The Minister for Levelling Up Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ghani. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing today’s important debate. I offer my condolences, and those of the whole Government, to Leeanne Bartley, who is with us today. There is nothing more horrific than losing a child. It is something that we all pray that we never see. I pay tribute to her for her tireless campaigning since her son’s tragic death in 2018. It is impossible not to be moved by this tragedy. It is heartbreaking to hear that Mark Allen drowned after jumping into a freezing reservoir on a hot day and that there were no throwlines in sight, and to hear similar stories of Sam, Lucas and so many of our young constituents.
It is also heartbreaking to learn that a similar tragedy apparently also took place the same year at another reservoir not a mile away. Dwayne Thompson, I am told, drowned aged just 20 after encountering similar freezing temperatures at Audenshaw reservoir, so there is clearly a problem that needs looking at. Leeanne Bartley, Amanda and Stephen Thompson, and Kirsty Furze have all shown tremendous courage, channelling their grief and using a platform that no parent should ever wish to have to press for change. The fact that Mrs Bartley’s petition garnered more than 100,000 signatures and is being debated in the House is testament to her efforts not being in vain. United Utilities, which owns both reservoirs, has installed new throwlines at both sites, as has been discussed, and these throwlines may one day be the difference between life and death for somebody else.
However, I acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and others that these things seem to occur only after the tragedy. I was struck by his point that it is not just about having the equipment, because what screams safe to us may scream unsafe to safety professionals. The company is now running hard-hitting campaigns targeted at teenagers, using TV, print and online media, to warn about the dangers of swimming in reservoirs and highlight the risks, as well as collaborating with the fire service.
I will answer a few of the questions raised in the debate, and then talk about what we are doing to protect people and ensure they are able to enjoy the waterways safely.
Many Members asked what the Government are doing on this issue, and I assure them that we are committed to protecting people in the weeks and months ahead. It was interesting to me that this issue does not sit within one Department. I am responding from a local government perspective but, as others have mentioned, the Department for Education is involved, as is the Cabinet Office, in terms of convening. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a role for some waterways, and even the Department for Work and Pensions is involved, because it runs the Health and Safety Executive. When many Departments are looking at something, it is often not that straightforward to get a co-ordinated response, which is why we tend to answer questions specifically on the particular issues afforded in our remit.
The Cabinet Office is currently reviewing coastal water safety. We will explore with all our partners across central and local government what more can be done to raise awareness of water safety, and to increase the provision of throwlines and other vital lifesaving equipment near open bodies of water.
Members asked what landowners can do. Providing them with information is clearly required, and that means ensuring that businesses, landowners and councils are conducting up-to-date and thorough risk assessments. The Local Government Association’s water safety toolkit is an invaluable resource for councils in those cases where the local authority has a role. I am committed to working more closely with the LGA on ensuring that that is being properly publicised and used by local authorities across the country. People need to know about water safety, and we need to do more to publicise that.
Many Members asked about mandatory legislation. That is not where we would start. It may or may not be the answer, but we need to look at the various issues first.
The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) raised an important point about throwlines being present but not usable, and a lot of work needs to be done to discover the right way to resolve those issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Natalie Elphicke) raised issues about compulsory lifejackets and better education. That does not fall within the remit of my Department, but I know that officials will have taken that point away.
We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) and from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman). Despite my Department covering only England, we need to ensure we have whole country coverage and work together with the devolved Administrations to provide a comprehensive view. I look forward to working with colleagues from across the House on this issue.
There are 40,000 lakes in this country and no matter where anyone is in the UK, they are no further than 70 miles from the coast. Between 2019 and 2020, searches for “wild swimming” increased by 94%. The pandemic has increased the number of people wild swimming. We do not want to discourage people from wild swimming as full-water immersion boosts the immune system, reduces inflammation and has many other health benefits, but we need to ensure people understand the risks involved, especially as more people carry out the activity.
In the past few years we have enjoyed very hot weather, but our waterways remain cold. They remain northern European, even if the weather is becoming Mediterranean. That is one reason why we must ensure people know the risks of wild swimming are just as real as the benefits.
The tragic deaths of Mark, Dwayne and other young people we have mentioned should have been unique accidents, but they were not. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) stated, in 2020 alone there were 254 accidental drownings and 631 water-related fatalities in the UK. Combined with the surge in interest in wild swimming, this tragic loss of life highlights and reinforces the responsibility of landowners, whether they are local or not, to properly assess the safety requirements of bodies of water on their land. The Government’s No. 1 priority is to keep people safe, and we expect landowners to act in the same way.