HL Deb 12 July 1978 vol 394 cc1677-86

6.58 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Employment (Continental Shelf) Bill be read a second time. This Bill will enable the Government to extend the employment legislation we already have to a small and rather special set of circumstances: cross-boundary petroleum field. Most of the petroleum fields in the North Sea lie clearly on one side or the other of the median lines that have been drawn in the North Sea to separate each country's sector of the Continental Shelf. A few fields, however, do not fit neatly into this diplomatic packaging and lie across the median line.

Just like other petroleum fields, it is essential that they should be run smoothly. But cross-boundary fields lying partly under the control of one country and partly under the control of another, have particular problems so sort out. As if to compensate for that, the cross-boundary fields where the United Kingdom is currently involved—the Frigg, Statfjord and Murchison Fields—are among the best prospects in the North Sea. Statfjord is the biggest oilfield and Frigg is one of the largest gas fields, so far discovered in the North Sea. Frigg, Statfjord and Murchison all lie on the United Kingdom/Norweigan median line east of the Shetland Islands. The Frigg Gas Field was the first of these, and with its cluster of installations lying on both sides of the median line and its workers crossing and recrossing that line several times a day, it has posed the problems of cross-boundary fields particularly clearly.

An agreement between the United Kingdom and Norway on how the Frigg Fields should be operated was concluded in 1976. As regards employment legislation, the two Governments agreed that this should be applied consistently with the exploitation of the field as a single unit. Since then, we have been in touch with the Norwegians on the best way of extending employment legislation to the Frigg Field. We think that the most sensible arrangement would be for United Kingdom employment law to apply to United Kingdom based firms, irrespective where their employees happen to be working in the field, and that Norwegian law should apply likewise to Norwegian-based firms. This would mean that each firm would be working with the law it knows. We have consulted organisations representing United Kingdom employers and unions working offshore and they have both given their support to this proposal.

This Bill would give us the powers to give effect to this arrangement. At present, we have the power to extend our employment legislation only as far as the median line that separates the United Kingdom sector of the Continental Shelf from the sectors of other countries. This Bill will enable us to extend employment legislation to the Norwegian part of the Frigg Field.

Although it is our discussions with Norway that has prompted us to take these powers at this time, the Bill will serve us well in any subsequent negotiations on other cross-boundary fields. Any order that is made under the Bill will be carefully tailored to the requirements of each particular case, and the Bill allows us flexibility to deal with a variety of circumstances. Any such order will of course have to be agreed with the foreign country controlling the foreign sector of the field, and there will have to be consultation with both sides of industry on the terms of the order. Both Houses of Parliament will then have the opportunity to examine the order.

As I am sure noble Lords realise, without the Bill we would find ourselves seriously handicapped in our dealings with the Norwegians. We would be trying to reach agreement with one hand tied securely behind our back. More than that, we would not be able to play our full part in ensuring the smooth running of this field and others, where we are in partnership with Norway. If we were unable to extend our employment legislation to the Norwegian side, this might well lead to a situation where employees of a United Kingdom firm working on one installation would be covered by United Kingdom employment law, but other employees of the same firm would be covered by Norwegian legislation, or, indeed, that they were all covered by Norwegian legislation. Obviously, moving employees from one job to another could lead to serious problems in deciding which law should apply.

This Bill has made rapid progress through the Commons, and arrives at this House unamended. Perhaps, however, I may comment briefly on why this Bill includes the employment provisions of the Sex Discrimination and Race Relations Acts. This Bill is an enabling measure. It establishes the principle, and the subsequent orders made under it will sort out the matters of practice. The principle is that the Government be given powers to extend their employment law to a handful of new areas. It would be strange indeed if we were to make an exception to these enabling powers by excluding part of our employment law. This Bill is a small but sensible piece of legislation. It brings the scope of employment legislation into line with the requirements of work in the North Sea. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now Read 2a.—(Wallace of Coslany.)

7.4 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, for explaining the purposes of the Bill. I must declare an interest, as I have done before, in being directly associated in part-time work with the offshore oil industry. As the noble Lord has said, this is an enabling Bill from which we can expect to have orders laid which would extend United Kingdom employment legislation beyond the median line separating the United Kingdom Continental Shelf from the Continental Shelf of other countries. It will apply to particular oil or gas fields which lie upon a median line and are divided in two by it. As the noble Lord has said, there are only three oil or gas fields at present in that situation. So the Bill is vey limited in its application; but it will fill a gap and I see nothing objectionable about its purpose. I commend it to your Lordships.

There are, however, some comments and questions which it prompts. It is an interesting example of reciprocal arrangements with another country. In all three cases, the country is Norway. I understand that Norway has already applied her own domestic legislation to the parts of the fields lying in our sector, so in fact they have moved before us, and what we are doing is reciprocal. When our Bill is passed, the results must depend upon negotiations with the other countries concerned. In the case of Norway, of course, this should not be difficult since they have the same idea in mind and have already passed their own domestic legislation. May I say in passing that, because I am involved in offshore exploration and production, I studied the agreement of 1976 between the United Kingdom and Norway upon the working of the Frigg field. That is a remarkable gas field, rather like a huge factory built across the frontiers of two countries, as if there were a factory which extended across the frontier between France and Germany. That is the kind of situation involved, but it is Continental Shelf instead of land.

The first question I should like to put to the noble Lord is this—and I was able to give him notice yesterday, so I hope he will be able to provide some information. Are there any significant differences between Norwegian employment legislation and ours? That is the important point where these three existing fields are concerned. So far as I know, no other country is yet in prospect; no fields are emerging upon medians involving countries other than Norway. Perhaps the Government may have greater information. If so, I hope that the noble Lord will tell us.

Then I come to another point. The Bill applies to fixed installations, and that was made clear when it was discussed in another place. But I think that some clarification of this is needed. The Bill is clearly intended for what are known as platforms, the structures installed on the seabed for a period of 15 to 20 years—that is, the life of a field. From those platforms the pumping and the controlling of the oilfield are carried out. The Bill clearly does not apply to vessels. Presumably tugs and supply boats working in these oil and gas fields will have applying to them the normal maritime codes under which law applies to ships on the high seas or in territorial waters.

However, then we come to the borderline. What about drilling rigs? Some of these are attached to the seabed while they are drilling or carrying out operations. Do they fall within the definition of fixed nstallations during that period? Of course, in the public mind and in the Press rigs and platforms are very often used as if they were the same thing. But in the offshore industry they are very different. Here is a case in point where it is quite clear that platforms will fall within the Bill but it is not at all clear whether rigs will do so.

If, as I assume, rigs are not in the Bill but platforms are, what about other equipment installed in offshore oilfields: for example, pipe laying barges and other offshore equipment that is manned and attached to the sea bed at various times while it is operating? There are floating systems as well a platforms for oil recovery at present, and in the future it looks as though there will be more of these as exploration and production move into deeper water, especially to the west of Shetland, where recently a new find of some magnitude has been announced. There were also prospects of subsea installations; that is to say, instead of having a platform subjected to wind and waves on the surface, in deep water it may be possible and more practicable in the future to have some installation on the seabed which is manned but like a permanent submarine on the bottom. Would that fall within the ambit of this Bill? What I am really asking the Government—and I do not ask for a detailed reply at this point; I have given some examples—is this: are the Government sure that the dividing line is clear and certain as to what will fall within this Bill and what will not? Can they be certain that they have covered all the various kinds of installation in use or in prospect?

Now I come to another point about which I have given notice. In relation to employment, I cannot resist referring to the fact that the Bill particularly makes the Sex Discrimination Act exercisable in these fields. I understand that it applies already up to the median and so it is logical to include it in this extension of employment legislation beyond the medians. Here some statistics and information would be relevant and interesting. Can the Government give a figure of the number of women working on platforms or rigs in the United Kingdom sector at present and, if so, on what kind of work? Do they work as cooks or as cleaners, or do they do other domestic work? The noble Lord might also be able to give some information about women working on offshore installations in other parts of the world. We know, for example, that the Soviet Union are starting exploration in waters round their coasts, and it would he no surprise if women were working there, because we know that they do undertake heavy manual work. There are also several countries in the Far East where one sees women, and not men, doing the heavy work on the roads and elsewhere. An enterprising Amazon in this country or a women's lib. enthusiast may well aspire to becoming a roughneck or a roustabout, and in the spirit of the Act, therefore, I shall speak of "oil persons".

If mention of this Sex Discrimination Act means anything, we must consider the possible future impact on the two heads. The first is that equal pay must be given for equal work done in the same conditions. That should raise very little difficulty. There has been no past tradition of lower rates for women, because this is a new industry for Britain. More difficult is the question of equal opportunities. Applications to work in domestic or other jobs on the rigs or platforms may already have come in. Presumably any rejections would have to be substantiated, if they were contested through the channels which the Act provides, if the women who had applied felt that they were being turned down and not given equal opportunities. I should be grateful for any comment from the Government on this. I would add that at the moment there is no outward sign of women being involved in work offshore. There is a shift system which most companies operate, on the basis of their men doing ten days to two weeks at a time working on a rig or platform and then having the same period off duty ashore. It is hard and concentrated work during the days when they are on the job and they work unsociable hours, but for rewards in pay which in general are thought to be satisfactory.

A reflection of the present system is evident at airports, where the turnover of personnel working offshore continually takes place; for example, at Aberdeen or, even more so, at Sunburgh in the Shetlands, where I was only six weeks ago. The "oil persons" are easily recognisable in jeans and waterproof jackets, with here and there a stetson; but at Sunburgh in particular they form at least three-quarters of the traffic passing through the airport. They are being flown in on charter flights and then out to and from their North Sea work by helicopter. I have seen no women among them, but I think I should say here that of course we ought to recognise the important work they are carrying out. I include in that the company's engineers and all their technical staff who work in difficult conditions—important work for the United Kingdom economy. Since the Sex Discrimination Act is to be extended in this way, I would ask the Government whether they can enlighten us about the employment of women in offshore work in this new industry. It would be interesting to know whether or not the proposal is purely an academic one.

7.16 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, particularly for having advised me in advance of two of his very pertinent questions. He asked me first about the differences in legislation between Norway and our own country. There are some similarities but also some important differences. Norwegian law regulates working hours in terms both of the length of the working week and day and in limiting the night work and overtime permissible. Working hours in the United Kingdom are in general a matter for negotiation and agreement between the employer and his employees.

Also, Norwegian law contains no provisions relating to race or sex discrimination in employment matters. One of the most important differences in practical terms concerns the different processes involved in resolving a dispute arising from the provisions of the legislation. In the United Kingdom, employees can apply for an industrial tribunal hearing. In Norway, employees who feel they may have been unfairly dismissed may demand negotiations with the employer. Only if this fails may the employee open legal proceedings in the local town or district court, acting as a labour disputes court. I would add that it is important for United Kingdom employers and employees to deal with legislation with which they are familiar, and I do not think the noble Lord would disagree. It would be difficult for a United Kingdom employee, for example, to pursue a claim under Norwegian law through the Norwegian courts. I think the arrangement is a very sensible one, as it is projected at the moment.

The noble Lord asked me whether any other countries apart from Norway are at present involved, and the answer to that question is "No". As to the application of domestic legislation to our sector by the Norwegians, I can say that they have power to do so but have said they will not apply it to United Kingdom employees.

On the question of drilling rigs, offshore installations and the innumerable other examples that the noble Lord gave us, I shall be very brief about this. I am grateful to the noble Lord for the opportunity to clarify what employment will be covered by the Bill. As I mentioned earlier, we already have powers to extend employment legislation offshore up to the median line, but those powers are limited to employment connected with the exploration of the seabed or subsoil or the exploitation of the national resources in any designated area. This Bill extends the geographical scope of these powers to foreign sectors of cross-boundary fields, but the limitation on employment remains the same. The employment has to be connected with the exploration or exploitation of the Continental Shelf. The Bill does not seek to specify any more closely the nature of this employment and it does not deal with offshore installations, ships and the like. These will be matters for the orders to be made under the Bill.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that point, would he therefore confirm that vessels such as supply boats, which will be wholly engaged in helping with exploration, would none the less not come under this legislation, because they are already covered like other vessels at Sea?


My Lords, giving an immediate answer on the spot, I would say, Yes, that is so, because they have a port from which they sail, a depot and a headquarters area. So I take it that that is definitely so. If there is any change, I will certainly notify the noble Lord, but it seems obvious to me.

On the question of women, I cannot give figures. I do not know how many women are involved in offshore exploration and exploitation. Companies do not have to provide the Government with such details. I believe there are a few, but in these changing times their numbers may well be expected to increase. If the noble Lord has, like myself, received a publication from the Equal Opportunities Commission, he will have been staggered to see the fields which women are now entering, and I do not see why they should not. The noble Lord said that life is tough in these fields. We are tending to be a little old-fashioned. Women are very tough, too, and there is not the slightest reason why, if women can become engineers and scientists, they should not be given the same opportunities and rates as men.

I am going off at a tangent, because this is a subject on which I have very strong views. In any event, I think the noble Lord will agree that it is not relevant at this stage. Even if no women are employed in this way at present there may well be some later on and, in fact, I expect there to be. We just have to provide for that eventuality. What I said about sex equality also applies to the subject of race. Obviously, British subjects of a different colour might be involved and probably are, so cases may arise. However, we shall deal with them in legislation as they arise. But there is need for the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act to be included. I hope that the House will support this Bill and give it a very quick passage.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.