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.
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 Kemi Badenoch, to address three points. First, I believe that the previous Education Minister, my right hon. Friend 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.
It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate. I thank Nick Fletcher for introducing it on behalf of the petitioners and for making some good suggestions about how to improve the situation. I also thank Leeanne Bartley for being present, and for her tireless work campaigning to improve water safety. I spoke to Leeanne ahead of the debate, and I know that she made a promise to her son, Mark, after he died, to change things for the better. Today’s debate is a testament to her hard work in keeping the promise that she made to her beloved son.
Mark was well known and well liked in Gorton, where he lived with his dad. He had taken his GCSEs at Wright Robinson College in my constituency, and was studying drama at Shena Simon College. He had big dreams of becoming a professional actor. When we spoke, Leeanne shared stories of the joy and laughter that Mark brought to a family holiday in Paris, his love of watching wrestling, and his generosity to those less fortunate than himself. In June 2018, Mark was enjoying the hot weather with his friends on the edge of Gorton lower reservoir. Wanting to cool off, and unaware of the incredible dangers of open water, Mark jumped in. The freezing water took his breath away. His friends were unable to save him, and he tragically died.
If a throwline had been available on the shore of the reservoir that day, Mark may have survived. Throwlines are basic equipment. They are essentially a bag containing a rope that can be thrown to a swimmer in distress, allowing the rescuer to pull them safely to shore. Since Mark’s death, thanks to campaigning by Leeanne, and Mark’s family and friends, with the support of the local community in Gorton, I am pleased that Manchester City Council, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and the reservoir’s owner, United Utilities, have installed three throwline stations at Gorton reservoirs. They are dedicated to Mark’s memory.
There is no reason why throwlines cannot be installed wherever there is a risk of drowning. They are not expensive and they save lives—they should be as common as defibrillators. The petition is absolutely right to call for Mark’s law. I hope that the Minister will update us on progress in making open water safer.
The petition was initiated by a constituent of mine, Mrs Leeanne Bartley of Ruthin, who is present in the Chamber, and it was prompted by the tragic death of her son, Mark Allen. As we have heard, on
United Utilities told the inquest into Mark’s death that there were a number of signs around the edge of the reservoir warning of the danger of the water, and pointing out that it was extremely cold and very deep in places. Since the incident, however, the company has installed a number of throwlines around the reservoir. I am afraid that it is frequently the case that throwlines appear after such an incident has occurred. Mrs Bartley’s view is that the authorities responsible for the management of large bodies of water should be proactive in the installation of throwlines, rather than reactive, as they are at the moment, sadly.
About 260 deaths from accidental drowning occur in the United Kingdom each year, and that is without taking into account the number of British citizens who die in drowning accidents overseas. Mrs Bartley believes very firmly that that number could be significantly reduced if there were a requirement to provide throwlines at every large body of water in the country. Clearly, everybody would agree that it is highly desirable that the number of deaths by drowning should be reduced. The provision of throwlines would be a move in the right direction.
Most reservoirs are owned by the major water companies. The Environment Agency is responsible for the management of rivers, and the Canal and River Trust is responsible for managing the canals around the country. Those entities have a responsibility for the safety of the bodies of water that they manage.
The Royal Life Saving Society UK is one of the leading charities in this field. It helps people to enjoy being on, in and around water safely. I commend its website, which is a tremendously valuable resource, which provides a huge amount of information about water safety and a catalogue of the risks associated with open water. As we have heard, those risks include: the shock of cold water, which can make swimming difficult even for the strongest swimmer, and can increase the difficulty of getting out of the water; the lack of safety equipment and the increased difficulty for rescue; the depth of the water, which changes frequently and is unpredictable; and strong currents that can sweep swimmers away.
Evidence given at the inquest indicated that the water in the reservoir was extremely cold. In fact, one of the witnesses said it was freezing. No doubt, the low temperature was at least a contributing factor leading to the difficulties that Mark got into. The coroner at the inquest remarked that Mark’s death was caused, as he put it, by “the impetuosity of youth”. He said:
“We think we are bulletproof. We do what comes naturally to us and never think about the risks.”
It is possible that, had throwlines been provided at the reservoir, more could have been done by Mark’s friends to avoid this dreadful tragedy. It is also probably true that if throwlines were more widely available on bodies of water across the country, there would be far fewer fatalities of this sort. In their response to the petition, the Government have pointed out that landowners have a
“responsibility to assess and act on the risks posed by open bodies of water on their land.”
That is certainly true. I ask the Minister, when she replies to the debate, to explain what actions landowners should take in response to those risks, and whether she agrees that throwlines, which cost about £250, should be more widely available. Perhaps she could indicate if the Government are prepared to legislate, as urged by Mrs Bartley.
My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is making some excellent points. I have had 566 constituents sign the petition—a significant number. Does he agree that any guidance or legislation that comes forward following the debate needs to apply to Wales as well as to the rest of the United Kingdom?
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.
It is truly heartbreaking to hear about Mark, who lost his life at just 18. I give my thanks and condolences to his family and friends. I also thank Leeanne for setting the petition up, so that others have a chance to speak and hopefully not go through the horror that she went through. It is deeply upsetting, and it makes me angry that, had basic safety equipment been available, his life may have been saved. What makes it even worse for me is that Mark’s story is not an isolated incident.
According to the National Water Safety Forum, 242 accidental deaths took place in water in 2020. The debate provides a valuable opportunity to reflect on all of those tragedies and what more might have been done to prevent them. In May 2021, my constituent, Sam Haycock, tragically drowned in a local reservoir. Sam was just 16 years old. He was a talented judo competitor, who competed at a European level, and he really had a promising future ahead of him. Throwlines were available at the reservoir, and Sam’s friends tried desperately to save his life, but with the throwlines having been padlocked to prevent vandalism, his friends were unable to access them in time. Procedures should not hamper access to protective life-saving equipment, given that the difference between life and death is a matter of seconds, but unfortunately they do.
I want to paint you a picture. Just try to imagine that your friend is drowning and you are panicking. First, you have to locate the throwline. Then you have to call the emergency services to get an access code. Then you have to give them the access code. You have to remember the reference number that they give back to you, memorise the code and enter it—all the while, you can hear your friend crying for help. It is clear that this is about not just providing the equipment, but ensuring that it is easily locatable and accessible.
We must also confront the real reason why the throwline that might have saved Sam’s life was behind a padlock. Mindless vandals who damage or steal life-saving equipment are placing lives at risk, and we must ensure that the law acts as a sufficient deterrent. Since Sam’s death, his parents, Simon and Gaynor, have been campaigning for Sam’s law, which would do just that.
I worked with colleagues in the other place to table an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would create a specific offence of destroying or damaging life-saving equipment, including lifebelts, lifejackets and defibrillators. The amendment was debated in Committee and on Report but, regrettably, was not pushed to a vote. Speaking for the Government on Report, Lord Wolfson argued that the amendment was not needed because endangering a life through intentional or reckless damage to property is already an offence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. That may be the case, but it is clearly not enough, and more needs to be done to prevent this sort of vandalism.
Several examples show clearly that existing legislation is failing to provide sufficient protection for life-saving equipment. After life-saving equipment was damaged at Salford Quays just days after being installed, Salford City Council was forced to resort to a public spaces protection order to deter vandalism. In Uckfield in Sussex, a defibrillator was rendered useless by vandals. Each act of vandalism on life-saving equipment could ultimately lead to a death, and the law needs to reflect that. Lord Wolfson acknowledged that
“if the law is not enough of a deterrent, we must focus on those responsible for water safety, health and safety, and law enforcement to come together to find out what is not working and identify workable solutions that might include sign-posting more clearly on the equipment the consequences of damaging that equipment.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
That is a welcome commitment—but with lives at stake, it must have real urgency. I urge the Minister to bring forward a strategy that will ensure easy access to life-saving equipment, strengthen public information about water safety, and ensure that punishments for damaging or destroying that equipment recognise the devastating consequences to which that can lead.
If we are to save lives, we need to take action now. We need provisions that require local authorities, private landowners or whoever is responsible for a body of water not just to provide and signpost lifebelts and throwlines, but to ensure that they are properly maintained. There must be more education for all about the dangers of open water swimming, particularly in schools. Sadly, many of those who die in open water are children, who must be taught about water safety from the earliest age. We can prevent other families from suffering as Mark Allen and Sam Haycock’s families have, but it will take urgent and consistent action from the Government to ensure that our legal framework, infrastructure and education are up to the task.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on his opening remarks and the Petitions Committee on securing the debate. I thank all those who petitioned to bring this important matter to us.
The tragic death of Mark Allen highlights the dangers associated with open water. I send my prayers and best wishes to Leeanne and Mark’s family and friends, and to Sam’s. His death was so sadly and effectively described by Sarah Champion, whom I thank.
In this context, I would like to talk about the terribly sad death of my constituent, Lucas Dobson, from Deal. Lucas was only six years old when he fell into the River Stour in Sandwich and drowned. Lucas was excitedly enjoying a barbecue and a day out with his dad at a privately owned jetty. While his father was checking an engine nearby, Lucas tried to jump on the boat by himself. He missed his footing and plunged into the water. He was instantly swept away by the strong tidal currents. He disappeared for four days. During that time, thousands of community volunteers and police searched high and low on the river for Lucas. Tragically, he was found dead on Wednesday
The inquest heard that on that day neither Lucas nor his friends were wearing lifejackets while they played amid the boats on the jetty. That is why I support Lucas’s family—his mother, Kirsty Furze, grandmother Donna Kentfield and cousin Zoe Alldis—in their calls for a new law, Lucas’s law, which echoes and builds on Mark’s law, which is being discussed today.
Lucas’s law has three parts. It would make it compulsory for young children to wear lifejackets on and around boats. It would require more life-saving buoyancy rings and lifelines to be installed near rivers, lakes and seas, and would start a new safety awareness campaign for parents of young children, including encouraging them to use float suits and swim vests when the children are playing near water, particularly on hot days. It can take only a moment for an accident to happen that can take a young life.
Children’s float suits and swim vests can be inexpensive and cost as little as £10. Like cycle helmets and seatbelts, it just makes sense to be water safe. Yet more people die from drowning each year than from cycling, so we really need to start doing something about it.
I have been working alongside Lucas’s family to raise awareness of this incredibly important issue. I have called on the Royal Yachting Association, as well as other water safety organisations, to back these life-saving plans. In the year that Lucas died, the RNLI helped about 40,000 people in the water to safety. I thank the RNLI and Her Majesty’s Coastguard for all the work that they do to help keep people safe in my constituency, which is a coastal one.
However, I am disappointed that organisations such as the Royal Yachting Association and others, who should have water safety in their DNA, are not backing calls for new safety laws around water and compulsory lifejackets for young children. It is essential that such provisions extend to private boat owners and private jetty owners, and that they take legal responsibility and appropriate action for ensuring the safety of young people.
There have been changes in other areas of privately owned transport such as the car, and it is time for action on privately owned boats and jetties. Many other countries, including America, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand already have mandatory lifejacket laws. It is about time the UK put in place basic life-saving laws to protect young children near water.
Like Mark Allen, who also lost his life by drowning, Lucas Dobson might have been saved if the right safety processes had been in place and been followed. The tragedy in both those cases, and that of Sam, is that they were accidents that might have been avoided with better water safety support. We must now do what is right to stop accidents from resulting in drowning and death.
In my coastal constituency, water safety is an extremely important issue for me and my constituents. I look forward with hope that in the next year we can see Lucas’s law, Sam’s law and Mark’s law move forward together. There is a need for a comprehensive strategy in this place.
I want to end by paying tribute to Lucas’s mother, aunt and grandmother. Since the death of their child, the years have been tough for them. I commend them for pulling together and campaigning for better water safety to ensure that no other families go through what they had to go through, and to ensure that no further lives are lost in water unnecessarily.
At a time when enhancing all aspects of public safety is seen as an important function of Government, safety, especially of the young, around bodies of water must not be a poor relation in the safety debate. That such tragedies happen rarely is not a justification for inaction. There is a responsibility to tackle water safety with a rigour that befits an island and water nation. The challenge must be to stop avoidable deaths by drowning happening at all: to educate, to legislate and to save lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani, and to follow my hon. Friend Mrs Elphicke. I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher and the Petitions Committee for bringing forward this important debate.
This petition was signed by 606 of my constituents in Southport. I am all too aware of the tragic case of Mark Allen; I send my condolences to his family and friends and join my colleagues in calling for throwlines to be installed to prevent such needless loss of life in the future.
Landowners have a duty of care to those on their land. By speaking in this debate, I want to suggest that that duty should be strengthened, with further legal requirements for landowners to assess and act on the risks posed by open bodies of water. I welcome the fact that, since the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Government have enforced legal requirements to prevent employees and other people from coming to harm during work activities. However, the 1974 Act has well-known limitations; under the legislation it is not possible to enforce simple solutions such as a duty to provide throwlines near all bodies of water, for example.
In a modern, 21st-century country such as the United Kingdom, it is unacceptable that drowning continues to be one of the leading causes of accidental death. It is estimated that a shocking 44% of drowning fatalities happen to people who had no intention of even entering the water. Drowning in the United Kingdom is reported to account for more accidental fatalities annually than fire deaths in the home or cycling deaths on the road. Men are the most at-risk group in every age group, accounting for eight in 10 of all deaths.
I apologise for coming in late—there was traffic, I am afraid.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people, particularly very small children, can drown in very shallow water? There are areas—in caravan parks or places like that—that people think are safe, but which are not safe for very small children. There have been terrible occurrences and deaths of children drowning in only a foot or so of water.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. That is why it is incredibly important for landowners to carry out risk assessments around open bodies of water, particularly where children are concerned, so that protections such as throwlines can be put in place.
In Southport, the sea rarely comes in, but when it does it is rapid and all too often deadly. Our local rescue services go above and beyond in their duty to warn and protect; I welcome the opening, last week, of Southport’s new £1.4 million lifeboat station. The Southport Offshore Rescue Trust, which is independent from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, was founded by Kath Wilson after her son passed away in 1987 while fishing off the Southport coast. Southport Lifeboat is crewed entirely by volunteers and has helped to safely return more than 5,000 people since it was founded. I am sure that we all want to congratulate Kath and her excellent team of volunteers on their amazing work.
I also want to highlight that the RNLI has some excellent videos and explainers about what someone can do if they are in trouble in the water, including dealing with cold water shock, and I encourage all hon. Members to share them with their constituents. If those watching take anything away from this debate, it should be the three extremely important words provided by the RNLI: “Float to Live”.
I am sure that many of my colleagues are aware of the tragic incident involving Ben Smith-Crallan, who fell into a lake in Southport’s Botanic Gardens and sadly died following complications from an infection. Following the “Make a change for Ben” campaign, led by my constituent David Rawsthorne, tens of thousands of pounds have been raised for improvement works to the gardens, including the installation of an aeration fountain at the end of the lake to ensure that water is oxygenised, and potential measures to stop people falling in. I would add throwlines to the list of safety measures that need to be included.
The UK drowning prevention strategy acknowledges the difficulty caused by the fact that responsibility for managing water risks is dispersed among a number of organisations. While many, such as the Southport Offshore Rescue Trust and the RNLI, do excellent work, further efforts should be made to unite their various responsibilities to ensure that resources are effectively used, responsibility is clearly defined and individuals are best protected.
Let us start with the simple solutions. We should heed the calls of this petition to implement throw bags and throwlines around open bodies of water and go further by expanding opportunities to learn how to swim and spreading awareness around water safety. When the UK drowning prevention strategy was published in 2015, it called for accidental drowning fatalities in the United Kingdom to be halved by 2026. The latest data shows that we are halfway there, with a 25% decrease since the strategy was published. We should maintain that progress—even speed it up if we can—and ensure that we all do everything we can to prevent senseless tragedies, such as that of Mark Allen, from ever happening again. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do everything she can to help prevent those tragedies from occurring in the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I congratulate my hon. Friend 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 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.
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.
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.
Thank you, Ms Ghani, for chairing this sitting this afternoon. I also thank 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.
It is a particular pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Ms Ghani. I congratulate Nick Fletcher, on behalf of the Petitions Committee, on bringing forward this debate. I was a member of the Committee in the past, and I know how important these debates are.
The hon. Gentleman introduced the subject with a gravity and comprehensiveness that did justice to a serious set of issues. He particularly dealt with the pain that has been represented in all today’s speeches. Most of all, I express my admiration for the campaigning that Mark Allen’s mother, Leeanne, has done. When I was researching this issue, I was struck by the impact that the campaign has had in garnering support. A magnificent number have signed the petition, not just here but in Wales. I hope that all of that will lead to change, and that is the purpose for which we are here today.
We have heard powerful speeches from around the Chamber. What struck me was that every single one reflected a tragedy for families and constituents. The roll-call of names is very sad indeed. I was struck by the comments of Mr Jones, who represented his constituent very effectively. I thought his point from the coroner’s report was quite striking. We all think we are bulletproof, do we not? I suspect we can all look back on occasions in our own lives when we have done things that, on reflection, were probably not wise. Mostly, we get away with it, but occasionally we do not. That is the key to trying to find a way to make our fellow citizens’ lives safer.
I was struck by the comments from my hon. Friend Sarah Champion. It seems almost indescribable that people could be vandalising safety equipment, but that is the world we live in, unfortunately, and I thought she made strong points about the need for action on that. Mrs Elphicke mentioned the sad situation of Lucas, and a strong series of points were made, to which I hope the Minister will listen closely. Damien Moore spoke of Ben. On it goes, it seems. Important points about the RNLI were also made. Dr Offord can at least come to our rescue as a lifeguard. He made a very positive contribution as well.
I was also struck by the fact that this is not the first time that the issue has been debated in this place. There was a debate last July that was slightly more education focused, but in which more sad cases were recounted and the same points were well made that it is not just about swimming; it is much more about an awareness of the dangers, and the need for that message to be put forward effectively in schools.
I ask the Minister what impact that discussion—I think it was raised by one Member in the debate—has had on the Department for Education? I know that the curriculum is crowded, but what has the Department been doing to ensure that these important issues are raised, because the number of deaths is striking? A number of us have been involved in transport over the years. Of course, we work hard to improve cycle safety and road safety, but to have so many people dying from drowning each year rather makes the point that we need to do more about it.
I contacted the water company in my area, Anglian Water, and was grateful for its guidance on quite a complicated subject in terms of the advice from the National Water Safety Forum and the Visitor Safety Group on when and how to use public rescue equipment. Although I am grateful, I also could not help noticing over the weekend the amount that the water company has paid out in dividends to shareholders over the past few years. Resources could be made available by a number of water companies to help us with this exercise in public education. I think the right hon. Member for Clwyd West asked what advice the Government expect landowners to be taking and what they expect them to be doing. What assessment have the Government made of the effectiveness of the panoply of measures that supposedly ensure safety, and what conclusions have been drawn from it? I also ask the Minister to outline what actions have been taken following last year’s petition and debate.
I noticed that there appeared to be a slight delay in responding to the Petitions Committee. I remember that during my time on the Committee we had many complaints about Government replies, but not always delays. I wonder why that was. The response seemed to me to be an account of the current layout, but I am unsure that that quite amounts to a response. I would be grateful if the Minister could produce a response, rather than just an account of the current landscape. Given the roll-call of Mark, Sam, Lucas, Ben and so many others, we need to make some progress, and I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for securing today’s important debate. I offer my condolences, and those of the whole Government, to Leeanne Bartley, who is with us today. There is nothing more horrific than losing a child. It is something that we all pray that we never see. I pay tribute to her for her tireless campaigning since her son’s tragic death in 2018. It is impossible not to be moved by this tragedy. It is heartbreaking to hear that Mark Allen drowned after jumping into a freezing reservoir on a hot day and that there were no throwlines in sight, and to hear similar stories of Sam, Lucas and so many of our young constituents.
It is also heartbreaking to learn that a similar tragedy apparently also took place the same year at another reservoir not a mile away. Dwayne Thompson, I am told, drowned aged just 20 after encountering similar freezing temperatures at Audenshaw reservoir, so there is clearly a problem that needs looking at. Leeanne Bartley, Amanda and Stephen Thompson, and Kirsty Furze have all shown tremendous courage, channelling their grief and using a platform that no parent should ever wish to have to press for change. The fact that Mrs Bartley’s petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures and is being debated in the House is testament to her efforts not being in vain. United Utilities, which owns both reservoirs, has installed new throwlines at both sites, as has been discussed, and these throwlines may one day be the difference between life and death for somebody else.
However, I acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and others that these things seem to occur only after the tragedy. I was struck by his point that it is not just about having the equipment, because what screams safe to us may scream unsafe to safety professionals. The company is now running hard-hitting campaigns targeted at teenagers, using TV, print and online media, to warn about the dangers of swimming in reservoirs and highlight the risks, as well as collaborating with the fire service.
I will answer a few of the questions raised in the debate, and then talk about what we are doing to protect people and ensure they are able to enjoy the waterways safely.
Many Members asked what the Government are doing on this issue, and I assure them that we are committed to protecting people in the weeks and months ahead. It was interesting to me that this issue does not sit within one Department. I am responding from a local government perspective but, as others have mentioned, the Department for Education is involved, as is the Cabinet Office, in terms of convening. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a role for some waterways, and even the Department for Work and Pensions is involved, because it runs the Health and Safety Executive. When many Departments are looking at something, it is often not that straightforward to get a co-ordinated response, which is why we tend to answer questions specifically on the particular issues afforded in our remit.
The Cabinet Office is currently reviewing coastal water safety. We will explore with all our partners across central and local government what more can be done to raise awareness of water safety, and to increase the provision of throwlines and other vital lifesaving equipment near open bodies of water.
Members asked what landowners can do. Providing them with information is clearly required, and that means ensuring that businesses, landowners and councils are conducting up-to-date and thorough risk assessments. The Local Government Association’s water safety toolkit is an invaluable resource for councils in those cases where the local authority has a role. I am committed to working more closely with the LGA on ensuring that that is being properly publicised and used by local authorities across the country. People need to know about water safety, and we need to do more to publicise that.
Many Members asked about mandatory legislation. That is not where we would start. It may or may not be the answer, but we need to look at the various issues first.
Sarah Champion raised an important point about throwlines being present but not usable, and a lot of work needs to be done to discover the right way to resolve those issues.
My hon. Friend Natalie Elphicke raised issues about compulsory lifejackets and better education. That does not fall within the remit of my Department, but I know that officials will have taken that point away.
We also heard from my hon. Friend Dr Davies and from Kirsty Blackman. Despite my Department covering only England, we need to ensure we have whole country coverage and work together with the devolved Administrations to provide a comprehensive view. I look forward to working with colleagues from across the House on this issue.
There are 40,000 lakes in this country and no matter where anyone is in the UK, they are no further than 70 miles from the coast. Between 2019 and 2020, searches for “wild swimming” increased by 94%. The pandemic has increased the number of people wild swimming. We do not want to discourage people from wild swimming as full-water immersion boosts the immune system, reduces inflammation and has many other health benefits, but we need to ensure people understand the risks involved, especially as more people carry out the activity.
In the past few years we have enjoyed very hot weather, but our waterways remain cold. They remain northern European, even if the weather is becoming Mediterranean. That is one reason why we must ensure people know the risks of wild swimming are just as real as the benefits.
The tragic deaths of Mark, Dwayne and other young people we have mentioned should have been unique accidents, but they were not. As my right hon. Friend Mr Jones stated, in 2020 alone there were 254 accidental drownings and 631 water-related fatalities in the UK. Combined with the surge in interest in wild swimming, this tragic loss of life highlights and reinforces the responsibility of landowners, whether they are local or not, to properly assess the safety requirements of bodies of water on their land. The Government’s No. 1 priority is to keep people safe, and we expect landowners to act in the same way.
First, I thank the Minister because she was clearly listening intently to my speech and to the whole debate. One thing that contributed to the death of Sam was that the equipment was overgrown—most of the places where we put throwlines are in areas of dense vegetation. I have a two-part question, thinking about how local authorities assess, and ensure the maintenance of, life-saving equipment for dangerous situations. We have identified that open bodies of water are dangerous, so could the Government say that there have to be so many throwlines for however many metres of waterfront, but also ensure that local authorities go in and make sure regular checks are being done? In the case I mentioned, that meant vegetation being cut down; in others, it may be that the equipment deteriorates in bright sunlight. Doing those things would ensure that, if the equipment is needed, people can access it and it is fit for purpose.
That is a really good point. It is exactly the kind of thing that I would expect the Local Government Association’s water safety toolkit to contain. If it does not, it is probably worth us mentioning it to the LGA when we next meet. I will ask officials to take that point away.
I was going to talk about the 30 different navigation authorities that manage regulated inland waterways, but I will mention just two: the Environment Agency and the Canal & River Trust, which some Members might have heard of. The Canal & River Trust is a charity that owns about 2,000 miles of inland waterway, and the Environment Agency is an arm’s length body of DEFRA that manages 630 miles of waterway. Both bodies are responsible for ensuring that waters are safe, and they have to undertake public safety assessments to work out where public rescue equipment such as throwlines should be on the waterways, so some work is done on that. Those bodies know waterways back to front and know the best places to install throwlines—the busiest locations, particularly where there have been previous safety incidents, or places of high risk, such as waterside parks. Those organisations run proactive public safety campaigns to raise awareness of the risks.
It is clear that we need to keep redoubling efforts to make as safe as possible the unregulated inland waterways and bodies of water that are not covered by charities and arm’s length bodies. The responsibility for providing water safety equipment rests with those organisations but in larger urban areas it rests with local authorities. Local authorities tend to work with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the Royal Life Saving Society UK and the National Water Safety Forum, which have been mentioned. Those groups do a great job of warning people, through campaigns, of the dangers of getting into cold water, which can lead to panic, water inhalation and, in serious cases, cardiac arrest.
We all know that the best rules and guidance are redundant if people do not know how to swim to begin with. My hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley and for Southport (Damien Moore) and Daniel Zeichner were right to draw attention to the critical role of education in all this, and I will speak a bit about what people are being educated on. It goes without saying that swimming is a truly vital life skill, and that is why swimming and water safety form compulsory parts of the physical education curriculum at key stages 1 and 2. As part of the curriculum, pupils are taught to swim at least 25 metres competently and confidently using a range of strokes, and to perform safe self-rescue.
As part of our efforts to help children to catch up on learning and activity lost as a consequence of the pandemic, DFE organised for sports facilities at 101 schools to reopen their pools or extend their swimming offer in the last academic year. DFE has also been working closely with Swim England, the Royal Life Saving Society UK and Oak National Academy to support pupils in returning safely to swimming and to promote water safety education. DFE Ministers were very keen that I mention those points so that people would know what they are doing.
Although education has an important role to play, and the bodies I have mentioned continue to undertake proper risk assessments and put safety mitigations in place, there are other practical steps that each of us should keep in mind when we want to enjoy our waterways, and I will state them for the record as a reminder.
As part of her campaign, Mrs Bartley has really pressed home the importance of talking to children about cold water shock and the dangers of open water. She is absolutely right to stress that it takes a whole different set of skills to swim in open water than in a swimming pool, so what we are doing in schools is critical, but it is not all that needs to be done. The National Water Safety Forum advises swimmers to wear wetsuits and allow their bodies to acclimatise to the change in temperature, instead of jumping straight in. Another essential factor that people should consider before they go swimming in open water is the location, because the safest places to swim will always be supervised beaches with lifeguards and outdoor pools. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution also recommends that people check the weather forecast and sea conditions before a swim on the coast so that they can avoid the potential danger of getting caught in a strong comment.
My hon. Friend Dr Offord spoke very eloquently and with much expertise—far more than me—about these issues. Safety in the water is about not just safety equipment but understanding and being aware of the danger. United Utilities, which owns the reservoir where the tragic death of Mark Allen occurred, has now made sure that its signs make clear the risk to life. On its website, it has set out guides for parents, highlighting how a cold shock can affect even proficient swimmers. The advice of the RNLI is:
“If in doubt, don’t go out.”
I wonder whether the Minister is able to comment on something or pass it to her colleagues in Education. When I was at school, we had swimming lessons. I hated them and they worked, because I have never been near water again, so they have kept me safe. I went to a local authority school, and many local authority pools have now been shut down and many schools are now academies. Is it compulsory or recommended in education that children, particularly primary school children, still have swimming lessons? If not, is it something that the Minister could raise with her colleagues?
Yes, it is part of the key stage curriculum, but I will get DFE Ministers to write more comprehensively to the hon. Lady on this issue. I would not want to say something that is inaccurate, because it is not in my portfolio.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way before she concludes. As I understand it from her remarks, the Government are yet persuaded that legislation is the appropriate answer to the problem that we are debating, and she wishes to carry out further assessments. When does she anticipate that those assessments will be complete? Although I appreciate the point she makes about education and understanding the risks of the water, which are obviously correct, may I remind her what the coroner said? It was the impetuosity of youth—we all think that we are bullet-proof. Frankly, had there been a throwline there that day, it might well be the case that Mark Allen would be alive today. Will the Minister give serious consideration to legislation?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. We will give serious consideration to all the options. We need to make sure that this is absolutely the right pathway to go down. I understand the points that everyone has made. I do not want to be standing here for another debate when another child or young person has lost their life, so I want my right hon. Friend to know we take this issue very seriously. He has been in government and he knows that it is never a matter of making a statement in Westminster Hall. All sorts of people need to be consulted, and we need to work out which Department would start looking at this issue, but I have committed that we will come back with a response. We should be able to do that in a reasonable amount of time.
I reiterate that we all share the same ambition of making our waterways as safe as possible. There is more that can be done to educate people on the risks, but I know that the bodies charged with keeping people safe take that responsibility seriously and will be upping the ante in the months ahead to prevent deaths such as Mark’s in the future. I take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to urge every landowner, council, agency and charity involved in our waterways to find new and engaging ways in the months ahead to teach people about how to enjoy the water safely. We are here to support them in whatever way we can.
Finally, I want to thank again Mark’s mother, Leeanne Bartley, for bringing the petition forward and inviting us to debate this important issue. We are very grateful.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ghani. I thank the Minister for her comprehensive response. I would also like to take the opportunity to thank Mark’s mum, Leeanne, for being here today and for bringing the petition forward. I hope she is pleased that it has been a thorough debate, and I thank all Members who have taken part. This is obviously a really big issue. Every death is a death that should not have happened, and we should do all we can as parliamentarians to try to stop such deaths.
We have spoken about the need to educate people, whether they are young people or landowners, through risk assessments and local authorities. We should also take the time to listen to the advice of professionals. Sometimes we like a quick fix, when really we should take on board what the professionals say. If they say, “The equipment should be put there,” then it should be put there, but if they say, “No, it may cause a further problem,” we should look at that. On what Sarah Champion said about maintenance, the risk assessment should state the frequency of inspection.
An awful lot of these accidents happen in the summer months, so one thing that we can all do as parliamentarians is use our social media to get good, positive messages out there prior to the summer and prior to bank holidays, to let parents know, and perhaps to remind teachers who are dealing with children around water, that if they are teaching children to swim, “Yes, this is a fantastic safe place, it’s warm and you’ve got lifeguards, but out there it’s a different world.” I really think that there is a massive education piece, and we should all do what we can to try to keep all young people safe.
The last statistics I looked at—the figures I have from the Library include both “natural water” and “other water”, so we need to be careful which figures we quote— showed that 82% of accidents last year involved men. Everyone needs educating the same, but when I was a young man, sometimes I did not listen. Like my right hon. Friend Mr Jones said, we think we are bullet-proof—I know I did. We really need to get this message over, because no one should have to go through such tragedy. Once again, I thank everybody for coming to the debate today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petition 575967, relating to throwline stations around open bodies of water.