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Clause 23

Volume 21: debated on Wednesday 31 March 1982

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Extended Meaning Of "Offshore Installation"

I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 28, line 5, at end insert—

"(1) No person, company or organisation may operate in controlled waters unless they have agreed to the following terms and conditions; that they shall—
  • (a) report each use of baskets for the transfer of personnel to the Secretary of State, with an explanation of the circumstances in which the use of the basket was deemed necessary.
  • (b) ensure all personnel have access at all times to immersion suits.
  • (c) only employ personnel who have valid United Kingdom work permits.
  • (d) only use vessels which are of a standard which is equal to that of U.K. registered vessels as regards safety; and ensure that such standards are met; and insist, as a condition of the chartering of a vessel that Department of Trade inspectors may at any time have access to the vessel.
  • (e) ensure that safety inspectors have at all times access to any offshore installations without prior notice.".
  • There are five parts to the amendment and I shall take them in turn, but by way of introduction I emphasise that we are dealing with the serious matter of safety in the North Sea. We discussed this at length in Committee and had a valuable debate. Like others of my hon. Friends I have detailed the deaths and accidents in the North Sea. We on the Opposition Benches have called in aid the safety at sea charter, drawn up by my colleagues in the House, of whom my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was the leading member, and a group of trade unionists.

    If I take it as read, it is because we spent some time on it during the Second Reading and in Committee. The Minister of State responded to the charter, and part of our debate in Committee was on the detailed reply that the Minister of State gave to the delegation that went to see him.

    The amendment begins by saying:
    "No person, company or organisation may operate in controlled waters unless they have agreed to the following terms and conditions".
    The first condition relates to the use of baskets. This is a method of transferring people from a rig and, as the Secretary of State said, this would be done only in an emergency. We went into what constituted an emergency. We made the point that in other parts of the world, for example in Norway, there are very much stricter rules governing the use of baskets.

    10.15 pm

    This is an important matter. We take the point put to us by the Minister of State when we discussed the issue with him at the Department of Energy. We merely ask that each time baskets are used to transfer personnel it is reported to the Secretary of State, with an explanation of the need for their use. The information could be collected by the Department and after a year or two the point could be proved one way or the other.

    Paragraph (b) would ensure that
    "all personnel have access at all time to immersion suits".
    That is an important safety measure in the cold waters of the North Sea off Orkney and Shetland and the north-west of Scotland. The Royal Air Force provides such equipment to crews who might have to ditch in the North Sea. Last year a number of us went to visit a rig from Aberdeen and back to Sumburgh. We were provided with immersion suits and told that they were absolutely necessary. All personnel should have access to them at all times.

    Paragraph (c) concerns United Kingdom work permits. The responsibility is principally that of the Home Office. Over the years the trade unions have argued forcefully that if work permits are necessary on the mainland they should be necessary on the rigs. In Committee we argued that the rigs, and perhaps the safety zones, should be treated as part of the United Kingdom.

    One problem is that people may arrive on the rigs from Norway, but it would be easy for the employers to report that a work permit had been applied for and was in use. There is always a point of exit back to the United Kingdom proper. It would be a simple task.

    As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East knows, there is a problem particularly with catering staff, whose wages are low. A person working without a permit knows that he may have a problem if he comes to the mainland, so he keeps his mouth shut.

    Paragraph (d) lays down that only vessels should be used
    "which are of a standard which is equal to that of U.K. registered vessels as regards safety".
    It is said that there would be difficulties when ships sailing under flags of convenience were in the safety zones. The Minister of State may argue that, if we take action, action might be taken against us in different parts of the world. I do not necessarily accept that, but that is why we have included the phrase "as regards safety". It is safety that we are concerned with here. It is the one thing that we have pulled out of the general argument.

    On the last point, what we are asking for is applicable in Norway, namely,
    "that safety inspectors have at all times access to any offshore installations without prior notice".
    What is the point of an inspection if notice has to be given? Anyone who was in the Services will be aware that, when it was known that there was to be an inspection, it was necessary to blanco everything in sight. Surely the safety inspectors should have access to any offshore installation without prior notice.

    Although we did not get all that we wanted on this the replies that the Minister gave were extremely helpful. They are a start in the longer process of getting the safety charter applied to the North Sea. We shall continue to press for that. What we have done in this five-part amendment is to put to the Government changes that oug ht to be made with regard to safety.

    If it is thought that work permits have nothing to do with safety, the House should remember that it is helpful in an emergency if people on the rigs can speak the same language or at least understand each other. It is like the problem in the Welsh pits after the war. It was not chauvinism when the Welsh miners did not like the Poles in the pits in the early days. If someone is in trouble, he wants to be able to communicate quickly and briefly. It is difficult when people do not speak the same language.

    All the points in the amendment relate to safety, and I hope that the Minister will accept it.

    I agree with the amendment that has been moved by my right hon. Friend the Member far Leeds, South (Mr. Rees). With the indulgence of the House I should like to return to one or two aspects of the safety provisions of the Bill which my right hon. Friend may not have wanted to go over again because they were covered in Committee.

    In regard to the designation of a safety zone, I press the Minister again on the reasons for curtailing this to 500 metres. I know that this is part of the international convention and that there are difficulties about extending it, but the Minister should take cognisance of the spread of the anchor chains of the new generation of semi-submersibles. The safety zone of 500 metres is insufficient to cater for the spread of the 12 or perhaps more anchor chains that might be in a star configuration or whatever configuration is deemed necessary. To restrict the zone to 500 metres does not give the degree of safety that is necessary when dealing with vessels that can drill in water from 2,000 to 5,000 ft deep, although they would hardly be anchored in 2,000 ft of water.

    Order. Could the hon. Member enlighten me as to which amendment he is addressing himself to? He should be addressing himself to amendment No. 14. It think Mr. Speaker said that he would allow discussion on amendment No. 13, but it ought to be one or other of those.

    I respect your stricture, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am dealing with the generality of safety in amendment No. 14. If we are talking about safety in terms of a charter, we have to look at the zone to which that charter will apply. This relates to clause 20, where we designate particular areas as safety zones.

    I understand. I submit to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that clauses 20 to 27 hang together. One cannot speak about any of these clauses without referring to the interpretation clause and, indeed, to the meaning of offshore installations in clause 23. I am talking about an offshore installation around which there is a safety zone. It is perhaps a rather technical point, but a semi-submersible has a safety zone designated around it. I am arguing that the safety zone to be designated around an offshore installation, which is a semi-submersible, should be greater than 500 metres. I trust that I am now in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

    I am always grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for keeping me on the right lines. He knows the rules of this place very well and we are indebted to him.

    I hope that the Minister will take this point on board, because many representations have been made to the effect that, although there are provisions to extend the safety zone, they are not given the same statutory force as the provisions in the Bill.

    The type of vessel that may enter the safety zone brings me to a part of the amendment that I intended to move to clause 20. I wish to press the Minister on the question of the pilotage of these vessels. As he represents an area adjacent to the Moray Firth, he knows that such waters may at times be extremely difficult to navigate and pilots are therefore required.

    Section 4(2) and (3) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979, which gives certain powers to the Pilotage Commission, says:
    "(2) The Secretary of State may by order confer on the Commission such functions, in addition to the functions conferred on the Commission by this Act, as he considers appropriate for any of the purposes mentioned in the preceding subsection.
    (3) Without prejudice to the generality of the preceding subsection, an order in pursuance of that subsection may in particular provide for the making of schemes under which payments may be made by the Commission for the purpose of compensating pilots",
    and so on.

    We have here a provision whereby the Secretary of State may by order do certain things. We know that this trigger has been held up, and this is causing great difficulty and uncertainty especially in pilotage in Scotland. I realise that this may be the responsibility of another Minister, but now is an appropriate time to raise the matter. There is no Scot on the Pilotage Commission and the problems of navigating Scottish rivers and areas adjacent to the North Sea are causing much concern. We know that the European Commission is trying to achieve harmonisation in the matter, but harmonisation may not be wholly desirable and practical for the problems in the United Kingdom.

    A European Commission directive about oil, gas and chemical tankers provides that vessels of less than 1,600 gross tonnes are not required to carry pilots. I submit, as do my constituents, that such vessels can be as lethal and disastrous as tankers of more than 1,600 gross tonnes.

    I could argue, despite the views of some Members of the European Parliament, that pilotage should be compulsory for all tankers in the congested waters of the Community. Such vessels may enter safety zones without any properly qualified person aboard. We are not discussing merely the safety zones as we now have them. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne) is no longer present. We are reaching a situation where there might be offshore installations very close to land in the English Channel and the Moray Firth.

    10.30 pm

    I wish to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend. He represents the north bank of the Forth and I represent the south bank. It so happens that two of the senior officials of the Forth Pilots Association are my constituents. I concur with everything that my hon. Friend has said. I urge Ministers to recognise that this is a really important matter.

    As my hon. Friend has said, he represents the area south of the Forth and I represent the area north of it. I have to pay tolls on the Forth bridge to visit my hon. Friend, and vice versa. I ask that the Government take cognisance of a serious situation. There is the problem of vessels moving around the safety zones and the installations and the problem of other vessels that have individuals in charge of them who are not properly qualified to mavigate in the hazardous areas of the North Sea and our coastal waters.

    I declare an interest, because I advise a diving company called Colmex Diving. The certification of divers is a pressing issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has done a great deal in pursuing the issue and an order has appeared before the House. However, there is still great concern that individuals who are not properly qualified to dive in the hazardous areas of the North Sea have obtained certificates. How many certificates were issued for divers in the North Sea by companies themselves? Individuals come on board who may have qualifications gained at American or other diving schools and companies see fit to put their imprimaturs on them, but that is not necessarily the imprimatur of the Department. I hope that the Minister will tell us how many individuals are diving in the North Sea on the strength of qualifications that were obtained by the companies that have employed them at some stage.

    What is happening to the diving school at Fort William? Proper safety is related to proper training. If we are to train people and have them certificated, we must provide proper training provisions. I know that all my hon. Friends are anxious to learn what is happening to the Fort William school.

    I trust that the Minister will recognise that these are not political issues. I do not feel that there is any great party political mileage to be obtained from pursuing them and I am sure that the Minister will confirm that. These are issues that we must try to face objectively so that we assist those who operate in the extremely hazardous environment of the North Sea, and who will no doubt have to enter the even more hazardous environment of the western sectors of the Irish Sea and west of Shetland. I hope that the Minister will give us his considered view on the issues that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South and I have raised.

    I am glad of the opportunity briefly to say a few words about safety, with which I have been involved since becoming a Member of this place in 1970. I declare an interest because I am a member of the National Union of Seamen, which organises quite a few members who work in the North Sea. It is pleasurable to take up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Douglas), who has spent a considerable time participating over the years in debates on safety in the North Sea. On many occasions only one or two hon. Members have been involved. He declared an interest in Colmex. My only connection with Colmex is that it taught me to dive, an interest that I have pursued for a long time. It gives me considerable satisfaction to know that we processed through the House in those 10 years many improvements in the diving regulations, under Governments of both parties. They have improved conditions for divers and reduced the high rate of deaths that were occurring in this most dangerous of occupations.

    Although I was not on the Committee, I should like to thank all the hon. Members on the Committee who addressed themselves to the safety charter. It was developed by Labour Members with the trade unions and was launched in Aberdeen in October..I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) who introduced the matter into the Second Reading of the Bill. He and many members of the Committee pursued the arguments embodied in the safety charter and amendment No. 14 covers a number of points in it.

    I am also grateful to the Minister for receiving, probably uniquely, the trade unions and Labour Members with a full representation of civil servants to listen to the arguments and the views about the charter. That was followed by a full reply, which we appreciate, on the matters of safety and our demands that the 20-point charter be implemented by the Government. The Minister will not be surprised if we do not accept all his arguments as to why he cannot implement some or many parts of the charter. Some are already under review and we shall wait to see what he has to say.

    There are some important points under review. One that has excercised the concern of many seamen, in the difficult conditions of the North Sea, is that of interface between ships and oil rigs and how to get cargoes from the one to the other in difficult weather. There is heavy lifting gear which at one moment may seem to be safe but which, when the waves have shoved the ship over by 14 or 15 feet, becomes a dangerous piece of metal slashing around. We hope that some attention can be given to that because we know that technical measures have been found to take account of these adjustments and that is an important question, about which we hope to hear from the Government in the study so that there can be some recommendations.

    Having expressed my appreciation for all that has been done by the members of the Committee, and the attention addressed to the charter, I am pleased also to note that while the Government may not be able to implement all our points, the Labour Party is well on its way to seeing that whatever is left should be implemented by an incoming Labour Government. A good start to that was the Scottish Labour Party conference at Perth, which adopted the 20-point charter. We welcome that development.

    In making some points about this amendment I bear in mind some replies given in the correspondence with the Minister about his reaction to our charter. I have not read all the proceedings of the Committee. I hope to do so, so as to read the fuller explanation that the Minister may have given. I know that the response that we received on the charter was made available to members of the Committee, who were then able to argue with the Minister about the justification of some of the views in his response.

    In the argument about baskets, a judgment has to be made about whether one is prepared to enforce standards on people who may not want to carry them out by voluntary agreement. It may be convenient to get off a vessel at a particular time by basket because the person concerned wants to go home after a long time on the rig. The basket may be the only way to do so. A judgment has to be made and all the unions involved have decided that the basket should not be used. We recognise that there may be certain exceptional circumstances to which the amendment attempts to address itself.

    Norway has already accepted that immersion suits should be implemented on its oil rigs. I believe that two such suits should be made available at different points on the rig. The Government still appear to be studying whether they are required. There should be no doubt about their requirement. I am aware of one contractor who has approached my union with an immersion suit. He says that he is having difficulty in interesting Government Departments in it and mentioned the Department of Trade. Governments should be interested in any product on the market. I take the Under-Secretary of State's nod as meaning that it may be possible to consider such suits and I shall pass the message on. If anyone makes an improved suit, it will be a great asset to the seamen who may be thrown into the sea either from the rig or the ship. I hope that the Government can reach a speedy conclusion, because other countries implemented it some time ago.

    Work permits seem to be causing the Government some difficulty. The Bill is a step forward because it now provides the power to bring in an order and extend the Immigration Act 1971 to the rigs. The basis of the argument is that one cannot implement work permits unless the Immigration Act 1971 applies and, in this case, it does not apply to the oil rigs. Even if the Government are not convinced that the power should be extended, at least it would leave the Labour Party with a framework of legislation to bring in immigration controls and extend work permits.

    When one considers the statement of the Under-Secretary of State that in a recent survey conducted by the Inland Revenue only 15 per cent. of those polled were foreign workers, I do not wish him to believe that that is 15 per cent. of all occupations. Our evidence suggests that the figure is not as low as 15 per cent., but we shall try to obtain some more valuable information to check that. In some occupations, of which diving is one, it is a considerably higher percentage because it is a smaller part of the labour force.

    Divers who have put much time and money into extensive training are now finding out that other people are prepared to work for considerably less in order to get experience of the North Sea and then go to work somewhere else. The divers have not received a wage increase for three years and some have been told that they will be paid for the few weeks that they work—many other workers face the same position—but that they must get the rest of the money through unemployment benefit. That is totally unsatisfactory and we are doing our best to prevent it. Many professions are under considerable pressure and have great difficulty in maintaining jobs. I hope that we can give more information about that later.

    Some hon. Members in Committee hoped that there would be a statement from Ministers on the issues raised about tax. We made a specific request that Mr. Linkie, the head of the East Kilbride centre, should be contacted about the view of the Inland Revenue, who had to operate the scheme, about tax avoidance or evasion in the North Sea, often by foreign nationals.

    I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Taxation has always been a contentious issue and I fully endorse what he has said.

    I always find it difficult to understand why the Government believe that they cannot extend immigration controls. They readily admitted in their response that many workers going to the rigs already come through our immigration controls in one form or another, or they may fly directly out to Norway. France and Norway impose controls without any difficulties. I cannot believe, when we have all the talk about the security of our rigs, with commandos and submarines standing by, that our Special Branch does not have a good idea of who is on our rigs. Why are we building up such military squads if a man can catch a plane, go out to the rig and do whatever damage he wishes? It is nonsense. If the Government cannot do it, they should borrow the Special Branch's computers, which I am sure can keep watch on every man who goes on a rig. I do not accept that the Government cannot extend their powers to cover rig workers.

    I believe that the argument about access to the rigs was made in Committee. We want such access, particularly for health and safety inspectors. The Minister has assured us that the health and safety inspector can go out any time he wishes, but the general practice now seems to be that two or three days' notice is given. That is great, but it is not good enough. The sanction should be that he might drop out of the blue to inspect what is happening at that particular time rather than something that has been prepared for his visit.

    10.45 pm

    The argument has always been that there is not enough space on helicopters and that they are always full. I believe that on average the helicopters fly with 50 or 60 per cent. capacity, and that might even be a generous estimate. We therefore cannot accept that argument. We understand that employers do not like someone dropping out of the blue to inspect the rigs. That is a human reaction.

    However, the number of inspectors is important, particularly as in some cases the Minister seems to be relying on codes rather than on statutory requirements. That being so, it should be backed up with the sanction that an inspector might just drop in to see whether the code is being enforced. So far, we are not convinced by the responses that we have received.

    The maintenance of adequate and safe manning and competency standards on vessels is a cause of concern not only in the North Sea but in all areas of maritime activity. The amendment says that if we are prepared to establish a minimum standard for the United Kingdom, that should be the minimum standard that we are prepared to enforce on other vessels; otherwise, what is the point of having minimum standards geared to minimum safety manning levels on a vessel?

    If any further evidence is required, we need only remember the tragic loss of the "Union Star" and the lifeboat in the Penlee affair just before Christmas. Once again, the House was confronted with the fact that a vessel inside territorial waters, owned by a British company had lower safety standards flying under another flag than the standards required had it been registered under its own flag. Many men died as a result of that incident.

    I welcome the setting up of a public inquiry, but the argument about minimum safety standards causes considerable concern when it is discovered that the crews are either not competent or inadequate or that the vessels are insufficiently manned. In some cases that can lead to the loss of the ship or, tragically, to the lives of the brave men who try to rescue the crew, simply because Parliament has not enforced minimum standards within our own territorial waters. Perhaps we shall hear more about that in the coming months as a result of the public inquiry.

    The Minister has talked about the possibility of supply boats to the North Sea being solely enforced by "M" notices. Such notices are a neat way of avoiding one's obligations. An "M" notice means maritime notice. It means that no one bothers to observe the recommendation because there is no legal obligation to do so.

    The reality about safety is that we have moved from codes, recommendations and voluntary agreements because they have failed. The number of deaths and accidents continue to increase. That is why diving and seafaring has moved more and more towards statutory control. I become alarmed when the Minister talks about submersibles—submarines—in respect of which we have no regulations.

    Frankly, the industry has always been loth to accept statutory requirements until a few lads die and it finds difficulty running for cover. Yet after all these experiences, the Minister is suggesting that codes of practice will be sufficient for submersibles. That will be fine until we lose another submersible, only 10 hours of air are left, the heat is running out and no one can find it. Once again there will be great concern from the press, and politicians will be accused of getting all the publicity. Now is the time to say that that is not adequate—before the incident occurs. As sure as eggs is eggs, one can be certain of another incident. Great attention will, of course, be given to it.

    Therefore, I have always been most strongly against the reliance on codes and practices. We seem to be going further along that road. Debates in Committee and the House, the awareness shown by the Minister in his full responses and some things under consideration to be implemented are large steps forward from the beginning of the 1970s when not much attention was given in the House to safety and when an awful lot of people were dying. The situation has improved since then. However, we cannot shake off this concern with voluntary cooperation, good will and the best practices. They fail in the North Sea. The quicker we realise that and enforce standards, the sooner we will come into line with the French, Norwegians and others. Only then will we achieve the levels that mean greater enforcement of statutory requirements. That will lead to fewer deaths and accidents. One cannot prevent them, but one can make a good step towards that aim.

    I hope that these debates will contribute to the day when we will implement all 20 points in the charter and make conditions considerably safer for the many lads who work on, below and above the North Sea, producing a valuable resource for Britain.

    The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) made a powerful contribution. I shall address a few remarks to subsection 1(c) of amendment No. 14, concerning the employment of only

    "personnel who have valid United Kingdom work permits."
    Opposition Members and my hon. Friends expressed much surprise when we discussed this dimension in Committee. It was discovered that the United Kingdom Immigration Acts did not apply in the North Sea. Hon. Members who served on the Public Accounts Committee know that we considered the black economy in some depth. One of the biggest areas of leakage was undoubtedly those employed on North Sea oil rigs. It may be to the Government's satisfaction that only 15 per cent. of the workers are not currently covered by United Kingdom taxation. However, it is worth reminding Ministers that the numbers involved are not the odd half dozen. From memory, 15 per cent. of those involved must mean over 1,000—at least well into the hundreds.

    Some evidence showed that people were not just flying in from Norway by helicopter—thereby avoiding United Kingdom immigration, but that numbers of people were coming through United Kingdom immigration, who also did not have work permits. The Minister may be unable to give us some categorical assurance this evening that all those employed on North Sea rigs will have work permits in future. However, I hope he can tell us that this loophole will be closed in another place. Nowhere else in the world, least of all in the United States, does such a situation exist. Any worker in the oil industry, in any offshore capacity, with anything to do with America, would have no hope of work without a work permit. The same applies throughout the world. Britain must be the only anomaly. I hope that the Minister can give some reassurance that the Government will stop this situation.

    I am grateful to the House and to the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) for giving us another opportunity to debate safety. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) rightly said, we dealt at considerable length with the subject in Committee. I am glad that he is to read the proceedings, because he will find that many interesting and useful contributions were made.

    I reiterate what the hon. Gentleman said about the useful meetings that we had with Labour Members and the unions that visited me with their 20-point plan. I said in Committee, and I say again, that I looked at that plan, to some extent, as one would a probing amendment. Those who presented it were not wholly satisfied that it had all the answers and that it required no amendment.

    When the deputation came to see me, the hon. Gentleman said that there would be consultations with some other Government Departments involved. He said that the members of the deputation would come back to see me in a few months' time when they had more information and that they would give me some more figures, which I shall welcome.

    The Government are as anxious as the Opposition are to ensure that safety standards in the North Sea are maintained and improved. I wish to defend the stance that I took in Committee about guidelines, as opposed to legislating for everything.

    The hon. Gentleman made a statement with which no one could disagree, because it might happen. We all hope that it will not. He said that one day something would happen to one of the submersibles. That is a possibility. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that merely legislating will not necessarily avoid such an accident.

    I shall use the example of the Norwegian sector. The Norwegians have legislated to a tremendous extent. Perhaps some would consider that they have almost overlegislated in some areas, yet, tragically, they have had a greater share of ill-luck than has been experienced on the United Kingdom continental shelf. Therefore, I do not think that legislation is necessarily the be-all and end-all.

    It is the training and attitude of all those who operate and work there that is important. That is something that we can only encourage all the time, while trying to ensure that it is improved. I shall come back to the charter and the points that the hon. Gentleman made, because a number of them overlap points made by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South.

    With this amendment we are discussing amendment No. 13, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Douglas). The Government have no powers to establish pilotage districts over the continental shelf. A requirement that vessels entering safety zone installations on the continental shelf must have on board a pilot or a master with a pilotage certificate would call for international agreement. Thus, a new convention laying down international obligations on the use of pilots in certain areas of the high seas would have to be negotiated within the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation by its member States.

    I hope that the hon. Member for Dunfermline will accept that as an explanation of why the amendment that he did not move would not have been acceptable to the Government, anyway. That is an Irish way of putting it, but I know that the hon. Gentleman understands what I mean.

    What is the Government's view about the possibility of obtaining international agreement, which would enable such legislation to be introduced in the House? If there had to be international agreement, a Government would have to initiate the discussions. Would the Government be prepared to do so?

    We would not be at this stage, first, because the existing legislation is adequate. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, such matters are slow-moving and it is easier to introduce something that requires only the legislation of one's own Parliament than to have to negotiate on an international scale. We have not given that possibility serious thought. At present we do not intend to initiate such discussions.

    It seems that we need carrier pigeons to find out what has happened on the subject of tax. Specific questions were asked in Committee. I understood that the Minister would give us some information.

    11 pm

    I shall say something about tax. However, I shall not pursue the point that the hon. Gentleman put to me in Committee and again tonight because, as I explained at that time, this is really a Treasury matter. The hon. Gentleman should take it up with Treasury Ministers.

    The right hon. Member for Leeds, South and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East mentioned baskets. I refer them both to my Department's safety letter, No. 10 of 1980, which laid down the limited situations in which a basket may be used, together with the conditions of such use. In fact, the terms of the letter were drawn up by a working party in which both the operators and the unions participated. They were agreed by the oil industry advisory committee of the Health and Safety Commission.

    In view of the stringent conditions specified in the letter, which have already been agreed by both sides of the offshore industry, I cannot see any need at this stage to make the terms and conditions of use part of the operating permission for an installation. Using the same argument, I cannot see any reason to involve the Secretary of State for Energy in a reporting procedure each time a basket is used.

    However, I readily accept that the letter to which I have referred did not require that either the movement of personnel by basket or the reasons for so doing should be recorded. However, if hon. Members feel that the letter should be reviewed so that such movements shall be recorded on the installation, if they care to take the matter up with me in writing I will ensure that their remarks are referred to the Health and Safety Commission for consideration.

    The question of personnel having access at all times to immersion suits has also been referred to. My Department is considering the practical value of immersion suits. If such suits are to be issued, it is important to ensure that they are of the right type and will perform adequately under specified conditions. The situation was highlighted as a result of the loss of the Alexander Keilland.

    As part of the overall consideration, my Department has commissioned a research project into the design and performance of such suits. My latest information is that we should have that report in about three months' time. This work is being carried out by the Robert Gordon Institute of Technology in Aberdeen. The offshore survival unit of that institute is involved to a large extent. I visited the institute myself about two months ago and had an opportunity of seeing some of the work that goes on there and some of the training that is offered to those going to work on the North Sea. It was an impressive experience.

    No, I must admit that on that occasion I did not, but I did on a number of occasions when I visited oil installations.

    The subject of work permits was discussed extensively in Committee on 16 March. I regret that I can only reiterate the position as I explained it to the Committee. I shall do that briefly.

    Implicit in the amendment is the view that an unduly high proportion of the offshore work force consists of non-United Kingdom nationals. It reflects the views put to me at a meeting in June 1981 with the Inter Union Offshore Oil Committee; namely, that the Government should exert pressure on oil companies via a work permit scheme to ensure that a higher proportion of United Kingdom nationals are employed.

    First, may I put the scale of this problem in perspective? As I explained in Committee, the most recent survey of employment on the United Kingdom continental shelf, carried out by the Inland Revenue, showed that in July 1981 about 85 per cent. of the total United Kingdom continental shelf work force were United Kingdom nationals. But that apart, entry to and stay in this country of overseas nationals is controlled, under the Immigration Act 1971, by the Home Office. The legislation does not apply offshore, and work permits for persons employed entirely offshore are not required.

    We had an interesting exchange of views in Committee on that very subject, because we were fortunate in having the right hon. Member for Leeds, South leading for the Opposition. Having been Home Secretary, he had been very much involved with the workings of the Immigration Act. He frankly admitted—many members of the Committee would have been in the same position—that it had not been fully appreciated—

    I think that my right hon. Friend took the very strong view—it is unfortunate that he is not present—that if he had to reconsider the position today lie would not accept the advice that he was given and would seek to apply the Act offshore.

    The hon. Gentleman was a little premature in his intervention. I was going to say exactly that. The right hon. Gentleman said that at the time in question the significance of the measure in this respect had not been appreciated and that if he had to do it again he would do it differently.

    The provisions of the Bill do not require such an adjustment to the Immigration Act 1971. An extension of the work permit scheme to the UKCS would, however, require an amendment to the 1971 Act which could not be described as minor or consequential. It is not thought that the scope of the Bill is wide enough to admit a substantial item of immigration law.

    Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) mentioned tax and the fact that people working in the North Sea were evading tax. It is not possible to say precisely what percentage of employees who are liable to pay United Kingdom tax do not do so. I understand that a report to the Public Accounts Committee in 1979 estimated that the PAYE tax loss in the North Sea in 1971 was between £10 million and £20 million, and that it ran at about that annual figure up to 1973–74. The cumulative total up to 1978–79 was put at approximately £60 million. A substantial sum of money is involved.

    However, a survey in 1980, to which I have already referred, which monitored the general level of compliance and investigated individual cases of non-compliance, indicated that the earlier figures were overestimates. Sample exercises carried out since 1980 have produced only a few small cases of PAYE evasion, apart from those already under investigation, and confirmed that the work done by two of the Inland Revenue special officers had brought the North Sea to a satisfactory level of PAYE compliance.

    Is the House to understand that, on the immigration dimension, Department of Energy Ministers are saying that this is not their field of activity and that on the whole they would rather leave it alone? If that is the stance, it is not a very satisfactory one, because hon. Members on each side of the Committee took the view that, whatever may have been correct in 1971, we are now in 1982, in changed circumstances and the Government should look at the question. While it is not a Department of Energy matter, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell the House that the question is being actively pursued with the Home Office, rather than being left in abeyance.

    I am encouraged to hear that the Inland Revenue is satisfied concerning PAYE. I should like to know—perhaps not this evening—whether the Inland Revenue is equally satisfied concerning those who are not paying PAYE. They may be categorised as self-employed. If they are overseas employees, is there some form of reciprocal tax, or are they not paying tax to anyone?

    An extension of the Immigration Act would require substantial new legislation and could not have been included in the Bill. We have taken legal advice and the position that I have outlined is the best advice available to us. However, that does not mean that the matter could not be dealt with by the Home Office at another time, though I cannot say whether it will feature in future legislation. We have informed the Home Office of the situation, so it is aware of the problem.

    I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South is reassured by the information from the Inland Revenue. As to the payment of tax by the self-employed and workers from other countries, we have arrangements with some countries, but I do not suggest that they are foolproof or that we are satisfied with the situation. We have consultations with the Inland Revenue from time to time and no doubt the Revenue will be making its own arrangements to try to improve the situation.

    However, neither of those matters is the direct responsibility of my Department, although we are involved.

    I am curious to know how the Minister can answer the point about security put so graphically by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). Obviously there must be records of who is on the rigs. If the records are not available, one shudders for reasons other than the loss of tax. I do not see that a solution is so difficult.

    Perhaps it is not so difficult, but it is difficult for my Department, because it is not our responsibility. We are anxious to do what we can on matters in which we have discretion, but the two matters that have been raised by hon. Members are not the Department's direct responsibility. No doubt those who read the report of our deliberations will note what has been said, but I cannot give the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) an answer tonight.

    I understand that before the hon. Gentleman became a Minister the Department of Energy co-operated actively with the Services to consider how we could protect the rigs militarily from an external threat.

    Immigration Acts are used to prevent subversives—however they are defined—from coming into this country. If we set up a ring of steel around the rigs, but have no controls over people flying out of them, is the Minister satisfied that there will not be attacks from within as well as from without?

    I am satisfied on security. I have answered the tax point to the best of my ability and hon. Members will have to raise any further queries with the Inland Revenue. I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful.

    I was asked about vessels matching United Kingdom standards on safety and so on. The safety standards of vessels are the subject of international agreement and are the responsibility of the flag State. I agree that there can be no room for complacency, but the United Kingdom is second to none, in both the implementation of internationally agreed safety and social standards and their enforcement.

    However, that does not justify the United Kingdom seeking to control the standards of every vessel that trades in our waters. I can give some reassurance about the safety standards of vessels flying other than the British flag. The European conference on maritime safety in Paris on 26 January 1982 adopted a memorandum of understanding on port State control, establishing with effect from 1 July this year a harmonised and co-ordinated system for the inspection of foreign ships calling at European ports. The purpose will be to detect those that fail to meet the standards laid down in the international conventions, to secure the rectification of deficiencies and to discourage the operation of such vessels. That system will be operated on the United Kingdom continental shelf by inspectors from the Department of Trade.

    I am sorry frequently to allude to other Departments, but the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East will realise that there is a considerable amount of overlap. The system will represent a positive European response to the problem of substandard ships of any flag.

    The House might be interested to know that the British supply vessel fleet is fully utilised. I am advised that 92 per cent. of available United Kingdom-owned supply vessels are operating in our waters. They meet 60 per cent. of the offshore supply demand to serve the oil and gas installations on the United Kingdom continental shelf.

    11.15 pm

    The Minister is giving the stock answer, but with a European dimension involving port State. It is all voluntary. Perhaps it is a step forward. We have for some time used the port State argument to enforce standards. Frankly, the Department of Trade cannot even manage the ships that call at our ports. I have experience of that.

    If we determine a minimum standard for vessels in our waters, we are entitled under the SOLAS agreements to stop ships that we consider to be unsafe. I do not believe that it is being argued that the standards are excessive. Under international law we are entitled to say that ships below the standard will not come into our waters. The standard should be made a condition of the contract to operate under the United Kingdom Continental Shelf Act 1964. The Minister says that the oil companies are recommended to lay down the minimum standard. Making it a condition would ensure proper and adequate standards, and there would be none of these difficulties.

    I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We shall no doubt come back to it.

    The question of safety inspectors, without prior notice, having access at all time to offshore installations was also raised by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East and the right hon. Member for Leeds, South. Again, we discussed the issue for some time in Committee. I am not persuaded that safety inspectors necessarily need the power to inspect offshore installations without prior notice or that an enhancement of safety would result from such a power.

    Opposition Members intimate that prior notice leads to the employment of wheezes to ensure that, for instance, with helicopters, the house is full. We have no evidence of that. We know of no difficulties. We have not had complaints from people who work offshore. I gave the Committee the figures. We have about 70 installations. In 1980 there were 141 inspections, and in 1981, 181. We do not believe that safety would be enhanced by such legislation. The arrangements are working adequately. Again, if the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friends can persuade us, we are persuadable on this issue, but we do not see that it would do anything to improve safety.

    I want to ask the Minister of State a simple question. When he was in the Services, what did he do when he knew that there was going to be an inspection within the next few days?

    I do not think that it would have made the slightest difference. I was a very good soldier.

    I do not think that we would do anything to improve safety by accepting that recommendation, but it is something that I am happy to talk about again.

    I have waited patiently for replies to the points that I made about the certification of divers and the diving school. These are the Minister's responsibility. How many certificates were issued for divers by the companies? Also, what is the future of the diving school at Fort William? It may be that the Minister of State will want to write to me on these issues because he does not have the information readily available. I appreciate that.

    In relation to diving certificates, I do not have a figure of that sort available in the middle of a Report stage debate. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to put down a question or otherwise, I shall let him have the answer. The diving school is handled by the Department of Employment. It is not in my area of responsibility, so I cannot give him up-to-date information on that.

    Amendment negatived.