Government could step in over helicopter safety fears, says Prime Minister

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Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested that the UK Government could step in and take action to address concerns over helicopter safety in the North Sea oil and gas industry.

He revealed to the Press and Journal yesterday that he was waiting to see the results of an investigation into recent helicopter crashes –  and would then consider “taking things further”.

And the Conservative leader did not rule out ordering an independent public inquiry into the incidents, which have shaken the confidence of some offshore workers.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) announced on Tuesday that it would examine the safety issues, in conjunction with Norwegian and European regulators, while three helicopter operators have launched their own investigation.

The move follows five North Sea accidents in the last four years, including a crash off the coast of Shetland in August which killed four people.

In his first public remarks on the tragedy and its impact, Mr Cameron said he understood the concerns of the offshore workforce.

Speaking to the Press and Journal at Downing Street yesterday, he said: “I totally understand the concerns. I completely understand the whole issues of safety around the North Sea.

“I remember my first job in politics was at the same time as the terrible Piper Alpha disaster and I remember then the appalling loss of life and vital need to make sure this industry – which is a great industry, a huge bonus for our country – that this industry has to have the highest safety standards, and it does.”

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North-east politicians and trade union leaders have called for a full public inquiry into the safety issues, similar to the landmark investigation by Lord Cullen in the wake of the Piper Alpha disaster, which killed 167 men 25 years ago.

Asked if the UK Government could hold such an inquiry, or take any other measures to ease industry concerns, Mr Cameron said: “You know the first thing is that there is an investigation now under way.

“So let us let that investigation do its work and let us look at the results of that before taking things further.”

A source who had spoken to UK ministers about a possible inquiry confirmed to the Press and Journal that they were “keeping their options open”.

The transport select committee at Westminster has launched its own probe into the North Sea ditchings, with evidence due to be heard in the coming weeks. It is understood the MPs may consider recommending a wider investigation as part of their report.

Committee chairwoman Louise Ellman previously told the Press and Journal that “it may well be the case” that a full inquiry was also required, and that she was planning to hold early talks with investigators.

Sir Malcolm Bruce, Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon, welcomed the prime minister’s comments last night.

“I welcome the fact the prime minister has indicated that if there are issues not addressed by the inquiry then he will consider what else can be done. I think it is a sensible response,” he said.

“I think what has to happen is that all concerns raised have to be assessed by the CAA inquiry. It has to be as wide-ranging as possible. I think we should have as full an inquiry as possible – and a willingness to have a further inquiry if possible.”

Frank Doran, Labour MP for Aberdeen North, has called for a Cullen-style public inquiry.

He said: “I think it is important that the government considers the situation, looks at the circumstances and makes a decision based on facts, rather than any knee-jerk reaction.

“But I think all the evidence is that we need to have a wide-ranging inquiry that looks at every aspect of the industry.

“I think the announcement from the CAA is helpful, but as they are the regulator they have to be scrutinised as well – nothing should be left out of the type of inquiry Lord Cullen and others have carried out.”

Eilidh Whiteford, SNP MP for Banff and Buchan, said: “There is no doubt that confidence in helicopter safety has been badly shaken. We should not rule out the possibility of further action at this stage.”

Jake Molloy, regional organiser for the RMT union, said: “Mr Cameron is entitled to his own opinions and thoughts. We hope he does get in line with the rest of us who want an independent inquiry.”

Trade body Oil and Gas UK said it was keen to participate in the CAA investigation, and would also look at any issues which are not raised as part of the regulator’s probe.