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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 2 July 2008

[John Bercow in the Chair]

Piper Alpha Disaster (20th Anniversary)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned—[Mr. Blizzard.]

9.30 am

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): 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.

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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.

On 6 July 1988, there was a significant leakage of gas on the platform. We now know that the leak came from a gas compressor that was missing a safety valve. At about 10 pm, the cloud of gas ignited. At 10.20 pm, 10.50 pm and 11.20 pm, there were further huge explosions, caused by ruptures in the pipelines connecting Piper Alpha to other platforms, principally the MCPO1 operated by Total, and the Tartan platform operated by Texaco.

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
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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.

On 6 July 1988, the UK oil and gas industry changed for ever. So did Aberdeen. The city was forced to come to terms with the fact that although huge rewards and benefits come from being a host to the oil industry, it can levy a terrible price.

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:

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?”

On 6 July 1988, I was a young inexperienced MP. I had returned to my flat after a late-night sitting, and I first heard on the midnight news that something serious had happened in the North sea. The following morning, I went to the House early and phoned Cecil Parkinson, who was then Secretary of State for Energy. I asked for a briefing, and he told me to come immediately to his office. From then on, and for the next few years, I became very involved with Piper Alpha, the survivors, the families, and the consequences, particularly for offshore safety.

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
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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.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): 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
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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.

Mr. Doran: 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.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): 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?

Mr. Doran: 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.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): 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.

Mr. Doran: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was just coming to that point in my speech.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): 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?

Mr. Doran: 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
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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
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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 6 July 1988, but they struggle on and they cope. For the families, there has been the unimaginable horror of losing a loved one in the most terrifying circumstances, and they live with that loss every day. At this time of year, that sense of loss grows, and on an anniversary such as this, it is even more intense. A number of events have been arranged in Aberdeen this weekend, and there will be a memorial service in the St. Nicholas kirk on Sunday. Our thoughts today are with all those involved.

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