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Theme Parks: Child Safety

Volume 626: debated on Monday 3 July 2017

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

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me this opportunity to raise the issue of child safety in theme parks. We in Leicester were deeply affected by the death of one of our own, Evha Jannath of Belgrave, at Drayton Manor park in Staffordshire. On the morning of Tuesday 9 May 2017, Evha woke up excited at the prospect of visiting Drayton Manor park with her school, the Jameah girls academy, which is in Rolleston Street, Leicester. She had been given £10 by her family to spend at the park. Just four days before, she had celebrated her 11th birthday. What Evha’s mother, Mussamth, did not know, when she waved Evha off that morning thinking that she would be safe and would have an enjoyable trip, was that that would be the last time she would see her. Tonight, we need to begin the process of addressing some of the issues surrounding Evha’s death, and I am grateful to see the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work in the Chamber. This is not just for the family or for the 1.5 million people who visit Drayton Manor each year, but for the millions of theme park-goers worldwide.

I have sought permission from the right hon. Gentleman to make an intervention. Like many in the House, I enjoy theme parks. When we go to Florida, for example, we notice that wherever there is a level of fun, there is also a need for strict regulations. Does he agree that, when it comes to regulations that work, we should perhaps take some lessons from the Americans when we deal with our own regulations back home?

This is certainly something that I hope the Government will look at, once they have had an opportunity to see the reports that have been prepared by the police and the Health and Safety Executive.

On that tragic day, Evha got on the Splash Canyon ride at just after 2 pm with her school friends. According to eye witness accounts, as the Splash Canyon ride went around its circuit, Evha fell into the water as the vessels bumped into one of the sides of the ride. Having fallen into the water, Evha began walking towards her friends who were in the vessel as it was pulled away by the water current. For a few minutes, Evha followed the vessel trying to get back to safety and to rejoin the vessel, because her friends were still in it. Sadly, at that stage she received no help and was eventually sucked under the water. In his initial report, the coroner, Andrew Haigh, has suggested that Evha suffered blunt chest trauma which led to her death. In his communications with the family and with me, and especially in allowing Evha’s family to see the body for a second time—which was of particular benefit to Evha’s mother—Mr Haigh has been exceptional.

Issues of theme park safety are critical at all times, but especially as we head towards the school summer holidays. These parks across the United Kingdom earn millions of pounds, and whether it is at Disney in the United States or at Drayton Manor, adults and children must be safe to visit them. According to Health and Safety Executive data, there were 420 non-fatal injuries at theme parks in 2015-2016, with 249 of them involving children under 16. There have been three deaths since 2005. That is three too many.

All theme parks have television screens that are monitored by staff. The family want to know who was watching these screens and how Evha was left in the water for several minutes without anyone coming to rescue her. The House may recall the horrific accident at Alton Towers in June 2015 when passengers on a ride crashed into an empty carriage and many suffered appalling injuries. The fact that this tragedy could happen so soon afterwards means that certain issues were not addressed, and it is in the public interest that they are addressed immediately. Following the tragedy, a feature of this case has been how the agencies involved have gone to great lengths to help the family. I thank the Health and Safety Executive for the work that it has done so far in investigating the issue, particularly the work carried out by Catherine Cottam under the leadership of head of operations Neil Craig.

The vessels on the Splash Canyon ride have no seatbelts and a number of vessels had their

“stay in your seat signs obscured.”

Unfortunately, this incident was not the first time that somebody had fallen out of a vessel at Drayton Manor. In 2013, Patrick Treacy also fell off the Splash Canyon ride. In an interview with BBC Radio 5 live following Evha’s death, Patrick’s mother Vicky called for lap bands on the seats to ensure children or adults do not stand up on the ride. If there is a threat that children may fall out of such rides and into the water, certain safety procedures should be adopted. I fear that that was not the case at Drayton Manor after the Patrick Treacy incident and in Evha’s case the same thing happened again.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, other major theme parks, including Alton Towers, Legoland and Thorpe Park, closed their water rides. However, the rides have since reopened without waiting for the Health and Safety Executive report. The presence of lap bands that would ensure that participants sit in their seat, but would not impede escape if the vessel capsized, must be seen as a potential solution. That would not affect their enjoyment. Clear public announcements regarding seating on rides at all parks, a member of staff escorting people to their vessels and informing them that they must remain in their seats, and clear signage are all vital, but the family feel that all that was lacking on that day at Drayton Manor. According to the children who were interviewed afterwards, they called out for help to the guards, but nothing was immediately done for them. Making sure that such rides are adequately staffed is also a priority. Perhaps it would have been better if there had been two members of staff at the start of the ride assisting children to board the vessels.

I accompanied the family, including Evha’s father Muhammed Islam, her brother Muhammed, and her uncle Mohammed, to Drayton Manor where the ride and the circumstances were explained carefully to us by the police. On behalf of the family, I thank Superintendent Steve Morray and DCI John Quilty and his colleagues for their work and for the relationship that they have built with the family. Of particular benefit was showing the family the CCTV footage of Evha’s last moments. The police investigation continues.

Evha was only 11 years old and got on the boat with five other children of the same age or younger. Children under-12 should be accompanied by an adult at all times on such rides.

I also want to raise the issue of bereavement damages for the death of a child, which are currently capped at only £15,000. That is woefully low. Although of course no amount of money can compensate for the loss of a child, we must look again at the issue of fair compensation for families. There is no cap on such payments in the United States. Legislation should be introduced to remove the cap to allow proper compensation to be given to families.

The owners of Drayton Manor have been deeply affected by the tragedy, and William Bryan wrote to me:

“the whole Drayton Manor community remains deeply saddened and upset by the terrible incident last week. I cannot comprehend the pain and anguish that the family and wider community feel right now”.

His letter was deeply appreciated. There are so many heroes and heroines who acted swiftly after Evha was discovered. I personally pay tribute to the air ambulance service for its reaction to the incident and its efforts in trying to save Evha’s life, and to the staff, who must have been horrified by what they saw.

Hundreds of people attended the funeral in Leicester, even though many of them did not know Evha personally. The Darus Salam mosque and its director, Moj Mohammed, have also been exceptional and have established a JustGiving page to support Evha’s family. Evha’s school, and particularly its headmistress Erfana Bora, provided great comfort to the family after Evha’s death.

Many legal issues remain outstanding, and I have been careful not to cross into them while the inquest is pending. The family have appointed Hilary Meredith, of Hilary Meredith Solicitors, and her legal team to deal with legal measures, and they have taken up the challenge forcefully, for which I thank them.

By themselves, even though I am sure they will be extremely thorough, the police and Health and Safety Executive inquiries will never bring Evha back. However, it is hoped that their recommendations will change how the system works. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is absolutely right that there are theme parks in other countries. Theme parks do not exist only in the United Kingdom; they exist all over the world. Millions of children enjoy going to them, and if there is an example of better practice, I hope we will be able to follow it.

Throughout May I spent a great deal of time with the family, who remain shocked and in mourning. As one would imagine, Evha’s mother is still devastated by the death of her young child. Muhammed, Evha’s brother, has taken on so much after this tragedy and has handled himself in a way that most 18-year-olds could not, and should not be asked to do. Muhammed and the family are concerned about potential negligence leading to his sister’s death.

To lose a child is horrific, but to use that loss as a means of achieving positive change, so that things can be improved for others, is nothing short of heroic. Having spoken to Evha’s father, Muhammed Islam, I know he is set on ensuring that no other family is hit by such a tragic event. No Member of this House wants to be in the position of calling for change after such a tragedy, which is why we need to ensure there is change.

The House will inevitably move on to debate other tragic events—indeed, earlier today we heard more about Grenfell Tower. However, for this close-knit and loving family, no minute will go past, no day will go by and no birthday will fail to be acknowledged without longing for their daughter, sister and niece. They will never again hear little Evha chatting and laughing, and they will never see her lovely face, which is why they want to get to the truth of what happened. They deserve nothing less.

I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing this debate and commend him for the support and advocacy he has shown for his constituents. May I take this opportunity to extend my sincere sympathy to Evha’s family and friends at their immense loss, and to join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to all those who have assisted by helping on that tragic day and since? In particular, I wish to thank him for mentioning the HSE—I am the Minister with responsibility for that body—its 50-strong fairground inspection team and, in particular, the two officers he mentioned for the leadership they have shown in this instance.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that Staffordshire police, with the HSE’s support, are currently investigating the circumstances surrounding Evha’s death and that, as a result of that ongoing investigation, I am constrained as to what I can say, particularly about this incident. However, I hope to afford him and his constituents some reassurances, within those constraints. I can confirm that Drayton Manor’s procedures for responding to emergencies at this ride, including its arrangements for identifying and rescuing anyone who falls into the water, will be examined as part of the investigation and that the ride remains closed while this investigation takes place.

Immediately after the accident, the HSE contacted Merlin, which operates similar machines manufactured by Intamin at Alton Towers and Thorpe Park. Merlin had already closed its rides so that it could conduct an in-depth check to ensure that the machines were operating correctly. It agreed to keep the rides closed until the HSE could reassure it that there was nothing physically wrong with the Drayton Manor ride that would increase the risk to passengers. The HSE did that, and the rides were closed for three days.

Once it had completed its checks, Merlin confirmed to the HSE that it had reviewed all the operating procedures to ensure they were in line with the manufacturer’s instructions and that the operators were working in accordance with their training. It also confirmed that it had reviewed the arrangements for supervising the ride and the riders, ensuring that only those who could be safely accommodated were allowed on to the ride; providing clear instructions to riders to remain in their seats while the ride is in operation, and not to stand, swap seats, lean out of the boat and so on; and ensuring that riders knew that the ride is vigorous and that they need to hold on as the boat moves down the ride. Merlin also confirmed that it had reviewed its rescue and response measures to ensure that it would know immediately that a person had fallen into the water; and that, crucially, it could stop the water flow with an emergency stop and could swiftly get someone out of the water using appropriate techniques and equipment. On the information provided, the HSE was satisfied with Merlin’s review of those other rides. That is important to mention in the immediate aftermath of that tragic incident.

Following the incident, the HSE also sent out an information note to the Amusement Devices Safety Council for onward transmission, reminding ride operators of the steps that they were required to take in order to ensure the safety of riders on water rides, in particular. Those included some of the areas that I have just mentioned. Any specific learnings that come out of the investigation at Drayton Manor will be shared with the industry so that it can ensure that they are taken on board.

As I said, the investigation is ongoing and the ride has been shut down to allow that to proceed. The specific lines of inquiry that are being followed cannot currently be disclosed, for reasons that the right hon. Gentleman will understand, but, based on the emerging findings of the investigation, the Health and Safety Executive has no information that suggests the other rides are unsafe to operate.

The investigation is also looking at the arrangements made by the school. After the incident, the Department for Education produced a statement with further advice. If necessary, it will provide additional guidance, should the investigation identify deficiencies in the processes.

Fortunately, serious issues such as this one are rare, but the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that even one is one too many. This was the first drowning on a water ride in the UK. Following such an incident, the Health and Safety Executive carries out an in-depth investigation, not only to establish the causes of the incident but to achieve justice for the victims and their families. Any lessons learned will be shared with the industry, which will be required to implement them.

By way of example, as I am constrained in what I can say about the Drayton Manor incident, I shall explain what happened following the Alton Towers incident involving a multi-car rollercoaster. The operators reviewed and tested their operational and administrative procedures for clearing the block-stops on multi-car coasters. Merlin reviewed its safety management arrangements at Alton Towers and implemented a number of recommendations. Alton Towers’ staff did a series of national and international presentations explaining what went wrong and why. It is important to mention that, because the right hon. Gentleman rightly flagged up the fact that we can learn from other nations, and other nations can learn from what has happened at our theme parks.

The HSE national fairground inspection team’s work plan for this year includes the inspection of multi-car rollercoasters at specific theme parks. The HSE is working with theme park operators and their representative body, the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions, to improve management systems for the control of risks associated with rides such as roller coasters. There is no room for complacency, and the lessons that can be learned from incidents are certainly disseminated, with any new requirements enforced.

If the investigations into the recent incident expose any breaches of the law, appropriate action will be taken to hold those responsible to account. If any shortcomings are found in the current regulatory regime, steps will be taken to address them. The Health and Safety Executive will act on information received about incidents in other countries. Often, that information is communicated to the executive through its contacts with the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions, which is a member of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. The Health and Safety Executive publishes its safety alerts and bulletins on its website, thus making them available to a worldwide audience. When necessary, the executive will engage with international colleagues to improve safety at fairgrounds and theme parks worldwide.

Before the debate, I spoke to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) about Florida, where there are safety belts in all water rides, wherever they may be. That might be a simple solution, but it is perhaps one way to ensure that what happened at Drayton Manor does not happen again.

Indeed, the right hon. Member for Leicester East also mentioned other possible interventions that might have helped in this particular incident and might help in others. Indeed, on hearing about the incident I have formed a layperson’s view. One asks all sorts of questions, including about lifejackets in certain circumstances.

I thank the Minister for the thoughtful and compassionate way in which she has responded to the debate. Does she have any indication of when the HSE will complete its report, because the inquest cannot take place until it is complete? We will then have an opportunity to look at changes that we might want to make.

I am happy to keep the right hon. Gentleman informed about that. I cannot give him a timeline today for the HSE investigation. I have inquired about that, but the investigation will be led by the evidence, so I cannot give him an end date. I understand from what hon. Members have said that they are keen that any safety measures that could be introduced are introduced now. The process that I have outlined, and the methodical review of different but similar rides will, I hope, give some assurance on that front. There are other things that they have mentioned, and which may strike us as laypeople as common-sense things to introduce. It is, like many situations, a bit more complicated than that. In cases overseas, if people have been more restricted in a boat, that has impeded their escape after an accident.

We need to wait, having assured ourselves that the immediate checks have been done on similar rides, for the HSE report. As I have outlined, any recommendations that it makes to the industry will be disseminated widely. The executive is working as swiftly as it can to complete that report so that other parts of the investigation can move forward, which I appreciate is incredibly important to the family. I would add that the HSE has commissioned research into the risks presented by water rides of this nature, as well as the current philosophy on risk control and whether that needs to change.

I assure hon. Members that the HSE will ensure that lessons are learned from this tragic event and are acted on by the industry. In the interim, measures have been taken to ensure that other rides operate safely. I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East for introducing the debate. As things progress, I stand ready, as does my Department, to assist him and his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.