North Sea (Safety)

Oral Answers to Questions — Energy – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th December 1990.

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Photo of Frank Doran Frank Doran Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 12:00 am, 10th December 1990

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what steps he proposes to take to improve safety in the North sea.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what discussions he has had with representatives of the offshore oil industry on the implementation of the Cullen report.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I regularly meet people from all sides of the offshore oil industry, and matters relating to the Cullen report are frequently discussed.

As my right hon. Friend made clear in his statement on 12 November about the report of the public inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster, the Government are now acting to implement Lord Cullen's recommendations for a new regulatory system. We are determined to ensure that the lessons of the disaster are fully learnt and thoroughly put into effect.

Photo of Frank Doran Frank Doran Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

The Minister will be aware that, with members of the Piper Alpha families and survivors group, I have organised a conference to debate the implementa-tion of the Cullen report with particular reference to industrial relations. The Trades Union Congress, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the director general of the Health and Safety Executive, Mr. Rimington, have supported my efforts to organise that conference and I am grateful to the Minister for the particular support that he has given. Unfortunately, however, the oil industry has refused to participate. Does the Minister agree that health and safety and industrial relations are inextricably linked and that one cannot have bad industrial relations and good safety standards? Does he also agree that the oil industry has lost a valuable opportunity to discuss this important issue?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his assiduous work in getting that conference off the ground. He is aware that I was keen to participate, but I am unable to do so at short notice. However, I am pleased that Mr. Tony Barrell will be attending the conference —he is the new head of the offshore safety division and I am sure that he will make an important contribution. I have also made it clear to the hon. Gentleman and those organising the conference that I am more than happy to meet the organisers whenever I am in Aberdeen or at a time of their convenience.

I accept that safety must be, and always has been, a top priority. Primary responsibility for safety rests with the operator and I am not convinced that emphasis should be placed too heavily on trade union membership. The important issue is to ensure that on each platform every worker has the opportunity, through his safety representative, to make his voice heard and his concerns clear. It is our determination that that must be the priority.

Photo of Mr Anthony Beaumont-Dark Mr Anthony Beaumont-Dark , Birmingham, Selly Oak

Does my hon. Friend accept that those of us who live many miles from the sea, but have had the benefit of visiting those lonely, dangerous outposts in the North sea, accept that if it cost another 1p a gallon or 1p a therm on gas from the gas fields to ensure that safety is the absolute top concern it would be money well spent? Lives will always be lost in those dangerous occupations, but the fewer the better. We can never justify making an extra penny for an extra life lost.

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

Offshore safety should never be sacrificed by anyone—on either side of the Chamber—because of lack of resources. We shall place resources at the forefront of our thinking when the changes necessary as a result of the Cullen report are implemented.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East

Does the Minister recognise that, now that all Members have had time to study the Cullen report, one is forced to the conclusion that it is the most devastating indictment of any Government's health and safety record to be published? Is not it incredible that at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster 50 per cent. of inspectors' posts were vacant? Is not it also true that more than one third of those posts were vacant at the start of this year? Since the publication of the Cullen report what urgent action have the Government taken to secure an increase in the number of safety inspectors?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

Many steps. First and foremost, we recognise that we want top qualified people in the inspectorate and to achieve that we must pay them. Before Lord Cullen's report was published a 23 per cent. pay increase was rightly awarded to the inspectorate to encourage more people to fill the vacancies. In 1977, the complement of inspectors was 21, but the complement in November this year was 60. In addition. approximately 250 man years have been devoted annually by technically qualified staff of the certifying authorities to the inspectorate. When staff from the inspectorate move to the Health and Safety Executive the priority will be to ensure that they are qualified to do the job and are properly remunerated. As I have already said, resources will be provided to ensure that that objective is achieved.

Mr. Robert Hughes:

Although I welcome the Minister's initial acceptance of the recommendations of Lord Cullen's report, how are discussions going on transferring the safety division to the HSE? When those staff are transferred, will he ensure that the resources are available so that the new department does not suffer from the same shortages as were so devastatingly exposed by the Cullen report?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

In fairness, I have answered the question on resources in the affirmative. As for the hon. Gentleman's first question, discussions are going well and are underlined with a sense of urgency about the need to implement the changes relevant to Government as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that today the safety directorate has become the offshore safety division under Mr. Tony Barrell, who has joined us from the Health and Safety Executive. That is an important bridge to have crossed. Important work will now be done to implement the remaining recommendations as soon as possible.