I am glad to have the opportunity to lead this debate, remembering those who died in the Piper Alpha tragedy in 1988, their families and loved ones, the survivors and all who were involved in the tragedy and its aftermath.
I shall say a little about the background to the disaster. Over the past 40 years, we have seen a dramatic change in the city of Aberdeen. It has moved from having a rural economy, with a shipyard and some light engineering on the side, to being one of the oil capitals of the world. The city is a model of how a community can make the transition from a rural economy to one based on oil.
Oil was first discovered in the North sea in 1965, and was first produced in 1975. Aberdeen has grown and thrived. It became the main supply base for the offshore oil and gas industry, and it is now a world-class oil centre in its own right. Many oil companies and oil-related businesses have headquarters in the city. Oil facilities around the world—in Africa, Asia and Europe—are run from offices in Aberdeen. We have a higher concentration of IT companies than anywhere else in Britain. The centre of the world's sub-sea technology industry is now based in Aberdeen. The city exports its knowledge and expertise around the world.
There have been several phases in the development of the oil industry. I like to think of the first as the Klondike phase. Once oil was discovered in sufficient quantities to justify investment, everyone was anxious to get the oil out of the ground. The Government wanted the tax revenues. The companies wanted to recover their investment, which was often billions of pounds, and then wanted a return on it. Safety was lax, and there were many accidents.
The Department of Energy was the safety regulator in the North sea. It was also the Department responsible for producing the oil. There was a clear conflict of interest, but no one minded so long as the oil was produced. As a young solicitor dealing with personal injury cases in the north-east of Scotland, I saw many cases in which safety came behind production.
The beginning of the end of the Klondike phase came at the end of the 1985, when Aberdeen experienced its first price collapse, which was almost the opposite of what is happening now. The oil price fell quickly from $32 a barrel to $8 a barrel. The industry's response was immediate. All new investment stopped. Production continued while operators came to terms with the new situation. Most affected was the routine maintenance of platforms and facilities. More than 20,000 jobs were lost in the north-east of Scotland, and about 50,000 were lost in the United Kingdom. It was a terrible time in the city.
One of the earliest platforms, and one of the largest, was the Piper Alpha platform, then operated by Occidental, an American company owned by Armand Hammer. The oil field was discovered in 1973, and production of oil began in 1976. The peak of production was 274,000 barrels a day. I did a quick back-of-the-fag-packet calculation and discovered that at today's prices it would have been worth nearly £40 million a day.
Piper Alpha was no different from other platforms in the North sea, in that the priority was to recover oil and gas and get it to the mainland. In addition to its oil and gas production facilities, the Piper Alpha platform also hosted several gas pipelines that transmitted natural gas from other fields to the shore.
Towards the end of 1987, an oil worker died on Piper Alpha in an accident. Following that death, there were inspections of the platform and its safety facilities, the latest being in June 1988. Department of Energy inspectors pointed out some faults, but none of the more serious safety problems was even noticed, far less rectified. A month later, Piper Alpha was destroyed in the worst offshore oil and gas accident ever seen. The industry was about to enter what I now think of as the post-Piper Alpha period. Indeed, it is most commonly referred to by that name.
Observers on the nearby stand-by vessel, the Silver Pit, likened the scene to a huge Bunsen burner, with a massive supply of gas burning at temperatures in excess of 700° C. The effect was catastrophic. The platform was destroyed.
There were nearly 230 men on the platform. Most of them died. The vast majority followed the standard safety instructions: "In the event of fire or explosion, go to your muster point and await the rescue helicopter." The fire was so fierce that the helicopters could not get anywhere near the platform. The 59 men who survived had ignored the standard instructions and followed their instincts. Most of them escaped within half an hour of the first explosion. They made their way to the water by climbing down the platform to the lowest point, some using ropes, and then dropping into the water. Five men jumped from the helicopter deck, 175 ft above the water. Three of them died from injuries received on impact.
There were many stories of bravery and courage on that evening. The survivors had to swim significant distances from the platform to the rescue vessels, but it was not an ordinary swim. They had to stay clear of debris being thrown from the platform by frequent explosions. Worst of all, bubbles of gas were exploding as they rose to the surface. Bob Ballantyne, an electrician who survived, told me that he had to constantly duck his head under water, because his hair kept catching fire. Some reached safety with horrific burns. Others never reached the stand-by vessels. On the rescue vessels, Silver Pit and Tharos—the latter was a custom-built fire-fighting vessel—there were many stories of bravery. Two members of the rescue crew were killed when their rescue craft caught fire.
One hundred and sixty men died, most from suffocation on the platform or later in hospital from terrible burns. Fifty-nine survived. The victims came from all parts of the United Kingdom, underlining the fact that the North sea oil and gas industry was a UK industry. In the early days, workers had been recruited from the old smoke-stack heavy industries—the coal mines, the shipyards and the steel works. They came from Lancashire, Teesside, Merseyside, Lincolnshire, north and south Yorkshire, Berkshire, Sheffield, Stafford, Manchester, Wales, Essex, Peterborough and London. The majority came from Scotland. From my previous constituency and the constituency that I now represent, a total of 22 men were lost.
Tonight in the Lemon Tree theatre in my constituency, we will see the first performance of a short play written to commemorate the Piper Alpha victims. One line in the play is this:
"I have never heard a city cry before, but I heard Aberdeen cry today."
That accurately reflects the pain that the city felt, and still feels strongly today. One of the questions most asked in Aberdeen this week is, "Where were you when the Piper went up?"
As a solicitor, I had seen my fair share of death and tragedy, but never on such a scale. I saw anger and despair. There was grief and bitterness. There was a driven urge to find out who was responsible, who was to blame. There was a need to hide from the world. There was a lack of comprehension. There was a need for support, there was a need to be alone. The magnitude of individual grief was made that much greater because of the collective grief felt throughout the country, but particularly in the north-east of Scotland.
Of course, every aspect of the tragedy was played out, over and over, in public. The world's media came to Aberdeen, and its eyes were everywhere, peering into every nook and cranny. Real grieving was impossible, until the media eventually moved on to the next disaster zone. Families whose only connection was the loss of a loved one started to come together, sometimes as mutual support, sometimes to grieve. Later, a focused, painful journey was undertaken by many families as they tried to understand what had happened. In that period, I attended many meetings of the Piper Alpha families and survivors group, a mutual support organisation set up by the families and survivors themselves. They were supported by a team of counsellors, led by Ann Bone, a local social worker who did remarkable work with individuals and the group.
The 1980s was a bad time for public disasters and the Piper Alpha group made contact with the groups established following the King's Cross fire, the Bradford football stadium fire, the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, the Clapham rail disaster and others. Meetings with representatives of those groups allowed people to share experience and knowledge, and provided mutual support. Many of the relatives attended the inquiry into the disaster, and had to endure some very stressful days of evidence, sometimes listening to discussions about the circumstances of a death, or, on other days, listening to evidence of the neglect and lack of proper safety systems that led to those deaths— grief one minute, anger the next.
It was a particularly hard period for those families for whom the body of a relative had not been recovered. In all, 32 bodies are still missing. I remember arranging for a group to visit London to meet Cecil Parkinson, who was still Secretary of State. It was an extremely difficult meeting and it became very angry. The problem was that Cecil Parkinson was not being direct with the families, to which they reacted very badly. Later, the families were provided with evidence that attempting to recover the bodies would put divers' lives at serious risk because of the dangerous condition of the wreckage. Difficult though it was for them, no one wanted to see any more lives lost, and they moved on but, of course, the aggravated sense of loss remains.
It was obvious that there was a number of failures in the safety system, one of the most obvious being safety regulation, which was carried out by the Department of Energy. Despite defending the arrangements, the then Government agreed to set up an inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Cullen, a senior Scottish judge. No one has ever questioned the thoroughness of the inquiry and the importance of Lord Cullen's report. It changed the safety culture, not only in the North sea, but in industry around the world. His report made 106 recommendations. Among the most important was that responsibility for safety should be transferred to the Health and Safety Executive. He also spelled out the shortcomings of the safety systems on Piper Alpha, which included a weak permit-to-work system, inadequate fire walls, which were incapable of withstanding explosion, the failure of the deluge system, inadequate safety training, poor safety auditing by Occidental, the operating company, and inadequate risk-assessment procedures. Despite a lengthy and serious list of defects and faults, there was no criminal prosecution of the operators or any individual.
Since Piper Alpha, there has been a real improvement in safety offshore. Injury and death rates have fallen and the industry continues to invest significant sums of money and other resources in safety. However, I cannot ignore the fact that concerns have been growing in the past few years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although safety offshore has improved quite dramatically since the Piper Alpha disaster, as he said, there is a tendency with the passage of time to forget and to become complacent? This anniversary serves as a timely reminder of the importance of safety offshore. There are now new challenges in what is a mature province, and we have an ageing infrastructure. We need to address those issues.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is a dangerous industry and safety needs to be at the highest level. As the province matures, that becomes a more pressing problem.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. The lessons are important for his constituents and mine, and not only regarding the North sea. An ever-growing number of them work around the world, from Azerbaijan to Sakhalin island. Many of the lessons have been fully implemented in the North sea, but is he confident that they have been learned in oil-producing regions around the world?
As I said earlier, Lord Cullen's report was taken up by the oil industry around the world, not only in the UK. I was fortunate enough two or three years ago to host a reception in the Palace for offshore safety authorities from around the world. I had an opportunity to hear how seriously they were taking the issue. Of course, many of the companies that operate in the North sea operate in other areas, and they transport their safety systems, so I am optimistic that the lessons that have been learned in the North sea are being applied elsewhere.
This debate is timely and the hon. Gentleman has given us a powerful account of how terrible the Piper Alpha disaster was. I am sure that he would agree that for those of us who live in the area, it is routine when one meets a service company or operating company to have a safety briefing before one is briefed about other issues. Nevertheless, has he heard the concern that has been expressed to me—that some routine maintenance programmes and shutdowns are being delayed or postponed to maximise production at the current, high price of oil? That is a problem if it compromises safety.
One of my friends was on Piper Alpha and fortunately survived the disaster. The hon. Gentleman has paid tribute to the survivors for the way in which they set up self-help groups, but will he also pay tribute to them for the way in which they ensured, through their dogged fight with the Government, that safety was increased, not for the people who sadly died, but for those who currently work on oil rigs throughout the world?
The hon. Gentleman referred to a mutual friend, I believe, and I shall mention him later. Again, initially, I think that there was shock everywhere, including in Government. I had a lot of contact with the then Secretary of State and his Minister, Peter Morrison, whom I eventually shadowed through some of that period. It took some time for the Government to focus on how they should respond to the disaster. Of course, the survivors and the relatives have played a major part in helping them to focus.
The Cullen report is a jewel that needs to be protected. I said that concerns have been growing in the past few years. They started with the deaths of two workers, who were killed by a gas leak on the Brent Bravo platform in 2003. In the criminal proceedings and the fatal accident inquiry that followed, serious shortcomings on maintenance on the part of the operator were highlighted, but the problems are not limited to one company. Between 2004 and 2007, the HSE offshore safety division carried out an asset integrity programme involving targeted inspections of nearly 100 platforms. The report, which is known as the key programme 3 report, had some worrying things to tell us about the lack of maintenance of platforms and the effect on work force morale. Some of the problems related to the commercial environment in which the industry operates. In particular, problems arise when platforms are scheduled for transfer or disposal and are shifted from one operating company to another and maintenance is not kept up to scratch. In any case, the report has had a profound effect on the industry and investment is now being made in reaction to it. It highlights the need for the most intensive vigilance.
Like some in the oil industry and the trade unions, I am concerned about some employment practices in the industry. There is what is known as the NRB culture, which stands for "Not Required Back", by which a worker can be removed from a platform without any right of appeal on the say-so of one official. The industry has also resisted the implementation of the working-time regulations in the offshore industry. There is a lack of a common permit-to-work system. At the root of almost every significant accident in the North sea oil and gas industry, including Piper Alpha, there is failure in the permit-to-work system. That system needs to be reviewed so that there is a common system offshore. Earlier this year I introduced a ten-minute Bill to address some of those issues. It would have reformed safety representative and committee rules offshore and provided an element of independence in the system. I would be interested to hear the Minister's views on those points.
The roll-call of honour for Piper Alpha is long. It takes in the survivors; the rescue crews who operated in such difficult conditions to bring both survivors and bodies home; the medical teams who waited in Aberdeen for the helicopters to bring in the most seriously injured, who worked incredible hours, who were fiercely committed to tend to them, and who in some cases spent years repairing the damaged bodies; the crews of the lifting vessels who recovered from the wreckage the accommodation module that contained the bodies of many of the victims; the police and others who went into the module after it was removed and brought ashore to recover the bodies; and the psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and counsellors who worked not only with the survivors and the families, but with many of the rescuers. Many others in the public and private sectors made a contribution.
The survivors are left with memories not only of lost friends and workmates, but of a horrifying experience, and those memories will never leave them. They bear psychological scars, and many of them also suffered physical damage. In the years since the disaster, some of the survivors have died and most have moved on. Some have been successful in a new life—none more so than Ed Punchard, a diving control supervisor on the Piper. Ed now lives in Australia, where he started a successful film production company. He has published a book about his life as a Piper Alpha survivor and he has made a film about his return to the Piper Alpha platform for the 10th anniversary, which was shown on Australian and UK television.
None of the survivors will ever lose their memories of the events on Piper Alpha on
I congratulate Mr. Doran, who has ensured that we do not forget the lessons of Piper Alpha by introducing today's debate and reminding us in great detail and with great clarity of what happened on the night of
When we turn on the gas tap at home, switch on the lights at night or fill our car with petrol, we take for granted just what has gone on to make that possible. These things are out of sight and out of mind in the North sea, but people are working in a hostile and dangerous environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every week of the year to ensure that it is easy for us to get the energy that we need. We need to remember those people and the challenges that they face.
I should remind hon. Members of my entry in the Register of Members' Interests, because I am a shareholder in Shell, but I have far more of a constituency interest in the debate. My constituency is just outside Aberdeen, and many of my constituents, like those of the hon. Gentleman, live with or work in the industry, and others have relatives who do so or who work offshore. However, the House often forgets—this is particularly true of the offshore work force, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted—that many of those in the work force commute from elsewhere in the country. The challenge that we face therefore touches the whole country, and hon. Members should not forget that they might have constituents who have connections with the North sea or who work there. All hon. Members should therefore take an interest in what is happening to that major industry, which is on our doorstep. As I say, we often take it for granted because it is out of sight and out of mind.
A lot of lessons have been learned, but we must not be complacent. Today's debate and the 20th anniversary remind us what those lessons were and ensure that they are kept up to date and reinforced. I, too, pay tribute to the work of Lord Cullen, because his report was a major way of ensuring that the lessons that could be learned were learned and that a culture of safety spread around the world, as the hon. Gentleman said. With the passage of time, however, there is a danger that we will not remember those lessons.
One of the easier lessons to learn—the hon. Gentleman touched on this—was how to deal with the human safety elements. As my right hon. Friend Malcolm Bruce said, we get safety briefings whenever we visit anyone operating in the North sea. Indeed, safety onshore is also an issue, and the culture in the companies is very much about safety. It was perhaps easier to deal with the human safety elements—the individual accidents and falls—because they were easier to measure. They were also possibly easier to tackle by training people and altering the safety culture. There is an apocryphal story that a lot of people at BP joke that staff have to hold the handrail when they go up and down stairs. Tragically, however, a neighbour of mine fell down the stairs at night a few years ago and was killed. The simple safety lessons are therefore just as important as the big ones.
My hon. Friend is making an important point, but does he agree that one of the most significant arguments in the Cullen report was that we should place a responsibility for safety on the operators, instead of producing a tick-box culture? That effectively precludes them from getting away with saying, "We've done all these things" when an accident happens, and ensures that they are still responsible—whatever else they have done—because they did not anticipate the accident.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the safety case. We should put the onus on companies to think about safety across their whole operation, so that they do not feel that they have done their duty just because they have ticked the boxes. People should be thinking about safety all the time; whenever they look at a process, an investment decision, a change to a way of operating or the installation of a new piece of equipment, they should ask what the safety implications are. How will such things affect the integrity and working of the platform? As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North said, the permit-to-work culture is an extremely important way of reducing risk.
A few years ago, I went to a construction yard that was building a platform for the North sea. The platform's operator had said, "We want the same level of safety when you are building the platform onshore as will apply when we operate it." The construction industry's initial reaction was, "Construction is inherently dangerous. We won't be able to achieve that." However, by taking the lessons that had been learned offshore into the construction yard, it was amazed to see how dramatically it improved its own safety regime.
Indeed, that also improved financial efficiency. There should not be seen to be a conflict between a good safety regime and a company's financial operation, because having an efficient and effective understanding of safety processes can also benefit a company's financial understanding of how it operates. Anyone who thinks that finance should be a barrier to safety should take note of a quote from the airline industry, where someone said, "If you think safety is expensive, you should try the alternative." It really is important to keep the importance of safety at the forefront of people's minds.
As others have said, the layman might think that the high price of oil would be a good thing because companies would make more money and could invest more in safety, but the issue poses a real challenge. With a high oil price, the desire is to keep the oil flowing as fast as possible because that is where the profit comes from. Companies find the oil when it is cheap and produce it when it is expensive; they do not want to turn the tap off for routine maintenance if they can delay doing so.
The HSE's KP3 report contains a timely reminder of the importance of physical structures, and this goes back to my point about it being easier to deal with individual human safety incidents. Safety-critical devices, and other devices, which do not look safety critical, but which could play a crucial role if a piece of safety-critical equipment fails, need to be monitored to ensure that they are up to standard.
People think that the North sea has run out of oil and gas, but it is still very much alive, and the industry is still vibrant. Only the other week, we had the celebration of 21 years of the Alwyn field. When the platforms there were built, people believed that the field would have been shut down by now, but they are now talking about another 21 years. At that celebration, the engineer who worked on the platform—he had come back from retirement—was thanked for over-engineering it and giving it a structure that would allow it to sustain another 20 years of life. A lot of infrastructure—pipelines, compressors and other equipment—that was expected to be coming to the end of its life is now crucial to the economic development of the North sea and will need a much longer life. It is therefore vital that we maintain the structural integrity of those physical features to ensure that they are up to scratch and can endure the stress that they will be under.
The other vital challenge, I suppose, concerns skills in the industry, which we often talk about. The work force is ageing, and if production and new investment are to be maintained, many new people will have to come into the industry. When people have been in an industry a long time, the culture has grown up with them, but if a whole new generation is brought into operations, the safety culture must be fully inculcated in the training of those people.
OPITO, the oil and gas academy in Portlethen in my constituency, has set standards for training around the world, which ensure a good foundation for anyone entering the industry. However, the skills shortage is also a challenge for the HSE, which needs people who understand the industry to work for it. We need the HSE to be fully resourced so that it can compete in a very competitive market and secure the skills to ensure that it can monitor what happens offshore.
The vital lessons that were learned in the disaster must not be forgotten. There is a challenge, as we extend the life of the North sea oil field and as new fields are tied back to old platforms, to ensure that the integrity of safety-critical parts of those platforms is fully maintained. As a new generation of workers, many of whom may not have been touched at all by knowledge of Piper Alpha, comes into the industry, we need to make sure that they realise what lessons have been learned, and that they do not forget them. We must never have such a disaster again.
I want to make only a short contribution, and to pay tribute to Mr. Doran, not only for obtaining the debate, but because over the years, in all his incarnations in and out of the House, he has been closely involved with the safety of people working offshore in the North sea. His commitment is recognised, and his knowledge and understanding of the issues are well regarded. The House should appreciate the presence of an hon. Member who can bring that expertise to bear on the matter.
The part of the city of Aberdeen that I represent contained the headquarters of Occidental Petroleum, which stood as a pretty stark reminder of the disaster, not only for the people of the city, but for the company, which was effectively—and rightly—drummed out of the North sea afterwards. The building stood empty for several years. On the other hand, and by sharp contrast, the North sea headquarters of BP is also in my constituency. The company has just moved into new offices, and by its own admission has had to re-evaluate its commitment to the North sea because of changing circumstances—not just the oil price but the amount of oil still to be produced. What is impressed on anyone who goes there is that there is an ageing infrastructure and there are difficult technical and financial challenges offshore, but BP is determined not to compromise safety. It is right that we should have debates such as today's, so that it knows it is operating in a climate of focused interest and concern about that.
I just want to reinforce the point that I made in an intervention on my hon. Friend Sir Robert Smith. Apart from the very specific recommendations of the Cullen report, there was a debate at the time about whether the right approach would be to set out in detail the safety rules that should be applied, or—this was where the debate settled—to make the operators responsible for safety in every way, requiring them to demonstrate to the HSE that they had a fully tested and viable case for the safety of their installations. That cultural shift is hugely beneficial, because the culture is built into every minute of every day, and every aspect of every operation. We must maintain that approach at the heart of things, and it is worth reinforcing that now.
The words "Piper Alpha" bring back clear memories for me of that night and the following day when we watched on our television screens the images of the disaster as it was unfolding. Then it was shown again and again. The fire, the heat, the smoke, the bravery and the fear of what was about to happen to those men who were still alive are memories that will stay locked in many minds forever. No words today will be able accurately to capture what those who died suffered that night, what they and their families went through or what those who survived, and their families and friends, have had to cope with from that day on.
When we fill our tanks with petrol or buy products derived from oil, we rarely give a thought to its production and the risks involved. Too often we hear that the price being asked for a gallon of petrol is too high, but we do not think what the price has really been for those working to produce that gallon of petrol or a barrel of oil. It is right that this debate should be held today for a number of reasons, many of which have been touched on, and I congratulate Mr. Doran, not only on securing the debate, but on the measured and thoughtful way in which he dealt with a difficult issue.
I also want to mention the speeches of my hon. Friend Sir Robert Smith and my right hon. Friend Malcolm Bruce. I know that there are other hon. Members who cannot be here today, and they include my hon. Friend Mr. Carmichael, in whose constituency a large part of the oil industry is based. He feels strongly about the issue and would have liked to be here, but unfortunately other parliamentary business has kept him away. The speeches that have been made show that right hon. and hon. Members have close contact with the community and the individuals affected by the tragedy.
Many individuals, too many to name, were involved that night in the rescue of the survivors. As well as remembering the ones who did not survive, I pay tribute to those without whose help more people would not have returned to their loved ones. It is right to remember those who lost their lives working in an industry that has given us so much that has made our country what it is today. Learning lessons from history is one way to make the future better and to take the actions that will ensure that workers and their families will never again experience what unfolded 20 years ago—in the North sea, or wherever in the world companies work to extract oil and other oil-related products. We must never rely on luck to ensure the safety of those who work in the industry; no one should risk their life on a daily basis.
I want to pay tribute to the Piper Alpha Families and Survivors Association for all its work over many years and for its drive to raise funds for a bronze memorial in Aberdeen's Hazlehead park, where those without a grave for their loved ones can go to be with their memories.
What happened on the night of the disaster is well documented and the subsequent inquiry under Lord Cullen detailed the safety shortcomings and a range of recommendations for the way forward. There is no doubt that the repercussions, notably the recommendations of the Cullen report and the huge investment that followed, have completely changed the industry. Investment in safety measures including maintenance, improved regulation and the greater priority given to training have all helped to make the industry far safer today than it was 20 years ago. However, today's debate, as well as providing an occasion to mourn and remember those who lost their lives and celebrate their bravery, must also mark a point of reflection for the industry.
It is worth noting the comments of Chris Allen, the health and safety director at Oil and Gas UK, who has stated his belief that the likelihood of another Piper Alpha incident occurring in the North sea has receded dramatically in the 20 years since the disaster. While that is undoubtedly the case—there were only two deaths in the oil industry in 2006-07 compared with 77 deaths in the construction industry—there can be no room for complacency. The Offshore Industry Liaison Committee/National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union is not alone in arguing that a number of incidents since Piper Alpha could have led to multiple fatalities on a similar scale, with only luck preventing an escalation. If there are still changes to be made, we have to make sure that we identify and act on them, without the need for another major incident to focus the mind.
The nature of the oil industry dictates that there will always be risk. However, that does not mean workers being at the mercy of the risks in that industry. Piper Alpha opened the eyes of the industry to specific risk factors, while the Cullen report offered a blueprint for action. The industry is now fully aware of the dangers and how to mitigate them. Accidents will happen, but there is no excuse for not taking every precaution. Indeed, if any reminder were required of the inherent risks in the oil industry, the fire on the Thistle Alpha platform off the coast of Shetland just seven months ago should serve as a timely reminder. The cause, a leaking pipe in a 30-year-old system, clearly illustrates the vital importance of properly maintaining existing platforms and machinery. The fatal accident inquiry into the Brent Bravo incident, in which two men tragically died, cited substandard maintenance practices by Shell, while the HSE's key programme 3 report, to which many members have referred, raised worrying questions about declining standards of maintenance, particularly on ageing platforms that may be likely to change ownership.
We must ensure that the renewed focus on fresh exploration in the North sea does not detract from the proper maintenance and upgrading of existing platforms. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that the interests of safety should not be influenced by the fluctuating fortunes of individual oil companies or the oil industry as a whole. If another Piper Alpha is to be avoided, the industry must not adopt the attitude of the frontiersman. I welcome the Minister's view on the prospects for extending external scrutiny of safety systems, particularly in terms of the Health and Safety Executive's role and scope in ensuring that safety representatives can operate independently when carrying out offshore checks.
We have heard about the regulations in place as a result of the Piper Alpha tragedy. However, it is worth pointing out that regulations work only if they are followed by both management and employees. Regulations make a big difference, but it will always come down to the individuals charged with their implementation. Effective and appropriate training is essential. We all know that corporate memory can fade quickly without proactive work from the industry. I commend the work of Oil and Gas UK in teaching the lessons of Piper Alpha to younger technicians in the industry.
Along with appropriate training, the morale of the offshore work force must not be neglected. Historically, communication between employees and management and between the oil industry and the offshore contractors' staff who typically provide the bulk of the work force has not been as good as it could be. Some issues have been handled poorly, and the "not required back" feature of the industry poses an enduring risk of fostering a culture of grievance among some workers. In a high-risk industry, low morale can be disastrous. It is particularly worrying to read reports of instances where staff have raised safety concerns with management that do not appear to have been properly investigated or acted upon. I would be interested to hear the Minister's thoughts on that.
The events of 20 years ago have fortunately not been repeated. Action was taken to ensure that safety on the rigs is always a top priority. We should never forget the price paid by so many on that night, and we must hope that the lessons learned will also never be forgotten.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate Mr. Doran warmly on securing this important debate and on the tone and huge amount of knowledge and experience that he has brought to our proceedings. We are all extremely grateful. As the only English Member speaking in the debate, it is important that I put on record that this is a UK-wide issue. It is certainly not just a Scottish issue. The whole United Kingdom benefits from North sea oil, and every Member of the House should rightly and properly be concerned about the issue.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North was right when he said that the primary purpose of the debate should be to remember and pay tribute to those who lost their lives or suffered severe injuries—he mentioned burns and so on—in that terrible tragedy on
We have heard the accounts of what happened on that terrible night of
The Cullen report has been rightly and properly mentioned and praised by every Member who has spoken today. I am pleased that an official public inquiry was set up to establish the causes of the disaster and to recommend changes to the safety regime. It is important to recognise that all 106 of its recommendations were accepted by both the industry and the Government. Lord Cullen chaired the official public inquiry, which consisted of two parts. The first established the causes of the disaster, and the second made recommendations for changes to the safety regime. The final report was published in November 1990.
The inquiry found a number of health and safety shortcomings. Workers on the platform were not adequately trained in emergency procedures and management were not trained to provide leadership during a crisis situation, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North mentioned. The approved maintenance paperwork system had been relaxed and there was a reliance on informal communication, which was not acceptable. Measures identified by previous risk assessment audits had not been implemented.
Lord Cullen's 106 recommendations were all accepted by the industry, many of them being a direct result of industry evidence. Responsibilities for implementing the recommendations were spread across the regulator and the industry. The Government accepted the recommendations in full and committed themselves to reforming offshore health and safety legislation. By 1993, all 48 recommendations for which industry operators were directly responsible had been acted upon and substantially implemented. The Health and Safety Executive had also developed and implemented Lord Cullen's key recommendation: the introduction of safety regulations requiring the operator or owner of every fixed and mobile installation in UK waters to submit a safety case to the HSE for acceptance.
Parliament has not been idle since that terrible night. It has ensured that the appropriate primary and secondary legislation has been introduced to back up the recommendations of the Cullen report. The Offshore Installations (Safety Case) Regulations came into force in 1992. By November 1993, a safety case for every installation had been submitted to the HSE, and by November 1995 all safety cases had been accepted. The regulations require the operator or owner, known as the duty holder, of every fixed and mobile installation operating in UK waters to submit a safety case to the HSE. The safety case must give full details of the arrangements for managing health and safety and controlling major accident hazards on the installation. Parliament quite properly revised the regulations in 2005, in light of 13 years' experience. The objective of the revisions was to improve the effectiveness of the regulations while reducing the burden of three-yearly resubmissions.
In addition to the application of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, particular hazards in the offshore environment may need special consideration. Major sets of UK regulation therefore apply to the industry's operations. The Offshore Installations (Safety Case) Regulations 1992 are underpinned by more detailed regulations. The Offshore Installations and Pipeline Works (Management and Administration) Regulations 1995 set out requirements for the safe management of offshore installations, such as the appointment of offshore installation managers and the use of permit-to-work systems. The Offshore Installations (Prevention of Fire and Explosion, and Emergency Response) Regulations 1995 provide for the protection of offshore workers from fire and explosion and for securing effective emergency response. Lastly, the Offshore Installations and Wells (Design and Construction, etc.) Regulations 1996 are aimed at ensuring the integrity of installations, the safety of offshore and onshore wells, and the safety of the offshore workplace environment. That is what Parliament has done on the regulatory front since that terrible disaster.
It is important to look at the safety record in the offshore industry since the Piper Alpha disaster. The latest officially sanctioned and agreed fatal and major injury figures for offshore workers are for the year 2006-07. There were two fatalities during that period, compared with two in 2005-06, none in 2004-05 and three in 2003-04. Sadly, it is still a dangerous industry that takes workers' lives, although, thankfully, in much smaller numbers than in 1988. Some 39 major injuries were reported during 2006-07, representing a fall of more than 20 per cent. from the 2005-06 figures. Sir Robert Smith made the interesting point that the industry is not declining: in 2006-07, there were an estimated 28,100 offshore workers, which represents an increase of 22 per cent. on the 2005-06 estimate of 23,000. His point was very well made indeed.
It is also worth putting on record that the industry has come up with a range of estimates of what is yet to be produced from the North sea, which could be nearly as much as the amount so far produced. It will certainly continue to produce for the next 30 years, contrary to widespread opinion that the North sea's oil and gas-producing days are over. We are still 90 per cent. self-sufficient in oil and 70 per cent. in gas. People will have to continue to work there for many years on what is a mature infrastructure, so it is really important that safety standards are maintained.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to put on record that there is far more oil out there than we all thought 20 years or so ago. Furthermore, that oil is more difficult and technically challenging to bring to the surface than that extracted in earlier years.
In 2006-07, the rate of fatal and major injuries among offshore workers was 145.5 per 100,000 workers, compared with 225 in 2005-06, so there has been an improvement. Let us consider briefly the major types of accident. Slips, trips and falls, being trapped or struck by or striking against equipment, and injuries associated with lifts, pulleys and swinging loads account for 83 per cent. of injuries. We have preliminary and strictly provisional figures for 2007-08, which will be subject to a full and detailed analysis, and possibly revision. Given the importance of the issues, however, as much up-to-date data should be put on record as possible.
According to those provisional figures, the HSE does not think that there has been a deterioration this year. There were no RIDDOR—Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995—reportable fatal injuries in 2007-08, for which we can all be extremely thankful, and the number of major injuries sustained was similar to that in 2006-07, 39, which was the lowest recorded figure since 1995-96. The combined fatal and major injury rate for 2007-08 is expected to be similar to that for 2006-07, which was 145.5 injuries per 100,000 workers. It is certainly pleasing that the overall figures for fatalities and major injuries in the offshore industry do not appear to be following a worrying trend, although there are no grounds for complacency, as all Members have said. Current statistics indicate a combined total of 74 significant hydrocarbon releases, although we await further details from a few duty holders.
It is important, however, to look at the current state of the industry, and I have a number of questions, some of which have been posed already today, that I too would like to put to the Minister. I would be grateful for a general response, but if she cannot provide those answers, perhaps she could write to me and other Members present with the Department's view. That would be entirely acceptable.
A few years ago, the general secretary of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee—an independent union—said that
"all the elements that were there in 1986-87 and led up to Piper Alpha are there now", which is a worrying comment. However, we have heard from several Members this morning about the concerns that the pipelines and compressors are old and were perhaps intended to last for 20 or 25 years only. Is the Minister satisfied that the inspection regime, particularly for pipelines and compressors and other such vital infrastructure, is up to the job? What reassurances can she provide that she is confident in and satisfied with the inspection regime? Many of the pipelines and compressors were not expected to last for a further 10 or 15 years. We need reassurances on that very important point.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North suggested that we introduce independent safety inspectors. The Minister will know as well as I do that there is a long tradition of workers within the coal mining industry appointing, perhaps through trade unions, their own safety representatives. I do not know the view of the then National Coal Board when that was introduced, but it has proved incredibly successful in the coal industry and has given real confidence to the work force, because they are working alongside, and have nominated, those supervising, or having a major input into, their safety. There might be valid practical reasons why that would not work, or be applicable, in the offshore oil industry, but if so, I would like to hear that from the Minister. I would also be interested to know whether she thinks that that could be explored to ensure that the safety statistics that I outlined continue to follow a downward trend.
Finally, while researching this debate, I learned that the HSE had imposed a target to reduce by 2004 the number of offshore hydrocarbon releases to 50 per cent. of the 1999-2000 baseline figure, but I could not find out whether that target had been met. Perhaps the Minister, or one of her officials, has the answer, but if not, will she be kind enough to write to me?
It is a pleasure to respond to this debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow—this is the first time that you and I have met in this arena.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Doran on his success in the ballot and on introducing this appropriate debate to mark the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster. Those of us who sat through his speech will have found it a powerful and moving narrative of exactly what happened that day and in the aftermath. Certainly he brought back for me many of the images from that day, and many of us will have watched from the safety of our own homes and workplaces as those terrible events unfolded. Nowadays, we have 24-hour news coverage and direct access to information on all sorts of disasters, and we cannot overestimate how dreadful it was for the families not to know what was happening out on Piper Alpha. I also recognise his contribution to the promotion of health and safety standards in the North sea. He has campaigned inside and outside this House, and after listening to him this morning, we all appreciate why.
It is important that we remember with sympathy those who lost their lives in that terrible disaster, 20 years ago, the families of those people, and those who were injured in the disaster. As colleagues have said, it has had a lasting effect, and there is a dark memory and image of it across many communities in Scotland and beyond. I think that it was Mr. Evans who highlighted, in an intervention, what my hon. Friend was saying: the focal point was undoubtedly Aberdeen and the north-east, but the disaster touched communities all over the country. In my town, three men lost their lives.
The message from this morning's debate is that we never want to see a repeat of that disaster. It was a wake-up call both for the offshore oil and gas industry and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, for the then Government. I know that he held many meetings with Ministers at that time. The cost of the disaster was very large in terms of the number of lives that were lost or shattered, and it cost £2 billion in damage and lost production. It also emphasised, in the starkest possible way, the importance of the oil industry to this country and the importance of having a strong safety regime offshore for the viability of a key sector of the UK economy. The industry employs 30,000 people and supports hundreds of thousands more jobs onshore. There are billions of pounds' worth of offshore investment, and there is likely to be even more investment with the introduction of carbon capture and storage. All that is at risk if safety standards are not given the highest priority.
Many hon. Members have mentioned the Cullen inquiry. We agree that one result of the disaster was one of the most radical reforms ever made to a regulatory regime. Lord Cullen's 1990 public inquiry report made 106 far-reaching recommendations, which have been mentioned, all of which have been implemented—some by the Government and some by the industry. There have been major achievements since then, such as the transfer of responsibility for regulating health and safety in the offshore oil and gas industry from the Department of Energy to the Health and Safety Executive in 1991—a move that was welcomed across the board. Another major achievement was the replacement of the earlier, prescriptive health and safety regime with a new goal-setting series of regulations that were made under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
The cornerstone of the new regime is the Offshore Installations (Safety Case) Regulations 1992. As Andrew Selous said, those regulations came into effect in 1993, and they have since been revised and modernised. They implemented Lord Cullen's key recommendation that offshore duty holders should systematically identify major offshore hazards, assess the risks, set out the necessary controls in a safety case and submit it to the HSE. No installation can operate in UK waters unless the HSE formally accepts a safety case for it. It is not just about regulation: the industry's whole approach to health and safety was galvanised after Cullen. The offshore industry spent more than £2 billion on health and safety improvements between 1988 and 1998, and has spent much more since.
Certainly, the aftermath of the Piper Alpha disaster saw a huge and necessary improvement in health and safety standards offshore. In the 20 years since then, there has been a significant reduction in health and safety risks and the industry has come a long way. I pay tribute to the work of the HSE in setting the regulatory framework and in leading the industry and other players towards having a better health and safety record offshore. However, as colleagues have pointed out, there are still issues affecting the industry's health and safety performance that need to be addressed.
The North sea and other offshore areas remain hazardous places to work. I do not know if you have ever been offshore, Mr. Bercow, but even on a short visit, one has to go through the safety procedures and must understand that it is not a jaunt in a helicopter and that one is going out to a hazardous work regime. Like many hon. Members, I have done that. If one did not appreciate before that it is a difficult area in which to work, one realises it afterwards. Even visitors need to be alert to the health and safety issues and to their responsibilities as individuals, and the industry has to ensure that they not only get out there safely, but get back safely too. There are hazards from the hostile environment and from the possibility of helicopter crashes, ship collisions, structural collapse, explosions, fires and well blowouts. The potential for a major accident remains, and control of that risk demands constant and close attention from duty holders and the HSE, as the industry's health and safety regulator.
The industry is dynamic and constantly changing. It is highly innovative, and develops cutting-edge technology to solve both old and new problems. Innovation is potentially good for health and safety, as well as exploration and production, because it provides opportunities to design out risks. The HSE is responsive to changing circumstances and is very happy to work with the industry to develop solutions that improve efficiency and raise safety standards. Health and safety should not be a costly afterthought; it should be an integral part of managing offshore operations.
The risk of a major offshore incident is ever present. Even given the huge strides forward on health and safety over the years, it is essential that vigilance is maintained and that the lessons of Piper Alpha are not forgotten. The incident at BP's Texas City refinery is a recent example in the sector of the disastrous consequences that can occur when safety issues are not given the highest priority. We must all redouble our efforts to avoid a similar occurrence in UK waters.
I should like to recognise the industry's efforts to improve health and safety through Oil and Gas UK, the Offshore Industry Advisory Committee and Step Change in Safety. In addition, the Government-led forum, PILOT, is concentrating on health and safety offshore, which I welcome. At last week's PILOT meeting, I called on the industry to raise its game on health and safety still further. I called in particular on people at the top of the industry to show greater leadership to raise those standards. I am doing that because of some of the worrying messages that flowed from the HSE's "Offshore Asset Integrity and Inspection Report", which was published in November, on key programme 3. My hon. Friend touched on many of the issues that the report raised. As those elements are safety critical, any failure could result in a major incident.
The results are worrying because even after 20 years of giving high attention to health and safety issues, the report drew attention to a number of weaknesses. The report reached several conclusions, such as that the offshore industry's poor performance and lack of progress in improving areas of asset integrity raises the concern that senior managers may not fully appreciate the implications that that could have on safety and business performance. It concluded that many senior managers do not make adequate use of integrity management data and do not give sufficient priority to ongoing maintenance. It said that the most senior management levels in companies need better key indicators of performance to inform decision making and to focus resources, and it found that many management monitoring systems tend to be overly biased towards occupational risk data at the expense of major hazard precursors.
The report also concluded that a key element in balancing priorities is ensuring that the engineering function has sufficient authority to put forward the case for major hazard control and to act as a backstop against degraded safety-critical elements and safety-related equipment and structure. It concluded that the influence of the engineering function has declined in many companies, and that there is poor communication not only between companies—my hon. Friend mentioned that—but between installations within companies. The industry is not effectively sharing good and best practice. It also found that cross-organisational learning processes and mechanisms to secure corporate memory need to be improved. Although there has been progress, such matters show that we still need a renewed and continuing emphasis on sustained improvements, not least given the number of people who work offshore and the likelihood that that may be expanded in the future, as Malcolm Bruce and others have highlighted.
As the offshore division of HSE conducts its regulatory oversight, it will use some key factors to hold the industry to account. Much of the offshore infrastructure is at, or has exceeded, its intended design life, which is an issue that has been identified this morning. Ageing offshore installations, changing ownership and management, worker inexperience, lack of corporate memory by managers, increased use of contractors and competition are among the growing challenges facing the industry.
Increased work force involvement in safety-critical issues is vital if the offshore industry is to improve its health and safety record. Incident statistics have plateaued over the past few years, and the UK is now reported to rank in the middle on an international basis, yet we have always aimed to be the best with regard to health and safety.
Taking account of those and other factors, I am pleased to advise my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North and other hon. Members that the Secretary of State has commissioned the HSE to review the industry's progress on the issues identified by the KP3 programme. The issues include focusing on industry leadership to create a stronger safety culture in which the involvement of the work force, including the industry's trade unions, will be critical. We expect the review to be completed by April 2009, and the report to be published soon after. That report will be put into the public domain.
I am grateful to the Minister for her statement. Will she confirm that the review will also consider the structure and the operation of the safety committees and the safety representative system?
That is why, in the last element, I particularly emphasised the involvement of workers and trade unions. In any of the conversations that I have had, both with the unions and with the industry, there was a strong recognition that workers, either through their organised trade unions or in other ways, must be totally involved in managing safety issues. After all, they have the most intimate knowledge of some of the issues that impact on this.
I am glad to tell the House that the industry, in partnership with HSE, has already agreed to focus on three priorities to address the key issues from KP3 and the safety concerns of the offshore division of HSE's hazardous installations directorate. At the PILOT meeting, I impressed on the industry that Government attach great importance to progress on those fronts, and I am glad to report a shared understanding of the importance of that issue. The industry has agreed that its health and safety priorities are leadership, installation integrity and work force involvement. I want to say a few words on each of those fronts.
First, it is unquestionably the case that health and safety can be improved and standards maintained through strong leadership from the top of organisations. That was the theme of a recent HSE conference entitled, "Leading from the top—avoiding major accidents". My second point covers installation or asset integrity. I have said that the offshore installations are ageing, and that comment has been reflected in much of what we have heard this morning. Much offshore equipment is now past its original intended life. If the offshore industry is to have a long-term sustainable and safe future and the benefits of offshore oil and gas are to be maximised for the nation, the assets must be properly maintained. There is now a widespread recognition within industry that that is a major issue.
The hon. Gentleman is a little bit sour about that matter. It is not the case that we will wait until 2009. Constant work is being done by the offshore division of the HSE, the industry and the unions. As I hope I have reflected in my short contribution, that was a major item of discussion at last week's PILOT forum in which the industry, Government and the unions came together to discuss the issues. Therefore, it is not a case of nothing being done until April 2009. I hope that he will recognise that this is a matter that the HSE takes very seriously, and has taken very seriously since it took over the regulatory obligations in 1991.
The Minister has rightly emphasised the HSE's important role in the offshore safety regime, but with the skills shortage facing the industry, and the HSE having to recruit from the same pool of available people in a climate of competition around the world, how easy is it for the HSE to find the right skilled people to operate that safety regime effectively?
I hope that the HSE continues to carry out its obligations and recruit the right people for the right job. Anybody who has dealt with our officials at HSE level, particularly in our offshore division, will recognise that we have some good people who understand the industry and know how to challenge it over health and safety issues. Obviously, we must recognise that there is always competition for high-quality people, and the HSE will keep the matter under review.
May I deal now with installation or asset integrity? I have said that the infrastructure is ageing. We need to get some informed decisions about the continued suitability of assets and properly thought through resource maintenance regimes so that they can be put in place and regularly reviewed.
My third point covers the involvement of the work force, which chimes in with some of the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North has mentioned. The industry has much more to do in that respect. The work force, too, has a key role. They are closest to the hazards and often best placed to alert managers to problems and to ways of improving safe practice. They have the benefit of an excellent network of safety representatives and safety committees covering all staffed installations. I commend their commitment and initiative, but that network can only work effectively in an atmosphere in which everyone is encouraged to have an open discussion on health and safety problems and solutions. Evidence suggests that there is still some way to go before we can ensure a fully effective safety culture in all companies that work offshore. I want to see those at the top of the industry giving more support to safety representatives. I want them to create an open environment in which those people who work on the rigs and the offshore installations can openly discuss some of the health and safety issues that are of concern. I made that comment last week as well. If I have not dealt with any specifics, I will certainly will get back to hon. Members.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North for raising this matter this morning. The offshore oil and gas industry remains crucial to the UK economy, but we must ensure that our health and safety standards are the highest in the world. The industry must raise its game and I welcome its commitment to address the issues through the three priorities that I have already mentioned. If we get this right, there is no reason why the industry should not enjoy a long, safe and prosperous future.
In this place, we often seek to fill the time that is allocated to us. With your permission, Mr. Bercow, I think that it would be appropriate for this House to fall silent to remember the 167 men who died, their families and those who were injured rather than to continue to fill the allocated time. That would be a suitable and appropriate memorial for those who died on Piper Alpha.