I am delighted to have secured a debate on a very important subject that we do not discuss often enough in this Chamber. The oil and gas industry is one of the most important industries in the country. It employs about 450,000 people across the UK, 198,000 of them in Scotland, and it is estimated that, last year, the Treasury collected about £13 billion of tax revenue from the industry. Because of the collapse in the oil price, that figure is likely to fall-it is estimated that the revenue will be about £7 billion, but that is still about 2 per cent. of UK tax revenue, so the industry is hugely important in terms of both employment and our economy. Of course, there is also the benefit of producing our own oil and gas. Although we are now at the stage where we have to import some of it-we are not self-sufficient-the industry remains immensely important.
By its very nature, the oil and gas industry is dangerous, and over its nearly 50-year history there have been many deaths and serious injuries. Memorial services have become almost a tradition in Aberdeen-one that we could do without. Just over a year ago, I was fortunate enough to lead a debate in this Chamber to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster-the world's worst offshore disaster, in which 167 men were killed. During that debate, the Minister's predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mrs. McGuire, gave an assurance that there would be a review of an important report produced by the Health and Safety Executive offshore safety division on the integrity of oil and gas assets in the North sea.
That report set out some very disturbing findings. Known as the "Key Programme 3-Asset Integrity Programme" or KP3 report, it followed targeted inspections by health and safety inspectors of about 100 offshore installations-approximately 40 per cent. of the total. All types of facilities, including fixed, manned and normally unattended installations, floating production, storage and offloading vessels and mobile drilling rigs, were part of the survey. The inspections were structured to cover all aspects of maintenance management, including the safety critical elements and plant-including computer programs-whose purpose is to prevent, control or mitigate major accident hazards. The report focused primarily on the maintenance management-the management systems and the processes that should ensure that safety critical elements are available when required. The main areas where the report raised concerns included asset integrity/process safety management systems-I am sorry that this is so technical, but it will not last long-as well as the physical state of the plant offshore; matters of significant concern with major hazard control measures; human resources and competence; leadership and management; and corporate and cross-industry co-operation and communication.
Some of the most worrying aspects of the report were the comments on management. For example, it found that there was poor understanding across the industry of the potential impact of degraded non-safety critical plant and utility systems on safety critical elements in the event of a major accident. According to the report, the role of asset integrity and the concept of barriers in major hazard risk control are not well understood. The report stated:
"Many senior managers are not making adequate use of integrity management data and are not giving ongoing maintenance sufficient priority."
"the decline in integrity performance that started following the low oil price has not been effectively addressed and there appears to be an acceptance of this knowing that the assets are likely to be sold."
Essentially, production facilities were being downgraded because they were expected to be sold on, so why spend the money? There were many other areas of concern, but I shall record one final one. The report stated that
"Declining standards in hardware" were
"having an adverse impact on morale in the workforce."
When the then Under-Secretary announced the review of the KP3 report in the Piper Alpha debate last July, she made it clear that the review would 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."-[Hansard, 2 July 2008; Vol. 478, c. 251WH.]
That review has been carried out over the past year and was finally published in July. It is important to note that the oil industry accepted the original report's findings and worked with the review team. Individual companies also worked hard to deal with many of the problems identified. It is therefore no surprise that the review, although not giving the industry a clean bill of health, recognised the progress that has been made. As a long-term observer of the oil and gas industry, I take the view that the KP3 process has been extremely useful.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, before the KP3 report was produced, the oil and gas industry tended to be reactive-it reacted when there was a disaster and put things in place afterward-but that the KP3 report succeeded in changing the emphasis to one of being proactive and encouraged the industry to identify risks and deal with them ahead of time, before they became something that might lead to a fatality?
I agree with my hon. Friend up to a point. I remember the same discussions following the Piper Alpha disaster, when the Cullen report was produced. That report encouraged the industry to be proactive. The evidence of the KP3 report is that we need an independent body such as the HSE to keep the industry on its toes. I would like to see a day when that is not necessary, but it is important to have that regulatory involvement.
Following on from that point, the other very useful thing about KP3 was that it brought minds back to asset integrity, because much of the safety effort had perhaps been diverted into the slightly easier area of improving the statistics on injuries and individual human safety methods. All of those are very important, but perhaps people's attention had come off the target of asset integrity and the structures that were being used.
Again, that is correct. From the point of view of the industry, the report was a difficult one for it to swallow, but at the same time it has been extremely useful in helping the industry to refocus. That is what we all want. We need improved safety and we cannot have that without a properly effective safety culture and responsible regulation.
The whole KP3 process has highlighted serious deficiencies in the way in which the oil industry was operating and has helped to put in place processes that should ensure increased awareness among the managers and work force-the very point that my two colleagues have just made-of the importance of management of safety systems, the integrity of plant, and communications across the industry and across individual companies.
Fundamental weaknesses remain in key areas, however. Most of those relate to the industry's culture, which is part of the history of the worldwide oil and gas industry. It is a difficult and dangerous industry that requires incredible skill and tenacity-not to forget shedloads of money-to achieve its objectives. A particular mindset is needed to be successful: quite a lot of the hunter-gatherer mentality goes into the search for oil. That mentality can produce positive results, as the success of the industry shows. The technical development of the UK offshore industry over the 40-plus years of its existence is nothing short of miraculous, and the impact is not restricted to the UK. The technologies developed in the harsh environment of the North sea, together with the skills of our work force, are exported to all parts of the globe, again to the benefit of the UK economy.
However, other aspects of the culture, particularly the territorial nature of oil companies, produce blind spots. Despite the KP3 process, a number of issues remain unresolved, one of the most important being hydrocarbon releases-unplanned releases of gas from offshore equipment. The Piper Alpha disaster was caused by a hydrocarbon release. Releases are categorised by the HSE as minor, significant or major. It is impossible to discuss hydrocarbon releases and the problems that they create without considering the offshore working systems, particularly the permit-to-work system. The KP3 report includes the annual statistics for significant and major releases since 1996-97. Releases in the significant and major categories have declined: major releases have plateaued at about four or five a year, although there were none in 2008-09, and significant releases plateaued at about 60 to 70 a year between 2005 and 2008. The hydrocarbon release that led to the Piper Alpha disaster was in the significant category, and we allow 60 or more such releases to occur every year.
Hydrocarbon releases are a major concern to everyone in the industry, but attempts to deal with them across the industry have had only limited success. Companies are totally wedded to their own systems. At the same time, more and more offshore work is being done by contracted labour, which has to become familiar with myriad different systems. On some platforms, operating companies have different systems from their contractors.
The trade union view is that the problems are created by lack of investment. The trade unions also question the way in which offshore operators investigate incidents, and particularly the failure on some platforms fully to involve the offshore safety committee. What is clear is that there is no common cause behind the high number of hydrocarbon releases. In most incidents, however, none of the events is unforeseeable. We know that we cannot afford to make mistakes, but the evidence in the statistics and the consequences is that we continue to do so.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about the industry's collective wisdom and knowledge. Does he share my concern that the number of people with the experience to know where the safety risks are is declining because we have an ageing work force, which might lead to an increase in risk?
The KP3 report focuses on that issue, particularly in management where there is a turnover of staff. Given the nature and background of some of the oil companies, people often come into the UK from other countries to manage facilities. The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point.
We cannot afford to make mistakes. When we do, however, it is not for lack of tools, procedures or safety warnings and systems. Far too many people go to work on the wrong piece of equipment or take out the wrong part; there are recurrent near misses. Speaking to me recently, one industry representative likened offshore systems to a surgeon removing the wrong kidney-these things are that important. The Cullen report into the causes of the Piper Alpha disaster noted that a flange on a compressor was not replaced properly and that led to the gas release. We can see from the statistics that such things happen consistently.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a shut-off valve at the Calor Gas site on Canvey Island failed to operate properly, resulting in the release of 163 tonnes of liquefied petroleum gas into a densely populated residential area? A lot of the gas was released as an unconfined vapour cloud, which could have been catastrophic and could have made Buncefield look like bonfire. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, a year on from that incident, Calor Gas has still not made itself available for interview under caution by the HSE, which is therefore still unable to report and to introduce the right safety measures to ensure that such things do not happen again?
I know only what I have read in the press about that release, but the hon. Gentleman is right. The problems are not confined to the offshore oil and gas industry. The incident that he mentioned occurred onshore, where the same safety systems need to be in place. I will come to that a little later. Regulation and compliance with the regulatory system are crucial. In that respect, I totally agree with him.
We all know that there is a problem-the proof is in the statistics-but what is missing is a sense of common purpose in dealing with it. Individual incidents are investigated and reported on, but no common approach or strategy emerges from such work. The reality is that there are far too many vested interests-mainly oil companies insisting on keeping their own procedures. Often, head office says that everyone must operate a system because it is the company system and part of the company's identity.
We need a new approach by the industry. We need a completely different system and way of working, rather than a new computer system or any other whizz-bang technology. There needs to be a commitment from the whole industry to move to a new standard, along the same path and away from a single-company approach. Individual companies have erected a wall around their current practices. By refusing to be open and to recognise the risks and problems in the current arrangements, they are missing an opportunity to move the whole industry forward and to improve safety throughout the North sea.
A first step would be a proper analysis of the cost of the present system to the industry and individual companies, including the risks and consequences of the failure inherent in that system. That should be set against a more coherent process-one that is common across the North sea, but which would, of course, need to allow for a certain amount of individuality, because no two platforms are the same.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point when he says that we should have common practices throughout the North sea, but he probably meant the UK sector of the North sea. Life for those working in the North sea would be greatly improved if more could be done to drive through a treaty with Norway to ensure that standards operate across boundaries. When equipment moves from one side of the North sea to the other, a whole different safety regime and culture applies, even within that one area.
I am an internationalist, and I can but hope, but the hon. Gentleman is right. One problem is that UK workers often move to Norway and vice versa. They also move to the Dutch, Danish and German sectors. We need to get the arrangements as close as we can, but of course I understand the different international aspects.
We also need a tougher approach from the HSE's offshore safety division. I know from my conversations with inspectors that they would like to see improvements, and the KP3 report and the review give them the platform to move things forward.
One example that those on my side of the argument often throw at the industry, to pick up the hon. Gentleman's point, is that companies in Norway do things better. What usually comes back at me from UK oil industry representatives is, "Yes, they have a common permit-to-work system in Norway, but it's very similar to ours. In reality, our system is about 80 per cent. common content, and that's where the Norwegians are." That is what I am told, but I do not know whether it is accurate. Indeed, I do not think that anyone knows. As far as I am aware, no one has studied and compared the UK and Norwegian systems to see which is more efficient in terms of the cost and other aspects, safety being the priority. By the way, all the companies that fight off a common system in the UK sector happily work with one in Norway.
If we are serious about safety in the North sea, we have to tackle the problem of hydrocarbon releases, and the only way to do that is to examine a common permit-to-work system. When the Minister replies, I would be grateful if he addressed that issue and, in particular, fired the starting gun by asking the HSE to carry out a comparative study of the UK and Norwegian systems as they relate to the permit-to-work system, with a view to introducing a common permit system in the UK.
Another important issue-a poor aspect of the culture in the North sea industry-is the "not required back" system. The offshore installation manager on any offshore platform had the ability to sack someone on the spot, regardless of whether that person was employed by the company-the word "sack" is a bit strong, but people could be removed from the platform. I am delighted that the industry and the unions have reached an agreement on the issue, and I hope that that is one skeleton that will be well and truly buried. However, I am hearing disturbing reports from trade union officials about an increase in dismissals for minor breaches of health and safety requirements. I hope that the industry is not replacing one obnoxious working practice with another. The HSE needs to keep an eye on the matter, and the unions are gathering data and examples.
I want to move off the strictly offshore aspect and the production side of things, although I have spoken to the Minister's officials, and he will expect me to say something about safety committees and safety representatives offshore. We need to change the system in that respect. There are strong aspects to the offshore system, which varies significantly from the onshore system. The most attractive part is the election of representatives, but the statutory exclusion of trade unions is a defect. We need a much more independent element, and I will address that issue on another occasion.
In this year, of all years, it is difficult to talk about safety in the North sea without mentioning the two helicopter crashes that have happened. I warned the Minister's officials that I would raise the issue, and I know that it is not his departmental responsibility, but I should appreciate it if he would pass on my comments to his colleague in the Department for Transport.
If working on an offshore installation in the oil and gas industry is dangerous, so is getting to and from works. I have some figures that were compiled for me by Mr. Jim Ferguson, a journalist who works exclusively on aircraft-particularly helicopters. He has been monitoring the use of helicopters for more than 30 years, and the figures that he gave me are shocking. I am well aware from my own experience of the number of helicopter incidents that have happened, but looking again at the number of deaths I find that 98 passengers and 13 crew members have been killed in helicopter disasters on UK sector passenger flights since 1976. If search and rescue and training flights are added to that, it gives another 10 crew and four passengers. Thus the UK total of deaths in the North sea from helicopter crashes alone-and those do not figure in the offshore safety figures, because, of course, they are the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority, and not the HSE-is 23 crew and 102 passengers. According to Mr. Ferguson's figures, in the whole of the north-west European continental shelf, 151 individuals and 40 crew have been killed in helicopter crashes. Those are shocking figures.
The vast majority of offshore workers are flown to their place of work by helicopter. Aberdeen airport is the busiest heliport in the world. On
As I said, the beacon is worn like a wristwatch and was welcomed widely by the work force. It made them feel more secure, as in an emergency it would send out a signal to rescue craft allowing rescue to be carried out much more quickly. However, when the helicopter crashed in February it was discovered that the signal from those personal location beacons interfered with the location beacons fitted on the helicopter life raft. When they detected another beacon in the area they automatically switched off. That has caused considerable concern in the industry. I shall not go through the concerns in detail. However, I was concerned that BP's new system had gone through a long process of test and technical examination before it was introduced. It seemed to me that the problem should have been identified and dealt with at that time.
I tabled a question to the Secretary of State for Transport asking when the CAA had become aware of the problem. I was surprised to be told that it had become aware of it in 2003, during the jigsaw testing process. It did not deal with the issue at that time because
"such beacons are not part of an aircraft's approved equipment and are treated in the same way as any other personal portable electronic device, such as mobile phones".
That response seemed to me to be inadequate, particularly given the potential consequences that were shown in the accident on
The second issue that I want to raise is the time it took for rescue craft to reach the passengers. The first distress signal went out at 18.40 and the first rescue vessel did not arrive until 20.23. Visibility was poor and of course there was interference with the location beacons, but the wristwatch beacons were transmitting. The North sea is cold and it kills very quickly. Luckily all the passengers were in life rafts, and there were no deaths, but serious questions arise over a rescue that took nearly two hours, and no one has yet given an answer or tried to explain the reasons for that.
The second helicopter crash happened on
Oil and Gas UK, together with the safety authorities, and with the trade unions Unite and BALPA on board, set up a helicopter taskforce chaired by Mr. Bob Keiller, who is chief executive of an offshore service company, PSN. In my discussions with Bob he has made it absolutely clear, despite my pushing him as hard as I could, that he is not interested in the history and what happened in February; he is interested in dealing with the consequences and finding a way to improve safety to ensure that we minimise the risk from all helicopter flights. As I said earlier, virtually everyone who works offshore must travel by helicopter. It can be a frightening experience. Once when I was going off to the Forties field some years ago we hit a bank of fog and it took the pilot three attempts to get us on the helideck because of the fog. There was no radar at that time. To do that week in, week out is deeply unpleasant and of course it is terrifying for the families of the men who work offshore.
I met Bob Keiller last week to get an update, and in the months since the taskforce was set up it has made extraordinary progress. Particularly in this place and in government, we are used to progress having to go through all sorts of processes, hoops, somersaults and so on. However, in the short time since being set up after the helicopter disasters, there has been progress that I find mind-boggling under the circumstances. First, the modification to the Eurocopter, which includes improvements to the mechanical system, has been agreed. That is directly related to the April disaster.
I mentioned the difficult flight that I took. Radar has now been extended offshore. We have had helicopter flights for nearly 50 years, and we are now extending radar offshore. VHF radio has been extended offshore. There is an agreement across the industry, insisted on by the taskforce, that no one will be allow to fly without a survival suit in any non-emergency situation. Anyone who has been offshore will know that survival suits are compulsory most of the time, but apparently that was not being recognised.
With the co-operation of the CAA, plans have now been put together to improve helideck lighting. Those plans will be implemented later this year, and we will see proper, high-quality lighting on all helidecks. That will make landing, take-off, disembarkation and everything else much more efficient.
The Vantage system is to be improved. It is used to identify people going on to helicopters. Because people tend to work either two weeks on, two weeks off, or two weeks on, three weeks off, a person is not allowed to leave the platform unless their counterpart, who is doing the next shift, appears. If someone does not appear on a helicopter, the person who is hoping to go off has to stay, and someone else will take their place on the helicopter. The Vantage system, which should track everyone who is on a helicopter, missed those late changes, so that has been improved.
Finally-this is important-contact with concerned relatives in the event of an accident has been speeded up. When there is a serious accident offshore, relatives often find that they are given a number that they find difficult to get through to, and which is given long after there has been a public announcement. When the April helicopter crash occurred, I immediately got hold of a BBC journalist I know to find out what was going on. They knew everything before the police released the information to relatives. I think that that is wrong. The system has been speeded up and improved.
I am sorry I have taken so long, but this is an important issue. My final point is for all the statutory authorities-I am conscious that the room is full of officials from the HSE offshore safety division, and this is not meant as a criticism of them, but I think that everyone should look at how the helicopter taskforce has operated and carried out its tasks. It has forced people to change to fit in with its requirements and meet the new, improved safety conditions. There are lessons to be learned.
Offshore safety has improved dramatically since the Piper Alpha disaster. It had to, because the system was appalling. It has improved again since the KP3 report, but we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. The matter must constantly be addressed, and I congratulate the HSE on the KP3 report, on the initiative that it took and on its review. I hope to see more improvements coming from its proposals.
I congratulate Mr. Doran on bringing this issue before the House today. As he said, it is important for us to keep learning lessons and keep the focus on safety. Incidents happen and lessons are learned, and then there is a period of calm, when perhaps people's minds are taken off the ball. A debate such as this is a chance to focus again and remind everyone involved of how dangerous the situation is, and how important safety, and the culture of safety, is.
I must declare my entry in the Register of Members' Interests related to the oil and gas industry. Like the hon. Gentleman, my key interest is that many of my constituents in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine work within the North sea, or are relatives or friends of people who work there, and who want to see as safe an environment as possible.
The hon. Gentleman touched on the history of Piper Alpha. There was a sea change in the cultural approach, moving towards the case for safety, rather than the box-ticking approach. Looking at the comparisons with Norway, there is a concern that the Norwegian system is still more of a box-ticking approach than a safety case approach. Therefore, we must be careful when making any comparisons with Norway because people on the Norwegian side also have concerns about their safety culture. If we could get the best of both worlds, that would be excellent.
As the hon. Gentleman said, this industry is extremely important for employment and for the UK economy-something we sometimes underestimate, as so much of it is out of sight on a day-to-day basis. Anything that can be done to make the North sea more of a whole could improve operations within it. That is not only from a safety point of view. If people have to comply with different safety regimes, they face extra expenses each time they switch between different parts of the North sea. Near the middle of the North sea in the fields that straddle the sea, it is almost impossible to take a ship from one side of the field to the other, because there are such different safety regimes.
The KP3 report was a timely reminder of asset integrity, and as I said in my intervention, the industry was conscious that it had drifted into making safety an important part of the message, while again going towards the easier safety approach of slips, trips and falls, which are statistically more measurable and more high profile. It is easier to see that something is being done about them.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about structural integrity and morale in the working environment. Especially during downturns, the industry thought that surface rust did not really matter as it was not an issue of structural integrity. However, if someone is working in a safety-critical environment and they see rusting equipment all around, that does not send the best message for morale or how they should approach their work as professionals. What starts off as surface rust can become more structural rust if no intervention is made, and later intervention becomes even more expensive and critical to safety. Asset integrity is crucial to avoiding a future Piper Alpha disaster, and the KP3 report was welcome. The review, and the fact that there has been progress is also welcome.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the worldwide culture. We have something to contribute, because companies that operate in the North sea have taken safety lessons from there to other parts of the world and improved things. In the debate on Piper Alpha, I reminded the House about how the safety case used offshore had been brought onshore into the construction industry for the North sea, and resulted in major improvements. There are positives to be achieved from learning lessons.
One of the points highlighted by the KP3 report was the importance of industry learning from itself and sharing its experiences. The Energy and Climate Change Committee visited the rough gas storage platform before the recess. One of the first things that we were shown was a video of a major disaster, when there was a major release of hydrocarbons and a fire on board the platform. That dramatic and effective DVD of what had gone wrong seemed an effective way of getting the message across to other operators in the North sea, and of showing the lessons that had been learned from that experience. It was lucky that there was so much hydrocarbon release in a confined area that it did not become an explosive mixture-it became a major fire hazard rather than an explosive mixture. There was a useful message about safety, and a very brave coxswain from a lifeboat who was willing to share the problems that he had had in trying to get his lifeboat to start. His training had been on generic lifeboats, but when he got into the lifeboat that he was using on the platform, he did not know how to start it, and had to radio someone. In a more serious crisis, that could have been critical to safety. From that experience, the industry across the North sea can learn that people need specific training on the life raft that is found on the platform on which they are operating. That message has got across.
As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North said, safety for the person operating in the North sea transcends just the platform and the journey to and from the platform. We had the tragedy in April and the less tragic incident involving helicopters in February. Relatives and friends are not interested in which authority is responsible for safety. People just want a safe environment from the moment they leave home to the moment they come back from work. The hon. Gentleman has highlighted just how safety-critical the helicopter journey is as part of that. Moreover, it is to be welcomed that the industry, through the taskforce, sees a responsibility across the piece. Again, that will help the interface between the CAA and the HSE.
The use of personal locators seems to indicate that when two people operate in isolation, they may not see the boundary between the safety case in each area. The fact is, however, that the beacons were known to have an interference problem. Helicopter pilots have always been worried about having them on the helicopter, and yet the industry does not seem to have engaged with them until this latest incident to solve the problem. Operators feel reassured by having their own locator in a wristwatch. If they end up in the sea they know that they will not have a long survival time. Wearing that wristwatch means that they will be located. It is very difficult to locate one individual in the North sea. The wristwatch beacon provides an extra reassurance for the worker. They know that in the event of a disaster, they have more chance of survival. I welcome the progress of the taskforce. It is important to gather together all the different players in the industry to come up with a common purpose of improving safety.
My right hon. Friend Malcolm Bruce made the point about the ageing work force and the importance of training and culture. As I said in the debate on Piper Alpha, OPITO, the Oil and Gas Academy, is based in my constituency, and it has a good track record of improving training and bringing training to the new individuals who work in the North sea. It would help such individuals if they did not have to gain their experience from another disaster. Instead, they should be mentored by the ageing work force, who can pass on how crucial the safety culture is and how dangerous an operating environment it is. If workers learn how much safer they will be if they operate properly, that will be another benefit for the North sea.
When all is said and done, there is still a lot of oil and gas in the North sea, and for all the economic and security supply reasons, we want to see as much of that produced as possible-but not at any price. Safety must be maintained. The economic and security supply driver is that we should be carrying on much more in the North sea. Yet many of the platforms and pipelines were not expected still to be operating. Now, however, it is hoped that they will be there much longer, which makes it even more important that we focus on this asset integrity.
Such work will require investment and expenditure. If we want to see a long life for the industry in the North sea, we need to ensure that we have a regime that does not say that the safest future for a particular platform or pipeline is to shut it down and decommission it early. We need an investment climate.
May I introduce a new dimension that will extend the life of the use of such assets? We have carbon capture and storage systems that are being developed, which will see us seeking to achieve a long-term geological storage of carbon in the voids under the sea. That will introduce possible additional use of the pipelines and additional safety issues.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about the other future for the North sea and the important role that carbon capture will play in tackling our immediate problems of climate change. Again, that will require safety assessments and an effective safety regime. The crucial message is that we as a country have benefited enormously from what has happened in the North sea. The work has been provided by dedicated and loyal teams of people who have taken a lot of risks. They should not be taking unnecessary risks, and we owe it to them to ensure that they are provided with the safest possible environment. That means that we will benefit from the North sea, but not at any price.
I congratulate Mr. Doran on securing this debate. I should like to testify to his unstinting work on the issues of North sea safety in which he is heavily engaged and interested. He was right to bring this matter to the House-he does so from time to time-and highlight both the problems and achievements. I should like to draw out some of those and reinforce what my hon. Friend
According to Oil and Gas UK, my constituency of Gordon has more oil and gas jobs located in it and derived from it than any other constituency in the United Kingdom. Ironically, the figure is greater than the electorate. That arises from the fact that a number of the headquarters of the major operators and supply companies are located in the constituency; the jobs are not necessarily based there. We are talking about an industry that employs some 450,000 people across the UK. Taking into account the investment and operating expenditure and export and balance of payments benefit, the industry is worth something like £40 billion a year. It is a very important industry. It is ageing, but not decaying, and that is the crucial point. It is in everybody's interest to ensure that the integrity of the equipment is maintained for its efficient and safe operation. In the context of the North sea, safety is everybody's responsibility.
As we have heard from some of the contributions, there is a recognition that it is not an "us and them" approach; that everybody understands the importance of safety. However, everybody must continue to apply pressure to ensure that we have the maximum safety culture. We have not always done that, but there is a recognition now that that is what we must do. If we reflect on the matter, we will see that we have an industry that is international in its scope and reputation, and that has a growing export business. A disaster in the North sea would have significant implications for the credibility of that industry as well as cause huge worries and anxieties to the people who are engaged in it. If we do not have the right culture-of being at the absolute apex of safety consciousness-it will not just prejudice the lives and concerns of workers in the industry, which are absolutely central, but affect the economic performance and capacity of the industry in the long run. That is why all of us must be engaged across the whole piece.
I also happen to represent Aberdeen airport. Although I have been told by the airport manager that it is no longer the busiest heliport in the world, it is nevertheless very busy. It was the airport from which the Super Puma operated by Bond left and was returning to when it crashed. Four of the crew lived in my constituency. That incident reinforces the point for all of us in the north-east. We live daily with the knowledge that we are asking people to trust themselves to this highly risky environment. Collectively, we need to respond to the best of our ability. I want to reinforce the point that I made in my intervention to my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. All of us have been engaged in discussions about the future of the North sea and the work force. There is real concern that the work force is ageing. I do not mean that they are old, but they are approaching a time when they are likely to retire or leave the industry. With them will go a huge residue of cultural knowledge, wisdom and experience. We must ensure that there is a younger generation coming into the industry and that that knowledge, information and culture is transferred to them quickly and efficiently so that they are carried through to the next generation. We all know that there is a challenge to persuade people that this is an industry with a future. Those of us who are engaged in it every day see young people in the industry doing the most amazing jobs and taking on the most remarkable challenges. They want to tell others that this is an industry that has not only a fantastic past but a great future.
I want to reinforce that point, because there is a view among those who are not engaged in this industry on a day-to-day basis that somehow it is just fading into the sunset and that it is a declining industry. The number of times people say to me, "Well, you must be worried now that the oil is finished, what are you going to do next?" And yet the information that we have is twofold. First, there is probably nearly as much oil and gas still to be recovered from the UK sector as has already been recovered. Secondly, there is a huge export industry that we are supporting internationally, from the collective capacity and technical ability of companies that have derived their success from operations within the North sea.
It is important that we have a taxation and economic regime that gives confidence to the industry that we will continue to invest, because as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North rightly pointed out, the integrity of the structures and their inherent safety depends significantly on continuing investment. We must ensure that that investment is stimulated, encouraged and-this is the important point-is made at a level that guarantees that we have the platforms and the installations that we deserve and need.
Key Programme 3 was a very good check and one that reinforced the safety case culture. It is the responsibility of the operators to ensure that their installations are safe, but it is also the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive to test those operators all the time, in terms of establishing what is the safety culture and what is the operation of those safety cases on a day-to-day basis. It seems to me that KP3 was an extremely useful check.
Similarly useful is the helicopter taskforce, which is chaired by Bob Keiller, whose company is also located in my constituency, beside the airport. Indeed, if one visits his company and many others in the industry, before anything else is discussed they will give a safety briefing, which is not just about the building that they are in; it is part of the recognition that, before anybody goes anywhere in the industry, they should think about safety. I do not think that any of us would deny that that culture is much more sharply defined now than it probably was in the past.
What is clearly important is that we put in place at all levels all the mechanisms that are necessary to ensure that we can have confidence that this industry will invest for the future, will operate for the future, that the people who work in it will have an environment that is as safe as it can be, that its international image is one of high integrity in every sense and that it has a long-term future.
Helicopters are an obvious point of concern, but there is no other practical way to take crews on and off platforms. It is true that the investment in higher technology and automation over the years means that the number of people at any one time on a platform now is smaller than in the past. However, the number of people flying backwards and forwards to platforms is sometimes greater now than in the past, because those people have specialist roles to play.
In that context, after the last crash there was a discussion about what we would do with helicopters. Clearly, there were very many workers who said, "I am very uncomfortable about taking that journey out". However, being the kind of people they are, they also say, "There isn't actually any option, that is my job and I will have to accept it, take it on trust and hope that the accident was something that happens rarely and won't happen again". Nevertheless, I think that anybody can understand the atmosphere that would have been pervasive within the industry after that last crash. Therefore, we need to ensure that we have helicopters of the highest integrity and operation systems that are as thorough and rigid as they can be, in terms of maintenance and actual operation environment.
Of course, there has been some concern about the competition for helicopters. We have had separate debates in this House about the need for helicopters, for example in Afghanistan. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to comment, but we have concerns that there is some pressure on the numbers and availability of search and rescue helicopters. I hope that it is not true, but it has been suggested to me anecdotally that there are some people in the search and rescue business who are not sure that they can absolutely guarantee 24/7 cover around the UK coast. As I say, I hope that that is not true. I do not know if the Minister is able to give any reassurance on that issue or, if necessary, could write subsequently. It is important that, if there is a problem, we address it. Of course, that issue does not just concern the North sea; it concerns people operating in the industry, but it also concerns anybody else operating around the UK coast.
I believe that this is a very timely debate. It is important to stress that we have an industry here that has a very substantial past-I myself first went offshore in the North sea 36 years ago-and a very substantial future, whereby people will still be travelling offshore in the North sea in 36 years' time. We must also ensure that this is an industry that operates to the highest standards internationally and that people see it as a beacon of high standards, so that they can be attracted to work in it because they know that the environment may not be 100 per cent. safe-nothing can ever be 100 per cent. safe-but is as safe as it can reasonably be and that safety is the paramount priority of everybody engaged in the industry.
I congratulate Mr. Doran on securing this morning's debate, and I welcome the contributions made by my hon. Friend Sir Robert Smith and my right hon. Friend Malcolm Bruce. I do not intend to repeat the many excellent points made by those Members; I just want to reinforce what I think are some of the main issues that have arisen from the debate.
Our debate this morning is certainly timely, given that the KP3 review was published in July and that this week is the first opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to debate it. It is also good that progress has been made since the original report was published: remedial work has been done on serious problems, such as fire doors; there is a higher level of awareness about safety management and hazard risk control; and companies, despite the economic conditions, have continued to invest in training and hazard awareness.
It is true that there has also been progress, although perhaps not across the piece, on plant maintenance. As previous speakers have said, that will continue to be an issue, given the fact that the industry's plants and equipment are ageing and are likely to remain in place for a number of years. It is also good that organisations are being more co-operative and are sharing evidence.
However, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North said, despite the fall in the number of people killed in the industry-except for the figures for those killed in helicopter crashes-the number of hydrocarbon incidents and releases has not changed in the past few years. Although the number is considerably lower than it was at the time of Piper Alpha, I understand that there were 21 major or significant hydrocarbon releases in the second quarter of this year. There were 74 such releases in 2007-08, 74 in 2006-07, and 73 in 2005-06. If there is one lesson that needs to be learned from those figures and the fact that Piper Alpha was caused by a significant hydrocarbon release, it is that we need to do something to improve those statistics.
I believe that it would be of benefit to both the UK and Norway if the Health and Safety Executive's offshore division were to work with Norway's Petroleum Safety Authority. For example, an issue identified by the Petroleum Safety Authority that has not been mentioned already this morning is the fact that, in the Norway sector last year, there were 350 instances of work-related hearing damage. The authority says:
"A continuing high number of hearing damage reports is an indication that personal protective equipment is an inefficient barrier".
Perhaps that matter could be examined.
Until the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North stated it, I did not know how many people had been killed in incidents involving helicopters. Forty crew members and 150 passengers killed since 1976 are certainly considerable numbers. I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon said: in the current circumstances, there is probably no other easy way of getting people to the platforms. However, continuing efforts are needed to ensure that the equipment is maintained and performs to the highest safety levels.
As several right hon. and hon. Members have said, the matter of personal locator beacons illustrates the need for the Civil Aviation Authority and the HSE to work together. Clearly, although that issue of collaboration may now be in the process of being resolved, it was not being resolved until the helicopter incidents earlier this year occurred. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon about rescue times. In February, it took two hours for the helicopter to locate people in the sea. That is clearly too long. I realise that the Government are under pressure to put more helicopters in Afghanistan, but that must not happen at the expense of the 24-hour, seven-day cover provided around UK shores. I hope that the Minister can give us an assurance on that.
As has been said, the UK oil and gas industry contributes significantly to our economy and is likely to continue to do so. It is a major employer, particularly in Aberdeenshire. It is important that the health and safety issues raised by the KP3 report and review are kept in people's minds and that there is no room for complacency.
I congratulate Mr. Doran on securing the debate. He made the important point that this subject is not debated often enough; it is good that he has given us an opportunity to debate it. As he rightly says, it is of great importance to the safety of those who work in the industry, which employs hundreds of thousands of people in hundreds of installations, many offshore. The industry is of huge economic importance to the country, but the safety of the work force must be paramount.
The hazardous conditions in which such men work were brought home to us recently by the tragic crash of a Super Puma helicopter in the North sea on
I support the hon. Gentleman in the points that he made. I do not propose to go over all of them, but they were all well made, especially the points relating to the new helicopter taskforce set up by the UK offshore industry group. The taskforce has been meeting and performing a useful function, and he told us about some of the improvements made as a result. We are told:
"Its purpose is to act on behalf of the industry as a communications focal point for sharing information, advice and learning across the industry and with other stakeholders on matters arising from this and other helicopter accidents, including assisting with the implementation of any recommendations from the Air Accident Investigation Branch inquiries."
Clearly, that is an important function. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentioned it to the Minister, as it gives us the opportunity to ask the Government what their approach is to the taskforce. One imagines that the Government are one of the stakeholders described by the group. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister what role Departments, the Health and Safety Executive and the Civil Aviation Authority have played. It would also be interesting to hear what other steps the Government have taken to promote helicopter safety since the tragic incident in April. I support the points made about the need to have search and rescue helicopters available, and I hope the Minister will answer those as well.
On more general issues of North sea gas and oil safety, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North was right to ask about the HSE's review of key programme 3, which came about as a result of the KP3 report of November 2007 and was published in July. The review found
"evidence of good progress in addressing the issues identified by the KP3 work" since November 2007, but in safety, of all fields, it is important to ensure that all issues are properly addressed, and it is clear from the review that some still need to be dealt with. I shall briefly highlight some of them, although there are others of importance.
The review made important points about asset integrity, saying that
"further progress in the management of asset integrity is required. The industry must also focus effort on greater reduction of significant hydrocarbon releases to build upon progress already made."
Once again, I would like to hear from the Minister what the Government's view is on that matter. Also, will he give us the most up-to-date figures on hydrocarbon releases, including the figures for April to June-the second quarter of this year-when there were apparently a number of significant hydrocarbon releases? The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North told us why it is so important that we bear down as much as possible on hydrocarbon releases.
The review made some points about corporate and cross-industry learning and communication, stating that
"more effort is required by the industry to break down barriers which are preventing more effective integration of the work of their independent verification bodies, and...concerns still exist over effective auditing and knowledge sharing within companies."
Again, one wonders what impetus the Government have given to the promotion of that important knowledge-sharing function. Does the Minister wish to comment on that?
Finally, among a number of important points, the review mentioned work force involvement in controlling major accident hazards. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North was right to deal with that important point. It would be good to know the Minister's view on it, as the review said that further work was needed to develop work force involvement.
We must all be concerned about the safety of such a substantial and important work force. Safety must be paramount. We all remember the Piper Alpha tragedy of 21 years ago. The Government and all of us must play our part to ensure that there is no repeat of that tragedy, or indeed any tragedy at all, in this important field. We must do all we can and take all the time possible to bear down on the safety hazards that give rise to such incidents.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Doran on securing this important debate. It is important that we have the opportunity to explore the progress made on these key issues, and I think that the Chamber recognises his contribution to health and safety standards in the North sea and his campaigning both in and outside the House on those matters.
It is important that we remember those who have lost their lives, as all hon. Members have said. The communities of north-east Scotland take huge amounts of wealth and resource out of the North sea, both in oil and gas and, as I know from my previous portfolio, by fishing. However, we know what perils the sea holds for many. We know of the 167 lives lost in Piper Alpha and of the 16 individuals who died more recently. As my hon. Friend said, his community has felt all too often the tragedy of loss of life and its lasting effects. It is important that we remember that in our reflections on how to improve safety.
That brings me to key programme 3. On the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions commissioned the Health and Safety Executive to review the UK offshore oil and gas industry's progress on addressing the issues in the KP3 report on asset integrity. Hon. Members have referred to that today and my comments will concentrate on it.
Worryingly, even after 20 years of great attention being paid to health and safety issues, the report drew attention to a number of weaknesses, such as the offshore industry's poor performance and a lack of progress on improving areas of asset integrity. This year's KP3 review by the Health and Safety Executive found that the offshore industry leadership had responded well by allocating considerable resources to tackling the issues identified in the KP3 report.
The review found evidence that good progress had been made. KP3 and the review have raised awareness of the need for effective process safety management and major hazard risk controls. Good progress has been made on fabric and general plant maintenance, although ageing infrastructure means that that will be an ongoing challenge. Remedial work has taken place to rectify the serious causes for concern identified by KP3, such as fire doors and deluge systems. Leadership in asset integrity management is now firmly on the industry's agenda and has been effectively promoted throughout the sector. The industry is now more open to sharing good practice in asset integrity.
Although the findings of the review were encouraging, the challenges are ongoing and should not be underestimated. Offshore infrastructure continues to get older and remedial work is yet to be completed in some areas. Momentum must continue to prevent the assets degrading to unacceptable levels. The HSE will maintain the momentum by ensuring that asset integrity is one of the four priorities in the offshore division's plan of work. It will remain a key priority for interventions dealing with major hazard risk management, particularly in the light of the ageing infrastructure.
The KP3 review considered work force involvement, to which my hon. Friend referred. The Government recognise the important role that the work force and their representatives play on offshore installations, and the valuable contribution that they can make in managing major hazards offshore. The HSE gives a long-term commitment to promoting and facilitating work force involvement in its new strategy, which includes a specific goal dedicated to that. The work force are closest to the hazards and are often best placed to alert managers to problems and ways of improving safe practice. They have the benefit of an excellent network of safety representatives and committees covering all staffed installations. I commend their commitment and initiative, but that network can work effectively only in an atmosphere in which everyone is encouraged to have an open discussion on health and safety problems and solutions.
Such a culture was at the heart of the comments made by hon. Members. The review said that although there is increasing work force awareness of major hazard risks, improvements are required to strengthen the safety culture. My hon. Friend referred to the "not required back" system. In a recent HSE survey, one in 10 workers who responded said that they would fear losing their jobs if they raised health and safety issues. As he said, we must keep a close eye on that because such a culture is not conducive to the promotion of health and safety. People must not be afraid of losing their jobs if they raise legitimate concerns about their health and safety and that of their colleagues in such dangerous environments.
My hon. Friend also referred to the common permit to work. I agree that benefits could arise from the introduction of such a system, in particular for contracting employees. However, there are difficulties to overcome in implementing a common system offshore. The offshore regulations do not require a common permit to work system. The UK health and safety legislation regime uses goal setting and it encourages operators to develop fit-for-purpose systems. That approach has been successful in encouraging a diverse range of new entrant organisations into the UK offshore sector. Such organisations often have existing permit to work systems that work well for them. There is no evidence that forcing them to change to a common system would bring any safety benefits. Indeed, it might introduce additional hazards and overheads.
The most widespread permit to work system used in the North sea is the computerised integrated safe system of work, which is used by 60 to 75 per cent. of organisations. That is a capable system, but some small operators may not be able to justify the running costs for a single installation. The mandatory introduction of such a common computerised system could introduce additional hazards relating to the system's initial operation and future development.
My hon. Friend raised doubt over the accuracy of the percentages for the UK and Norway, to which Sir Robert Smith also referred.
I will give way, but I believe that I will answer my hon. Friend's point in my next paragraph.
My hon. Friend is right. The HSE takes this issue seriously and will shortly ask the advisory committee to consider what steps are needed to improve the use of permit to work systems in the North sea. That will be the first step. The committee will be asked to consider what further information, if any, is required to address the issue. That could include the consideration of future research needs. The HSE takes this matter seriously and will not disregard it. Further work must be undertaken.
I will now respond to the comments on personal locator beacons and helicopters. Given the recent incidents involving helicopters offshore, it is not surprising that the issue was raised in this debate. As hon. Members have said, helicopter travel is the principal means of transportation of personnel to and from offshore installations. Despite there being a good safety record, it still remains an important issue for duty holders and all those who travel offshore.
The regulatory responsibility for helicopter travel is shared between the HSE and the Civil Aviation Authority. As Malcolm Bruce mentioned, communities and workers who travel backwards and forwards are not concerned about the myriad organisations, but want to know that everything that should be done is being done by the powers that be. Each body has its area of expertise and they must work together. For example, the HSE enforces the requirement to provide a good prospect of rescue for individuals who enter the sea close to an offshore installation.
The HSE and the CAA have a memorandum of understanding that explains the roles and responsibilities of each, especially in areas of overlap. They meet on a regular basis to ensure that the memorandum of understanding remains up to date. The HSE and the CAA sit together on relevant groups and committees, and, when appropriate, they meet on a one-to-one basis to discuss relevant offshore helicopter safety issues and research matters. A good example of industry, the work force, the HSE and the CAA working together effectively was the contribution of the Oil and Gas UK personal locator beacon working group to addressing the issues related to personal locator beacons. I can report that a risk assessment exercise has been undertaken, which concluded that the future optimum arrangement would involve all beacons being of a similar power output and non-smart.
Agreement with the helicopter operators has also been reached, so that the Civil Aviation Authority will replace the smart beacons in life rafts with non-smart beacons. That work should be completed by the end of this year. Work is continuing on identifying a suitable non-smart PLB of similar power output to the aircraft beacons, which will be compatible with the personal protective equipment worn by helicopter passengers.
I am also pleased that progress has been made on tackling the inadvertent activation in flight problem. A series of environmental tests, which beacons will be required to pass, have been agreed with the CAA. Candidate beacons that are compatible with passenger personal protective equipment will be subjected to those tests over the next couple of months. Negotiations are also under way between Oil and Gas UK and the RAF to explore the possibility of the industry's funding an upgrade to the RAF's directional finding equipment in order to eliminate the potential difficulty with resolving multiple signals from non-smart beacons.
In concluding my remarks, I will attempt to address some of the issues raised by hon. Members. Concern has been expressed about helicopters and search and rescue in the wider context. Duty holders offshore do not rely on national search and recovery arrangements; they need to make their own arrangements. The HSE is not aware of any duty holder's not being able to secure the helicopters, vessels or ships that they need for search and recovery activities.
As I have said, personal beacon locators make a valuable contribution to search and rescue. It is important that we get the technology right, so that if people are in the sea because of a crash, they can be located quickly. Reference has been made to the February accident when people were found within the time frame laid down in very difficult conditions. As has been said, visibility was poor and personal beacon locators were important to that operation. As I have said, it is important that we get the technology right. I hope to have given some reassurance to colleagues that all the relevant bodies in the industry are working together to ensure that we have a response in place. Colleagues do not need to be concerned about our capability in terms of search and rescue helicopters.
On the efforts of the industry and its determination to respond to this important review and the recommendations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North said, it is important to note that oil prices have resulted in a reduction in the revenues coming into the industry. At a time when the finances are not as rich as they have been, demands on the industry are greater to ensure that it makes the resources available to guarantee that there is asset integrity and that health and safety is a priority. Health and safety needs to remain high in the order of priorities and the industry should spend the necessary resources at this time. As all hon. Members have said, the gas industry is crucial to the UK and its economy. We need to ensure that our health and safety standards are the highest in the world-not just for our workers, but, as has been said, to make the most of the industry's opportunities to sell itself across the globe.
I welcome the industry's commitment to continuing to invest in the important area of asset integrity. However, again as hon. Members have said, if we get this right, there is no reason why the industry should not enjoy a long, safe and prosperous future. This is not a dwindling industry; it has a long life ahead of it, and we need to ensure that we play a key role and take a keen interest in it.
Despite recent progress on health and safety, there is still room for improvement, especially as the industry is facing new challenges. As I have said, the current recession is increasing the pressures on North sea operators in a high-recovery cost environment. The Health and Safety Executive is aware of the potential for health and safety to be compromised in the current climate. It is actively monitoring the developing situation to ensure that standards and recent improvements in performance are maintained, and I hope that performance will continue to improve. Everyone, including employers and workers, has an important role in ensuring that that happens.
Finally, everyone here today recognises that the work force have a vital part to play in taking forward the recommendations of the KP 3 review. As all hon. Members have said, health and safety is everyone's concern, and the role of the work force is central to that. The work force are truly the guardians of safety, but they must operate in a culture that promotes rather than discourages people's raising awareness of health and safety-my hon. Friend mentioned concerns about that. We need to work together to introduce the procedures and systems that will support effective worker involvement offshore. As all hon. Members have said, there is no room for complacency. There has been considerable progress and a cultural change, but we are not there yet. We must continue to focus, work hard and ensure that the UK leads the world in health and safety in the oil and gas industry.