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2 Apr 2009 : Column 1067

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Last month, 23 new trains were expected on the Thameslink line. In the event, only one appeared—and it had to be sent back. As the Department for Transport was responsible for the contract, may we have an urgent statement from that Department about why the train manufacturer Bombardier’s long-standing problems, which have a national impact, have been allowed to go on for so long?

Ms Harman: I will bring that point to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Transport.

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North Sea Helicopter Crash

2.18 pm

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the helicopter crash that occurred 14 miles off the coast of Crimond, Aberdeenshire, north-east of Peterhead just before 14.00 yesterday. A Eurocopter Super Puma, operated by Bond Helicopters on a charter for BP, crashed in the North sea approximately 14 miles off Rattray Head, which is 38 miles north-east of Aberdeen. The helicopter was returning from BP’s Miller oil field platform, 35 miles north-east of Aberdeen. On board were a flight crew of two pilots and 14 passengers. All were wearing survival suits.

The Aberdeen coastguard was informed of a ditched helicopter at just before 14.00, and two life rafts were spotted in the water. Two helicopters from the RAF bases at Lossiemouth and Boulmer were scrambled to the scene alongside a Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from RAF Kinloss. RNLI lifeboats from Peterhead and Fraserburgh were launched to join the search. Eleven other vessels also responded to the mayday signal from the coastguard, and one vessel was on scene within minutes of the alert. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has been co-ordinating the extensive search and rescue operation.

Tragically, the bodies of eight people from the helicopter have been recovered and are now with the Grampian police to undergo identification procedures, and the remaining eight are currently unaccounted for. Search operations by dedicated rescue units were suspended at around 23:00 last night to rest crews and for refuelling, although other vessels in the vicinity continued to search the area. Dedicated units resumed their recovery efforts at first light this morning. Those who have died or are missing have not yet been named, while police work to contact their relatives. BP has set up an emergency contact line for concerned relatives, friends and colleagues.

Members on both sides of the House will rightly wish to express our collective sympathy and our individual prayers for those who have lost friends and family in the crash. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, this was a tragic day in the North sea. We all stand today in solidarity and mourning. This tragedy reminds us that despite the North sea’s remarkable improvements in safety, it can be one of the harshest environments on earth. Every day, brave men and women work there to bring us the oil and gas our country needs.

I would like to praise the work of the MCA, the Royal Air Force, the RNLI and other vessels who responded so quickly to the distress call; and of the Grampian police, who are co-ordinating the investigation into the crash. They have all worked together to respond with well-prepared contingency plans in very difficult circumstances. I have also spoken to Scotland’s First Minister, who is making a statement in the Scottish Parliament today.

The air accidents investigation branch is conducting a full investigation into the circumstances of the event, and a team of 14 air accidents investigation branch staff have been deployed to Aberdeen, including experts in helicopter operations, engineering, flight recorder replay and data analysis. The work to identify the causes of the
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accident began this morning, but what appears clear is that there was a catastrophic impact as the helicopter crashed into the sea.

Hon. Members will be aware that there was another accident on 18 February 2009 involving a Eurocopter EC225 LP Super Puma manufactured in 2008. It occurred when the helicopter was approaching an offshore platform to land, descending at night with fog and low cloud in the vicinity. The aircraft landed heavily on the surface of the sea. Thankfully, in that case there was no loss of life. The initial investigation by the air accidents investigation branch has revealed no evidence of pre-impact malfunction of any major mechanical components in that incident.

Yesterday’s crash involved a Eurocopter AS332L2 Super Puma manufactured in 2004. It occurred when the helicopter was in cruising flight, in daylight with benign weather conditions, when the crew broadcast a short mayday call without identifying the nature of the emergency. The helicopter was seen to descend rapidly to the surface of the sea. Consequently, given the evidence to date, there are no indications of any causal links relating the two events.

I know that the House will understand that the air accidents investigation branch report on yesterday’s tragedy will take some time to prepare. Once complete, the report will be presented to the Secretary of State for Transport. However, as the inquiry progresses, factual information will be released and any safety action recommended as appropriate. We will consider the findings of the investigation carefully and take the necessary action to protect safety levels in the North sea.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I apologise to the House for not being present for the start of the Secretary of State’s statement, and thank him for an advance copy. I also thank him for coming to the House to make the statement, although sadly in relation to such a tragic loss of life. I, and Members on both sides of the House, echo his sentiments and thoughts for the families and friends of all those who have lost their lives, and for all those who continue to work on the North sea.

The whole nation will share the Secretary of State’s gratitude to the personnel of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the RNLI, the Royal Air Force and the commercial and marine organisations that have given their help to the search and rescue effort. The crew of the Caledonian Victory support ship performed a particularly heroic duty in being first on the scene. The failure to locate any survivors must have been very traumatic for all those involved.

This incident reinforces to all of us just how dangerous and uncompromising a working environment the North sea is. When we make use of the oil or gas that it produces, or indeed the revenues that it generates, we must always be grateful to the dedicated people who work there. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that the health and safety of those workers must always be our priority. May I therefore ask him what he expects the timetable to be for investigating the aircraft wreckage and establishing the cause of the crash? Will he give his personal undertaking to work with colleagues across the UK Government to do everything possible to expedite a preliminary report from the air accidents investigation branch and the Civil Aviation Authority into what caused the catastrophic failure that resulted in such a loss of life?

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Does the Secretary of State agree with me about the importance of not substituting speculation for a technical inquiry and of distinguishing the cause of individual incidents? Does he agree that in the light of three major incidents—two in Scotland and one in Canada—within a relatively short period, a wider review of practices in relation to the use of helicopters in oil and gas exploration may be necessary fully to restore the confidence of those who have to use them?

Is the Secretary of State aware of an issue that has been raised in the media about the decision of BP to remove beacons from individual lifejackets following a previous incident? Will he ensure that that is fully investigated so that it can be fully demonstrated whether this decision played any part in the time scale in locating those on board after the crash?

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to discuss with colleagues in the Department for Transport the Conservative proposal to review the MCA staff’s terms and conditions in relation to other emergency services? This sort of incident demonstrates the legitimacy of their claim to be part of our emergency services.

Finally, will the Secretary of State confirm that he will work as closely as possible with the First Minister and the Scottish Government on all aspects of the aftermath of this incident that fall within the devolved responsibilities?

Mr. Murphy: Those who are so tragically affected by these events will welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments of solidarity, support, sympathy and prayer. That is rightly reflected across the entire House. He asked a number of specific questions, to which I will briefly respond in turn. I am happy to talk to him on any occasion about the matters that he raised.

The rescuers were on the scene within 12 minutes, and it is my understanding that when they arrived there were two life rafts there, both overturned, and the rescuers sought to see whether there was any sign of life on or near those life rafts. Tragically, there was not; they were both overturned with no sign of life.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the removal of personal beacons, without going into all the details—of course, this is for the inquiry to look into—I understand that as a consequence of the findings after the previous incident, it was decided to remove the individual wristwatch beacons because of the important way in which the different beacons on life rafts, aircraft and individuals co-ordinate with one another. These beacons do not work when submerged in water, so those wearing them could not have been more easily tracked. In this instance, the issue of beacons has not been as significant as it may have been in other incidents or tragedies, because there was a very early sighting of the incident from close nearby, and so there was no need for a wide-ranging search, as there was an immediate pinpoint search.

On the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, I agree about the need for facts rather than speculation, and it is important to reflect on the tragedy in Canada, which involved a different type of aircraft—a Sikorsky. It is important for us not to conflate all these incidents; it is for inquiries and the experts in the field to reflect on these matters. Yesterday’s tragedy involved an earlier version of the Puma than the one involved in the incident seven weeks ago, so there is no causal link between those three incidents at this moment—as I said, the aircraft involved was a different one altogether.

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On the time line, I agree that it is important to make progress as quickly as possible on the inquiry into what happened, which is why 14 staff are on the scene today, carrying out that work. We will release information, if necessary, as the inquiry is undertaken so that we do not wait until the end of the inquiry to take any necessary urgent action. We will act urgently, if necessary and whenever necessary, as part of this inquiry. It is important that we maintain confidence in the North sea and that the brave men and women boarding aircraft this very day have confidence that the authorities, the Government, the industry and everyone involved is doing everything possible to learn immediate and early lessons from this terrible human tragedy.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement today, and may I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with his expressions of condolence and sympathy to the families of the deceased? This is not just a collective tragedy, but a tragedy for 16 individual families, and we must never allow ourselves to forget that.

For almost 40 years, the offshore oil and gas industry has been at the heart of commercial and industrial life in Scotland, especially in the north-east of Scotland, around Aberdeenshire. Many communities have been transformed by its impact, but, sadly, many have also been touched by tragedy over the years. This is not the first such incident that we have known, and it is appropriate that we remember today previous incidents, such as Brent Spar, Cormorant Alpha and the Chinook helicopter crash, which is still remembered in Shetland in my constituency. We in this place often comment on the great rewards of the oil industry: yesterday is a tragic reminder of the risks that are also associated with it.

We are fortunate, if I may say so, in having a vast body of experience in the air accidents investigation branch, which is widely recognised not just in this country, but throughout the world. I am told that Bond has grounded its Super Pumas today. It is, however, important that we have the earliest possible practical decision from the Civil Aviation Authority whether that grounding should be of a more general application. The Super Puma has a good safety record in the industry, but with two incidents having taken place in such close compass, it is important that an early move should be made to ensure that those working in the industry can have every possible confidence in its continued suitability. Can the Secretary of State assure me that there will be the fullest and most open communication possible between workers in the industry, through the companies that employ them and the unions that represent them, and the various agencies charged with the investigation of this tragedy?

May I associate myself and my party colleagues with the appropriate expressions of thanks that the Secretary of State has made to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the RNLI, the RAF and the officers of Grampian police, who have executed an immensely valuable and professional service? The House might reflect, however, that the coastguards praised for their skill and professionalism today are the same coastguards who had a pay settlement imposed on them last year in order
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to avoid their lower grades falling below the level of the minimum wage. The contribution of coastguards and the other emergency services should not be forgotten on occasions such as these.

There will be an ongoing investigation that will involve agencies reporting to the Governments here and in Edinburgh. Whatever differences may exist between this Government and the Office of the First Minister in Scotland, there is surely nothing to be gained by anything other than the fullest co-operation between them.

Mr. Murphy: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman rightly and appropriately added his poignant words of sympathy and support to the families and his recognition of those most closely involved who, at this moment, continue to work in the North sea. It is tragic to reflect on the fact that what began as a search and rescue operation seems, with each passing moment, more like a recovery operation. Of course, it is for those on the scene to make that decision.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the speed with which an inquiry can be undertaken. It is important to reflect that once the voice and data recorders are brought to the surface, it is estimated that it will take about 24 hours—if they are in good condition—to translate and analyse all the information held there. That will be an important first indicator of what went so tragically wrong.

On the points the hon. Gentleman made about open communications, it is right for the UK Government and the Scottish Government to co-operate very closely, which is why I spoke to the First Minister yesterday evening, and again today. I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change as well. Such co-operation is essential at this tragic time, and it is important to talk to others, which is why we keep in close contact with the trade unions and the chaplain to the North sea oil and gas industry, who is providing important spiritual leadership to all those affected. I offer to keep the hon. Gentleman, too, up to date with any details as the investigation is carried out.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and I add my condolences to the families and relatives of those who have lost their lives. I now know that eight of the dead come from the city of Aberdeen, part of which I am proud to represent. My grateful thanks are also due to the rescue services that attend these incidents, often at great risk to their members. We have a lot of experience of the risks and deaths that accompany the benefits of being the European energy capital—far too much experience.

This is the second largest death toll in a helicopter tragedy in the North sea. Over the 41 years of the industry there have been 191 deaths of passengers and crew across the European oil and gas industry in the North sea, and of those 125 were in the UK sector. By world standards, taking into account the hostile regime of the North sea and the number of miles flown each year, that is not a bad record, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is still far too many deaths? We will learn and apply the lessons when all of the facts are known, but for the time being, we should grieve with the families.

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Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend speaks with great emotion about the fact that a large number of those who have lost their lives are from his great city, and it may be helpful to let the House know, without naming any of the individuals, that the indications are that eight of those on board were from Aberdeenshire, four were from elsewhere in Scotland, three were from England and Wales and one was from outside the United Kingdom. He is correct to say that we have to maintain the highest possible safety standards in the North sea, today and every day in the future. This is another tragedy, and it is a tragedy too many. As we look ahead to the future of the oil and gas industry in the North sea, when the search for new fields will take us into areas of increasingly inhospitable terrain, it is important to reflect on the fact that the safety challenge will become even more acute as the industry continues to change. I know that my hon. Friend and his colleagues of all parties in Aberdeenshire will play an important role in trying to maintain that strong record of safety and in ensuring that the inquiry is full and reaches firm conclusions that mean that safety is of paramount importance in the industry.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): Thousands of my constituents work in the offshore oil and gas industry and I am sure that many will be shocked and dismayed by the tragedy this morning. BP’s North sea headquarters and Bond’s operations are based in my constituency and I have spoken to both companies this morning. The House will understand that they are deeply shocked at what has happened.

I have also spoken to Grampian police, who are co-ordinating the rescue and the recovery. It is important the people understand that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are waiting to come home from offshore or go back again, and will face that journey with considerable apprehension in the circumstances, as will their families.

We know that 10 of the missing or killed were from KCA Deutag Drilling, one from PSN and two from Bond. It is important to extend our sympathy to the companies and their associates because I know that they will all be in deep shock.

Given the position that people face, I hope that the Secretary of State understands that we need the earliest possible reassurance, and to know how, on a fine day, a helicopter only minutes from Aberdeen airport had such a catastrophic failure that there was an impact that no one appears to have survived. We understand the professionalism of the AAIB. I am sure that it appreciates that we must get to the bottom of the incident as soon as possible and reassure people. Everybody depends on the workhorse of the North sea, but the House must understand that people will not feel comfortable flying in helicopters today or for the next few days until they know.

Mr. Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point, based on his many years of interest in and championing of the North sea oil and gas industry. He rightly spoke to people at the scene this morning. I spoke to Dave King, chief inspector of the air accidents investigation branch, earlier today. We discussed in some detail the need for quick action at the scene, but also the need to ensure that it is the right action. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees.

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