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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:03 pm on 6th February 2019.

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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.