Water Safety and Life-saving Equipment

Part of Petition - Road Safety Outside Wingate Primary School – in the House of Commons at 7:02 pm on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 7:02 pm, 24th July 2019

The joy of the Home Office is that one can never quite understand the extent of its tentacles, so it was with some surprise—but, indeed, some pleasure—that I was called to respond on this important debate. I congratulate Alison Thewliss on raising the subject, particularly given today’s weather. Nationally we are all feeling the heat a bit—not just those of us who are awaiting that phone call—so it is very tempting to seek cool waters in which to dip our toes or to submerge ourselves in a little further. She has shown great timing in securing this debate this evening.

I must start by saying how terribly affecting I found the hon. Lady’s descriptions of the incidents on the River Clyde in her constituency. The terrible experiences that her constituents and other families have suffered are heartbreaking. For the love of your life to meet their end in a matter of moments in water—that must be every parent’s worst nightmare. I very much reiterate and emphasise the hon. Lady’s message that removing or damaging life belts or other public rescue equipment is incredibly serious and can put people’s lives at risk.

As the hon. Lady may appreciate, the matters she has raised are devolved to Scotland. I will deal with the details of the legislation in a moment. I genuinely welcome the opportunity to set out the approach to and understanding of the extent of incidents across the United Kingdom, and the UK Government’s efforts to tackle them.

We know that on average 400 people drown across the UK in our rivers and seas each year and a further 200 people take their own lives in our waters. People who had no intention of entering the water in the first place account for 44% of drowning fatalities. This happens despite the enormous efforts of search and rescue and emergency services, who respond to around 35,000 water-related rescue and flood events each year. Indeed only in the past month or so in my county of Lincolnshire—I am delighted to be joined by my Lincolnshire neighbour, my hon. Friend Dr Johnson—we have seen for ourselves the terrible impact flood events can have on people’s homes and ways of life.

As Members may be aware, in 2016 the National Water Safety Forum, whose members include organisations such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, put in place a national drowning prevention strategy, which aims to halve deaths in the UK by 2026. The Government support the strategy fully. I note that in Scotland, Water Safety Scotland brings together people and organisations from all over the country who over many years have developed a variety of water safety initiatives, including the drowning prevention strategy, which complements the UK strategy while taking into account the unique situation in Scotland —for example the legal and education systems and the geographical differences. These national strategies are supported by a range of local initiatives, such as the new tidal Thames drowning prevention strategy established by the Tidal Thames Water Safety Forum and the work being taken forward by Glasgow’s Water Safety Group.

We are very clear that if someone is in trouble in the water, the availability of public rescue equipment is critical to reduce the likelihood of their drowning. Early intervention by a bystander may be the first and last opportunity for rescue—indeed the hon. Member for Glasgow Central mentioned the rurality of many of these locations—and theft and vandalism of equipment potentially endangers the lives of both the person in the water and those who would rescue them. As the recent awareness-raising campaign by Glasgow’s Water Safety Group made clear,

“taking a lifebelt is taking a life.”

Members rightly raised the question of education, and through the National Water Safety Forum’s UK drowning prevention strategy, we have highlighted the importance of water safety education at primary school and, where required, at key stage 3. I have seen some of that work myself, and it is very good.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of legislation. This is where devolution rears its head. If the hon. Lady is inviting the UK Government to take back powers, I will ensure that the new Prime Minister is made aware of that. In England and Wales, under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 vandalising life-saving equipment may be an offence that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment, and an aggravated offence of that nature, which includes an intention to endanger life, attracts a potential maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The legislation in England and Wales therefore has the capacity to address the problem. However, antisocial behaviour and criminal damage legislation is devolved to Scotland, so it may well be that the hon. Lady’s lobbying should be directed at the Scottish Government to ensure—[Interruption.] I suspect she has that covered and is on it.

Sadly, because the matter is devolved, I cannot change the Scottish law, but the hon. Lady made her case very powerfully in this Chamber tonight. I note also that antisocial behaviour policy is devolved, and the 2014 legislation, which covers England and Wales, does not apply to Scotland.