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Water Safety and Life-saving Equipment

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 24 July 2019

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

I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate and allowing me to highlight an issue that has been prominent in my constituency and those of many other Members who have come along this evening. Drownings are sadly all too common. We hear today of a body being recovered in London, as happened recently in the Speirs Wharf area of the constituency of the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney). Our hearts go out to all the families who have lost loved ones to drowning.

Given the scorching temperatures outside, many people will be tempted to go into the water without realising the risks that involves, so I highlight the Royal Lifesaving Society’s summer water safety campaign. We need to all look out for one another in those circumstances and ensure as much as we can that those messages are shared with all our constituents wherever we have open water, or rivers or even large ponds, in our constituencies. People need to understand the risks they are taking.

Concerns have been raised for some time in Glasgow about damage to lifebelts and life ropes particularly, but not exclusively, on the banks of the River Clyde, which runs through my constituency. Life-saving equipment is regularly being removed, damaged and otherwise tampered with. In response, Glasgow City Council’s water safety working group has launched a campaign, “Taking a lifebelt is taking a life”. Only a week after the launch and of signs being affixed to the lifebelt posts in the city, the Evening Times reported that some of the signs themselves had been vandalised. Andy Waddell, the chairman of Glasgow’s water safety working group, said:

“People who vandalise the lifebelts along the Clyde need to be fully aware of the potentially lethal consequences of their actions. That anyone would seek to destroy a safety message intended to protect lives is truly mind-boggling.”

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. I spoke to her today about this issue, but I want to make her aware of a similar circumstance in my constituency. She might not be aware that the lifebelts in Killyleagh harbour have been tampered with on a number of occasions. Does she agree that further steps have to be taken to ensure that such safety equipment is not tampered with, since the unavailability of lifebelts could lead to death? There is the prospect that fines are not enough. Indeed, fines and penalties for such behaviour should be legally binding—perhaps the Minister can respond to that—and of such severity that people will think twice before destroying lifebelts, which could end up leading to someone dying when they just did not have to.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I sympathise with those being affected by the issue in his constituency. It is a widespread occurrence, and it seems to be happening across these islands. We need to do more about that.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate on water safety, since many of us feel strongly about the issue. In my constituency, there have been fatalities in the Jubilee river. I have raised that issue with the Prime Minister no less during Prime Minister’s questions. In this regard, I commend Slough Borough Council. Working with its partners the Environment Agency, Thames Valley police and Royal Berkshire fire and rescue, it has installed safety signage warning people about the dangers of swimming in the river, given the strong undercurrents, and the effects of cold-water shock even during the summer months. Does the hon. Lady agree that while life-saving equipment should not be tampered with, the Government have simply been too slow to implement an effective and sufficient water safety education programme?

I agree with that, and I think there is a lot more to be said for co-ordination of action and for making sure that more happens and there is not a piecemeal approach to water safety around the UK.

Tragically, over Easter we lost five people in York’s rivers. In York we continue to have one of the highest levels of river deaths in the country. On Saturday, I had the privilege of going out with York Rescue Boat, a voluntary organisation that does tremendous work to maintain river safety, and the fire and rescue service. Their plea was for some specific funding for training, equipment and facilities, because they, too, have faced issues with equipment being tampered with. Does she agree that we should have specific funding for river safety?

I sympathise with the families of those who have lost loved ones in the York area. The circumstances that the hon. Lady describes sound absolutely awful. I agree that more needs to be done on funding for these organisations, because it feels very much to me as though a lot of this is left up to charity and the good will of local organisations or councils rather than our having a specific pot of funding.

Incidents of drowning are, fortunately, decreasing in Scotland. Water Safety Scotland noted that there were 78 water-related fatalities in Scotland in 2018, down from over 100 in 2013, but that does not mean that we should be complacent. We need to continue to ensure that people do not lose their lives in the water. I note that the Scottish Government have designated 2020 the Year of Coasts and Waters. That seems as good an opportunity as any to discuss some issues to do with water safety, as well as exploring the virtues of our coasts and waters and the wider environment.

I am grateful to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which responds to water incidents as part of its duties. It provided statistics that revealed that it attended 79 incidents on the Clyde last year, which is an increase of 13 on the previous year. It has a 3:1 ratio of rescues to fatalities, which is heartening, but there have been a few incidents in Glasgow recently that give me pause for thought as I cross the river in the course of my day; I can see the tributes to loved ones who have been lost.

We are very fortunate in Glasgow to have not only the water safety working group, but a dedicated organisation—the Glasgow Humane Society—watching over the safety of people using our waterways. The society was founded in 1790 by members of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, which employed an officer to carry out the practical work of drowning prevention, rescue and the recovery of bodies from the river. Since then, it has sought to pursue water safety issues in Glasgow and the wider world, and it is now under the stewardship of the great George Parsonage. The Clyde runs in his blood, he having taken on the vocation of his father, Benjamin Parsonage, in the Glasgow Humane Society, and his family are very much involved in the organisation in a voluntary capacity.

The hon. Lady referred to rivers, seas, beaches and lakes. In my constituency, and probably in a lot of others, there are a lot of quarries. Unfortunately, over the years we have lost some people who have drowned in the quarries across Strangford. I am ever mindful that what is under the water in quarries is unknown, and of the chill and the depth of the water. Does she agree that when it comes to looking at waterways, whether that be rivers, beaches, tides, lakes and so on, we also have to include quarries?

Yes, I agree. We need to think about all watercourses. People do not need very much water to drown in, so we must be mindful of all the risks out there.

The issue of removal of and damage to lifebelts is not new by any matter or means. As George told me yesterday, the society has a poster dating from 1860 warning of the dangers of damaging life-saving equipment. Today the society officer, William Graham, along with its many volunteers, collects lifebelts from the river and restores them to their rightful position. George tells me that this is a daily job, with anything from a few lifebelts to up to 30 having to be recovered from the river.

The system of reporting that we have in place in Glasgow, instigated by the Glasgow Humane Society, is one where lifebelts and ropes are placed on neon yellow poles along the banks of the city waterways. That makes it very clear where the lifebelts are located and when they are missing. Coming in today, I noted that the ones placed along the Thames are a lot less clear, having been placed inside boxes, meaning that people cannot immediately tell if there is a lifebelt in there when they need it, and it could take them longer to reach, too, which is time that cannot be spared when somebody is in the water.

The neon poles I mentioned, along with other vital resources such as rescue ladders, are all GPS-tagged and display a code, such as UN25, in a system that is understood by the local emergency services. It helps people to describe their location accurately in an emergency and allows them to easily report missing lifebelts or have them recovered. I would commend the system to other Members with watercourses in their constituencies. It is incredibly useful to be able to pinpoint exactly where an incident has happened so that the emergency services can respond.

I would also like to pay tribute to campaigners in Glasgow, Margaret and Duncan Spiers, constituents of the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, who is here today, who lost their son in an accidental drowning in the Clyde in 2016. They are passionate in the face of such adversity to ensure that all is done to prevent anybody going through the same pain. Their son slipped and fell into the water. The police threw in lifebelts but could not reach him, and he died in less than 10 minutes. The whole event was captured on CCTV. I cannot imagine how awful it must have been for Christopher’s father, Duncan, to watch it back, knowing his son was so close to being saved. The Spiers have been tireless campaigners for water safety ever since and have succeeded in getting Glasgow City Council to install ropes to lifebelts along the banks of the Clyde. I am sure that all hon. Members would commend the Spiers for their campaign.

The Spiers hope that nobody has to experience what their family has gone through. They have taken the issue to the Scottish Parliament to ask for improvements, such as making ropes on lifebelts more common and providing life ropes and throw bags. More recently, they sought the use of specifically marked ropes so that, should they be removed, they could be easily identified if found in somebody’s possession, which would enable the crime to be traced back to somebody. At the moment, if someone removes lifesaving equipment or carelessly or recklessly throws it into the river, it is very hard to pursue them, to identify perpetrators and get some resolution, particularly as waterways are often in rural and isolated areas. We cannot put CCTV on every lifebelt post in the city of Glasgow, so there is much to do to deter people from doing this in the first place.

There does not seem to be a specific offence of tampering with lifesaving equipment. Any fines would be for vandalism or theft. Someone could be charged with culpable and reckless behaviour, but this all feels far too discretionary.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this debate to the House. She is making an excellent speech. I share her sentiments about the Spiers family. I have had the honour of meeting them and have been touched by their commitment to securing a safety legacy for the River Clyde, particularly with respect to lifebelt equipment. It beggars belief that somebody would damage or vandalise such equipment in the way that has been done. I should mention other campaigners, such as Stef Shaw and the Think Again campaign on emergency lifeline telephones. People in Glasgow are making a great effort to solve some of the problems, particularly in the light of the death of John Connelly—this extends to the Forth and Clyde canal as well. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need a much greater effort—perhaps charitable effort—to fundraise for equipment on the river? I note that Glasgow City Council has purchased 21 ropes to fit to lifebelts on the Clyde this year. Perhaps we could further improve capacity if some of these groups’ charitable efforts were harnessed.

I agree. There is always something to be said for charity fundraising and resources of that kind being raised, but, as hon. Members mentioned earlier, we cannot rely on that. More thought needs to be given to how we make it a lot more consistent and part of mainstream funding. It is lifesaving equipment and should not rely on charity alone.

There is not really an appropriate offence to cover such crimes—I would call them crimes—as tampering with lifesaving equipment. At the moment, there are various things that local authorities can do. A recent incident in the Salford Quays prompted the authorities there to use a public spaces protection order, available under the law in England, to prevent people from interfering with safety equipment, but this only incurs a £90 fine—£60 if paid in 10 days. Apparently, this could end up in court if those fines are not paid, but that still seems not to get the balance quite right, given the gravity of what people are doing here. After all, this is lifesaving equipment. The Manchester Evening News reported that the cost to Salford Council of replacing the equipment and making the system more secure was £34,000—money that would not have to be spent if people did not engage in such mindless behaviour.

Turning to my asks of the Minister, I seek to find out if more can be done to catalogue the availability of water safety equipment, to ensure that as many watercourses as possible can have the reassurance of access to life-saving equipment. The UK Government could also carry out assessments to understand the extent to which damage is being caused and any hotspots. I have noted in my research and by speaking to people such as—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

I have noted in my research and by speaking to campaigners with expertise, such as George Parsonage, that this is, sadly, all too common in many communities. Will the UK Government consider carrying out a wider, year-round campaign rather than just during Drowning Prevention Week? Perhaps they could look to the Scottish Government’s drowning prevention strategy, which is funded and is working hard to deliver education and other public goods.

Like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I am struck by the lack of penalty for the undoubted public harm caused by tampering with life-saving equipment. I believe that there should be a specific aggravated offence related to tampering with life-saving equipment.

Fianna Fáil Senator Keith Swanick has promoted a private Member’s Bill in Ireland that would make it an offence to steal or damage life-saving equipment such as defibrillators and lifebuoys. I do not want to stray too far from the issue of water safety, but many campaigns have fundraised to install defibrillators, and it is beyond belief that somebody would go out to damage one. I would argue that they also require protection.

The penalties proposed by Senator Swanick include fines of up to €50,000 and a jail term of up to five years, which are quite different from the £90 fine in England. Will the Minister consider introducing a similar measure? I do not know whether we will get new private Members’ Bills or whether this Session of Parliament will ever come to an end. In the meantime, it would be useful if the Minister would consider other mechanisms that might be used to protect this vital resource and whether it could be placed in any existing legislation.

Duncan Spiers has said to me:

“The reason we want the law changed is to ensure the safety equipment is not tampered with…anyone tampering with this should be charged with putting a life at risk and not just vandalism. Our campaign is about accident prevention measures and anyone that goes into the Clyde by accident or suicide attempt should have the best chance of getting out of the water”.

I wholeheartedly agree.

The Glasgow campaign is called “Taking a lifebelt is taking a life”. I ask the Minister to support the campaign and do all in her power to ensure that life-saving equipment is always there for those who need it in their moment of greatest need.

The joy of the Home Office is that one can never quite understand the extent of its tentacles, so it was with some surprise—but, indeed, some pleasure—that I was called to respond on this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) on raising the subject, particularly given today’s weather. Nationally we are all feeling the heat a bit—not just those of us who are awaiting that phone call—so it is very tempting to seek cool waters in which to dip our toes or to submerge ourselves in a little further. She has shown great timing in securing this debate this evening.

I must start by saying how terribly affecting I found the hon. Lady’s descriptions of the incidents on the River Clyde in her constituency. The terrible experiences that her constituents and other families have suffered are heartbreaking. For the love of your life to meet their end in a matter of moments in water—that must be every parent’s worst nightmare. I very much reiterate and emphasise the hon. Lady’s message that removing or damaging life belts or other public rescue equipment is incredibly serious and can put people’s lives at risk.

As the hon. Lady may appreciate, the matters she has raised are devolved to Scotland. I will deal with the details of the legislation in a moment. I genuinely welcome the opportunity to set out the approach to and understanding of the extent of incidents across the United Kingdom, and the UK Government’s efforts to tackle them.

We know that on average 400 people drown across the UK in our rivers and seas each year and a further 200 people take their own lives in our waters. People who had no intention of entering the water in the first place account for 44% of drowning fatalities. This happens despite the enormous efforts of search and rescue and emergency services, who respond to around 35,000 water-related rescue and flood events each year. Indeed only in the past month or so in my county of Lincolnshire—I am delighted to be joined by my Lincolnshire neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson)—we have seen for ourselves the terrible impact flood events can have on people’s homes and ways of life.

As Members may be aware, in 2016 the National Water Safety Forum, whose members include organisations such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, put in place a national drowning prevention strategy, which aims to halve deaths in the UK by 2026. The Government support the strategy fully. I note that in Scotland, Water Safety Scotland brings together people and organisations from all over the country who over many years have developed a variety of water safety initiatives, including the drowning prevention strategy, which complements the UK strategy while taking into account the unique situation in Scotland —for example the legal and education systems and the geographical differences. These national strategies are supported by a range of local initiatives, such as the new tidal Thames drowning prevention strategy established by the Tidal Thames Water Safety Forum and the work being taken forward by Glasgow’s Water Safety Group.

We are very clear that if someone is in trouble in the water, the availability of public rescue equipment is critical to reduce the likelihood of their drowning. Early intervention by a bystander may be the first and last opportunity for rescue—indeed the hon. Member for Glasgow Central mentioned the rurality of many of these locations—and theft and vandalism of equipment potentially endangers the lives of both the person in the water and those who would rescue them. As the recent awareness-raising campaign by Glasgow’s Water Safety Group made clear,

“taking a lifebelt is taking a life.”

Members rightly raised the question of education, and through the National Water Safety Forum’s UK drowning prevention strategy, we have highlighted the importance of water safety education at primary school and, where required, at key stage 3. I have seen some of that work myself, and it is very good.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of legislation. This is where devolution rears its head. If the hon. Lady is inviting the UK Government to take back powers, I will ensure that the new Prime Minister is made aware of that. In England and Wales, under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 vandalising life-saving equipment may be an offence that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment, and an aggravated offence of that nature, which includes an intention to endanger life, attracts a potential maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The legislation in England and Wales therefore has the capacity to address the problem. However, antisocial behaviour and criminal damage legislation is devolved to Scotland, so it may well be that the hon. Lady’s lobbying should be directed at the Scottish Government to ensure—[Interruption.] I suspect she has that covered and is on it.

Sadly, because the matter is devolved, I cannot change the Scottish law, but the hon. Lady made her case very powerfully in this Chamber tonight. I note also that antisocial behaviour policy is devolved, and the 2014 legislation, which covers England and Wales, does not apply to Scotland.

I am lobbying in all directions on this, the Minister can be assured of that. The issue seems to me to be that current provision is not providing enough of a deterrent and this is still happening right across different places, so perhaps a different approach, or more knowledge of that offence, might help.

I think it is a combination. As we know all too well from the many debates we have had on the very serious topics that are looked after by the Home Office, legislation is but the first step. We have to ensure that people understand the legislation, and that the courts, the police and others who have an impact in this area apply the law appropriately. An offence of aggravated criminal damage carries the maximum sentence of imprisonment that we can impose in this country, so it may well be that getting the message out there through the various schemes that have been outlined in this debate is a very much the way to ensure that people understand just how serious it is when they attempt to interfere with equipment.

I certainly agree about the criminal sanctions, but the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) also made an interesting point about the technology and infrastructure that Glasgow is using, which is quite efficient. Could the Home Office find a way to jointly fund national work to understand what technologies are available and consider adopting a national standard for life-saving equipment on rivers and canals? Could it also look at ways of using new technologies so that if a lifebelt is tampered with or removed, the authorities are automatically informed through technology such as remote sensors, and can ensure that is rapidly replaced? In that way, they would be aware that something had been damaged at a particular location.

The idea of technology is a very interesting one, and I suspect that it is being looked at—through our forums, for example. I am not in a position to commit the Home Office to anything at this stage, but my officials heard the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, and I anticipate their looking into it.

This has been an important debate, and I thank hon. Members across the House for their contributions. Water safety is not to be taken lightly, and those who vandalise equipment must be made to understand that their actions could be life-threatening. We have robust measures in place to tackle such antisocial behaviour and to safeguard the public from drowning. I very much hope that the House is reassured that there are measures in place to tackle the issues that have been raised, and I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this important debate to the House, particularly in the heat of the summer sun.

House adjourned.