Monday 24th January 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test before coming on to the estate. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and exiting the room.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 575967, relating to throwline stations around open bodies of water.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani.

In May 2018, Mark Allen was out with his friends on a hot summer’s day. He was a bright and funny young man, who wanted to be an actor. The water where he and his friends had congregated was welcoming. Like many young men, and some girls, they did not register the danger. Feeling hot and sticky, the clothes came off and in they went. I am pretty sure that if I had been there, aged 18, I would have done the same. I have swum in the sea a thousand times, so what it is the difference?

In they all went. No doubt, they screamed with laughter and pain when the cold hit them. They probably splashed each other in the water, like we all do. Apparently, these boys got out, but they decided to go back in. Unfortunately, Mark never swam again. Last week I met Mark’s mum Leeanne—a brave woman who told me her story. There can really be nothing like the pain of losing a child. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of Mark’s extended family and friends for their loss.

When someone dies so young, we have to ask why. It is a very tough question. When a family can take something positive out of such a tragic event, it does not remove the pain, but preventing others from going through the same experience may help to bring at least some sense to it. Mark’s mum made a promise to him that she would do all she could to stop this happening to other people, so that families like hers do not have to suffer a similarly tragic event. The petition started by Leeanne has reached 103,000 signatures, and 57 of my own constituents have signed it. It has huge support, and I am pleased to bring this debate here today. There has been similar campaign work on throwline stations and water safety education over the years, and I would like to recognise the work of those campaigners.

Hundreds of people die each year in water, and the statistics prove that it is mainly young boys and men. Figures have shown that over the last eight years between 80% and 90% of those who suffer fatalities in natural water have been male. What is happening? It appears that boys and men are less risk-averse than girls, so that is the first point that needs addressing. The second point, which I believe to be the most important, is that many of the deaths are not down to poor swimming capabilities. Just because someone can swim, it does not make them safe; it is the shock of the cold water that kills so many. It is not like jumping into a swimming pool, which is often heated. It is not like someone running into the sea and then running back out again until they get used to it. It is the jumping in that does it. The third point to raise is that there are no lifeguards to help anyone in trouble.

So what is the answer? This debate is about throwlines. Some people believe that having throwlines at all open water spaces could be the answer and would help an awful lot, but it is not completely the answer. The problem is that if I saw safety equipment around a stretch of water, it might suggest to me that this is a safe place where I can go in. David Walker of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents—a professional in the field—said to me that when he sees this equipment, he is pretty sure that there has been an incident. In other words, what shouts “safety” to me and many members of the public actually shouts “danger” to a professional.

Having spoken to David, I am convinced that there needs to be a three-pronged approach. Education must be the first part. A 20-minute session with every child once a year would be a wonderful start, and we must ensure that boys engage with the lessons. Secondly, mandatory risks assessments of all waters—natural or manmade—must be carried out. The RoSPA will help with those, and although many of the larger water companies and councils already perform them, it appears that too many are just a paper exercise; they do not really carry out a thorough assessment or act fully on their findings, and that should be addressed. Finally, equipment such as throwlines must be put in place only with sufficient warnings stating, “This equipment is not a signal that the water is safe—far from it—and no matter how many times you have swum before, it could be your last.”

We will never stop young people doing risky things, since it is part of growing up. It is fun and makes us who we are. We learn from those actions: “That was a good thing to do”; “That was not so good.” I am a believer in taking risks, but those risks must be calculated. If our young people are not fully aware of the dangers, it is our job to correct that.

I ask the Minister for Levelling Up Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), to address three points. First, I believe that the previous Education Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), was looking into the education element, so will she ask current Education Ministers to do the same? Secondly, will the Government make risk assessments of all bodies of water mandatory? Lastly, if and when any equipment is installed, will warning signs be placed everywhere that say, “This water is not safe. Do not enter”? We will never bring Mark back, but we can help Leeanne to fulfil her promise to her son, and at least reduce the number of families who have to go through similar fatalities.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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I must say that my experience of the Minister means that she will be able to cover all issues. She is normally competent across many issues and Departments.

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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.

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Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and the Petitions Committee on this afternoon’s debate. I have come along as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on water safety and drowning prevention. We are ably served by the Royal Life Saving Society UK. It is a great pleasure to be able to speak to some of the issues of concern that I have. However, I would first like to start, as many others have, by giving my condolences to Mark’s family, and indeed to those of all the people who have died as a result of drowning.

As has already been said, drowning occurs in this country on about 400 occasions each year. To put that into context, that is about one drowning every 20 hours. Within the time we have been awake, one person will have drowned. That is something that we simply must stop. It has also been mentioned, by the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), that that figure is in excess of the number of people who die from fires in the home or in cycle accidents. Those 400 people’s deaths are preventable.

We also know that many people who do not die as a result of drowning still end up in a persistent vegetative state. We do not have the numbers for those people who then go on to need care for the rest of their lives. Drowning is about not only the number of people who die, but the accident as a whole and the impact on both the NHS and the emotional—and, on occasions, economic —welfare of our constituents’ families.

The second reason why I came along today is that I have been interested in water safety for many years. I am—I suppose—still a qualified lifeguard. I was a lifeguard for many years, in two pools that I can remember and on five beaches in Cornwall, where I grew up. I not only have my bronze medallion, but can go into the water with a reel and line, or with a paddle board and my torpedo tube. Some of us remember our former colleague Charlotte Leslie, who I worked with on the beach at Bude.

The whole issue of water is very important but, in addition to that, I am an active sailor in this country. I also like to scuba dive and surf. I sea-kayak and canoe, and have a paddle board. I think you get the point, Ms Ghani: I am either, on, in, or under the water on many occasions.

However, it is not at those times that we see people drowning—or even having problems in the water. As has been said, most people who actually drown end up in the water without expecting to. They could be running along a canal path, for example, could simply trip after a night out, or could be pushed in as a simple prank. That has happened on many occasions. Also, the popularity of activities such as wild swimming—something else that I do—and paddle boarding is leading to more and more people having problems in the water.

With paddle boarding, the problem has been people being pushed out to sea and we see problems around that in parts of the United Kingdom. A throwline initiative would not help with that, but it certainly would with wild swimming and we must identify places where people regularly swim. The issue of wild swimming, and indeed water quality, is very much on the mind of the Government following the Environmental Audit Select Committee—I will give it a small plug—report on the quality of our rivers, which is very important.

I mentioned people actually going into the water. Two weeks ago, I went to Waterstones in Covent Garden—other bookshops are available, of course. I was saddened to see a poster about a missing person called Harvey Parker. Two days later, I was watching the London news and it said that Harvey’s body had been found in the Thames. Harvey, who was not a constituent of mine, had been to the Heaven nightclub. I presume that he had been drinking and he found that he was simply in the water, not realising that he would end up there.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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Order. That may be an open case. We must not reflect too much on that situation.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Offord
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I certainly will not; I take your advice, Ms Ghani.

There is also the case of James Clark, to whom the same thing happened. He was at a nightclub in Kingston upon Thames, but he was not among his friends when they all left. When they got home, they realised that he was not there—in fact, it was the next day when they realised that James had gone missing. A few days later, his body, too, was found in the Thames. On both occasions, these guys did nothing wrong. They had been drinking, but that is not a crime. In the end, they found themselves in the water and, sadly, expired.

That is why I welcome the RNLI’s initiative. The RNLI station here at Westminster, on the embankment, is the busiest station in the United Kingdom. We may find it hard to believe that an inland water body is actually the busiest. The RNLI has worked with organisations including Nicholson’s, the pub partnership, and throwlines are now being supplied to other pubs, including the Horniman at Hays, just down by HMS Belfast. Some of the bouncers on the door there say that they feel more empowered. When people leave, they have often been drinking and they will be quite likely to hang around or stay near the railings; sometimes they even decide to stand over the railings if it is a warm evening. On those occasions, people have been known to fall in, so the bouncers feel that it is a great initiative to have a piece of equipment that they are able to use to help and save some of these people.

There has been mention of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. It is true that that legislation is necessary for companies and employers that are responsible for waterways, but most of the waterways in the United Kingdom are actually used by recreational users, so they are not covered by the Act. Therefore I would particularly like throwlines to be installed in a greater number of places in the United Kingdom—across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as England.

The National Water Safety Forum, in its drowning prevention strategy, has come up with a target to halve—reduce by 50%—the number of drownings by 2026. I would certainly like that target to be more ambitious, but most of all, I think it could make a valuable contribution to preventing untimely deaths. When anyone goes into the water, it comes as quite a shock, but that shock is nothing compared with that of the friends and relatives of the person who no longer comes home at night.

Nusrat Ghani Portrait Ms Nusrat Ghani (in the Chair)
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Thank you, Dr Offord, for that very serious contribution, although you did also give us a kaleidoscope of all your water activities and all the time you have for that as well.