Helicopter Safety

– in the Scottish Parliament on 3rd September 2013.

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Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

1. To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the offshore industry regarding the impact on the oil and gas industry in Scotland of the recent Super Puma tragedy.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

First of all, I express on behalf of the Scottish Government, and I know all of Parliament, our condolences to the families of the four people who lost their lives when the Super Puma helicopter crash took place on 23 August. I also express our sympathy to the other individuals who were on board the flight for the ordeal that they endured.

Since the crash, the Scottish Government has worked closely with the United Kingdom Government, the offshore industry and other key stakeholders in managing the consequences of the incident in relation to the impact on the oil and gas industry in Scotland. Officials have been fully engaged in the helicopter safety steering group meetings that were held on Saturday, Wednesday and Thursday following the incident. Officials have also participated in the oil and gas leaders meetings at which all operators in the North Sea were present.

I have spoken to Malcolm Webb, the chief executive of Oil & Gas UK, which is the representative body for the UK offshore oil and gas industry, and I have also had discussions in relation to the incident with Jake Molloy of the RMT and both John Taylor and Pat Rafferty of Unite. On Friday, I visited the police gold command in Aberdeen to speak with the emergency services, who deserve our grateful thanks and acknowledgement for the excellent rescue operation that resulted in the saving of 14 lives.

Subject to the Parliament’s agreement, I will make a full statement on the issue tomorrow.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

I thank the cabinet secretary for his answer and I echo his expressions of condolence. Those of us who have family, friends and constituents who work in the offshore sector will know how difficult this period has been for many individuals across Scotland. Will the cabinet secretary advise in what ways the Scottish Government is able and stands ready to support an industry review of helicopter safety?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I confirm to the Parliament that the Government will co-operate in all the ways we can with the industry in relation to the review of safety and the encouragement of safe utilisation of modes of transport in transporting individuals to the North Sea oil and gas sector. As I said in my initial response, Government’s officials participated in helicopter safety steering group meetings held during the past week. Those proceedings were, in my opinion, a model of how dialogue should be conducted in partnership between employers and the trade unions that are involved, with a willingness to consider and address the serious issues and concerns that are relevant to members of oil and gas staff who are concerned about the circumstances that they face. The Government will certainly actively work to facilitate and encourage that review of safety.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

The cabinet secretary will also be aware that, as we have discussed, there are concerns among not just workers but their families around the continuing safety of helicopter flights to offshore installations. Can he confirm that his view is that there needs to be a careful dialogue between operators, the unions, the workforce and the wider oil and gas family—family members and so on—in order to restore some of the confidence that has been damaged by the recent incident and other incidents over the past five years?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

That dialogue is crucial. It is vital that the industry engages in dialogue, as took place at the helicopter safety steering group, between employers and trade unions as representatives of the workforce. In observing closely the proceedings of the helicopter safety steering group over the period, I saw the way in which information and advice were marshalled for the employer and trade union representatives, which enabled a considered judgment to be arrived at to enable the temporary suspension of the utilisation of some of the Super Puma fleet to be overcome. That was achieved because of evidence-based discussion involving all parties, and it represents how we can try to address the legitimate anxiety of members of the public about ensuring that in all circumstances, individuals are able to be transported to the oil and gas sector safely and reliably. That must be an objective for us all.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

The cabinet secretary will know the difference that was made to offshore health and safety on rigs and platforms in the North Sea by the Cullen inquiry, which was established following the Piper Alpha disaster.

Given the high number of serious helicopter incidents in the UK sector of the North Sea compared with other parts of the same province, will the cabinet secretary support calls for a public inquiry into helicopter transport in the UK sector—one that would go beyond an internal industry review and would follow the model that was set by Cullen—in order to give the workforce the same confidence in helicopter transport in the North Sea as they have in safety on rigs and platforms following Cullen?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am obviously familiar with the issues that have been raised in connection with helicopter safety. I think that the most effective thing that we can do is wait until we have the full outcome of the inquiry into this particular circumstance before we decide whether there is merit in taking forward that wider inquiry. I say that because, if we look at the experience of helicopter safety, we can see that over the past couple of years there has been a rising tide of confidence in helicopter safety in the North Sea. A point of very great regret about the incident that took place on 23 August is that that confidence has clearly been undermined.

I think that before we form a judgment as to whether a full inquiry is required, we should allow the investigation of this incident to take its course and hear the outcome of the work that has been undertaken by the air accident investigation branch, which lies at the heart of the investigative role. The points raised by Mr Macdonald can quite properly be considered in that context.