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Richard Ottaway: I think that is a slightly exaggerated view, but no doubt there is a risk that women will be intimidated in a fundamentalist Islamic society.

To return to my point about bringing Assad to the negotiating table, I am beginning to agree with the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes)—I am afraid that I must disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington—that some form of no-fly zone might yet turn out to be the only credible solution, and it would address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay about weapons falling into the wrong hands. We have to ask ourselves whether that is possible with a sophisticated air defence system. If it does happen, it should be on an international basis. Why must we always look to the west for solutions? Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey all have perfectly good air forces, and there is a case for an international coalition.

The fourth criterion that must be considered is whether we are prepared for the long term. We have learned many lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and much needs to be done to stabilise the region. The fifth criterion is this: exactly what is our national interest? That must be spelt out before any intervention. If chemical weapons are to be used as a justification for an intervention—I have made this point to the Minister before—the House should be shown the evidence about their use. All options must be on the table, which is why I am uncomfortable about the motion, because in truth they are not.

Finally, where has international law gone? I believe that there is more than a grain of truth in the remarks my hon. Friend made a moment ago when he argued that to intervene would be illegal. I am not convinced about the legality of an intervention. The intervention in Libya was legal because it followed a UN Security Council resolution. Taking sides in what is essentially a civil war has no legal precedent and no legal authority. Whatever the outcome of this situation, the United Nations must seriously reassess the basis of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect.

2.2 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): The House owes the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) a debt for securing the debate, and I was pleased to support him in the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that it would take place. I hope that the House will agree with the motion, even though the Minister has already indicated that a Government motion will be tabled before any arms are sent to Syria. I look forward to his confirmation of that when he responds.

This really goes to the heart of the power of Parliament, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) said, because anyone outside this place, and indeed anyone outside this country, would find it extraordinary that in the 21st century we still do not have a war powers Act and that the Prime Minister can still use the powers of the royal prerogative to take us to war, supply arms, sign treaties or anything else. Surely a democratic Parliament and democratic accountability of the Executive require a vote in the House of Commons before any major decision can be taken that would have enormous implications for our foreign policy.

Indeed, the vote on whether to intervene in Iraq was not the first consideration of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He came to that conclusion somewhat later,

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and I expect as a result of expediency on his part, because he wanted to corral a lot of MPs into backing the war and because many of us were demanding that a vote be held so that we could register our opposition. We have had 10 years since to pass war powers legislation, but we still have not done so. I note that next week we will debate the progress of the Wright report. It was a very good report, but perhaps we could make it a little more progressive and a little faster by making some progress on this matter.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): A Minister who did not follow the terms of such a resolution that had been passed could be referred to the Privileges Committee for contempt of Parliament.

Jeremy Corbyn: That presupposes that we pass the resolution and that the Government do that but do not consult us, so we are about four stages away from a Minister being in contempt of Parliament. If a Minister was to be held in contempt of Parliament, the House would have to deal with it. It is more important that we get to a point at which there is proper consultation.

I believe very strongly that any decision of the House must be made well in advance of any action. I remember the House being recalled in January 1991 to support the Government’s intervention in the Gulf war, at which time a large number of British and American troops were already in the area preparing to go into Iraq, so the die was already cast. We do not want to be brought back here in August when the Government have arranged large shipments of arms to go to the Syrian opposition, which will all be stacked up at Stansted airport ready to go, and we will be asked to approve it. We want a serious decision well before any such action is even contemplated by the Government.

Mr Hain: Does my hon. Friend accept the distinction between action that pretty much has universal support across the House—for example, going to war against Hitler or sending troops to Sierra Leone—and this or similar situations where there is clearly no consent, or at least substantial cross-party opposition, which is why this motion is so important?

Jeremy Corbyn: My right hon. Friend is right. The motion is so important because there is such a large degree of concern over the parliamentary process and the actions that might or might not be envisaged by the Government at the present time. I do not know how many Conservative MPs are opposed to arms being supplied to Syria—I have heard lots of figures, including 50 and 80. We do not know what the figure is. I also know that a large number of Opposition Members are equally concerned about it. There is a big Back-Bench opinion on this, which is why we have secured the debate and why I hope we will get this decision, encouraged by the strength of Back-Bench opinion.

Those Members with long memories will recall that interventions and arms supplies have all kinds of unintended consequences. When the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan in support of the Najibullah Government, who were under a lot of pressure, the USA responded by supplying vast quantities of arms to the mujaheddin opposition, along with training, facilities, logistics and all the other things that are now being talked about in

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relation to Syria. Those arms all ended up with what eventually became the Taliban, and then with what eventually became al-Qaeda, and they are still around and have perpetuated the most appalling situation in Afghanistan for many years, including our intervention in that country. We should think a little more carefully about where the arms go.

Other Members have made the point about the more recent intervention in Libya and the supply of large quantities of arms to a rather complicated set of opposition groups that are not interlinked, and where are those arms now? They are in Mali, Senegal and all over north Africa. They are promoting all kinds of conflicts across the region. Were we to be so unwise as to supply arms to the opposition in Syria, where will they end up, in whose interests will they be used, and who will use them against anybody else within the civil war in Syria?

I say all that not because I am in any sense an apologist for the Assad regime. The Oxfam report estimates that about 93,000 people have already died in the recent conflict and that there are 1.7 million external refugees and a very large number of internally displaced people. The situation is truly appalling, as are the human rights situation and police state methods of the Assad Government. However, there is a far from clear commitment by all the opposition groups in Syria to any respect for human rights or any democratic approach. If we send arms, we will be supporting groups whose intentions we do not know, nor do we know where those arms will end up. All we know is that we are sending arms into a situation, people are going to use them, more people are going to die, and the prospects for peace are much further away.

We should also recall, again for those with short memories, that there have been times when the Syrian Government have been very popular with the west. Syria has been a supporter on various occasions. There are suspicions that it has been used as part of the extraordinary rendition process. There have been lots of temporary allies across the region. Indeed, successive British Governments sought to have good relations with Gaddafi at various times, and there have been many others.

Finally, I want to make two brief points. First, on the refugee question, there are a very large number of Palestinian refugees in Syria who have made their way there from Nakba in 1948, from Iraq after its invasion, and at many other times. They are now being driven out, being treated very badly by many of the opposition groups in Syria, or ending up in Lebanon with very little support or resources, just like all the others.

Secondly, the answer has to be to look for a political solution to the whole issue that must involve Iran, Russia and all the neighbouring countries. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pouring money and arms into the situation. Russia is supplying arms to Syria at the present time. Iran, as a neighbouring state, feels that the war in Syria is a precursor to a future invasion of Iran. I want the Minister to say that there is a serious attempt to use the opportunity of the new President of Iran to engage with the Iranian Government. We should obviously condemn Iran’s human rights record—the executions and all the other human rights abuses—but we will not achieve a political solution in the whole area unless we engage with all the powers that be, which must obviously include Iran. A date needs to be set for Geneva II so

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that we can bring about some kind of political solution that will end the fighting. All wars have to end with a political solution; let us have it now rather after another 100,000 are dead.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. The excellent speeches so far have nevertheless been somewhat longer than expected. As a consequence, the time limit on Back-Bench speeches must now, with immediate effect, be reduced to four minutes.

2.12 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I begin with a word of appreciation to the Backbench Business Committee for selecting a debate on this motion. Without wishing to be over-pedantic, I think it is necessary to remind the House of what the motion states:

“That this House believes no lethal support should be provided to anti-government forces in Syria without the explicit prior consent of Parliament.”

This is not a debate about whether lethal force should be made available to the Syrian opposition: we will want to have that debate if and when the Government propose to supply such lethal assistance. I have to say that some Members, though not the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), have made entire speeches that made virtually no, and in some cases absolutely no, reference to the terms of the debate.

I shall indeed keep my remarks short—perhaps even shorter than the four minutes that I am now allowed—by making one specific point about the debate and one specific point about the debate after this one, which I hope we will get if ever we reach the possibility of lethal weaponry being supplied. If the assurances from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House are worth what we wish and believe they are worth, there should be no prospect whatsoever of anybody on the Front Bench or on either side of the argument about supplying arms voting any way other than for this motion. I trust that they will do so. I also trust that there will be a vote today, even if its mechanics require a certain degree of contrivance by those of us who have sought to bring this debate to the House.

I have been making my point about the debate after this one week in, week out, month in, month out. It is a simple point about weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction—chemical weapons—are known to exist in very substantial quantities in Syria. We went to war in Iraq precisely to keep al-Qaeda from any possibility of getting its hands on weapons of mass destruction—chemical weapons—that were thought to exist in Iraq. In this situation, people who wish to supply lethal aid can have no guarantee that, if Assad falls, the chemical weapons that he holds will not fall into the hands of the jihadists who are fighting on the side of the opposition. You do not have to believe me, Mr Speaker—you just have to look at the Intelligence and Security Committee’s annual report, which says at paragraph 67:

“The security of these chemical weapons stocks”—

that is, Assad’s stocks—

“is also of serious concern. The Chief of SIS noted the risk of ‘a highly worrying proliferation around the time of regime fall.’ There has to be a significant risk that some of the country’s

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chemical weapons stockpile could fall into the hands of those with links to terrorism, in Syria or elsewhere in the region—if this happens the consequences could be”—

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. There is already some evidence that certain rebels have swapped sides to the al-Nusra Front.

Dr Lewis: I am extremely grateful for that intervention. I am absolutely certain that there can be no guarantee—in playing with weapons with an opposition as mixed as this one—that the people who end up on top will be the moderate, secular, democrats about whom we have heard so much in this debate. I must finish the quote from the ISC report, which concluded that

“if this happens, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

There are almost as many strands in the alliance of opponents of supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition as there are in the Syrian opposition itself. I have not made some great journey from the Thatcherite right of the Conservative party to the centre left of the political spectrum—despite your excellent example, Mr Speaker, in that respect—and I do not intend to do so. I believe in the security of this country, so I will vote no in the future debate about supplying weapons to the opposition, but we should all vote yes in today’s vote on Parliament having its say first.

2.17 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), because I recall that he and I went to Sierra Leone together when we were both members of the Defence Committee when our Government had, rightly, intervened to defend democracy against people who were practising a form of terrorism against the population.

I am, by instinct and nature, a humanitarian interventionist. I support the responsibility to protect. I believe—I still say it, and it will get me criticised in some quarters—that voting for the intervention in Iraq in 2003 was the right thing to do, and I will not apologise for it. I believe that there are sometimes circumstances where it is right to take action without a United Nations Security Council resolution. For example, when John Major’s Government introduced a no-fly zone they did so without a UN resolution.

Mr Winnick: And there was Kosovo.

Mike Gapes: I will come to Kosovo, but I do not want to get diverted into the Balkans at the moment.

I also believe, though, that we have to look to the consequences of our actions and make judgments. I am not persuaded about suggestions that we provide sophisticated weaponry to opposition groups in Syria; in fact, I am very concerned about them. I am a member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. We have accountability through the House and its Select Committees, and we monitor the transfer and sale of arms to states. However, the Government seem to be preparing to adopt a position that is not about transferring weaponry to states, but about providing weaponry to factions within a state. We might say that the National Coalition is the sole legitimate representative, although I do not hear that phrase being used quite so forcefully now, but it is certainly not the Government. Our Government

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would therefore be taking a decision to supply weaponry to a faction within a wider faction, within a state that still has a Government who control part of the territory, while other areas are controlled by warlords and tribal clans—the Kurdish people have almost total autonomy in one part of the country, as was the case for the Iraqi Kurds. Fundamental questions are being raised, so there would need to be an explicit vote in the House if such an action were taken, because it would set a lot of precedents. We all remember things such as arms to the Contras in the United States.

I will support the motion not simply because it is time to assert parliamentary sovereignty once more, but because there would be wider implications of such a decision by the Government. I am also worried that arms would be given to neighbouring states and then passed on, which raises additional problems. We need to explore issues such as end-use agreements, but any proposal will require an explicit vote of support.

2.21 pm

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): For many reasons, it is absolutely right that the House expresses its view before any lethal action is taken in Syria. If we arm the rebels, that is likely to be the first of many interventions. We cannot place arms in the hands of rebels and then wash our hands of the consequences, and history tells us that we cannot get half-involved with lethal force in a conflict zone and then expect a quick, simple and bloodless exit at the time of our choosing. If we impose a no-fly zone, as has been mentioned, we will need aggressively to remove anti-aircraft assets, and if we arm the rebels with sophisticated weaponry, we will need to get in there and train them. This step would be the first of many on a slippery slope, so Parliament must have its say. If step one is to arm the rebels, step two is to become engulfed in a war and to be dragged into all the consequences that follow or, worse still, to risk the moral hazard of abandoning the rebels we wished to encourage and support. By arming rebels, we also risk catalysing an explosion of violence in the middle east.

We cannot half-fight a war by arming rebels, so I urge the coalition Government to honour their commitment on giving Parliament a say. It would be unwise to oppose the motion, as it confirms the Government’s position, and they would stand to gain by taking note of the motion, which expresses the views of the majority of the British public.

When it comes to declaring war and sending our troops into battle, I for one believe that it is the Government’s job to decide. War making is the Government’s responsibility, but arming rebels is a different matter. While the view of the House today will not be binding, it would be unwise to forbid it, or to ignore its expression, which is why I support the motion that was kindly tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). The motion puts us in a position in which we can debate and vote, and thereby avoid the first step on the conveyor belt to all-out conflict, so it is right that we are having today’s debate and that Parliament is allowed to express its view.

I shall cut down my speech, given the time limit, but let me say that war is a serious business, so there is honour in a calm, considered and reflective approach that takes account of the interests and wishes of the people as expressed through their Parliament. Parliament

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must be allowed to express its view. We must not lead Britain into a foolhardy conflict on a false premise for reasons of misdirected concern. Britain should not dive head first into another bloody conflict with a tenuous link to our national interest, as has been said. Such a conflict could cost us dearly in terms of lives and repercussions over decades. Action should certainly not be taken without the buffer of a prior parliamentary judgment. I want to play no part in fuelling a conflict in pursuit of an ill-defined goal, so I urge hon. Members to support the motion. Above all, however, I urge the coalition Government to support the motion because it confirms their current position.

2.24 pm

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): As the House may recall, in 1992-93, I was the first British United Nations commander sent into Bosnia. I was sent for humanitarian reasons and with the mandate of the Security Council. The Bosnian Muslims were fighting for their lives, with precious few arms or equipment, primarily against the Bosnian Serbs, who had largely appropriated the weapons and equipment of the Yugoslav national army. In comparison with the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serbs—and indeed the other warring faction, the Bosnian Croats—were well equipped. I never saw a Bosnian Muslim tank. The only armoured vehicles they possessed seemed to be a few 4x4s with makeshift metal plates strung along their sides.

I remember despairing that so many civilians were dying but no one was able to defend them. In my reports up the chain of command, I repeatedly argued that we should get involved, as well as arm, equip and train the Bosnian Muslims so that they could better protect themselves, even though that would have meant challenging the then European arms embargo. Of course I felt that way on the ground—who would not have done, given what my soldiers and I witnessed? If I was in Syria today, I would feel exactly the same way. My heart bleeds for anyone trapped in that country.

With the passage of time, I have often wondered whether there would have been a change in events if we had armed selected belligerent parties in Bosnia. My conclusion now is that it would not have made much difference. However, Syria is not like Bosnia, and I shall cite two obvious differences.

First, the Bosnian Muslims were united, unlike the diverse groups that constitute the Syrian rebel opposition. Worse still, it seems that the most militarily successful group among the rebels is the al-Nusra Front, which is directly affiliated with al-Qaeda. The rebels in Syria are hardly a credible, unified entity. Even if we were to arm the apparently moderate Free Syrian Army, there is no way we can forecast its chances of securing power after the eventual fall of Assad.

Secondly, we operated in Bosnia under Security Council resolution 775, which was agreed by all five permanent members of the highest international authority in the world. However, there is no international mandate for action in Syria—Russia and China will not sign one.

I would be willing to consider supporting humanitarian active operations into Syria itself. Under certain circumstances, I might even support some form of international military protection for aid convoys. However, I have two caveats. As things stand, there is neither the

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agreement of the warring factions to such operations, nor a Security Council mandate for action. In truth, addressing those circumstances seems highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Unless circumstances or the current situation change radically, I would not support British arms being sent to the Syrian opposition, if such a question ever came before the House.

2.28 pm

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing the debate. Given the shortage of time, I shall focus on the wording of the motion. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, we are discussing the principle of the House having a vote on any decision, not the merits of sending lethal assistance into Syria. I believe very strongly that it is Parliament that should decide and that we should give the Government our steer. A second debate would give us all the opportunity to give our views and listen to contrasting ones, and then we could decide whether we should get involved in Syria and how. That is what today’s debate is about: giving this House its say.

I believe that many people in this country feel there is a democratic deficit. They do not feel engaged with us in this place and I think that if a decision is made outside this House, it will further widen that gulf. We should give Parliament and Members of all parties a say. We were voted in here to represent people’s views and that is what we should do.

When we sent troops into Iraq it was controversial and many people had a view on it. I was not a Member of this place when that decision was taken, but it was voted on here. If the decision about Syria is made elsewhere, how will we be answerable to our constituents? If we make the decision here, we will be. This is about the democratic deficit.

There is no bigger decision for an elected member than whether to send our troops to war—it is a huge decision—but deciding whether to send arms and lethal assistance is a close second. That is why the decision should be taken by this House. It should be taken not only for ethical reasons, but for democratic reasons. This House will be held responsible for the decision no matter who makes it. We will have to answer to our electorate, whether it be through our surgeries, e-mails or letters. That is why I think that we as Members should be allowed to contribute to the decision.

As has been said, the British public remember Iraq and Afghanistan. Outside these walls, I sense among my High Peak electorate a growing reluctance for this country to get involved in foreign conflicts. My constituents ask whether it is our place to be the world’s policeman. We could debate these issues in a second debate, to which my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East referred so eloquently earlier on. If we have that second debate—I believe we should—the public may not agree with the decision this House makes, but if they can see that it has been made through democratic means in this Chamber I think they will acknowledge it. If it is not made in that way and is made in a closed room, I think they will be unforgiving.

It is ironic that in a discussion on democracy in a far-off land we are debating our democratic right to make a decision. Democracy is a very precious commodity —that is why we are talking about it. Other countries

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would love to have it. Democracy should not only be held and cherished; above all, it should be used. In this case, it is crucial that we use it, and use it in this place.

2.32 pm

Sir Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate and I shall be as brief as possible.

Like other Members present, I spent some time as a member of the Committee on Arms Export Controls, which gave me a picture of some of the issues at stake. Like every previous speaker and many of my constituents, I am appalled by the unfolding events in Syria—by President Assad’s attacks on his people, the bloodshed, the destruction of whole communities of whole towns and cities, and the huge transfer of refugees out of, and displaced people in, the country. Like many other contributors, I am frustrated that the usual levers do not seem to work, that ethics and morality do not seem to have any force, and that nations outside Syria are making the situation ever more complex. Even an appeal to the basic common sense and pragmatism of the country’s leaders is not delivering results. In the meantime, the killing and destruction continue. There is also the threat of chemical weapons, which I will ask the Minister about when I conclude.

We are, of course, very angry about our impotence in this situation. I caution the Government against letting their anger spill over into a feeling that something must be done to assuage it. This has to be about principled and measured steps. There are already at least two bulls in this particular china shop and we should not put a third bull in there.

That brings me to the issue of any proposal to supply arms and military equipment to the Syrian National Coalition and its affiliates. There are many issues on which the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who introduced the motion, and I do not agree, but on this issue we very much do agree. Of course, it is right for this or any Government to use careful and deliberate decision-making processes when deciding whether they want to use force and, if so, what level of force. Of course, they will want to keep their cards close to their chest—they do not want every card they hold to be put up in lights before it is played—and, of course, they will want to choose the timing of any announcement, not simply because it might meet this House’s satisfaction, but because it may be very important in terms of international negotiations. I accept all of those constraints —if I may put it that way—on how the Government might proceed, but I have to say that successive Governments have a very poor record of judging which cards to play and how and when to play them.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that what should not be lost in the political debate is the people aspect and the fact that 4 million people are internally displaced in Syria, more than 1 million people are refugees outside Syria and more than 100,000 lives have already been lost? Surely the Government’s focus should be on both an humanitarian and a diplomatic resolution.

Sir Andrew Stunell: I shall devote at least 15 seconds of my remaining time to precisely that point. Examples have already been given—I will not elaborate on them—of

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decisions taken by previous Governments of all colours that have not always turned out for the best.

I say to the Government that it would be really unhelpful if all their thinking, assessments and deliberations resulted in them activating their decision on, let us say, 29 July, bypassing this House completely. I believe that that is the concern that lies behind the motion. It would be just as unfortunate if Ministers were to say on 29 July that the House had considered the issue today. This is not the debate about whether this House approves or disapproves; it is a debate about this House approving. I am delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) is nodding. I know that he is a gentleman of great good will and understanding and I look forward to his explicit confirmation of that point.

What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the risk of chemical weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda and its affiliates and potentially being directed, ultimately, at the United Kingdom? Will he acknowledge robustly that the constitutional and parliamentary situation has evolved in the past decade and that the Government now accept that this Parliament must have oversight in good time and must be the body with authority when the decision is taken?

2.37 pm

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this important debate on parliamentary consent for arming the Syrian rebels.

Last month, I wrote to the Prime Minister to highlight what I believed were the very real concerns among colleagues and the public about the possibility of British involvement in Syria escalating, and I asked for assurances that prior to any decisions being taken to supply arms to the Syrian National Coalition, or any other groups in Syria, a full debate and vote would be held in Parliament, and that if Parliament were in recess, it would be recalled to facilitate this important debate. In addition, I wrote that I believed that the division and sensitivity the issue evoked, among colleagues across the House and the general public, dictated that the matter be subjected to full parliamentary scrutiny and debate before we potentially became further involved in another middle eastern conflict.

More than 80 colleagues on the Government Benches co-signed the letter, as they were concerned that this action could be taken without the consent of this House. The only precedent during this Parliament for the use of military intervention abroad is Libya, where a Government motion was carried after the intervention had started. I accept that events dictated that swift action was necessary in that case and that in some matters of defence time does not always allow for a parliamentary debate, but I do not believe that this constraint applies to the proposal to arm rebels in Syria. I point out that I still await a response from the Prime Minister to the letter.

On my specific concerns about arming Syrian rebel groups, I return to Libya and what has happened since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime during the Arab spring. Professor Michael Clarke, when giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee a couple of weeks ago, stated:

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“There is a lot of evidence that Libyan weapons are now circulating pretty freely in the Levant”—

the Levant comprising several countries in the eastern Mediterranean with unstable regimes or internal issues. He also made the following shrewd observation:

“Weapons never go out of Commission; they just go somewhere else. Almost all weapons find a new home once a war is over”.

That sums up two principal concerns of many Members: about the groups it is proposed be armed and about what control we and other NATO members would have over those arms once supplied. The evidence in Libya suggests that the new Government have little control over weapons stocks and that they have seeped out of their control, no doubt finding their way on to the weapons open market and into the hands of the highest bidder.

These concerns need to be addressed in a parliamentary debate, especially given that they are held by many groups and individuals outside the House. For instance, Amnesty International has stated:

“Unless the UK government can first ensure and demonstrate that such requirements are met and there does not remain a substantial risk of misuse for serious violations of human rights or International humanitarian law they should not supply any weapons or munitions to any Syrian armed opposition groups.”

It also points out that although it is clear that the Syrian Government are committing the majority of war crimes, armed opposition groups are increasingly resorting to hostage taking and to the torture and summary killing of soldiers, members of pro-Government militias and civilians.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, on 14 June the United States announced that it would supply direct military aid to the Syrian opposition. I would ask the question—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I must now call Mr Walter.

2.42 pm

Mr Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): I echo many of the sentiments expressed today; any decision on arming rebel forces must rest ultimately with Parliament.

I want to stress that this type of decision cannot be taken lightly. I have visited refugee camps in Turkey and talked to those who have fled for their lives, and I believe we need a chance to scrutinise the situation carefully and to consider the consequences of our actions, for which we would all be responsible. We all want to see the balance of power altered so that the Syrian people have a chance at rebuilding their country, but my concern is that the Government’s suggested proposal—that to strengthen certain rebel groups would bring Assad to the conference table—is like a very high-risk chess move or a game of bluff that could go badly wrong. One has only to consider the reaction of Russia and Iran to the easing of the EU arms embargo. They immediately bolstered the Assad regime militarily.

I want to consider another question that underscores the complexity of the challenge. Why, after more than two years of fighting, is Assad still in power? We can point to the material support provided by Iran and Russia, which is significant; another factor might be the international community’s reluctance to intervene militarily;

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but what is often underestimated is Assad’s domestic backing from key communities beyond his core Alawite constituency. The Ba’athist regime has promoted a secular society in which the Christian community, which constitutes 10% of the 22 million population, as well as Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Turks, Druze and other Shi’ites and secular Sunnis have coalesced to shore up Assad’s base.

What motivates and unites these communities is not so much any inherent love of the Assad regime, but fear—fear of the chaos that would ensue if Assad was overthrown; fear that the rebels will bring about not the peaceful, multi-sectarian society to which we all aspire, but violent retribution against them. This is where my concerns lie.

Rebel groups have been accused of the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas such as Aleppo, and there are reports of extrajudicial killings of pro-Government civilians. Human Rights Watch found that Syrian rebels have kidnapped, detained and tortured Government fighters and supporters, and we all know that when the heavy lid of authoritarian rule is lifted, sectarian and tribal aspirations are often violently unleashed.

If the Government’s plan A is to force Assad to the conference table and it fails, and if plan B is for the various opposition groups to succeed militarily, we may face a humanitarian catastrophe. Those groups already show no mercy and will, I fear, set out to massacre any group seen or perceived to have supported the Assad regime. We will then not be dealing with 1.5 million refugees, but with perhaps 4 million, 5 million or 6 million people fleeing across the borders to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. I believe the priority is to bring Assad, Iran and Russia to the conference table.

2.45 pm

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and I have probably spent more time in Syria than most Members of this House, including meeting Bashar Assad up to 10 times over a six-year period. My experience of Syria is very different from the Syria we have heard about today. Syria has always been a highly secular country. There is no Salafi tradition in Syria; it has more of a Sufi tradition and a mystical approach to Islam. There was no sense of radicalism there, so how have we got from where we were to where we are today with a highly sectarian divide and the potential for a fragmented Somalia on the Mediterranean?

We must remember how this began, which was when a 13-year-old boy in Daraa had the audacity to urinate on a poster of President Assad. The security forces took him, beat him up, killed him, cut off his penis, and returned him to his parents. That sparked massive outrage among civilians in five different cities and was the beginning of the Arab Spring. Those who point to hardly any complicity of the Assad regime in causing what is happening today should think carefully. It made a very bad situation worse with civil disobedience met by repression. Ultimately, individuals felt that they had to protect their communities, and small militias were set up in various towns. The Free Syrian Army was really a fragmented group of people, and only more recently has it become a little more co-ordinated under General Idris. The Syrian National Council has been equally dysfunctional and has not sought to reach out at all beyond the Sunni community.

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In February when I was in Cairo, there was an opportunity and the Russians said that they would try to lead engagement. The regime was feeling insecure, but unfortunately Minister Lavrov dropped the ball. He did not do anything and, in fact, the opposite happened. Iran and Russia provided more arms, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard bolstered the Assad regime, including his personal bodyguard, which became a member of the IRG. Until then I had always believed in engagement, but Al-Qusayr was a turning point. The regime knew it could not win alone, so Iran and Hezbollah came in and gave it the support to win Al-Qusayr. I changed my mind and believe that one needs to do a little more than simply provide humanitarian aid. From my understanding of Assad, he will have to be pushed, or driven kicking and screaming to the negotiating table.

My solution is fivefold. First, radical diplomatic engagement is absolutely necessary including—I agree with all Members of the House—with Rouhani and the Iranian regime. This is time to press the reset button.

Mr Jenkin: Does my hon. Friend agree that if we persist in doing nothing, the situation will continue to deteriorate and the radical Sunni factions will come to dominate the opposition to Assad? They are providing a playground for terrorism, where British citizens are going to train as terrorists and coming back to this country.

Mr Newmark: Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, there are 70 to 80 citizens of the United Kingdom who are today with Jabhat al-Nusra and the more radical groups. However, those groups represent only 5,000 or 6,000 people on the ground, versus the silent majority of 15 million Sunnis.

The second part of the strategy, beyond radical diplomatic engagement, should be containment. We must protect the likes of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey from becoming infected by this explosion. Thirdly, we must provide more aid, not just to Jordan and Lebanon, but internally.

Bob Stewart: I am in favour of considering military intervention to escort aid into Syria. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Mr Newmark: Yes, I do, although that is not without its dangers. When we ask the UN to do something, we have to think about what protection it will get.

My fourth point is that the Syrian National Council must become less dysfunctional. It cannot be a puppet of the Qatari regime, which it has been to date, representing just the Sunnis. It must reach out to the Alawites, the Kurds, the Druze and the Christians.

My fifth recommendation is this. I am not asking for British soldiers on the ground or for our pilots’ lives to be put at risk; I am asking for what the Syrian people have set out to me time and time again. We need to rebalance the situation on the ground. We need to arm the Free Syrian Army and support General Idris. If we do not, unfortunately more and more of the Free Syrian Army—the moderates—will drift towards the extremists. I am afraid that inaction will breed extremism and the fragmentation of Syria. Supporting the Free Syrian Army is also more likely to bring Assad and Russia to the negotiating table.

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Returning to the point of this debate, I would not wish to bind the hands of the Executive on a foreign policy matter where our soldiers’ and our pilots’ lives are not at risk. Therefore, I would oppose the motion.

2.52 pm

Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs told the House in 2011:

“We will also enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 799.]

Today we are making a far smaller request to the Government. We are not asking for a veto on declaring war, or even on the right to be heard before using deadly force. Many would argue that we should, but we are not. We are simply saying: let us vote before our Government sell or give weapons to people who may one day want to turn them on us. Today is not about whether we should arm the rebels; it is about whether the Government will listen to their MPs. As has been said, if we were to give arms, what possible assurances could the Government provide us with that such weapons would not find their way into the hands of terrorists or jihadists? Today we are asking for Parliament to be allowed to share the enormous responsibility for such a decision.

We in this Chamber do not act for ourselves; we act together, collectively, on behalf of a nation. We did not get a vote—nothing was put to Parliament—in 2001 following the deployment of British troops to Afghanistan or when British troops were deployed to Mali. They were far greater commitments, risking the lives of British servicemen and women. Those men and women and their families have no choice but to put their trust in their elected Members of Parliament to protect them from the Executive when the Executive might have been misled. We can all look back through history to see where mistakes have been made. That is relevant, because the consequences of arming the rebels might not lead to the deployment of our troops, but they will still be the target of terrorists and they will need the support of the public.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is even more important that Parliament should have its say and a vote before any such thing was considered because the British people are uneasy about the interventions made in their name in other places in the last decade?

Bill Wiggin: As always, I have no difficulty in agreeing with my right hon. Friend.

We are behind our forces because they are fantastic. They are fantastic because they perform brilliantly, morally and humanely, and we are proud of them because they protect us. We, as MPs, must protect them from the risk of terrorism, and from fights and wars that we do not need.

We have a precedent for lethal force debates. All we are asking is for a similar opportunity to vote before arming the Syrian rebels. On Libya, Parliament was given a say. In March 2003, the Labour Government held a debate and a vote on the deployment of British troops in Iraq, even though they were not obliged to

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hold a vote and not obliged to take heed of the result. However, Parliament was given the opportunity to express a view.

We ask today that the coalition Government extend a lesser courtesy to us than the Labour Government did in 2003. After all, Parliament is elected to act on behalf of the people. How can we act on behalf of the people if we are not given the chance to vote on a matter as important as involving ourselves in a foreign conflict?

2.55 pm

Dr Phillip Lee (Bracknell) (Con): My speech has changed about four times in the course of the debate as I was trying to find a way, without fear of repetition, of saying things that have not been said already. I note the motion, and I note that essentially this is a legal and constitutional debate. With all due respect to those on the Front Bench and the Minister, I wonder why there is no legal representation here.

The debate is necessary because of the complexity of Syria and the wider region, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing it. I look up at the Annunciator screen, which shows the title of the debate as “Arms to Syria”, and wonder whether it should say “Arms to the Middle East”. We are considering arming the Free Syrian Army, but we also have arms contracts going back many years with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. We have never come to this Chamber to authorise the Government to make those arms deals. I am therefore not in favour of the motion.

If the motion concerned committing British forces on the ground in Syria, I would suggest it appropriate, for reasons that pre-date my time in the House, to have a debate and a vote. On Iraq and on other conflicts we have been involved in, the public have lost faith in the democratic process in relation to how Britain engages in military conflicts around the world. All I see in the world at the moment is increasing chaos, so I suspect that we will find ourselves involved in other conflicts in the middle east in the near future. We need to take the British public with us, and that involves our being able to go back to our constituencies and make a case for intervention.

Syria is a country created by the colonial pen strokes of Sykes-Picot, and other countries across the middle east were created by former colonial masters. On top of that, one lays the Sunni/Shi’a split, a sense of an Islamic reformation taking place, and the unresolved issues concerning democracy and Islam. I am no historian, but it feels like the Catholic Church in the 16th century wrestling with how to give power back to Governments of free and increasingly democratic nations. Because of the complexity of the situation and the fact that we are trying to look at these issues through the prism of countries that will probably not exist in 10 years’ time—there will be fragmentation—it is extremely difficult to come here and talk about sending arms to a particular country that would not have existed had it been created on tribal lines and by taking ethnic loyalties into account.

I have a lot of sympathy with my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, but UK foreign policy should be about what is in Britain’s best interests. I think it is in Britain’s best interests to have as coherent and

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consistent a policy as can be applied across the middle east. After Syria, this situation could fall into Lebanon, Jordan and, dare I say it, Saudi Arabia, with the consequent impact on energy prices and so on. It is in Britain’s interests to garner the trust and support of the wider Arab public, and not just intervene and fiddle around the edges. I could come here and vote for a commitment on the ground in the middle east. I struggle to come here to vote for a commitment to arm just one particular force.

2.59 pm

Mr Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): Last year, when I was in north-east Lebanon, I went to a village that had been shelled by the Syrian regime. I met a woman who had just come over the border. She had lost her children, her husband and her legs when she was hit by a Syrian army shell while fleeing from her village. Imagine being in a village in England with the Royal Artillery shelling the village, then being harried by the Grenadier Guards and 42 Commando the Royal Marines. It is unthinkable.

I totally accept that it is perfectly reasonable for a Government to do something without the consent of Parliament in an emergency, in order to maintain surprise or while conducting covert operations. However, we are not talking about Bosnia today; we are talking about Syria, and the House of Commons should be given a say.

I want to echo something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) said earlier about public distrust. I agree with him, given the disastrous cock-ups in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a journalist and as a Member of Parliament, I have seen the way in which pliant officials in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office have done the will—or what they think is the will—of their political masters. In future, if it is possible, we need the reality check of a Commons vote in order to create clarity and avoid the activities of some of the more pliant civil servants who will always play back what they think their political masters want.

Mr Speaker: Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) to speak, I should inform the House that I have asked the Front Benchers to stick to 10 minutes each, which they have kindly agreed to do. It will then be possible to have a brief wind-up speech from the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron).

3.1 pm

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to participate in the debate. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), said that the debate was academic, but with all due respect, I disagree with him. He then proceeded to make many valuable points in an excellent speech, which rather defeated his earlier argument. It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway), who eloquently illustrated the seriousness of the situation in Syria through an individual experience.

I have only a little time, and many hon. Members have already spoken, but I shall of course make reference to the horrific situation in Syria, and to the fact that more than 90,000 people have died there. I shall not focus on that, however, because, as the hon. Member for

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New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has pointed out, the motion relates to the question whether a debate and a vote should take place before lethal support is supplied to any opposition group in Syria.

On this side of the House, we have for some time supported the provision of non-lethal support to Syria, including water purification, vehicles and other support of that nature. But we and many Members from across the House remain sceptical about the merits of sending yet more weapons into Syria’s brutal war. For many months, Labour has been calling on a regular basis for Ministers to come to Parliament to make their case before any decision was taken to arm the Syrian opposition. It is therefore highly appropriate that we are debating the matter today, and I thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing the debate. I also thank those who supported the application to the Backbench Business Committee to secure the debate. It is important that we require the Government to come back to the House before any decision is made to supply lethal weapons to anti-Government forces in Syria.

The House still has no codified role in approving participation in military action. In 2003, the Iraq war debate established a working precedent—certainly a powerful political precedent—that UK troops should not be committed unless there had been an opportunity for Parliament to express its view on the matter. In addition, retrospective approval for the deployment of forces to Libya was sought on 21 March 2011—three days after the announcement of British participation.

Opposition Members believe that this House should observe the existing convention and help build a convention that before UK troops are committed to conflict, the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate and to vote on the matter—except, of course, where there is an emergency and where such action would not be appropriate.

The national debate about the Iraq war defines the present context in which the approach to intervention takes place. We have seen that intervention of itself does not secure answers. Rather, it is a starting point, which can have both positive and negative consequences. The United Kingdom has a long history of involvement in the middle east—a history that colours perceptions of any actions that we take in this area. We must take account of those perceptions when assessing whether any intervention we take will be for the best. We must also define very closely indeed what the intervention should be. If lethal equipment is supplied, to whom will it be supplied and how do we ensure we support its end-user?

Andrew Bridgen: Given that the United States announced on 14 June that it would supply direct military aid to the Syrian opposition, what could we provide that the Americans cannot?

Ian Lucas: I think the hon. Gentleman should direct that question to the Minister rather than to me. I am sure that the Minister will respond to it in his winding-up speech.

The motion does not relate specifically to the deployment of British troops. The unique nature of the issue—supplying arms to a non-state actor—was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). We

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are supplying arms to a selected group within the opposition. While there might be a strong breadth of international support for that group, in the context of an ever-evolving and moving situation in Syria, it is difficult to know exactly who these people are and how on earth we could in any sense restrict the supply of any equipment to a particular group. We need a real opportunity to discuss the issue closely before committing to supply lethal equipment. We need to discuss it and to vote on any Government proposals before a final decision is taken. Difficult questions must be addressed and answered before any steps are taken to commit lethal UK resources. We have a responsibility to ensure that our actions will not make the position for the people of Syria worse.

My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary wrote to the Foreign Secretary at the beginning of this month to ask what assessment the Foreign Office had made of the EU common position on arms sales, to which the UK is a signatory. My right hon. Friend asked whether the Foreign Office would share that assessment with the House. Can the Minister confirm whether that assessment of the common position will be shared with us? We are clear that the need to have a debate on this issue is not an alibi for ceasing to strive to reach a negotiated political transition at a Geneva II peace conference. We want that to happen as soon as possible, and we would welcome an update from the Minister about the current status of preparations for such a conference. Picking up a point made by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is it a precondition of UK Government policy for President Assad to step down before any discussions take place? That needs to be clarified at this juncture because that was a precondition at an earlier stage.

We are aware that the UK, the US, Russia and other countries have agreed in principle to a Geneva II conference, but there are delays. One reported reason for the repeated delaying of the conference is the disagreement among different groups over electing a new leader for the opposition. Now that Ahmed al-Jarba has been elected, when is the conference likely to convene? It is obvious that the need to secure a ceasefire is of the utmost urgency, so will the Minister please confirm that anyone who can play a role in securing a ceasefire can be involved? Earlier, he seemed to indicate from a sedentary position that that was the case. I would be grateful if he clarified that at the Dispatch Box.

What role is the Arab League now playing? It was active at an earlier stage in trying to secure some breakthrough but we have heard much less about its role in recent times. If any party at all is being excluded from the talks, can the Minister explain what the grounds are for exclusion?

The continuing tragedy is that Syria is a stain on the institutions of the international community because we have all failed to prevent the scale of the killings in the past two years. We must not lose sight of the scale of the horror that is happening in the country. I am sure that the Minister will do his utmost to secure some kind of breakthrough, but it is equally important that the House has the opportunity to discuss the implications of supplying lethal equipment to opposition groups in Syria before that decision is made. We have heard this afternoon that the House, not universally but overwhelmingly, supports the motion. I would be grateful if the Minister did so, too, on behalf of the UK Government.

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3.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for raising the issue. I agree that it is more than useful to have this debate. I have no intention of opposing the motion before the House today. I would like to set out briefly the situation in relation to Syria, to comment on the substance of the motion and then to deal with some of the questions that have been raised on the motion and wider issues. Clearly, however, so much was covered that we will not be able to get through it all.

The situation in Syria is genuinely appalling and is getting worse at an ever-more rapid pace. As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, the number of deaths will soon exceed 100,000 people. Since last July, on average, 170 people have been killed every 24 hours. By the end of the year, 10 million people—half of Syria’s pre-conflict population —will be likely to be in need of humanitarian assistance. Neighbouring countries are struggling with the refugee crisis.

The brutal Assad regime has used chemical weapons on his own people. We are concerned to see new, unconfirmed reports over the weekend of further chemical attacks in Homs. We judge that Iran is providing personnel, equipment, weapons and financial assistance to the Assad regime, which is also being supported by thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.

The Syrian people and the legitimate opposition are caught between this brutal regime and its backers on one side, and extremists on the other. We must not accept what Assad wants us to believe—that the only alternative to his brutal regime is extremists and terrorists. I am keen to disabuse any colleagues who have strayed into that area during their remarks. There are millions of Syrians who want a peaceful and democratic future, and legitimate forces are fighting for their interests. We should be on their side. However, the extremist groups operating inside—affiliated to or aligned with al-Qaeda—are taking advantage of ungoverned spaces created by the conflict. They pose risks to UK national security. We judge that more than 100 UK-linked individuals of concern have travelled to Syria. Some individuals returning to the UK could pose a long-term terrorist threat.

As the Foreign Secretary said yesterday in his statement to the House, faced with this growing and protracted crisis to which there is no end in sight, we have three objectives: to promote a political solution in Syria, which I again make very clear is the Government’s overriding imperative; to help to save lives; and to protect the national security of the United Kingdom.

To this end, we have doubled our humanitarian assistance for Syria to £348 million. I commend to colleagues a very good document—this is straying into the interests of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development—on UK aid in response to the Syria crisis, dated 4 July. It deals with some key facts on what we are doing. I will ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that it is e-mailed to every colleague, because, as more than one Member has mentioned, the humanitarian assistance is not a by-product of the UK’s involvement. We are entitled to be very proud of what this country is doing in that regard, and I would like colleagues to be well aware of what we are doing and to talk about it. We must not consider it to be some sort of backwater.

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Bob Stewart: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Alistair Burt: No, not yet.

We are also providing technical assistance for the protection of civilians. That includes advice and training on how to maintain security in areas no longer controlled by the regime, on how to protect civilians and minimise the risks to them—including in respect of helping the opposition counter regime forces as they attack towns under opposition control—and on co-ordination between civilian and military councils, and on how to maintain security during a transition.

Amending the arms embargo on Syria in May also supported these aims. As the Prime Minister has said, lifting the arms embargo on the Syrian National Coalition sent a powerful signal that there is no moral equivalence between Assad on the one hand and the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, recognised by over 130 countries, states and other entities, on the other. It also increases pressure on the regime to negotiate seriously. We now have the flexibility to respond in future if the situation continues to deteriorate and if the Assad regime refuses to negotiate.

Let me come to the nub of the motion, just to be clear once again to the House. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday in his statement to the House:

“On the question of any future lethal support—arming the opposition or intervening militarily ourselves—the Government’s position has not changed. No decision has been made, and any decision would be put to the House on a substantive motion.”—[Official Report, 10 July 2013; Vol. 566, c. 379.]

And as he said in the House on 18 June:

“We certainly would not want to pursue any aspect of our policy on this issue against the will of the House of Commons. That is neither feasible nor desirable, so of course we have made clear that there would be a vote. I have also made it clear that we would expect it to be before any such decision was put into action.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 746.]

Mr Baron: I absolutely applaud the Minister and I have great respect for his being absolutely clear. I agree that there has never been any change to the policy or the wording of the view that no decision has been taken, but I suggest with great respect that there has been movement by the Government on the assurances in the wording of the motion since it first travelled this journey. I urge the Minister to look back at what was said initially when many of us in this place urged the Government to put such a motion to a substantive vote.

Alistair Burt: Well, I do not believe so. Let me comment on something that is at the nub of this: the long shadow of Iraq. I am convinced that when this Government took office we were very well aware of the deficiency in trust felt in the nation on account of that. My sense is that, particularly in respect of the area my portfolio covers, in the last two or three years both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have repeatedly updated the House on circumstances as they have arisen. They have been very conscientious in doing that. The National Security Council was created precisely to try to find a structure that could address the concerns about foreign policy decisions that people had felt in the past. I believe that right from the beginning as the UK considered all its options—and I repeat, despite whatever I have said, that all options remain on the table—both

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the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have been very keen to ensure that the House has been engaged, because ultimately this is an issue of trust.

That leads me on to the point made by the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) about the possibility of something being sneaked through in the recess. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) also talked about that. The whole point of what the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been doing has been to generate trust in the House. If the Government were to do something and then seek retrospective support in respect of an issue where Members felt we should have come before the House in advance, that trust would be broken, which would run contrary to what the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister wish to convey. It may still be the case, of course, that emergencies arise that require the Head of Government to have the flexibility to make decisions in the national interest, as the House would expect, and the debate on Iran some time ago indicated that no hands should be bound. The clear intention of what I am saying and what the Foreign Secretary has sought to do, however, is that the Government want to keep the confidence of the House by going this extra step. So there is no question of our trying to use the recess or another opportunity to do something, because we would then have to come back to the House—and what would be the House’s reaction? I have tried to make clear the intention on which the Government are determined to act.

In the brief time available, I wish to cover one or two more of the questions raised, including those about Geneva and President Assad put by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who spoke for the Opposition. I know that you are very generous to us, Mr Speaker, so if I stray for one minute, having taken an intervention, I hope you will kindly let me do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said that many people were asking what is in our national interest. Importantly, whether a decision is made to arm or not, there is a UK interest that needs to be considered. Let us make no mistake: whether we continue on our current course or do something different, we are involved. As a permanent member of the Security Council, we have an interest in promoting peace in the most conflict-ridden areas. It is to the discredit of the international community that that has not been possible, but that has not been due to any sparing of effort on our part at the United Nations. The conflict has been spilling over into neighbouring areas, as we have seen with Hezbollah and Lebanon. As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) said, if empty space is used, that is where a threat to and an attack on the United Kingdom can come from. We know that people are going out there to be radicalised, and that will come back to bite us as well. Whatever is done—whatever decision is taken—nobody in this House can escape the fact that there is British interest in Syria. Accordingly, our main interest is in closing this down and ending the conflict. This is not a plea from me to arm; I am saying that unless the conflict is ended, British interests will continue to be further damaged.

Iran clearly has an interest in this. It did not accept Geneva I. Who knows what is possible, but Iran’s interest is noted and is there. The removal of Assad is not so much a precondition from the United Kingdom; this is

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not the UK’s involvement in negotiations. It was clear from the beginning that this issue is difficult for an opposition that is being killed daily by Assad’s regime, but the practicalities now are that there are no preconditions if people can get to a position to negotiate that we want.

Richard Ottaway: Will the Minister clarify that? If a negotiated settlement comes out of Geneva, does he accept that it may result in President Assad staying in office?

Alistair Burt: The point I want to make is that if a negotiated solution emerges, it will have been negotiated by representatives of the Syrian National Coalition. I think that, in a way, it is their call; it is not for us to say. The reason we take the view that Assad’s legitimacy is gone is plain from the facts, but the United Kingdom is not involved in setting preconditions for the negotiations; that is for the parties involved.

I want to correct one misconception that has been abroad: that all the opposition is the same and we are allied with people we have seen performing extremist acts and acts of the greatest brutality. That is not the case. On 20 April, the Syrian National Coalition declared its commitment to democracy, ethnic and religious pluralism, and the rule of law, and it rejected discrimination and extremism. It also declared that it would guard against the proliferation of any supplied lethal equipment and would return such equipment at the end of the conflict, and confirmed that the supreme military council operates under the civilian authority of the coalition.

As for whether each side is as bad as the other, we condemn human rights abuses perpetrated by anyone involved in the violence in Syria, but we note that the last report by the UN commission of inquiry on Syria, published on 4 June, said that although there was evidence of human rights abuses committed by the opposition, those

“did not…reach the intensity and scale of those committed by Government forces and affiliated militia.”

There is no equivalence.

My final point is that if colleagues here are to get us to the position we all want to get to—a negotiated peace—they would do well to consider the graphic description by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) of why that might not happening at the moment. No matter what we decide to do in the future, I suspect that his remarks, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree, should be taken in by everybody here as we go forward and take the difficult decisions we have to take. This is not easy—there is more than one side to the question—but the arguments raised by my two colleagues will take some consideration by all of us.

3.24 pm

Mr Baron: This has been a well-informed, well-attended and useful debate, in which the wording of the motion has been paramount. Since we first discovered that the Government were aiming to lift the EU ban on arms exports, the Government have travelled some way. There was a lack of clarity at the start of the journey, as illustrated by the fact that very recently—only a few weeks ago—Members who are in their places in the Chamber today were appearing in the media believing

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that the rebels should be armed and expressing the view that Parliament did not need to give its explicit prior consent. We have that clarity now and I thank the Minister for it. I also thank Members on both sides of the House for pressing for clarity from the Government.

Let me turn briefly to the specific issue of whether or not to arm. There has been no answer to the charge that more weapons would mean more violence and more suffering, to the charge that it would be nigh on impossible to track and trace weapons to stop them falling into the hands of extremists on the rebel side or to the charge that if one pours more weapons into the conflict and adds more fuel to the flames it could extend the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. Most who have spoken would agree that more can be done on the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts.

I urge all Members to support the motion, regardless of their views on whether we should arm. I for one will not press it to a vote, but I would fully understand colleagues who might wish to do that given the strength of feeling on the issue. I urge all Members to support the motion, if they can.

Question put.

The House divided:

Ayes 114, Noes 1.

Division No. 57]


3.26 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Afriyie, Adam

Amess, Mr David

Bain, Mr William

Baker, Steve

Baron, Mr John

Begg, Dame Anne

Berger, Luciana

Bingham, Andrew

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Brady, Mr Graham

Bray, Angie

Bridgen, Andrew

Brown, Lyn

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Sir Malcolm

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burstow, rh Paul

Byles, Dan

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Cash, Mr William

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clark, Katy

Colvile, Oliver

Connarty, Michael

Cunningham, Alex

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Davidson, Mr Ian

Davies, Philip

De Piero, Gloria

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Doran, Mr Frank

Dorries, Nadine

Eagle, Ms Angela

Elphicke, Charlie

Evans, Graham

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flynn, Paul

Gapes, Mike

Gillan, rh Mrs Cheryl

Gilmore, Sheila

Gray, Mr James

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffiths, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hilling, Julie

Hoey, Kate

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Holloway, Mr Adam

Howarth, rh Mr George

Jones, Mr Kevan

Laing, Mrs Eleanor

Lefroy, Jeremy

Lewis, Dr Julian

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Ian

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Main, Mrs Anne

Mann, John

McCann, Mr Michael

McGovern, Alison

McGuire, rh Mrs Anne

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

Meale, Sir Alan

Metcalfe, Stephen

Morrice, Graeme


Morris, Grahame M.


Murray, Sheryll

Nash, Pamela

Onwurah, Chi

Parish, Neil

Qureshi, Yasmin

Reckless, Mark

Redwood, rh Mr John

Reynolds, Emma

Robertson, Angus

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Dame Joan

Russell, Sir Bob

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sarwar, Anas

Smith, Henry

Smith, Sir Robert

Spellar, rh Mr John

Stunell, rh Sir Andrew

Tami, Mark

Teather, Sarah

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Timms, rh Stephen

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Derek

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, Valerie

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Robin

Walter, Mr Robert

Weir, Mr Mike

Wheeler, Heather

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Stephen

Wilson, Phil

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Bob Stewart


John Hemming


Halfon, Robert

Tellers for the Noes:

Jeremy Corbyn


Mr Peter Bone

Question accordingly agreed to.

11 July 2013 : Column 628


That this House believes no lethal support should be provided to anti-government forces in Syria without the explicit prior consent of Parliament.

11 July 2013 : Column 629

Piper Alpha Disaster

3.38 pm

Mr Frank Doran (Aberdeen North) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster.

On the night of 6 July 1988, an incident occurred on the Piper Alpha platform that led to the deaths of 167 men. It was the worst tragedy in the offshore oil and gas industry anywhere in the world. It was the direct consequence of negligence, bad management at every level, poor maintenance, extremely weak regulation and failure to have proper work systems in place or a proper safety strategy for major incidents. The regulation management and safety systems failed at every level. Those 167 men died, survivors suffered the most traumatic experience that any of us could imagine, many of them being seriously injured, and of course the families and relatives of those involved have been irrevocably damaged.

I am very pleased and proud to have the opportunity to open this debate to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha tragedy and to remember those who died and their families, and, of course, the rescue services involved and those who supported the survivors and families after the incident. As well as the Piper Alpha victims, it is important to remember all those who have died during the lifetime of the UK oil and gas industry, whether at sea, on land, on a platform, or on transport.

Last Saturday, along with several hundred others, I attended a memorial service in the Piper Alpha memorial rose garden in Aberdeen. I met many of the survivors and the families of victims. I was delighted to see the Secretary of State for Scotland and the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran), at that event representing the Government and the Opposition. Four hundred of those who attended were survivors or families of victims. Most of the individuals and families have moved on, but the mood on Saturday was as sombre as the mood in 1988. It was quite clear that for most of the people involved the memory of the horror of that day in 1988 remains just as vivid and distressing as it was then. The pain does not go away. Many things stand out about that service, but the most poignant and difficult was the roll call of victims—as graphic and emotional a way of underlining the sheer scale of the tragedy as any.

The 25th anniversary of the tragedy has had a good deal of media coverage, and it does not serve any real purpose to go through again all the detail of what happened on that night. However, I would like to focus on just a couple of issues relevant to the present and possibly also to the future.

As colleagues are well aware, following the disaster Lord Cullen was appointed to lead an inquiry into the disaster. He made 106 recommendations. The Cullen report was welcomed on all sides. It has changed the safety culture in the North sea and throughout the global oil and gas industry. Aside from the practical workplace and management issues, the most important recommendation was on the question of who should be the regulator. From the beginning of the North sea industry, the Piper and all other North sea installations were regulated by the then Department of Energy. The

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Department had two fundamental problems. The first was the conflict between its responsibility to maximise oil production and its duty as a regulator. More importantly, the Cullen report made the Department’s inadequacies abundantly clear. Cullen recommended that responsibility for offshore safety should be handed over to the Health and Safety Executive, where it resides today.

In the main, the HSE, through its offshore division, has been a good regulator, and there has been substantial improvement in the industry’s safety record. Recently, however, concerns were raised when the HSE announced that the offshore division was being merged into a new energy division. The announcement was made without any apparent consultation with the industry, unions or Members of Parliament. That raised concern on all sides, particularly as to whether the decision was driven by cuts in funding. However, we eventually received from the chair the rationale for the move. Ministers also came in with a promise of some extra inspectors.

The most recent information I have on staffing in the offshore division is that it has 109 full-time equivalent staff—14 more than 2010, so that is significant progress. However, across the HSE the total number of inspectors has fallen by 75 from 1,316 to 1,241. In future, with a merged division, it might be much more difficult for us to identify the precise numbers of dedicated offshore inspectors. Broadly speaking, there has been a steady improvement in the safety regime and in accident rates, but the industry remains dangerous compared with other UK industries. In 2011-12 the fatality rate was 6.9 per 100,000 workers compared with 0.6 for all UK workers. The major injury and fatality rate per 100,000 workers for offshore oil and gas is 130.8, compared with 90.4 for all UK workers. However, at a major event last week, a representative of one of the major oil companies cited a statistic suggesting that, on the basis of last year’s figures, the industry was the third safest, behind banking and education, but I have not seen that information.

Beyond safety, the other major issue facing the industry is the continuing problem of gas escapes on offshore platforms. We should remember that a gas leak led to the Piper Alpha tragedy. In 2011-12, there were 94 hydrocarbon releases, 44 of which were classified as significant. Nine of those were identified as a major incident, which is a leak that, if ignited, would cause an explosion capable of causing multiple casualties. Those nine cases were therefore very serious incidents. Last year, the Elgin-Franklin complex, which is operated by Total, was closed down because of a major gas leak. It was restarted, but then shut down again, and it was not fully operational until March this year. Gas leak statistics, like those for injury rates, are showing a steady improvement, but the volume of escapes and the scale of the Elgin-Franklin problem show that there is still a lot of work to do.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that one life lost is one life too many, and that that is why all the authorities and companies must work together to achieve maximum safety and security for all those working in such dangerous places to ensure that no life is lost in the future?

Mr Doran: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. A successful process is in operation, but there is no room for complacency.

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Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this valuable debate. Does he share my concern about reports that the number of planned inspections throughout the HSE’s entire operation in Scotland is likely to be significantly reduced this year? Given that last year, unfortunately, the number of casualties in Scotland increased overall, there is utterly no room for complacency on health and safety at work.

Mr Doran: I will come to that point later in my speech, as I am dealing with the offshore oil and gas industry at the moment, but I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes.

The HSE has been increasingly proactive. It has embarked on several projects, one of the most important of which is the key programme project, which involves an assessment of the integrity of offshore installations. The KP3 report, which was published a few years ago, followed an assessment of 100 platforms. It told us that, in a number of cases, the industry was slipping back on areas such as the maintenance of platforms. In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions ordered a review of KP3, which showed that the industry had responded to its findings and that improvements were being made.

We have now reached the KP4 stage, and the interim report identifies several issues relating to ageing plant. Oil and Gas UK, the industry body, has established working groups to produce guidance and promote improvements. I understand that, as at the end of March, HSE had undertaken KP4 inspections of more than 75% of operators. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has also set up a senior oversight group, which includes the HSE, to supervise the implementation of the review’s recommendations. Such an integrated approach is necessary and appropriate.

While the industry is making progress on safety, the KP3 report shows that the regulator needs to be ever vigilant. A good job has been done, but several points still need to be considered. The trade union side recognises that progress has been made in the industry, but its officials are aware that there are several installations on which workers are afraid to bring up safety issues with their employers. Some employers tell union officials that they are put under pressure by the staff of the operator—the client—to cut corners.

The regulator also identifies problems. At the Piper 25 conference, Steve Walker, the retiring head of the offshore safety division, made several points, including about the control of work. The inadequacy—and failure—of the permit-to-work system led directly to the Piper Alpha disaster, and it is still a key weakness for the industry. Poor isolation and inadequate adherence to permit systems remain a common thread during incident investigation.

Another key Cullen recommendation is not being fully adhered to by some companies. The regulator is regularly taking enforcement action for maintenance and testing temporary safe refuges. A Health and Safety Executive inspection in 2011 found that there was still variation in the implementation of safety representative legislation. In other words, it is not being applied properly.

That last point is important, because one of the major steps that has been taken by the industry, with the full support of the HSE, is to recognise that safety

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offshore can only improve with the full engagement of the work force. That process is being led by Step Change in Safety.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I was on the energy desk at the Treasury when the Piper Alpha accident happened and it was truly terrible. One of the things I remember is that there were communication difficulties, because at that time quite a lot of foreign workers working offshore on British and American-managed platforms simply did not understand what was going on. Does my hon. Friend know whether that situation has improved in the past 25 years?

Mr Doran: That certainly was not an issue for Lord Cullen. I think that the communication difficulty was the failure to have a proper management structure in place with a process to deal with such an incident. The only message that was put out was a mayday message. From recollection, I think that two foreigners—a Frenchman and, I think, a Spaniard—were killed in the Piper Alpha incident, so there was no issue there.

Under Step Change in Safety, materials have been produced and conferences held to encourage employers to accept that top-down management does not work. Full engagement and involvement of the work force at every stage of the work process is crucial. There is no doubt that there is a great deal of traction in the principles being set out by Step Change in Safety and most operations offshore are embracing the changes, some more enthusiastically than others.

At the Piper 25 conference, I attended a session where employees of Maersk Oil, which is fairly new to the North sea, spoke about its approach. It has gone for full engagement and has introduced a system that involves new rules about handling safety issues, encouraging workers to come forward with ideas to improve safety and to report safety concerns without fear of sanction and so on. Maersk Oil has produced statistics which show that since the inception of the new ideas, accidents have declined significantly and profits have increased. They present a win-win scenario—safer workplace, increased profit.

Others, while accepting the basic principle and making some progress, have been less enthusiastic. Old habits die hard and trade union officials and regulators tell me that as soon as they step off the helicopter and on to an offshore platform they can read the mood of the work force and what sort of approach the employer is taking to work-force engagement.

Despite that, there is no doubt that serious progress is being made. I have been involved with the oil and gas industry in one way or another for nearly 40 years. For most of that time, management was top down, harsh and very anti union, with a few exceptions on the contracting side. I would be a fantasist to suggest that the industry fully embraces trade unions. However, significant progress is being made. The industry recognises that the unions can make a valuable contribution to the workplace and safety. Trade unions are represented on the board of the industry training body OPITO—the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation—and one of the representatives chaired it for a number of years. Two full-time union officers were appointed to the separate taskforces set up to look into the Super

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Puma helicopter disaster a few years ago and the consequences of the Macondo incident in the gulf of Mexico. At this year’s industry safety awards the keynote speaker was the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

One of the major issues for the industry this year has been the threat from the European Union to take control of offshore safety. A number of very senior figures in the industry have assured me that the turning point in a meeting with the Commission was the presentation made by John Taylor, a full-time official of Unite who would put to shame the Prime Minister’s cartoon image of Unite members—I guarantee it—and who is totally dedicated to the interests of his members.

I raise these issues because my biggest fear about the integrity of the steadily improving safety environment in the offshore industry is that the process is running in direct contradiction to Government policy. If we leave the union relationship aside, the industry is putting huge effort into its worker engagement and involvement strategy. It recognises the value of the worker on the shop floor, seeing him or her as a vital part of the business, contributing to the safety of the enterprise and—if we follow the Maersk line—its profitability.

Meanwhile, at the national level, we have various reports, including the Beecroft report, whose objective seems to be to take us back to Victorian times, chipping away at rights at work and job security, and changes to health and safety legislation. At a time when the oil and gas industry is still operating in one of the most dangerous work environments in the country, placing responsibility for safety on its work force and valuing each individual as a key part of the enterprise, I do not want to see these gains whittled away by Government action. Out of the Piper Alpha tragedy, there is clear evidence of serious progress on safety brought about by the close working together of industry workers and trade unions, but the North sea is a dangerous place and we cannot be complacent. The memory of the fate of the workers on that night in July 1988 should spur us on to achieve and maintain a safe working environment for all workers.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Unfortunately, to get everyone in, we will have to have a five-minute limit.

3.55 pm

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) for securing this debate and his work over many years campaigning for improved safety for those who work in the North sea. We should listen carefully to his words and advice; he was in the House at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster, and one of the challenges we face is that with the passage of time, those with direct experience of the horrific night of 6 July 1988 and those in office at that time are moving on, although I anticipate that he will be in his place for some time to come. There is a danger that those direct experiences and lessons learned might fade away and that the pursuit of safety might become a routine box-ticking exercise. This must not happen, and we owe it to the memory of the 167 men who died always to ask ourselves what more must be done to improve safety in this dangerous working environment.

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I represent a coastal constituency where for centuries the economy and jobs have been inextricably linked to the North sea: in fishing and over the past 40 years in the oil and gas sector. While Piper Alpha was in the northern North sea, the tragedy could have occurred anywhere, and the people who work in the sector are often drawn from communities in Scotland, the north-east and East Anglia. They share a bond and invariably there are no boundaries to where they work. At present, increased activity in the North sea in both the oil and gas and renewables sectors presents East Anglia with considerable job creation opportunities. I want us to make the most of those opportunities, but in doing so we must always keep safety at the forefront of our minds. Corners must never be cut and we must always strive for the highest standards. The Government and business owe this ultimate duty of care to all who work at sea. The North sea has plentiful assets, which we must utilise responsibly, but always remembering that it is a dangerous place, particularly where hydrocarbons are present.

In recent days the newspapers, television and graphic words of those who saw the horrific events of 6 July 1988 unfold before their eyes have brought home to us the dreadful events of that night. This was not an unpredictable “act of God”, but an accumulation of errors and questionable decisions. Lord Cullen’s thorough and excellent inquiry left no stone unturned in establishing what happened and made 106 recommendations to improve safety. All these were accepted and implemented, and some have been taken further.

It is important that his legacy endures for a long time and that there is no room for complacency. The North sea is changing, and new challenges lie ahead. The blueprint that Lord Cullen set down should be viewed as a living document that must evolve to meet these challenges. To be fair, though, I do not detect any complacency from the Government in their pursuit of the highest safety standards. In the 10 years following the Step Change in Safety initiative in 1997, the number of fatal and major injuries fell by 70%. The 2010 target for reducing the number of hydrocarbon releases by 50% in three years looks as if it will be achieved, while the Piper 25 conference last month focused the minds of those who worked in this sector.

This debate provides an opportunity to pause, reflect and pay tribute to those who lost their lives and took part in the rescue mission. We must also remember that the lessons learned from Piper Alpha are as relevant today as they were in 1988, and a vivid reminder of the consequences of failure to manage health and safety properly. Yes, lessons have been learned and a very different approach and attitude prevail today, but there is an ongoing challenge for all involved in the oil and gas sector to continue to strive for the highest safety standards. In the words of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, we should ask, “What more should we be doing?”

The North sea is one of this country’s most important assets. In realising the opportunities it affords, we must not only respect and nurture it, but place at the top of our list of priorities the safety and well-being of those who work there.

4 pm

Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). I want to make a short contribution to this debate because

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when I was a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, I responded to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) five years ago, and I pay tribute to him for ensuring that we do not forget what happened at Piper Alpha.

To echo the hon. Member for Waveney, we must remember the human side to this tragedy, and I beg the House’s indulgence if I give the personal testimony of someone who was pretty well known to us—Gavin Cleland, a pensioner from Glasgow. I want to read some extracts from a speech he made to a conference on safety and corporate criminal accountability in October 2003. He opened by saying:

“My name is Gavin Cleland and my younger son, Robert, was killed in the Piper Alpha disaster, just over 15 years ago. On 6th July…167 men on board the Piper Alpha oil rig were killed, and Robert was one of them…My story is just one of those many tragedies. When Robert was killed he was 33 years old…Before I tell you of some of the things that I have done over the past 15 years to get justice—”

he was a tireless campaigner—

“I want to say a few words about our dear son, Robert.”

This is what will, I hope, bring the issue home to us as politicians.

Robert was born in 1954 in, as Gavin said,

“the best room of his granny’s council house, in…Carntyne”.

He was the youngest of three boys, and he left school and served his apprenticeship as a plumber. He joined the Royal Highland Fusiliers and went to work in the North sea in the offshore oil industry.

As you will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, there was probably no constituency in Scotland that did not feel the impact of the Piper Alpha tragedy. Many men—the boys, as they were often called—would leave every other fortnight to go to the North sea. They included people from the area where I lived as much as those from around Aberdeen. It was a time when young, talented and skilled men had to get a job.

Gavin goes on to say that he could not believe at first what was happening to him and his family, and to that lovely young boy born in his granny’s council house, and he became a tireless campaigner all the way through what was left of his life. Scottish Members will remember that there was probably no conference that Gavin did not attend, and there was rarely a situation that he did not write about, or as he said, “pester” MPs, Prime Ministers and MSPs, to try and get, as he saw it, justice for the people who died on that terrible night.

I remember it well. I was making my children’s breakfast before they went to school and we could not believe what was unfolding in front of our eyes on television. If my memory serves me right, the voice of Jane Frankie—a BBC journalist of some renown—tried to bring this story into our kitchens, living rooms and homes, and we should never forget that. That is why the challenge for the Government and the Health and Safety Executive outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North is crucial. We cannot cease to be vigilant about what is happening in the North sea.

I want to ask the Minister some questions to test him on whether the commitments I gave five years ago—on behalf of government in its generic sense—have been pursued and to find out what progress has been made.

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The partnership between trade unions, workers and operators is crucial. We need to ensure that it is strengthened and deepened. Is that happening? My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North mentioned the KP3 report. I would like to know what is happening on that front. The amalgamation with the energy section has flagged up concerns about the focus of that new division in the Health and Safety Executive. It is not just people in this House, but the Gavin Clelands of this world—all the mums, dads, brothers and sisters who lost their sons and brothers in the Alpha disaster—who deserve to have the confidence that the HSE will continue to be vigilant.

4.5 pm

Sir Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I am pleased to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing it. Indeed, I acknowledge all the work he has done, both inside and outside the House over many years, to campaign on safety in the oil and gas industry.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I was at the memorial service in Aberdeen, on a sunny morning last Saturday in the memorial garden. I was moved perhaps more than I expected to be, particularly when the families were invited to come up with their wreaths—we are talking about 400 people. Watching young adults, who were obviously babies when their fathers were killed, holding up tiny children just to touch the names of the granddads they never knew brought home to me in a personal way just what a human tragedy this was.

I was on a trade and industry visit to Romania at the time. It is worth recording the fact that the incident was all over before I had even heard about it. There was no e-mail and no mobile phones. I felt a long way from my people who were suffering and unable to do very much—although to be honest, I am not sure that that is when Members of Parliament are at their most useful. What we did have to do, obviously, was provide support to the families and the bereaved, ensure a process that would get to the bottom of what was wrong, and put in place mechanisms and a culture to ensure it would never happen again.

Oil and Gas UK and its contractors produce figures from time to time. Usually, my constituency has the highest or second highest number of people working in the industry. It is important to remember, 25 years on, that the industry is still huge. It is still the driver of our economy. Although a 100% guarantee of safety is never possible, there are still thousands of people working or travelling offshore who need the assurance that everything is being done to ensure that safety is paramount.

A number of the events around the 25th anniversary have illuminated the fact that there are still some worrying cultural problems, to which the hon. Member for Aberdeen North alluded. He talked about the danger of a top-down approach. My instinct is that I genuinely believe top management when they say to me, “Safety is paramount.” They believe that that is what drives their culture. The problem is that people down the line have a dilemma. Their job is to produce oil and gas. If somebody says, “I’ve got a problem,” or, “I’ve got an anxiety,” there is a tension. Bob Keiller, the chief executive of the Wood Group, made an impressive speech at a dinner a couple of weeks ago in Aberdeen, in which he highlighted that dilemma. His view was: “Safety is paramount—period.”

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That is crucial, but it is worth making the point—Maersk is a good example of this—that safety is paramount because there is a moral responsibility to ensure that people get back to their families, but in the end, if a company does not act, its commercial viability will be destroyed. Whoever hears of Occidental in this part of the world now? Indeed, after the Macondo and Texas disasters, one more disaster would be the end of BP. Had Total not got on top of Elgin, it would have been the end of Total. I give the company credit for the work it did and for not rushing back into production until it was fully satisfied that it was on top of things.

I noticed in the very good documentary that was shown on the BBC this week that one of the men said, “We always thought that the biggest risk in this job was the journey to and from the rig,” and that is still the case. It is ironic that only yesterday the Civil Aviation Authority said that it is ready to give clearance for Super Pumas to come back into operation. I think there will be a great deal of caution and reservation about that, and nobody should be getting into a Super Puma until everybody is sure that everything possible has been double-checked to ensure a proper degree of safety.

We should recognise that this is a dangerous environment and that a culture of safety must be paramount. Nobody at any level should ever think twice about stopping production if there is the remotest concern about safety—it is in the best moral and commercial interests of their organisation. If anything can be learned from Piper Alpha and the excellent Cullen report, it must be that.

4.10 pm

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this important debate on this tragic anniversary. None of us who saw the television pictures of the Piper Alpha disaster will ever forget the horror of that night and its tragic aftermath.

The oil and gas industry is a vital part of the local economy in my constituency, as it is in many others throughout large areas of Scotland. I have many constituents who are employed in the industry not only in the North sea, but around the world. Many companies in my constituency do a great deal of work for the oil and gas industry. Many of my constituents have friends and relatives who work in the industry. They all want to ensure their safety at work.

Twenty-five years ago, 167 people died and 62 survived. It is right that we reflect on them and on the tragic impact on their relatives and loved ones. Many survivors suffered huge trauma. The families, as we have heard from tales told on television in the past couple of weeks, suffered greatly with them. We need to remember the heroic work of the emergency services, in particular, the crews of the fast rescue craft, who, I understand, recovered 45 of the 62 survivors in very difficult circumstances. Their bravery was commented on by Lord Cullen in his report.

The Cullen report put forward a large number of recommendations, which substantially improved safety offshore, and that work continues. We can never afford to let our guard down and we must ensure that we maintain the safety record that has now been established in the North sea industry. The emphasis on safety is vital for those who work offshore, for those constituents

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whose friends and family work offshore, and for all of us who recognise the economic importance of the industry.

As has been mentioned, a range of events are taking place to mark the 25th anniversary of Piper Alpha: the restoration of the memorial in Hazlehead park in Aberdeen; the major conference that has been mentioned; and the film referred to by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), “Fire in the Night”, which has recorded for ever the testimony of those who survived the disaster, and that of their families. These events will ensure that we never forget what happened.

Oil and Gas UK’s health and safety report was published last month. It showed a 48% reduction in the number of reportable hydrocarbon releases over three years; a much better record on non-fatal accidents; and a steady reduction in the incidence of over-three-day injuries. However, the industry faces difficulties on safety. One thing that has been apparent for some years is the ageing work force in the North sea. Many of them remember Piper Alpha and have been brought up in that safety culture. That is changing now, as more and more young people are being encouraged to join the industry through very good work by OPITO. There is a danger that many youngsters do not remember what it was like before Piper Alpha. We must ensure that the safety culture is understood by everybody, and especially by the youngsters now going to work offshore.

The industry itself is changing. Many installations in the North sea are quite old, with some coming to the end of their lives. They pose an inherent danger, and it is important to recognise that and for there to be proper safety inspections. The industry is moving: the traditional North sea is a mature basin these days, but the industry is still exploring the Scottish coast. New exploration is taking place west of Shetland, in very deep and dangerous conditions. It will be very difficult to get oil out of there, and it is important that we continue to send out the safety message. It is of paramount importance that our constituents who go out to work on the rigs to get the oil and gas that is so important for our economy are able to work in a safe environment.

4.14 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on giving us this opportunity to pay tribute to the victims of Piper Alpha and to ensure that we remember the lessons that need to be learned. I should of course remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that relates to the oil and gas industry, particularly my shareholding in Shell. However, my interest in the debate, like that of the hon. Members for Aberdeen North and for Angus (Mr Weir) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), stems from the fact that we represent a part of the country that is touched by, and lives with, the oil and gas industry on a day-to-day basis.

We need to remember that the work force in that industry, particularly the offshore work force, come from throughout the country, and that people from all parts of the United Kingdom were touched by the tragedy. Our thoughts today are with the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives, and with the survivors, as we remember the terrible events. The

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re-dedication of the memorial garden involved a poignant and moving service that reminded us that, above all, the oil and gas industry is a people business. It might contain a lot of big industrial structures and high-tech industry, but ultimately it is people who make it work and it is people who suffer when it goes wrong.

I also pay tribute to Lord Cullen for the lessons that he has given us, and the legacy that he has left us. His investigation led to a sea change in the whole offshore safety regime, and to a permanent restructuring and refocusing of the system. It also led to the introduction of the safety case regime, after which companies could no longer simply tick a box and say, “I’ve complied with the regulation, so I’ll be okay if something goes wrong.” Under the regime, a company has to assess the risks and come up with its own safety case. That, too, is a lasting legacy.

The Piper 25 conference brought together representatives of the industry, the work force and the regulators, to refocus their efforts to ensure that all the lessons are being learned and all the issues are being dealt with. I want to pay tribute to the organisers of the conference. It would have been easy to have had a conference that simply paid lip service to the 25th anniversary and went through the motions, but the hon. Member for Aberdeen North and I, who were both there, agreed that it was a genuine attempt to take forward safety matters and to ensure that more lessons were learned.

We must avoid complacency. It has been pointed out that there are still many leaks, although fortunately they have not been ignited. If they had been, there could have been equally tragic consequences, so a redoubling of efforts is crucial. There have been other incidents in the North sea, and more lives have been lost, although not on the same scale as Piper Alpha. They are none the less equally tragic for the victims and their families and friends, and we must remember them, too, at this time.

There has been a refocusing on safety, but a danger is creeping in because the risks that are the easiest to measure are the slips, trips and falls—the people safety risks. There has, therefore, been a chasing of statistics that has focused on that element, and perhaps a lack of recognition of the importance of structural safety and integrity. The KP3 and KP4 reports focused on ensuring that that was understood. Structural safety issues might not show up so often in the statistics, but when something goes wrong, the effects are far more dramatic and serious. That structural safety element must be paramount.

Certain challenges remain, including that of ageing infrastructure. Ironically, the really old platforms were so over-engineered that, even though some of their equipment and processes might need rededication and redesigning, the actual structures have many years left in them. In a sense, the more dangerous legacy is the stuff that was built at the time of low oil prices when costs were kept to a bare minimum. The structural integrity of those platforms needs a great deal of investigation.

We have heard about the concerns relating to the new energy division. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North said, some reassurance has been received, but the jury is still out. Much of what was attempted was designed for the best of motives, but it was perhaps not presented in the most effective way. Post-Macondo, we

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have the restructuring of the safety and environment regime as a result of the EU’s intervention, which will divert resources into resubmitting safety cases, rather than looking at new safety cases. Someone working offshore now aged 30 was just starting primary school when Piper Alpha happened. It is important for that legacy to be passed on to the next generation and to the new owners who have mainly not inherited the same culture as the original owners of the platforms. Redoubling safety is the best legacy for the members of Piper Alpha.

4.20 pm

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), who knows as well as any and perhaps better than most that things changed for ever as a result of the events of 6 July 1988. They changed for the families, the wives, the children and the parents of the 167 who died. Things changed for the 61 who survived, who remain haunted 25 years on by the memories they still have of the events of that day. Many of those men still live with both the physical as well as the mental scars of surviving when so many others—colleagues and friends—did not.

Things changed for ever, too, for the families of the survivors who have had to live with the effects on their loved ones and on the communities from which the men who died came. I know that things changed for my neighbours who worked offshore when they suddenly realised, “There but for the grace of God”; it was not until the Piper Alpha disaster that they realised just how dangerous the job was. It certainly changed for ever the offshore oil and gas industry, which woke up to the dangers of the business and how heavy a price had to be paid if safety was not embedded into everything it did. Here was a stark and tragic illustration of just how important a strict safety regime is, and how crucial it is to carry out maintenance in a timely and safe manner, in order to keep the workers safe. It is terrible that it took the worst offshore disaster in history to act as a wake-up call to an industry that had in many ways behaved like the Klondikers of the American west.

The biggest change, of course, was the implementation of all 106 recommendations of Lord Cullen’s report. All those recommendations were accepted by both the Government and the industry, and the offshore culture did change. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North, I think the most significant recommendation was that the Department of Energy could no longer be the regulator of the industry, and responsibility was passed to the Health and Safety Executive.

When I was a student, I worked in the purchasing department of Occidental’s headquarters in Aberdeen throughout the summer of 1977. Occidental was the operator of Piper Alpha, and it was found culpable by Lord Cullen’s inquiry. Despite that, no one was prosecuted. It was enough, however, for Occidental to disappear as a company and in a supreme irony, the building that housed Occidental in Aberdeen, where I had worked throughout that summer, became the home of the Health and Safety Executive, and it was renamed “Lord Cullen House”.

On Saturday morning, I attended the incredibly moving ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary in Hazlehead park at the Piper Alpha memorial garden in my constituency. There was much poignancy—a fly past of

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a Sea King helicopter, the seven minutes it took to read out all 167 names and the touching of the memorial. Some may say that marking the anniversary of such a disaster is somehow maudlin, wallowing in tragedy and should be only for those directly affected, but I am not one of them. The memorial is very important for the whole offshore industry. It acts as a stark reminder of just how important it is to take safety seriously, never to let standards slip and to listen to people who are expressing concerns about particular working practices. Memories do fade, and attention to a safety regime can fade too, so regular reminders of what can happen when safety is not at the forefront of people’s minds are necessary as well.

Although there has been a Step Change in Safety in the offshore industry and attention to safety is much more prominent now, it remains a dangerous industry. Lives were lost most recently in the helicopter crash of 2009 when 16 people died. Remembering events such as Piper Alpha forces those working in the industry to pause and to take stock of what improvements could be made, to shake out any complacency that may have crept in, to emphasise the need for regulations and to question whether there are enough inspectors of a high standard working in the HSE’s new energy division to keep an eye on the ageing infrastructure in the North sea.

The offshore industry is not only important to the economy and prosperity of the north-east of Scotland but is one of the main economic drivers of the UK economy. It is a crucial industry, but the wealth it creates should not come at the cost of the lives and well-being of the people who work in it. The 25th anniversary of tragic events such as Piper Alpha serves to remind us all of how high the human cost can be in making sure that the oil and gas on which we all depend in our daily lives keeps flowing.

4.25 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing the debate.

No one who watched the BBC documentary on Tuesday evening or who saw the pictures at the time can have failed to feel tense and even horrified at what happened 25 years ago at the Piper Alpha platform. The horrors were evident, as was the tremendous courage of the people who worked on the platform or were involved in the rescue attempts.

Twenty-five years ago, I was in my third year working in public relations for British Gas in the northern region. I had been privileged to visit offshore platforms in the North and Irish seas—and it was a privilege to rub shoulders with those who lived on a pile of steel many miles offshore to find and extract the vital energy our country needed. I pay tribute to them. On Teesside, we built many of those steel piles utilising some of the most highly skilled workers in the world, and there are many hundreds from the area I represent helping to maintain and operate the platforms not just in British waters but all over the world.

I know that health and safety—words often ridiculed as the most dangerous in the English language in terms of being a barrier to advancement and profit—has come a long way in 25 years and is not something that is important just offshore. It is a way of life. So it worries me, and worries the people who put their lives at risk

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working offshore, that we could be moving a little bit backwards in our commitment not only to having the highest standards, but to monitoring and enforcing them.

The tragic events that befell the Piper Alpha platform remain, to this day, the world’s deadliest offshore oil disaster. While 61 survived the events of 6 July 1988, we cannot repeat enough the fact that 167 people did not. Eight of those who lost their lives were from the Teesside area, where my Stockton North constituency is located. So were some of the survivors.

Lord Cullen’s critical report in November 1990 changed the entire safety culture for offshore firms and workers alike. The 106 recommendations he made for improving safety in the North sea resulted in a root and branch overhaul being accepted and implemented by the Government and the sector. I am sure that Members will wish to join me in applauding the HSE for its work in developing and implementing that regulatory framework, but it needs to remain in a strong position to address the issues as they arise and to continue the work to prevent disasters.

I was horrified to hear the HSE announce at a meeting of the Offshore Industry Advisory Committee that the planned restructuring will involve the abolition of the offshore safety division, the very inspectorate set up on the recommendation of the Cullen inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster. On 1 April, as part of a Government exercise to restructure the HSE, the OSD was merged into a single division covering the whole of the UK energy sector. As Members may already be aware, on 5 June, I tabled early-day motion 192 in connection with that. I was appalled that that decision, which will pose a challenge to the significant and continuing progress made in offshore health and safety, was taken without a meeting first being held with industry bodies, the HSE and the trades unions to discuss the transfer of that highly specialised role.

In pushing through plans to restructure the HSE and abolish the OSD, the Government could be demonstrating a certain level of contempt not only for Lord Cullen’s recommendations, but for the safety of the 30,000 or so offshore oil and gas workers plying their specialist trades in the North sea. Arguably, those irresponsible actions fly in the face of the European directive introduced last month, which requires member states to nominate a “competent authority” covering offshore safety to implement the directive’s provisions on planning for responses and preventing major hazards. Prior to the reorganisation of the HSE, I would have thought that such a move was unnecessary for the UK, as that extra regulation would largely mirror the reality on the ground. Now, however, I am not so sure. Not having a body responsible solely for offshore safety seems to me to be incompatible with the spirit of this directive and flies in the face of the lessons to be taken from Piper Alpha.

Concerns at the cessation of a stand-alone, specialist offshore safety inspectorate within the HSE and the link to the safety of the work force have also been voiced by those active within the industry. A survey in May this year of 5,000 offshore workers found that 75% think that the decision to scrap the OSD will undermine safety, with 62% venturing that changes of this nature risk a repeat of Piper Alpha. This is not a risk we should be taking, particularly at a time when platforms and infrastructure are ageing and the risk of safety issues is potentially increasing. Indeed, when speaking

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with a constituent who was aboard the Brae B platform at the time of the Piper Alpha tragedy, it was made exceptionally clear to me that this move could undermine the fight against complacency in the industry.

4.30 pm

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this important debate.

As we have heard, 25 years ago 167 men lost their lives 120 miles off the coast of Aberdeen. My constituency of Inverclyde lost five men that night. They were fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, husbands and partners. It is said that my constituency is just one big village, so each and every community knew someone from Inverclyde who was lost on that dreadful night.

We can all recall where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news of the disaster—it is one of those moments in time. I remember being on holiday back in July 1988 and finding myself frozen in front of the TV as I watched the unbelievable pictures on the screen. I knew then that men who had taken their skills into an industry whose business was extracting oil and gas in one of the most demanding of environments had paid for that with their lives.

The dangers could only be imagined at that time, but they came horribly true that night as the safety errors began to stack up. For the men lost that night who had families, those families will now be grown up and have families of their own, but each and every day they remember those who never returned from work. For these families, I dare say that 25 years has not passed quickly or easily, and for those who survived, the events of that night feel as if they happened yesterday.

If any Member missed the BBC 2 documentary on Tuesday evening, I encourage them to view it. It described the true terror and horror that night in the words of survivors. Even after 25 years, men were reduced to tears when recalling their escape and those they knew who had not escaped.

Each time we turn on our heating or ignite the gas to prepare our meals, I wonder if we ever give a moment’s thought to those who work in these extremely challenging environments. I wonder if we ever consider the level of risk under which these people, who apply their skills in cutting-edge exploration to find and retrieve oil and gas to meet our ever-increasing demand, are working.

So what went wrong that night? The causes of that terrible disaster are complex, yet they involve failure in some of the simplest procedures. Even though the initial explosion and fire were large, they should not have resulted in the total loss of the platform.

There seem to be two important reasons for the severe escalation in the events of that night. First, the Tartan and Claymore platforms continued to feed oil and gas to Piper in spite of the fact that they could see Piper was on fire. They did not stop the oil and gas flow because the communications systems had been destroyed in the explosion and

“no one told them to stop.”

The second reason for the severe escalation was that the pumps where the initial explosion occurred were not protected by a blast wall. Piper Alpha had originally

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been built in 1976 as an oil platform and was later converted to handle gas. The original structure had only firewalls. With the addition of gas, these should have been replaced with blast walls. Like so many disasters before, it would be an accumulation of errors that would bring about the Piper Alpha disaster.

What came out of the investigation afterwards were over 100 recommendations on safety improvements. Even basic health and safety procedures were scrutinised and found wanting. The men of Piper Alpha had paid a terrible price to emphasise yet again the need always to prioritise health and safety.

Twenty-five years have passed and we can be thankful that we have seen no other disasters of this scale in our offshore oil industry. However, complacency on safety in the environments we now look to explore could again exact a terrible price if we do not remember Piper Alpha. We have seen again evidence of concern with the BP environmental disaster in the deep waters of the gulf of Mexico, which reminds us that we are pushing the boundaries of oil and gas exploration and retrieval. The men of Piper Alpha should never be forgotten as those who paid the ultimate price; they were pioneers prepared to work in one of the most dangerous environments, so that we can enjoy an uninterrupted supply in our energy demand. The lasting legacy of Piper Alpha should be a legacy of dedication to good health and safety practices. We rightly remember the men of Piper Alpha in this Chamber today, but let us also remember the families who lost a loved one. May they continue to have strength and courage each day to bear their loss.

4.35 pm

Margaret Curran (Glasgow East) (Lab): Last Saturday, I, attended, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, the remembrance service for the victims of Piper Alpha at Hazlehead park in Aberdeen, as did many hon. Members here, including the Secretary of State. As hon. Members have said, it was a moving tribute that reminded us of the full scale and depth of the tragedy, and we saw again the sorrow of the families left behind. In this House today, we offer them our deepest sympathy.

I, too, remember Piper Alpha and the pain that was felt throughout Scotland at the loss of those who had given so much for a vital Scottish industry. May I, like others, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), who has been a constant advocate for the victims of Piper Alpha and has consistently worked since then to ensure the safety and protection of the workers in the oil industry? He speaks with great authority and has gained much respect for his work on these matters.

We have heard from many hon. Members about the events of 6 July 1988, and no matter how many times we hear these stories, they do not get any easier. Most of us have waved a husband, wife, son or daughter off to work in the morning—it is part of the rhythm of life—but few have had to deal with them not returning. That is what happened to the families of the 167 men who died as a result of the disaster on the Piper Alpha platform. The families of those who work in the North sea already make the sacrifice of having long weeks with loved ones away from home, and they worry about them working in a potentially dangerous environment. The very least that those who work in hazardous conditions can expect is that we have done all we can to guarantee

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their safety. With Piper Alpha, and with the whole oil and gas sector at that point in the 1980s, that was, sadly, simply not the case.

When Lord Cullen was appointed to lead the inquiry into the disaster, the then Government gave him a wide-ranging mandate to investigate the sequence of events that night and to make recommendations about how to prevent a similar disaster in the future. As many hon. Members have said, he completed his inquiry in 1990, producing a comprehensive and far-reaching report, and we still owe him a debt of gratitude for the work he did to bring in a new safety regime for the North sea.

Before turning to Lord Cullen’s recommendations, I want to spend a moment or two revisiting some of the points made by hon. Members about the sequence of events on board the platform on that terrible night. As has been said, the first explosion happened at just after 10 pm, when there were 226 people on board. Most of the witnesses remember the final thing they heard before the explosion as the pips from the radio news and the start of “News at Ten”. The captain of the Lowland Cavalier, which was stationed 25 metres away from the platform, reported seeing the start of the explosion, which looked like “a gas burner”. He said that

“it seemed to go along the bottom of the platform like a light blue explosion or ignition.”

Between four minutes past 10 and eight minutes past 10, three mayday calls were sent from Piper Alpha. Mike Craig, former chair of what was the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, was a radio operator on board another platform in July 1988, and he remembered hearing the first of the maydays from his radio room that night. He recalled recently that

“the radio operator on the Piper was heard sending a series of alarmed Mayday messages, and the whole horror of the disaster began to unfold. It was a long and harrowing night.”

At 20 past 10, another major explosion occurred on the platform when the Tartan gas riser ruptured, and the first men began jumping into the North sea from the north-west corner of the platform. By 10 to 11, there was a further massive explosion caused by the rupture of another gas riser, this time from MCP-01. That was the most powerful, projecting debris over 800 metres and with enough force to be felt more than a mile away.

All that time, the majority of the remaining survivors on the platform were following the instructions they had been given for emergencies, which were to gather in the accommodation unit and await rescue, but by this point no helicopter rescue was going to be possible. As Lord Cullen notes in his report: