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Piper Alpha

Volume 180: debated on Monday 12 November 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.31 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the report of the public inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster. My right hon. Friend and predecessor, the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), the present Secretary of State for Transport, set up the public inquiry on 13 July 1988 and appointed Lord Cullen as its chairman. I am publishing his report today as a Command Paper, and copies are now available in the Vote Office.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing my deepest sympathy for the relatives and friends of the 167 men who lost their lives in this disaster. Our thoughts are no less with those who survived, but suffered physical or mental injury.

The House will also join me in paying tribute to the many people who gave unstintingly of their courage, skills and kindness in rescuing and aiding the survivors: crewmen of nearby vessels, helicopter crew, medical teams and hospital staff. The report draws particular attention to the bravery of the crews of the fast rescue craft and of the standby vessel.

Lord Cullen concludes that the intitial cause of the disaster was an explosion in Piper Alpha's gas compression module. He indentifies the underlying causes as failures of communication and weaknesses in mangement control. The initial explosion set in train an escalating series of fires that destroyed the installation. The death toll among those in the accommodation might have been significantly reduced if instructions had been given for personnel to escape from the accommodation by whatever means they could.

The primary responsibility for safety has always been, and will always remain, with the operator. Lord Cullen observes that there were significant flaws in the way in which safety was managed by Occidental. Senior management were too easily satisfied that safety was being maintained. Workers and management on the platform were not adequately trained and prepared for a major emergency. While the Department of Energy had regularly inspected Piper Alpha, and those inspections had shown up a number of deficiencies, including deficiencies for which Occidental had been successfully prosecuted, Lord Cullen felt that the existing system did not give sufficient emphasis to the auditing of Occidental's management of safety.

The main thrust of the report is thus to propose a new approach, under which the operator would retain the primary responsibility for safety, and would be required to prepare a comprehensive safety case. The regulator would be responsible for continuously reviewing the case. Lord Cullen believes that that is the best way to prevent any recurrence of such failings in the future, and the Government accept his conclusions.

In all, the report makes 106 recommendations, for improvements in the management of safety on offshore installations; design and equipment; planning and provision for emergencies, for evacuation, escape and rescue and for strengthening the involvement of the work force in safety.

The principal recommendation points to a fundamental change in the system for regulation of offshore safety. The new system should be based on requirements for operators of offshore installations to carry out formal and comprehensive safety assessments of their installations. Those should be presented to the regulatory body as a safety case, covering: the adequacy of the company's safety management system; the controls of potential major hazards, and the provision of temporary safe refuge, and of means for safe evacuation, escape and rescue, on each installation.

New installations should not commence operations until the safety case has been accepted by the regulator, and a safety case should be submitted in respect of existing installations as urgently as practicable. The report goes on to make recommendations on the content of the safety cases, for example, that the exposure of personnel to accidental events has been minimised, and on the criteria for acceptance.

As the analysis of the Piper disaster makes clear, it is of the highest importance that there should be a reliable assurance that the proper principles and measures of safety management are not only adopted, but consistently put into practice. The report therefore recommends that the operator himself should be required to confirm, by comprehensive and regular auditing, that his safety management system is being adhered to. The regulatory body should review and audit that critical activity.

The report makes recommendations for the overhaul of existing regulations on offshore safety, and for their replacement by new regulations which, in the main, should set goals to be achieved rather than prescribe specific measures. It is expected, however, that there will still be a need for some detailed prescriptive regulations.

The House will recall that the present arrangements for regulatory responsibility were instituted following the report in 1980 of an independent committee under Dr. J. H. Burgoyne. Lord Cullen has reviewed the allocation of those responsibilities in the light of the proposed new framework. His recommendation is that there should be a single regulatory body with a clear identity. That would deal with all aspects of offshore safety. On balance, he concludes that it should be located within the Health and Safety Executive. It should employ a specialist inspectorate with adequate resources to discharge its role.

The Government accept Lord Cullen's conclusions and recommendations. Arrangements have been put in hand to progress the necessary detailed work. I have written to the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission about the transfer to the executive of the responsibilities in respect of offshore safety for my Department's safety directorate, together with specialist personnel engaged in that work in my Department and the Department of Transport. I have sought the views of the commission on the proposed creation of the single regulatory body for offshore safety as a discrete division within the Health and Safety Executive. Subject to satisfactory completion of those arrangements, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has agreed that when they are implemented my responsibilities for offshore safety should be transferred to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The statutory responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport would not be affected.

In a number of areas, the report recommends immediate action by the industry. My director of safety has today written to the industry, asking it immediately to undertake the necessary action.

I take this opportunity to thank the professional staff who have aided me in the discharge of my responsibilities for offshore safety. I am confident that the energy and commitment that they have displayed will be great assets to the new system.

Finally, I should like to express my thanks to Lord Cullen, his assessors, and the many others who participated in the investigation, for the immense labour and dedication that went into their unprecedented and exceptionally difficult task. The Piper Alpha disaster was the most serious industrial accident in Britain in over 50 years. It was the most serious to occur anywhere in the history of offshore development. Its investigation was an altogether exceptional responsibility; and, because so much of the evidence was unrecoverable, it was also one of exceptional difficulty. I believe that Lord Cullen and his team proved equal to those challenges, and that his far-reaching and comprehensive recommendations will have a lasting influence on the safety of offshore operations hereafter.

The Government's concern throughout has been that the events should be properly probed and the lessons learnt as soon as possible. We have already taken important action to improve safety following my Department's technical investigation. That includes new regulations on the provision of emergency shutdown valves, the election of safety committees, and guidance on the priority areas for action by operators following the disaster. The Government are now acting to implement the recommendation for a new regulatory system, and to ensure that the lessons of this terrible event are fully learnt and thoroughly put into effect. Until the details of the measures that we shall take are fully worked out, it is impossible to determine the precise level of resources that will be required, but I assure the House that offshore safety will not be sacrificed through lack of resources.

The Piper Alpha disaster was an awful event, one which has been felt throughout the nation and around the world. Those of us who have seen it from afar can only offer our most sincere sympathy to those who were there, and to those who lost someone they loved. The measure of our sympathy is the determination, which I am certain is shared by the whole House, that nothing of this kind shall ever happen again.

May I join the Secretary of State in offering condolences to those who were injured and bereaved by the Piper Alpha disaster and paying tribute to the people who helped save those who survived, but may I add that condolences and tributes are not enough? The 30,000 people who daily earn their living on North sea installations work and live in a profoundly hostile environment. They deal with raw energy in concentrations the magnitude and danger of which it is hard to comprehend. They produce oil and gas, the importance of which to the British economy is hard to exaggerate. We owe them more than tributes and condolences. We owe them the safest working conditions that can be obtained. Those people have been badly let down.

The Cullen inquiry revealed, for example, that on the fateful night of 6 July 1988 on the Piper Alpha platform life rafts would not inflate, automatic fire pumps were switched to manual control, and gas pipelines discharged yet more gas on to an already blazing platform. That night 80 million sq ft of gas exploded and burned. Taken together with the oil and other flammable materials, the release of energy must have approached the scale of the Hiroshima bomb and that occurred on what Occidental, the operators, said was a well-run platform.

Lord Cullen did not agree. He referred to failures in training, failures to resolve technical problems, superficial attitudes and deficient practice. If rules mean anything, Occidental must have broken them and it should be prosecuted. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Occidental is to be prosecuted, or will he tell us that Scotland is to join England as a country where a truthful, conscience-stricken, engine driver is sent to gaol while rich and powerful corporations go free?

The disaster probably resulted in part from shortcomings in the permit to work and handover arrangements. A previous failure led to a fatality in 1987. Occidental was prosecuted, yet it did not change those arrangements. Will the Secretary of State promise that action will be taken against all responsible for the Piper Alpha disaster and remember the old legal dictum, "Be you never so high, yet the law is above you"?

The responsibility for safety in the North sea is not just a matter for operators, their contractors and staff. It is the responsibility of Government. In 1980 the Burgoyne committee reported. It recognised that the ramshackle collection of regulations and the involvement of several agencies in North sea safety was a danger. It recommended a new goal-setting approach to North sea safety and that the Government should discharge their responsibility for offshore safety via a single Government agency whose task was to set standards and ensure their achievement. It stated that those tasks were so important and immediate that delay in dealing with them could not be allowed.

Can the Secretary of State confirm Lord Cullen's conclusion that between 1980 and the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 virtually nothing was done to implement those Burgoyne recommendations, and can he tell us why? Will he tell us what was given a higher priority by his predecessor Secretaries of State for Energy? Was it the privatisation of Britoil and British Gas? If not, what was it that took priority in their minds over North sea safety?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster there were 217 installations in the North sea? Can he confirm that, to inspect those 217 complex and often gigantic structures his Department employed just eight professional, full-time, field inspectors? Can he confirm that nine out of the 46 jobs in the safety section were vacant? Is it any wonder that Cullen finds that their investigations were
"superficial to the point of being of little use"
and that
"the inspectors were … inadequately trained, guided and led"?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that Lord Cullen finds that persistent undermanning undermined both the frequency and depth of inspections? Will he confirm that only 40 per cent. of even fatal and serious accidents were investigated? Will he confirm that, in the years up to 1988, the priorities of the Department of Energy were such that more was spent on publicity, advertising and public relations than on the North sea safety inspectorate? Will he confirm that the same applies to this very day?

While on the subject of spending priorities, will the Secretary of State now undertake to pay the legal expenses incurred in representing the relatives at the Cullen inquiry? Will he deplore the callous decision of his predecessor to expect those relatives to throw themselves on the mercy of Occidental, whose help with legal costs they proudly and rightly refused?

We welcome Lord Cullen's report and its recommendations. We look forward to an early opportunity for a full debate on them. We welcome Lord Cullen's endorsement of the Burgoyne committee's 1980 main recommendations and his acceptance of the view of the trade unions and the Labour party that North sea safety should be brought together in one agency and should be the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive.

Finally, I ask the Secretary of State once again today to take this opportunity to call together all operators, contractors and representatives of those who daily work and risk their lives in the North sea to make a fresh start to reverse all the sackings and blacklistings. Instead, they should work together to create a new safe regime in the North sea. That need for a fresh start is backed up by Lord Cullen's recognition of the benefits that trade union involvement can bring to safety. In future safety must be an integral part of all decision making, design, construction and operation. It cannot be an optional extra to be tacked on at the end.

I agree with the Secretary of State that the only proper tribute to those who died or suffered as a result of the Piper Alpha disaster is to do all that is humanly possible to ensure that such a disaster does not happen again. Some of the responsibility for that lies with the House.

I of course share the hon. Gentleman's concern over safety. We must get matters right for the future. As I said in my statement, the primary responsibility for safety has always been and will always remain with the operator. As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, Lord Cullen observed that there were significant flaws in the way in which safety was managed by Occidental. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I have sent the report to the Lord Advocate as that was the proper thing to do. At this stage, however, it would be wrong for me to say anything further about the events, which are now a matter for the Lord Advocate and not for me.

The hon. Gentleman is also right about the permits for work. My Department's technical investigation identified possible failings in the generation of Occidental's permit to work system as an element in the disaster. That system had broken down in the earlier accident for which Occidental was prosecuted and fined following an investigation by my Department.

I should perhaps say something about the situation in 1980 and 1990. In 1980, the Government accepted the majority view of the Burgoyne committee, which was set up by the previous Labour Government. It said that, on balance, it believed that the best case for safety in the North sea was to leave the matter with the Department of Energy. In 1990 Lord Cullen has recommended that, on balance—again it is a question of balance—the best case would be for transferring responsibility to the Health and Safety Commission. We have accepted the recommendation of the majority committee in both cases.

Since 1980, of course, the situation has changed. There have been a lot of developments in the North sea, the industry has become more complex and the HSC has also developed. That is why we believe that Lord Cullen was right to recommend the transfer to the HSC and why we accepted that recommendation. Lord Cullen also stated that he has not reached his conclusion on the question of independence, as was sometimes suggested. He reports that there was no evidence that the Department put production before safety.

Safety is the top priority. The number of inspectors has doubled to 60 since 1980. We have more than 120 officials engaged on safety matters. There have been difficulties in recruiting such staff and we have faced stiff competition for their special skills. We are actively seeking staff, we have put up their rates of pay by 23 per cent. and we are recruiting more. We also have the equivalent of 450 man years per annum working for the certifying authorities.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the trade union position. Lord Cullen recommended that 40 per cent. of the legal costs of the trade union group at the inquiry should be met from public funds, and I am certainly happy to accept that. I and my colleagues in the Department of Energy are happy to talk about the report's details with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues with specialist knowledge and concern, and with the trade unions that have taken an interest in the matter. Together, we must all find a better way forward and Lord Cullen shows us how that can be done. We have an opportunity to go forward from a bad past to the future.

Having families in my constituency who lost loved ones in that terrible disaster, may I say to my right hon. Friend how much we are grateful to him for using this opportunity to remember those whose lives are permanently scarred by it? I also thank my right hon. Friend for remembering those who played such a remarkable part in the rescue operation following that disaster. I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to the skill and thoroughness of Lord Cullen and his assessors. Anyone who watched that inquiry at any stage must be immensely impressed by the way in which it was carried out. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend is to accept all the recommendations.

I welcome the new approach to safety that makes safety much more a matter of general management policy—proactive rather than reactive—which should be welcomed by everyone. I also welcome the intention to put safety under the Health and Safety Executive. It is important that the safety regulatory organisation should be independent and should be seen to be independent. That is what matters and I hope that that is ultimately achieved. I pay tribute to those who work in the safety directorate. Having spent time working with them, I pay tribute to their integrity and independence of mind in dealing with safety matters. I hope that we do not forget that.

In order to make the new regulatory safety organisation effective, would not it be sensible, as it is to be a discrete division within the Health and Safety Executive, for it to be sited in Aberdeen, where oil industry activity takes place? If that were done, better interplay and interface between the new safety organisation and those who are responsible, offshore, for carrying out safety measures, would be more likely.

Let me start with the last point. I realise the strength of feeling that the operation should take place in Aberdeen, but I think that my right hon. Friend will agree that the staff of the new organisation should look at that and make a decision when they have their feet under the table, and they will obviously do that.

My right hon. Friend, who has a great knowledge of such matters and had responsibility for them in the past, is right that Lord Cullen's central point is that the new system is designed to concentrate on the auditing of the operators' management systems. Lord Cullen did not question the effectiveness of the inspection system in its own terms but looked at it more fundamentally. My right hon. Friend has got the point absolutely right.

I welcome what the Secretary of State said about the role of trade unions and the part that they can play in safety offshore. That is in contrast to the negative approach shown by the employers over a number of years, which I hope will now end.

When the Health and Safety Executive body is in place, will the regulations that apply now onshore—with all the back-up responsible for the health and safety of onshore workers—apply offshore? That is crucial for the future.

No, the tripartite approach will certainly stay, but the regime will have to be a different regime, and that will be the subject of discussion. As I said, I am perfectly happy to hold discussions with all those, of good will, wherever they come from—including the trade unions—on North sea safety. Lord Cullen rejects the simplistic equation of union recognition and safety, and endorses the Government's approach. Safety committee regulations give all workers a voice, and provide new rights to raise safety issues and to call inspectors, and arrangements for the hotline telephone number are included. Lord Cullen rightly says that the Government are correct to say that these matters should be reviewed after two years: they will be.

While the primary responsibility for safety lies with the operator, will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that this was a unique case and that, generally speaking, the response to the 1980 report was rather reasonable? Does he agree that there is no reason to believe that, under the proposals, which I fully endorse, the response will not be excellent?

One matter worries me. Two or three Ministries are still involved in this. Could not all the regulations, including those under the Department of Transport and other Departments, be focused on one directorate?

My hon. Friend is correct to say that this great disaster was not symptomatic of a badly run industry. Lord Cullen's recommendations are based on existing best practice in the industry. We need to make sure that the best practice is followed by all the companies concerned.

We have met my hon. Friend's concern about one Department in practice, except that responsibility for maritime matters will remain with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

I certainly wish to be associated with the tributes paid by the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) to those who died, to the relatives, to those who still suffer, to the emergency services—and to Lord Cullen for the effort that he has put into this report. I also echo the Secretary of State's comment that the measure of our sympathy will be our determination that this should never happen again. But many people will ask why it ever happened in the first place and why it needs a disaster of these proportions to bring about the sort of review that has been carried out in this and in transport cases. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the measures proposed here will be sufficiently buttressed to stop us backsliding in future and returning to complacency?

I welcome the steps that the right hon. Gentleman has taken so far to implement the recommendations of the transfer to the Health and Safety Executive. What time scale does he have in mind for existing installations to bring forward their safety cases as urgently as practicable?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the involvement of individual employees in safety is the key; that they must be allowed to feel that they have a contribution to make in safety matters without fear of intimidation; and that this, perhaps more than any other day, is an opportunity for a fresh start in industrial relations offshore?

Absolutely—I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point. Safety is, of course, a matter for the operator, but it is also a matter for every single person working in the North sea, and one of the necessary steps that must be taken is to draw more and more attention to that. Lord Cullen has produced a way forward that is as good as anyone can propose. It is an excellent report and it will be a landmark in these matters.

It is difficult in a short time to absorb and assess a very lengthy report. The central point of the report is where Lord Cullen says that, although my Department placed great emphasis on inspections and made great efforts to maintain a comprehensive and effective inspection programme, the form of those inspections concentrated too much on hardware and not enough on management systems. That is why, bearing in mind that the primary responsibility lies with the employer and must continue to do so, Lord Cullen recommends a change in the form of regulation to a system that is designed to concentrate on the operator's management systems. I think that Lord Cullen sees it very much in the same way as the hon. Gentleman.

May I also extend my sympathy to all those who were injured in mind or body in this terrible incident and offer my condolences to all those who lost relatives in the Piper Alpha disaster?

Does my right hon. Friend welcome, as I do, the recommendation in the Cullen report to change the emphasis from arbitrary checking of safety procedures to a planned audit to prevent accidents and incidents by looking carefully at safety planning? Does he agree, as I think many hon. Members agree, that the best way to use the highly skilled staff that are necessary to implement this new auditing procedure is to concentrate them in one organisation—the Health and Safety Executive—so that we can get the best use of those skills?

My hon. Friend has understood it very well. The basis of Lord Cullen is that he says that a safety case will have to be made out for any operator. That safety case will have to show that the company has its own systems for auditing its safety arrangements. It will be the regulator's task to check that that audit system is working. That, in as few words as possible, is the new system.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is widespread anger in Scotland at the campaign currently being mounted by oil companies against trade union representation offshore? Is it not clear that a health and safety representative who has the backing and support of an independent trade union is likely to be more effective than a non-union safety representative? That is why many people believe that the Government's regulations last year providing for non-union safety representatives were a green light for the oil companies' campaign. Will the Secretary of State look again at this issue and consider whether the best approach is to extend the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 to enable offshore oil workers to have statutory rights similar to those of onshore oil workers with respect to trade union safety representatives?

I understand how strongly the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends feel about this issue. However, it is not a view that is shared by Cullen in his report. Cullen believes, as the Government believe, and endorses our view, that every employee working offshore has a right to be represented on the safety committee. Whether or not he is a member of a union, he still has that right, and we are determined to persevere with that.

My right hon. Friend will realise that my constituents who work offshore will be delighted at the Government's positive and quick response to this very important report. I should like to be associated with the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), and will not repeat them.

Does the Secretary of State agree that every manager and every other person working offshore in the North sea will read the Cullen report and the lessons in it and will insist that those lessons be incorporated in the cases that are brought forward by individual operators? We should not forget that the North sea was developed largely by the private sector, which we should stop lambasting.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Safety requires everyone who works on the North sea to participate. Operators have their prime responsibility, but they also have a responsibility to ensure that their employees are fully involved in safety matters.

May I illustrate the scale of the tragedy by referring to the case of one of my constituents? He was a young man of enormous promise who was the joy and pride of his family. He had only just graduated, was just completing his first period in offshore employment and was about to return home for his 21st birthday. No doubt other massive personal tragedies were involved in the accident.

Will the Secretary of State give an absolute assurance to those who still mourn that the safety audit will be carried out, that it will be effective and that it will be adequately resourced? Does he accept that too much parsimony in public expenditure can often lead to loss of life?

The hon. Gentleman has made his point graphically by giving instances from his own constituency. He is right: we all owe it to those who are continuing to work on the North sea to bring the new regulations and arrangements into play as soon as possible. I confirm what I said in my statement: no shortage of resources will slow down their introduction.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the current inquiry was based primarily on a study of fixed production platforms, and that those platforms are fundamentally different from mobile offshore drilling units that are, for most of the time, completely out of contact with hydrocarbons? Can my right hon. Friend bear that difference in mind when deciding how to implement the Cullen recommendations? Has he had any discussions with the British Rig Owners Association about it?

That illustrates another important point about the Cullen report. Cullen has not set out specifically and in detail the arrangements in every case; he has said that the operator of a platform or drilling installation must make his own safety case to satisfy the regulators. That does not mean that all cases must be identical, as my hon. Friend pointed out; they must be appropriate to the circumstances, and subject to review and auditing once established.

May I join those who have expressed condolences with the bereaved, and also with the families and survivors who have been scarred in body and mind? The repeated speculation on television over the weekend—with repeated footage of Piper Alpha being engulfed in a fireball—was as tasteless as it was insensitive.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Cullen report is a damning and devastating indictment of both Occidental and the Department of Energy, whose efforts to apply a safety regime have been described as ineffectual and superficial? We welcome his assurance today that their responsibility will he transferred to the Health and Safety Executive.

Will the Secretary of State re-read the report, in which Lord Cullen states clearly that he accepts that the appointment of trade union safety representatives could be very effective because of the credibility and backing that trade union membership could give? Will the right hon. Gentleman give a further assurance that, although the responsibility may be technically removed from him, he will use his place in the Cabinet to be absolutely certain that a new regime will not lack credibility and backing, and that all the money to provide the inspectors will be made available? Does he accept that—as Cullen says—we must have prescribed regulations for safety in the North sea?

As I said in my answer to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), I will not comment on the position of the company or what is revealed about it in the report. I shall, however, challenge the hon. Gentleman on his comments about the effectiveness of my Department's inspectors, who do not deserve the criticisms that he sought to heap upon them. Lord Cullen did not question the effectiveness of the inspection in its own terms; he examined it more fundamentally, saying that the system that had been adopted for a number of years was probably not the right system and proposing a new one. He made it quite clear that it would be unfair to blame the inspector involved, who had done a competent job within the existing framework. The proposal is to change the framework, and that is right, which is why we have speedily accepted that recommendation.

My right hon. Friend should be congratulated on following Lord Cullen's advice and includng the regulator's duties within the scope of the Health and Safety Executive. However, will he clarify one point? Will the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 be amended? If my right hon. Friend cannot yet determine what the necessary financial provisions might be, can he at least say approximately how many personnel will work for the regulator when that important function is operating properly?

I am sorry to disappoioent my hon. Friend, but I cannot go further than what I said in my statement. I have written to the HSE today and I want to hold discussions with it. It will have an important say about whether it is satisfied with the arrangements to be made. Some of the necessary changes arising from the report can be achieved by administrative action, some by changes in the regulation, and some need primary legislation. However, I emphasise that nothing will be delayed for longer than I can possible help. I intend to proceed as fast as possible.

The Secretary of State says with sincerity and, I am sure, genuine human feeling that these terrible events must never be repeated. Will he bear that in mind and bring his influence to bear before anybody talks about military options in relation to other oil wells?

What would the right hon. Gentleman say to a constituent whose Member of Parliament had played a part in the Burgoyne committee report and initiated an Adjournment debate on that, as I did, and who wanted to know why the recommendations of that report were not implemented? For once, it was not the fault of the House of Commons. Some of us raised the issue time and time again, and there was a debate on the report on 6 November 1980, as the Hansard of the time shows. Why were not the recommendations implemented?

I have tried to explain that I believe that it is perfectly consistent for the Government to have taken the view of the majority report of the Burgoyne committee in 1980—which said that, on balance, the best way forward was for the work to be undertaken by the Department of Energy—and to take a different view in 1990 following Lord Cullen's report, and wish to implement his recommendation that the balance of advantage—it is not a clear-cut, no-argument case—was that the work should be transferred to the HSE.

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to ask what has changed between 1980 and 1990; it is a fair question. Two things have changed. First, the industry is much more complex, and secondly, the HSE is in a much better position to deal with these matters than it was in 1980. That is why I believe that Lord Cullen is right.

Order. I am always reluctant to curtail questions when a tragedy of this magnitude has occurred. However, there is important business to follow. I hope to call all hon. Members who have been rising, but I ask them not to enlarge their questions beyond the statement and also not to ask questions that have already been asked and answered.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the report makes it clear that, whatever happens, responsibility for safety on the platform lies squarely with the employer? Does he further agree that that responsibility cannot possibly be met unless the employer or the operator has the full co-operation of every person on the rig at the time? Is it not true, therefore, that safety is damaged by strikes, by sit-ins and by the rantings and posturings of the media? Are those not to be deplored?

I take my hon. Friend's point. Strikes and industrial disputes are bad for several reasons, not least safety. It is in our best interests to avoid them.

May I, on behalf of the Scottish National party, join in the welcome for the removal of the safety inspectorate from the Department of Energy and support the call for the new inspectorate to be located in the north-east of Scotland? Does the Secretary of State agree that the move to the independent inspectorate is not only important in itself but that it should signal the start of a new era in oil development in the North sea, when safety rather than production is king?

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why he did not highlight in his statement the important passages from the Cullen report on the role of trade unions on safety committees, which highlight the benefit of trade union representation—their ability to resist pressure? Did not Lord Cullen recognise that the fear of victimisation stops proper safety reporting in the North sea? Why does not the Secretary of State acknowledge that? Does not he realise that whatever regime is in place in the North sea will depend on human resources and good industrial relations? There will not be good industrial relations in the North sea until the legitimate grievances of offshore workers are met by the Secretary of State responsible.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are supported by the Cullen report. To equate union recognition and safety is a simplistic approach. Our safety committee's regulations give all workers a voice and provide new rights to raise safety issues and call inspectors. That is why we wish to continue with our original arrangements, which are supported by Lord Cullen and are subject to review when they have been in operation for two years.

Will my right hon. Friend accept it from me, as one who had responsibility at the Department of Employment for health and safety at work, that his approach and the Cullen approach of building in safety rather than trying to bolt it on afterwards must be the right way of pinning responsibility day by day, week by week, on operators? Many of us hope this will apply to sub-contractors, on both design arid supply of personnel. Will he ensure that, at some stage, there is a review of all the split responsibilities of the various Departments with which the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executived link? Will he try to ensure, in his offer of talks with unions and representatives of the Opposition, that the argument about trade union recognition does not become the most important thing, which is the elimination of risk?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can give him the undertaking that he seeks: there will be a review of all the overlapping matters to ensure that they are limited, and there will be a review of the role of the certifying authorities, as Lord Cullen recommended, after the new regime is in place.

I draw the Minister's attention to paragraph 21.84, which welcomes trade union involvement in health and safety on offshore oil rigs. Will the Minister condemn the practice of oil companies that are operating a blackmail list—a blacking list of workers who have fought for health and safety at work on the offshore rigs? They are being denied their rights and opportunity honourably to earn a living by the offshore oil companies. Does the Minister realise that in my constituency people lost their lives and that people who are fighting for safety to be uppermost at their place of work are being denied the right to work? Will he condemn the practice of oil companies blacklisting honest and decent men?

If the hon. Gentleman has a blacklist, he had better send it for me to have a look at. We have seen no evidence of this blacklist, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary tells me that most of the people who were on strike are back at work in the North sea.

Does not the Secretary of State realise that his reply to the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) about the siting of the new unit in Aberdeen was totally inadequate? By the time those people have their feet under the desks, the position of the desks will have been decided. Why cannot he make the decision today? What are the arguments against having the unit sited in Aberdeen? Surely a decision should and could be made by the Government as quickly as possible.

The hon. Gentleman comes out in his true colours from time to time. He is clearly a doctrinaire man. If I had announced that I was deciding what to do without consulting any of the employees concerned, he would have been up in arms. As I said, this is a matter for the Health and Safety Executive to consider in the light of its new responsibilities. That is a perfectly reasonable point of view.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there will be no confidence in the arrangements offshore in the North sea while the operators carry out an anti-trade union policy and have blacklists, and while many people are intimidated because of their trade union actions? The right hon. Gentleman said that he is willing to meet the trade unions, and that is welcome, but the operators are not. Will the right hon. Gentleman use his influence so that the operators make a new start by taking the more enlightened view that he takes? Will he look——

Will the right hon. Gentleman look at the arrangements in the Norwegian sector of the North sea, which are much more civilised—where, for example, health and safety representatives have the power to stop a job if they think that there is a danger? They do not do that very often, because they do not need to do so. Will the right hon. Gentleman perhaps recommend some of those arrangements to the operators?

The hon. Gentleman, who knows a lot about these matters, talks about being civilised. I have said that I am prepared to talk to trade union leaders about the Cullen report and other matters relating to the North sea. Union recognition is a matter for the parties involved to decide between themselves. The question that is relevant to today's discussion is safety and Lord Cullen was clear—union recognition and safety matters are separate issues; one is not connected with the other. Indeed, Lord Cullen endorses the Government's approach, which is to allow all people who work in the North sea to have a say in safety matters. Our safety committee regulations give all workers a voice and provide new rights to raise safety issues and to call inspectors if workers are in any way disatisfied. We are content with those arrangements, and they have been endorsed by Lord Cullen.

Order. I am afraid that I shall not be able to call all the hon. Members who have been standing. I shall call two more Back Benchers and then the Opposition Front-Bench speaker. We must then move on to the debate on the Queen's Speech.

Will the Minister clarify two points that he made this afternoon? The first concerns safety in the work force. He told us at the beginning that everyone should participate in safety matters, and in answer to another question told us that he was against strikes. Many of the people who went on strike were my constituents. After Piper Alpha, they wanted their union to represent them on health and safety issues. That is all they wanted, and that right has been denied to them. Will the Minister also clarify——

Oh, go on. My question will be very short.

The Minister referred several times to the safety audit. Will he tell the House how that safety audit will operate, so that we will know that the operators are obeying its recommendations? Chapter 12 of the report refers to an audit recommendation that the diesel fire pumps should not be on manual mode during diving. There was already an audit recommendation to that effect, so how do we know that the safety audit will work?

The hon. Lady may be right in saying that some of her constituents went on strike because of their view about safety arrangements. All I can say to them is that their view was not endorsed by Lord Cullen, and I have accepted his report. The hon. Lady wants certain safeguards. The safety case which will have to be presented by any operator in the North sea will have to include an arrangement for the operators to audit their management of safety. The task of the regulator under these new arrangements is to see that that happens. If the Health and Safety Executive needs new powers, it is entitled to talk to me about that. I have accepted what Lord Cullen said about these matters'in their entirety.

I am sure that anyone who analyses the Minister's remarks and subsequently reads the report will conclude that the comments about the operators and owners of the rigs are most damning.

One aspect of safety has not been mentioned this afternoon. It concerns hours of work. Some of the men who work the rigs are working 12 hours on, 12 hours off, plus overtime. Some of our rig workers work no fewer than 2,300 hours a year plus overtime, whereas workers in the Norwegian fields work 1,600 hours. The Minister must apply his mind to the question and recognise that, with men working such long hours, the rigs must be in great danger.

I am not sure whether there is evidence to support what the hon. Gentleman says, although I recognise his concern about something that is a right and proper matter for inclusion in any arrangements. In the arrangements for the proper management of safety on rigs, it will have to be made clear that people should not work such long hours that they cannot concentrate on the job in hand: I entirely agree with that.

May I join hon. Members in expressing my appreciation to Lord Cullen for the magnificent job that he has done in cutting through the evidence and presenting a report which I think will mark a watershed in safety in the North sea? As a Scottish lawyer myself, I think that one of the advantages of having a Scottish lawyer do the job is that it helps to cut through some of the prejudices.

For the benefit of the Secretary of State, who appears to be somewhat dyslexic in his reading of certain aspects of the report, let me quote paragraph 21.84, which contains Lord Cullen's views on the trade union position:
"I am prepared to accept that the appointment of offshore safety representatives by trade unions could be of some benefit in making the work of safety representatives and safety committees effective, mainly through the credibility and resistance to pressures which trade union backing would provide."
That seems to me unequivocal.

It is inappropriate that the Secretary of State should pursue his prejudice, and his party's prejudice, against trade unions and about the benefits that they have clearly brought to the safety regime onshore. I still do not understand why that prejudice remains, especially as it prevents the Secretary of State from recognising the clearly expressed view of Lord Cullen that the safety systems and the involvement of the trade unions should be pursued offshore.

I have two questions for the Secretary of State. The first concerns legislation. It is clear—as the Secretary of State has admitted—that primary legislation will be required. The right hon. Gentleman had the report some three weeks before the Queen's Speech, although that speech contained no reference to possible legislation. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, if primary legislation is necessary, it will be introduced expeditiously—if possible during this Parliament and before the election?

Another question that needs to be asked, although not ncecessarily by me—I know that it is being asked by my constituents, by the survivors of the Piper Alpha tragedy and by the relatives of the victims—concerns responsibility. It is clear that the Secretary of State is being evasive in his interpretation of what Lord Cullen said. It was not only the oil company—Occidental—that was responsible. The company obviously had some responsibility but it operated according to the latitude allowed by the Department.

The question of the right hon. Gentleman's officials is dealt with emphatically by Lord Cullen in his report, but Lord Cullen is the first to point out that those officials were under-resourced and that they were operating in difficult circumstances and without strong political direction or support. It is clear that it was the Government who ignored the recommendations of the Burgoyne committee and who consistently under-resourced the inspectorate and tried to apply the principles of the free market to safety. They failed to recognise that, while the oil industry risks only its capital, oil workers risk their lives and therefore need the protection of a strong safety system.

The Government have consistently abdicated their responsibility. Will the Secretary of State today tell the survivors and relatives where the guilty party is and who will carry the can for the tragedy?

First, I share the hon. Gentleman's praise for Lord Cullen's skill. I am happy to associate the hon. Gentleman, who is a Scottish lawyer, with Lo rd Cullen. If Lord Cullen is a good example of a Scottish lawyer, then Scottish lawyers are good lawyers. The hon. Gentleman was right to praise Lord Cullen.

With regard to trade union recognition, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, I suggest that he and any other hon. Member who feels strongly about it should read the whole of the report before they reach a firm conclusion. In particular, they should read chapter 21.85 in which Lord Cullen states:
"I consider that it would be inappropriate for me to recommend any change in the method by which safety representatives are chosen."
Just as the hon. Gentleman can pick examples to make his point, so I can pick examples to make mine. We owe it to Lord Cullen and to those who work in the North sea to study this comprehensive report before we reach premature conclusions which may be of a partisan nature.

I have said that I have sent the report to the Lord Advocate, who must consider it in the light of his responsibilities. However, I have made it abundantly clear that I accept that the work of the officials in my Department was carried out with the best intentions and with the best skill and expedition.

Chapter 15.50 is one of the most significant parts of the report. Lord Cullen states there:
"Even if the shortcomings"——
that is, some of the shortcomings that were recognised in some of the officials—
"which I have mentioned above were made good would inspections be able by their nature to achieve the objective of assessing the adequacy of the installation as a whole?"
The answer to that forms the basis of the report—to recommend a completely new system for regulation.

I have answered the question about 1980 and 1990 on several occasions. There were many fundamental differences between 1980 and 1990. In 1980, the Government accepted the majority report of the Burgoyne committee. In 1990, we have accepted Lord Cullen's report. That is right and proper in both cases.