Monday 24th January 2022

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Levelling Up Communities (Kemi Badenoch)
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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.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
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First, I thank the Minister because she was clearly listening intently to my speech and to the whole debate. One thing that contributed to the death of Sam was that the equipment was overgrown—most of the places where we put throwlines are in areas of dense vegetation. I have a two-part question, thinking about how local authorities assess, and ensure the maintenance of, life-saving equipment for dangerous situations. We have identified that open bodies of water are dangerous, so could the Government say that there have to be so many throwlines for however many metres of waterfront, but also ensure that local authorities go in and make sure regular checks are being done? In the case I mentioned, that meant vegetation being cut down; in others, it may be that the equipment deteriorates in bright sunlight. Doing those things would ensure that, if the equipment is needed, people can access it and it is fit for purpose.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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That is a really good point. It is exactly the kind of thing that I would expect the Local Government Association’s water safety toolkit to contain. If it does not, it is probably worth us mentioning it to the LGA when we next meet. I will ask officials to take that point away.

I was going to talk about the 30 different navigation authorities that manage regulated inland waterways, but I will mention just two: the Environment Agency and the Canal & River Trust, which some Members might have heard of. The Canal & River Trust is a charity that owns about 2,000 miles of inland waterway, and the Environment Agency is an arm’s length body of DEFRA that manages 630 miles of waterway. Both bodies are responsible for ensuring that waters are safe, and they have to undertake public safety assessments to work out where public rescue equipment such as throwlines should be on the waterways, so some work is done on that. Those bodies know waterways back to front and know the best places to install throwlines—the busiest locations, particularly where there have been previous safety incidents, or places of high risk, such as waterside parks. Those organisations run proactive public safety campaigns to raise awareness of the risks.

It is clear that we need to keep redoubling efforts to make as safe as possible the unregulated inland waterways and bodies of water that are not covered by charities and arm’s length bodies. The responsibility for providing water safety equipment rests with those organisations but in larger urban areas it rests with local authorities. Local authorities tend to work with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the Royal Life Saving Society UK and the National Water Safety Forum, which have been mentioned. Those groups do a great job of warning people, through campaigns, of the dangers of getting into cold water, which can lead to panic, water inhalation and, in serious cases, cardiac arrest.

We all know that the best rules and guidance are redundant if people do not know how to swim to begin with. My hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley and for Southport (Damien Moore) and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) were right to draw attention to the critical role of education in all this, and I will speak a bit about what people are being educated on. It goes without saying that swimming is a truly vital life skill, and that is why swimming and water safety form compulsory parts of the physical education curriculum at key stages 1 and 2. As part of the curriculum, pupils are taught to swim at least 25 metres competently and confidently using a range of strokes, and to perform safe self-rescue.

As part of our efforts to help children to catch up on learning and activity lost as a consequence of the pandemic, DFE organised for sports facilities at 101 schools to reopen their pools or extend their swimming offer in the last academic year. DFE has also been working closely with Swim England, the Royal Life Saving Society UK and Oak National Academy to support pupils in returning safely to swimming and to promote water safety education. DFE Ministers were very keen that I mention those points so that people would know what they are doing.

Although education has an important role to play, and the bodies I have mentioned continue to undertake proper risk assessments and put safety mitigations in place, there are other practical steps that each of us should keep in mind when we want to enjoy our waterways, and I will state them for the record as a reminder.

As part of her campaign, Mrs Bartley has really pressed home the importance of talking to children about cold water shock and the dangers of open water. She is absolutely right to stress that it takes a whole different set of skills to swim in open water than in a swimming pool, so what we are doing in schools is critical, but it is not all that needs to be done. The National Water Safety Forum advises swimmers to wear wetsuits and allow their bodies to acclimatise to the change in temperature, instead of jumping straight in. Another essential factor that people should consider before they go swimming in open water is the location, because the safest places to swim will always be supervised beaches with lifeguards and outdoor pools. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution also recommends that people check the weather forecast and sea conditions before a swim on the coast so that they can avoid the potential danger of getting caught in a strong comment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) spoke very eloquently and with much expertise—far more than me—about these issues. Safety in the water is about not just safety equipment but understanding and being aware of the danger. United Utilities, which owns the reservoir where the tragic death of Mark Allen occurred, has now made sure that its signs make clear the risk to life. On its website, it has set out guides for parents, highlighting how a cold shock can affect even proficient swimmers. The advice of the RNLI is:

“If in doubt, don’t go out.”

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion
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I wonder whether the Minister is able to comment on something or pass it to her colleagues in Education. When I was at school, we had swimming lessons. I hated them and they worked, because I have never been near water again, so they have kept me safe. I went to a local authority school, and many local authority pools have now been shut down and many schools are now academies. Is it compulsory or recommended in education that children, particularly primary school children, still have swimming lessons? If not, is it something that the Minister could raise with her colleagues?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Yes, it is part of the key stage curriculum, but I will get DFE Ministers to write more comprehensively to the hon. Lady on this issue. I would not want to say something that is inaccurate, because it is not in my portfolio.

David Jones Portrait Mr David Jones
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way before she concludes. As I understand it from her remarks, the Government are yet persuaded that legislation is the appropriate answer to the problem that we are debating, and she wishes to carry out further assessments. When does she anticipate that those assessments will be complete? Although I appreciate the point she makes about education and understanding the risks of the water, which are obviously correct, may I remind her what the coroner said? It was the impetuosity of youth—we all think that we are bullet-proof. Frankly, had there been a throwline there that day, it might well be the case that Mark Allen would be alive today. Will the Minister give serious consideration to legislation?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. We will give serious consideration to all the options. We need to make sure that this is absolutely the right pathway to go down. I understand the points that everyone has made. I do not want to be standing here for another debate when another child or young person has lost their life, so I want my right hon. Friend to know we take this issue very seriously. He has been in government and he knows that it is never a matter of making a statement in Westminster Hall. All sorts of people need to be consulted, and we need to work out which Department would start looking at this issue, but I have committed that we will come back with a response. We should be able to do that in a reasonable amount of time.

I reiterate that we all share the same ambition of making our waterways as safe as possible. There is more that can be done to educate people on the risks, but I know that the bodies charged with keeping people safe take that responsibility seriously and will be upping the ante in the months ahead to prevent deaths such as Mark’s in the future. I take this opportunity on behalf of the Government to urge every landowner, council, agency and charity involved in our waterways to find new and engaging ways in the months ahead to teach people about how to enjoy the water safely. We are here to support them in whatever way we can.

Finally, I want to thank again Mark’s mother, Leeanne Bartley, for bringing the petition forward and inviting us to debate this important issue. We are very grateful.