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Glasgow Helicopter Crash

Volume 750: debated on Monday 2 December 2013


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I will repeat a Statement made by the Secretary of State for Scotland in the other place on the helicopter crash that happened in Glasgow on the evening of Friday 29 November. Before repeating my right honourable friend’s Statement, I am sure I speak for all parts of your Lordships’ House in expressing our deepest condolences to the family and friends of those who lost their lives in this terrible tragedy, as well as expressing our own thoughts for those injured and our thankful appreciation of those who have given such valiant service in the rescue operation. The Statement is as follows.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a Statement to update the House on the crash of the helicopter that happened in Glasgow on the evening of Friday 29 November.

As the House will be aware, at approximately 10.25 pm on Friday evening, a helicopter, operated on behalf of Police Scotland, crashed into the roof of the Clutha Bar in Stockwell Street, Glasgow. It was reported that there were around 120 people in the bar at the time of the accident. Police Scotland has overnight confirmed nine fatalities. This includes the pilot of the helicopter and the two police officers on board. A further 32 people were injured in the crash and 12 remain in hospital. Three of these casualties are being treated in intensive care, where their condition is described as serious but stable. The search of the building continues and it remains possible that more casualties could be found.

I am sure that the House will also wish to recognise the outstanding work of the emergency services, for the speed, professionalism and courage of their response on Friday night and into the early hours of Saturday morning. Police, fire and ambulance services all responded magnificently, working in difficult and dangerous circumstances. In particular, we should recognise that police officers had to respond in circumstances where they were dealing, not just with the death of members of the public, but also with two of their own colleagues, PC Kirsty Nelis and PC Tony Collins.

Some of the most remarkable stories of courage and selflessness from Friday night and Saturday morning have come from staff and customers of the Clutha Bar and passers-by who came to their assistance in the immediate aftermath of the accident. They responded with no thought for their own personal safety. Members will know that among them was the right honourable Member for East Renfrewshire who happened to be one of the first to arrive on the scene. The right honourable gentleman is not in the House today, as he is in the Philippines, in the course of his duties as Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. He is characteristically understated in describing his role, but I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that his response—which was instinctive—did him credit.

I had a meeting with members of all three emergency services in the command centre and I also met with Councillor Gordon Matheson, at the City Chambers where I signed the book of condolence. Glasgow City Council will now take up much of the burden of caring for and comforting those affected by this incident. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport has also been in regular contact and his department, through the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, now has a duty to investigate and report on the causes of the accident. Investigations of this sort are inevitably complex and can be lengthy. I know that all those affected will be looking for answers but the gathering of evidence, especially at this early stage, will be vital to the investigation. I hope that the police, and other investigatory agencies, will be given the time and space to do their job.

The House will also wish to know that there has been close contact between Her Majesty’s Government and the Scottish Government since the incident. The Prime Minister spoke to the First Minister on Saturday and offered any assistance from the emergency services or other agencies south of the border, should that be required.

I wear today a badge given to me this morning by Councillor Gordon Matheson. It reads, quite simply, “People Make Glasgow”. The response of the people who make Glasgow has demonstrated all the courage and character that has made the city famous throughout the world. We in this House, and the people we represent in communities throughout the United Kingdom, stand in solidarity today with the people of Glasgow as they mourn their loss and start to come to terms with their grief. People make Glasgow: today I wear that badge with pride.”

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement from the other place. I associate Her Majesty’s Opposition with the expressions of condolence to all those bereaved and sympathy to the injured, and to the great city of Glasgow for the disaster that struck the Clutha Bar overnight at the weekend.

The response of the city of Glasgow, and its people, has won admiration throughout the United Kingdom. The Minister mentioned the emergency services and the hospitals, which have coped with the injured and the deceased. It has been a great response to such a disaster. I come from the town of Rutherglen, a near neighbour of Glasgow, but had the honour to represent the Toryglen part of the city and have always admired the resilience of Glasgow people and their positive response in adversity. I particularly thank the Government for the spirit of consensus and co-operation shown in their actions and behaviour throughout. This has been first class and is much appreciated.

I will ask the two questions put by Margaret Curran in the other House, so that they can be placed on record. We fully understand the pressures of time when it comes to compiling reports, but can the Minister give any indication of when even an interim report might be ready? We fully understand the nature of that question. Secondly, what support can the UK Government offer to Glasgow and the families of the crash victims? Glasgow City Council has to be commended for its reaction to the disaster. Councillor Gordon Matheson, leader of Glasgow City Council, said,

“Those who are already suffering physically and emotionally need time to recover and to grieve. Money will be very far from their thoughts, but Glasgow will not allow their suffering to be compounded by financial plight in their hour of need. There will be people who are unable to work, or who face a lengthy road to recovery. Families face uncertain times ahead without loved ones. We can and will help them in the days, weeks and months ahead—and we know many of our fellow Glaswegians will also want to lend their support”.

Glasgow taxi drivers, the taxi association and travel companies are already offering support. The council is promising charitable funds, and the fact that various businesses are coming forward indicates the spirit of Glasgow.

A remark made by Margaret Curran sums up, for me, the nature of Glaswegians. She said,

“it is the spirit of people who did not turn and run from the Clutha Vaults pub but who ran towards the danger and worked arm in arm to lift men and women to safety”.

Both the Government and Opposition, and all parties in both Houses of Parliament are united in their support of the people of Glasgow. That support for such a resilient group of people will be much appreciated.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments and for what he has said about the resilience and the spirit of the people of Glasgow. He said that that has been admired throughout the United Kingdom, but it is fair to say that it has been admired beyond the shores of the United Kingdom. As he pointed out, people ran to help in those circumstances rather than running away from danger. The comments from Councillor Matheson that he quoted represent the real spirit of Glasgow.

The noble Lord asked me about when a report might be expected, although he accepted that it is very early days yet. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch deployed a team of 12 people to Glasgow on Saturday morning, which has been assisting the emergency services with the removal of bodies from the helicopter wreckage and in the immediate vicinity. The helicopter has now been lifted from the roof of the bar. I know that the Air Accidents Investigation Branch will want to give an interim report, but it is too early to predict when that will happen.

The noble Lord also asked about assistance to the authorities in Scotland. As I indicated, offers of assistance have been made to Police Scotland. The Government have made such offers to both the Scottish Government and to Glasgow council. As the Statement said, Glasgow council will now bear much of the burden of what happens from here on. We continue to be ready to provide support, if required, in the best spirit of the co-operation at all levels and by all people that has marked the response to this event.

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for his Statement and for the tribute which he rightly paid to the emergency services. Without in any way anticipating the results of the inquiry, it seems that rather a lot of helicopters fall out of the sky these days. We have seen it in the North Sea and not a stone’s throw from here. Would this not be a good time perhaps to review the maintenance regime that applies to helicopters and the rules that surround it? I appreciate that this was a police helicopter and that we do not know the circumstances. However, should we not look at some kind of review of the safety and maintenance standards that are required of helicopters that fly over heavily populated urban areas?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. He highlights the fact that there have been some helicopter crashes and fatalities in recent times. Over a long period of time the safety record has generally been good. However, I am sure the whole House will agree that any accident must be thoroughly investigated if lessons can be learnt. It is also important to remind ourselves that helicopters fly many different types of operations and that a helicopter taking large numbers of passengers out to installations in the North Sea is somewhat different from the operation that was undertaken by police and other emergency helicopters in this situation. I am not sure that a generic inquiry would necessarily be the best way forward. However, it is important that there is a thorough investigation of the various accidents that have happened. I am in no doubt that the Air Accidents Investigation Branch and other relevant authorities will try to ensure that that thorough investigation takes place so that we can learn any lessons that are appropriate.

My Lords, I am not a Glaswegian. However, all Scotland grieves with Glasgow after this terrible tragedy and is proud of how the people of Glasgow have responded. As parliamentarians, we have in the past few years seen the worst of us. On Friday night, with Jim Murphy, we saw the best of us. We recognise that when a young man puts himself in harm’s way he will live with the memory of that night for the rest of his life.

I will ask the Minister a question, which he may not be able to answer. As we know, these helicopters are used a lot by police and emergency services the length and breadth of Britain and beyond. Given that there is no indication as to what caused this accident and there is no black box recorder, are there any plans to ground these helicopters? If that is the case, what back-up would be available to emergency services throughout the country?

My Lords, first, I endorse and echo what the noble Baroness said about Jim Murphy. Those of us who saw that interview realised the spirit of someone whom many of us know. It was all too typical of Jim to do something like that. On the particular helicopter—the EC135—as I said, it is obvious that at this stage of the investigation the cause of the crash is unknown. That type of helicopter has been operated successfully, both in the United Kingdom and internationally, and has a good safety record. At this time we are not aware of any information that would lead us to consider this type as unsafe, but if at any time the European Aviation Safety Agency, which has the approval process, is concerned that the aircraft type is unsafe, it can ground all operations. However, that decision has not been taken.

My Lords, as the son of a long-standing emergency worker, I, too, associate myself with the warm tribute that the Minister, and in another place the Secretary of State, gave to emergency workers across Scotland. Those professionals take extraordinary risks to make sure that we continue to be safe and well. I associate myself and the Liberal Democrat Benches with those remarks. Will the Minister commit the United Kingdom Government to ensuring that whatever review is carried out as a result of those investigations into helicopter flights over cities and rural areas, recommendations are acted upon, because of the necessity of rotary-wing emergency aircraft for Scotland? Will the Minister make sure that those in the Clutha Bar who have been affected by this tragedy are aware that in perhaps their time of greatest need their fellow Glaswegians, their countrymen and women and those across all of these islands stand with them? Will he ensure that the support that is necessary is provided to those who are affected, not only at the moment but for the weeks and months to come, and that Her Majesty’s Government provide support to Glasgow City Council—to endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy—and to the Scottish Government?

My Lords, on that final point, it is obvious that it has been a pretty traumatic experience for those who were involved. I hope that over the days, weeks and months ahead, they will find strength and comfort from the strong support for them in the community. I repeat that it has been made clear to Glasgow City Council that we stand ready to give such help as may be appropriate. I echo the tribute he paid to emergency workers.

I have heard it said by some who have been there that because of the particular site of the tragedy, the investigation has been one of the most complex they have ever worked on. Those who undertook much of the rescue and recovery work were doing so in dangerous circumstances. That simply underlines the debt that we owe them. Obviously it is premature to speculate on what kind of recommendations would be made. However, I am sure that the recommendations, be they addressed to government or other bodies, are ones that will require to be properly and fully responded to.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the caring and compassionate tone set by Sir Stephen House, the chief constable of Police Scotland, and Rose Fitzpatrick, the deputy chief constable, in all of their public pronouncements has helped with the healing process as the brave people of Glasgow as a whole respond to this very challenging and difficult situation?

Certainly, any public statements I have seen on television by both the chief constable and the deputy chief constable have been exactly that. As I said in the Statement, it is worth reminding ourselves that they themselves suffered the loss of colleagues in this tragedy. Notwithstanding that, they have acted with exemplary professionalism.

My Lords, as an ex-Member of Parliament for one of the Glasgow seats, I take this opportunity to say both that I mourn for the people of Glasgow today and that I am proud of them for the way in which they have reacted to this tragedy. First, it is a compliment in these modern times that there is no photograph of the tragedy because everybody went to help rather than taking out their iPhones and taking photographs. I have a serious question, because it is a very serious moment. The latest reports say that there was no mayday signal from the helicopter before it crashed. Is this correct? Does it not say something about what happened to that helicopter if there was no mayday signal?

My Lords, I am not aware of that. It is not a report that I have seen or been made aware of, and therefore it would be wrong for me to speculate. Obviously, matters such as that will be examined, and I have no doubt that information will come out in the days and weeks ahead. However, it would be wrong for me to speculate on what I have not heard.

My Lords, while entirely joining myself with my noble and learned friend’s remarks about all those who have been affected by this horrible accident, I declare an interest as president of the British Helicopter Association, which is the trade body that looks after operators of all sorts of helicopters, including police helicopters. It is, as my noble and learned friend said, far too early to even begin to speculate on the cause of this accident. It will take some time to establish what it is. It appears to be incredibly unusual, certainly in my experience, for an incident of this sort to arise without any warning whatever apparently—although we do not know if there was a mayday call or not.

Does my noble friend agree that it is perhaps not strictly comparable to some of the incidents that we have seen on the North Sea, which often have occurred for other reasons? Perhaps he would also endorse that the safety regime through the regulators, both the European Aviation Safety Agency and indeed our own Civil Aviation Authority, is of the very highest standard. Certainly in my experience all those concerned with this, including all those who live in populated areas where police helicopters have to operate, must be reassured that these aircraft and their crews operate to the very highest standards, and that no stone will be left unturned in trying to establish the cause of this accident.

I acknowledge the experience of my noble friend and share his view that it is important. I believe it is the case that the Air Accident Investigation Branch conducts these inquiries and investigations thoroughly and to the highest standards. Once the AAIB has the details on the cause of this tragic accident, it will be a matter for the Civil Aviation Authority to consider what action may be necessary, and to ensure that these matters are proceeded with, regarding the overwhelming requirement for safety in these operations.

I thank the Minister for his Statement, and particularly for his generous tribute to our parliamentary colleague, Jim Murphy. Although he is a self-effacing character, in a sense I think he recognised that what he did was pretty ordinary for Glasgow where, perhaps because of the industrial culture and legacy, there is a tendency to run towards the danger when others are in danger. In any case, however it may surprise others, it remains inspiring. I obviously associate myself with the condolences for those who have lost loved ones or family, and those who are injured. I will ask the Minister one question. I understand he said that the search continues inside the Clutha Bar for others who may be there. Does he have any information as to whether there are known and identified persons, without any names, who are still unaccounted for—or is it simply a matter of searching the bar itself?

My Lords, I note again the point made by the noble Lord with regard to Jim Murphy. I rather suspect that the self-effacing way in which Jim handled the interviews was because he recognised that he was not alone among those who responded to that situation. I cannot, because I do not have the information, go beyond what I said—and what the Secretary of State said when he stood up and made his Statement in the other place—which is that the search of the building continues. I am not aware of the position regarding people who may have been missing and identified. I know some concerns have been expressed by victims, and some frustration. That is totally understandable in the circumstances. Equally, Deputy Chief Constable Fitzpatrick, who has already been referred to, said:

“The uncertainty for the families of those who have died is at the front of our minds … It remains our absolute priority to give clarity to those affected as soon as we are able”.

Does the Minister accept that we all wish to be associated with his messages of condolence to the bereaved, and also to those who have been severely injured or injured at all? Can the Minister tell us whether helicopters of this nature possess black boxes, and whether that will be one of the issues to be looked at in the inquiry?

My Lords, it is the case that this helicopter was not fitted with any cockpit voice recorder, flight data recorder or usage monitoring system. It is important to say that it was not a requirement. Again, it would be wrong for me to speculate on whether that is something that the AAIB will wish to look at in terms of any possible recommendation. I will just make the point at the moment that it was not a requirement for this particular type of helicopter.