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North Sea Oil And Gas Installations

Volume 892: debated on Friday 23 May 1975

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4.0 p.m.

I wish to draw attention to the problems of policing Britain's offshore energy resources. The strategic importance of oil, natural gas and the many and varied resource installations in the North Sea is obvious. Our economy is more energy-dependent than ever. In a few years Britain hopes to be exporting energy and gaining thousands of millions of pounds a year for the balance of payments.

What is the threat? Essentially, we are considering cold-to-warm war rather than hot or nuclear war. Oil and gas installations are vulnerable to four main types of attack. The first is sabotage by an employee or terrorist who infiltrates the crew. The second is a take-over by a well-organised terrorist group. Thirdly, there is the possibility of underwater attack by a frogman or submarines. The fourth main threat is that of full-scale attack by a hostile Power.

Bomb threats against rigs have been made by Scottish so-called patriot groups. Twelve were made in eighteen months against one oil platform construction company. Increasingly, extreme political groups resort to sabotage and hijacking in Britain and throughout the world.

We are discussing the only oil rigs in the world that are placed in an area of high strategic value and within a concentrated military operational area—NATO's northern flank and the forward battle area of the Soviet northern fleet. On three occasions in the past year Russian ships or submarines have come dangerously close to our oil rigs. They have come within the 500-metre safety zone set up by the Government to protect the rigs. As recently as the end of February there was a complaint that a North Sea gas platform off Hull was being harassed by Soviet trawlers. Early in April a Whisky-class submarine surfaced near a rig in the Orkney area, and was joined by an intelligence-gathering vessel. An hour later a Kotlin class destroyer was reported to be closing in on the Neptune 7 rig near by. Present arrangements clearly fail to provide any deterrent to Soviet forces carrying out their intelligence-gathering activities.

The Government's proposals, outlined to the House on 11th February, for the defence of our North Sea oil and gas installations—we should be thinking in the future of about a hundred, scattered over 400 miles—have been widely criticised by independent defence experts. In replying to me on 11th March, the Minister of State for Defence denied this. If the Minister wants me to support my charge with my Press cuttings file, I shall gladly do so.

Faced with the possible threats that I have outlined, the Government have given an inadequate and minimum response. I accuse them of over-relying on North Sea oil while under-defending it. They must think again. They are planning little more than a patrol and surveillance exercise.

When the oil starts flowing through the North Sea pipelines in a few weeks, only two ships will be guarding Britain's present 34 oil rigs and production platforms. One is a 30-year-old tug saved from the scrapyard. The other is an elderly fisheries protection vessel. Both are smaller and slower than the largest of the Icelandic gunboats that harassed British trawlers during the cod war. It will take them nearly a day and a half to sail from the most southerly of the 24 platforms producing North Sea gas off the Wash to the most northerly oil rig.

Even when the Government's full programme, involving five ships, comes into operation in 1977, it could still take the nearest ship 10 hours to reach the scene of an incident. The five new 900-ton ships are more like deep-sea trawlers than gunboats, having a top speed of only 16 knots and a 40 mm. gun. Amazingly, they will not be backed up by a helicopter force. It is by no means clear how a determined terrorist attack will be handled.

We cannot be satisfied either with the planned communications. An excellent article in The Sunday Times of 11th May stated:
"A distress call from a rig might not be heard at all. Calls are broadcast on the radiotelephone frequency 2182 kiloHerz, which is subject to regular interference. The Radio and Electronic Officers' Union says that even heavy rain can stop the signal getting through. The union also fears that emergency calls could be ignored because of the number of false alarms. In 1969 there were 550 false transmissions of the international distress signal on 2182 kiloHerz."
If that is not bad enough, the installations come under police jurisdiction and the police rôle in the event of a major guerrilla attack was recently described by the Scottish Office as a grey area. A spokesman said:
"The responsibility would lie with neither the police nor the Army alone. The co-ordination of the two would be rather difficult."
I understand that a Royal Air Force patrol of four aircraft is being considered. Perhaps the Minister could say whether Nimrods will be used or the slower Andovers. The Minister may claim that RAF Sea King helicopters based at Prestwick will be available. If so, will he confirm that they could not reach the furthest rigs without refuelling?

It will be an expensive and complicated task to provide a more adequate defence of these vulnerable but vital installations. But it must be done. We cannot afford not to do it. The Government must demonstrate the capability of responding effectively to all types of threat and the determination so to act.

I will make a number of recommendations. The problem must be seen in a NATO context. A serious threat by the Russians would require an American carrier force to move into the area. NATO must consider all the present and planned installations bordering the North Sea, including Norway's. It is likely that Western Europe as a whole will become more and more concerned with the bringing ashore of North Sea energy resources in future. I trust that such matters will be the essence of the talks at The Hague on 5th June.

The Government must appoint a British admiral to have overall responsibility for the security of our installations. A senior police officer should serve alongside him and a joint operations room should be set up. This new command should assume responsibilities for such matters in the area as fishery protection, risks to offshore personnel, including search and air-sea rescue, navigation and pollution threats. It would give attention to the risk of accidental damage to installations by drifting vessels or storms—we heard only this morning that some of the rigs are getting on in age—and generally keep an eye on commercial activities and the enforcement of Government regulations.

Naval ships and naval helicopters should operate in the area. I should like to see fully-armed hydrofoils being used and commend an article in Navy International on 5th February for study by the Under-Secretary of State. Serious consideration should be given to having a small force of Royal Marine commandos with helicopters based on the East Coast of Scotland and ready to fly out to deal with any major incident. Thought should be given to laying seabed mines which could be activated from the shore. Communications must be reorganised and radar and sonar surveillance extended.

The Government's proposals do not match the level of the likely threats. The Secretary of State must obtain more realistic funds for defence purposes. I am convinced that a defence-conscious Government could and should provide a more comprehensive defence of Britain's economic life blood.

4.10 p.m.

It is wholly appropriate that in the last few minutes before Parliament dissolves and we go to our constituencies to consider a matter of momentous importance, the last few words in this Session of Parliament should be about a problem of almost similar importance.

The whole future of Britain depends upon our having a flow of oil from the North Sea by the 1980s, which will, we hope, render us self-sufficient in oil. At present, my economic friends tell me that our oil deficit is about £2,500 million per annum. Our economy is already strained to the point of breaking, and all our plans for the future will come to nothing if there is a disruption in the flow of oil. Our enemies will have noted this, just as we have in the House today. Therefore, the defence of our oil installations in the North Sea and in the other seas about our shores is a matter of paramount importance. We are very much indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) for bringing this matter to the attention of the House.

The response of the Government to the challenge which exists has not inspired very great confidence, to say the least. In the Defence White Paper, a document of about 125 pages, there is only one paragraph, on page 36, devoted to the defence of our offshore interests. That paragraph sets out, briefly, the response which the Government are making.

As my hon. Friend has pointed out, on June 5th a conference will be convened by NATO to deal with this matter. I am glad to see the Under-Secretary present and I should like to hear from him more about this NATO conference. It is wholly right that this matter should be brought to the attention of NATO. The House would like to know what level of representation we shall send to this conference. Will the Under-Secretary be present? If so, he will not go naked to that conference chamber but will go rather with a tug and armed with very few tokens to show that we as a country are taking this matter seriously.

We should like to know more about the conference on 5th June, what our representations will be, and whether the Under-Secretary is confident that the Government's response so far is adequate to enable whoever represents Britain to give a lead to the NATO response about something which, if not tackled, could cause the whole of the Western world to be disrupted, because the Western world, not only the United Kingdom, will be very dependent on the flow of oil from the seas around our coasts. We should like some information on this.

Would the Under-Secretary tell us about the rôle to be played by the Royal Naval Reserve on this matter? When I had the privilege of being Minister for the Navy, I set up an inquiry into the rôle of the Royal Naval Reserve partly because it has a real part to play in the defence of our offshore installations. Those installations need protection at two levels. They need sophisticated protection and relatively simplistic protection. They need "men on the beat" who are trained to deal with divers and saboteurs.

The Royal Naval Reserve could well provide such coverage in and around the oil rigs.

Will the Under-Secretary make public the results of the inquiry set up by the previous Conservative administration into the rôle of the RNR?

The announcement about our having the maritime Harrier was made, rather surprisingly, a few days after the debate on defence. It is quite obvious that that decision had been made at the time of the debate. We shall never know why that decision was not announced then, but we have a shrewd suspicion that it was to prevent trouble being made by the Left wing of the Labour Party. Has the Harrier any part to play in this? Could there not be ships nearby which could operate the Harrier or be available as platforms, because I do not think that the Harrier could operate from the rigs themselves?

We should like to know more about the Nimrods that are available. We have also heard that Royal Marines will be available in support. Will they be specially trained? What additional resources are to be provided? What alteration in the training pattern of the Royal Marines is there to be? We know of the very high training standards applied by the Royal Marines. None the less, what additional facilities relative to training are there to be so that we can have a trained force ready to go in with Sea King helicopters or fast patrol boats?

Is there to be any rôle for fast patrol boats in the whole of this pattern of defence of our offshore oil rigs? Some of my hon. Friends spoke in the defence debate of the need for more fast patrol boats. At the moment we have one—HMS "Tenacity", which is working with the fishery protection force. There are other ships involved in training, but we do not have a class of fast patrol boats. Even those which are to be purpose-built for fishery and oil protection are rather slow.

A determined effort is needed by the Government to convince our NATO allies of the vital importance of the protection of our offshore oil installations, because the very future of our country depends on it. If the oil does not start flowing through in the 1980s, the economic situation, which at the moment is desperate, will be nothing short of catastrophic. We hope that the Government will give urgent attention to this and agree to a much greater deployment of resources than is now visualised. We hope that they will give a lead in NATO on 5th June when the conference takes place.

4.16 p.m.

The security of our North Sea oil and gas installations is a problem which attracts a good deal of attention. Unfortunately, I am afraid that it also gives rise to a good deal of misunderstanding. I am grateful, therefore, to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townshend) for giving me this opportunity to clarify the Government's policy, particularly where it relates to the employment of the Armed Services. We fully recognise the need to ensure that all of our interests in the waters around our shores are safeguarded, particularly since by the 1980s we shall be virtually self-supporting in energy supplies and the offshore installations will become of even greater importance for our economy.

There is no room for complacency. I assure the hon. and learned Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) that since this Government came to office the whole subject has been in the front rank of our defence priorities.

Various experts have put forward views on this matter. We have studied them all and, in view of the importance of all of them, we welcome their constructive criticism.

Security of the oil and gas installations is, first, the responsibility of the owner or occupier. This is a responsibility which these people take very seriously, and I cannot over-emphasise the need for diligence on their part.

I should, however, at the outset of my remarks, like to clear up a point which I think is at the heart of much of the misunderstanding on this issue. We must be careful to understand exactly what we mean when we talk about the Government's responsibility for the security of these installations. On the one hand, there is defence against possible attack by a foreign Power. On the other hand, quite separately, there is protection against terrorist action or hazard from accidental damage. This is an important distinction.

The arrangements which are made for the defence of these installations from external attack form part of the general plans for the defence of the United Kingdom. These are, of course, fully integrated into the NATO plans and I am quite satisfied on this score.

It is, therefore, wrong to think that HMS "Jura", for instance, is somehow or other pitted against the whole might of the Russian navy. It is ludicrous to imagine that. The combined strength of our total Armed Services is available to meet this threat. For example, there are between 50 and 60 frigates available, some with helicopters constantly in attendance.

While on the subject of the Russians, I should like to remind the hon. Member for Bexleyheath that these installations are in international waters. Provided, therefore, that the Russians have proper regard for the safety of the installations, they have every right to sail on the high seas around them, and there is nothing we can, or indeed should, do to stop them.

Then, there are the matters related to the peacetime protection of our offshore interests. This was the subject of the statement by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence on 11th February. HMS "Jura", HMS "Reward", the five new vessels which we hope to order shortly, and the four special RAF aircraft are going to be there primarily to meet these peacetime tasks. But, as I emphasised during the recent defence debate, these ships and aircraft will operate as an integral part of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Response can thus be matched to need. The full resources of the Armed Forces are available to assist as required. That includes fast ships, sophisticated aircraft, helicopters and Royal Marines; and I can assure the hon. Member for Colchester that the Reserves will also have a part to play.

These peacetime tasks have existed from time immemorial. But they are growing. The fishery protection task has expanded, the problem of protecting the environment from pollution has increased and the exploration and exploitation of the Continental Shelf have added a new dimension to the task.

I want to deal with the points which the hon. Member raised.

In the past the Armed Services have, for the most part, been able to carry out these duties using resources made available to them for their primary responsibility of countering external aggression. This will, of course, continue to be the case. But there is one way in which the resources needed to counter the threat of external attack do not altogether meet the requirements of peacetime protection. This is the need for a standing patrol, the policeman on the beat—today in his "panda" car rather than on foot. Of course, we have ships and aircraft fully capable of undertaking this patrolling, but to use them would mean under-utilising their capability and taking them away from more important defence tasks. The Government have, therefore, decided to obtain a small number of ships, of which HMS "Jura" is the forerunner, specifically for this purpose, and to modify a small number of aircraft to carry out surveillance of offshore waters and to operate in conjunction with the ships.

What tasks do we expect the Armed Services to undertake in the peacetime protection of our offshore interests? In some ways I think public discussion of this subject tends to concentrate too much on the terrorist threat. This is not to say that I would regard such a threat as unimportant. There have been too many examples brought sadly to the attention of the world in recent years for there to be room for complacency. A terrorist threat is a particularly difficult one to discuss openly because details of the threat and the precautions we take, and which the owners and operators, the police and, indeed, other countries, take, obviously cannot be openly revealed. I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates that. Certainly prevention should be our aim, and here accurate intelligence cannot be too heavily emphasised. Within the general capability of the Armed Services lies much relevant skill and experience. I know that the hon. Member for Colchester is aware of this. There can be no absolute guarantees on such a matter. By its very nature terrorist activity is unpredictable. Over-structured plans could be counter-productive. They could be musclebound. What is essential is the assurance that all those with responsibilities recognise them and are aware of their individual and collective rôle and that a professional and flexible response is always available.

In some ways more worrying than the terrorist threat is the risk of accidental damage resulting from the very adverse weather encountered in the North Sea. The Convention on the Continental Shelf 1958 entitles the coastal State to establish safety zones around installations on its Continental Shelf and these zones must be respected by ships of all nationalities. The Continental Shelf Act 1964 brought the convention into force in the United Kingdom. The Continental Shelf (Protection of Installations) Orders actually designate the safety zones.

There have been in recent years several examples of ships and barges adrift which, in the past, would have caused no particular concern but which, with the possibility of collision with rigs, clearly raise a new problem including, in the last resort, the possibility of having to prevent a collision by sinking the vessel concerned. This poses formidable difficulties, both from the practical point of view and from the point of view of the legal and other implications of taking such action on the high seas. Procedures have been worked out and, obviously, this is a matter where the Armed Services would have a vital role, since many of the techniques which may need to be employed are not available to civil organisations.

The peacetime protection of our offshore interests is not a static problem and the Government have not arrived at a conclusion which it regards as holding good for all time. Indeed it is obvious that, with further sessions of the Law of the Sea Conference planned for next year, many of the pieces in the jigsaw of the offshore responsibilities of this country have still to be carved let alone put into position. There has been a good deal of speculation about the machinery of Government appropriate to the discharge of these responsibilities. There is obviously nothing immutable about the machinery of Government and if changes are necessary they will be made.

However, I can assure the House that there is very close co-ordination between the various departments and agencies involved. These include the Department of Trade, for maritime safety, navigation, search and rescue and pollution at sea; the Department of Energy, for matters associated with the extraction of our undersea resources, including the designation of safety zones around our installations and their standards of safety generally; the Home Office and the Scottish Office for police matters; the fisheries Ministries, and so on. However, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last November, the Lord Privy Seal has been given special responsibility for the overall co-ordination between all these interests of protection measures.

As for the Armed Forces, the right steps have been taken both in the defence review generally and in the additional measures referred to in the statement last February to equip them to play their proper part in this important area, and I am confident that they will fulfil the growing responsibilities placed upon them with the same efficiency and dedication with which they carry out their many other and varied duties. I should like to emphasise that as a result of the defence review our maritime efforts will be concentrated as a first priority in the Eastern Atlantic and Channel areas and in the defence of the United Kingdom and its immediate approaches, and we shall, therefore, have sophisticated response forces available near to hand should they be required to back up the offshore patrols.

I visited an oil exploration platform in the North Sea only this week and was impressed by the general response of those there to the security arrangements and to the new measures which we have announced. As for the future, we shall naturally be continuously reviewing our arrangements. In particular in this context, the Dutch initiative to call a meeting of experts from North Sea countries is most welcome. This will take place on 5th June in The Hague. There are many matters related to the safe operation of North Sea installations in peacetime which need to be tackled internationally and which lie outside the responsibilities of NATO. I am hopeful that these Dutch-inspired discussions will lead to regional co-operation in the peacetime protection of oil and gas installations in the North Sea and elsewhere.

The hon. and learned Member for Colchester, from a sedentary position—and as an old friend I would not expect him to stand—has asked about the position of NATO in the context of this question. Perhaps I may re-emphasise what he knows well as a distinguished predecessor in my ministerial office—that NATO is there to defend the West against the external threat which we see present in the Warsaw Pact. An essential part of its ability to defend the West and its interests is the ability to deploy whatever is necessary, within the context of the alliance, to the defence of our interests in the North Sea.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock till Monday 9th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 13th May.