Newly-declassified papers have painted a dramatic picture of the moment Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet was told about the Piper Alpha Disaster.
The late Cecil Parkinson – who was energy secretary at the time – broke the news to the prime minister and colleagues just hours after the devastating explosion on the platform.
The Cabinet minutes reveal he admitted government inspectors had visited Piper Alpha on June 28 – days before it exploded on July 6, 1988.
He told Mrs Thatcher the revelation would make a public inquiry into the disaster inevitable – although he was ordered to “consider the form” any such probe would take.
The energy secretary also reassured Cabinet ministers, as the platform still blazed, that terrorists did not appear to be involved.
Days later, Mr Parkinson warned fellow ministers that trade unions were trying to “make capital” out of the incident – a move that should be “firmly opposed”.
The Piper Alpha Disaster led to the deaths of 167 people, in what was the world’s worst offshore incident.
In 2014, the Press and Journal revealed that the UK Government abandoned plans to invest extra cash in North Sea safety two years before the explosion – because it was not deemed a priority.
The minutes of the July 7, 1988 Cabinet meeting, released under the 30-year rule, state: “The secretary of state for energy said that there had been a very serious explosion and fire the previous evening on the Piper Alpha oil platform operated by Occidental Petroleum.
“The latest information was that only 63 of the 227 people on board the rig had been rescued and the chances of finding further survivors must be remote.
“The explosion had virtually destroyed the platform.
“It would be very difficult to establish the cause of the explosion. There was no evidence that sabotage was to blame and there was no reason to link it with incidents at, or close down, other oil rigs.
“He (Mr Parkinson) was considering the form of the inquiry which would be necessary to establish the cause of the explosion, but was inclined towards a public inquiry rather than an internal one by his department’s safety inspectorate, who had completed their annual routine inspection of the rig as recently as June 28.”
In response, Mrs Thatcher said the Cabinet “would wish to place on record their condolences for the bereaved and injured and their appreciation of the efforts of the emergency services”.
The energy secretary should also make a statement to the House of Commons “that afternoon” to update MPs.
The prime minister added: “(Mr Parkinson) should … consider urgently the form of the inquiry into the cause of the explosion, taking into account the need to reassure those who worked on rigs that all steps were being taken to ensure their safety”.
The Cullen Inquiry into the disaster led to no fewer than 106 recommendations for changes to North Sea safety procedures.
A week after the explosion and subsequent fires, Mr Parkinson told the Cabinet that the incident would result in the “loss” of 4.2million tonnes of oil – costing the Treasury £330million.
He also accused trade unions of trying to use the tragedy to “jeopardise” North Sea production.
Minutes from the July 14 Cabinet meeting state: “(Mr Parkinson said) it was most important that the trade unions’ attempts to make capital out of the disaster, and to jeopardise North Sea oil production, should be firmly opposed.”
By July 24, the chances of industrial action as a result of the disaster had “receded”, Mr Parkinson told the Cabinet. He said he anticipated relationships with unions entering a “calmer period”.
The minutes add: “(the energy secretary) knew that companies responsible for other platforms were redoubling their efforts to promote safety”.