Offshore Helicopter Safety — [Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:19 am on 6th February 2019.

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[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North 2:30 pm, 6th February 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered offshore helicopter safety.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. As many of us are aware, the oil and gas industry remains very significant to our economy. Tens of millions of barrels are produced every year and hundreds of billions of pounds have found their way to the public purse in taxes over the years. The industry employs huge numbers of people, and I think we can be proud of what has been achieved, although many of us would have preferred to see Governments through the ’80s create some form of sovereign wealth fund to support our country in the leaner years, rather than squandering much of that money on tax cuts for the rich.

I am here to make the case for an independent public inquiry into the discredited offshore helicopter system and for much-needed reforms to the regulatory framework. Helicopter transport is the lifeblood of the offshore oil and gas industry, transporting some 50,000 workers to their workplace. The remoteness and number of North sea installations make helicopters the only viable mode of transport. Some of the issues I will raise about the maximising economic recovery policy and about commerciality might have been more appropriately addressed to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but I trust that if the Minister cannot address them today, he will work with fellow Ministers to do so in writing.

It is important to recall the tragic statistics of recent times. Thirty-three offshore workers and helicopter crew have died as a result of accidents across the North sea in the past 10 years, and 65 workers and crew have been rescued in that time. In the UK sector, there have been five helicopter accidents, two of which were fatal, taking the lives of 20 workers and crew. All the incidents have involved the Super Puma models H225 or AS332L2.

Three of the incidents, including the one that killed 16 workers and crew on 1 April 2009, were attributable to technical failures of the main rotor gearbox. The Super Puma fleet was grounded in October 2012 and had just returned to UK continental shelf operations when an AS332L2 ditched in the sea off Sumburgh on 23 August 2013, with the loss of four lives. A month after the August 2013 incident, the Civil Aviation Authority launched a strategic review of offshore helicopter operations, resulting in the publication of CAP 1145 on 20 February 2014. That is the regulator’s sole official response to date to the series of tragic incidents and close calls involving Super Pumas between 2009 and 2013.

Super Pumas returned in the North sea in 2015, but have been grounded since May 2016, following a fatal accident in Norway on 29 April 2016 that caused the deaths of all 13 crew and passengers on board. The helicopter involved was an H225 Super Puma. The final Accident Investigation Board Norway report in July could not establish the cause of the fatigue fracture in the gearbox-operated rotor that led to catastrophic mechanical failure, but it still managed to publish 12 recommendations. They included criticism of Airbus and the European Aviation Safety Agency for failures to act effectively on recommendations on fault detection systems from the April 2009 incident in the UK sector.

The overall impression for the North sea workforce was that once again the Super Puma had failed, with deadly consequences. The trade unions, particularly the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and Unite, sit on the committees and bodies established to promote higher safety standards in the industry, including helicopter operations. They share my concerns about this area of aviation regulation and are fully supportive of an independent public inquiry. That is not only a priority for those offshore workers on oil and gas installations that are still in production. The emergence of offshore wind as a growing element of the energy mix and the decommissioning of 1970s and 1980s-era infrastructure will require helicopter transport to deliver the workforce safely to the job and back home again for the next 10 years or more. Those workers are very much affected, too.

As an aside, I am told by the Prospect union that the withdrawal of helicopters has other impacts, with pilots and engineers losing out on personal licence payments when a helicopter is withdrawn for safety reasons. Will the Minister tell me how the pay of those workers can be protected?

We know that the manufacturer of the Super Puma, Airbus, has ceased production of the AS332L2. The Super Puma family, however, contributed to Airbus’s successful sales in 2018, with orders received for 17 Super Pumas, including the H225. Once known as the workhorse of the North sea, there is next to no prospect of it returning in either the UK or Norwegian sectors, yet that extraordinary collapse in confidence in one section of the offshore industry has merited little if any comment from the Government.

I met the Civil Aviation Authority last September and outlined my concerns regarding the Super Puma and the need for the CAA to be much clearer on its position. Due to the requirements it says it has in place, it told me that no one can see the Super Pumas re-entering service in the foreseeable future, even though the CAA had cleared them for use. What model will replace the Super Pumas and the S-92s in the long run? The Bell 525 is thought to be the only heavy model capable of operating in the North sea. Industry figures are being invited to Texas to view the new model, but it is still to be licensed for commercial sale by the Federal Aviation Agency in the United States. No other heavy model is at such an advanced stage of development. The RMT estimates that it will take nearly two years to complete, so there is no prospect of new helicopters in the North sea until late 2020.

What assessment have the Government made of the new helicopter models for the North sea market? Is there sufficient capacity in the market? Is the existing fleet in the North sea being stretched to the limit, resulting in more and more downtime, as appears to be the case? We know from worker testimonials that there are problems with resource and downtime. One group gave an example. They checked in at 6.45 am, but due to technical issues, the workers ended up spending 12 hours in the heliport. The following day, that happened again. Workers had been there for a total of 22 hours. There is a long way to go before we can reasonably expect workers to be confident in the equipment—in this case, the helicopters—that is provided for them to be able to carry out their work.

While the CAA’s CAP 1145 document improved breathing apparatus, seating configuration and window design—I believe the windows are made bigger so that people can escape more easily—the perception among many offshore workers is that CAP 1145 is too heavily weighted towards survivability in a crash, rather than crash prevention.

In correspondence with the Government on the matter, I have received a series of broad-brush replies that have done nothing to address my core concerns or those of offshore workers in my Stockton North constituency—many people in my constituency work in the North sea—and elsewhere. The Minister said in an answer to my written question on commercial pressures:

“Offshore helicopter services provide a vital link to ensure the viability of the UK’s oil and gas industry. High standards of air safety are a fundamental concern in ensuring these services are commercially viable.”

Photo of Susan Elan Jones Susan Elan Jones Labour, Clwyd South

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. I am interested that he has referred to the large number of oil and gas rig workers across the country. I imagine that in practically every constituency, someone will work in this line of work. Their safety is paramount.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

That is most certainly so. I bid for this debate because of the importance of this issue to people across the entire country who are involved in the industry.

In answer to my written question, the Minister went on to say:

“Through the Aviation Strategy, the Government will look at its role in supporting the commercial success of operators whilst balancing this against environmental and safety concerns.”

That is all very laudable, but it should be noted that the Government’s aviation strategy, like their maritime strategy, is for the next 30 years, yet the latest consultation document, which was published just in December, makes no mention whatever of offshore helicopter transport. Can the Minister explain that omission? If he cannot, offshore workers could be forgiven for thinking that their concerns are being brushed under the carpet.

The Transport Committee’s 2014 report found that the CAA review, which led to CAP 1145,

“did not consider the evidence that commercial pressure impacts on helicopter safety in sufficient depth.”

The Government must convene a full independent public inquiry to investigate commercial pressures on helicopter safety in the North sea operating environment. That inquiry must examine the role and effectiveness of the CAA.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for leading the debate, and furnishing us with his knowledge about helicopters. A recent International Civil Aviation Organisation report talked about the potential ban on single-engine helicopters for commercial flights, despite engine failure being responsible for only one of 19 fatal incidents in the last 10 years. Constituents have written to me saying that 49 of the 62 deaths caused by helicopter crashes were caused by pilot error. Does he agree that we should look at that evidence presented by the ICAO?

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

We should look at all the evidence relating to helicopters. That is why I am seeking a public inquiry to examine all the issues, to ensure that we come to the right conclusions and can plan a way forward. I have flown in offshore helicopters—I was not an offshore worker; I worked in public relations for the gas industry. I admire anybody and everybody who steps on to a helicopter, because it can be an uncomfortable time.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

The detail of the hon. Gentleman’s speech is fascinating and very important. Does he agree that any worker going offshore must have confidence in their colleagues and their company that the helicopter in which they are travelling will keep them safe, and that they should not be put in a position where their health and safety is put below company profits?

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

There is no doubt that that must be the case. As I said, I have flown on these machines myself. I wanted to be assured that everything was good. When I went, there was a group of us, and because we were inexperienced—we had never been offshore before—we had a safety man sitting next to each and every one of us to reassure us and to help us through the journey. It is critical that people have that confidence. However, people are turning up time and again to fly offshore only to be told, “Sorry, you can’t go now. There are technical issues.” Four hours later, they are given a lunch voucher, and told, “Sorry, there are still technical issues.” That does not build confidence among those who have to work offshore.

The Government rejected the Select Committee’s recommendation, and claimed that there was no evidence to support the assertions about commercial pressure and offshore helicopter safety that had persuaded the Committee to make the recommendation. Yet trade unions on the offshore helicopter safety leadership group tell me that discussion of the CAP 1145 recommendation has gone nowhere because the contractors will not jeopardise their commercial relationship with the oil and gas companies.

I am told that the CAA sits on the offshore helicopter safety leadership group—quite a mouthful—but does not take a proactive role in trying to move that issue along and to tackle the core confidence issues affecting the workforce. To my knowledge, the OHSLG has yet to take concrete action to rein the oil companies in, although I am advised that the industry is looking at a draft principle in Oil & Gas UK’s supply chain code of practice that would state:

“Contract cancellations should not be without good reason or cause. If an operator or contractor must have the ability to terminate a contract then the circumstance or risk should be outlined, explained and understood—not hidden.”

To me, that smacks of self-regulation, and is simply not good enough in such an unbalanced customer-contractor relationship. The helicopter operators are not even signatories to the existing supply chain code of practice, so they are not even within scope of the industry’s self-regulatory framework. I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to that problem, and to know what he plans to do to give teeth to some parts of the regulatory chain.

Successive surveys of offshore workers have found helicopter safety to be their No. 1 concern. Even an Airbus survey in 2017 found that 63% of offshore workers would not travel in a Super Puma again if they had the choice. That fundamental lack of choice is all the more reason for the UK Government to commission an independent inquiry into offshore helicopter safety, covering the up-to-date safety record of all offshore helicopter models; international comparisons; workforce engagement; the overall North sea helicopter market; contractual relationships, including commercial pressures; and the regulatory framework.

What is happening to bolster confidence among the workforce? Step Change in Safety has relaunched its helicopter safety awareness courses for offshore workers to attend, but they are via webinars with helicopter pilots from the main operators. Helpful though that is, it is a relaunch of existing courses and does not chime with the industry and regulatory mantra of “safety is our No. 1 priority”. In fact, it suggests a hierarchy of safety issues, with helicopter safety a secondary concern that is best dealt with by communications between pilots and their passengers.

Such an approach to passenger safety could never be contemplated in any other area of the aviation industry, and for good reason. The RMT, Unite, GMB, the British Airline Pilots Association and Nautilus formed the offshore co-ordinating group in 2015 to streamline demands and activities in the offshore oil and gas industry and the associated supply chain to work for positive change. We have to welcome that sort of work.

The ongoing financial viability of the UK continental shelf’s remaining 10 billion to 20 billion barrels of oil reserves—a core aim of Government policy—is intrinsically linked to the commercial fortunes and safety of helicopter operations in the North sea. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that that link is included in the high-level discussions in industry to set standards for commercial contracts in the sector, especially in helicopter transport. I remain very concerned about workers’ lack of confidence in the CAA and others who are responsible for their safety. In fact, workers’ confidence in offshore safety has been declining over the last decade, demonstrating that the measures of the regulator and the Government have not been successful in allaying workers’ fears and concerns.

After the Turøy tragedy—I hope I pronounced that correctly—the CAA, along with its Norwegian counterpart, grounded the aircraft type, in a move that was supported by the European Aviation Safety Agency and trade unions across the North sea. The Accident Investigation Board Norway began its investigation shortly afterwards, but before it could produce a detailed report, the EASA summarily lifted the restrictions on the Super Pumas in October 2016, with next to no explanation to the workforce or their trade unions. The UK and Norway’s respective civil aviation authorities did the right thing and opted to keep the restrictions in place, despite the EASA’s incredibly hasty decision.

By 2017, there were threats of lawsuits in the US against Airbus by helicopter companies because of the differing regulatory approach to the Super Pumas in the North sea. In July 2017, an extraordinary meeting of the OHSLG was announced, albeit at short notice. That was quickly followed by a briefing note explaining that the meeting was being called to discuss a decision on the Super Puma and a CAA-embargoed press release announcing that restrictions on the H225 and the AS332L2 aircraft were being lifted. That action was taken despite the fact that the AIBN was still conducting its investigations and would not produce its final report for another year.

Some suspect that commercial pressures affected the decision to reissue airworthiness certificates. Whether such pressures took the form of the Super Puma manufacturer Airbus lobbying at European level or the threat of legal action from the European Free Trade Association against the UK and Norwegian Governments, I cannot say, but the Minister must look into the matter because it is bringing the regulatory framework into disrepute.

Airbus appears to have completely washed its hands of the North sea Super Puma issue. In February 2018, it told a meeting of the British offshore oil and gas industry all-party parliamentary group that it was preparing to hold town hall-style meetings with offshore workers in spring and summer 2018 to address the core confidence issues. Those meetings with the workforce did not take place.

After many years of working on this policy area—during which time the oil and gas industry, the Government and the regulators have all repeatedly testified to their commitment to high safety standards for offshore workers and offshore helicopter fleet crew—I can see limited effective work going on to tackle the core confidence issues. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that he will take action and seriously consider a public inquiry, so that the confidence of the people who do the jobs that drive a large slice of our nation’s wealth will be restored.

Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon 2:50 pm, 6th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate Alex Cunningham on securing such an important debate.

Oil and gas is of enormous importance to Gordon, to the constituencies of Kirsty Blackman and my hon. Friend David Duguid, and to several other constituencies in the north-east of Scotland. Aberdeen International airport is the transit hub of the UK continental shelf oil and gas industry, with the busiest heliport in the Western world, if not the entire world, and I am very proud to say that it is in my constituency.

As the hon. Member for Stockton North recognises, the oil and gas industry supports 280,000 jobs in the UK. Along with the Norwegian sector, the UK continental shelf is considered the most safety-conscious offshore industry in the world. Industry and regulators recognise that helicopters are the only practical means of transporting the workforce to and from the rigs; as he well knows, it takes up to an hour and a half in a helicopter to get to the rigs, let alone to the operations in Orkney and Shetland.

There are many areas that we can agree on. I have visited dozens of oil and gas businesses and all the helicopter operators, and as the hon. Gentleman says, they all live by the same motto: “The safety of our workforce comes first. If there are safety concerns, helicopters do not fly.” We all recognise that the North sea is a hostile environment and that hydrocarbons pose serious hazards, but what is important is how we manage the risks. Helicopters are essential to the North Sea— without them there would be no industry—so we all want a safe means of transport to and from the rigs. It is important that public confidence be maintained, particularly among those who work offshore, many of whom live in the north-east.

There is excellent workforce engagement. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, Step Change in Safety has various safety initiatives that have brought the various parties on board. Workforce engagement has come a long way in the past 20 or 30 years: operators, oil and gas producers, the supply sector, the trade unions and offshore workers meet regularly, and Step Change has been instrumental in giving everyone an equal voice. It is worth mentioning that trade unions represent only 10% of the North sea offshore workforce.

The industry has an excellent track record of engaging with the entire workforce. It has very high salaries, is technologically very advanced, is important to the economy of Scotland and the entire UK, and has inclusive umbrella representation. The Oil and Gas Authority, which looks after deals in the sector, tries to encourage organisations to work together—that is a big part of the extension of oil and gas in the North sea well into the middle of this century. There is a new national decommissioning centre in Newburgh, which is also in my constituency, and a planned national subsea centre. Oil and gas is an industry in which the companies and the workforce are encouraged to co-operate; it may be unusual among sectors, but commercially it is very co-operative. It is also progressive and driven by technology—one might say that it is the space industry of the United Kingdom economy. It has made enormous leaps.

Obviously there are commercial pressures, because the price of oil and gas goes up and down, but the main thing I get from people I visit in the industry is that nobody is complacent about safety. No one can visit the headquarters of an oil and gas company without being forced to hang on to a railing. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Aberdeen North and my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan, my colleagues from the north-east, are both nodding at that. We would quite literally have a stop order served on us if we went into the headquarters of BP or Shell and did not use the railing. I do not know what anyone there would make of health and safety in the Houses of Parliament—I imagine that they would have cleared us all out a long time ago.

As I said, oil and gas is a progressive industry. Some may suggest that the slump in oil prices has led to safety being downplayed, but that is simply not borne out by the evidence from everyone I have spoken to in the industry, in Step Change in Safety and in Oil & Gas UK. None of them has suggested to me that there has been a deterioration in health and safety.

The Sikorsky S-92 is now the main heavy lift helicopter; 20 Leonardo AW139s also operate in the North sea, and the Airbus H175 is the new medium lift. The number of people who fly in helicopters is reducing, because there are more trips but with fewer crew on board. The Super Puma 225 no longer moves offshore workers in the North sea—it is to the industry’s credit that it has recognised the unwillingness to use that helicopter.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

As I understand it, the Super Pumas are no longer in use because the CAA has put such stringent conditions on them that they are not commercially viable to run. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although the industry as a whole may continue to consult, the consultation activity directly related to helicopter safety has reduced? Airbus did not bother holding the town hall meetings that it promised, while meetings of the OHSLG have been few and far between.

Photo of Colin Clark Colin Clark Conservative, Gordon

I recognise what the hon. Gentleman says, but I think Airbus did not hold the town hall meetings because it realised that that approach was not constructive. The workforce have told the commercial part of the organisation that they no longer want to board the Super Puma. The industry has well and truly recognised that, and has not tried to force the Super Pumas back in.

Let me move on to resilience. There are three main airframes that operate in the North sea. The other day I had a meeting with Oil & Gas UK, which is doing a review of resilience. There is no pressure to bring the 225 back in, because if there is a fault and one of the three helicopters ends up grounded for a week or two, there will still be absolute resilience in the system—obviously at any one time there are crews on the rigs, but they can be operated with fewer crew. I understand that if one of the main helicopters has to be grounded, the Super Puma 225 will not have to be brought in, because it will be easier to bring in helicopters from elsewhere.

I am trying not to discuss Brexit at every opportunity, but the plan is for us to have associate membership of EASA, and the CAA has a contingency arrangement of recognising EASA licences. People I have met in the helicopter companies are reasonably comfortable that there are contingency arrangements that will not jeopardise resilience with respect to the crew or helicopters that are operating, or other helicopters being brought in.

As the hon. Gentleman says, aviation in the oil and gas industry is regulated independently of other organisations. Following research projects and learning from tragedies, the Civil Aviation Authority has drawn up a list of improvements, including prohibiting flights in severe weather in case of ditching, ensuring that there are emergency breathing systems, and managing the largest passengers in case of escape—it is a fact of modern society that passengers are getting bigger, so escape hatches have had to be made bigger.

The air accidents investigation branch is well respected. The Transport Committee’s 2014 report, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, included a request that the AAIB stay in far closer contact with victims’ families. We recognise that those families’ experiences are enormously traumatic, so it is important that the AAIB stay much more closely in touch with them while it goes through its process. The Committee’s thorough findings highlighted several issues that have been acted on—it is all in the public domain. What I am trying to say is that oil and gas is not an industry that is in hiding; it is a very public industry with several very effective regulators. It is being open and is working closely with its workforce—not just the 10% in the trade unions, but the rest of the offshore workforce. As I said, there is also a clear plan for when we leave the EU.

In summary, oil and gas is an industry with a safety-driven culture. It would be fair to say that no industry in the United Kingdom is quite as safety-driven as oil and gas, apart from perhaps the nuclear industry. We all recognise that an accident in oil and gas can be cataclysmic, and the industry does everything it can to control that. It is a very open industry. It is open to regulators and to public scrutiny. It is not trying to hide anything, and is questioned and held to account by legislators and regulators. Despite all that, there is no complacency. The industry is driven by the recognition that it has to be constantly on its guard, because that is so important, not just for the helicopters, but for the whole offshore and onshore industry.

Suggestions of a public inquiry are not necessarily constructive at this point, because of the work and the workforce engagement that has gone on. I absolutely agree with Hannah Bardell, who said that we all expect to go to work in a safe environment, although she might reflect on the fact that we work in a building that is probably not safe, and we should perhaps be having a word with the authorities of this building.

There is one anomaly in the 2014 report that I am not comfortable with. We still have not seen a fatal accident inquiry on the 2013 Shetland accident, which would be heard by a sheriff court in Scotland. That inquiry may have a view on a public inquiry, and I would respect that, when the fatal accident inquiry eventually happens, which I hope it does.

The hon. Member for Stockton North mentioned Step Change in Safety, which is running awareness courses on helicopters. That is very positive. This is a safety-culture industry, which is working with the trade unions and the rest of the workforce. No one is complacent about safety in the oil and gas industry.

I have written to the Department and discussed an independent review that would bring together stakeholders and engage all parties in looking at resilience on the commercial and the contractual side, and would be an open forum. It would be industry and workforce engagement, rather than a room full of lawyers, discussing evidence that we believe is already 100% out there. A public inquiry could undermine a lot of the hard work that has been done to date.

The public bodies and industry groups are all still working in the same direction. This is not an industry that is delivering its swan song, or that is going backwards. It is an industry driven by safety and, equally, by the commercial realities of modern business. It is a reflection on the engagement with the workforce that the 225 is not in operation and that there is no contingency plan to bring it back into operation on the UK continental shelf or in Norway, even though it operates elsewhere in the world and with our own military.

All loss of life is an absolute tragedy and is devastating for families. I think particularly of those in the north-east of Scotland. My good colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan, worked in the industry and lives with the history and the memory of the tragedies that have happened in the North sea. I finish where I started. The safety of our workforce comes first. If there are safety concerns, helicopters do not fly.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 3:03 pm, 6th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate Alex Cunningham very warmly on obtaining this debate

Colin Clark spoke about the importance of the oil and gas industry to north-east Scotland and to my constituency of Orkney and Shetland. He is absolutely right. He also spoke about the safety culture in the industry, and he is right about that as well. However, it is sensible for us all to remember why that safety culture is as it is. Let us not forget that it was the Piper Alpha tragedy and the inquiry that followed, conducted by Lord Cullen, that really brought that culture right back to where it needed to be. The danger is that the further away we get from an incident like that, the more likely people are to forget the reasons why we have the rules that we do.

As the hon. Member for Stockton North said, there is a lack of confidence among the North sea workforce about helicopter safety. Whether that is right or wrong, justified or not, there is no escaping that fact. It is a legitimate question for us parliamentarians to ask what can be done to restore that.

The oil and gas industry in the North sea and to the west of Shetland is absolutely crucial to the continuing growth and performance of our economy. The effective and safe operation of helicopters within that industry is absolutely central to it. I still have concerns about whether a public inquiry is the best way forward. My principal concern relates to my experience of the 2013 crash of the Super Puma off Sumburgh Head at the south end of Shetland; I was the constituency MP, although the four people killed were not constituents of mine. They came from different parts of the United Kingdom, from Inverness all the way down to Winchester.

It is surely unacceptable that five and a half years after that tragic accident, the families have still not had the closure that they will get from a fatal accident inquiry. This is not an isolated incident; the fatal accident inquiry on the Super Puma that crashed about 240 km to the north-east of Peterhead in 2009 was not held until 2013—more than four years after the accident. We are now at five and a half years, and we do not yet know whether there will be criminal proceedings or a fatal accident inquiry. As the deaths took place in the course of employment, holding a fatal accident inquiry is mandatory, unless criminal proceedings are to be held.

One of the elements of delay relates to the work of the air accidents investigation branch. I understand why the AAIB runs its business as it does, and why it is important that it is able to get information from witnesses in a way that will get to the truth of the matter as far as safety and technical issues are concerned, and that the integrity of the AAIB is protected in that way, but the police service in Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, which is ultimately responsible for making decisions on criminal proceedings or a fatal accident inquiry, do not start their work until the AAIB has completed and published its final report. The report on the 2013 accident at Sumburgh Head was not finally published until March 2016. It is getting on for three years since then.

In my correspondence with the Lord Advocate in Scotland, he tells me that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service had to raise legal proceedings in order to get the data from the voice and flight data recorder from the AAIB. I understand the need to keep the integrity of the AAIB work intact, but we are dealing here with two public bodies, both broadly charged with the same responsibilities—public safety, investigation and prosecution of crime, and the investigation of deaths in the course of employment. Surely there is a better way than having one public body take another public body to court to get access to relevant evidence.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is outrageous that families are left having to wait so long? I appreciate that there are many reasons for that, but the work of the AAIB must be done in conjunction and collaboration with other bodies, and it should not thwart any proceedings by the Crown. Families who have suffered deserve better.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I agree with the hon. Lady up to a point. There will be occasions when it is absolutely crucial that the AAIB should proceed in the way that it is doing. It should not insist on proceeding in that way on every occasion, instead of exercising a measure of judgment and discretion about the information that can be shared at any stage with the police, the Procurator Fiscal Service and Crown counsel; that would indicate that we had two public bodies that were focusing solely on their work, rather than on the interests of the families.

The only people not given proper consideration in this process are the families. It is unacceptable that those families still do not know whether there are to be criminal proceedings or a fatal accident inquiry, five and a half years after the deaths of their loved ones. That does not allow them the closure that they absolutely deserve and need. That goes to the point made by the hon. Member for Stockton North about a public inquiry. When the sheriff has made his or her determination, there almost certainly will be a fatal accident inquiry, which will have the opportunity to make recommendations, and which might involve issues that would be appropriate for a public inquiry, but unless and until we get to the stage of having the FAI, we simply do not know that.

I hope that the Minister has heard what I have said about the work of the AAIB, and I hope that the Lord Advocate and those in the Crown Office in Edinburgh have heard. Even though they did not get to the starting line until March 2016, the fact that in February 2019 we still have no final determination from Crown counsel suggests to me that the Crown Office is also not beyond a measure of criticism. I know about fatal accident inquiries—I worked for three years in the Procurator Fiscal Service many years ago—and I know they are technical and difficult cases that require thorough preparation, but it is getting on for three years now; surely to goodness there is enough to bring a case to court, or at the very least for a decision about which course of action will be pursued.

We are at the point when all those charged with investigation and prosecution in the system need to take a long, hard look at what they do and how they do it. They should give more consideration to the families of those who have suffered in these tragedies.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

Three hon. Members are trying to catch my eye. I want to start the wind-ups at half-past, so Members have about five and a half minutes each; if they could observe that limit, I would be grateful.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:12 pm, 6th February 2019

At the outset of my comments, Sir Henry, I want to declare an interest. On the evening of Friday 23 August 2013, I was employed by Stork Technical Services and was part of the emergency response team that responded to the accident off the coast of Shetland. My colleague Gary McCrossan from Inverness was one of those who died in the accident, along with Duncan Munro from Bishop Auckland, Sarah Darnley from Elgin, and George Allison from Winchester. I have not spoken about this publicly since then, other than a few times briefly, but that evening is etched in my memory and I will never forget the events of the days after. The response by the emergency services and by the company I worked for was absolutely exemplary. When dealing with such an incident, it is important to reflect on the experience inside a company and what it can be like.

In the three years that I worked in the oil and gas sector before I came to this place, I had on many occasions been through emergency response drills. In the previous company I had worked for, Subsea 7, I had had the opportunity to work in one of the best emergency response facilities, so in many respects I was well prepared. I also spent three years in the constituency of Colin Clark, working for his predecessor. I had dealt with many distressed families in many difficult emergency situations, but I do not think anything prepared me for the experiences of that evening.

I pay tribute to the emergency response teams who responded that evening, and to Gordon Craig, who is still the chaplain for the offshore industry; he gave a huge amount of support to the families affected, and also to the staff who responded. Sadly, because of previous accidents in the North sea, there was a huge amount of experience and support from within the industry on the day following the accident. Today we are looking at whether there needs to be a public inquiry. I say to all the policy makers here and in Scotland that we need a balance, and to consider all aspects of what companies do for profit and how they treat their staff, as the hon. Member for Gordon highlighted.

I was getting into the bath that evening with a glass of wine. Before I had put the wine to my mouth, my phone rang. I got out of the bath, and I was asked to come to work. There were about 15 of us around the table. We were largely sitting and waiting for information and pulling together responses. We were taking calls from family members who had seen the news about a helicopter ditching, but did not know which platform their loved one was on. Because of the nature of social media and the speed at which news now moves, it became a process of elimination; we did not know the names of those who had been killed even when those who had survived were getting off the helicopter. I remember sitting with another colleague, with a picture of Gary, and trying to identify whether he was among those getting off the helicopter who had survived.

Eventually the call came from Total. It was the Borgsten Dolphin platform operated by CHC that the workers had been working on. The response and support was exceptional. Total did an excellent job of including colleagues from the company that I worked for, and made sure we had the relevant support and information. A decision was made that evening that I and a colleague from the human resources team would drive overnight to stay in the highlands and meet Gary’s family the next day. They were an incredible group of people. Although I do not have personal contact with them anymore, I want to pay tribute to the McCrossan family, and to the families of all those who have lost loved ones in not only this accident, but other accidents. Mr Carmichael rightly pointed out that they are still waiting for answers. It is a matter of deep regret that they are five and a half years on and still no further forward in finding out what happened.

We now have an industry that is incredibly resilient and has done a huge amount of work to engage with the workforce, yet it still does not have confidence in Super Puma helicopters. We have to consider carefully how the engagement happens. In the days and months after that tragic accident, I worked with many staff who worked both onshore and offshore. I saw the challenges of teams trying to resource jobs offshore with big operators; there were significant pressures. Safety is absolutely everyone’s No. 1 priority. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, the further away we get from the Piper Alpha accident of 1988, the further away we get from remembering how devastating some of these accidents can be. Just as that was a turning point for health and safety offshore, so was the accident on 23 August in terms of helicopter safety.

When the Government consider this issue—I know that the Scottish National party Government in Scotland are also considering this issue—I hope that they consult families. What consultation has the Minister had with families and the workforce? There is no better way to understand an issue than to speak to those who work in companies and organisations. In the aftermath of that accident, there was a huge amount of regulation and many changes, from the size of escape routes to a reduced number of passengers. I spoke to some guys who worked offshore who told me about their experiences of flying. Perhaps they would be seated next to someone at a window who was a lot bigger than them. They would literally fear for their life; they had fears not only around mechanical failures, but around whether they would be able to escape from the helicopter.

We have to remember that helicopter is the only way to get to most offshore installations. At the time, many other options were looked at. Boats were considered, but fixed-wing planes are obviously not an option; helicopters were clearly the only one. It was not the way it is for the rest of us, who get on a plane, bus or train to come to London. Helicopters are literally the only way for offshore workers to get to their place of employment.

The Step Change in Safety helicopter safety leadership group, led by Les Linklater, continues to do an incredible power of work, and although in the past few years, since being elected, I have got further away from that work—and there is obviously limited interest in the oil and gas sector in Livingston—I have kept in touch with many of those I was involved with, who did such incredible work. That is why I take a particular interest in today’s debate and what happens next. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at the scope for a public inquiry, and at whether that is possible and would be the right thing. I take the point that there are strong views on both sides, and that my Scottish Government colleagues will also have engaged extensively with the workforce. However, the bottom line is that families have lost loved ones, and many still do not understand why. There is a list in the Library briefing of the many accidents.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but I am keen to call two more Back-Bench Members to speak, so if she could wrap up her remarks, I should be grateful.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Absolutely, Sir Henry. I hope that the Minister will consider my request, and engage with the families.

Photo of Hugh Gaffney Hugh Gaffney Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill 3:21 pm, 6th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham for securing this debate and bringing this important issue to the attention of the House.

I am speaking in the debate because not only is the issue important for the safety of offshore workers, but it has affected my family. My brother-in-law Peter Ross was killed in the Cormorant Alpha helicopter crash on 14 March 1992. Since then, this is a subject I have been watching. I am of the view that the flight—the pilot took the blame—should never have been attempted. The weather conditions were appalling and dangerous; yet the flight was attempted and 11 men including Peter lost their lives, and families were broken. My sister was left without her husband and my nieces lost their father. They were robbed of years together with a loving husband and father. Peter was 34, with so much of his life left ahead of him, but it was a life he was never able to experience. The tragedy continues to hurt my family to this day, and it hurts me every day. Whenever I look at the sea, I think of Peter and all those who have lost their lives in similar offshore helicopter tragedies, and I ask why they had to lose their lives and why more action is not being taken to ensure the safety of workers currently offshore.

I raised the issue of offshore helicopter safety recently as part of the inquiry by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs into the oil and gas sector. I asked the Minister what action was being taken to improve safety, and the answer could not have been more disappointing. The written response stated that the Government work with the Civil Aviation Authority and the oil and gas sector to consider any issues regarding health and safety when they arise. That is not good enough. The Government are passing the buck on their responsibility to protect offshore workers and ensure they return home safely, despite the fact that 33 offshore workers and crew have lost their lives through Super Puma helicopter accidents in the North sea in the past decade alone. There have been many others, and some have been saved when mistakes have been learned from. Sixty-five workers and crew were rescued in the North sea in the period in question. I am glad for every one of them and their families, and the people they know and love.

Those events have been happening despite a continuing decline in the confidence that offshore workers have in the safety of offshore helicopter transport. An Airbus survey of more than 5,000 offshore staff in 2017 found that 62% of those who had flown in helicopters were unlikely to fly in a Super Puma again if given a choice. That figure itself tells a story, and it is in spite of the recommendation by the Transport Committee in 2014 that there should be an independent inquiry into commercial pressures on offshore helicopter operations. Commercial pressure on offshore workers has increased following the fall in the international oil price in 2014, and we need to establish whether there is now commercial pressure of that kind on offshore helicopter operations, and whether it could affect safety.

I join the RMT and Unite the union in calling for an independent public inquiry into offshore helicopter safety. Not only is such an inquiry vital to restore confidence among offshore workers; it is long overdue, given the record of accidents in the North sea. I commend Unite for its Back Home Safe campaign, which I have joined in at many conferences. The campaign has been running over the past few years to highlight the need to improve offshore helicopter safety. I call on the Government to engage with the RMT and Unite and the offshore workers they represent. It is about time that concerns about safety were listened to and acted on, with a full independent inquiry. Let us not wait until more lives and more families are destroyed.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for a moving speech.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:26 pm, 6th February 2019

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and I congratulate Alex Cunningham on obtaining it. I have an interest in it because some of my constituents work on the oil rigs. I had the privilege of travelling in a helicopter a number of times during my service in the Ulster Defence Regiment, and indeed in the Army, as well as on a couple of occasions in Afghanistan through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It both thrilled me and frightened the life out of me—I was between the two extremes of enjoying it and hanging on like grim death, especially when the helicopter turned so I was looking down at a guy, and then it went the other way and he was looking at me.

It might be an alien experience for us; nevertheless, I speak as a fan of the war film genre, and we have all seen the films where the helicopters are the first to be hit—and once they are hit, they are down. I know that war films are not a credible source—nor are war statistics, as the safety of nothing is guaranteed during war—but something that is credible is the fact that since 1997 four fatal accidents have claimed the lives of 38 offshore workers and flight crew, and there have been 16 non-fatal accidents. I am grateful to hon. Members who have recounted personal experiences of losing family members or working in the sector.

Offshore helicopters in the UK are primarily operated within the offshore oil and gas industry on the UK continental shelf in the North sea. In 2018, there were 70 active aircraft, of six airframe types, in the UKCS helicopter fleet. I mentioned earlier that constituents of mine work on oil rigs. They tell me their experiences, including expressing concerns about travel. Some 820,158 passengers were flown offshore in 2017, which gives an idea of the magnitude of the operation. Some of them were my constituents. Susan Elan Jones pointed out that many Members have constituents who work on the oil rigs. The flights I mentioned represent 69,005 flight hours, and I believe that when journeys are made at such a level, it demands attention. Given the fact that the offshore industry is already so heavily regulated for health and safety, it is shocking that the preferred method of transport is not more carefully monitored. Members have spoken about requests for more Government intervention and regulation.

Something to take into consideration is the fact that Airbus recently stated that it was looking to take advantage of new opportunities presented by the spread of offshore wind farms around the world. There is going to be expansion, and Airbus is saying it expects worldwide demand for up to 1,000 helicopters from the sector over the coming two decades. That equates to revenue of about £8 billion. So, the sector is going to grow and get busier—and the impact will be great.

Once a storm has begun, no amount of health and safety regulations can make a difference—only the voice of God can calm a storm, and helicopters and storms do not mix. Helicopters are not without their limitations. Conditions that hinder their operation include visibility that falls below 3 km, a cloud base of less than 600 feet, or wind above 60 knots, which perfectly describes conditions in the North sea. Flying a helicopter in extreme conditions is never easy, and it is time to do the right thing by the workforce, and act wherever possible to regulate and enhance safety during transportation to and from offshore operations.

As with many issues, there is a cameo from Brexit—has there ever been a debate that has not contained that word?—because we need to determine whether we will remain in the European Aviation Safety Agency post March, or whether to establish our own body or adopt a Norway or Switzerland position. Again, I look to the Minister for an answer to that. There is also a question that the Health and Safety Executive must answer. It has a major role to play, and I am unsure whether that question is receiving a satisfactory answer. We must push for movement in this area—again, I hope the Minister will give us some indication about that.

The industry has a key role to play. We must clarify what is expected from this debate and from the Minister, and every available piece of information should be used to determine safety on any individual flight. We in this House have a duty to ensure that those who bring the precious oil to land for this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are safe in their helicopters. I understand that helicopters are necessary, but we need to step up the safety measures, and I support the hon. Member for Stockton North, and all hon. Members who have spoken, in their call for that today.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader 3:31 pm, 6th February 2019

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair in Westminster Hall, Sir Henry, and I commend Alex Cunningham for securing this debate.

This is a difficult debate to have, and those hon. Members who have spoken about their families and about personal incidents have been incredibly brave. The numbers are staggering: 38 workers and flight crew have been killed since 1997. Their families and friends have lost somebody they loved—people have lost colleagues, friends and family members. Colin Clark spoke about the importance to our constituencies of the oil and gas industry and those who fly in helicopters, and everybody in and around Aberdeen knows someone who has been affected by this issue. Our thoughts are with those who have been affected, particularly if this debate raises issues that perhaps they were trying not to think about at this moment in time.

In addition to fatal incidents, there have been 16 non-fatal incidents, and it is important to take those seriously as well and to consider what caused them. The difference between a fatal and a non-fatal incident can be small and involve just a slightly different thing happening, and it is important that any assessment considers what happened during an incident, why it happened in the first place, and why it did not lead to fatalities.

I was a city councillor in Aberdeen when the events of April 2009 unfolded. Social media was already a thing, although it was not quite as widely used as it is now, and we began to see events unfolding. I remember watching in absolute horror during those events, and again in 2013. Everybody was terrified that any future incident would be a repeat of what happened in 2009, and in 2013 we saw that those fears were well-founded.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

May I add one further reminiscence? I was pulled back to this by Hugh Gaffney because as a student I assisted the senior depute who conducted the fatal accident inquiry into the Cormorant Alpha crash. That happened in March 1992, and the fatal accident inquiry was held in April 1993. Does that not show how we have lost our way in relation to the investigation of these incidents?

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Economy), SNP Deputy Leader

I agree that there has been a significant change in the length of time required for an inquiry. In order to learn lessons from these incidents, we must ensure that investigations take place much more quickly than they currently do, so that any required changes or safety improvements are made as quickly as possible to ensure that our industry is as safe as it can be. We are asking people to do a difficult and dangerous job, and to get into helicopters to travel to work. The least we can do is to come out here batting for our constituents and ensure that we have the best safety record and best safety measures for the future. The SNP wants to maximise economic recovery from the North sea, but we will do that only if the workforce are on board, are supported and protected, and have the workers’ rights that enable them to go out and do their job.

I am aware that I do not have much time, so I will speed through a couple of points. The Scottish Government are reviewing whether to back calls for a full public inquiry into this issue, and the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity and the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands met union representatives and agreed to raise the issues that were discussed with the Civil Aviation Authority and the Oil and Gas Authority. Aviation safety, including offshore safety, is wholly reserved, but the Scottish Government are asking for a collaborative approach to be taken on safety measures and anything that relates to an inquiry.

For us, the most important thing is that the concerns of offshore workers are heard. I spoke to Airbus about what happened with the Super Puma, and at every opportunity I said that it needed to consult the workforce, because for anything that it wants to do in future with the Super Puma, or any other helicopter, the workforce need to be involved. Airbus needs to hear people’s concerns and not just talk at them, and I made that case in those meetings and will continue to do so.

To add to the point raised by my hon. Friend Hannah Bardell, it is vital that any reduction in spend by companies who have had a lower oil price in recent times compared with previous years does not reduce the frequency of safety inspections or safety indicated repairs, and does not put safety at risk. As the hon. Member for Gordon said, safety is embedded in the culture, but we must ensure that when belts are tightened, safety continues to be the No. 1 concern of those in charge of such matters. Whether that involves the Oil and Gas Authority, the CAA, the UK Government, or the oil and gas companies, safety must continue to be at the forefront to protect our workers.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:37 pm, 6th February 2019

It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Henry, and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to Members across the Chamber who have contributed with great knowledge and their own personal experiences.

Offshore helicopter transport, like maritime transport, is an area of transport with a low public profile but a huge economic impact. Unfortunately, the safety record in the North sea helicopter industry over the last decade includes 33 tragic deaths, alongside non-fatal setbacks that have caused significant damage to workers’ confidence in the mode of transport that they are obliged to use to work in that industry.

Following the tragic incident at Sumburgh in August 2013, the Civil Aviation Authority, along with the Norwegian air authority and EASA, carried out a comprehensive review into helicopter safety. The review set out 32 interventions including—to name a few—the establishment of the offshore helicopter safety action group, the prohibition of helicopter flights in the most severe sea conditions, and changes to the way pilots are trained and checked. That was followed up by progress reviews in 2015 and 2016. The review was carried out alongside EASA, as well as the Norwegian aviation authority. Is it still the Government’s aim to remain a member of EASA when we leave the EU? I have raised that issue with the Minister on a number of occasions, but he has yet to confirm the Government’s position. What impact will a no-deal Brexit have on our ability to carry out such reviews?

Even with the improvements to safety since 2013, the core issue of workforce confidence still needs to be tackled. Offshore workers’ perception of an industry governed by commercial pressure will not have been helped by the fact that thousands of jobs have been lost since 2014, pay has been cut or frozen, and longer shifts have been imposed. The Transport Committee highlighted this issue in its inquiry following the tragic incident at Sumburgh. Trade unions across the sector have campaigned on this, and I pay tribute to them for the work they have done on behalf of their members, particularly the RMT and Unite the Union. One of the Transport Committee’s recommendations was for an independent public inquiry to investigate commercial pressures on the operating environment of helicopter safety in the North sea, which has been supported by trade unions. I would be interested in the Minister’s thoughts on that.

Following the fatal incident in the Norwegian sector, where 13 passengers and crew lost their lives, the Opposition welcome the grounding of North sea Puma fleets, despite the regulator issuing airworthiness certificates. That is testimony to the work of trade unions on behalf of their offshore members. However, the Super Puma continues to work in other parts of the international offshore oil and gas industry—for example, in Brazil and parts of Asia. Does the Minister agree that the Super Pumas should not return to the North sea without the prior agreement of a majority of offshore workers? If, as expected, the Super Puma continues to be grounded, what model will replace it?

In September 2018, Airbus announced that it expected the offshore wind transport market to add £8 billion to its balance sheet over the next 20 years, which includes demand for up to 1,000 helicopters over the next two decades. They will carry out tasks such as crew transport to offshore wind farms. Given the expected growth in this area, it is important that workers have confidence in the Government, the Civil Aviation Authority and others who are responsible for safety. Will the Minister work with unions to help repair workers’ lack of confidence?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North highlighted, it is quite frankly staggering that there is no mention of offshore helicopter transport in the Government’s aviation strategy. Will the Minister tell us why it is not in the strategy? Given the expected growth in this sector, does he agree that it would be a good idea to put in place a long-term strategy? I look forward to his reply.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his extremely knowledgeable and succinct winding-up speech. I now call the Minister, but bear in mind that Alex Cunningham would like to have two minutes at the end to wind up.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 3:43 pm, 6th February 2019

Thank you very much, Sir Henry, and it is a pleasure to serve under your distinguished and esteemed chairmanship. I congratulate Alex Cunningham on securing this very important debate, and I thank everyone who has had a chance to make interventions or speeches. Not only have representatives of different parties brought a great deal of knowledge and expertise to the table, but we have heard very affecting personal stories from the hon. Members for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney). I know I speak for everyone when I say that we are enormously grateful to those who have shared their personal experience, and we are enormously sympathetic to the tragedies of the families with whom they have come into contact; I absolutely recognise that.

Hon. Members have rightly said that the oil and gas sector is enormously important to this country. It is important not only economically, but socially and culturally to distinct communities in the country, especially around Aberdeen and the UK continental shelf. Overall, the sector supports something like 280,000 jobs and meets around half of the country’s primary energy needs, but that statement does not cover the human aspects of its local and national impact. Offshore helicopter services provide a vital link—in fact, the only possible link—to ensure the viability of the oil and gas industry in what is widely understood to be one of the most challenging and operationally testing environments. As hon. Members have said, that is the context in which we should see the fatal accidents that have occurred in recent years.

As well as recognising the specific experiences of the Members present, I pay tribute to the families of the victims of those accidents and acknowledge their suffering. They include the 16 workers and crew members who lost their lives north-east of Peterhead in 2009, the four oil workers killed off the coast of Sumburgh in 2013 and, most recently, the 11 passengers and two crew members killed in Norway, one of whom was a British citizen.

As hon. Members have noted, the state safety programme for aviation in this country defines the acceptable level of safety for commercial aviation as one that results in zero fatalities—not a small number or a few, but zero. There will always be risks and hazards associated with operating in the North sea, but we are clear—just as previous Governments were—that the safety of those who rely on offshore helicopters is paramount. As noted by my hon. Friend Colin Clark and by Mr Carmichael, that is widely recognised as being culturally central to the industry.

The UK is recognised as a world leader in aviation safety, but we cannot be complacent. I absolutely share the view of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland: it was the Piper Alpha disaster that engineered this change. We must face the appalling fact that an accident could occur tomorrow in the North sea, whether through pilot error or equipment failure in helicopters or other forms of transportation. We must be responsible and aware of that fact. I think it raises the bar and reminds us of the consistent pressure to maintain safety at the highest possible level. With that goes the suggestion that regulators and Government must learn lessons from tragic incidents, whether they are caused by equipment failure or pilot error, to ensure that they do not happen again. I am a private pilot, and we know that pilot error is largely responsible for fatalities and injuries in this sector. We owe it to those who now use the service as well as to those who have lost their lives.

The CAA has rightly been discussed in this debate, and it is important to recognise the work that has already been done in this area. In 2014 the CAA published a review of the safety of offshore helicopter operations. It is important to note that that is a comprehensive piece of work—it is nearly 300 pages long and contains almost three dozen recommendations. It considered all aspects of offshore helicopter operations, including the design and certification of helicopters, continuing airworthiness, operational procedures, organisational matters, pilot training, passenger safety, and survivability and resilience in the event of an accident. It was conducted in conjunction with the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority and the European Aviation Safety Agency.

The review put forward 32 actions and 29 recommendations to helicopter operators in the oil and gas industry. It resulted in the introduction of a number of significant measures to increase safety standards for offshore helicopter flights, including flight restrictions during certain—especially adverse—sea conditions, improved emergency exit access, better emergency breathing equipment and changes to pilot training. Every aspect, including helipads and the like, was reviewed. During the review, the CAA engaged closely with pilot and offshore workforce unions, the oil and gas industry, helicopter operators, manufacturers, Government and regulatory bodies, and other experts in the field. It is right that it engaged with the appointed representatives of workers and—if my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon is right, and I am sure he is—the larger number of workers who were not members of unions but nevertheless wished their interests to be heard, understood and reflected upon. An independent challenge team, chaired by Rear Admiral Simon Charlier and assisted by experts including representatives from Transport Scotland and the British Helicopter Association, scrutinised the review and its recommendations, often robustly, and endorsed the 300-page report. That level of independent challenge was designed to ensure confidence that the process was robust, comprehensive and thorough.

I remind hon. Members that the CAA is a blue-riband regulator, and it is rightly admired across the world for its quality in all aspects of aircraft, airframe and air management certification and review. One of the outcomes of its review was the formation of the offshore helicopter safety action group, which brought together helicopter operators, offshore industries, regulators, unions and pilot representatives to enhance standards still further.

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I have got an awful lot to get through, but I would be delighted to give way.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

That body meets extremely infrequently, and often at short notice. Somebody needs to give it a good kicking to encourage it to do more. Does the Minister agree?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. I cannot speak about the frequency of the group’s meetings, but anyone who is scrutinising this debate with the proper level of attention, as I am sure the group will be doing, will take his remarks alone as a good kick in the pants. If those meetings have been insufficiently frequent, I encourage the group to have more; I support what he has said.

Let me say a few more things, and then I will come to hon. Members’ interventions. A number of hon. Members referred to the Super Puma helicopter, and I absolutely recognise the concerns of workers who have seen colleagues perish in that aircraft. It is important to recall that after the Norwegian accident, both EASA and the CAA placed operating restrictions on the Super Puma. When EASA cleared the helicopters to serve in October 2016, the UK and Norwegian CAAs maintained their operating restrictions to make certain the aircraft were safe to fly. They did not operate in a herd-like way. They played off each other, scrutinised each other and interrogated each other, and they did not reach the same conclusion. In doing so, they worked with, among others, representatives from Unite, the RMT and the British Airline Pilots Association. They lifted operating restrictions in July 2017 only after significant modifications were made to the aircraft and training was undertaken.

The regulators clearly did not take that decision lightly; they did so only after they were confident that the aircraft could meet stringent standards and were fit to fly. Of course, the CAA continues to work with a range of stakeholders, including unions, to provide the assurances that are publicly needed. The regulators are content, subject to the additional checks that I have described, for the aircraft to re-enter service, but the decision rests with operators and their customers. To date, none has come forward.

I absolutely respect the initiative and the viewpoint of the hon. Member for Stockton North, who seeks a public inquiry. He has made similar representations to the aviation Minister. We take these matters extremely seriously and we have given the question careful consideration, but we are not yet persuaded that that is the right thing to do. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was very wise in pointing to the potential conflicts of jurisdiction that already exist, and he said that he was concerned about the delays and lack of closure for the families.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

On that point, may I bring the Minister to the interaction between the air accidents investigation branch and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service? Surely, without compromising the integrity of either, it would be possible to have a better information-sharing regime that would minimise delays for the families. Would the Minister take that away and look at it?

Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

That is a very interesting idea. I feel slightly as though I should withhold my own judgment, because I am not the aviation lead; Baroness Sugg is. I will absolutely take that issue up with her, because I recognise the concerns that the right hon. Gentleman describes.

It is clear that more needs to be done to provide reassurance about the safety of the helicopter fleet. As has been mentioned, after every accident the air accidents investigation branch conducts an independent and transparent investigation and publishes a very detailed report with a set of safety recommendations to the industry and the regulators.

Let me turn to some of the points that have been made, many of which are very important. My hon. Friend Scott Mann rightly reminded us that pilot error is the leading cause of death and injury in civil and commercial aviation. I echo the emphasis of my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon on embedding a safety culture.

To come back to a point made by Karl Turner , it is not quite right that commercial activity is antithetical to safety. I have lived and worked in communist countries, and I can tell him that the safety records in those places, which were notionally devoted to the wellbeing of workers, was absolutely lamentable. There can be commercial pressures in any safety-oriented situation, and they must be offset by a rigorous internal culture. That is why the emphasis that we and the oil and gas industry place on that is of such importance.

A point was made about the role of the CAA. The CAA not only goes beyond the EASA recommendations, but is itself audited by EASA. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East asked whether the Government wish to stay in EASA following Brexit. As I have repeatedly assured him—of course, this is a matter still for discussion—EASA is in many ways an offshoot of the CAA, and we would like nothing better than to have a comprehensive agreement that includes an appropriate relationship with EASA, whatever the legalities are, because we recognise what it does.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether offshore voters should have a majority vote on the introduction of new helicopter airframes. I cannot comment on the practicality of that. I would say, however, that offshore workers have, in effect, already spoken: they have made it clear that they do not have confidence at the moment. I think that is right.

I have very little time, and I want to allow the hon. Member for Stockton North a chance to give a final response. I thank him for securing this important debate, and I thank everyone who has made contributions—especially those who have brought their personal experiences to the table. The entire framework of the British Government recognises that those who rely on offshore helicopter operations must have their safety preserved. That is of the utmost importance. We also believe that all parties must continue to take whatever steps they can to minimise the risks in those operations and ensure confidence among those who travel in these aircraft.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North 3:57 pm, 6th February 2019

I am grateful to the Minister for his response, and I thank everybody else who has taken part in the debate.

I know people think that I put a lot of emphasis on what the trade unions say, and I will certainly continue to do so, but I am told that there is less engagement on safety these days. The role of safety officers—particularly offshore—has been diminished. I therefore welcome the support of the Minister, who has said that he will put the boot in at an appropriate place and try to encourage greater engagement through the offshore helicopter safety leadership group.

I was touched by what Mr Carmichael said about the fact that the families have not had closure. The fact that this is ongoing contributes to workers’ lack of confidence. They want closure as much as the families do so they can understand what happened and get their heads around it.

I am grateful for the personal stories. My hon. Friend Hugh Gaffney talked about his family involvement, and that emphasises that we are talking about people’s lives. Hannah Bardell talked about her experience of serving on crisis teams, when people were dying in terrible accidents. I understand her role, and I commend anybody and everybody who is involved in that sort of work when such tragedies happen.

I am grateful for the supportive comments—on behalf of the Scottish Government, perhaps—about a public inquiry. Perhaps a fatal accident inquiry is the way forward. We still need answers about the future of helicopter safety and helicopter travel as new models come into the new industries, such as the wind turbine industry, as well as the old. I appeal to everybody to continue their work to ensure that safety is paramount and that workers get the answers they need.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered offshore helicopter safety.