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Mark Woodward

Volume 176: debated on Wednesday 11 July 1990

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

12 midnight

The case that has prompted me to call for this debate is that of the tragic death while on holiday last summer in north Devon of 13-year-old Mark Woodward whose family live at Buglawton in my constituency. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Minister and the House would wish me to extend to Mark's parents, Jim and Eileen Woodward, to his sister, Lisa, and to his family and friends our deepest sympathy in their loss. To lose a child is a cruel and deep blow which can never be forgotten and which changes irrevocably the lives of those left behind. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr Speller) would want to be associated with that expression of sympathy, not least because he will participate later in this debate.

If anything good is to come out of this case, it will do so because of the determination of the Woodward family to ascertain the true facts of what happened, have them acknowledged in public—which this Adjournment debate achieves—and, as a result, instigate changes to ensure that such a tragedy can be avoided in future.

It may help the House if I recount briefly what happened. Mark was staying at the home of his uncle, Mr. John Smith, in Ilfracombe for a week of his summer holidays. At approximately 4 pm in the afternoon of Wednesday 16 August he went to Rapparee cove with his cousin Ben also aged 13.

Rapparee cove is a well-known and popular bathing beach. The boys played on the rocks, as young boys will, and amused themselves by jumping from the rocks into the sea. Mark's cousin Ben relates that about 10 minutes later the sea became rough with the incoming tide while he was still in the water. He was unable to climb out on to the rock where Mark was standing. Ben was thrown continually against the rocks, but Mark was too high up to reach down and assist him. Ben was obviously getting into difficulties.

In an act of great bravery, which has since been recognised posthumously, Mark Woodward jumped into the sea to save his cousin. He grabbed Ben's legs and forced him up to the surface. For a while they were both flung against the rocks and later Ben was found to be badly bruised on his back and legs.

A large wave broke around them which swept Ben up onto the rocks, but which carried Mark to more open water. Ben saw Mark climb momentarily onto a partly submerged rock before being swept back into the sea. Witnesses on the beach relate that Mark turned in the water, removed his beach shoes and waved to onlookers, seemingly to inform them that he was all right.

It then appears that Mark, who was a very strong swimmer, decided to swim with the current around the slight headland into an adjacent cove where the water appeared calmer, presumably also to wait for assistance.

An inquest was held at which evidence was given on how and when the coastguard was alerted and what action was subsequently taken. The questions that remained unanswered, and which in some cases were unasked, caused Mr. Woodward to develop profound concerns about the way in which a 999 emergency call to the coastguard by a witness, Mr. Kevin Richards, had been handled. Those questions have highlighted concern widely felt, I understand, in the south-west about the way in which emergency coastguard services are now provided to the north Devon coast.

Because of the persistence of Mr. Woodward and his family the facts have emerged and it is clear that the rescue services were not activated soon enough because of human error and misjudgment at the Milford Haven and Swansea stations.

We now know that the first 999 call at Swansea wasfrom Mr. Kift reporting one person who appeared to be cut off by the tide. I understand that that is not anuncommon event at Rapparee. The second 999 call, which was re-routed via Milford Haven because of a fault, was answered a minute and a half later. It was from Mr. Richards who reported clearly that two lads at Rapparee were in the water and being swept onto the rocks.

At the inquest Mr. Richards was subjected to cross-examination by the solicitor representing the coastguard, who seemed to want to suggest that Mr. Richards had said that two boys were "trapped against the rocks". That was not so and the British Telecom tapes proved beyond doubt that Kevin Richards acted correctly and gave accurate information which, sadly, was not acted upon immediately.

It was not until Mr. Richards's second emergency call, answered by the coastguard at 4.35, that the helicopter at Chivenor was tasked. It arrived on the scene 10 minutes later. That helicopter should have been, activated immediately it was known that two boys were in the water. The correct evaluation of the situation was not made by personnel on duty at Swansea: if it had been the outcome might have been different for the Woodward family.

This experience begs the question, what went wrong? In an answer to a parliamentary question that I put down inquiring of my hon. Friend the Minister the reasons for the delay in sending the rescue services he replied that it was not considered that there was any delay on the part of Her Majesty's Coastguard at Swansea in acting on the information received regarding the tragic incident.

It is patently obvious to one and all that there was delay and that my hon. Friend was gravely in error in giving the House that reply. Furthermore, in a letter in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North, he stated:

"Given the initial information received from the Swansea centre from a known reliable source, a member of the RNLI, the response was correct and conformed with current laid down instructions and advice"
That reply neatly side-stepped the fact that the information given by a second source within a minute and a half of the first source was totally ignored. It is obvious that current laid down instructions and advice need to be reviewed as a matter of urgency.

The chief coastguard is presiding over a service that is understaffed, underpaid and most important, attempting to do a job without adequate training and retraining. I have never met the chief coastguard in person, but I have seen him interviewed on television when he has stonewalled questions. I am amazed and horrified by his arrogant and high-handed manner, which can do nothing for the reputation or the morale of the service that he heads. My hon. Friend the Minister must bear that in mind and address the two other questions.

What part has the closure of Hartland played in the lack of local knowledge of the north Devon coast, which is apparent from the confusion shown at Swansea on 16 August, as recorded in the transcript of the British Telecom tapes? Why does the coastguard service rely so heavily on auxiliaries and volunteers—excellent individuals though they may be—who are totally inadequately equipped even to contact each other and the coastguard stations in an emergency? I should have thought that good, reliable communication was absolutely essential.

To restore public confidence in the coastguard service in north Devon and elsewhere, the Minister must take urgent and positive action. I hope that he will respond accordingly tonight.

12.9 am

I associate myself with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) said and will not seek to cover the same ground.

It is fair to say that the Minister has been pursued—indeed, harried—by parliamentary questions in the past 12 months. It is interesting that he has gone from being, frankly, complacent to somewhat defensive. None the less, at no stage has he admitted that any errors were made. Those who have heard the tapes know that the messages from the public were models of clarity. The responses, particularly from Milford Haven, were the most awfully muddled affairs that anyone has ever heard.

I ask the Minister—this is the first time that I have done so—to institute some form of inquiry, within the Department by all means, but one in which the public may have some input. Since the debate was announced—and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for raising the issue—I have had calls from people who work in the coastguard, lifeboat services and almost all the emergency services saying the same thing—that the coastguard cannot continue to attempt to cover a large and potentially dangerous coastline and cliff line with their present resources.

This is not the "onlie begetter" of the problem. The Hartland closure may or may not be fundamental, but the key error was the re-routing of a telephone call. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), who cannot be present tonight, asked me to say that the problem is the lack of local knowledge when there is an emergency. That does follow from the closure of Hartland. It is an anomaly that all the emergency services are run far away from north Devon, although Swansea is closer than the ambulance service and the 999 service for the area, run from Exeter.

It is time that my hon. Friend the Minister and the Department came out from behind the barricade. Even at this late date, he might say, on behalf of the Department, that he regrets any error that was made. I find it intolerable that for almost 12 months we have had only complacency and a defensive attitude.

About a year ago, the Ministry of Defence almost removed our greatly admired and respected 22 Search and Rescue squadron helicopters from RAF Chivenor. Fortunately, that was prevented but the Department of Transport must ensure that there is always helicopter cover. When there is a problem that requires instant search and rescue usually only a helicopter will do although young Mark was very close to rescue all the time and small boats from the harbour could have saved him if communications had been better.

I have met auxiliaries in north Devon and have no complaint about the calibre of the staff, but I do not believe that their equipment is up to date enough or good enough. I am told—it is almost inconceivable—that the pay for an auxiliary coastguard is about £2.40 an hour or less and that training is undertaken in their own time. I hope that the Minister will say that that is not so; if we are paying that sum to dedicated men and women not only in north Devon but throughout the country something is very wrong.

I take all the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton made about the radio telephone signals and about confused information going back and forth, but alas there is no way of stopping people putting themselves at peril. There will always be accidents, and everyone is aware that everything possible was done, but it is infuriating that in fact something could have been done if the first call from Kevin Richards, which was a model of clarity, had been picked up and correctly transmitted. It was not until his second call was made some 13 minutes later that the Swansea coast guard picked up the urgency and reacted instantly. By that time the damage had been done. We shall never know whether the boy could have been saved, but his chances would certainly have been a great deal better had the helicopter been scrambled in the first, not the 13th, minute.

We cannot stop people making fools of themselves. People climb about on cliffs that they should not climb. King Canute was right: the tide does come in, and cover's people's feet, and more, if they are in the wrong place. There is still no way to stop people buying a small boat, putting it in the water and setting out to sea with their families—without a pennyworth of training, without a licence and without any checks on their safety equipment.

This is an inevitable problem in a free country such as ours. North Devon is doing well : tourism is strong, the economy is booming and the population is growing. People will buy boats and good luck to them, but why does not the Department ensure that they carry proper equipment with them? I have seen people waterskiing without flotation equipment; they could drown when they fall.

I beg the Government not to be complacent or to claim that they are doing as well as they could. The auxiliary coastguard needs equipment and more resources are needed for training. I suspect that the force is undermanned, whether Hartland station is reopened or not.

The Coastguards are not asking for this, as far as I know, but it needs someone in the control room with local knowledge of the north Devon area, who can instantly give information to the rescue services. Had someone in my part of the world heard the words "Rapparee cove", he would have known immediately where it was. But that was not known at Milford Haven or Swansea.

This was a single sad tragedy. Nothing will bring that gallant boy back, and I understand that he is to receive posthumously an award for bravery. I honour him, and share the grief of his family. It is our duty to take action before more accidents happen by ensuring that the coastguard has adequate resources to do the job, so that, if accidents do happen, they will not be the fault of the Government.

12.17 am

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) has raised what can only be described as a sad case. The word that comes to mind in association with this tragedy is sadness—sadness that efforts to save Mark Woodward failed, and sadness for his parents at their loss. This tragedy is deeply regretted, and all parents, of whom I am one, will join me in offering our sympathy to Mr. and Mrs. Woodward.

I know that the coastguard officers involved directly or indirectly in this incident feel particularly upset that in this case their efforts were unsuccessful, for although they successfully assisted more than 11,000 people last year, it is perhaps natural that an incident such as this, which occurred during a holiday by the sea so close inshore and so near to rescue facilities, tends to overshadow this excellent record.

I should like to deal with some of the points made by my hon. Friend, and with some of the results of my investigations into the case. I joined my hon. Friends the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Speller) and Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) on a visit to Ilfracombe and Hartland not long ago.

The death of Mark Woodward in the sea off Rapparee cove, Ilfracombe, occurred on 16 August. Mark and his cousin Ben were playing on and off the rocks into the sea. Conditions were not ideal and the cousin got into difficulties; Mark bravely jumped in to assist his cousin. The cousin then managed to get to safety by his own efforts, but Mark, despite being a competent swimmer, failed to do so.

It has been reported that there were numerous holidaymakers watching the incident from the clifftop surrounding the bay. But until a local man, Mr. Kevin Richards, was made aware of the incident, no alarm was raised. Mr. Richards made a 999 emergency call which, due to a fault on the British Telecom line to Swansea, was redirected to Milford Haven coastguard. The information then had to be relayed from Milford Haven to Swansea coastguard. The loss of time was minimal. At the same time a 999 call was being received at Swansea from a member of the lifeboat launching crew, who was on the pier at Ilfracombe, to the effect that he could see one person cut off by the tide. Swansea coastguard thus had information on the incident from two sources. One was via Milford Haven and the other was direct from Ilfracombe. Both sources suggested that the problem related to a person or persons cut off by the tide.

Given this information, Swansea coastguard took the appropriate action. Even at high water it is possible to rescue people who are cut off by the tide from the landward side of the cove. The normal action is to call out the auxiliary coastguard cliff rescue team to lead people out using the cliff path. This was the action taken in this case.

The point behind my remarks was that the first telephone call gave the information that one person was cut off. I said also that that was a common occurrence. The second telephone call, which came through a minute and half later, made it clear that two boys were in the water—in the sea. Why was not that message compared with the previous one? Why did not someone twig at that stage that the first message may not have been 100 per cent. accurate?

I promise that I shall deal with that important issue.

Some 15 minutes later, Mr. Richards dialled 999 again, and on that occasion he was connected direct to Swansea. He was very concerned that nothing was being done. He said that someone was in the water and would drown before help arrived. At this stage, realising for the first time that someone was in the water, Swansea coastguard immediately called for helicopter assistance and the launch of the Ilfracombe lifeboat. Tragically, the helicopter arrived too late.

On 15 September, an inquest was held into the death of Mark Woodward and a formal verdict of accidental death by drowning was recorded. The coroner saw no reason to criticise the actions of the coastguard. I would like to record that all the coastguard's documentary evidence pertinent to the incident was available to the coroner. This included signals, logs and the coastguard's own analysis of the incident. The coroner was advised that tape recordings of all telephone and radio conversations had been impounded and could be made available. As the tapes can be played only by using large and cumbersome multitrack recorders, extracts from the tapes had been made on standard cassettes for the benefit of the court.

Immediately before the inquest the evidence, including the cassette tapes, was taken to a meeting in the coroner's office. Present at the meeting were counsel for the coastguard, the coroner and counsel for the family. The tapes were pointed out to the latter, but he elected not to listen to them. Three weeks later, in the absence of further interest, the multitrack—

I am short of time and I want to cover the points that have been made.

I ask my hon. Friend to bear with me. I want to place the facts on the record as concisely as I can.

The tapes were wiped after three weeks and put back into use, as is normal practice. One member of the family subsequently wrote to the coroner alleging perjury by the coastguard and claiming to have information which had been deliberately withheld from the inquest. Such were the contents of the letter that the coroner was obliged to put the matter in the hands of the police.

The police investigation included reading all the documentation, listening to the cassette extracts and interviewing all concerned. As part of the investigation, the police took possession of the BT master tapes of the 999 calls, to which reference had previously not been made. British Telecom holds the tapes for three months before returning them to service, as against the 30-day cycle operated by the coastguard. The report on the investigation was passed to the Crown prosecution service, which found that there was no case to answer either for perjury or any other offence.

Following the return of the tapes to BT, they were made available to the family. On those tapes, Mr. Richards can be clearly heard to say, "They are in the water." This is because the tapes are recorded at point of source. Mr. Richard's voice comes out much louder than that of the coastguard operator. Conversely, on the coastguard cassette extracts, there is evidence that the line was poor. The voice of the coastguard operator can be heard clearly repeating back to Mr. Richards his immediately previous words, thus interfering with the final phrase, "They are in the water."

It is accepted by Her Majesty's coastguard that the officer at Milford Haven could have dealt better with the re-routed 999 call. The handling of 999 calls, not just in this case, but in the service generally, has been and is continuing to be addressed by coastguard headquarters, through the coastguard training centre and individual regional controllers.

In considering the details of the case, I remind hon. Members how easy it is to be wise after the event.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way yet again and I am delighted to hear that he feels that the matter could have been better handled than it was. That has been obvious to everyone who has shown an interest in the case. But it is with great sadness that I must tell my hon. Friend that most of what he has said tonight has shown that there has been an absolute whitewash. I only wish that he had been able to answer the direct question that I asked him earlier.

I cannot answer all the points that my hon. Friend put to me and I am trying to be as helpful as possible by dealing with the incident in as factual a way as possible. I assure my hon. Friend that the incident has caused me deep concern. When the life of a young person is so tragically lost, anyone who has to deal with the matter is filled with horror. That applies to the coastguards, too. They do not want to recover bodies. They are there to try to rescue people.

Let me deal with what has occurred since. I caution against drawing conclusions which do not recognise how matters appeared to those directly concerned at the time. Reacting to an emergency is always difficult, as it requires a quick response to information which may be incomplete or inaccurate.

As in many tragic accidents, I suggest that Mark Woodward's death was not the result of the action or inaction of any one person or authority. Rather it was a succession of unfortunate circumstances which independently might have been insignificant but in combination were fatal.

Having visited the area, I am satisfied that there has been no reduction in the capability of the coastguard to respond to search and rescue incidents in north Devon. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out to me by my hon. Friends the Members for Torridge and Devon, West and for Devon, North that there remains a feeling among the community that the coastguard service in north Devon could be further improved. Taking their opinions and combining them with my own reflections, I have agreed a number of measures.

An additional patrol vehicle has been placed in the area. The number of auxiliary coastguard patrols has been increased. Familiarisation patrols have been conducted along the north Devon and Somerset coasts by all regular officers from Swansea. When Hartland was closed, its officers were transferred to Swansea, so those officers were not suddenly lost.

In addition, I have approved a doubling in the number of personal pagers available to the north Devon auxiliary coastguard companies. That was a particular point made to me by auxiliary coastguards when I was in north Devon. I have also agreed to the establishment, on an experimental basis, of a local liaison body for north Devon, involving the district councils, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Ministry of Defence, the coastguards and all other interested bodies involved in providing search and rescue in that area. I hope that those initiatives will restore confidence in the coastguard.

We must all appreciate that, however regretful, lives will always be lost around our coast. The sea is always potentially dangerous. However, it must be emphasised that last year the coastguard co-ordinated 6,800 incidents—the highest ever. As has been said, people sometimes pay huge amounts of money for equipment but go out to sea with no experience. However, that was not the case here. Mark Woodward was a competent swimmer and the tragedy is deeply to be regretted.

Nearly 40 per cent. of such incidents involve recreational users of the sea and shore. That is why the Department of Transport, as part of its "safety on the move" campaign, has recently launched a coastal safety campaign. That represents a major new thrust in publicity directed at recreational users of the sea, the aim being to ensure safe enjoyment of the sea by all. I hope that that will help to reduce the number of incidents round our shores, particularly in the summer holiday season, and the sad tragedies which so often occur round our shores at holiday times.

I appreciate the deep anguish felt by Mr. and Mrs. Woodford. I can only say that I regret the incident.

In view of what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and myself, can we not have the inquiry that all the people in the west country now demand?

A review of the role of auxiliary coastguard officers has been completed and we are considering its results to see what measures we can take. When I visited my hon. Friend's constituency, I talked to a number of the auxiliary coastguards and others involved in the incident. We discussed a number of particular issues and I have tried to go some way towards meeting their anxieties. I hope that—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having been continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half past Twelve o'clock.