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Mr. Hardy: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for those comments. That takes us to the point that I touched upon in my remarks: that the employer sought to create the impression that he had been given a clean bill of health by the Health and Safety Commission, inevitably implying that my constituent had acted improperly,

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inaccurately or irresponsibly, when, as the Minister has shown by his recent words, the HSE exonerated my constituent, vindicating him, not his employer.

Mr. Oppenheim: It is correct to say that Mr. Nortcliff was correct in going to the HSE and his raising of the concerns was ultimately vindicated because the HSE required action. It is fair to say that in some instances the company was already taking action in some of the areas. But the bottom line is that Mr. Nortcliff was totally justified in going to the HSE with his concerns. I make that absolutely clear.

The hon. Gentleman referred to enforcement action. I understand that the HSE considered taking enforcement action, including prosecution for breaches of safety law. However, in view of remedial action which had already been taken and further action agreed by the company, it was considered that an improvement notice was not appropriate. Further, it was considered that there was insufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution case. Therefore, on the balance of evidence, and in view of the remedial action taken, it was decided not to refer the case to the procurator fiscal for possible prosecution. I stress--and in many ways, this is the most important point of all--that the HSE is continuing carefully to monitor the situation, to ensure that all necessary remedial action detailed in the report has been carried through.

Mr. Nortcliff's complaints about the HSE's handling of the investigation were considered in some detail not once but twice, by senior managers who were not involved in the original case. After receiving his copy of the HSE's report, Mr. Nortcliff telephoned an offshore safety division principal inspector on 16 March and raised further concerns. The inspector met Mr. Nortcliff on 22 and 23 March to discuss the aspects of the HSE case with which Mr. Nortcliff was unhappy. He appeared to accept that the OSD's investigations had concentrated on the facts of the case and on the evidence from interviews with the workers and managers concerned.

Under caution, Mr. Nortcliff said that he did not wish to make a formal statement contradicting the signed statements already taken from personnel on the installation during the HSE investigation. However, the HSE agreed to explore further two issues--whether a certificate of fitness had been invalid during the lead-up to one incident, and drilling procedures. Additional HSE inquiries did not reveal evidence of offences and Mr. Nortcliff was told that on 29 March.

Mr. Nortcliff then made a formal complaint about the way in which the division had conducted its investigation. As a result, all relevant papers were reviewed by the senior OSD manager responsible for the team that had carried out the investigation. He wrote to Mr. Nortcliff on 27 May indicating that he believed that the investigation had been properly conducted and that the companies concerned were now taking appropriate remedial action.

As Mr. Nortcliff remained unsatisfied, the division's operations director asked senior personnel, who had not been involved with the investigation, to review the papers.

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The operations director wrote to Mr. Nortcliff in late July, stating that he was satisfied that the HSE had investigated the complaints properly. Mr. Nortcliff replied on 1 August, expressing continued dissatisfaction. The operations director responded on 5 September, setting out fully his reasons for believing that appropriate action had been taken and stating that he considered the matter closed. A further letter from Mr. Nortcliff, dated l2 September, refused to accept that decision.

I give those details not because they will be new to the hon. Gentleman but because they show how seriously the HSE takes any complaints about its handling of investigations, and that it took that particular set of complaints most seriously.

As to Mr. Nortcliff's original health and safety concerns and his subsequent complaint about the HSE's handling of the report, I am satisfied --having talked to the officials responsible--that the HSE acted in a fully professional and satisfactory manner. However, I repeat that that does not detract from the important point that Mr. Nortcliff was right and justified to raise the issues in the first place.

It is most regrettable that Mr. Nortcliff found himself out of a job. He was absolutely right to raise the issues that he did. Safety was at risk, and as a result of Mr. Nortcliff's action, steps were taken to correct safety deficiencies. I cannot comment in detail on the rights and wrongs of Mr. Nortcliff's dismissal. That matter would have been for the industrial tribunal to decide, had Mr. Nortcliff chosen to continue his complaint. If he had done so and won, it would have been open to the tribunal to order his employers to reinstate or to re-engage him, and to award significant additional compensation if they had refused. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, Mr. Nortcliff chose instead to accept settlement, and he was of course entirely free to do so.

I assure both hon. Members that the Government continue to regard safety as paramount. It is essential that the HSE retains the confidence of the offshore work force, so that all employees are able to exercise their legal right and their duty to contribute to the better management of offshore health and safety.

As I made clear but will repeat, because it is important, any worker may raise a safety issue with the HSE in confidence, via the use of an on-site telephone if he or she wishes. It is of course essential that a worker raising a safety issue should not feel that he or she is likely to be prejudiced or victimised in any way. The Government recognised legitimate concerns in that respect, and introduced legislation last year to extend protection against dismissal for reasonably raising health and safety issues with an employer to all workers, not just safety representatives. Industrial tribunals will take that matter very seriously. The Government also consider it to be of immense seriousness and have taken steps to deal with the problem. I will make it my personal business to ensure that that remains the case in future. I thank both hon. Gentlemen for raising the subject in the way that they did.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eight o'clock.

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