Water Safety (Curriculum) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:42 pm on 19 May 2023.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 1:42, 19 May 2023

My Lords, I declare my interest as a patron of the Royal Life Saving Society, which I thank for being so supportive, along with Swim England and other organisations. I also thank those Peers who are speaking and those who have contacted me to say how much they support this Bill, and a number of MPs who have, sadly, had a tragic drowning in their constituencies.

Every year, the Royal Life Saving Society has its honours presentation event, an occasion for it to thank its thousands of volunteers and present awards to individual members for their service to the society. It is a truly life-affirming occasion at which you see the selfless dedication of young and older volunteers from all over the UK. Just before the Covid pandemic, the honours presentation was held at Worcester Cathedral. It was packed full of volunteers, and there was a real sense of occasion and excitement. I saw a young woman come down the side-aisle looking lost and forlorn. She went into one of the side-chapels, 10 minutes before the presentations were due to start. I thought she might be lost, so I went to speak to her. She was praying in the chapel. As I started to move away, she rose to her feet and I said, “Are you here for the event?” She then told me about how her son, a very competent swimmer, had drowned.

Between 2017 and 2021, there were 1,272 drownings in the UK. On average, that is more than 250 drownings every year. In 2021, there were 277 drownings, of which approximately 40 were under the age of 19, and over 80% were male. Drowning remains one of the largest subgroups of trauma-related fatalities among children.

Behind every statistic, of course, a life has been lost, but the statistics can perhaps guide us to the actions that need to be taken. The statistics also revealed in a detailed analysis of 240 accidental fatalities that 49% of those who lost their lives were classified as swimmers, demonstrating that being able to swim is in itself not a guarantee of being able to stay safe in all types of water. Naturally, it should be celebrated that in England swimming has been a statutory requirement of the PE national curriculum since 1994, but since that time we have seen a huge reduction in swimming facilities available to schools, and of course Covid has had an alarming impact on the number of children and young people being able to learn how to swim. Pre-Covid, one in four children was not hitting the statutory “can self-rescue” standard. The most recent data shared with the 2022 Active Lives survey showed that only about 34% of children from low-income families could swim 25 metres unaided. Access for children from low-income families and ethnically diverse communities is not equitable. Children need enhanced education beyond the current curriculum for school swimming and water safety to build their resilience and reduce the risk of drowning. Swimming is incredibly good for your physical and mental health and well-being, and it is an activity you can do at any age, from any background and with any ability. Most children learn to swim outside school but, for some, primary school will be the only opportunity they have to learn these vital life-saving skills.

Swimming is not just about being able to have fun in the water with family and friends, it is about knowing what to do if someone gets into trouble in the water—if a strong current takes your friend away from the edge of the water, or if they fall in when running by a river or canal. Let me give the House a recent example of somebody who is a very competent swimmer. I am talking about my wife, a former PE teacher. This time last week she went to the David Lloyd leisure centre—other gyms are available—and was swimming down the lane. In the slow lane, there were two swimmers practising swimming. They had their paddles on and they had the equipment at either end. As Carole swam down, one man created a wave and she at that moment had opened her mouth to breathe. The water went into her mouth, and she could not breathe. She tried desperately. She could not breathe through her nose, and she did not know what to do, but she had remembered the advice was always to keep calm, and she kept calm. She slowly, heaving for breath, keeping calm, got out the water. The lifeguard came along and put her in the recovery position. He actually said, “Miss, your lips are going blue”. Having remained calm, she got up and walked away. When she came home, she said she had something to tell me and I of course was quite shocked. That shows that water accidents can happen at any time in any situation, and it is so important that people know exactly what to do.

This simple little Bill is so important to the lives of people as it will help ensure equal access to water safety education for all children. The aims of the Bill must be secured as a complement to, rather than a replacement for, in-water school swimming lessons, which are essential to support children to learn the physical swimming and water safety skills which are so vital should they find themselves in trouble in the water. We have an opportunity to ensure that every generation, whichever type of school they attend and whatever background they come from, is guaranteed to be taught basic water safety skills and the potential dangers to be aware of and to look for. We have to work together to make this happen. I beg to move.