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North Sea Oil Rig (Collapse)

Volume 981: debated on Friday 28 March 1980

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I wish to ask the following question, of which I have given private notice to the Secretary of State for Trade—

Order. May I say, for the information of the House, that the hon. Gentleman addressed his question to the Secretary of State for Trade, but it has been transferred to the Secretary of State for Energy?

I wish to ask the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the rescue operations arising out of the collapse of the Norwegian oil rig, the "Alexander Kielland", in the wake of which at least 120 oil rig workers were missing, including many Britons.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join the Government in expressing deep regret at the accident involving the Norwegian accommodation rig, "Alexander Kielland", in the Ekofisk field in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is conveying her concern and sympathy to the Norwegian Prime Minister, and I am sending a similar message to the Norwegian Energy Minister, offering all possible assistance.

As to the United Kingdom's part in the rescue operation, I understand that three Nimrods are in use, that four Sea King helicopters are available, and that three Royal Navy ships are assisting in the area.

No firm figures are yet available of the numbers or nationalities of the casualties, but my latest information is that 133 people have been rescued, 28 bodies have been recovered and 69 persons are still missing.

As I have said, we are offering the Norwegian Government all possible help, and we shall keep a close watch on the outcome of any inquiries that are initiated.

The whole House will wish to join the right hon. Gentleman and the Government in expressing deep regret at this appalling tragedy, which has already taken such a huge toll in life and has created such desperate anxiety among the relatives of the many who are missing.

May I also pay a tribute, in which I am sure the whole House will wish to join, to those who have been engaged in the massive rescue operation, in the most gruelling and appalling weather conditions, an operation that has had a remarkable success already?

Can the Secretary of State say at this stage whether there is any hope for those who appear still to be trapped in the accommodation platform? Perhaps it is too early for him to say whether the Government will join the Norwegian Government, as did the previous Government in relation to the Ekofisk disaster, in carrying out a full inquiry into all aspects of the matter. That would involve the Department of Trade, which would be responsible for the rescue operations, as well as his own Department.

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider making a further statement as soon as he thinks that it would be practicable—that is, that it could yield some information to the House as a whole, both about the reasons for the appalling tragedy and the steps that he and his Norwegian colleagues, and others within both Governments, will wish to take in the wake of what has happened?

I echo the hon. Gentleman's sentiments and underline what he said about the bravery of those operating in the North Sea in the appalling conditions that prevail there at all times, and especially those now engaged in the rescue operation.

It is too early for me to be able to comment further on the question of rescue or the number of lives lost. We are receiving information all the time, but it is too early to say any more.

As to inquiries, I understand that the Norwegian Government are urgently considering these matters. It is a responsibility that lies in Norwegian waters, and our Government's responsibilities must be viewed accordingly. As I have said, we intend to keep closely in touch with any developments resulting from an inquiry and, obviously, to learn from them.

With regard to a further statement, I shall, of course, make available all information as is appropriate and in the best form for the House and the general public.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the families that have suffered such a tragic loss that the regrets and condolences of Back Benchers on both sides of the House go out to them?

Will my right hon. Friend answer three short questions? First, will he give the House an assurance that he will ensure that there is an immediate inspection of any flotation rigs operating in the British section of the North Sea? Although the rig in question was being used as an accommodation rig, I understand that it was initially a drilling rig.

Secondly, can my right hon. Friend, who has said that we shall co-operate with the Norwegians in any inquiry, assure us that he will ensure that the House is kept informed of the outcome of that inquiry? That may mean that some translation will be necessary.

Thirdly, can my right hon. Friend yet give any estimate to the House and the nation of what the tragedy may mean in terms of production from the Ekofisk field?

Perhaps I may answer my hon. Friend's questions in reverse order. It is too early to give an estimate of the kind for which he asked. The answer to his second question is that of course I shall keep the House fully informed about the developments and implications.

My hon. Friend asked first about immediate inspection of installations. There are similar types of installation operating on the United Kingdom continental shelf. My Department took steps last year to start classifying those installations as coming under the controls of the existing offshore safety legislation. As they come under those controls, they are covered by the necessary inspection, requiring the necessary safety standards. We are pressing ahead with that. Clearly, there are lessons to be learnt from the tragedy that will enable us to carry forward that work more effectively.

On behalf of the Opposition, I express our deepest regret and our sympathy with our Norwegian friends, the Norwegian Government and particularly the relatives of those who have lost their lives in this most tragic episode.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we also fully support all the efforts made by the United Kingdom to help in the rescue operation? We cannot allow a boundary line in the North Sea in any way to impede the need for the fullest and closest co-operation. North Sea safety is the responsibility of us all. We all know that we would have similar support from the Norwegian people.

When does the right hon. Gentleman hope that it will be possible for the House—in the light of this disaster, which only underlines the hazards of North Sea oil development—to discuss the report of Dr. J. H. Burgoyne and his colleagues, Cmnd. 7866, "Offshore Safety"? In particular, will he give careful consideration to the minority report on some of the aspects of safety? I hope that it is possible that on both sides of the House we can reach agreement on the recommendations in the report. The minority report contains a strong argument that needs to be given very careful consideration. A Department ought not to hold the sole responsibility for safety in that area in which it is most concerned.

This is an opportunity for the House to turn its attention to the need for safety in our own sector of North Sea oil and to be reminded, as we all are, of the great risks taken on our behalf by people working in the North Sea to get oil and gas for this country.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the views that he has expressed and for the reinforcement that he gives to the feelings that we all have about this great tragedy and loss of life, and towards those who have been bereaved. He is absolutely right to call attention to the Burgoyne report, which has very recently been published and which contains some useful and valuable views on the whole question of how offshore safety can be reinforced and constantly improved.

My Department and the Government are looking carefully and deeply at the Burgoyne report and considering its implications. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are in it both majority and minority views on the question of co-ordination of responsibility for safety. These are always difficult questions as between different agencies and Departments. I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's views. I am sure that when the appropriate consideration has been given by the Government, and when other interested parties have had time to consider the full implications of the report, there will be a wish for the matter to be more widely debated. The form that the debate takes and the time of this House are, of course, matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but I recognise the right hon. Gentleman's concern and underline what he said about the value of the report and the importance of building upon it.

I associate my party colleague and myself, and the British-Norwegian group in the House, with the expressions of regret and sympathy concerning the disaster. Can the Secretary of State at this stage give any indication of when a full casualty list will be available? Are there any accommodation rigs of this kind, with upwards of 200 men, being used in the same way in the sector of the North Sea that comes under his Department?

I am afraid that it is too early to give the full details of casualties. As I said earlier, the figures are not even known fully on the spot and are only just coming through.

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman precise figures of the numbers in accommodation units of this kind, but there are similar types in use. It is the pentagon design of semi-submersible. There are similar types of structure on the United Kingdom continental shelf. In answer to an earlier question, I indicated that as from last year we have been taking steps to classify them and bring them fully under the offshore safety controls which are necessary to ensure their full safety in operation.

Is the Minister aware that we very much associate ourselves with the sympathies that he has expressed over this ghastly accident? Can he say whether, as I have been told, the rig is owned by BP? Can he say whether bringing similar kinds of rigs under the safety regulations to which he has just referred in reply to the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) would have made any difference in this case, since I understand that the Norwegian regulations are more stringent in these respects than ours?

Does the Minister agree that the dominant lesson of this accident is that it appears to be the case that these dreadful disasters happen despite the fact that we are told again and again that it is impossible for them to happen? Does he agree that it is a most chilling reminder of the fallibility of our technology?

I understand that it is a Phillips-owned rig, but I would need to confirm that. There could be joint ownership, or a pattern of ownership, which I would need to confirm when I have more details.

It is a fact that the Norwegian regulations are different from ours, and the Burgoyne report has something to say on their different characteristics, one of which, as the report suggests, is that they are more detailed. Whether that necessarily means that they are more or less effective is almost impossible to judge. Nevertheless, one must constantly examine and compare to see what is the best arrangement.

Obviously, offshore safety is of paramount importance to us, and there is a constant need to upgrade and improve. Indeed, I think that the purpose of my predecessor in setting up the Burgoyne committee was to find ways in which that could be carried forward. The lessons of this tragedy, and what we can draw from the wisdom of the Burgoyne committee, provide an opportunity to make comparisons with Norwegian regulations, so that we can see whether any are better than ours and which are of less use to us.

Order. I shall call those hon. Members who have been rising in their place, and then we shall resume the debate.

Does not this appalling disaster highlight the vulnerability of the rigs? Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the degree of protection that the rigs receive? Will he give particular attention to that aspect when he comes to consider what future measures are necessary?

One can never be fully satisfied with arrangements and operations under what are inherently very dangerous and risky conditions, so it is necessary for there to be constant pressure for improvement and upgrading. That will certainly continue, and that is the view that I offer to my hon. Friend.

As one whose constituency contains the Hound Point terminal, may I express horror at the formidable problems being faced?

This is not the time for instant comment, but may I ask whether an assessment is being set in motion of the problems of major disaster procedure in the North Sea? Even after a matter of days, let alone weeks, people tend in their minds, naturally enough, to distort what has happened. Are steps being taken to set in motion here and now an assessment of major disaster procedures?

Major disaster procedures in the North Sea are under constant regular review. In a sense, when a disaster happens it is a reminder that they should be. Sadly, it was too late in the case under consideration. What has happened is a sombre warning and reminder of the appallingly dangerous conditions in which people work in the North Sea in extracting oil. It reinforces the need, which is already fully recognised, to keep our precedures, in facing major North Sea disasters of all kinds, constantly up to date, as they are.

I thank you for calling me again, Mr. Speaker, and thank my right hon. Friend for his answers to some of my earlier questions. He did not answer one question that is of major importance. New information has come to light about the disaster in terms of a leakage in the flotation chamber. Will my right hon. Friend order that, in the few semi-submersibles in the British sector, immediate inspections are made of the flotation chambers? If he does not have the power to do that, will he request the operating companies to make such an inspection, so that an assurance can be given to those working on the platforms that everything is in order?

We first have to establish the precise nature of the disaster. We have reports of the kind to which my hon. Friend has rightly referred. On that basis we must, of course, ensure that inspections and safety standards are fully maintained, so that neither that nor any other kind of fault or potential danger of fracture exists in similar installations on the United Kingdom side.

The powers exist where the installations are classified and come under the Mineral Workings (Offshore Installations) Act 1971. Within those powers we act, and will continue to act, in the way that my hon. Friend wishes. It would be wrong not to do so. Although the position in the North Sea of all installations of this accommodation kind is known, the full classification of all of them under the existing safety legislation is not complete. It has been a matter of debate with the owners and operators as to how much classification there should be. These are precisely the issues raised in the Burgoyne report. We must work to balance the overriding needs of safety with the avoidance of so much control and detail that operation becomes impossible. Obviously, one would defeat the other. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend.

Whilst joining in the expressions of regret, concern and sympathy, may I, as the father of a son working on the North Sea rigs as a geologist, say that I can imagine the feelings of the parents of those concerned? I welcome the pressure that has been exerted by hon. Members on both sides of the House and the assurances given by the Minister that there will be a full investigation into all safety aspects on the rigs. I appeal to him to expedite that investigation as quickly as possible.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's intervention, particularly in view of his personal knowledge of this matter through his family. The question of safety standards and inspection is a constant matter in the North Sea, and it is carried out to the highest standards at all times. A hideous disaster, such as this, is a reminder that these things are necessary. Inspection and the maintenance of safety standards go on, have been going on, and will continue to go on to the highest standards consummate with the requirement of the immensely dangerous conditions in the North Sea.