25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster

Peter Aldous speaks in a Parliamentary debate to reflect on the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster and to remember those who lost their lives and their families. He reiterates the importance of the lessons learned and of safety for those who continue to work in the dangerous working environment that is the North Sea.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): 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.

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Peter holds regular surgeries at various locations in the constituency. Please call 01502 586568 to make an appointment.

Next Surgeries - 2018: 
Beccles, Saturday 14th April
Lowestoft, Wednesday 30th May


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