HL Deb 10 July 2002 vol 637 cc767-71

7.49 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th June be approved [32nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the regulations before the House today implement the recommendations of the review by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, of salvage and intervention and their command and control in so far as they relate to the UK oil and gas industry. The report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, which followed the grounding and subsequent salvage of the "Sea Empress" in 1996, was presented to Parliament in March 1999. The report was thorough and comprehensive. It made 26 recommendations, five of which related to offshore oil and gas installations, and which these regulations cover. Those of the remaining recommendations which have not yet been implemented and which require legislative change will be covered in a Bill to be introduced by the Department of Transport.

Specifically, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, recommended that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is responsible for the regulatory control of offshore installations, should be given powers to intervene where there is significant pollution or the risk of it. Furthermore, those powers should be delegated to the nominated representative of the Secretary of State, or SOSREP for short. The noble and learned Lord also recommended that there should be provisions for the payment of compensation in certain circumstances. The powers for offshore installations would be similar to those which exist for shipping under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 and which are exercised by the Secretary of State for Transport.

The regulations before the House today will give the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the necessary intervention powers, which will be exercised by the SOSREP. They also make appropriate provision for the payment of compensation. For reasons of achieving clarity and clear communication in what could be difficult circumstances, the SOSREP for offshore installations will be the same person who exercises the power in relation to shipping. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will therefore appoint, on the day the regulations come in to force, Mr Robin Middleton as her representative. Mr Middleton is currently the SOSREP for the Department of Transport, and is based in the offices of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in Southampton. He has an extensive background in salvage, enforcement, emergency planning and response.

A full consultation process was undertaken and a regulatory impact assessment prepared. Industry raised concerns over the cost of implementation, but those will not be large and are estimated at £500,000 for the industry as a whole, which equates to an average cost of less than £16,000 per operator.

Greater concern was expressed over the potential conflict between the health and safety of personnel and the protection of the environment. I make clear that health and safety will always be paramount, and industry has been assured of that. The nature of incident response is such that priority is always given to human safety over pollution control. The DTI has had detailed discussions with the Health and Safety Executive on that issue and a small amendment to the regulations was made to make the position clear. Another concern has been over the claiming of compensation. Should such a claim be made, it will be a matter for the courts to decide in accordance with the tests set out in the regulations. While the industry has asked for firm guidance, it is not possible to prejudge such an event.

I take into account the concerns of industry. However, I believe it will ultimately benefit from this legislation. The first priority after health and safety is to safeguard the public interest in a pollution, or potential pollution, situation by bringing to bear the resources of government. The DTI has kept the industry fully informed and involved in the progress of the regulations through individual discussions, by holding a national exercise and by a workshop with the industry and other government departments.

In presenting his thorough report, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, who I am glad to see in his place, recognised the excellent record of the offshore industry in limiting the size and number of spills, and that the likelihood of a major incident was low. But he also recognised the need to reflect the balance of the public and national interest against commercial pressures. I do not believe that the regulations will be a burden on the offshore industry but rather, in the event they are ever activated, will facilitate the setting up of a partnership for dealing with a major oil spill, which will reduce or prevent pollution. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 12th June be approved [32nd Report from the Joint Committed].—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

Lord Donaldson of Lymington

My Lords, I welcome wholeheartedly the regulations, which are essential. It is right and equally essential that the same SOSREP—I apologise for the word; we tried all kinds of other words which conveyed wrong messages—on behalf of the Secretary of State, the DTI and the Department of Transport should be the same person. One has only to visualise a collision between a ship and a platform to realise that chaos would ensue if different people were in charge from different angles. Therefore, I welcome the provision.

I should like some help from the Minister on his remark that health and safety will be involved. I do not think he means that the Health and Safety Executive will be involved, at any rate in the activities of the SOSREP. The SOSREP—I know him well—is well aware of the need to conduct operations in the safest possible way without any threat to health in so far as it can be done. He is also aware—I have seen this in practical terms when he has been working for the Department of Transport—of the need to put safety and life before all else. However, I should not want the remarks of the Minister to be construed as meaning that the Health and Safety Executive can come along to the SOSREP in the middle of an operation and say, "You cannot do that", or "We do not want you to do that". It has nothing to do with that organisation. The essence of the SOSREP system is that he has complete and utter control. The only option open to either Secretary of State is to sack him or back him.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, the draft statutory instruments are non-controversial. They are widely seen as sensible by the industry. Likewise, we see them as sensible. However, I have two questions for the Minister. I refer first to Regulation 3(4), on page 2. In paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) reference is made respectively to "she", "she" and "her". Has Parliament adopted the convention that "she" will act also for "he" when "she" or "her" becomes "he"? That is a minor point, but I should be grateful for an answer. Secondly, Article 4(4) refers to the Admiralty jurisdiction. Will the Admiralty Court be able to claim funding to carry out that additional duty?

Lord Kirkhill

My Lords, I, too, welcome the regulations and give them every support. Unfairly, I take the opportunity to observe, as someone who lives in north-east Scotland, that the continuing day-to-day pollution emanating from the various oil rigs in our northern waters on to our onshore areas is a constant disgrace.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I rise from these Benches to support these important regulations.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am particularly grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, for his observations and support and to all noble Lords who have spoken. The noble and learned Lord is right in saying that there is no possibility of the Health and Safety Executive entering an incident such as an oil spill or an accident to an offshore installation and countermanding the authority of the SOSREP.

The regulations make the same provision for offshore installations as existing powers for ships under Sections 137 to 140 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. Regulation 3(6) is modelled on Section 137 of that Act. To ensure consistency between the two pieces of legislation, the SOSREP will carry out that duty. He will always ensure that health and safety take priority. In practical terms, if there is an accident to an offshore rig and dangerous activities such as capping off the flow have to be undertaken, the workers on the rig will be taken off first. Only those people who need to be there to undertake the capping will he present while it takes place. The SOSREP will take advice on health and safety issues from specialist advisers because he will not necessarily have the skills in that area.

The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, asked me two questions. The first related to references to "he" and "she". Under the Interpretation Act, words denoting masculine can mean feminine and vice versa. We use "she" to refer to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry at the present time because it is a she—Patricia Hewitt. However, if a man were to take over the post regulations under his jurisdiction would refer to "he". That is the only reason for it. SOSREP happens to be a he at the present time. If it were a she it would say so.

The noble Lord asked whether there is funding for Admiralty jurisdiction under Regulation 4(4). I think that I can give him the assurance that there will be sufficient funding. If I am wrong about that I shall write to him.

I understand and sympathise with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill. That is not relevant to the content of the regulations. The noble Lord agrees.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, for his support.

On Question, Motion agreed to.