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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:21 pm on 6th February 2019.

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Photo of Hugh Gaffney Hugh Gaffney Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill 3:21 pm, 6th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I thank my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham for securing this debate and bringing this important issue to the attention of the House.

I am speaking in the debate because not only is the issue important for the safety of offshore workers, but it has affected my family. My brother-in-law Peter Ross was killed in the Cormorant Alpha helicopter crash on 14 March 1992. Since then, this is a subject I have been watching. I am of the view that the flight—the pilot took the blame—should never have been attempted. The weather conditions were appalling and dangerous; yet the flight was attempted and 11 men including Peter lost their lives, and families were broken. My sister was left without her husband and my nieces lost their father. They were robbed of years together with a loving husband and father. Peter was 34, with so much of his life left ahead of him, but it was a life he was never able to experience. The tragedy continues to hurt my family to this day, and it hurts me every day. Whenever I look at the sea, I think of Peter and all those who have lost their lives in similar offshore helicopter tragedies, and I ask why they had to lose their lives and why more action is not being taken to ensure the safety of workers currently offshore.

I raised the issue of offshore helicopter safety recently as part of the inquiry by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs into the oil and gas sector. I asked the Minister what action was being taken to improve safety, and the answer could not have been more disappointing. The written response stated that the Government work with the Civil Aviation Authority and the oil and gas sector to consider any issues regarding health and safety when they arise. That is not good enough. The Government are passing the buck on their responsibility to protect offshore workers and ensure they return home safely, despite the fact that 33 offshore workers and crew have lost their lives through Super Puma helicopter accidents in the North sea in the past decade alone. There have been many others, and some have been saved when mistakes have been learned from. Sixty-five workers and crew were rescued in the North sea in the period in question. I am glad for every one of them and their families, and the people they know and love.

Those events have been happening despite a continuing decline in the confidence that offshore workers have in the safety of offshore helicopter transport. An Airbus survey of more than 5,000 offshore staff in 2017 found that 62% of those who had flown in helicopters were unlikely to fly in a Super Puma again if given a choice. That figure itself tells a story, and it is in spite of the recommendation by the Transport Committee in 2014 that there should be an independent inquiry into commercial pressures on offshore helicopter operations. Commercial pressure on offshore workers has increased following the fall in the international oil price in 2014, and we need to establish whether there is now commercial pressure of that kind on offshore helicopter operations, and whether it could affect safety.

I join the RMT and Unite the union in calling for an independent public inquiry into offshore helicopter safety. Not only is such an inquiry vital to restore confidence among offshore workers; it is long overdue, given the record of accidents in the North sea. I commend Unite for its Back Home Safe campaign, which I have joined in at many conferences. The campaign has been running over the past few years to highlight the need to improve offshore helicopter safety. I call on the Government to engage with the RMT and Unite and the offshore workers they represent. It is about time that concerns about safety were listened to and acted on, with a full independent inquiry. Let us not wait until more lives and more families are destroyed.