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Emily’s Code: Pleasure Vessel Safety

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 1 March 2017

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Emily’s Code and safety on pleasure vessels.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and to debate Emily’s code. Today’s debate is the story of a personal and family tragedy and of how to turn something that knots together an extended family, school and other friends, and a community—a whole small world—into something positive that can reach a much wider world. It is about how the image of a young girl can make all recreational boating more responsible and maybe, just maybe, help to save lives.

This debate is particularly poignant given that Emily’s parents Clive and Debbie Gardner, her sister, Katie, her brother, Todd, and her grandparents are all in the Chamber with us today. The family scars are still raw, and emotions are never far from the surface. I hope you would agree, Mrs Main, that the sympathy of the whole House is with the Gardner family. Colleagues will be struck by the family’s determination—like that of other Gloucester families, such as the Gazzards, the Powells and the Evanses, who have recently been through the agony of a child’s death and then inquiries or even trials—that this will not overcome them and that they can do something both to honour the memory of a much-loved child and to make a difference.

Let me first explain what happened on Saturday 2 May 2015 and then what the family and the world of boating, with my support throughout, are doing with Emily’s code. Fourteen-year-old Emily Gardner went to Brixham harbour that day with friends to go out on a boat. The Gardners had been on boating and canoe trips before and Emily was not frightened either of boats or of the water. As the marine accident investigation branch stated in its report that was published in October 2015:

“At approximately 1142…an unnamed Fletcher speedboat with one adult and three teenage children on board capsized after encountering a large wave. Three of the occupants managed to swim clear of the upturned hull but one of the children”—


“became trapped. Despite valiant attempts to free her, she was only recovered following attendance of the RNLI2 lifeboat 25 minutes later. Although medical treatment then started immediately, she never recovered consciousness.”

The investigation found that the strap of Emily’s buoyancy aid had become snagged on the speedboat’s cleat, which trapped her underneath it. Other potentially contributing factors to the accident were outlined. First, the speedboat capsized after it hit a large wave at approximately 11.42 am and a new propeller, which had recently been installed, generated more torque, causing the boat to twist to port in opposition to the propeller’s direction of rotation. It then capsized. The thrust of the boat had been exacerbated by the new propeller, by the fact that there was just a small amount of fuel in the engine and by the driver accelerating almost to full speed.

Secondly, despite some 25 years of experience and a water skiing qualification gained several years beforehand, the driver was unable to combat the contributing factors that led to the boat capsizing. Emily’s buoyancy aid was also too big, increasing the risk of it getting caught.

The report noted, thirdly, that it had been

“fortunate the accident was seen by members of the public ashore, who were able to raise the alarm. Had one of the drivers carried a waterproof VHF radio, which is recommended good practice,”

he could have contacted the coastguard directly with the most accurate information available. The report also stated:

“Even if embarking on a short trip, it is better to be fully prepared, as minor emergencies can quickly escalate.”

Fourthly, the speedboat driver had not been wearing the kill cord. Although that had not been needed in this incident, the report highlighted that it showed the need to continue raising awareness of the issue in the speedboat community.

My hon. Friend is recounting a clearly tragic case. However, even in the absence of a wave, which appeared to trigger this accident, does he agree that when the sun is out and the waters are calm, there is a tendency for someone on a boat to be lulled into a false sense of security, and that there is therefore a case for making anyone who embarks on a boat go through a thorough process of safety procedures beforehand, rather as people who are on a plane have to? Passengers on a plane are encouraged to read a checklist; does he agree that something similar might help in cases such as this?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, he brilliantly anticipates exactly what I will say about Emily’s code, and I am grateful to him.

Emily never regained consciousness, and it was determined that she died from drowning. I should mention one other point. The report pointed out that the speedboat was older than the recreational craft directive of 1996, which set out new guidelines for boats that could have helped the boat to float and not to sink by the stern, which was where Emily was trapped. The report concluded:

“Buyers should be cautious and aware of the potential shortcomings of leisure craft constructed before…1996, or those that might have been substantially modified.”

I cannot help wondering how many of us who have been on the sea in a recreational vessel are aware of that small but important difference in boat design, and whether all boat owners know how their boat will float in an extraordinary accident such as this.

Let me come on to the second part of this debate. When Emily’s family had absorbed the accident report, they led a call for something to be done. They started fundraising; they ran a relay from Brixham to Gloucester for Winston’s Wish and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution; and they organised Emily’s diamond charity ball in October last year. They have raised an amazing £21,000—it may be more than that now, but that is the latest figure that I have—and they wanted to use those funds in the best possible way.

I met Clive and Debbie in Gloucester and heard their urge to do something to honour their daughter Emily. I then talked to the Royal Yachting Association and the chief executive of Her Majesty’s Coastguard, Sir Alan Massey, who was extremely helpful and sympathetic. After a subsequent meeting between the Gardners and the RYA, Emily’s code began to take shape and will now be launched in two days’ time, on Saturday, with the full support of the RYA at its Suzuki dinghy show. I have copies here of what Emily’s code will look like; they are available for any colleagues who would like them.

The RYA is recognised as the national body for all forms of recreational and competitive boating. It represents all the different elements involved, and it sets and maintains an international standard for recreational and small commercial boat training. Its ethos is one of proficiency and self-sufficiency, learned through its world-class training, and its purpose is to promote and protect safe, successful and rewarding British boating. It issues an annual advisory notice and safety notices throughout the year through the boating press, members’ newsletters and social media, yet inevitably there are some people it has not reached whose safety awareness could be stronger. I hope that the very human appeal behind Emily Gardner and the code named in her honour will help the messages of the code to reach more widely.

My hon. Friend is making an impassioned speech. I hope that there will be something in Emily’s code about kill cords. He might be aware that in the Camel estuary a couple of years ago, there was a tragic incident when a kill cord was not used. I wonder whether there is any mention of kill cords in the code—for example, the mandatory use of them by people on the water.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I know that he has experience in his constituency of a death that received a lot of publicity at the time. It was a sad incident indeed, which I know he cared very much about. He is right, and I will come on to kill cords.

I hope that the very human appeal of Emily’s code will help its message to reach a wider audience. In this House, as hon. Members know, publicity can be a double-edged sword, but in this case I would be grateful if every newspaper, online forum and TV and radio station gave Emily’s code maximum coverage. I say to all members of the media that they, too, can help to make a difference.

The key, so far and in the future, is a spirit of partnership, bringing together designers, experts and parents, who know the real impact that safety notices have when they are put into practice well. The code has the support of all the major players—the coastguard, British Water Ski and Wakeboard, and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

What is the code? Let me go through it in some detail. Each element of it contains a letter that spells “Emily’s code”. The first is:

“Wear a suitable lifejacket or buoyancy aid”.

The lifejacket should be a comfortably snug fit and should be fastened fully—are the straps tightened up, or is there too much room underneath? The second is “Service equipment”—is there fuel, and is the engine working? The third is “Get trained”—have I had any training courses? The RYA offers courses that can save lives. The fourth is “Make a plan”—where do I plan to go? Will I be inland, onshore or offshore? What will I do if the worst happens? Have I planned my passage? The fifth is “Know your limits”—have I ever been out on the sea before? What is a safe speed?

The sixth element is “Carry distress signals”—it is fine not to have those until suddenly it is not, and no one knows when that will be. Understanding the benefits of marine VHF—very high frequency—radios, and how to use them, is critical. The seventh is “Use the kill cord”—as my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) mentioned, it should always, without fail, be attached both to the ignition and to the person’s body before they operate the engine. The eighth is “Know your boat”—there may have been upgrades to it recently. Do I know what they are and what the impact of them could be? Do I know whether it was made before ’96 and is therefore not built to the standard of the recreational craft directive? The ninth is “Have a radio”, which is so simple to do.

Last, but by no means least, is “Check the weather”, which is a point that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) made. People should check it the day before, again in the morning and again when they go out. We know how changeable weather can be. Most of us now have weather apps on our phones, and a simple tap can tell us what to expect. Thinking about the weather is crucial to the safety of a boating expedition.

The purpose of this debate is to highlight what happened to my constituents and what they have done to try to prevent it from happening again, but it also shows how Government agencies, the voluntary sector, a family and their MP can work together to try to make something good out of something ghastly. I am very grateful to all involved.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister cares deeply about young people and their opportunities; all the work he did on apprenticeships shows that clearly. I hope that he agrees that the cause of preventing fun days on the sea from turning into nightmares is a very good one, and that he will agree to support Emily’s code and the message that it sends about boating safety. We have to recognise that a voluntary code like this is only as good as its take-up, its publicity and its ability to make us all think more carefully.

Will the Minister also agree to look at the recreational craft directive, which is an EU directive? Will he see whether we can ensure that it is carried over into UK law and that if it is ever abolished, it is replaced by an equivalent UK minimum technical and safety standard for boats sold here, including requirements for stability, freeboard, buoyancy and flotation? In this case, the boat sunk by the stern, but the RCD harmonised standards for speedboats like this one made after 1996 direct that they should float horizontally when swamped—that sounds technical, but it is crucial. The directive has clearly improved boat user safety; we do not want to move backwards when EU laws are converted into British law.

Finally, let me address what Emily’s code is about and what it is not about. The code may have lessons for different activities that are equally fun, but that need careful supervision—not in order to stop, prevent or restrict them, but to make sure that risk management is a natural part of having fun. People setting off up mountains on beautiful days need a map, a compass, a mobile with battery, emergency rations, water and a waterproof, just as much as if they were going out on the sea.

I very much commend the hon. Gentleman and his constituents for the efforts that they have made. Looking beyond the leisure boating sector, does he agree that there is also an opportunity for lessons about planning, training and servicing equipment to be learned in the commercial sector? Fifty-four commercial fishermen were killed at sea between 2010 and 2014. Does not that show that the same lessons have a wider application?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I did not know that figure; it is surprising and shocking. All these tragedies, whether in Cornwall, Scotland or Devon, have implications for how we improve things.

The important thing is not to prevent people from having fun, but to make that fun more risk-aware. Emily’s code is for boating in the sea, but I wonder in whose honour other codes may be needed on the land one day, because we are always learning lessons from accidents.

I hope that this debate in honour of Emily Gardner and her family will be the warm-up act for the launch of Emily’s code on Saturday. It recognises all the help from the organisations that I listed and the input from my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), whose constituency includes Brixham harbour. It salutes the determination of Debbie and Clive Gardner and the whole family, who have stuck together through this, as well as the generosity of those who have raised funds for them, with runs at Wall’s Club, bike rides, Debbie’s own runs and much more besides, to create this enduring legacy of love for a girl and awareness for everybody in the boating world.

After the launch on Saturday, will also launch. I encourage everyone to look at the materials on offer, to get in touch with Clive and Debbie and ask them to come and speak in their constituency about safety, and to make sure that the next time a child goes out on a boat, they check their lifejacket, check the weather and check everything. Next time anyone goes out to sea in a boat, please will they stop and think first about Emily’s code?

It is a pleasure to respond to this short debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing it and bringing these matters to the House’s attention.

I have been a Member of Parliament for 20 years, a Front-Bench spokesman for my party for 18 years and a Minister since 2010. Over that time, I have spoken in Parliament hundreds of times, sometimes about significant things, often about insignificant things and usually, I hope, with good humour, but I have rarely spoken on an occasion that combines solemnity and importance as much as this one. This is a sad occasion, but a hopeful one too.

It is important that I emphasise how valuable this debate is. It provides the opportunity for me not only to join my hon. Friend in offering personal condolences, and those of Her Majesty’s Government, to Emily’s family and friends—I note that her parents, Clive and Debbie, her sister Katie, her brother Todd and her grandparents are here today; I welcome them and offer those condolences to them—but to join him in my admiration for their campaign, their effort, their spirit and the difference that they are making.

I do not understand death—I barely understand life, actually—but what I do know is that each life has a purpose. That purpose is not entirely a matter of the span of a life; it is really about the fact that, throughout the time we spend here, each of us touches and affects many other people. Through the development of this work and this code, little Emily, who died in this tragedy, is not only touching the lives of those who were close to her, but the lives of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of others. Her impact will be much greater than the span of her short life. It will change all those lives for the better. It is therefore a real pleasure for me not only to welcome, but to endorse Emily’s code. It will be a lasting legacy and memorial to the daughter who was so loved and to the sister and the granddaughter who is so missed by the family, who are here today.

We in politics are in this business because we want to make a difference. That is why we are what we are and why we do what we do. We try to make a difference for good, don’t we, but other people can make as much of a difference—perhaps more of a difference—than most of us do, however long we spend here and however much we succeed. What I am so impressed by is the seriousness and care that has been taken in the development of this code.

It is true, as John Masefield said in his poem, “Sea Fever”, that

“the call of the running tide”

is a feature of our lives and these islands. It has been for all the time that men and women have lived here. We cherish our seagoing heritage and all that it means. It can, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, bring immense joy, excitement and thrills, but it also brings risk and danger, and that is precisely why it is important that we establish good practice and underpin it with regulation in the way that he suggested. An important principle at the heart of what he said today and what the code embodies is that learning through education and the establishment of what he described in his short speech as a set of rather simple, rather straightforward principles can make such a difference in guaranteeing the wellbeing of those who are called down to the running tide.

I have a long and detailed speech prepared for me by my excellent officials, but I will not give it, because I do not feel I should give it. Instead, I want to respond to this debate as a father of two young sons. I feel this, like everyone listening to this debate will, in that spirit. I looked at the code, and thought, “This is exactly as good as it could be. It is just perfect, isn’t it?” The code is in line with RNLI practice and has its support. The code is very much in the spirit of our wonderful Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which does such valuable work in providing the assurance of safety that I mentioned a moment or two ago. I met the MCA just today to discuss the code and this debate.

The code is in tune and chimes with the work we do through our regular inspections and through the intelligence provided about ships, the weather, our coast and the dangers that those circumstances can bring. More than that, through its straightforwardness, persuasiveness and its relationship with Emily, it will make an immense difference in changing people’s perceptions of the joy and the risks associated with the sea.

The code is, as I have said, straightforward. It states:

“Wear a suitable lifejacket or buoyancy aid

Service equipment

Get trained

Make a plan

Know your limits

Carry distress signals

Use the kill cord”—

that is a way of turning off the engine in a boat—

“Know your boat

Have a radio

Check the weather”.

Those may sound like rather routine things, but my goodness, if the code is applied with rigour and enthusiasm and people know how much it matters, it will make an immense difference. So many accidents and tragedies are associated with one or more of those straightforward, but timeless principles.

It is a delight to speak in this debate, but it is also a responsibility. It is critical that education, training and voluntary initiatives associated with the leisure sector emerge from the work that has been done by Emily’s family. With the guiding hand of the Royal Yachting Association, the pleasure boats sector has aspired to and achieved very good safety standards, and we need to say that Emily’s loss was an exception. It is not the rule; our seas are safe and they are well policed. All the agencies I have described do sterling work to ensure that that continues to be the case.

Having said all that—I have also been in contact with the RYA, and I know that its training is of the highest standards—it is still important that we know there will be those who, for one reason or another, get involved in boats and do not take for granted those straightforward, resonant messages. There will be those who will not necessarily know the sea as well as they might. There will be those who are therefore at risk. The Government’s commitment is such that not only do I give an assurance that we will do all that is necessary to make the code as widely established and as well-known as it can be, but we will formally launch the code at the Royal Yachting Association’s dinghy show at Alexandra Palace and we are sending a senior coastguard commander to do so. We will continue to promote the national drowning prevention strategy, which aims to halve the 400 or so accidental drownings in all forms of water by 2026. Even where accident levels are thankfully low, we must do more. It is our purpose, but more still, it is our mission.

I started by paying tribute to Emily’s family, and I do so again. The difference they are making is profound and appreciated. As I have said, the code will change many, many lives for the better. Marcel Proust said:

“Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.”

That is not an easy lesson to learn. When one is obliged to learn it by circumstance and then turn the power of the mind to a noble purpose, it deserves to be recognised in the way that my hon. Friend has allowed us to do today. I thank him for that and once again offer the thanks of the whole House of Commons and the Government to Emily’s family for the difference they are making.

Question put and agreed to.