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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:50 pm on 6th February 2019.

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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.