Monday 24th January 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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David Jones Portrait Mr David Jones (Clwyd West) (Con)
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May I say how pleased I am to see you in the Chair, Ms Ghani? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on his opening speech, and thank the Petitions Committee for securing the debate.

The petition was initiated by a constituent of mine, Mrs Leeanne Bartley of Ruthin, who is present in the Chamber, and it was prompted by the tragic death of her son, Mark Allen. As we have heard, on 5 June 2018, Mark, who was then aged 18 and living with his father in Gorton, Manchester, was with a group of friends in Debdale Park, one of the largest public open spaces in that city. It was a hot day, and Mark decided to cool off by swimming in the nearby Debdale reservoir—a large body of water managed by United Utilities. It would appear that he scaled a fence to climb up to a platform and dive into the reservoir. The water was bitterly cold, and, sadly, he immediately got into difficulties. His friends attempted to rescue him but were sadly unable to do so, and he disappeared under the water. Mark was a young man and talented drama student with his life ahead of him. He is severely missed by his family and friends.

United Utilities told the inquest into Mark’s death that there were a number of signs around the edge of the reservoir warning of the danger of the water, and pointing out that it was extremely cold and very deep in places. Since the incident, however, the company has installed a number of throwlines around the reservoir. I am afraid that it is frequently the case that throwlines appear after such an incident has occurred. Mrs Bartley’s view is that the authorities responsible for the management of large bodies of water should be proactive in the installation of throwlines, rather than reactive, as they are at the moment, sadly.

About 260 deaths from accidental drowning occur in the United Kingdom each year, and that is without taking into account the number of British citizens who die in drowning accidents overseas. Mrs Bartley believes very firmly that that number could be significantly reduced if there were a requirement to provide throwlines at every large body of water in the country. Clearly, everybody would agree that it is highly desirable that the number of deaths by drowning should be reduced. The provision of throwlines would be a move in the right direction.

Most reservoirs are owned by the major water companies. The Environment Agency is responsible for the management of rivers, and the Canal and River Trust is responsible for managing the canals around the country. Those entities have a responsibility for the safety of the bodies of water that they manage.

The Royal Life Saving Society UK is one of the leading charities in this field. It helps people to enjoy being on, in and around water safely. I commend its website, which is a tremendously valuable resource, which provides a huge amount of information about water safety and a catalogue of the risks associated with open water. As we have heard, those risks include: the shock of cold water, which can make swimming difficult even for the strongest swimmer, and can increase the difficulty of getting out of the water; the lack of safety equipment and the increased difficulty for rescue; the depth of the water, which changes frequently and is unpredictable; and strong currents that can sweep swimmers away.

Evidence given at the inquest indicated that the water in the reservoir was extremely cold. In fact, one of the witnesses said it was freezing. No doubt, the low temperature was at least a contributing factor leading to the difficulties that Mark got into. The coroner at the inquest remarked that Mark’s death was caused, as he put it, by “the impetuosity of youth”. He said:

“We think we are bulletproof. We do what comes naturally to us and never think about the risks.”

It is possible that, had throwlines been provided at the reservoir, more could have been done by Mark’s friends to avoid this dreadful tragedy. It is also probably true that if throwlines were more widely available on bodies of water across the country, there would be far fewer fatalities of this sort. In their response to the petition, the Government have pointed out that landowners have a

“responsibility to assess and act on the risks posed by open bodies of water on their land.”

That is certainly true. I ask the Minister, when she replies to the debate, to explain what actions landowners should take in response to those risks, and whether she agrees that throwlines, which cost about £250, should be more widely available. Perhaps she could indicate if the Government are prepared to legislate, as urged by Mrs Bartley.

James Davies Portrait Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con)
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My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is making some excellent points. I have had 566 constituents sign the petition—a significant number. Does he agree that any guidance or legislation that comes forward following the debate needs to apply to Wales as well as to the rest of the United Kingdom?

David Jones Portrait Mr Jones
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I believe so. There has, in fact, been a debate on the issue already in the Welsh Senedd in Cardiff. When one considers that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 is a national piece of legislation, I would very much hope that the Minister will indicate what national legislation she has in mind, or at least what the Government are prepared to do to provide stronger guidance to those who manage large bodies of water.

Finally, I commend the work of the Royal Life Saving Society UK. I have spoken to Mr Lee Heard of that organisation, who told me that the RLSS is always happy to assist landowners by advising what sensible precautions they can take to minimise the risks associated with bodies of open water on their land. It is a hugely valuable resource and I encourage all landowners to make use of it.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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No doubt the Royal Life Saving Society UK will be in Hansard twice because of your contribution.

--- Later in debate ---
Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Yes, it is part of the key stage curriculum, but I will get DFE Ministers to write more comprehensively to the hon. Lady on this issue. I would not want to say something that is inaccurate, because it is not in my portfolio.

David Jones Portrait Mr David Jones
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way before she concludes. As I understand it from her remarks, the Government are yet persuaded that legislation is the appropriate answer to the problem that we are debating, and she wishes to carry out further assessments. When does she anticipate that those assessments will be complete? Although I appreciate the point she makes about education and understanding the risks of the water, which are obviously correct, may I remind her what the coroner said? It was the impetuosity of youth—we all think that we are bullet-proof. Frankly, had there been a throwline there that day, it might well be the case that Mark Allen would be alive today. Will the Minister give serious consideration to legislation?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. We will give serious consideration to all the options. We need to make sure that this is absolutely the right pathway to go down. I understand the points that everyone has made. I do not want to be standing here for another debate when another child or young person has lost their life, so I want my right hon. Friend to know we take this issue very seriously. He has been in government and he knows that it is never a matter of making a statement in Westminster Hall. All sorts of people need to be consulted, and we need to work out which Department would start looking at this issue, but I have committed that we will come back with a response. We should be able to do that in a reasonable amount of time.

I reiterate that we all share the same ambition of making our waterways as safe as possible. There is more that can be done to educate people on the risks, but I know that the bodies charged with keeping people safe take that responsibility seriously and will be upping the ante in the months ahead to prevent deaths such as Mark’s in the future. I take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to urge every landowner, council, agency and charity involved in our waterways to find new and engaging ways in the months ahead to teach people about how to enjoy the water safely. We are here to support them in whatever way we can.

Finally, I want to thank again Mark’s mother, Leeanne Bartley, for bringing the petition forward and inviting us to debate this important issue. We are very grateful.