Monday 24th January 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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Thank you, Ms Ghani, for chairing this sitting this afternoon. I also thank the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and the Petitions Committee for ensuring that this issue has been brought to the House for debate. It is incredibly important that we debate it, and the debate is very timely. My thoughts are with the family of Mark Allen—I applaud their bravery and tenacity in taking this issue forward and bringing it here today. Hopefully some change can be brought about to ensure that other families do not go through what they have gone through.

In Scotland, we have a pretty specific situation in relation to open bodies of water: we have lots of open bodies of water, and our open bodies of water are very cold. We have seen in the course of the pandemic, as was mentioned, an increase in the number of people wild swimming, paddle boarding and canoeing. I cannot claim to do any of those. I have tried sea kayaking and I am never going again—I was so seasick it was ridiculous. I did not expect to get seasick while sea kayaking, and it is not a thing that I will carry on with.

The increase in the number of people going out and enjoying the water and having a good time in the water in Scotland is brilliant, but we need to ensure that we increase the education as well. We need to ensure that, when people are going into the water, they are doing so while understanding the risks and what they need to do should they get into difficulty. The RNLI’s incredibly important “Float to Live” campaign was mentioned. It does not matter how strong a swimmer someone is and how many times they have been in that water before, hitting the water and getting the shock of the cold can mean that they freeze up, are unable to rescue themselves and get into real difficulty. It is really important that we ensure that as many people as possible are aware of that campaign.

In Scotland, we had our own response to the drowning prevention strategy in 2018. It included a number of things, but one of the key measures was to develop and promote water safety education and initiatives in primary and secondary schools. Given that in Scotland we have a different education system and a different police and fire system, as well as having a massive number of bodies of water, there needs to be a unique strategy, and we are taking that forward in Scotland in an attempt to make a difference.

In July last year we saw a doubling in the number of fatalities in Scotland’s waters, which is a big issue. As a result of that, particularly around Loch Lomond, the amount of safety equipment has massively increased. Several organisations, including the council, have worked together to increase the number of throwlines and safety signs and to increase the presence of the lifeguard boat at that side of the Loch to ensure that people can be saved, should they get into difficulty. That should not happen only after the fact. It should not take those fatalities for us to realise the issue.

We should increase the amount of education and safety equipment. We should ensure that people know how to use that safety equipment and that it is kept up to date and looked after. All of those are incredibly important. By 2026, we will hopefully see the number of people drowning in open water reduced. We all want to get there, and we are all pushing in that direction, but I think we particularly need to see education in schools.

I have young children aged eight and 10. As we quite often do in Aberdeenshire, whenever I go to a harbour, I am terrified that either my or somebody else’s children are going to fall into the water. My children probably do not realise, but I am hyperaware of it. When they hit 14 or 15 and go out by themselves, they will not have the same level of terror about the water as I have when they are near it. As a parent, I think schools need to ensure that young people are educated and have a reasonable awareness. It is okay to go into the water, but they need to have awareness of the danger it can pose, so that we see fewer fatalities and so that people can enjoy the outdoors safely in Scotland, England or Wales.