I beg to move,
That this House has considered the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster.
On the night of 6 July 1988, an incident occurred on the Piper Alpha platform that led to the deaths of 167 men. It was the worst tragedy in the offshore oil and gas industry anywhere in the world. It was the direct consequence of negligence, bad management at every level, poor maintenance, extremely weak regulation and failure to have proper work systems in place or a proper safety strategy for major incidents. The regulation management and safety systems failed at every level. Those 167 men died, survivors suffered the most traumatic experience that any of us could imagine, many of them being seriously injured, and of course the families and relatives of those involved have been irrevocably damaged.
I am very pleased and proud to have the opportunity to open this debate to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha tragedy and to remember those who died and their families, and, of course, the rescue services involved and those who supported the survivors and families after the incident. As well as the Piper Alpha victims, it is important to remember all those who have died during the lifetime of the UK oil and gas industry, whether at sea, on land, on a platform, or on transport.
Last Saturday, along with several hundred others, I attended a memorial service in the Piper Alpha memorial rose garden in Aberdeen. I met many of the survivors and the families of victims. I was delighted to see the Secretary of State for Scotland and the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran), at that event representing the Government and the Opposition. Four hundred of those who attended were survivors or families of victims. Most of the individuals and families have moved on, but the mood on Saturday was as sombre as the mood in 1988. It was quite clear that for most of the people involved the memory of the horror of that day in 1988 remains just as vivid and distressing as it was then. The pain does not go away. Many things stand out about that service, but the most poignant and difficult was the roll call of victims—as graphic and emotional a way of underlining the sheer scale of the tragedy as any.
The 25th anniversary of the tragedy has had a good deal of media coverage, and it does not serve any real purpose to go through again all the detail of what happened on that night. However, I would like to focus on just a couple of issues relevant to the present and possibly also to the future.
As colleagues are well aware, following the disaster Lord Cullen was appointed to lead an inquiry into the disaster. He made 106 recommendations. The Cullen report was welcomed on all sides. It has changed the safety culture in the North sea and throughout the global oil and gas industry. Aside from the practical workplace and management issues, the most important recommendation was on the question of who should be the regulator. From the beginning of the North sea industry, the Piper and all other North sea installations were regulated by the then Department of Energy. The Department had two fundamental problems. The first was the conflict between its responsibility to maximise oil production and its duty as a regulator. More importantly, the Cullen report made the Department’s inadequacies abundantly clear. Cullen recommended that responsibility for offshore safety should be handed over to the Health and Safety Executive, where it resides today.
In the main, the HSE, through its offshore division, has been a good regulator, and there has been substantial improvement in the industry’s safety record. Recently, however, concerns were raised when the HSE announced that the offshore division was being merged into a new energy division. The announcement was made without any apparent consultation with the industry, unions or Members of Parliament. That raised concern on all sides, particularly as to whether the decision was driven by cuts in funding. However, we eventually received from the chair the rationale for the move. Ministers also came in with a promise of some extra inspectors.
The most recent information I have on staffing in the offshore division is that it has 109 full-time equivalent staff—14 more than 2010, so that is significant progress. However, across the HSE the total number of inspectors has fallen by 75 from 1,316 to 1,241. In future, with a merged division, it might be much more difficult for us to identify the precise numbers of dedicated offshore inspectors. Broadly speaking, there has been a steady improvement in the safety regime and in accident rates, but the industry remains dangerous compared with other UK industries. In 2011-12 the fatality rate was 6.9 per 100,000 workers compared with 0.6 for all UK workers. The major injury and fatality rate per 100,000 workers for offshore oil and gas is 130.8, compared with 90.4 for all UK workers. However, at a major event last week, a representative of one of the major oil companies cited a statistic suggesting that, on the basis of last year’s figures, the industry was the third safest, behind banking and education, but I have not seen that information.
Beyond safety, the other major issue facing the industry is the continuing problem of gas escapes on offshore platforms. We should remember that a gas leak led to the Piper Alpha tragedy. In 2011-12, there were 94 hydrocarbon releases, 44 of which were classified as significant. Nine of those were identified as a major incident, which is a leak that, if ignited, would cause an explosion capable of causing multiple casualties. Those nine cases were therefore very serious incidents. Last year, the Elgin-Franklin complex, which is operated by Total, was closed down because of a major gas leak. It was restarted, but then shut down again, and it was not fully operational until March this year. Gas leak statistics, like those for injury rates, are showing a steady improvement, but the volume of escapes and the scale of the Elgin-Franklin problem show that there is still a lot of work to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that one life lost is one life too many, and that that is why all the authorities and companies must work together to achieve maximum safety and security for all those working in such dangerous places to ensure that no life is lost in the future?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this valuable debate. Does he share my concern about reports that the number of planned inspections throughout the HSE’s entire operation in Scotland is likely to be significantly reduced this year? Given that last year, unfortunately, the number of casualties in Scotland increased overall, there is utterly no room for complacency on health and safety at work.
I will come to that point later in my speech, as I am dealing with the offshore oil and gas industry at the moment, but I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes.
The HSE has been increasingly proactive. It has embarked on several projects, one of the most important of which is the key programme project, which involves an assessment of the integrity of offshore installations. The KP3 report, which was published a few years ago, followed an assessment of 100 platforms. It told us that, in a number of cases, the industry was slipping back on areas such as the maintenance of platforms. In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions ordered a review of KP3, which showed that the industry had responded to its findings and that improvements were being made.
We have now reached the KP4 stage, and the interim report identifies several issues relating to ageing plant. Oil and Gas UK, the industry body, has established working groups to produce guidance and promote improvements. I understand that, as at the end of March, HSE had undertaken KP4 inspections of more than 75% of operators. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has also set up a senior oversight group, which includes the HSE, to supervise the implementation of the review’s recommendations. Such an integrated approach is necessary and appropriate.
While the industry is making progress on safety, the KP3 report shows that the regulator needs to be ever vigilant. A good job has been done, but several points still need to be considered. The trade union side recognises that progress has been made in the industry, but its officials are aware that there are several installations on which workers are afraid to bring up safety issues with their employers. Some employers tell union officials that they are put under pressure by the staff of the operator—the client—to cut corners.
The regulator also identifies problems. At the Piper 25 conference, Steve Walker, the retiring head of the offshore safety division, made several points, including about the control of work. The inadequacy—and failure—of the permit-to-work system led directly to the Piper Alpha disaster, and it is still a key weakness for the industry. Poor isolation and inadequate adherence to permit systems remain a common thread during incident investigation.
Another key Cullen recommendation is not being fully adhered to by some companies. The regulator is regularly taking enforcement action for maintenance and testing temporary safe refuges. A Health and Safety Executive inspection in 2011 found that there was still variation in the implementation of safety representative legislation. In other words, it is not being applied properly.
That last point is important, because one of the major steps that has been taken by the industry, with the full support of the HSE, is to recognise that safety offshore can only improve with the full engagement of the work force. That process is being led by Step Change in Safety.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I was on the energy desk at the Treasury when the Piper Alpha accident happened and it was truly terrible. One of the things I remember is that there were communication difficulties, because at that time quite a lot of foreign workers working offshore on British and American-managed platforms simply did not understand what was going on. Does my hon. Friend know whether that situation has improved in the past 25 years?
That certainly was not an issue for Lord Cullen. I think that the communication difficulty was the failure to have a proper management structure in place with a process to deal with such an incident. The only message that was put out was a mayday message. From recollection, I think that two foreigners—a Frenchman and, I think, a Spaniard—were killed in the Piper Alpha incident, so there was no issue there.
Under Step Change in Safety, materials have been produced and conferences held to encourage employers to accept that top-down management does not work. Full engagement and involvement of the work force at every stage of the work process is crucial. There is no doubt that there is a great deal of traction in the principles being set out by Step Change in Safety and most operations offshore are embracing the changes, some more enthusiastically than others.
At the Piper 25 conference, I attended a session where employees of Maersk Oil, which is fairly new to the North sea, spoke about its approach. It has gone for full engagement and has introduced a system that involves new rules about handling safety issues, encouraging workers to come forward with ideas to improve safety and to report safety concerns without fear of sanction and so on. Maersk Oil has produced statistics which show that since the inception of the new ideas, accidents have declined significantly and profits have increased. They present a win-win scenario—safer workplace, increased profit.
Others, while accepting the basic principle and making some progress, have been less enthusiastic. Old habits die hard and trade union officials and regulators tell me that as soon as they step off the helicopter and on to an offshore platform they can read the mood of the work force and what sort of approach the employer is taking to work-force engagement.
Despite that, there is no doubt that serious progress is being made. I have been involved with the oil and gas industry in one way or another for nearly 40 years. For most of that time, management was top down, harsh and very anti union, with a few exceptions on the contracting side. I would be a fantasist to suggest that the industry fully embraces trade unions. However, significant progress is being made. The industry recognises that the unions can make a valuable contribution to the workplace and safety. Trade unions are represented on the board of the industry training body OPITO—the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation—and one of the representatives chaired it for a number of years. Two full-time union officers were appointed to the separate taskforces set up to look into the Super Puma helicopter disaster a few years ago and the consequences of the Macondo incident in the gulf of Mexico. At this year’s industry safety awards the keynote speaker was the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.
One of the major issues for the industry this year has been the threat from the European Union to take control of offshore safety. A number of very senior figures in the industry have assured me that the turning point in a meeting with the Commission was the presentation made by John Taylor, a full-time official of Unite who would put to shame the Prime Minister’s cartoon image of Unite members—I guarantee it—and who is totally dedicated to the interests of his members.
I raise these issues because my biggest fear about the integrity of the steadily improving safety environment in the offshore industry is that the process is running in direct contradiction to Government policy. If we leave the union relationship aside, the industry is putting huge effort into its worker engagement and involvement strategy. It recognises the value of the worker on the shop floor, seeing him or her as a vital part of the business, contributing to the safety of the enterprise and—if we follow the Maersk line—its profitability.
Meanwhile, at the national level, we have various reports, including the Beecroft report, whose objective seems to be to take us back to Victorian times, chipping away at rights at work and job security, and changes to health and safety legislation. At a time when the oil and gas industry is still operating in one of the most dangerous work environments in the country, placing responsibility for safety on its work force and valuing each individual as a key part of the enterprise, I do not want to see these gains whittled away by Government action. Out of the Piper Alpha tragedy, there is clear evidence of serious progress on safety brought about by the close working together of industry workers and trade unions, but the North sea is a dangerous place and we cannot be complacent. The memory of the fate of the workers on that night in July 1988 should spur us on to achieve and maintain a safe working environment for all workers.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) for securing this debate and his work over many years campaigning for improved safety for those who work in the North sea. We should listen carefully to his words and advice; he was in the House at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster, and one of the challenges we face is that with the passage of time, those with direct experience of the horrific night of 6 July 1988 and those in office at that time are moving on, although I anticipate that he will be in his place for some time to come. There is a danger that those direct experiences and lessons learned might fade away and that the pursuit of safety might become a routine box-ticking exercise. This must not happen, and we owe it to the memory of the 167 men who died always to ask ourselves what more must be done to improve safety in this dangerous working environment.
I represent a coastal constituency where for centuries the economy and jobs have been inextricably linked to the North sea: in fishing and over the past 40 years in the oil and gas sector. While Piper Alpha was in the northern North sea, the tragedy could have occurred anywhere, and the people who work in the sector are often drawn from communities in Scotland, the north-east and East Anglia. They share a bond and invariably there are no boundaries to where they work. At present, increased activity in the North sea in both the oil and gas and renewables sectors presents East Anglia with considerable job creation opportunities. I want us to make the most of those opportunities, but in doing so we must always keep safety at the forefront of our minds. Corners must never be cut and we must always strive for the highest standards. The Government and business owe this ultimate duty of care to all who work at sea. The North sea has plentiful assets, which we must utilise responsibly, but always remembering that it is a dangerous place, particularly where hydrocarbons are present.
In recent days the newspapers, television and graphic words of those who saw the horrific events of 6 July 1988 unfold before their eyes have brought home to us the dreadful events of that night. This was not an unpredictable “act of God”, but an accumulation of errors and questionable decisions. Lord Cullen’s thorough and excellent inquiry left no stone unturned in establishing what happened and made 106 recommendations to improve safety. All these were accepted and implemented, and some have been taken further.
It is important that his legacy endures for a long time and that there is no room for complacency. The North sea is changing, and new challenges lie ahead. The blueprint that Lord Cullen set down should be viewed as a living document that must evolve to meet these challenges. To be fair, though, I do not detect any complacency from the Government in their pursuit of the highest safety standards. In the 10 years following the Step Change in Safety initiative in 1997, the number of fatal and major injuries fell by 70%. The 2010 target for reducing the number of hydrocarbon releases by 50% in three years looks as if it will be achieved, while the Piper 25 conference last month focused the minds of those who worked in this sector.
This debate provides an opportunity to pause, reflect and pay tribute to those who lost their lives and took part in the rescue mission. We must also remember that the lessons learned from Piper Alpha are as relevant today as they were in 1988, and a vivid reminder of the consequences of failure to manage health and safety properly. Yes, lessons have been learned and a very different approach and attitude prevail today, but there is an ongoing challenge for all involved in the oil and gas sector to continue to strive for the highest safety standards. In the words of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, we should ask, “What more should we be doing?”
The North sea is one of this country’s most important assets. In realising the opportunities it affords, we must not only respect and nurture it, but place at the top of our list of priorities the safety and well-being of those who work there.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous). I want to make a short contribution to this debate because when I was a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, I responded to the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) five years ago, and I pay tribute to him for ensuring that we do not forget what happened at Piper Alpha.
To echo the hon. Member for Waveney, we must remember the human side to this tragedy, and I beg the House’s indulgence if I give the personal testimony of someone who was pretty well known to us—Gavin Cleland, a pensioner from Glasgow. I want to read some extracts from a speech he made to a conference on safety and corporate criminal accountability in October 2003. He opened by saying:
“My name is Gavin Cleland and my younger son, Robert, was killed in the Piper Alpha disaster, just over 15 years ago. On 6th July…167 men on board the Piper Alpha oil rig were killed, and Robert was one of them…My story is just one of those many tragedies. When Robert was killed he was 33 years old…Before I tell you of some of the things that I have done over the past 15 years to get justice—”
he was a tireless campaigner—
“I want to say a few words about our dear son, Robert.”
This is what will, I hope, bring the issue home to us as politicians.
Robert was born in 1954 in, as Gavin said,
“the best room of his granny’s council house, in…Carntyne”.
He was the youngest of three boys, and he left school and served his apprenticeship as a plumber. He joined the Royal Highland Fusiliers and went to work in the North sea in the offshore oil industry.
As you will be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker, there was probably no constituency in Scotland that did not feel the impact of the Piper Alpha tragedy. Many men—the boys, as they were often called—would leave every other fortnight to go to the North sea. They included people from the area where I lived as much as those from around Aberdeen. It was a time when young, talented and skilled men had to get a job.
Gavin goes on to say that he could not believe at first what was happening to him and his family, and to that lovely young boy born in his granny’s council house, and he became a tireless campaigner all the way through what was left of his life. Scottish Members will remember that there was probably no conference that Gavin did not attend, and there was rarely a situation that he did not write about, or as he said, “pester” MPs, Prime Ministers and MSPs, to try and get, as he saw it, justice for the people who died on that terrible night.
I remember it well. I was making my children’s breakfast before they went to school and we could not believe what was unfolding in front of our eyes on television. If my memory serves me right, the voice of Jane Frankie—a BBC journalist of some renown—tried to bring this story into our kitchens, living rooms and homes, and we should never forget that. That is why the challenge for the Government and the Health and Safety Executive outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North is crucial. We cannot cease to be vigilant about what is happening in the North sea.
I want to ask the Minister some questions to test him on whether the commitments I gave five years ago—on behalf of government in its generic sense—have been pursued and to find out what progress has been made. The partnership between trade unions, workers and operators is crucial. We need to ensure that it is strengthened and deepened. Is that happening? My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North mentioned the KP3 report. I would like to know what is happening on that front. The amalgamation with the energy section has flagged up concerns about the focus of that new division in the Health and Safety Executive. It is not just people in this House, but the Gavin Clelands of this world—all the mums, dads, brothers and sisters who lost their sons and brothers in the Alpha disaster—who deserve to have the confidence that the HSE will continue to be vigilant.
I am pleased to take part in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing it. Indeed, I acknowledge all the work he has done, both inside and outside the House over many years, to campaign on safety in the oil and gas industry.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I was at the memorial service in Aberdeen, on a sunny morning last Saturday in the memorial garden. I was moved perhaps more than I expected to be, particularly when the families were invited to come up with their wreaths—we are talking about 400 people. Watching young adults, who were obviously babies when their fathers were killed, holding up tiny children just to touch the names of the granddads they never knew brought home to me in a personal way just what a human tragedy this was.
I was on a trade and industry visit to Romania at the time. It is worth recording the fact that the incident was all over before I had even heard about it. There was no e-mail and no mobile phones. I felt a long way from my people who were suffering and unable to do very much—although to be honest, I am not sure that that is when Members of Parliament are at their most useful. What we did have to do, obviously, was provide support to the families and the bereaved, ensure a process that would get to the bottom of what was wrong, and put in place mechanisms and a culture to ensure it would never happen again.
Oil and Gas UK and its contractors produce figures from time to time. Usually, my constituency has the highest or second highest number of people working in the industry. It is important to remember, 25 years on, that the industry is still huge. It is still the driver of our economy. Although a 100% guarantee of safety is never possible, there are still thousands of people working or travelling offshore who need the assurance that everything is being done to ensure that safety is paramount.
A number of the events around the 25th anniversary have illuminated the fact that there are still some worrying cultural problems, to which the hon. Member for Aberdeen North alluded. He talked about the danger of a top-down approach. My instinct is that I genuinely believe top management when they say to me, “Safety is paramount.” They believe that that is what drives their culture. The problem is that people down the line have a dilemma. Their job is to produce oil and gas. If somebody says, “I’ve got a problem,” or, “I’ve got an anxiety,” there is a tension. Bob Keiller, the chief executive of the Wood Group, made an impressive speech at a dinner a couple of weeks ago in Aberdeen, in which he highlighted that dilemma. His view was: “Safety is paramount—period.”
That is crucial, but it is worth making the point—Maersk is a good example of this—that safety is paramount because there is a moral responsibility to ensure that people get back to their families, but in the end, if a company does not act, its commercial viability will be destroyed. Whoever hears of Occidental in this part of the world now? Indeed, after the Macondo and Texas disasters, one more disaster would be the end of BP. Had Total not got on top of Elgin, it would have been the end of Total. I give the company credit for the work it did and for not rushing back into production until it was fully satisfied that it was on top of things.
I noticed in the very good documentary that was shown on the BBC this week that one of the men said, “We always thought that the biggest risk in this job was the journey to and from the rig,” and that is still the case. It is ironic that only yesterday the Civil Aviation Authority said that it is ready to give clearance for Super Pumas to come back into operation. I think there will be a great deal of caution and reservation about that, and nobody should be getting into a Super Puma until everybody is sure that everything possible has been double-checked to ensure a proper degree of safety.
We should recognise that this is a dangerous environment and that a culture of safety must be paramount. Nobody at any level should ever think twice about stopping production if there is the remotest concern about safety—it is in the best moral and commercial interests of their organisation. If anything can be learned from Piper Alpha and the excellent Cullen report, it must be that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this important debate on this tragic anniversary. None of us who saw the television pictures of the Piper Alpha disaster will ever forget the horror of that night and its tragic aftermath.
The oil and gas industry is a vital part of the local economy in my constituency, as it is in many others throughout large areas of Scotland. I have many constituents who are employed in the industry not only in the North sea, but around the world. Many companies in my constituency do a great deal of work for the oil and gas industry. Many of my constituents have friends and relatives who work in the industry. They all want to ensure their safety at work.
Twenty-five years ago, 167 people died and 62 survived. It is right that we reflect on them and on the tragic impact on their relatives and loved ones. Many survivors suffered huge trauma. The families, as we have heard from tales told on television in the past couple of weeks, suffered greatly with them. We need to remember the heroic work of the emergency services, in particular, the crews of the fast rescue craft, who, I understand, recovered 45 of the 62 survivors in very difficult circumstances. Their bravery was commented on by Lord Cullen in his report.
The Cullen report put forward a large number of recommendations, which substantially improved safety offshore, and that work continues. We can never afford to let our guard down and we must ensure that we maintain the safety record that has now been established in the North sea industry. The emphasis on safety is vital for those who work offshore, for those constituents whose friends and family work offshore, and for all of us who recognise the economic importance of the industry.
As has been mentioned, a range of events are taking place to mark the 25th anniversary of Piper Alpha: the restoration of the memorial in Hazlehead park in Aberdeen; the major conference that has been mentioned; and the film referred to by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), “Fire in the Night”, which has recorded for ever the testimony of those who survived the disaster, and that of their families. These events will ensure that we never forget what happened.
Oil and Gas UK’s health and safety report was published last month. It showed a 48% reduction in the number of reportable hydrocarbon releases over three years; a much better record on non-fatal accidents; and a steady reduction in the incidence of over-three-day injuries. However, the industry faces difficulties on safety. One thing that has been apparent for some years is the ageing work force in the North sea. Many of them remember Piper Alpha and have been brought up in that safety culture. That is changing now, as more and more young people are being encouraged to join the industry through very good work by OPITO. There is a danger that many youngsters do not remember what it was like before Piper Alpha. We must ensure that the safety culture is understood by everybody, and especially by the youngsters now going to work offshore.
The industry itself is changing. Many installations in the North sea are quite old, with some coming to the end of their lives. They pose an inherent danger, and it is important to recognise that and for there to be proper safety inspections. The industry is moving: the traditional North sea is a mature basin these days, but the industry is still exploring the Scottish coast. New exploration is taking place west of Shetland, in very deep and dangerous conditions. It will be very difficult to get oil out of there, and it is important that we continue to send out the safety message. It is of paramount importance that our constituents who go out to work on the rigs to get the oil and gas that is so important for our economy are able to work in a safe environment.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on giving us this opportunity to pay tribute to the victims of Piper Alpha and to ensure that we remember the lessons that need to be learned. I should of course remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests that relates to the oil and gas industry, particularly my shareholding in Shell. However, my interest in the debate, like that of the hon. Members for Aberdeen North and for Angus (Mr Weir) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), stems from the fact that we represent a part of the country that is touched by, and lives with, the oil and gas industry on a day-to-day basis.
We need to remember that the work force in that industry, particularly the offshore work force, come from throughout the country, and that people from all parts of the United Kingdom were touched by the tragedy. Our thoughts today are with the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives, and with the survivors, as we remember the terrible events. The re-dedication of the memorial garden involved a poignant and moving service that reminded us that, above all, the oil and gas industry is a people business. It might contain a lot of big industrial structures and high-tech industry, but ultimately it is people who make it work and it is people who suffer when it goes wrong.
I also pay tribute to Lord Cullen for the lessons that he has given us, and the legacy that he has left us. His investigation led to a sea change in the whole offshore safety regime, and to a permanent restructuring and refocusing of the system. It also led to the introduction of the safety case regime, after which companies could no longer simply tick a box and say, “I’ve complied with the regulation, so I’ll be okay if something goes wrong.” Under the regime, a company has to assess the risks and come up with its own safety case. That, too, is a lasting legacy.
The Piper 25 conference brought together representatives of the industry, the work force and the regulators, to refocus their efforts to ensure that all the lessons are being learned and all the issues are being dealt with. I want to pay tribute to the organisers of the conference. It would have been easy to have had a conference that simply paid lip service to the 25th anniversary and went through the motions, but the hon. Member for Aberdeen North and I, who were both there, agreed that it was a genuine attempt to take forward safety matters and to ensure that more lessons were learned.
We must avoid complacency. It has been pointed out that there are still many leaks, although fortunately they have not been ignited. If they had been, there could have been equally tragic consequences, so a redoubling of efforts is crucial. There have been other incidents in the North sea, and more lives have been lost, although not on the same scale as Piper Alpha. They are none the less equally tragic for the victims and their families and friends, and we must remember them, too, at this time.
There has been a refocusing on safety, but a danger is creeping in because the risks that are the easiest to measure are the slips, trips and falls—the people safety risks. There has, therefore, been a chasing of statistics that has focused on that element, and perhaps a lack of recognition of the importance of structural safety and integrity. The KP3 and KP4 reports focused on ensuring that that was understood. Structural safety issues might not show up so often in the statistics, but when something goes wrong, the effects are far more dramatic and serious. That structural safety element must be paramount.
Certain challenges remain, including that of ageing infrastructure. Ironically, the really old platforms were so over-engineered that, even though some of their equipment and processes might need rededication and redesigning, the actual structures have many years left in them. In a sense, the more dangerous legacy is the stuff that was built at the time of low oil prices when costs were kept to a bare minimum. The structural integrity of those platforms needs a great deal of investigation.
We have heard about the concerns relating to the new energy division. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North said, some reassurance has been received, but the jury is still out. Much of what was attempted was designed for the best of motives, but it was perhaps not presented in the most effective way. Post-Macondo, we have the restructuring of the safety and environment regime as a result of the EU’s intervention, which will divert resources into resubmitting safety cases, rather than looking at new safety cases. Someone working offshore now aged 30 was just starting primary school when Piper Alpha happened. It is important for that legacy to be passed on to the next generation and to the new owners who have mainly not inherited the same culture as the original owners of the platforms. Redoubling safety is the best legacy for the members of Piper Alpha.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), who knows as well as any and perhaps better than most that things changed for ever as a result of the events of 6 July 1988. They changed for the families, the wives, the children and the parents of the 167 who died. Things changed for the 61 who survived, who remain haunted 25 years on by the memories they still have of the events of that day. Many of those men still live with both the physical as well as the mental scars of surviving when so many others—colleagues and friends—did not.
Things changed for ever, too, for the families of the survivors who have had to live with the effects on their loved ones and on the communities from which the men who died came. I know that things changed for my neighbours who worked offshore when they suddenly realised, “There but for the grace of God”; it was not until the Piper Alpha disaster that they realised just how dangerous the job was. It certainly changed for ever the offshore oil and gas industry, which woke up to the dangers of the business and how heavy a price had to be paid if safety was not embedded into everything it did. Here was a stark and tragic illustration of just how important a strict safety regime is, and how crucial it is to carry out maintenance in a timely and safe manner, in order to keep the workers safe. It is terrible that it took the worst offshore disaster in history to act as a wake-up call to an industry that had in many ways behaved like the Klondikers of the American west.
The biggest change, of course, was the implementation of all 106 recommendations of Lord Cullen’s report. All those recommendations were accepted by both the Government and the industry, and the offshore culture did change. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North, I think the most significant recommendation was that the Department of Energy could no longer be the regulator of the industry, and responsibility was passed to the Health and Safety Executive.
When I was a student, I worked in the purchasing department of Occidental’s headquarters in Aberdeen throughout the summer of 1977. Occidental was the operator of Piper Alpha, and it was found culpable by Lord Cullen’s inquiry. Despite that, no one was prosecuted. It was enough, however, for Occidental to disappear as a company and in a supreme irony, the building that housed Occidental in Aberdeen, where I had worked throughout that summer, became the home of the Health and Safety Executive, and it was renamed “Lord Cullen House”.
On Saturday morning, I attended the incredibly moving ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary in Hazlehead park at the Piper Alpha memorial garden in my constituency. There was much poignancy—a fly past of a Sea King helicopter, the seven minutes it took to read out all 167 names and the touching of the memorial. Some may say that marking the anniversary of such a disaster is somehow maudlin, wallowing in tragedy and should be only for those directly affected, but I am not one of them. The memorial is very important for the whole offshore industry. It acts as a stark reminder of just how important it is to take safety seriously, never to let standards slip and to listen to people who are expressing concerns about particular working practices. Memories do fade, and attention to a safety regime can fade too, so regular reminders of what can happen when safety is not at the forefront of people’s minds are necessary as well.
Although there has been a Step Change in Safety in the offshore industry and attention to safety is much more prominent now, it remains a dangerous industry. Lives were lost most recently in the helicopter crash of 2009 when 16 people died. Remembering events such as Piper Alpha forces those working in the industry to pause and to take stock of what improvements could be made, to shake out any complacency that may have crept in, to emphasise the need for regulations and to question whether there are enough inspectors of a high standard working in the HSE’s new energy division to keep an eye on the ageing infrastructure in the North sea.
The offshore industry is not only important to the economy and prosperity of the north-east of Scotland but is one of the main economic drivers of the UK economy. It is a crucial industry, but the wealth it creates should not come at the cost of the lives and well-being of the people who work in it. The 25th anniversary of tragic events such as Piper Alpha serves to remind us all of how high the human cost can be in making sure that the oil and gas on which we all depend in our daily lives keeps flowing.
I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing the debate.
No one who watched the BBC documentary on Tuesday evening or who saw the pictures at the time can have failed to feel tense and even horrified at what happened 25 years ago at the Piper Alpha platform. The horrors were evident, as was the tremendous courage of the people who worked on the platform or were involved in the rescue attempts.
Twenty-five years ago, I was in my third year working in public relations for British Gas in the northern region. I had been privileged to visit offshore platforms in the North and Irish seas—and it was a privilege to rub shoulders with those who lived on a pile of steel many miles offshore to find and extract the vital energy our country needed. I pay tribute to them. On Teesside, we built many of those steel piles utilising some of the most highly skilled workers in the world, and there are many hundreds from the area I represent helping to maintain and operate the platforms not just in British waters but all over the world.
I know that health and safety—words often ridiculed as the most dangerous in the English language in terms of being a barrier to advancement and profit—has come a long way in 25 years and is not something that is important just offshore. It is a way of life. So it worries me, and worries the people who put their lives at risk working offshore, that we could be moving a little bit backwards in our commitment not only to having the highest standards, but to monitoring and enforcing them.
The tragic events that befell the Piper Alpha platform remain, to this day, the world’s deadliest offshore oil disaster. While 61 survived the events of 6 July 1988, we cannot repeat enough the fact that 167 people did not. Eight of those who lost their lives were from the Teesside area, where my Stockton North constituency is located. So were some of the survivors.
Lord Cullen’s critical report in November 1990 changed the entire safety culture for offshore firms and workers alike. The 106 recommendations he made for improving safety in the North sea resulted in a root and branch overhaul being accepted and implemented by the Government and the sector. I am sure that Members will wish to join me in applauding the HSE for its work in developing and implementing that regulatory framework, but it needs to remain in a strong position to address the issues as they arise and to continue the work to prevent disasters.
I was horrified to hear the HSE announce at a meeting of the Offshore Industry Advisory Committee that the planned restructuring will involve the abolition of the offshore safety division, the very inspectorate set up on the recommendation of the Cullen inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster. On 1 April, as part of a Government exercise to restructure the HSE, the OSD was merged into a single division covering the whole of the UK energy sector. As Members may already be aware, on 5 June, I tabled early-day motion 192 in connection with that. I was appalled that that decision, which will pose a challenge to the significant and continuing progress made in offshore health and safety, was taken without a meeting first being held with industry bodies, the HSE and the trades unions to discuss the transfer of that highly specialised role.
In pushing through plans to restructure the HSE and abolish the OSD, the Government could be demonstrating a certain level of contempt not only for Lord Cullen’s recommendations, but for the safety of the 30,000 or so offshore oil and gas workers plying their specialist trades in the North sea. Arguably, those irresponsible actions fly in the face of the European directive introduced last month, which requires member states to nominate a “competent authority” covering offshore safety to implement the directive’s provisions on planning for responses and preventing major hazards. Prior to the reorganisation of the HSE, I would have thought that such a move was unnecessary for the UK, as that extra regulation would largely mirror the reality on the ground. Now, however, I am not so sure. Not having a body responsible solely for offshore safety seems to me to be incompatible with the spirit of this directive and flies in the face of the lessons to be taken from Piper Alpha.
Concerns at the cessation of a stand-alone, specialist offshore safety inspectorate within the HSE and the link to the safety of the work force have also been voiced by those active within the industry. A survey in May this year of 5,000 offshore workers found that 75% think that the decision to scrap the OSD will undermine safety, with 62% venturing that changes of this nature risk a repeat of Piper Alpha. This is not a risk we should be taking, particularly at a time when platforms and infrastructure are ageing and the risk of safety issues is potentially increasing. Indeed, when speaking with a constituent who was aboard the Brae B platform at the time of the Piper Alpha tragedy, it was made exceptionally clear to me that this move could undermine the fight against complacency in the industry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this important debate.
As we have heard, 25 years ago 167 men lost their lives 120 miles off the coast of Aberdeen. My constituency of Inverclyde lost five men that night. They were fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, husbands and partners. It is said that my constituency is just one big village, so each and every community knew someone from Inverclyde who was lost on that dreadful night.
We can all recall where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news of the disaster—it is one of those moments in time. I remember being on holiday back in July 1988 and finding myself frozen in front of the TV as I watched the unbelievable pictures on the screen. I knew then that men who had taken their skills into an industry whose business was extracting oil and gas in one of the most demanding of environments had paid for that with their lives.
The dangers could only be imagined at that time, but they came horribly true that night as the safety errors began to stack up. For the men lost that night who had families, those families will now be grown up and have families of their own, but each and every day they remember those who never returned from work. For these families, I dare say that 25 years has not passed quickly or easily, and for those who survived, the events of that night feel as if they happened yesterday.
If any Member missed the BBC 2 documentary on Tuesday evening, I encourage them to view it. It described the true terror and horror that night in the words of survivors. Even after 25 years, men were reduced to tears when recalling their escape and those they knew who had not escaped.
Each time we turn on our heating or ignite the gas to prepare our meals, I wonder if we ever give a moment’s thought to those who work in these extremely challenging environments. I wonder if we ever consider the level of risk under which these people, who apply their skills in cutting-edge exploration to find and retrieve oil and gas to meet our ever-increasing demand, are working.
So what went wrong that night? The causes of that terrible disaster are complex, yet they involve failure in some of the simplest procedures. Even though the initial explosion and fire were large, they should not have resulted in the total loss of the platform.
There seem to be two important reasons for the severe escalation in the events of that night. First, the Tartan and Claymore platforms continued to feed oil and gas to Piper in spite of the fact that they could see Piper was on fire. They did not stop the oil and gas flow because the communications systems had been destroyed in the explosion and
“no one told them to stop.”
The second reason for the severe escalation was that the pumps where the initial explosion occurred were not protected by a blast wall. Piper Alpha had originally been built in 1976 as an oil platform and was later converted to handle gas. The original structure had only firewalls. With the addition of gas, these should have been replaced with blast walls. Like so many disasters before, it would be an accumulation of errors that would bring about the Piper Alpha disaster.
What came out of the investigation afterwards were over 100 recommendations on safety improvements. Even basic health and safety procedures were scrutinised and found wanting. The men of Piper Alpha had paid a terrible price to emphasise yet again the need always to prioritise health and safety.
Twenty-five years have passed and we can be thankful that we have seen no other disasters of this scale in our offshore oil industry. However, complacency on safety in the environments we now look to explore could again exact a terrible price if we do not remember Piper Alpha. We have seen again evidence of concern with the BP environmental disaster in the deep waters of the gulf of Mexico, which reminds us that we are pushing the boundaries of oil and gas exploration and retrieval. The men of Piper Alpha should never be forgotten as those who paid the ultimate price; they were pioneers prepared to work in one of the most dangerous environments, so that we can enjoy an uninterrupted supply in our energy demand. The lasting legacy of Piper Alpha should be a legacy of dedication to good health and safety practices. We rightly remember the men of Piper Alpha in this Chamber today, but let us also remember the families who lost a loved one. May they continue to have strength and courage each day to bear their loss.
Last Saturday, I, attended, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, the remembrance service for the victims of Piper Alpha at Hazlehead park in Aberdeen, as did many hon. Members here, including the Secretary of State. As hon. Members have said, it was a moving tribute that reminded us of the full scale and depth of the tragedy, and we saw again the sorrow of the families left behind. In this House today, we offer them our deepest sympathy.
I, too, remember Piper Alpha and the pain that was felt throughout Scotland at the loss of those who had given so much for a vital Scottish industry. May I, like others, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), who has been a constant advocate for the victims of Piper Alpha and has consistently worked since then to ensure the safety and protection of the workers in the oil industry? He speaks with great authority and has gained much respect for his work on these matters.
We have heard from many hon. Members about the events of 6 July 1988, and no matter how many times we hear these stories, they do not get any easier. Most of us have waved a husband, wife, son or daughter off to work in the morning—it is part of the rhythm of life—but few have had to deal with them not returning. That is what happened to the families of the 167 men who died as a result of the disaster on the Piper Alpha platform. The families of those who work in the North sea already make the sacrifice of having long weeks with loved ones away from home, and they worry about them working in a potentially dangerous environment. The very least that those who work in hazardous conditions can expect is that we have done all we can to guarantee their safety. With Piper Alpha, and with the whole oil and gas sector at that point in the 1980s, that was, sadly, simply not the case.
When Lord Cullen was appointed to lead the inquiry into the disaster, the then Government gave him a wide-ranging mandate to investigate the sequence of events that night and to make recommendations about how to prevent a similar disaster in the future. As many hon. Members have said, he completed his inquiry in 1990, producing a comprehensive and far-reaching report, and we still owe him a debt of gratitude for the work he did to bring in a new safety regime for the North sea.
Before turning to Lord Cullen’s recommendations, I want to spend a moment or two revisiting some of the points made by hon. Members about the sequence of events on board the platform on that terrible night. As has been said, the first explosion happened at just after 10 pm, when there were 226 people on board. Most of the witnesses remember the final thing they heard before the explosion as the pips from the radio news and the start of “News at Ten”. The captain of the Lowland Cavalier, which was stationed 25 metres away from the platform, reported seeing the start of the explosion, which looked like “a gas burner”. He said that
“it seemed to go along the bottom of the platform like a light blue explosion or ignition.”
Between four minutes past 10 and eight minutes past 10, three mayday calls were sent from Piper Alpha. Mike Craig, former chair of what was the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, was a radio operator on board another platform in July 1988, and he remembered hearing the first of the maydays from his radio room that night. He recalled recently that
“the radio operator on the Piper was heard sending a series of alarmed Mayday messages, and the whole horror of the disaster began to unfold. It was a long and harrowing night.”
At 20 past 10, another major explosion occurred on the platform when the Tartan gas riser ruptured, and the first men began jumping into the North sea from the north-west corner of the platform. By 10 to 11, there was a further massive explosion caused by the rupture of another gas riser, this time from MCP-01. That was the most powerful, projecting debris over 800 metres and with enough force to be felt more than a mile away.
All that time, the majority of the remaining survivors on the platform were following the instructions they had been given for emergencies, which were to gather in the accommodation unit and await rescue, but by this point no helicopter rescue was going to be possible. As Lord Cullen notes in his report:
“there was no organised escape. If leadership occurred in these escapes, it arose by individuals joining those who seemed to know their way around.”
Those actions probably saved the lives of the 28 men who escaped the accommodation block, but, as we know, many more did not make it out and when the block was salvaged later in 1988, 81 bodies were found inside. Just three hours after the first explosion, the centre of the platform had collapsed into the North sea and the few survivors who remained were picked up in the hours that followed.
The full horror of what happened on Piper Alpha can be seen from the many photographs that were taken that night. They show the platform engulfed in flames, fuelled by a constant stream of gas from the risers that did not properly shut down. The effect, according to one eyewitness, was like a giant “bunsen burner”.
The scale of the disaster called for a radical rethink of the safety measures in place in the North sea and that is what Lord Cullen provided. His 106 recommendations covered the safety regime, design of platforms, procedures for evacuations and the involvement of the work force. The safety case regime meant a rigorous system that elevated responsibility for safety on the platforms to board level. The move of the regulator from the Department of Energy to the Health and Safety Executive removed the conflict of interest caused by the Department being both regulator and beneficiary of the oil and gas extracted from the North sea.
Those wide-ranging changes in the oil and gas industry were absolutely necessary, but Members should be in no doubt that they could not have happened without the pressure brought to bear by the families of victims, their supporters and their trade unions.
Since then the industry has done much to mitigate risk and, as has been said, we have seen a significant reduction in the number of fatalities in the industry in recent years, but we must not be complacent. Concerns remain, particularly around the regulatory environment and the Government’s proposed changes to the Health and Safety Executive.
One of the linchpins of the Cullen report was the establishment of the regulator in a separate part of the HSE. After the Government’s proposed reorganisation of the HSE, the regulator for oil and gas will become part of a new energy division inside the organisation, ending the dedicated division for the first time since Lord Cullen’s recommendations were implemented. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) said, that was done with a lack of proper consultation with trade unions and with oil and gas companies.
In conclusion, will the Secretary of State assure the House that those changes will not affect the UK’s safety case regime and that that world-leading safety regime will not be affected? The increased risk that comes with operating ageing platforms and drilling in more hazardous environments and the events in the last year on the Cormorant Alpha platform, as well as the major gas leak from Total’s installation in the Elgin field in March 2012, mean that it is more important than ever that we do not forget the lessons of Piper Alpha. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he is satisfied with the inspection regime? What action has been taken on the issues identified in the interim report on key programme 4 and when will we find out when that report is to be published?
In particular, will the Secretary of State tell the House what discussions he has had with the oil and gas industry regarding the HSE’s observation that when it comes to ageing infrastructure,
“more innovative work is required…to involve the workforce”
in health and safety issues.
Twenty-five years ago Piper Alpha took 167 lives. The youngest victim was just 19—Mark Ashton from Inverurie. The oldest was David Wiser at 65. They were all men with lives left to live. Speeches in honour of them in this place are a fitting memorial, but today we should rededicate ourselves to taking continued action to ensure that such a disaster never happens again. In that way, we pay due respect to the victims and their families.
As the speech from the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) has just underlined, the events on Piper Alpha 25 years ago this week remain deeply shocking. The legacy of the tragedy has been profound. It is right that in this House we remember those who died and focus on what we must do to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this important debate through the Backbench Business Committee, supported by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and others across the House. They have all made hugely important contributions to the debate and I hope that in the brief period available I will be able to respond to a number of the points that have been raised.
As many have observed here this afternoon, the events of 25 years ago on the Piper Alpha platform were truly horrific—unimaginable, indeed. But the loss of 167 lives is something that families and communities across Scotland, the rest of the UK and overseas have to deal with every day, to this day. We must never forget those who lost their lives. On Saturday, like so many others, I had the honour of attending the service to mark the 25th anniversary of Piper Alpha at the memorial in Aberdeen’s Hazlehead park. Along with the First Minister, the Provost of Aberdeen, the shadow Scottish Secretary, local MPs and MSPs, and many industry representatives, I was privileged to join hundreds of family members and others in the act of remembrance.
The service led by Chaplain Gordon Craig was a moving and fitting tribute to those who lost their lives on 6 July 1988. The floral tributes from the families were many and varied. All were beautiful and all were a powerful reminder of the pain and loss so many have suffered. The flypast by the RAF Sea King helicopter reminded us of the work of the emergency services. The roll-call of those who lost their lives was a haunting reminder of the human cost of the disaster. The garden of remembrance, fully restored in time for the anniversary, provided a beautiful setting for the service. The restoration work in the gardens now allows the memorial to be set off appropriately.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for allowing me to intervene. May I ask him a question in relation to the emergency services? The Royal Air Force played a very important part in responding to the tragedy, including the loitering of a Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, which performed vital tasks. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the UK is now the only North sea country not to have a maritime aircraft capability, and could he explain how the tasks that were performed by the Nimrod 25 years ago could be matched, should there ever be a tragic accident again?
I join the hon. Gentleman in the tribute that I pay to the RAF of that time and since for the work that it does to maintain our maritime safety and in so many different guises. If he does not mind, I will not revisit the debate, which I appreciate he has sought to have on many occasions about maritime safety, other than to say that we remain thoroughly committed to the highest possible standards of maritime safety, as I hope the rest of my remarks will underline.
Before and after the service on Saturday we all had the chance to speak to some of the survivors and families and those, such as the social workers, who have been by their side all these years. That was a humbling part of the proceedings—the quiet dignity of the survivors; the shared stories of the families; the determination that the legacy of Piper Alpha will be an endless quest for the highest possible safety standards.
The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) underlined that with her speech, highlighting the tireless efforts of Gavin Cleland and other family members over the years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) rightly focused on the safety culture that needs to run right the way through all organisations. The hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) stressed the importance of ensuring that new and young entrants understand the safety culture. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) focused on the industry’s efforts, particularly at the recent Piper 25 conference, to ensure that serious impetus is given to structural safety and that many other aspects are not forgotten.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) rightly underlined the importance of the memorial in her constituency, which looks fantastic. By the time the roses are out, it will be a truly special place. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), like the hon. Member for Waveney, highlighted the fact that this is not just about Scotland; it is a broader tragedy. He rightly made some challenging comments about the Health and Safety Executive, to which I will return shortly. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), repeating some of the earlier themes, highlighted the extreme complexity of the series of problems that occurred that tragic night. The hon. Member for Glasgow East gave a graphic reminder of the disaster and its legacy. I hope to deal with the points she raised in the remaining time available.
As well as focusing on the families, as was right, every contribution we heard today also focused on safety. In my role as Secretary of State, I have seen at first hand over the past three years the work of many companies in north-east Scotland that are at the forefront of the industry. The people who work for them are at the front line, and all the way back through the supply chain it matters that safety counts at every turn. The industry employs over 29,000 people offshore at any one time and supports hundreds of thousands more jobs onshore, and £11.2 billion was paid in tax on production in 2011-12, so it is really important to the country.
The industry faces challenges in the years ahead as we seek to access reserves that are becoming ever harder to reach. We are rightly focused on ensuring that the correct fiscal regime is in place to drive the necessary investment to maximise the returns from the UK continental shelf and underpin future decommissioning, but that will count for nothing unless we maintain the strongest possible safety regime for those working offshore. We need to ensure the viability and security of that key sector of the UK economy, but every bit as important is the protection of the individuals who work in it.
We have heard many observations this afternoon about the Cullen inquiry. We still owe Lord Cullen a huge debt for his recommendations, which have been implemented in full. A revolution took place in North sea safety as a result of the lessons learnt from the Piper Alpha catastrophe. We have a duty to maintain the highest possible standards. Only recently the European Commission published its directive on oil and gas safety and environmental measures. It borrows heavily from the United Kingdom’s regime, which we welcome. We are committed to meeting the implementation deadline in July 2015 and will immediately be working with the industry, the work force and other interested parties to develop the necessary legislation. We envisage the formal consultation taking place from the spring of 2014.
Piper Alpha might have revolutionised North sea safety, but Deepwater Horizon, the Cormorant oilfield and the Elgin leaks remind us that there is never any room for complacency, and that must begin in government. We recognise that this is not just about action from the industry; it is also about the role we must play at every turn. Regulators must share lessons and evolve to meet current and future challenges.
A number of Members mentioned the Health and Safety Executive and the creation of a new energy division that will bring together its offshore division, its gas and pipeline specialists, both onshore and offshore, and its mines inspectorate. At the heart of these changes is our desire to enable the HSE to meet the wider challenges of emerging and new energy technologies but also to underpin the core efforts that we must continue to make in the North sea and the offshore sector.
Our approach to inspections will not change. We will still have the proactive programme, as in the past, and that is important. The HSE has also been given ministerial approval to recruit additional offshore staff and to widen the range of recruitment methods to maximise the chances of identifying suitable recruits. Hon. Members have made detailed points and broader points about health and safety, and I will ask the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), to address them after this debate.
Another issue that has been raised is the impact of asset life extension on safety in the North sea, and it is right that we should turn our attention to that. In the 2008 debate mentioned by the right hon. Member for Stirling, there was a commitment to review the key programme 3 report on asset integrity, which had shown some less than satisfactory outcomes. The review found that the industry had allocated considerable new resource and effort to improve offshore assets, supported by evidence of good progress in addressing more general issues identified by the KP3 work. The findings of the review show that we all need to recognise the ongoing need to keep our focus on the assets that we have. That is why it is so essential that the HSE-initiated KP4, the ageing and life extension inspection programme, also comes to fruition. That programme will run until December this year before finalising its findings. An interim report was published last autumn and we aim to publish the final report as soon as possible after it has concluded.
Throughout the debate, Members have rightly focused on the role of the work force in the North sea. We continue to seek the highest level of engagement with the work force at every turn, particularly in relation to safety. Nobody is closer to those hazards or understands them better than those who work on the different platforms and installations, and we have to ensure that we work closely with them in designing and maintaining our safety regime. However, as Members have highlighted, safety culture cannot be achieved simply through legislation. It is a combination of many factors, including leadership and basic competence that translates into a set of behaviours at all levels in an organisation. That is why it is so important that the industry keeps working with all its different stakeholders to ensure that safety is at the heart of every regime.
I pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee and to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North for bringing forward this debate in this particular week. It is so important that we remember the tragedy of 25 years ago. Above all, we must not forget the lessons of the past. We must not forget those who lost their lives on Piper Alpha. We must continue to take the action necessary to ensure that safety is at the heart of everything in the North sea.
First, I thank all colleagues who have contributed to the debate. It is an important debate not only, as has been said, for those of us in the north-east who are in direct contact with the industry, but for those whose constituents work in the industry. Those workers come from all over the country and from many other countries. As everyone has recognised, it is a significant industry that makes a huge contribution to the Exchequer.
Two thoughts occur to me. First, it is always helpful to have a debate about the reality of health and safety and the consequences for those who work in any industry of poor safety systems, a lack of safety systems, or poor management of safety systems. We have been talking about the awful reality in, yes, an admittedly extreme case. Away from the cauldron of party and ideological differences, we have made the important point that health and safety is fundamental, as Bob Keiller said and as many others involved in the North sea are recognising, as are, I hope, people throughout the country.
Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) reminded me of Gavin Cleland, whose son tragically died in the incident. I first met Gavin in the Shadow Cabinet Room after it happened. He was part of a group I had brought down to London because they wanted to meet the various politicians involved, including the then Secretary of State for Energy. One of Gavin’s ambitions was to campaign for a prosecution, because that is one of the key things that is missing from the case. Despite all the evidence in the Cullen report and everywhere else, there was no prosecution. I am not calling for a prosecution at this stage, but at a time when many historical cases are being looked at in retrospect, such as Hillsborough and events in Northern Ireland, re-examining the Piper Alpha case is worth considering. What holds me back, however, is the fact that that might be difficult for a lot of those who were involved, especially the survivors and the families—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).