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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:37 pm on 6th February 2019.

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Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:37 pm, 6th February 2019

It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Henry, and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to Members across the Chamber who have contributed with great knowledge and their own personal experiences.

Offshore helicopter transport, like maritime transport, is an area of transport with a low public profile but a huge economic impact. Unfortunately, the safety record in the North sea helicopter industry over the last decade includes 33 tragic deaths, alongside non-fatal setbacks that have caused significant damage to workers’ confidence in the mode of transport that they are obliged to use to work in that industry.

Following the tragic incident at Sumburgh in August 2013, the Civil Aviation Authority, along with the Norwegian air authority and EASA, carried out a comprehensive review into helicopter safety. The review set out 32 interventions including—to name a few—the establishment of the offshore helicopter safety action group, the prohibition of helicopter flights in the most severe sea conditions, and changes to the way pilots are trained and checked. That was followed up by progress reviews in 2015 and 2016. The review was carried out alongside EASA, as well as the Norwegian aviation authority. Is it still the Government’s aim to remain a member of EASA when we leave the EU? I have raised that issue with the Minister on a number of occasions, but he has yet to confirm the Government’s position. What impact will a no-deal Brexit have on our ability to carry out such reviews?

Even with the improvements to safety since 2013, the core issue of workforce confidence still needs to be tackled. Offshore workers’ perception of an industry governed by commercial pressure will not have been helped by the fact that thousands of jobs have been lost since 2014, pay has been cut or frozen, and longer shifts have been imposed. The Transport Committee highlighted this issue in its inquiry following the tragic incident at Sumburgh. Trade unions across the sector have campaigned on this, and I pay tribute to them for the work they have done on behalf of their members, particularly the RMT and Unite the Union. One of the Transport Committee’s recommendations was for an independent public inquiry to investigate commercial pressures on the operating environment of helicopter safety in the North sea, which has been supported by trade unions. I would be interested in the Minister’s thoughts on that.

Following the fatal incident in the Norwegian sector, where 13 passengers and crew lost their lives, the Opposition welcome the grounding of North sea Puma fleets, despite the regulator issuing airworthiness certificates. That is testimony to the work of trade unions on behalf of their offshore members. However, the Super Puma continues to work in other parts of the international offshore oil and gas industry—for example, in Brazil and parts of Asia. Does the Minister agree that the Super Pumas should not return to the North sea without the prior agreement of a majority of offshore workers? If, as expected, the Super Puma continues to be grounded, what model will replace it?

In September 2018, Airbus announced that it expected the offshore wind transport market to add £8 billion to its balance sheet over the next 20 years, which includes demand for up to 1,000 helicopters over the next two decades. They will carry out tasks such as crew transport to offshore wind farms. Given the expected growth in this area, it is important that workers have confidence in the Government, the Civil Aviation Authority and others who are responsible for safety. Will the Minister work with unions to help repair workers’ lack of confidence?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North highlighted, it is quite frankly staggering that there is no mention of offshore helicopter transport in the Government’s aviation strategy. Will the Minister tell us why it is not in the strategy? Given the expected growth in this sector, does he agree that it would be a good idea to put in place a long-term strategy? I look forward to his reply.