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2 July 2008 : Column 239WH—continued

9.51 am

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran), who has ensured that we do not forget the lessons of Piper Alpha by introducing today’s debate and reminding us in great detail and with great clarity of what happened on the night of 6 July 1988. Like him, I want to ensure that our thoughts are with the survivors and with the relatives and friends of all those who were affected and I pay tribute to the many people who worked to deal with the tragedy and its aftermath.

When we turn on the gas tap at home, switch on the lights at night or fill our car with petrol, we take for granted just what has gone on to make that possible. These things are out of sight and out of mind in the North sea, but people are working in a hostile and dangerous environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every week of the year to ensure that it is easy for us to get the energy that we need. We need to remember those people and the challenges that they face.

I should remind hon. Members of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, because I am a shareholder in Shell, but I have far more of a constituency interest in the debate. My constituency is just outside Aberdeen, and many of my constituents, like those of the hon. Gentleman, live with or work in the industry, and others have relatives who do so or who work offshore. However, the House often forgets—this is particularly true of the offshore work force, as the hon. Gentleman highlighted—that many of those in the work force commute from elsewhere in the country. The challenge that we face therefore touches the whole country, and hon. Members should not forget that they might have constituents who have connections with the North sea or who work there. All hon. Members should therefore take an interest in what is happening to that major industry, which is on our doorstep. As I say, we often take it for granted because it is out of sight and out of mind.

A lot of lessons have been learned, but we must not be complacent. Today’s debate and the 20th anniversary remind us what those lessons were and ensure that they
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are kept up to date and reinforced. I, too, pay tribute to the work of Lord Cullen, because his report was a major way of ensuring that the lessons that could be learned were learned and that a culture of safety spread around the world, as the hon. Gentleman said. With the passage of time, however, there is a danger that we will not remember those lessons.

One of the easier lessons to learn—the hon. Gentleman touched on this—was how to deal with the human safety elements. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) said, we get safety briefings whenever we visit anyone operating in the North sea. Indeed, safety onshore is also an issue, and the culture in the companies is very much about safety. It was perhaps easier to deal with the human safety elements—the individual accidents and falls—because they were easier to measure. They were also possibly easier to tackle by training people and altering the safety culture. There is an apocryphal story that a lot of people at BP joke that staff have to hold the handrail when they go up and down stairs. Tragically, however, a neighbour of mine fell down the stairs at night a few years ago and was killed. The simple safety lessons are therefore just as important as the big ones.

Malcolm Bruce: My hon. Friend is making an important point, but does he agree that one of the most significant arguments in the Cullen report was that we should place a responsibility for safety on the operators, instead of producing a tick-box culture? That effectively precludes them from getting away with saying, “We’ve done all these things” when an accident happens, and ensures that they are still responsible—whatever else they have done—because they did not anticipate the accident.

Sir Robert Smith: My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the safety case. We should put the onus on companies to think about safety across their whole operation, so that they do not feel that they have done their duty just because they have ticked the boxes. People should be thinking about safety all the time; whenever they look at a process, an investment decision, a change to a way of operating or the installation of a new piece of equipment, they should ask what the safety implications are. How will such things affect the integrity and working of the platform? As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North said, the permit-to-work culture is an extremely important way of reducing risk.

A few years ago, I went to a construction yard that was building a platform for the North sea. The platform’s operator had said, “We want the same level of safety when you are building the platform onshore as will apply when we operate it.” The construction industry’s initial reaction was, “Construction is inherently dangerous. We won’t be able to achieve that.” However, by taking the lessons that had been learned offshore into the construction yard, it was amazed to see how dramatically it improved its own safety regime.

Indeed, that also improved financial efficiency. There should not be seen to be a conflict between a good safety regime and a company’s financial operation, because having an efficient and effective understanding of safety processes can also benefit a company’s financial understanding of how it operates. Anyone who thinks that finance should be a barrier to safety should take note of a quote from the airline industry, where someone
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said, “If you think safety is expensive, you should try the alternative.” It really is important to keep the importance of safety at the forefront of people’s minds.

As others have said, the layman might think that the high price of oil would be a good thing because companies would make more money and could invest more in safety, but the issue poses a real challenge. With a high oil price, the desire is to keep the oil flowing as fast as possible because that is where the profit comes from. Companies find the oil when it is cheap and produce it when it is expensive; they do not want to turn the tap off for routine maintenance if they can delay doing so.

The HSE’s KP3 report contains a timely reminder of the importance of physical structures, and this goes back to my point about it being easier to deal with individual human safety incidents. Safety-critical devices, and other devices, which do not look safety critical, but which could play a crucial role if a piece of safety-critical equipment fails, need to be monitored to ensure that they are up to standard.

People think that the North sea has run out of oil and gas, but it is still very much alive, and the industry is still vibrant. Only the other week, we had the celebration of 21 years of the Alwyn field. When the platforms there were built, people believed that the field would have been shut down by now, but they are now talking about another 21 years. At that celebration, the engineer who worked on the platform—he had come back from retirement—was thanked for over-engineering it and giving it a structure that would allow it to sustain another 20 years of life. A lot of infrastructure—pipelines, compressors and other equipment—that was expected to be coming to the end of its life is now crucial to the economic development of the North sea and will need a much longer life. It is therefore vital that we maintain the structural integrity of those physical features to ensure that they are up to scratch and can endure the stress that they will be under.

The other vital challenge, I suppose, concerns skills in the industry, which we often talk about. The work force is ageing, and if production and new investment are to be maintained, many new people will have to come into the industry. When people have been in an industry a long time, the culture has grown up with them, but if a whole new generation is brought into operations, the safety culture must be fully inculcated in the training of those people.

OPITO, the oil and gas academy in Portlethen in my constituency, has set standards for training around the world, which ensure a good foundation for anyone entering the industry. However, the skills shortage is also a challenge for the HSE, which needs people who understand the industry to work for it. We need the HSE to be fully resourced so that it can compete in a very competitive market and secure the skills to ensure that it can monitor what happens offshore.

The vital lessons that were learned in the disaster must not be forgotten. There is a challenge, as we extend the life of the North sea oil field and as new fields are tied back to old platforms, to ensure that the integrity of safety-critical parts of those platforms is fully maintained. As a new generation of workers, many of whom may not have been touched at all by knowledge of Piper Alpha, comes into the industry, we need to
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make sure that they realise what lessons have been learned, and that they do not forget them. We must never have such a disaster again.

10.1 am

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I want to make only a short contribution, and to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran), not only for obtaining the debate, but because over the years, in all his incarnations in and out of the House, he has been closely involved with the safety of people working offshore in the North sea. His commitment is recognised, and his knowledge and understanding of the issues are well regarded. The House should appreciate the presence of an hon. Member who can bring that expertise to bear on the matter.

The part of the city of Aberdeen that I represent contained the headquarters of Occidental Petroleum, which stood as a pretty stark reminder of the disaster, not only for the people of the city, but for the company, which was effectively—and rightly—drummed out of the North sea afterwards. The building stood empty for several years. On the other hand, and by sharp contrast, the North sea headquarters of BP is also in my constituency. The company has just moved into new offices, and by its own admission has had to re-evaluate its commitment to the North sea because of changing circumstances—not just the oil price but the amount of oil still to be produced. What is impressed on anyone who goes there is that there is an ageing infrastructure and there are difficult technical and financial challenges offshore, but BP is determined not to compromise safety. It is right that we should have debates such as today’s, so that it knows it is operating in a climate of focused interest and concern about that.

I just want to reinforce the point that I made in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). Apart from the very specific recommendations of the Cullen report, there was a debate at the time about whether the right approach would be to set out in detail the safety rules that should be applied, or—this was where the debate settled—to make the operators responsible for safety in every way, requiring them to demonstrate to the HSE that they had a fully tested and viable case for the safety of their installations. That cultural shift is hugely beneficial, because the culture is built into every minute of every day, and every aspect of every operation. We must maintain that approach at the heart of things, and it is worth reinforcing that now.

10.3 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): The words “Piper Alpha” bring back clear memories for me of that night and the following day when we watched on our television screens the images of the disaster as it was unfolding. Then it was shown again and again. The fire, the heat, the smoke, the bravery and the fear of what was about to happen to those men who were still alive are memories that will stay locked in many minds forever. No words today will be able accurately to capture what those who died suffered that night, what they and their families went through or what those who survived, and their families and friends, have had to cope with from that day on.

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When we fill our tanks with petrol or buy products derived from oil, we rarely give a thought to its production and the risks involved. Too often we hear that the price being asked for a gallon of petrol is too high, but we do not think what the price has really been for those working to produce that gallon of petrol or a barrel of oil. It is right that this debate should be held today for a number of reasons, many of which have been touched on, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran), not only on securing the debate, but on the measured and thoughtful way in which he dealt with a difficult issue.

I also want to mention the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). I know that there are other hon. Members who cannot be here today, and they include my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), in whose constituency a large part of the oil industry is based. He feels strongly about the issue and would have liked to be here, but unfortunately other parliamentary business has kept him away. The speeches that have been made show that right hon. and hon. Members have close contact with the community and the individuals affected by the tragedy.

Many individuals, too many to name, were involved that night in the rescue of the survivors. As well as remembering the ones who did not survive, I pay tribute to those without whose help more people would not have returned to their loved ones. It is right to remember those who lost their lives working in an industry that has given us so much that has made our country what it is today. Learning lessons from history is one way to make the future better and to take the actions that will ensure that workers and their families will never again experience what unfolded 20 years ago—in the North sea, or wherever in the world companies work to extract oil and other oil-related products. We must never rely on luck to ensure the safety of those who work in the industry; no one should risk their life on a daily basis.

I want to pay tribute to the Piper Alpha Families and Survivors Association for all its work over many years and for its drive to raise funds for a bronze memorial in Aberdeen’s Hazlehead park, where those without a grave for their loved ones can go to be with their memories.

What happened on the night of the disaster is well documented and the subsequent inquiry under Lord Cullen detailed the safety shortcomings and a range of recommendations for the way forward. There is no doubt that the repercussions, notably the recommendations of the Cullen report and the huge investment that followed, have completely changed the industry. Investment in safety measures including maintenance, improved regulation and the greater priority given to training have all helped to make the industry far safer today than it was 20 years ago. However, today’s debate, as well as providing an occasion to mourn and remember those who lost their lives and celebrate their bravery, must also mark a point of reflection for the industry.

It is worth noting the comments of Chris Allen, the health and safety director at Oil and Gas UK, who has stated his belief that the likelihood of another Piper Alpha incident occurring in the North sea has receded dramatically in the 20 years since the disaster. While
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that is undoubtedly the case—there were only two deaths in the oil industry in 2006-07 compared with 77 deaths in the construction industry—there can be no room for complacency. The Offshore Industry Liaison Committee/National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union is not alone in arguing that a number of incidents since Piper Alpha could have led to multiple fatalities on a similar scale, with only luck preventing an escalation. If there are still changes to be made, we have to make sure that we identify and act on them, without the need for another major incident to focus the mind.

The nature of the oil industry dictates that there will always be risk. However, that does not mean workers being at the mercy of the risks in that industry. Piper Alpha opened the eyes of the industry to specific risk factors, while the Cullen report offered a blueprint for action. The industry is now fully aware of the dangers and how to mitigate them. Accidents will happen, but there is no excuse for not taking every precaution. Indeed, if any reminder were required of the inherent risks in the oil industry, the fire on the Thistle Alpha platform off the coast of Shetland just seven months ago should serve as a timely reminder. The cause, a leaking pipe in a 30-year-old system, clearly illustrates the vital importance of properly maintaining existing platforms and machinery. The fatal accident inquiry into the Brent Bravo incident, in which two men tragically died, cited substandard maintenance practices by Shell, while the HSE’s key programme 3 report, to which many members have referred, raised worrying questions about declining standards of maintenance, particularly on ageing platforms that may be likely to change ownership.

We must ensure that the renewed focus on fresh exploration in the North sea does not detract from the proper maintenance and upgrading of existing platforms. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that the interests of safety should not be influenced by the fluctuating fortunes of individual oil companies or the oil industry as a whole. If another Piper Alpha is to be avoided, the industry must not adopt the attitude of the frontiersman. I welcome the Minister’s view on the prospects for extending external scrutiny of safety systems, particularly in terms of the Health and Safety Executive’s role and scope in ensuring that safety representatives can operate independently when carrying out offshore checks.

We have heard about the regulations in place as a result of the Piper Alpha tragedy. However, it is worth pointing out that regulations work only if they are followed by both management and employees. Regulations make a big difference, but it will always come down to the individuals charged with their implementation. Effective and appropriate training is essential. We all know that corporate memory can fade quickly without proactive work from the industry. I commend the work of Oil and Gas UK in teaching the lessons of Piper Alpha to younger technicians in the industry.

Along with appropriate training, the morale of the offshore work force must not be neglected. Historically, communication between employees and management and between the oil industry and the offshore contractors’ staff who typically provide the bulk of the work force has not been as good as it could be. Some issues have been handled poorly, and the “not required back” feature of the industry poses an enduring risk of fostering a culture of grievance among some workers. In a high-risk
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industry, low morale can be disastrous. It is particularly worrying to read reports of instances where staff have raised safety concerns with management that do not appear to have been properly investigated or acted upon. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on that.

The events of 20 years ago have fortunately not been repeated. Action was taken to ensure that safety on the rigs is always a top priority. We should never forget the price paid by so many on that night, and we must hope that the lessons learned will also never be forgotten.

10.12 am

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) warmly on securing this important debate and on the tone and huge amount of knowledge and experience that he has brought to our proceedings. We are all extremely grateful. As the only English Member speaking in the debate, it is important that I put on record that this is a UK-wide issue. It is certainly not just a Scottish issue. The whole United Kingdom benefits from North sea oil, and every Member of the House should rightly and properly be concerned about the issue.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North was right when he said that the primary purpose of the debate should be to remember and pay tribute to those who lost their lives or suffered severe injuries—he mentioned burns and so on—in that terrible tragedy on 6 July 1988. It must also involve more than that. We must ensure that we never become complacent about offshore safety, and we must do all that we can to prevent a similar tragedy occurring. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) reminded us, another major industry-related fire took place only seven months ago in Shetland, so ongoing vigilance is important.

We have heard the accounts of what happened on that terrible night of 6 July 1988. We know that 167 people lost their lives and 59 people were saved, many of whom had to jump into the North sea. It is a tremendously difficult time for the relatives of the dead as we approach the 20th anniversary. Children still mourn parents, wives and partners still mourn their loved ones, and people still bear the effects of terrible burns and injuries from that night 20 years ago.

The Cullen report has been rightly and properly mentioned and praised by every Member who has spoken today. I am pleased that an official public inquiry was set up to establish the causes of the disaster and to recommend changes to the safety regime. It is important to recognise that all 106 of its recommendations were accepted by both the industry and the Government. Lord Cullen chaired the official public inquiry, which consisted of two parts. The first established the causes of the disaster, and the second made recommendations for changes to the safety regime. The final report was published in November 1990.

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