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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:26 pm on 6th February 2019.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:26 pm, 6th February 2019

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and I congratulate Alex Cunningham on obtaining it. I have an interest in it because some of my constituents work on the oil rigs. I had the privilege of travelling in a helicopter a number of times during my service in the Ulster Defence Regiment, and indeed in the Army, as well as on a couple of occasions in Afghanistan through the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It both thrilled me and frightened the life out of me—I was between the two extremes of enjoying it and hanging on like grim death, especially when the helicopter turned so I was looking down at a guy, and then it went the other way and he was looking at me.

It might be an alien experience for us; nevertheless, I speak as a fan of the war film genre, and we have all seen the films where the helicopters are the first to be hit—and once they are hit, they are down. I know that war films are not a credible source—nor are war statistics, as the safety of nothing is guaranteed during war—but something that is credible is the fact that since 1997 four fatal accidents have claimed the lives of 38 offshore workers and flight crew, and there have been 16 non-fatal accidents. I am grateful to hon. Members who have recounted personal experiences of losing family members or working in the sector.

Offshore helicopters in the UK are primarily operated within the offshore oil and gas industry on the UK continental shelf in the North sea. In 2018, there were 70 active aircraft, of six airframe types, in the UKCS helicopter fleet. I mentioned earlier that constituents of mine work on oil rigs. They tell me their experiences, including expressing concerns about travel. Some 820,158 passengers were flown offshore in 2017, which gives an idea of the magnitude of the operation. Some of them were my constituents. Susan Elan Jones pointed out that many Members have constituents who work on the oil rigs. The flights I mentioned represent 69,005 flight hours, and I believe that when journeys are made at such a level, it demands attention. Given the fact that the offshore industry is already so heavily regulated for health and safety, it is shocking that the preferred method of transport is not more carefully monitored. Members have spoken about requests for more Government intervention and regulation.

Something to take into consideration is the fact that Airbus recently stated that it was looking to take advantage of new opportunities presented by the spread of offshore wind farms around the world. There is going to be expansion, and Airbus is saying it expects worldwide demand for up to 1,000 helicopters from the sector over the coming two decades. That equates to revenue of about £8 billion. So, the sector is going to grow and get busier—and the impact will be great.

Once a storm has begun, no amount of health and safety regulations can make a difference—only the voice of God can calm a storm, and helicopters and storms do not mix. Helicopters are not without their limitations. Conditions that hinder their operation include visibility that falls below 3 km, a cloud base of less than 600 feet, or wind above 60 knots, which perfectly describes conditions in the North sea. Flying a helicopter in extreme conditions is never easy, and it is time to do the right thing by the workforce, and act wherever possible to regulate and enhance safety during transportation to and from offshore operations.

As with many issues, there is a cameo from Brexit—has there ever been a debate that has not contained that word?—because we need to determine whether we will remain in the European Aviation Safety Agency post March, or whether to establish our own body or adopt a Norway or Switzerland position. Again, I look to the Minister for an answer to that. There is also a question that the Health and Safety Executive must answer. It has a major role to play, and I am unsure whether that question is receiving a satisfactory answer. We must push for movement in this area—again, I hope the Minister will give us some indication about that.

The industry has a key role to play. We must clarify what is expected from this debate and from the Minister, and every available piece of information should be used to determine safety on any individual flight. We in this House have a duty to ensure that those who bring the precious oil to land for this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are safe in their helicopters. I understand that helicopters are necessary, but we need to step up the safety measures, and I support the hon. Member for Stockton North, and all hon. Members who have spoken, in their call for that today.