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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:43 pm on 6th February 2019.

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Photo of Jesse Norman Jesse Norman Minister of State (Department for Transport) 3:43 pm, 6th February 2019

Thank you very much, Sir Henry, and it is a pleasure to serve under your distinguished and esteemed chairmanship. I congratulate Alex Cunningham on securing this very important debate, and I thank everyone who has had a chance to make interventions or speeches. Not only have representatives of different parties brought a great deal of knowledge and expertise to the table, but we have heard very affecting personal stories from the hon. Members for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney). I know I speak for everyone when I say that we are enormously grateful to those who have shared their personal experience, and we are enormously sympathetic to the tragedies of the families with whom they have come into contact; I absolutely recognise that.

Hon. Members have rightly said that the oil and gas sector is enormously important to this country. It is important not only economically, but socially and culturally to distinct communities in the country, especially around Aberdeen and the UK continental shelf. Overall, the sector supports something like 280,000 jobs and meets around half of the country’s primary energy needs, but that statement does not cover the human aspects of its local and national impact. Offshore helicopter services provide a vital link—in fact, the only possible link—to ensure the viability of the oil and gas industry in what is widely understood to be one of the most challenging and operationally testing environments. As hon. Members have said, that is the context in which we should see the fatal accidents that have occurred in recent years.

As well as recognising the specific experiences of the Members present, I pay tribute to the families of the victims of those accidents and acknowledge their suffering. They include the 16 workers and crew members who lost their lives north-east of Peterhead in 2009, the four oil workers killed off the coast of Sumburgh in 2013 and, most recently, the 11 passengers and two crew members killed in Norway, one of whom was a British citizen.

As hon. Members have noted, the state safety programme for aviation in this country defines the acceptable level of safety for commercial aviation as one that results in zero fatalities—not a small number or a few, but zero. There will always be risks and hazards associated with operating in the North sea, but we are clear—just as previous Governments were—that the safety of those who rely on offshore helicopters is paramount. As noted by my hon. Friend Colin Clark and by Mr Carmichael, that is widely recognised as being culturally central to the industry.

The UK is recognised as a world leader in aviation safety, but we cannot be complacent. I absolutely share the view of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland: it was the Piper Alpha disaster that engineered this change. We must face the appalling fact that an accident could occur tomorrow in the North sea, whether through pilot error or equipment failure in helicopters or other forms of transportation. We must be responsible and aware of that fact. I think it raises the bar and reminds us of the consistent pressure to maintain safety at the highest possible level. With that goes the suggestion that regulators and Government must learn lessons from tragic incidents, whether they are caused by equipment failure or pilot error, to ensure that they do not happen again. I am a private pilot, and we know that pilot error is largely responsible for fatalities and injuries in this sector. We owe it to those who now use the service as well as to those who have lost their lives.

The CAA has rightly been discussed in this debate, and it is important to recognise the work that has already been done in this area. In 2014 the CAA published a review of the safety of offshore helicopter operations. It is important to note that that is a comprehensive piece of work—it is nearly 300 pages long and contains almost three dozen recommendations. It considered all aspects of offshore helicopter operations, including the design and certification of helicopters, continuing airworthiness, operational procedures, organisational matters, pilot training, passenger safety, and survivability and resilience in the event of an accident. It was conducted in conjunction with the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority and the European Aviation Safety Agency.

The review put forward 32 actions and 29 recommendations to helicopter operators in the oil and gas industry. It resulted in the introduction of a number of significant measures to increase safety standards for offshore helicopter flights, including flight restrictions during certain—especially adverse—sea conditions, improved emergency exit access, better emergency breathing equipment and changes to pilot training. Every aspect, including helipads and the like, was reviewed. During the review, the CAA engaged closely with pilot and offshore workforce unions, the oil and gas industry, helicopter operators, manufacturers, Government and regulatory bodies, and other experts in the field. It is right that it engaged with the appointed representatives of workers and—if my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon is right, and I am sure he is—the larger number of workers who were not members of unions but nevertheless wished their interests to be heard, understood and reflected upon. An independent challenge team, chaired by Rear Admiral Simon Charlier and assisted by experts including representatives from Transport Scotland and the British Helicopter Association, scrutinised the review and its recommendations, often robustly, and endorsed the 300-page report. That level of independent challenge was designed to ensure confidence that the process was robust, comprehensive and thorough.

I remind hon. Members that the CAA is a blue-riband regulator, and it is rightly admired across the world for its quality in all aspects of aircraft, airframe and air management certification and review. One of the outcomes of its review was the formation of the offshore helicopter safety action group, which brought together helicopter operators, offshore industries, regulators, unions and pilot representatives to enhance standards still further.