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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the helicopter crash that occurred 14 miles off the coast of Crimond, Aberdeenshire, north-east of Peterhead just before 14.00 yesterday. A Eurocopter Super Puma, operated by Bond Helicopters on a charter for BP, crashed in the North sea approximately 14 miles off Rattray Head, which is 38 miles north-east of Aberdeen. The helicopter was returning from BP's Miller oil field platform, 35 miles north-east of Aberdeen. On board were a flight crew of two pilots and 14 passengers. All were wearing survival suits.
The Aberdeen coastguard was informed of a ditched helicopter at just before 14.00, and two life rafts were spotted in the water. Two helicopters from the RAF bases at Lossiemouth and Boulmer were scrambled to the scene alongside a Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from RAF Kinloss. RNLI lifeboats from Peterhead and Fraserburgh were launched to join the search. Eleven other vessels also responded to the mayday signal from the coastguard, and one vessel was on scene within minutes of the alert. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has been co-ordinating the extensive search and rescue operation.
Tragically, the bodies of eight people from the helicopter have been recovered and are now with the Grampian police to undergo identification procedures, and the remaining eight are currently unaccounted for. Search operations by dedicated rescue units were suspended at around 23:00 last night to rest crews and for refuelling, although other vessels in the vicinity continued to search the area. Dedicated units resumed their recovery efforts at first light this morning. Those who have died or are missing have not yet been named, while police work to contact their relatives. BP has set up an emergency contact line for concerned relatives, friends and colleagues.
Members on both sides of the House will rightly wish to express our collective sympathy and our individual prayers for those who have lost friends and family in the crash. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, this was a tragic day in the North sea. We all stand today in solidarity and mourning. This tragedy reminds us that despite the North sea's remarkable improvements in safety, it can be one of the harshest environments on earth. Every day, brave men and women work there to bring us the oil and gas our country needs.
I would like to praise the work of the MCA, the Royal Air Force, the RNLI and other vessels who responded so quickly to the distress call; and of the Grampian police, who are co-ordinating the investigation into the crash. They have all worked together to respond with well-prepared contingency plans in very difficult circumstances. I have also spoken to Scotland's First Minister, who is making a statement in the Scottish Parliament today.
The air accidents investigation branch is conducting a full investigation into the circumstances of the event, and a team of 14 air accidents investigation branch staff have been deployed to Aberdeen, including experts in helicopter operations, engineering, flight recorder replay and data analysis. The work to identify the causes of the accident began this morning, but what appears clear is that there was a catastrophic impact as the helicopter crashed into the sea.
Hon. Members will be aware that there was another accident on
Yesterday's crash involved a Eurocopter AS332L2 Super Puma manufactured in 2004. It occurred when the helicopter was in cruising flight, in daylight with benign weather conditions, when the crew broadcast a short mayday call without identifying the nature of the emergency. The helicopter was seen to descend rapidly to the surface of the sea. Consequently, given the evidence to date, there are no indications of any causal links relating the two events.
I know that the House will understand that the air accidents investigation branch report on yesterday's tragedy will take some time to prepare. Once complete, the report will be presented to the Secretary of State for Transport. However, as the inquiry progresses, factual information will be released and any safety action recommended as appropriate. We will consider the findings of the investigation carefully and take the necessary action to protect safety levels in the North sea.
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I apologise to the House for not being present for the start of the Secretary of State's statement, and thank him for an advance copy. I also thank him for coming to the House to make the statement, although sadly in relation to such a tragic loss of life. I, and Members on both sides of the House, echo his sentiments and thoughts for the families and friends of all those who have lost their lives, and for all those who continue to work on the North sea.
The whole nation will share the Secretary of State's gratitude to the personnel of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the RNLI, the Royal Air Force and the commercial and marine organisations that have given their help to the search and rescue effort. The crew of the Caledonian Victory support ship performed a particularly heroic duty in being first on the scene. The failure to locate any survivors must have been very traumatic for all those involved.
This incident reinforces to all of us just how dangerous and uncompromising a working environment the North sea is. When we make use of the oil or gas that it produces, or indeed the revenues that it generates, we must always be grateful to the dedicated people who work there. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that the health and safety of those workers must always be our priority. May I therefore ask him what he expects the timetable to be for investigating the aircraft wreckage and establishing the cause of the crash? Will he give his personal undertaking to work with colleagues across the UK Government to do everything possible to expedite a preliminary report from the air accidents investigation branch and the Civil Aviation Authority into what caused the catastrophic failure that resulted in such a loss of life?
Does the Secretary of State agree with me about the importance of not substituting speculation for a technical inquiry and of distinguishing the cause of individual incidents? Does he agree that in the light of three major incidents—two in Scotland and one in Canada—within a relatively short period, a wider review of practices in relation to the use of helicopters in oil and gas exploration may be necessary fully to restore the confidence of those who have to use them?
Is the Secretary of State aware of an issue that has been raised in the media about the decision of BP to remove beacons from individual lifejackets following a previous incident? Will he ensure that that is fully investigated so that it can be fully demonstrated whether this decision played any part in the time scale in locating those on board after the crash?
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to discuss with colleagues in the Department for Transport the Conservative proposal to review the MCA staff's terms and conditions in relation to other emergency services? This sort of incident demonstrates the legitimacy of their claim to be part of our emergency services.
Finally, will the Secretary of State confirm that he will work as closely as possible with the First Minister and the Scottish Government on all aspects of the aftermath of this incident that fall within the devolved responsibilities?
Those who are so tragically affected by these events will welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments of solidarity, support, sympathy and prayer. That is rightly reflected across the entire House. He asked a number of specific questions, to which I will briefly respond in turn. I am happy to talk to him on any occasion about the matters that he raised.
The rescuers were on the scene within 12 minutes, and it is my understanding that when they arrived there were two life rafts there, both overturned, and the rescuers sought to see whether there was any sign of life on or near those life rafts. Tragically, there was not; they were both overturned with no sign of life.
On the hon. Gentleman's point about the removal of personal beacons, without going into all the details—of course, this is for the inquiry to look into—I understand that as a consequence of the findings after the previous incident, it was decided to remove the individual wristwatch beacons because of the important way in which the different beacons on life rafts, aircraft and individuals co-ordinate with one another. These beacons do not work when submerged in water, so those wearing them could not have been more easily tracked. In this instance, the issue of beacons has not been as significant as it may have been in other incidents or tragedies, because there was a very early sighting of the incident from close nearby, and so there was no need for a wide-ranging search, as there was an immediate pinpoint search.
On the hon. Gentleman's specific points, I agree about the need for facts rather than speculation, and it is important to reflect on the tragedy in Canada, which involved a different type of aircraft—a Sikorsky. It is important for us not to conflate all these incidents; it is for inquiries and the experts in the field to reflect on these matters. Yesterday's tragedy involved an earlier version of the Puma than the one involved in the incident seven weeks ago, so there is no causal link between those three incidents at this moment—as I said, the aircraft involved was a different one altogether.
On the time line, I agree that it is important to make progress as quickly as possible on the inquiry into what happened, which is why 14 staff are on the scene today, carrying out that work. We will release information, if necessary, as the inquiry is undertaken so that we do not wait until the end of the inquiry to take any necessary urgent action. We will act urgently, if necessary and whenever necessary, as part of this inquiry. It is important that we maintain confidence in the North sea and that the brave men and women boarding aircraft this very day have confidence that the authorities, the Government, the industry and everyone involved is doing everything possible to learn immediate and early lessons from this terrible human tragedy.
May I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement today, and may I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with his expressions of condolence and sympathy to the families of the deceased? This is not just a collective tragedy, but a tragedy for 16 individual families, and we must never allow ourselves to forget that.
For almost 40 years, the offshore oil and gas industry has been at the heart of commercial and industrial life in Scotland, especially in the north-east of Scotland, around Aberdeenshire. Many communities have been transformed by its impact, but, sadly, many have also been touched by tragedy over the years. This is not the first such incident that we have known, and it is appropriate that we remember today previous incidents, such as Brent Spar, Cormorant Alpha and the Chinook helicopter crash, which is still remembered in Shetland in my constituency. We in this place often comment on the great rewards of the oil industry: yesterday is a tragic reminder of the risks that are also associated with it.
We are fortunate, if I may say so, in having a vast body of experience in the air accidents investigation branch, which is widely recognised not just in this country, but throughout the world. I am told that Bond has grounded its Super Pumas today. It is, however, important that we have the earliest possible practical decision from the Civil Aviation Authority whether that grounding should be of a more general application. The Super Puma has a good safety record in the industry, but with two incidents having taken place in such close compass, it is important that an early move should be made to ensure that those working in the industry can have every possible confidence in its continued suitability. Can the Secretary of State assure me that there will be the fullest and most open communication possible between workers in the industry, through the companies that employ them and the unions that represent them, and the various agencies charged with the investigation of this tragedy?
May I associate myself and my party colleagues with the appropriate expressions of thanks that the Secretary of State has made to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the RNLI, the RAF and the officers of Grampian police, who have executed an immensely valuable and professional service? The House might reflect, however, that the coastguards praised for their skill and professionalism today are the same coastguards who had a pay settlement imposed on them last year in order to avoid their lower grades falling below the level of the minimum wage. The contribution of coastguards and the other emergency services should not be forgotten on occasions such as these.
There will be an ongoing investigation that will involve agencies reporting to the Governments here and in Edinburgh. Whatever differences may exist between this Government and the Office of the First Minister in Scotland, there is surely nothing to be gained by anything other than the fullest co-operation between them.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman rightly and appropriately added his poignant words of sympathy and support to the families and his recognition of those most closely involved who, at this moment, continue to work in the North sea. It is tragic to reflect on the fact that what began as a search and rescue operation seems, with each passing moment, more like a recovery operation. Of course, it is for those on the scene to make that decision.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the speed with which an inquiry can be undertaken. It is important to reflect that once the voice and data recorders are brought to the surface, it is estimated that it will take about 24 hours—if they are in good condition—to translate and analyse all the information held there. That will be an important first indicator of what went so tragically wrong.
On the points the hon. Gentleman made about open communications, it is right for the UK Government and the Scottish Government to co-operate very closely, which is why I spoke to the First Minister yesterday evening, and again today. I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change as well. Such co-operation is essential at this tragic time, and it is important to talk to others, which is why we keep in close contact with the trade unions and the chaplain to the North sea oil and gas industry, who is providing important spiritual leadership to all those affected. I offer to keep the hon. Gentleman, too, up to date with any details as the investigation is carried out.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and I add my condolences to the families and relatives of those who have lost their lives. I now know that eight of the dead come from the city of Aberdeen, part of which I am proud to represent. My grateful thanks are also due to the rescue services that attend these incidents, often at great risk to their members. We have a lot of experience of the risks and deaths that accompany the benefits of being the European energy capital—far too much experience.
This is the second largest death toll in a helicopter tragedy in the North sea. Over the 41 years of the industry there have been 191 deaths of passengers and crew across the European oil and gas industry in the North sea, and of those 125 were in the UK sector. By world standards, taking into account the hostile regime of the North sea and the number of miles flown each year, that is not a bad record, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is still far too many deaths? We will learn and apply the lessons when all of the facts are known, but for the time being, we should grieve with the families.
My hon. Friend speaks with great emotion about the fact that a large number of those who have lost their lives are from his great city, and it may be helpful to let the House know, without naming any of the individuals, that the indications are that eight of those on board were from Aberdeenshire, four were from elsewhere in Scotland, three were from England and Wales and one was from outside the United Kingdom. He is correct to say that we have to maintain the highest possible safety standards in the North sea, today and every day in the future. This is another tragedy, and it is a tragedy too many. As we look ahead to the future of the oil and gas industry in the North sea, when the search for new fields will take us into areas of increasingly inhospitable terrain, it is important to reflect on the fact that the safety challenge will become even more acute as the industry continues to change. I know that my hon. Friend and his colleagues of all parties in Aberdeenshire will play an important role in trying to maintain that strong record of safety and in ensuring that the inquiry is full and reaches firm conclusions that mean that safety is of paramount importance in the industry.
Thousands of my constituents work in the offshore oil and gas industry and I am sure that many will be shocked and dismayed by the tragedy this morning. BP's North sea headquarters and Bond's operations are based in my constituency and I have spoken to both companies this morning. The House will understand that they are deeply shocked at what has happened.
I have also spoken to Grampian police, who are co-ordinating the rescue and the recovery. It is important the people understand that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are waiting to come home from offshore or go back again, and will face that journey with considerable apprehension in the circumstances, as will their families.
We know that 10 of the missing or killed were from KCA Deutag Drilling, one from PSN and two from Bond. It is important to extend our sympathy to the companies and their associates because I know that they will all be in deep shock.
Given the position that people face, I hope that the Secretary of State understands that we need the earliest possible reassurance, and to know how, on a fine day, a helicopter only minutes from Aberdeen airport had such a catastrophic failure that there was an impact that no one appears to have survived. We understand the professionalism of the AAIB. I am sure that it appreciates that we must get to the bottom of the incident as soon as possible and reassure people. Everybody depends on the workhorse of the North sea, but the House must understand that people will not feel comfortable flying in helicopters today or for the next few days until they know.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, based on his many years of interest in and championing of the North sea oil and gas industry. He rightly spoke to people at the scene this morning. I spoke to Dave King, chief inspector of the air accidents investigation branch, earlier today. We discussed in some detail the need for quick action at the scene, but also the need to ensure that it is the right action. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that hundreds of men and women are waiting to travel to oil platforms or to come home from them. I think that 1.6 million people in the oil and gas industry travel on aircraft over the North sea every year. There are families today who have lost someone very near and dear to them—I cannot comprehend their loss. I grew up with the North sea oil and gas industry in my family because my father worked on the rigs for many years, but I have no sense of the scale of the loss that those people are going through. However, I have some understanding of the scale of the uncertainty that others now feel. It is important that we do all we can to maintain the confidence of all those in the wider North sea oil and gas community.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement and apologise for not having been in my place to hear the beginning. I have had the advantage of reading a paper copy in the past few minutes.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to mark in the House the significance of yesterday's events. It is an awful tragedy. Mere words are never adequate in such circumstances to express what people feel, but they are all that we have, and I know that my constituents in Kilmarnock and Loudoun would want to be associated with the words of condolence that have been expressed in the House and beyond.
Hardly anybody in Scotland does not know, or know of, someone who has worked in the North sea. There will not be a family in Scotland who is not touched by the terrible events that unfolded yesterday. Consequently, there will be significant anxiety throughout Scotland—I know that from the calls that I have fielded in the west of Scotland from some of my constituents overnight and this morning—for those, to whom we have already referred, who face the journeys and take the risks daily.
I know from the recent past the risks of regular helicopter flight, and its security in difficult circumstances. Will my right hon. Friend expand on the words in his statement about the industry's safety record, with reference to the statistics that have already been mentioned on the comparative safety of such travel in the North sea? What steps are being taken immediately to reassure people who are anxious about friends or relatives who will have to travel that that risky business—it will continue to be risky—is as safe as possible while the exhaustive investigations take place?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. For many years, he has championed the cause and the case of the North sea oil and gas industry. He is right about the anxiety that is felt in many households throughout Scotland. It is also important to reflect again that some of those on board the aircraft are from other parts of the United Kingdom. I know that my right hon. Friend shares the sense that the tragedy is felt in the four nations of the United Kingdom, but, of course, most acutely in Aberdeenshire.
Remarkable improvements in safety have taken place in the North sea oil and gas industry in recent decades. That is the view of the Government and the industry, but also—perhaps most important—of the trade unions involved in the industry, which have taken the opportunity today to acknowledge the genuine improvements in recent years. However, whatever the lessons that emerge from the inquiry, we will have to act—that is why it is important that the inquiry take place as quickly as it is. We are working with business, the industry, trade unions and others to continue to reassure people and families that everything that can be done is being done to maintain unprecedented levels of general safety in the North sea. Despite that, we have witnessed a dreadful tragedy in the past 24 hours.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving the House the opportunity to express our sympathy and condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the tragedy, and to offer reassurance to the wider community, which, as he understands, will be greatly concerned about families and friends who travel offshore.
I want to reinforce the importance of producing any interim findings as speedily as possible and ensuring that the AAIB has all the resources it needs, especially those for investigating under the water to recover vital evidence of exactly what happened, so that early reassurance can be given and lessons can be learned quickly.
I know that the hon. Gentleman rightly takes a keen and close interest in the industry and in safety. I remember being in the north-east of Scotland with him as we sought to travel to one of the oil platforms some years ago. I know how closely he follows such matters.
Resources will not be a problem. We will put at the disposal of the investigators whatever resources they require to ensure that they get to the truth as quickly as possible.
On interim recommendations, as information comes to light as part of the inquiry, we will respond and act if necessary. It is important to make that clear. We need to understand fully what caused this drastic human tragedy and respond by ensuring that the highest possible safety levels are restored in the North sea.
I thank the Secretary of State for the statement and associate myself with the condolences expressed. Our hearts go out to all those who are directly affected.
My right hon. Friend knows that some calls have been made today to ground the specific model involved in the incident until it is clear exactly what went wrong. He has confirmed that a different model was involved in the incident six weeks ago. I understand that the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which represents many offshore workers, is among those making the calls. What consideration has been given to those requests, given the severity of yesterday's incident?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I spoke to trade unions about the matter earlier today. Of course, the model is different from the aircraft involved in the incident on
May I add my sympathy and condolences to those who have been affected by this most tragic accident? We are fortunate in this country with the quality of investigation into such incidents. The air accidents investigation branch has an outstanding reputation. I appreciate that the matter will be one for the Crown Office in due course, but may I take it that the Secretary of State will not close his mind to the possibility that a fatal accident inquiry may be required to deal with wider issues that go beyond the immediate remit of the AAIB?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important point. It is too soon to close our minds to any course of action, but that matter is of course for the Crown Office, rather than for me at the Dispatch Box today. He rightly raises the wider point about the remarkable expertise that exists in our air accidents investigation branch and in David King and the team that he has assembled. I have genuine confidence that they will work tirelessly over the next few hours—and if necessary, through the night—to get to a conclusion about just what happened. What is remarkable at this early stage is the horrific, catastrophic way in which the incident happened, with no early warning—there was a brief mayday from onboard the aircraft—and with no early indication of exactly what caused it. Because of the way the incident occurred, it is essential that we come to some conclusions as quickly as possible.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on coming to the House with his statement and on the way he has conducted himself at the Dispatch Box with openness and honesty. He is clearly as affected by what has happened as we all are—and, no doubt, as the whole of Scotland and the rest of the UK are. Reference has been made to the role of the trade unions. There is expertise in the trade union movement on health and safety issues, so I wonder whether he has given any consideration to finding a seat at the table of the investigation for a trade union representative.
My hon. Friend rightly has good and close relations with trade unions in Scotland and across the UK. I spoke to Jake Molloy of the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee earlier today. It is important that we continue to keep trade unions involved. However, it is not for me to announce today how we do that. We have the right procedures in place for an investigation, but it is essential that we involve trade unions and workers directly in sharing the early conclusions and in learning the long-term lessons from the dreadful human tragedy that has taken place.
I thank the Secretary of State for ensuring that we in the Scottish National party also had an advance copy of the statement. It is greatly appreciated. It is with great sadness that those in all parts of the House have today spoken of the loss of the Bond Super Puma helicopter. When the First Minister was in Aberdeen with the Cabinet Secretary for Justice last night, he described what happened as one of the worst helicopter accidents in the North sea in terms of fatalities. Our prayers, condolences and thoughts go out to those affected and to their families. Today a book of condolence has been opened at the Kirk of St. Nicholas in Aberdeen.
Yesterday, when most of us were watching the G20 summit in London, the news of the helicopter crash came through, which to many of us was a source of great angst. As has been said in all parts of the House, many of us will know people who work in the North sea. In my weekly travels, I seldom travel to or from the Hebrides without somebody who is going to or from the North sea travelling with me. People come from all over the country and from Europe, as the sad news from Grampian police confirms.
We are reminded of the great efforts of the emergency and rescue services in responding quickly and, as always, professionally, but this time sadly to no avail. The helicopter went down near the supply boat Normand Aurora. Almost immediately, other vessels were steaming to the location, as well as two Royal National Lifeboats Institution boats, from Fraserburgh and Peterhead, two helicopters and a Nimrod.
Super Pumas are the workhorses of personnel movement in the North sea and they have a good safety record, but now there are many concerns about them. A thorough inquiry is of course needed and interim recommendations would be welcomed, especially by those who travel. I wonder whether the Secretary of State could give us any idea of when early recommendations might appear, for the peace of mind of all our constituents who travel in the North sea.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about how quickly we can come to any interim recommendations. I cannot announce that today because, as we have discussed, an element of the rescue operation is still ongoing, as is a large component of the recovery operation. Some vehicles will be being used to get close to the remains of the helicopter and to continue the search for the bodies of those who are still missing. As I mentioned earlier, if the voice and data recorders are in good enough condition, we anticipate that it will take perhaps one day to decipher, as far as we can, what happened inside the cockpit and the aircraft more generally before it came to a catastrophic end. As I have said, there was a brief mayday from onboard. Once all that work is concluded, we will be in a better position to understand the time line.
Finally, it is important to record the fact that the chaplain and those who lead the community in prayer have opened a book of condolence in the oil chapel in Union street in Aberdeen for local people to sign. For those of us who have faith, those who have lost their lives and their families were in our prayers last evening, and they will be in our prayers today as well.
I thank the Secretary of State for the way in which he has made today's very sad statement and for his full explanation. When the banner came across the screen on Sky News last night saying that the helicopter had gone down, I reflected that, being a parent of an RAF helicopter pilot, I would know that my son was safe if a similar banner went up, because the families are notified before the story goes on the news. That banner must have caused thousands of families across the nation great concern. I wonder whether anything can be done to ensure that in future the next of kin are told before the news becomes fully available in the media.
That is an important point. No one in the media should take what I am about to say as a criticism, but the hon. Gentleman's point reflects the nature of modern communications, with text messaging and access to the internet. The wonder that is modern communication also causes the difficulty that, as it were, uncertainties are communicated to others. I was contacted by friends last evening about their loved ones who are working in the North sea. However, it is important to say again that we are making no announcement about the names of those who are dead or missing until their next of kin have been notified.
I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the Secretary of State for sharing with us so fully such information as he has. Can he tell us whether his preliminary talks with the recovery services, as well as focusing on their hope to regain the data buoys, and the voice recorder in particular, have indicated whether there is any prospect of recovering any substantial part of the crashed helicopter? That would be of crucial significance in establishing what went wrong.
The hon. Gentleman is right. What happened last evening and this morning was that parts of the debris of the craft were recovered and, more importantly, the bodies of those who have been confirmed dead were recovered. Work is ongoing at this very moment to discover the precise locations of the different parts of the aircraft and the eight who are still missing. The technology involved in the North sea industry is so remarkable that we can have a degree of confidence that we will quickly be able to track the precise location of the remaining parts of the helicopter, as well as great and continuing hope and determination to track and find the remains of the eight who are still missing.