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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:12 pm on 6th February 2019.

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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.