HC Deb 25 July 1990 vol 177 cc463-7 3.30 pm
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement following the crash of a British International helicopter in the North sea this morning on its way to the Brent Spar platform.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Cecil Parkinson)

A Sikorsky S-61 helicopter on charter to Shell UK from British International Helicopters crashed into the North sea in the Brent field at about 10.45 am today. The helicopter was on its way to the Brent Spar loading rig, 116 miles north-east of Lerwick, from an accommodation unit also in the Brent field. The helicopter came down alongside the rig itself. The cause is not yet known.

Thirteen persons are known to have been on board the helicopter. Seven have so far been rescued, of whom four are seriously injured. They are being taken to the Aberdeen royal infirmary, along with the other three less seriously injured survivors. The two crew and four other passengers are so far unaccounted for, but the search is continuing.

Two Shell search-and-rescue helicopters based in the Brent field were on the scene within minutes of the accident. They were joined by a coastguard helicopter based at Sumburgh and an RAF Nimrod.

The rescue operations are being co-ordinated by the Aberdeen coastguards, assisted by the rescue co-ordination centre at Edinburgh. The wreckage of the aircraft has been located on the sea bed, in 400 ft of water. Specialist diving craft are on the scene.

Shell and Grampian police have set up contact telephone lines for relatives at their Aberdeen emergency control rooms.

The Chief Inspector of Air Accidents has ordered a formal investigation.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing sympathy for the families of those injured and missing.

Mr. Bruce

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his full statement about this very unfortunate incident. May I extend on my own behalf, as constituency Member, and on behalf of my party and colleagues our sympathy to the families of those who have lost their lives and to those who have been injured, apparently seriously. This is just another example of how risky a business it is to win oil from the North sea and of how thousands of people every day are putting their lives at risk on behalf of the whole community. We should be grateful to them for that.

I have a few specific questions for the Secretary of State relating to the incident. Does he acknowledge that a similar helicopter, a Sikorsky S-61, burst into flames and crashed into the North sea—fortunately, without loss of life—on 13 July 1988 and that we have not yet received the accident investigation report? It has apparently been delayed for administrative reasons. Does the Secretary of State accept that we should not have to wait so long? In the case of this incident, will he ensure that a report is prepared more speedily? Will he also ensure that a fatal accident inquiry is set in motion as quickly as possible? I understand that an inquiry has been called for by British International Helicopters. I believe that an inquiry will be welcomed by the whole community. Does he accept that such incidents show how important offshore safety must be in all operations in the North sea? Once again, we are extremely grateful to those who put their lives at risk.

Mr. Parkinson

As the hon. Gentleman knows, in my former job I went offshore to various platforms and rigs. I confirm what he says. We take for granted the work of people who produce great wealth for the country at some risk to themselves.

I shall look into the question about the air accident investigation branch report on the fatal accident two years ago. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the AAIB is a highly regarded body and it has been very busy recently. In particular, the Lockerbie investigation has taken up a tremendous amount of its time. However, I shall make sure that that report is issued as soon as possible.

The fatal accident inquiry is a matter not for me but for the Scottish legal authorities. I am sure that they will get on with making the necessary arrangements.

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of safety in the North sea. The Department of Transport uniquely funds research into helicopter operations and safety in conjuction with the Department of Energy, the Civil Aviation Authority and the United Kingdom offshore operators. So we recognise the importance of safety and, above all, the importance of safety in helicopters, which are a key way of moving people about the North sea.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside)

At this moment, are there not only two things that matter—first, on behalf of the whole House, to express our deep sadness over the incident; and, secondly, again on behalf of the whole House, to express our deepest sympathy to the families of those involved?

Mr. Parkinson

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South)

May I, too, extend my sympathy to the families and friends of those involved in the incident? Since I heard about the incident, I have spent a great deal of time on the telephone talking to people from my constituency who work offshore or represent those who work offshore. There is a genuine sense of anger today about the incident. It is the latest in a long line of such incidents. We have had 250 deaths in the North sea on offshore installations and vessels alone. There have been 74 deaths in helicopters, not counting any deaths arising out of today's incident. That is a shocking total.

I wish to raise one important specific point with the Secretary of State. I understand that a survey was carried out recently on the Kittiwake platform, which is going through the hook-up process. In that survey, 36 people were found not to have offshore survival certificates, which hitherto were regarded as mandatory. The Secretary of State will be aware from his experience that helicopter evacuation is an essential part of that training process. If the survey results are correct—again, it is a shocking indictment of the attitude of the oil companies to safety in the North sea—will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the question of offshore survival certificates is investigated as part of the process of investigating this incident?

Mr. Parkinson

The hon. Gentleman strikes a wrong note when he talks about increased helicopter accidents. There is no discernible trend of increase in the number of accidents in helicopters. I am sure that he is as pleased as I am that for the past three years there have been no fatal accidents. There were two bad tragedies in the mid-1980s, but the record has not worsened. It is misleading for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that it has.

I shall look into the hon. Gentleman's point about Kittiwake. I cannot confirm what the hon. Gentleman said, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy will look into the matter.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that all hon. Members whose Scottish constituencies have offshore workers will be saddened by today's accident. Does he agree that the investigation branch always does its work splendidly and thoroughly after such accidents, and that if anything is found during the investigation that requires immediate action it is dealt with immediately and all operators are instructed to implement the requirements? Does he agree that we should not require the full report before taking any necessary action to ensure that operations are safe?

Mr. Parkinson

Yes, the formal investigation that the chief inspector authorised is the highest priority investigation. The report will come forward in two stages. Any immediate lessons will be learned and information will be disseminated throughout the industry. In addition, a full report will follow, which will be published.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

As a Member of Parliament from north-east Scotland, may I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the sincere comments that other hon. Members have addressed to families who have lost members and the seriously injured? I also pay tribute to the rescue services, including the crew and staff of RAF Nimrod from my home town of Lossiemouth.

Will the Secretary of State elaborate on the time scale that he invisages for the report's production? We all wish to see it undertaken quickly because of its implications. Do the Government have a view about the type of insurance policy advocated for such companies? Surely one of the difficulties that the families of the deceased will face is that of finance.

Mr. Parkinson

I thank the hon. Lady for her opening remarks.

The chief inspector will get on with the work and report as soon as possible. He sets his own timetable and wants to do the job thoroughly, which he will. I will convey to him the hon. Lady's views. I do not know about the insurance policies, but I shall find out and let the hon. Lady know.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

The all-party group on energy studies will visit Shell in Aberdeen during the recess and we shall be able to express our condolences direct to the people involved. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the S-61 is a good helicopter with a good accident record? Does he agree that, although the winning of oil and gas from the North sea is a risky business, travelling to and from the rigs is not necessarily the most risky part of it, and that the record in our sector compares favourably with that of the Norwegian sector?

Mr. Parkinson

My hon. Friend is correct in saying that the S-61 has a good safety record on the whole: there has been one fatal accident in S-61 operations in the past 10 years. We should not draw up a league table in the North sea between the Norwegians and us. We both want to do everything possible to avoid accidents, which operators on both sides of the North sea do.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

On behalf of myself and others, may I join in the expressions of sympathy for those who have suffered loss and serious injury in the accident, and pay tribute to the rescue services.

While I accept that it is impossible to make snap judgments on the information available, will the Secretary of State say whether weather was a factor at the time? Does he understand that the most urgent need is to determine whether the S-61 is similar to that which at one time suffered a spate of gearbox trouble? That must be determined as quickly as possible, and, if necessary, such helicopters will have to he grounded in the interests of the safety of people who continue to use them. Will he assure us that that will be done as quickly as possible because there will be great worry and concern among those people who have to fly over the North sea every day and their relatives?

Mr. Parkinson

I confirm that, although there was a little fog and cloud about in the North sea earlier today, visibility was about two miles. Therefore, visibility does not appear to have been a factor.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about snap judgments. The S-61 has a good record, but I shall ensure that the accident investigation branch is made aware of what the hon. Gentleman has just said.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

May I join the Secretary of State and other hon. Members in offering our condolences and deepest sympathy to the relatives of those who are injured or missing, and yet again record our admiration for and thanks to the rescue services, on behalf of the survivors.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Sikorsky S-61 has been involved in three losses in the past two years and eight ditchings in the past 20 years; and that, according to my information, a door fell off one yesterday? This anxiety is shared by many oil workers, and it is also highlighted in the Civil Aviation Authority's report, which the Secretary of State received yesterday. May I suggest that he reads that report about helicopter safety?

In the light of experience of inquiries, may I add my voice to those of others who have asked the right hon. Gentleman to press the Crown Office to ensure that there is no unnecessary delay in the fatal accident inquiry? As for the excellent aviation inspector's formal investigations, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that no extraordinary pressures are brought to bear, as happened in the case of the Boeing company over the loss of the Chinook helicopter in 1986, when the inspector's report was delayed by more than two years? That caused unnecessary anguish among the relatives of the 45 men who died in it.

Mr. Parkinson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. It appears that, once again, the rescue services have performed superbly.

I repeat what I have already said about helicopter safety: in the past 10 years there has been one fatal accident involving an S-61, so there is no reason to make sweeping remarks about the aircraft. The hon. Gentleman should do nothing to suggest that he has made a snap judgment, which would cause unnecessary concern on the part of the relatives of those who are still working today in the North sea.

As the hon. Gentleman heard me tell the House, the fatal accident inquiry is a matter not for me but for the Law Officers. I shall convey to them the fact that the House feels that the matter should be treated urgently. I cannot do more than that; they must make their own arrangements, and I am sure that they will.

The accident investigation branch caries out its work, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) kindly said, in a most thorough way which has earned it worldwide recognition as the leading operator in this area. I am sure that it will do its job as thoroughly and quickly as possible.