A UK Government minister has admitted it was “unacceptable” for the families of 16 men who died in a North Sea helicopter crash to have to wait five years for a fatal accident inquiry.
Transport Minister Robert Goodwill told MPs that the delay in compiling a report on the 2009 disaster off Peterhead was due to “very real consideration” being given to prosecutions.
The findings of the fatal accident inquiry were published last week.
The presiding sheriff said it was “possible” that the accident could have been prevented had it not been for failures on the part of operator Bond to follow procedures and communicate fully with manufacturer Eurocopter.
But some relatives reacted angrily to the decision not to prosecute anyone over the deaths.
Members of the transport select committee at Westminster who have been conducting an inquiry into North Sea helicopter safety held their final evidence session in the Commons yesterday.
Asked why it had taken almost five years for the FAI to be held, Mr Goodwill said: “There was very real consideration of a prosecution being brought forward.
“The investigations of this type generally take a number of years.
“I think 18 months is a typical length of time for the Air Accident Investigation Branch to fully carry out their work, and then I think the further delay – as I understand it, and I stand to be corrected – was down to lawyers and prosecutors determining whether or not a case could be brought or not. But I agree it is an unacceptable time for the families to wait, particularly as no prosecution in the end proved to be viable.”
The minister also vowed to remain vigilant over any safety implications of staff cuts at the Civil Aviation Authority.
He said: “I’m certainly not 100% reassured because part of my job is to keep asking that question – are you still able to do your job with the resources you’ve been given?”
Earlier, the CAA’s safety director, Mark Swan, admitted that a June deadline for meeting tough new helicopter standards was deliberately “aggressive”, and the regulator had not considered the cost to offshore firms.
“What I’ve said to the oil and gas representatives and the people in charge of running the helicopters, if there’s a safety case presented to the CAA which shows that there is a greater risk caused by the timeline we have currently proposed, then of course we will look at that.
“But what we have not done is say if this is going to affect your economic prospects – that is in the worst case, where you close down a field – then that for us is not a factor, unless it affects safety.”
Meanwhile the Civil Aviation Authority could temporarily continue to regulat ehelicopters in the North Sea if Scotland votes for independence in September, Mr Goodwill told MPs.
He was asked about the implications for aviation regulation if there was a Yes vote in the referendum.
“I suspect that the CAA in the interim would carry out their role, before the Scots set up their own equivalent of the CAA,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if they could set up one as good as our CAA.
“Certainly, in the unlikely situation that Scotland would make the big mistake in voting for independence, and I was made a request by the new Scottish administration for help, I would certainly feel it was our responsibility to extend the services of the CAA in the interim.”