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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 6th February 2019.

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

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.