Skip to main content

Water Safety

Volume 582: debated on Tuesday 17 June 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Harriett Baldwin.)

Just under a year ago at the start of the six-week summer holiday on 23 July 2013, 15-year-old Tonibeth Purvis from Barmston in Washington in my constituency, and her friend Chloe Fowler who was 14—she was from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson)—tragically died after drowning in the River Wear at Fatfield in Washington. It was a lovely hot sunny day, much like we saw last week and will hopefully see again this summer. To cool off, Chloe jumped into the river. Unfortunately, that particular stretch of the River Wear has a fast current and is up to six metres deep in the middle. It is full of hidden hazards, as many rivers are. It was not long, therefore, before Chloe sadly got into difficulty. Seeing her friend in trouble, Tonibeth immediately jumped in to help her, along with a number of other friends they were with. They quickly found themselves in trouble as well, Tonibeth to the point where she was also overcome. The emergency services were called immediately, shortly before 3 pm. Unfortunately, by then it was already too late. Tonibeth was not located until 8.49 pm, and it took a huge team of emergency service workers—who by all accounts were fantastic—another hour to find Chloe.

The only saving grace of this terrible tragedy is that more young people did not die that afternoon. As her friends said in paying tribute to her in the days following the tragedy, Tonibeth died a hero, trying her best to rescue her friend. She was quite rightly recognised for that heroism as the winner of the editor’s choice award at the Sunderland Echo’s Pride of Wearside awards in November last year. As a mother myself, I do not know if that brings much comfort to her family. I sincerely hope it does.

The parents of Tonibeth and Chloe are not the only ones currently living through the nightmare of losing a child to drowning. Drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death among children in the UK. According to the response I received from the Office for National Statistics to a parliamentary question I tabled in September last year, between July 2008 and December 2012 coroners recorded 48 accidental deaths of children and young people aged under 20 in natural water. That is 48 individual tragedies, 48 families devastated and 48 schools, colleges and wider communities affected—and one persistent problem. Those figures may not tell the whole story, as coroners figures only record the primary cause of death.

The figures for deaths in water—the water incident database, or WAID, statistics compiled by the National Water Safety Forum—were put at 47 for under-20s in 2011 alone and another 42 in 2012. Those figures show that this is primarily an issue for boys, who account for 78 of the 89 deaths in those two years. None of these figures, of course, include Tonibeth and Chloe or any other young people who lost their lives last summer or since. I understand that in the six-week hot spell we had last summer there were 36 deaths. Of course, many other children and young people have come close to losing their lives. Some have suffered serious injuries or been left traumatised by getting into trouble in the water. When we take all age groups into account, there are some 400 deaths a year, which is the equivalent of one every 20 hours.

The fact is that the vast majority of these individual tragedies can be avoided if people possess a basic understanding of how to look after themselves and know what to do in an emergency, whether it happens to them or others.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this subject to the House for consideration. In my constituency, unfortunately, we have had similar experiences, usually during warm spells of weather. Does she think that advertisements and warnings should be sent out through local press and local government to ensure that people are aware of the dangers in quarries, rivers and the sea? Those are the danger spots whenever the weather is warm.

I will come on to prevention shortly.

The Royal Life Saving Society was, opportunely, in Parliament today, hosted by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who had hoped to attend the debate. It held a briefing session for MPs and peers on this very subject ahead of drowning prevention week, which begins on Monday 23 June and runs until 29 June. It conducted research last year that found that 68% of people said they would not know what to do if they saw someone drowning, or how to treat them even if they were able to recover them safely from the water. However, in spite of that self-awareness of lack of capability, 63% of those people said they would still jump in to try to save a family member who was drowning, and 37% said they would even do so to try to save a stranger.

Most victims of drowning are alone, but it is little wonder that the kind of selflessness and heroism that was displayed by Tonibeth can so often lead to an even deeper tragedy. In the hope of preventing such tragedies, the RLSS has made a number of demands in its “manifesto for water safety”, which I think require close consideration by the Minister and, indeed, other members of the Government.

The RLSS argues that schools should ensure that every child is taught the basic principles of water safety, and personal survival skills. That means that children should understand the risks involved in various water environments such as currents, loose banks and vegetation, and should know how best to enter and exit water, which includes what it is best for them to do if they fall in. It means that they should be able to orientate and contort their bodies in the water, especially if they are caught in a current and need to turn to face the direction in which it is taking them so that they avoid hurting themselves and do not miss opportunities to grab something. It means being familiar with the typical survival skills that would generally occur to us, such as treading water, making ourselves buoyant, and swimming in clothing. Swimming itself is, of course, a very important skill, but it is also important to be taught the techniques that make it possible to rescue other people safely, which include keeping their heads back and above water.

The current school curriculum mentions safety, but the target of being able to swim 25 metres by the end of primary school is the real priority for most schools. Being able to swim 25 metres would certainly help, but doing so in a warm, clear swimming pool with lifeguards at hand is completely different from having to swim 25 metres, or even 5 metres, in a cold lake or a river with a strong current and hidden hazards.

My hon. Friend was right to list all the water safety skills that children should be taught, but does she agree that every school leaver should be a life saver? Should not all young people be taught cardiopulmonary resuscitation, how to place people in the recovery position, and other ways of saving people’s lives once they have been rescued?

Yes. Those are all valuable life skills. If I had to choose an overriding priority, I would choose water safety education and survival skills.

I thank the hon. Lady for what she said earlier about the work of the Royal Life Saving Society UK and its visit to the House. Does she agree that, ahead of the summer months, Members in all parts of the House have a unique opportunity to promote the drowning prevention message to young people in particular? Is that not something that we can all do together now, in the short term?

Yes, I do agree. I should like to think that, following the debate, an all-party parliamentary group could be set up. Perhaps it could be led by the hon. Gentleman, who showed such great leadership in organising today’s event in which the RLSS highlighted the importance of life-saving. I can think of no better gentleman to chair such a group. I should be more than happy to be a qualifying member, as, I am sure, would other Members who are present this evening.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the RLSS argues that water safety education should be extended, in an age-appropriate way, to key stages 3 and 4. It believes that such education should be directed at the age group that is most likely to take risks around water and get into difficulty as a result, and that parents should be notified about their children’s progress. In the context of the tightening of budgets, it also recommends that schools should consider focusing on pupils who cannot swim. I am sure that many young people would be disappointed if they were told that they could not take part because they had already got their badges, but there is some sense in doing that, as long as the competent swimmers receive good-quality provision in some other sporting activity at the same time. The RLSS also calls for Ministers to give schools a clear understanding of what is expected from them in this regard, and then to ensure that progress is inspected and reported on so that schools are accountable to parents for that progress.

The Minister may be aware of a survey by the Amateur Swimming Association which found that nearly 20% of schools, and 25% of academies, do not know their swimming attainment rates, or do not offer swimming at all. It also found that 51% of primary school children are unable to swim the minimum of 25 metres by the time they leave primary school. This concern about the decreasing priority given to swimming is echoed by Councillor Fiona Miller, who represents the Washington East ward in my constituency, where this tragedy occurred, and who is also a swimming teacher. She also reminded me that many schools used to get resources on water safety and many other things from the Youth Sport Trust, but increasing numbers of those schools are reviewing their membership of this body in light of fragmented and squeezed budgets. These figures and concerns are extremely worrying, so I hope the Minister is able to provide some figures of his own, particularly on the provision of swimming in primary academies, which are not bound by the curriculum at all.

The RLSS also calls on the Government to provide support for an annual public awareness campaign highlighting drowning risk, which would be useful for adults and children alike, as well as to ensure that there are sufficient safe places that children and young people can go—and can afford to go—to swim during the summer holidays, or indeed at evenings and weekends. I hesitate to make this point because I do not suggest for a moment that there is any causal link between the Government’s actions and any drownings, but Labour’s free swimming initiative provided such a valuable opportunity for so many young people to swim safely and to learn to swim at any time, but especially over the school holidays, and it is a great shame that it was scrapped.

There has certainly also been an increasing threat to public swimming baths as councils struggle to balance their budgets in extremely challenging times. In my constituency, campaigners found out just this week that they had been successful in lobbying to save Castle View enterprise academy’s pool, which is widely used by the whole community, including local primary schools, from having to close its doors. As savings become ever harder to make for local authorities, the future of other pools across the country will increasingly come into question, and many of them will not get the reprieve that this particular one has had, and some may have to put up prices.

I know that there was a degree of indecision at official level as to which Department was to answer this debate. The prevention of drowning accidents, and therefore of the loss of lives and serious injury, is a cross-cutting issue, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport all have a stake in this, as do their local and national partners and agencies, but, as we know, there is always a risk with cross-cutting issues that they will fall between the cracks in both Whitehall and at a local level, rather than the overlap helping to bridge those gaps. Just as in so many other areas, one of the best preventive tools that Government have at their disposal is our education system, and therefore although I admire—and, indeed, like—the Minister who is here tonight, I am disappointed that an Education Minister is not here to respond. Just as with healthy eating and lifestyles and sex and relationships education, this is an area in which we can, through education, give children and young people the skills and knowledge they will need at the very point in their lives when they will need it, as well as for when they grow up, and not just in order to pass exams or help them get into Oxbridge, but to help them lead safe and healthy and, therefore, long and happy lives.

I therefore look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on what his Department and others across Government are doing to this end, and I ask whether they will look at the very modest and sensible recommendations from the RLSS, and what further ideas and policies the Government may be convinced to explore in the near future to help to prevent another tragedy like the one that shook Sunderland last year, and which has left such a devastating gap in the lives of Tonibeth’s and Chloe’s family and friends.

As I mentioned earlier in my speech, drowning prevention week is next week. It is a great initiative usually aimed at primary schools, but this year it is being expanded to secondary schools as well. As far as that campaign will reach, however, it will not reach all schools and it will not reach all children. It would be a major, and very timely, boost for this campaign if the Minister was able to say tonight that the Government will take some of the RLSS calls for action on board, or perhaps come forward with some other proposals, so I look forward to hearing his response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) on securing this debate. Let me say at the outset that I am aware of the tragedy that happened last July in her constituency, and the Government very much sympathise with the families of the two girls involved. The hon. Lady is right to say that the incident highlights why we must do all we can to raise awareness of the dangers of water, and the measures we can and are putting in place to ensure that such an incident does not happen again.

I am responding on behalf of the Government as the Minister with responsibility for maritime issues, but as the hon. Lady pointed out, water safety and drowning prevention are not topics that fit neatly within the remit of any single Department. Having heard her speech, I, like her, rather wished that an Education Minister was responding. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, for example, actively promotes participation in water-related sports and activities. The Department for Education promotes water safety awareness and swimming through the national curriculum. The Department for Communities and Local Government has a role to play through local authorities, which have responsibility for beach safety and act as navigation authorities for some of our inland waters. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a role in the management of many of our inland waters through bodies such as the Environment Agency and the Canal & River Trust. The Health and Safety Executive, within the Department for Work and Pensions, also has a clear interest where the worlds of water and work come together.

Alongside all those Departments and agencies is a whole host of non-governmental groupings, sport governing bodies and charities that make up a matrix of interested parties with a role to play in supporting water safety and the prevention of drowning. My own Department’s primary interest is through the excellent work of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which includes Her Majesty’s Coastguard. That agency’s regulatory role focuses on the safety of commercial shipping and fishing operations, but most of the search and rescue incidents with which Her Majesty’s Coastguard deals are firmly rooted in recreational activities such as boating, sailing, enjoying our beaches, swimming off coasts and walking our fantastic coastline. It follows that encouraging people not to get into difficulty in the first place—prevention of the wider sort that the hon. Lady mentioned—is by far the best approach, which we encourage across the whole of Government.

More than 200 Members of this House represent coastal constituencies and will doubtless join me in encouraging the general public to get out and about and have fun near the water. According to Visit England, in 2012 there were 147 million day visits to seaside and coastal locations across the whole of Great Britain, and inland we have lakes, canals and other stretches of accessible water that the public can enjoy. However, that enjoyment is enhanced if people take personal responsibility for their own safety, understand the difficulties and dangers, treat water with the respect it deserves, and understand what they can do to have fun and stay safe.

My Department and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency have supported the work of the National Water Safety Forum, an umbrella body that brings together all those promoting water safety messages, including expert organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the RNLI, the Royal Life Saving Society, the Canal & River Trust, the British Sub-Aqua Club, British Swimming, the Chief Fire Officers Association and many more. For many years, my Department has made a financial grant to that forum through the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which provides administration and governance support. That funding has facilitated the development of the forum and allowed it to mature into a body that shares understanding of statistical information and data, and uses that to help local authorities, sport governing bodies and lifesaving organisations plan their own safety communications. As the forum matures and shows its worth, so its membership are increasingly making a financial contribution to the forum, because they recognise that it is a body in which they can all share best practice.

The National Water Safety Forum recognised that there were different databases capturing different levels of information about water-related incidents. The hon. Lady referred to a number in her speech. The information that is recorded by the MCA on national search and rescue records, for instance, is different to that recorded by the RNLI and other rescue services. What was needed and has now been put in place is a single database that commands the confidence of all the bodies that contribute to it and use it. That has been achieved through the water incident database, which, as the hon. Lady knows, is known as WAID. It provides a single version of the truth and has captured information about fatalities and all water-related incidents since 2007.

The hon. Lady mentioned a number of inland fatalities. In 2010, the number of water-related fatalities was 420. Thanks to WAID’s initiative and the communication plans of its umbrella bodies, the message started to take hold. The number of fatalities has dropped quite dramatically and continues to fall, and it is now 50 fewer than it was two years ago. We need to do more, but the trend is going in the right direction.

Analysis shows that most of the water-related fatalities occur in rivers, followed by at the coast and then in the sea, and that is exemplified by the sad incident that the hon. Lady has described. The most common activities that people are engaged in when tragedy strikes are walking, running, swimming and, in some cases, angling. A major campaign, which has been run and targeted at people who are close to rivers or water, involves the promotion of the wearing of lifejackets. The seas around the UK coast are cold. Professor Mike Tipton, a leading academic in this field, has shown that the first and most immediate danger to people in the water is not the drowning, but the sheer cold water shock, which then leads to drowning. Wearing lifejackets on rivers and at sea buys time and keeps people alive until they can be rescued.

I do not want to pre-empt anything the Minister might say with regard to education, and I am aware that he is not an Education Minister, but is he able to comment on the Royal Life Saving Society’s campaign and its calls for Government action, or will he commit to meeting the Education Minister to take the matter forward?

I will touch briefly on education. We certainly welcome what the Royal Life Saving Society has said, and we recognise that next week is national drowning prevention week. I will commit to asking my colleagues in the Education Department to reply to the hon. Lady more fully if my remarks do not provide her with the answers that she wants.

Many agencies have a strategy for safety. The MCA, for instance, focuses on very simple safety messages, urging those going on the water to get trained, check the weather, wear a lifejacket, avoid alcohol and make sure that someone else knows what they are going to do. Volunteer coastguards are based in their local communities, and they spend a lot of their time putting those messages across to schools and community groups, and the MCA uses its presence on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to do the same.

In January this year at the London boat show, I was pleased to support the Royal Yachting Association’s launch of its safety advice notices, encouraging safety in boating, yachting and sailing communities. It used the style of language that was right for its target audience. The RNLI has a proud record of heroism at sea and it holds a special place in British maritime tradition. It has run an excellent campaign called “Respect the Water,” the thrust of which is to encourage people to take care when they are near rivers or near the shore and to make sure that they are properly trained.

Six years of evidence shows, unfortunately, that one of the major causal factors in fatalities, particularly in young men, is alcohol. A number of organisations are sending out the message that people should not take alcohol and play around by the water, because that can have serious consequences. We welcome similar efforts by the RLSS, which include drowning prevention week next week. The prevention of drowning is a shared responsibility in every sense. As I undertook a moment ago, I will ensure that one of my colleagues in the Department for Education responds more fully to some of the points that the hon. Lady made about education.

We all want people to enjoy our beaches, our coast, the seas and the inland waters. However, we want them to understand the dangers, take responsibility for their safety and heed the advice of the many experts in the area. The RNLI’s mantra, “respect the water”, is spot on. The Government will continue to support and encourage safety awareness and swimming in the national curriculum. We support the efforts of the National Water Safety Forum to ensure that people understand the greatest risks and to promote the campaign for safety, so that tragic incidents such as the hon. Lady described at the start of her speech will become an increasing rarity.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.