Draft Offshore Installations (Emergency Pollution Control) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Hammond: I certainly withdraw what was not an accusation in the first place.

We spoke to the UK Offshore Operators Association, the recognised representatives of the offshore industry on health and safety and, indeed, on other matters. Two main issues were raised in an extensive consultation process. The first concerned the burden of proof in compensation claims. It would be wrong to say that the industry was delighted, but it regards the position as broadly satisfactory. We are talking about an industry that works daily in close partnership and communication with the Department of Trade and Industry.

The second issue was mentioned by the Minister—the scope for conflict between the obligations of the duty holder on an offshore installation to make health and safety of personnel the paramount consideration and the thrust of the present regulations, which is to contain and limit any environmental damage arising from an offshore incident.

The Minister said earlier that a small amendment had been made to the draft regulation to make the position perfectly clear. The guidance notes have been amended and note 4.1 clearly states:

    ''There is no conflict between environmental and health and safety legislation—health and safety of personnel will always take priority over the environment.''

I was pleased to hear the Minister reiterate that. The worst eventuality in the management of any incident is confusion between priorities, with one person properly believing that he has a duty to follow one course of action and another person properly believing that his duty is to insist on another. The guidance notes are therefore useful.

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It would have been preferable if the regulations could have been clearer. Regulation 3(6) states:

    ''Every person concerned with compliance with directions given, or with action taken, under this regulation shall use his best endeavours to avoid any risk to human life.'',

which is not the same as taking account of the paramount importance of protecting human life and avoiding risk to personnel. The fact that the guidance notes are more robust means that the Secretary of State's representative will never be in any confusion about where his primary responsibility lies. Will the Minister underline the point that at all times the Secretary of State's representative will regard health and safety of personnel as paramount and that the guidance notes should be seen as reinforcing what is written in a less robust form in the regulations?

The regulations are widely seen as sensible and the industry welcomes them. By and large, they are a proportional response to the risk and threat with which they deal, and we have no problem in acquiescing to the regulations.

4.44 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I apologise for being slightly late. One reason for that was my office's failure to track down the regulatory impact assessment, which, according to the back of regulations, is available in the Library. The assessment may be there—the Minister might want to check—but we eventually got a copy from the office in Aberdeen. Waiting for it to be faxed to me delayed my arrival.

I also welcome the fact that there are guidance notes, even though they were not available immediately. It might be sensible, Sir Nicholas—considering your other hat as the Chair of the Procedure Committee—for some reference to the guidance notes to be automatically included on the back of the explanatory notes. That would ensure that they were never mislaid from the document. However, following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, the guidance notes have no legal status, and it is important that the Minister clarifies publicly his understanding of what regulation 3(6) means for the precedence for safety. Safety must be the ultimate consideration when operating in a hostile environment such as the North sea.

I, too, received the briefing from UKOOA in which it welcomed the extensive consultation, seminars and briefings. That is in stark contrast to the Chancellor's approach to dealing with the industry, and I hope that that is a sign that the Department of Trade and Industry can show the way forward in dealing with such an important industry for the UK economy. I want to reinforce the point that regulation 3(6) must be paramount, and I have a few queries on the regulations' workings. Reading regulation 3(4)(b) brought back memories of my childhood and the Torrey Canyon disaster, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson started bombing the tanker. The regulation talks about

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    ''the sinking or destruction of the offshore installation'',

and I presume that that would be only a last resort to deal with a pollution incident.

I also wanted to clarify the offence of a person who intentionally obstructs anyone acting on behalf of the Secretary of State. Such people would have to know that the person was acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, so will the Minister clarify the procedure for confirming when someone is attempting to board and take on the Secretary of State's instructions? Will they establish their identity in such a way that will not lead to confusion or the unintentional offence of obstruction?

The regulatory impact assessment confirms some of the concerns in some quarters about the range of such assessments. Point 6, which concerns the consultations with small businesses, says that the only business sector directly affected by the regulations will be the UK offshore oil and gas industry, which does not comprise small businesses. Anyone who knows how the industry operates in the offshore environment knows that there is a raft of contracts with small businesses and sub-contractors. Those small businesses could be on a platform at the time of an incident and be seriously materially affected by the impact of the regulations.

In considering the impact assessments, it might be sensible for the DTI to examine the knock-on effects on small businesses. If we are to examine the consequences of regulations and the way that small businesses fit into the business model, we must realise that the regulatory impact assessments are too narrowly conducted. A large company faced with disruption can fall back on its cash flow and reserves, but a small company with someone trapped offshore, or whose contract is altered by the impact of the regulations, could face a much more serious consequence on their order book and cash flow. They are much more dependent on receiving their balance and getting things sorted out quickly. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reassurances.

4.48 pm

Mr. Wilson: The main thrust of hon. Members' reasonable and constructive points concerned the search for complete clarity about the relative priorities of health and safety legislation and environmental legislation. I am pleased to have the opportunity to reaffirm that the health and safety of personnel will always take priority over pollution prevention. It is important to put that on record.

The roles and responsibilities of the Secretary of State's representatives are clear. His or her responsibility will be to prevent or reduce pollution in the event of an incident, which will be achieved by issuing directions to the operator that can be, to use a catch-all phrase, ''of any kind''. In an emergency situation it is impossible to detail the exact actions that will be taken, as each emergency is complex and unique. The guidance notes detail how the Secretary of State's representative will be notified, but the facilities for the representative and his team need to be detailed, and operate as part of an oil spill contingency plan. It is therefore more appropriate for that to be included in

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the guidance notes for preparing oil spill contingency plans, which are due to be issued later this year. We will return to that matter.

In answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith), the guidance notes also detail how the representative will intervene. As I said, every situation is different. It is worth noting that the powers of intervention were successfully tested earlier this year in a national exercise carried out by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The exercise involved all the relevant Departments and interested parties, such as Enterprise Oil, the Health and Safety Executive, Grampian police and others. The list of participants was long, and included the procurator fiscal, the Royal Air Force and the Scottish ambulance service. The regulations make the same provision for offshore installation as existing powers do for ships under sections 137 to 140 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. Regulation 4 is modelled on section 138 of that Act to ensure consistency between the two pieces of legislation, so that all marine structures are covered.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the regulatory impact assessment. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it

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was sent to the Library, and I will find out why it was not immediately to hand for his inspection.

Mr. Hammond: The only chink—it is only a chink—that seems to remain concerns regulation 3(6), which says that the person concerned with compliance of directions must use his best endeavours to avoid any risk to human life. My question was whether the Secretary of State's representative would be clearly directed, so that he makes health and safety a priority when taking decisions and issuing directions. There is a double protection if the Secretary of State's representative always makes health and safety a priority, and if the person receiving the direction must ensure that it complies with the requirement to make health and safety paramount before he complies with it.

Mr. Wilson: I am pleased to conclude with a one-word answer, which is yes.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Offshore Installations (Emergency Pollution Control) Regulations 2002.

Committee rose at eight minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Winterton, Sir Nicholas (Chairman)
Cunningham, Tony
David, Mr.
Dowd, Jim
Ellman, Mrs.
Hammond, Mr.
Hendry, Mr.
Hoyle, Mr.
Pearson, Mr.
Robertson, Angus
Simmonds, Mr.
Smith, Sir Robert
Stewart, Ian
Wilson, Mr.

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Prepared 24 June 2002