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Playground Injuries

Volume 130: debated on Wednesday 30 March 1988

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

1.59 am

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, for being in his place to discuss with me the continuing flow of playground injuries to children. I have been fortunate in that my three children have passed through the age of playgrounds without incurring anything more severe than the usual bumps and bruises. My attention has been caught by the surprising and distressing number of families who have not been so lucky.

There is no doubt that transport, drownings and fires account for by far the greatest number of accidental dealths of children. Playground injuries are not as great a problem as accidents in the home, but they are not inconsiderable. Most importantly, they are probably avoidable.

"That's Life" has put together the tales of woe that have been reported to it in letters. To the end of February, it has been told of no fewer than 381 incidents of more than usual gravity. That figure includes the ghastly sum of five deaths, one case of severe brain damage, 34 fractured skulls, 49 other head injuries, including concussion, six broken collar bones, six broken legs, 40 broken arms, 11 other breakages including noses and jaws, two dislocations, one severe internal injury, 77 other injuries needing urgent medical attention, and 14 teeth-type injuries. In addition, there were 135 other incidents requiring medical attention. It is obvious that these are not all the incidents that have occurred, and is interesting to note that there appears to be no way of recording all the statistics, collating them or analysing them.

My hon. Friend will be aware that in 1978 the Department of the Environment sent a long and comprehensive letter to all district councils and local education authorities — it was made available to the chief executives of county councils — that told all involved in the public sector of the ways in which safety could be improved. British standard 5696 has been published since 1979. However, there is no way of knowing the improvement that has been achieved as a result of the advice.

It is significant that there was a massive response to the "That's Life" programme on playground accidents. It came throughout the country from parents whose children had sustained substantial damage in playgrounds. Each one is a tragic and pitiful tale of woe. It is significant also that the Consumers Association should be similarly preoccupied and concerned as a result of feedback. It is significant as well that there should have been a steady run of articles over the past nine years in all manner of publications, all expressing concern at the unacceptably high level of accidental injury in playgrounds. It seems, however, that despite advice, admonition, British standards and other responses, a high level of accidents continues to be sustained. That must be unacceptable.

Ministerial responsibility amounts to an interesting but confused position. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State represents the Department of Education and Science. As 125 of the 246 injuries communicated to the "That's Life" team occurred in school playgrounds, it is understandable that he should be sitting on the Government Front Bench waiting to reply to this debate. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment with responsibilities for sport also has a locus in the problem. It is a pity that both my hon. Friends cannot respond to the debate, but that would not be in accord with our procedure in this place.

A goodly percentage of our playgrounds are owned and run by district councils, and the interesting deduction of the playground action group is that from 1982 to 1987 no fewer than 10 per cent. of reported playground accidents involving injury occurred to children within the ages of two to five years. I was also fascinated to note that 80 per cent. of the accidents occurred in supervised playgrounds — so it is certainly not a straightforward picture of unsupervised playgrounds and older children showing off. It is, possibly, largely outside the education service, in supervised playgrounds and with younger children.

There is yet another sector where accidents can occur —the private sector, at theme parks, motorway service centres or, as is increasingly the case, roadside diners or even pubs. Who has the responsibility in that sector? It is certainly not the Education or Environment Departments. It appears that there might be a Department of Employment remit under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which places a duty on employers at such sites to protect those who are accidently or otherwise on them. Once again, that shows that there are three Departments involved. The basic question is: with whom does the buck actually stop? Until we have the answer, we cannot promote better safety.

In 1978, the Department of the Environment took the lead in a circularised letter. I wonder what, if any, advice has been given since. Can the Secretary of State for Education and Science lean on local education authorities to heed the advice contained in the British standard on play surfaces and the design of equipment? Can local education authorities be sued for compensation in civil proceedings? If, since the pre-1979 British standard—that is, the letter of October 1978 —no further advice has been given to local education authorities, is it possible that they could not be guilty of negligence and are therefore unassailable?

Section 4.2.1 of British standard 5696 specifically and strongly recommends that impact-absorbing surfaces be provided in at least the operating area around the equipment. Yet in countless thousands of playgrounds throughout the country, concrete and tarmac are still the norm. What is my hon. Friend's view on that? It is, perhaps, no wonder that the Surrey-based charity Play Safely writes:
"We are not satisfied that the existing legislation is adequate to compel managers of playgrounds to act with responsibility to protect children."
It referred to local representations that it had made about seven playgrounds that were left unattended and, consequently there was, "predictably, a tragic death."

What needs to be done is not difficult to establish, but the how is far more difficult. With regard to the "what" element, there is a need to encourage and cajole authorities and owners to keep their houses in order, to take the advice of the British standard and to bite the bullet on costs. I appreciate that expense is a problem, but authorities have a duty to sort out their priorities. I put it to them that they cannot put this responsibility lightly to one side. My authority has decided that it needs to deal with that, and I note with interest that the cost for the sites averages about £3,000 each. I should like to think that a phased programme, covering three to five years and meticulously adhered to would be fully within the means of all authorities, provided that the will is there —and we need to put the will there. There is also no shortage of advice on the wide range of materials that are now so widely available, and they must be carefully considered by authorities at the same time.

The "how" is how can we persuade local authorities and local education authorities that this issue is a reasonable and proper priority. I found it interesting that the Germans, whose DIN standards are more detailed than even the British standard 5696, have an equipment safety law that makes it mandatory for both equipment and installation to comply with the DIN standards. That is possibly a piece of Teutonic heavy-handedness, but it does have merit and it is probably worth considering.

I know that there are those who would take a more cynical view and regard that country's legislation as old-fashioned and heavy-handed protectionism, designed to stop imported equipment being sold in Germany. Nevertheless, it means that there is leverage for ensuring that equipment and installations comply. In that respect, the Germans have an authority that is not dissimilar from our trading standards officers, who would police and monitor this operation.

I appreciate that in the United Kingdom British standards have always been advisory and to make compliance compulsory by statute would be an enormous departure from practice and would have enormous ramifications. However, we should look carefully at that prospect before discarding the plan. Is there some way in which the German model can be adapted in the case of playgrounds, without having to go down the road of mandatory compliance with all British standards? That is a fundamental question.

Bearing in mind the present split paternity of the problem, a co-ordinated approach to finding solutions needs to be developed. A lead Minister needs to be established from the three Departments involved. I do not care whether he or she comes from the Department of the Environment or the Department of Education and Science, but somebody has to be in the driving seat and take charge.

We should add to that a review group to be drawn from the three Ministries. The other agencies that I have mentioned would be able to keep pressure on the problem. Tasks for that group would include looking at existing legislation, especially in the light of the consequences of the Housing Act 1980, which withdrew so much of the advice given in the past to local authorities as to how they should deal with matters such as play space for children, and with the way in which they organised it.

The review group would also promote the action that would need to be taken to get impact-absorbing surfaces installed. It could possibly keep pressure on the British standards to extend the draft that defines those surfaces and the way in which they should be used. I must make the observation that with head injury being the main type of serious injury that is sustained, especially among the younger children, softer landings are vital.

The same review group would be able to keep the standards under review, see how they are working, and strive towards improving our own legislation, both in the context of the United Kingdom and the European Community. That is important because, as time goes on, we must think in such terms more and more.

I am given to understand that there was recently an interesting conference in Brussels at which the United Kingdom was able to take an aggressive and leading part. If we were able to have such a review group, we would be able to continue to lead in that respect and to keep the pressure on the system to our own benefit.

I know that my hon. Friend regards this question with the gravity that it deserves, but I want to stress that in the solution that is to be developed, I do not want playgrounds to be created which are so safe that they are boring and unexciting. That would be unacceptable. There must be an element of excitement. However, I want parents to be able to have confidence — when they see their cherished children fizz off with glad abandon to the swings, slides and roundabouts—that they will not have to fear the consequences. There are things that we can do and we owe them to children and parents alike. We must not waste an hour or a day more.

2.14 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Bob Dunn)

I am more than grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) for raising this matter for discussion. I am glad to see that he is supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) and for Staffordshire, South-East (Mr. Lightbown). It is an important topic and one well worthy of debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on making an extremely serious speech, and I am more than willing to consider many of the points in it.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974 imposes duties on everyone concerned with the subject. In respect of injuries to children, the general duties under the Act have been supplemented by specific requirements laid down in the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1985. Those regulations require that the appropriate enforcing local authority is notified immediately. Further to those statute law provisions, it is the responsibility of local education authorities to take reasonable care of pupils and students at schools and colleges in their charge within the "in loco parentis" doctrine enshrined in common law.

I am aware that there is concern for safety in the school playground, not least because of the points made by my hon. Friend and the media in general, and also because of the representations made to me and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The correspondence that we have received has advocated improvements to playground surfaces and safer playground equipment.

As my hon. Friend said, in 1978, the holder of the office of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment issued to all local authorities a circular letter entitled: "Need for Improved Safety in Children's Playgrounds". An attached technical appendix listed several possible stages for eliminating some of the most common causes of playground accidents and included details of some impact-absorbing surfaces for use underneath playground equipment. My Department sent copies of that document to all chief education officers, inviting them to review their provision in school playgrounds.

I am aware that there has been a good deal of media coverage during the past year of several serious injuries to children who have fallen from playground apparatus on to a hard surface. However regrettable such accidents are, they will have brought to the attention of local authorities the possibility of installing alternative surfaces to the traditional tarmac and concrete. Some authorities are known to have installed impact-absorbing surfaces under climbing frames and other apparatus in park playgrounds, and also on a trial basis in some school playgrounds. But, as my hon. Friend said, it is recognised that an impact-absorbing surface cannot provide an absolute guarantee of safety.

Teachers and other helpers will normally be able to control the number of children using equipment at any one time and to give instructions in the sort of activity carried out for a child's proper physical development. Of course, it is for the school authorities to decide whether an item of equipment is used and whether to make local rules with regard to its use, for example, during and outside school hours respectively, and on the ages of the children who may be permitted to climb on the apparatus depending on its height above ground.

The Government hope that all new external play equipment installed will conform to the requirements of the "Specification for fixed playground equipment for schools"—BS 3191—and "Play equipment intended for permanent installations outdoors"—BS 5696—to which my hon. Friend referred. The latter generally refers to non-school playgrounds.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has no plans at present to introduce new legislation governing the installation of children's play apparatus or associated equipment. However, in addition to the current British standards to which I have just referred, the British Standards Institution is in the process of preparing a new standard for play equipment which is expected to be completed later this year. As my hon. Friend will know, British standards do not have statutory force but they do provide valuable and influential guidance on the subject areas to which they apply.

The House will accept that there is no one specific rule for the provision of playing fields and recreation areas at schools and colleges. Much depends on the number of pupils attending who are aged eight and over when determining such provision.

My hon. Friend made a number of important points about the nature of the relationship between Government Departments. They continue to monitor all health and safety aspects within the community. In recent months my Department has issued to local education authorities a guidance document on first aid arrangements in schools and colleges. This includes a reiteration of my Department's long-standing advice that all teachers should have a basic working knowledge of first aid that would enable them to deal with situations where medical or first aid treatment is necessary.

When the new standard is published will the Department positively circulate it to all schools? Will district councils be positvely circulated by the Department of the Environment? Will the mechanism employed in 1978 be used again to bring the councils up to date and make certain that they are aware of the new standard?

I certainly undertake to consider that. If the practice remains as it was some years ago we shall continue with it, but if there is any new departure in what my hon. Friend has suggested I shall commend it to my Department and to my colleagues at the Department of the Environment for consideration.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of important issues regarding the interface that a group of Departments will have upon the same subject. I will undertake to raise those issues with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education.

We all share my hon. Friend's opinion that the safety of our children is paramount. This has been a useful debate and I have learned a great deal. His constituents should be extremely pleased that he is able to represent their interests as well as those of the wider public.

I am determined to bring the nature of the debate to my right hon. Friend's attention so that we can consider what further progress can be made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty three minutes past Two o'clock.