Beach Safety

Orders of the Day — Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 11:54 pm on 9th June 1993.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lightbown.]

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet 12:11 am, 9th June 1993

It is always a privilege to secure an Adjournment debate. It is a special privilege for me on this occasion, because 10 years ago to the hour, I was first elected to Parliament.

The subject of the debate relates directly to my constituency with its holiday resorts, its 17 miles of coastline and, in particular, to its beaches. In my maiden speech on Thursday 30 June 1983, I quoted from a reference to Margate in Kent, which was described in 1780 as a place of gaiety and dissipation". It was in Margate that the "discreet bathing machine" was introduced and bathing, discreet or otherwise, has been taking place from Margate's main sands and coves since that time.

I am fortunate to represent a constituency that offers holidaymakers a safe and well-managed beach, comparing favourably with the best in Europe. However, other beaches on our coastline are less well managed, less hospitable, and much less safe.

As I have implied, British families have for generations enjoyed going to the beach. Buckets and spades, sand castles and swimming are part of this country's leisure heritage—a heritage that survives the alternative lure of the sun and cheap booze of the Mediterranean. But, sadly, every year families are devastated when a tragic accident turns summer holiday fun into fatality.

British beaches can be dangerous, and not just because of heavy surf or sudden changes in wave and weather conditions. Unexpectedly steep underwater gradients and racing tides can lurk beneath deceptively calm seas. It is not only the reckless and the non-swimmers who get caught out.

In the 10 years that I have served my constituents in this House, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has consistently shown coastal drownings at 20 per cent. of the 500 total drownings per year in the United Kingdom. last year, 149 drownings took place at our seasides, and to that figure must be added some 3,000 rescues—or near misses, if you will. That total of fatalities and incidents —accidents on cliffs and shoreline, sailboards, small craft and inflatables involving coastguard and lifeguard interventions—is far too high and demands co-ordinated action.

The most recent survey of beach safety provision took place in the summer of 1990, when a safety expert from the Royal life Saving Society, United Kingdom, the principal provider of lifeguard training and the United Kingdom's leading drowning prevention agency, visited 51 beaches in Britain. He looked at the large and popular resort beaches where the large number of visitors using the beach in season makes the provision for the safety of bathers particularly important. His findings were, to say the least, disturbing.

Each site was graded according to the measures taken by the operators to protect the general public. On that basis, the survey found that more than 50 per cent. of the sites visited were judged as having inadequate provisions for beach safety, and only one site was judged an excellent beach.

For example, all manner of coloured flags fly on our beaches supposedly to indicate water conditions, but with no clear explanation of their meaning. In Brighton, for instance, a royal blue flag was raised to announce safe bathing, which in other places may be advertised by green, yellow or chequered flags. There is no standard system operating within Britain, and the significance of warning flags must therefore be lost on the general public.

Information offered on the beach or by local tourist offices is often obscure and inadequate. No beach operator can eliminate natural tides or currents, but it is seldom easy for visitors to obtain clear information about these hazards, and at half the sites visited by the Royal life Saving Society warning signs were non-existent, poorly placed or misleading.

On many beaches, rescue equipment simply does not exist; on others the equipment that is provided is too heavy, outdated or badly placed. Reports cite examples of emergency telephones being nowhere near the beach or hidden behind sand dunes. Far too frequently, as we know from local experience, there is no clear separation of swimmers from the considerable hazards of water skiers, jet skis and wind surfers. Each sport has or should have its place.

Finally, and most important of all, far too few significant resort beaches offer the services of professional and properly trained life guards on duty when they are needed. We have all witnessed the bronzed Adonis who is more interested in eyeing up the talent on the beach than watching the toddlers on the water line.

Beach management is left to the discretion of the owner of the beach, whether it is a private owner or a local authority. The local authority has the power to make byelaws under the public health legislation relating to public bathing, and the owners have a moral duty of care under common law, but there is no statutory obligation, regulation or guideline. That is in sharp contrast to the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which requires swimming pool managers to protect the safety of pool users as far as is reasonably practical. The result of the lack of regulation or co-ordination is that locally applied safety measures vary from beach to beach depending on whom it belongs to.

The need for national guidelines for public safety at the coast has been recognised for some time by the leading organisations. last month, following consultations with local authorities, the police and coastal safety organisations the Royal life Saving Society and RoSPA produced "Safety on British Beaches", which contains the first comprehensive guidelines for beach operators and for the safe management of beaches.

I am delighted that the Home Office was involved in the production of this document, and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) as the Heritage Minister responsible for tourism, wrote the foreword to the guide and publicly launched it, recognising the need for A more uniform and consistent response to the hazards presented on British Beaches. At present, aspects of safety are fragmented between the Department of Transport, responsible for coastguard service; the Department of the Environment, responsible for litter and other environmental matters, the Home Office, responsible for public safety and byelaws, and the Department of National Heritage, represented by my hon. Friend on the Front Bench tonight, with his responsibility for tourism and sports.

My hon. Friend, who I warmly welcome to the challenges of his new job, will not take it amiss when I say that, as a first step, it is important that responsibility for beach safety is co-ordinated within Government, and that Government lay down and monitor national minimum standards.

Her Majesty's Coastguard, which is part of the Department of Transport, has been empowered to develop local maritime water safety committees. The current written brief for those committees makes no reference to consultation with professional lifeguards who, with the Royal National lifeboat Institution, are directly in contact with the public and most familiar with the dangers to which the public are exposed.

The coastguard held successful trials with lifeguard units, using its own dedicated channel zero. The result is that lifeguard units can communicate directly with Her Majesty's Coastguard in the event of an emergency, and are becoming integrated in the overall search-and-rescue network, involving also helicopters and in-shore lifeboats.

That excellent initiative needs to be extended from a trial to a nationwide service, with lifeguard units meeting minimum requirements jointly agreed by Royal life Saving Society and Her Majesty's Coastguard-appointed "declared facilities". If the national search-and-rescue committee, responsible for the management of search and rescue around our coasts, is truly to review safety around our whole coast—on the beaches as well as at sea—it must ensure that the lifeguard's voice is represented and heard.

It will never be possible to make all our hundreds of delightful beaches and coves completely safe. To try would involve unrealistic expenditure of time, manpower and resources. It is possible, however, to provide information that tells the tourist which beach is guarded, patrolled, managed and safe and which is exposed, unguarded and hazardous. It is possible also to vary the hours of lifeguard work, so that groups need not huddle together at noon in the pouring rail, while leaving beaches busy but unprotected on long, hot summer evenings.

It is possible to provide, check and regularly maintain essential lifesaving equipment when and where it is likely to be needed, and to set a uniform standard for beach warning flags, standard professional qualifications for lifeguards, and standard and readily identifiable lifeguard uniforms. It is possible to introduce without undue regimentation zoning for water skiers, windsurfers and bathers.

For the price of some of those grotesque monuments to modern civic pride that litter our promenades to no useful purpose, and with a sense of seaside priorities, we could provide all that—even within limited budgets. It is possible to do all those things and to set standards that will attract visitors because of the security they offer—standards that we can then set as an example to the rest of Europe.

That makes sound economic sense; above all, it makes sense because it is possible to avert a significant number of the tragedies that strike holidaying families every summer. It is sobering on this summer night to remember that some of those statistics, which in real terms mean heartbroken and devastated homes, will already have been chalked up this year, and that more will certainly follow in the coming summer months.

My hon. Friend the Minister can institute action tonight that would definitely lead to an improvement. I urge him to start his new ministerial career by doing so.

Photo of Mr Iain Sproat Mr Iain Sproat , Harwich 12:22 am, 9th June 1993

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) for raising an important issue tonight. I know that my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), had a strong personal interest in the safety of our beaches, and that he was pleased to attend the Royal life Saving Society symposium on 25 May to launch new guidelines for safety on British beaches. I am delighted to continue where he left off, and to reply to my hon. Friend's Adjournment debate.

I welcome the initiative of the Royal life Saving Society and of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents in producing their guidance document, "Safety on British Beaches". The Sports Council, English Tourist Board and Home Office were all consulted during its preparation. It gives operational guidelines for safe beach management, alerts operators to their responsibilities and to the range of safety options available to them, and seeks to engender a more uniform and consistent response to the hazards on British beaches. I am sure that it will prove helpful in raising safety standards.

My hon. Friend suggests that we should go further, and lay down a new structure of Government standards. He also suggests that there is a need for greater co-ordination within Government. I fully accept that a number of Departments have an interest in this policy area, and that a variety of regulatory mechanisms impact on beach safety. I believe that that is inevitable, given the range of activities taking place around our coastlines.

As I will describe shortly, my Department has two relevant policy responsibilities, but we also work closely with other Departments on specific issues of mutual interest. However, I recognise the strength of my hon. Friend's views, and am happy to raise his concerns with my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, in view of his responsibilities for water safety.

As I have said, my Department has two particular interests in beach safety. As the Minister responsible for tourism. I am very aware that safe beaches are an important component of a quality tourism product, particularly for families holidaying at the seaside. One of our main tourism policy objectives is to encourage the industry to improve the quality of what it offers the public —for example, through the tourist boards' work in grading accommodation and promoting staff training.

Quality is vital if our domestic tourism sector is to cope with ever-increasing international competition. The Government welcome the efforts that seaside resorts have made to improve the quality of their product and to attract more visitors: for example, some 40 resorts are participating in the English tourist board's seaside resorts initiative, which includes both marketing and development activities.

As part of that initiative, resort authorities are working with the private sector and the tourist boards on three-year action programmes aimed at developing potential and improving quality. Indeed, I know that my hon. Friend's constituency is covered by one of those programmes. I very much hope that initiatives to maintain and improve beach safety will figure in the work that is being done in seaside resorts.

I also have an interest in beach safety, as the Minister with responsibility for sport. The safety aspects of water sports are very much in everyone's minds following the tragic canoe accident at lyme bay. The Government are deeply concerned about that event, and my Department is in discussion with the Department for Education about its wider safety implications.

We shall all be studying closely the lessons emerging from the various inquiries that are already in train. They comprise the inquiries being conducted by Dorset constabulary and separately by Devon county council, and the coroner's inquest, which will be held in due course. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has undertaken that, if important questions remain unanswered after these, he will not rule out the possibility of pursuing other forms of inquiry.

A document relevant to our discussions following lyme bay is the report of the water sports safety review, which we published in April. The review group was asked to report on the effectiveness of existing provision for safety in water sports, and to make recommendations. Its overall conclusion was that sports organisations were addressing safety concerns in a comprehensive and responsible manner. However, it identified the need for further action to enhance the individual competence of casual participants, and recommended that sports governing bodies should adopt a wider role in that regard.

The review group also saw a need for action to improve co-ordination, and to prevent duplication of effort among the many bodies involved with safety issues. Finally, it recommended the development of broad management strategies based on extensive discussion as the most appropriate means of resolving potential water conflicts. The review report contains 10 recommendations; I know that they are now being given considered carefully by the organisations to which they are addressed.

My Department is also involved in a number of other issues designed to promote and enhance water sports safety. In April 1992, the Select Committee on the Environment published a report on coastal zone protection and planning. In responding, the Government promised a discussion paper on coastal management, which is intended to address the scope for further regulation of sport and recreation activities along the coast. My Department has been involved in the preparation of this document which the Department of the Environment hopes to publish shortly.

My Department also works closely with the Department of Transport which has an important role in relation to marine safety. Following the publication of the inquiry into river safety by Mr. John Hayes, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced the setting up of district marine safety committees to review for each area the way in which responsibilities for safety, rescue and accident prevent are currently distributed, and to consider the need for improvements.

He also announced the setting up of a national marine safety steering committee to ensure national co-ordination and consistency of approach. My Department is represented on this national committee, and the Sports Council is currently considering how it can best become involved in the work of the various district committees.

The final Government initiative of relevance to beach and water safety that I should like to touch on is the decision of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to include swimming and water sports safety in the provisions of national curriculum physical education. The main requirements are that children should be able to swim at least 25 m and demonstrate an understanding of water safety by the age of 11. These provisions will become compulsory in August 1994, and I welcome them as a positive contribution towards water safety.

I fully accept what my hon. Friend says about the need for co-ordination. I have outlined some of the areas where we are working closely with other Government Departments. I also recognise the need for closer working relationships nearer to home. My Department works through its sponsored bodies, which, in turn work with a large number of organisations from both public and private sectors. I will be chairing a national seminar on 28 June which will examine the areas where greater co-ordination and co-operation would be of most benefit. This will provide the springboard for a series of regional conferences which I hope will produce positive outcomes in a wide range of areas.

I conclude by. thanking my hon. Friend for raising this very important subject tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to One o'clock.