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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

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.