provided a little comfort and some necessary compensation to my constituent, but the case was not aired. I believe that it is right that it should be put before the House tonight.
I was grateful for the fact that the health and safety officials said that they would have been prepared to give evidence and present the facts at the tribunal—perhaps that is why Nabors was particularly eager to settle.
It is a pity that there has been no previous public examination of the case, but at least we have a modest opportunity to do so now. This debate might be the only opportunity to consider the essential purpose to which Mr. Nortcliff was dedicated.
1624 Since I considered that my constituent's case was not wholly one for Nabors, I also sought to contact Elf, the platform operator. I did so through the Earl of Lauderdale, who has had a long honourable involvement in energy matters and with that company. I regret that its reply was unacceptable, because it sought to suggest that it considered that responsibility rested solely with Nabors. I was disturbed by that response, because I do not believe that the operators of oil installations can transfer responsibility, legal or moral, to the contractors that work for them. The senior employers at Elf, were, however, aware of the grounds for my constituent's concerns. Platform operators and major oil companies should not simply opt out of their responsibilities, especially when that could have fatal consequences. I do not believe that such a responsibility can be evaded and I regret that Elf was evasive in this case.
No one has sought to deny that Mr. Nortcliff acted responsibly, yet he was dismissed and his efforts and concerns were set at naught. The Minister might care to consider how Mr. Nortcliff felt when, having been belittled, criticised and sacked, his employers then claimed that the examination carried out by health and safety officials vindicated their actions. Mr. Nortcliff is naturally dissatisfied with the results and naturally he feels somewhat aggrieved at the response from those officials.
My constituent had asked for an investigation into several incidents, including one in October 1993 when blocks weighing around 50 tonnes smashed into the crown bumping beam, causing a good deal of damage. I am told that that was due to the fact that the protective arrangements had been deliberately shorted out, apparently with the knowledge, if not on the instructions, of the rig superintendent and of Elf.
In November 1993, operations were continued when the top drive electrical service loop was damaged. The covering on high-voltage cabling was torn and the related junction box was smashed, leaving live conductors exposed. Also in November 1993, a magnetic sensor had to be replaced on the derrick crown. As the electrical supervisor, Mr. Nortcliff proceeded in the proper manner by drawing up the necessary permit to enable that work to be done. He was told that someone else would do it, without a permit—a complete breach of safety arrangements. The job was done without machinery being isolated. We should bear it in mind that that happened on Piper Bravo, but we still remember what happened on Piper Alpha. Electrical systems should not be switched off and safety arrangements abandoned so that production may be maintained.
On another occasion, someone modified an item of electrical equipment without certification when a request for a replacement had been rejected. That suggests that economy looms rather larger than safety in the minds of some of those responsible.
I believe that any examination of those events shows that the health and safety report vindicated not Nabors, but my constituent, Mr. Nortcliff. I regret that those officials did not make it clear that it was unacceptable to suggest that Mr. Nortcliff's claims were unjustified. They should have been sufficiently responsible to set the record straight. Health and safety considerations required that Nabors put its systems right.
The report revealed an obvious awareness that production had been the overriding priority. The officials knew that the rules had been breached, so perhaps the Minister would agree that it would have been better had a 1625 firmer line been taken at that time. The failure to do so meant that my constituent's punishment was particularly severe.
I hope that lessons have been learned and that the Minister will be able to give the House information to suggest or provide evidence that they have. I also hope that he will offer other assurances. I hope that he will assure the House that he and his Department accept that Mr. Nortcliff acted responsibly by proceeding with the complaints about conditions and practices on Piper Bravo. I hope that he will agree that it was entirely right for him to ensure that safety had a higher priority and that it is entirely right for the House to attend to the case.
I also hope that the Minister will accept that offshore employers should recognise, or if necessary be made to recognise, that production cannot command a priority over safety, as was the case on Piper Bravo. That being so, I hope that the Minister will commend Mr. Nortcliff and share my hope that a more responsible company will recognise his ability to provide a significant and professional contribution to the industry and, by implication, make it clear that both Nabors and Elf have cause for shame for their attitude.
The other day I saw a tape of a television programme, in which a leading business man, speaking at a conference some years ago, suggested that the reality of the effect of the United Kingdom's oil resource on the British economy in the 1980s was that it might better have been left in the ground. The Minister might agree that the Government's policies would have looked rather sick if that had happened. As a nation, we must accept that the resource was not put to its best use—it was as if a golden bullet emerged from the wrong end of the gun.
If a similar situation to that which my constituent tried to put right occurs offshore again, and if the nation is prepared to tolerate an inadequate emphasis being given to safety—as was the case on Piper Bravo—people such as Mr. Nortcliff ought not to bear the blame. Perhaps it should be borne not by the Health and Safety Executive but by the whole of our society, if it is prepared to tolerate such risks. My constituent has done nothing of which he should or could be ashamed. I hope that the debate will have pointed to the direction that that shame should take.
One other matter is important. I have visited several offshore establishments. Some years ago, I stayed on a platform and was greatly relieved at the concern for safety exhibited there. Some offshore companies reveal a far greater care for safety than has been demonstrated in this case. Does the Minister agree that those companies that have cared and have served priorities properly ought not to be let down because their competitors cut corners even at the risk of bringing the industry into disrepute? Will the Minister assure the House that the Health and Safety Executive will not be slow or reluctant to act with that austere sternness that past tragedies, such as Piper Alpha, necessitate?
Work on the North sea is far from land and close to hazard. It is potentially exceedingly dangerous and it is inappropriate for that danger to be compounded by inadequate priority. At least Mr. Nortcliff can be comforted by the fact that much attention has been focused on the record of his former employers and that of the operator, Elf. 1626 I was recently greatly obliged to receive a publication called "Blowout", which describes itself asthe voice of the offshore worker".It is a fine publication, at least as far as the presentation of Mr. Nortcliff's case is concerned.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
Perhaps my hon. Friend should explain that that sort of blowout is not the type to which we normally refer in the House. It is a technical term used in oil and gas fields.
§ Mr. Hardy
I am grateful for that intervention. I have eaten offshore and all the meals were first class. Perhaps they did not quite reach the standard of the Ritz hotel in Paris, but they were substantial—perhaps they did not cost quite so much as those at the Ritz either. I do not know what the meals were like on Piper Bravo, but on the rigs on which I have eaten they were very satisfactory. As my hon. Friend said, however, they do not justify the term "blowout", which has a different definition in this context.
The front page of today's issue of "Blowout" refers to the fact thatNabors dodged the publicity of an industrial tribunal by settling out of court … Nabors can count itself lucky to have got off so lightly. Had the industrial tribunal gone ahead, it would have highlighted mismanagement of safety of astounding proportions. This, on the platform which is the successor to Piper Alpha and which has been held up as a shining example".One is still left with a rather nasty taste.
The publication states that Mr. Nortcliff claims that the case reveals thatThe HSE has refused to condemn actions by individuals where the law was broken … condoned actions in breach of company safety rules and procedures; and … took no cognisance of interference by his supervisors"—in the exercise of the duties of a responsible and qualified employee. My constituent and I have much sympathy with that view. He questions the statement made by Mr. Allan Sefton, director of operations for the offshore safety division, thatOur policy is to allocate sufficient resources to investigations to determine the root cause of concerns and to ensure action is taken by duty holders to rectify conditions to prevent recurrence.
"Blowout" also states that the HSE sees its way forward by "proactive intervention", by which it meansinfluencing all employers and maintaining a regular presence".That statement worries me because it is related to resources. Perhaps the Minister will assure the House that there will be no difficulty about providing adequate resources for the maintenance of official health and safety regulations offshore. Mr. Nortcliff s case emphasises the need for that.
There is a case for decent relationships. There is a role for persuasion. If the rules are broken and safety equipment is shorted or switched off, one must be willing to pursue the matter in the courts, otherwise regulation becomes diminished.
I hope that there has been no case for the diminution of safety so far in the debate and trust that the Minister's observations will take us a little further and reassure us that Mr. Nortcliff s experience is never likely to be repeated.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
I did not enter the Chamber determined to join the debate, but the topic is so related to my past experience that I felt compelled to comment. I appreciate the fact that the Minister kindly 1627 agreed that I should be allowed to participate in the Adjournment debate as, under normal protocols, I would not be allowed to intervene.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) on raising this matter, which he outlined to the House with considerable skill. He presented a powerful case very clearly. I would not want to comment on it specifically, other than to emphasise the argument that ought to be emphasised—that Mr. Nortcliff had been involved in the Piper Bravo project from day one. He had been involved from the shipyard to hook-up in the North sea, which means putting pieces together in exposed conditions; to commissioning, which means bringing the piece to fruition; through to production. That displays a remarkable personal commitment. We have to understand the mentality of a construction worker if we are to understand that commitment. I say that speaking as one of them. I shall try to explain the base from which I speak.
Having taught for almost 10 years, I left the profession and became a construction worker. I did not "go into construction", as one says; I became a construction worker. That means that I became a labourer. I dug foundations, lay footings, erected scaffolding, carried the hod and generally did what was necessary. Of course, my qualifications as a schoolmaster hardly qualified me to be a construction engineer. After some years, having covered almost every job from one level to another, I became a construction project manager. I was involved in construction work as a member of senior management.
At the same time, I was a committed trade unionist. Although a project manager, I also sat as a lay member on the national executive of my trade union, which at that time was referred to as AUEW-TASS. Indeed, I served on the north regional council of the Trades Union Congress. I had several heads and I had to be very careful about which hat I put on which head at what time. As far as I am aware, I did not commit any major error. My loyalties were always clear to everyone, on whatever team, and I never betrayed anybody or any responsibility.
As a project manager, I had to employ individuals of all grades: industrial—from labourers through to engineers—administrative and managerial. I also had to look after their welfare as a responsible employer. At the same time, I had to look after the welfare of my fellow trade unionists with other employers. It was a strange position, but I managed to live with it.
Of course, there were peaks and troughs and at times I had to release personnel. I had to send them out into the wider world saying, "Sorry, we can't employ you for the moment, but as soon as we can we will let you know. If you want to come back then, you will be more than welcome." Some did not always get the "welcome" bit, but that is the way of things. At times I tried to find them other employment, which meant making contact with other employers engaged in similar work and asking them whether they could use the skills of my workers and whether they had any slots in which to place them.
It was through that process that I began to realise that some employers were not as careful or as caring as I sought to persuade my board of management to be. Those employers would cut corners, underpay and demand—it was not just a question of salami slicing—unsafe working. That frightened me so much that I stopped co-operating with them. I felt responsible for putting in jeopardy people who had worked for me and done a decent job.
1628 All that happened between 1970 and 1975, but it leads to another aspect that is more relevant in today's world. I assure the Minister that I am making these comments in a spirit of constructive counselling. I am not making any party political comments; it is my view of how the world has gone. Employees are now required to assess the position where they work and comment on whether or not it is safe. They are required by a law that was introduced after 1979 to say to their supervisor, "Boss, this position is unsafe and therefore I will not work here until you put it right." That is what we, as legislators, have required workers to do.
On the face of it, that is a reasonable requirement to place on a mature journeyman who is experienced in the industry. What is unreasonable is to allow the employer or his representative to turn around and say to that worker, "Do it or you are finished." Yet that is what happens in numerous cases. It is all very well to say that the worker can go to an employment tribunal and gain satisfaction. That is not sufficient. First, the dangerous position—the hazardous circumstances—continues. Secondly, no matter how much compensation is awarded to someone who loses his employment, it is still an affront to his dignity.
I want to quote an example from this very place. The scaffolding erected on the Terrace for cleaning the facade was in a desperate state. Three times over a period of seven weeks I went to the Serjeant at Arms Department, which said that the Property Services Agency had been told to put it right. When I was in the construction industry, I had to ensure that the scaffolding on my sites was examined and certificated as safe every 28 days. However, there was no such requirement for the scaffolding on the Terrace because this is a Crown building. The only way that I could get redress was to come to the House on a Friday afternoon and raise a point of order with the Speaker of the day, now Lord Weatherill.
Although the Serjeant at Arms Department had responded well to my complaints on those three previous occasions, on this occasion it acted with great alacrity and when I returned to the House on the following Tuesday the scaffolding at the Commons end of the Palace was absolutely pristine—indeed, more than in Bristol fashion—up to the line separating the responsibilities of the Serjeant at Arms from those of Black Rod. The scaffolding on the other side of the line was in terrible order, and that is how it remained.
My point is that the conditions in the House largely reflect the circumstances in the North sea, which do not fall within the standards and requirements that apply on dry land. As the crew of Piper Alpha would testify, being that far out to sea calls for conditions immeasurably better than they are on dry land.
I have made my comments not in any way to provoke inter-party disagreement; that does not enter into it. I was a member of management and I was also a trade union representative. I ensured that my clients, the purchasers, got a straight deal from my employer, which was the contractor, and I ensured that the work force for which I was responsible also got a straight deal. We used to play it according to the book. It is pointless having a book unless everyone abides by it and I saw to it that everyone did his fair whack. That is the way to run things.
I offer these comments because the present climate of deregulation weakens that kind of common and reflected trust, and in the knowledge that we come here as 1629 individual Members with a duty to represent the needs of those who send us here. It does not end there, and anyone who thinks that it does is making a great mistake.
We sit here collectively, representing a nation of people who are so diverse, with all sorts of talents, aspirations and needs. Many of those people, in our interests and in the interests of the national economy, put themselves in jeopardy day in, day out, 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 52 weeks a year out in the North sea on gas and oil installations.
I firmly believe that we have a collective duty to ensure that health and safety standards out there, perhaps beyond the 12-mile limit, are respected every bit as much as we would expect them to be in Crawley, Croydon or Crewe. I am sure that the Minister will recognise that. In that spirit I offer these comments to the Minister tonight.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Phillip Oppenheim)
I thank the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) for raising this important issue. I shall not dwell in detail on his comments about dinners at the Ritz, except to say that my experience in that area is sadly limited. Unfortunately, no one ever thought me sufficiently important or influential to invite to the Ritz, so I bow to the hon. Gentleman's greater knowledge. However, I hope to be enjoying the cuisine of an offshore oil installation before long and I shall report to the hon. Gentleman as to whether standards have slipped.
I also thank the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) for his interesting contribution, drawing as it did on his wealth of personal experience, which is always invaluable in this subject. I assure him that when it comes to deregulation our aim is to deregulate only where burdens on industry and business are unreasonable and where the result of those burdens would be to reduce employment.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will find that, particularly with regard to construction sites, we have tightened up and are significantly tightening up regulations in many areas. Health and safety regulations are now, in almost all instances, much tighter than they were a few years ago, and they continue to be tightened. We take this matter very seriously.
The hon. Member for Wentworth rightly raises an important issue. He has an enormous wealth of experience in health and safety matters, particularly onshore. Safety on offshore installations is a top priority. There can be no question about that. No one will forget the horrors of Piper Alpha and we are determined that such a tragedy will not happen again. The Government accepted every one of the 106 recommendations of the Cullen report. More than half of those have already been implemented, and we are making new regulations to implement many others. Much has already been done which will make the industry safer, but I accept that we in Government, the Health and Safety Commission and Executive and the industry must never be complacent. We must all continue to be vigilant.
The case raised by the hon. Gentleman concerns an individual worker. Individual workers are vital to safety. It is they who are exposed on the cutting edge to the 1630 hazards. They are often best placed to identify new hazards and to suggest ways of controlling them. We strongly encourage all companies to involve their workers in safety, as responsible companies do.
I make it clear that any offshore worker who has a concern about safety should always raise it with the safety representative in the first instance and, after that, with the supervisor or manager. If those sanctions do not work and a worker is not satisfied, he can approach an HSE inspector direct. A telephone number for contacting an HSE inspector is posted on every offshore installation and callers are guaranteed anonymity if they request it. That is an important point.
It is the policy of the HSE to consider every complaint or query on offshore safety matters whether made by telephone, letter or in any other way. The HSE does not shrink from taking tough action when required.
I come now to address the two main issues raised by the case of Mr. Nortcliff. First, and perhaps most importantly, there are his concerns regarding health and safety in relation to his employer and, secondly, there is his complaint about the HSE's handling of the report into his concerns.
It was totally legitimate and right for Mr. Nortcliff to raise health and safety matters. I understand that he first raised them with safety representatives and then they and Mr. Nortcliff raised the issues with management. It was because he was not satisfied with the response from management that Mr. Nortcliff first made known his concerns to the HSE, as was his right, although I understand that no complaint was made to the HSE by any elected safety representative.
Mr. Nortcliff s written complaint was received on 17 January 1994. The HSE acted promptly in conducting a full investigation into all the issues raised in the complaint. In the course of the investigation, it made two offshore visits, had seven visits and meetings at the company's head offices and held three meetings with Mr. Nortcliff himself. All in all, some 300 staff hours were involved in investigating Mr. Nortcliff s concerns. I make that point to illustrate the fact that the HSE took the complaints seriously.
As a result, a report dated 11 March was sent to the installation owners, the drilling company which employed Mr. Nortcliff, the safety representatives on the installation and to Mr. Nortcliff himself.
As a result of its investigation the HSE required both the operator and the driller to make procedural changes to health and safety aspects of their drilling operations. Some of those had been made or were already being developed at the time of the investigation. But the fact that the HSE required action to be taken shows that Mr. Nortcliff s concerns were in large measure justified. The HSE specifically recognises that.
§ Mr. Hardy
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for those comments. That takes us to the point that I touched upon in my remarks: that the employer sought to create the impression that he had been given a clean bill of health by the Health and Safety Commission, inevitably implying that my constituent had acted improperly, 1631 inaccurately or irresponsibly, when, as the Minister has shown by his recent words, the HSE exonerated my constituent, vindicating him, not his employer.
§ Mr. Oppenheim
It is correct to say that Mr. Nortcliff was correct in going to the HSE and his raising of the concerns was ultimately vindicated because the HSE required action. It is fair to say that in some instances the company was already taking action in some of the areas. But the bottom line is that Mr. Nortcliff was totally justified in going to the HSE with his concerns. I make that absolutely clear.
The hon. Gentleman referred to enforcement action. I understand that the HSE considered taking enforcement action, including prosecution for breaches of safety law. However, in view of remedial action which had already been taken and further action agreed by the company, it was considered that an improvement notice was not appropriate. Further, it was considered that there was insufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution case. Therefore, on the balance of evidence, and in view of the remedial action taken, it was decided not to refer the case to the procurator fiscal for possible prosecution. I stress—and in many ways, this is the most important point of all—that the HSE is continuing carefully to monitor the situation, to ensure that all necessary remedial action detailed in the report has been carried through.
Mr. Nortcliff s complaints about the HSE's handling of the investigation were considered in some detail not once but twice, by senior managers who were not involved in the original case. After receiving his copy of the HSE's report, Mr. Nortcliff telephoned an offshore safety division principal inspector on 16 March and raised further concerns. The inspector met Mr. Nortcliff on 22 and 23 March to discuss the aspects of the HSE case with which Mr. Nortcliff was unhappy. He appeared to accept that the OSD's investigations had concentrated on the facts of the case and on the evidence from interviews with the workers and managers concerned.
Under caution, Mr. Nortcliff said that he did not wish to make a formal statement contradicting the signed statements already taken from personnel on the installation during the HSE investigation. However, the HSE agreed to explore further two issues—whether a certificate of fitness had been invalid during the lead-up to one incident, and drilling procedures. Additional HSE inquiries did not reveal evidence of offences and Mr. Nortcliff was told that on 29 March.
Mr. Nortcliff then made a formal complaint about the way in which the division had conducted its investigation. As a result, all relevant papers were reviewed by the senior OSD manager responsible for the team that had carried out the investigation. He wrote to Mr. Nortcliff on 27 May indicating that he believed that the investigation had been properly conducted and that the companies concerned were now taking appropriate remedial action.
As Mr. Nortcliff remained unsatisfied, the division's operations director asked senior personnel, who had not been involved with the investigation, to review the papers. 1632 The operations director wrote to Mr. Nortcliff in late July, stating that he was satisfied that the HSE had investigated the complaints properly. Mr. Nortcliff replied on 1 August, expressing continued dissatisfaction. The operations director responded on 5 September, setting out fully his reasons for believing that appropriate action had been taken and stating that he considered the matter closed. A further letter from Mr. Nortcliff, dated 12 September, refused to accept that decision.
I give those details not because they will be new to the hon. Gentleman but because they show how seriously the HSE takes any complaints about its handling of investigations, and that it took that particular set of complaints most seriously.
As to Mr. Nortcliff s original health and safety concerns and his subsequent complaint about the HSE's handling of the report, I am satisfied—having talked to the officials responsible—that the HSE acted in a fully professional and satisfactory manner. However, I repeat that that does not detract from the important point that Mr. Nortcliff was right and justified to raise the issues in the first place.
It is most regrettable that Mr. Nortcliff found himself out of a job. He was absolutely right to raise the issues that he did. Safety was at risk, and as a result of Mr. Nortcliff s action, steps were taken to correct safety deficiencies. I cannot comment in detail on the rights and wrongs of Mr. Nortcliff s dismissal. That matter would have been for the industrial tribunal to decide, had Mr. Nortcliff chosen to continue his complaint. If he had done so and won, it would have been open to the tribunal to order his employers to reinstate or to re-engage him, and to award significant additional compensation if they had refused. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, Mr. Nortcliff chose instead to accept settlement, and he was of course entirely free to do so.
I assure both hon. Members that the Government continue to regard safety as paramount. It is essential that the HSE retains the confidence of the offshore work force, so that all employees are able to exercise their legal right and their duty to contribute to the better management of offshore health and safety.
As I made clear but will repeat, because it is important, any worker may raise a safety issue with the HSE in confidence, via the use of an on-site telephone if he or she wishes. It is of course essential that a worker raising a safety issue should not feel that he or she is likely to be prejudiced or victimised in any way. The Government recognised legitimate concerns in that respect, and introduced legislation last year to extend protection against dismissal for reasonably raising health and safety issues with an employer to all workers, not just safety representatives. Industrial tribunals will take that matter very seriously. The Government also consider it to be of immense seriousness and have taken steps to deal with the problem. I will make it my personal business to ensure that that remains the case in future. I thank both hon. Gentlemen for raising the subject in the way that they did.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eight o'clock.