HC Deb 06 July 1960 vol 626 cc657-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

1.15 a.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

In the short time at my disposal at this late hour, I want to ask the Minister to examine the possibilities of using a new method of saving life by providing beach or bathing floats around our coasts and inland waters. These floats can be seen in numbers of seaside resorts and are very simple in construction, namely, two ten-foot water-tight floats fixed together by supporting members or struts which provide a seat and footrest for the user. The means of propulsion is by a double-bladed hand paddle. I believe that these floats were first introduced in our resorts as long ago as 1930, becoming a popular pastime for holiday makers to hire at a small cost of 2s. a half-hour or so.

One of my constituents from Mudeford, a Mr. Kenneth Derham, a gallant and brave man who at this year's annual meeting of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution received the silver medal for rescuing two people off shore at Avonbeach, Mudeford, has brought to my attention this simple but practical means of saving life. During recent talks I have had with Mr. Derham I have gleaned from him that at Avon-beach over the last 25 years more than 50 people have been saved by him using these floats.

In Part I of the Medical Tables issued by the Stationery Office, the figures quoted by the Registrar of those who lost their lives by accidental drowning and submersion in this country in 1958 were 695 males and 220 females. In this respect it was recently stated in a Question in the House that in 1954 drowning was the third highest cause of loss of life in this country.

At this time of year when more and more people are going on holidays by the sea, this toll of life will increase unless better means are found of rescue. The leader in the Daily Express recently said: Another 1,000 lives will be lost this year unless more people can swim". Fundamentally that is the basic cause why so many lives are lost. If every child at our State schools were taught to swim and similarly taught life saving and artificial respiration, this problem would be greatly lessened. It is sad to think that the majority of our swimming pools are used as such only during the summer months and turned into dance halls in the winter. There must be more facilities for our children to learn to swim.

The beach float method of rescue commends itself simply because it is quick to put into the water, quick in the water, simple to use, and well suited to handle persons in the water. The great advantage in this respect is that the float is no doubt on the water line and it is comparatively easy to roll a person on to it. Furthermore, it can be used in almost any weather, and another of its commendable attributes is that anybody can use it.

Mr. Speaker

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman unnecessarily, but he must satisfy my ignorance about where the Ministerial responsibility lies in this. Perhaps the Minister can help me. I have to restrain his observations to something for which there is Ministerial responsibility.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State to the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

My hon. Friend was courteous enough to give me very full notice of what he was going to propose, and this matter touches upon the responsibility of several other Departments; but the reason why I am replying is that I understand he will make the suggestion that a responsibility should be placed on the police forces.

Mr. Speaker

Then we must see what happens.

Mr. Cordle

I was about to say, Mr. Speaker, that anyone can use the float. It is not necessary, in any sense of the word, to be an experienced seaman to be in control of the float. The maintenance of it is practically nil and it can be mass-produced in the shortest possible time at a very small cost. Perhaps I should say at this stage that I have no financial interest whatsoever in the production or manufacture of such a float.

When people who want to bathe in safety are not properly supervised, then I say that those responsible are failing in their duty. Often the English trait shows itself when families find an out-of-the-way cove all to themselves and they put themselves out of the way of safety measures. Nothing can be done for them, but those who use the main beaches and who want to bathe in safety should, in my opinion, have more done for them. The seaside resorts want the visitor's money, and they should provide a measure of bathing safety.

We know that at vulnerable points the local authority provides a life-belt and a line; but is this enough? If beach floats were made available on all public beaches under the supervision of a lifeguard, the police, or a local authority, much would be done to save life. In this connection, it would greatly facilitate their use if a public telephone box was placed on each beach from where urgent messages could be sent, similar to those on the M.1 motorway. At the moment, experience has shown that when there is an emergency, often enough it has been many minutes before messages have been sent, and then by a private subscriber some distance away. When there is an emergency, in nine cases out of ten the public dial 999, and the chances are that if more telephones are provided many more lives might be saved.

In cases of small capsized sailing boats, the drifting offshore of rubber dinghies, tyres, and mattresses, and the like, beach floats would be a certain and speedy method of rescue. It is a tragic fact that 68 boys and 30 girls were drowned last year because insufficient facilities for rescue were available. A young married woman, two or three weeks ago was lying on an air mattress off the east coast when she was blown out to sea. Two hours later the mattress was found, but the woman was missing. Had a float been to hand a life would have been saved.

I should like to make the additional suggestion, which I believe to be a practical one, that the police forces and the local authorities should be equipped with these life-saving floats, which could easily be carried on the top of a vehicle or on a trailer attached to a car. In an emergency, it could be taken to the nearest point of the coast and paddled out to the casualty. Numbers of people throughout the country are deeply concerned over the lack of inshore rescue facilities, and I hope that the Minister will investigate the matter even before the present holiday season is over.

1.16 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle), in his most valuable and well-informed speech, has made some constructive proposals which, as I pointed out earlier might be the case, touched upon the responsibilities of several Departments.

For example, the Minister of Housing and Local Government has certain responsibilities with regard to the powers possessed by local authorities in this matter. The Ministry of Transport is responsible for Her Majesty's Coast Guard, which functions primarily as a life-saving organisation, although with certain limitations which I shall mention. Then, so far as the use of telephones might be considered essential, perhaps the responsibility of the Postmaster-General might be engaged.

I am replying to this debate because my hon. Friend has suggested that the police forces have a part to play and, although my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is not answerable in detail for what may be done by any particular police force, he is, as I understand it, answerable to the House for the powers which the police forces possess.

I endorse my hon. Friend's tribute to the chivalrous and successful life-saving efforts of his constituent, Mr. Derham of Mudeford. His work with the paddle boats is a shining example. We are grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to this important and interesting subject, and we certainly share his anxiety about the loss of life by drowning. Notwithstanding the persuasive tone of his speech, I must, however—and I know this will disappoint him—firmly reject the suggestion that the police should undertake any general responsibility for the rescue of bathers, boaters or yachtsmen in difficulties.

The primary task of the police forces is to maintain and preserve law and order, to prevent and detect crime and to keep our roads and streets clear for traffic. They carry out these vital duties under considerable difficulties today due to the crime wave, the ever-increasing numbers of vehicles on the roads and the shortage in the ranks of the police themselves. We ought not to add further duties which would distract the police from their main tasks.

So far as I have been able to trace, it has never before been suggested that the police have any general responsibility for life saving, and I am sure that it would not be right to place this new responsibility upon them now. It is doubtful whether, along with all their other duties, they could effectively discharge such a responsibility if it were placed or them. It is just not possible for them always to be on the spot soon enough whenever the need for a rescue may arise.

I am glad to point out, however, that the nature of police training is such that any officer who is on the spot is likely to be able to help when someone is in difficulties. Certainly they always do their best to do so; there are many instances of gallant behaviour by police officers, and I am sure the House would wish to pay a tribute to them. During their training, police officers are given opportunity to become efficient swimmers and life savers, and the keenness with which they train in first aid, including artificial respiration, is well known. Ability to swim or capacity for learning to swim is not a condition of recruitment to the police, but all policemen who can swim would certainly do what they could to save a man from drowning if they happened to be there or were able to get there.

Standing at this Box, I can answer only in a general way for my right hon. Friend's views as to the powers which the police forces have or should have, but perhaps I may mention that the local authorities have power under the Public Health Act to provide life-saving appliances where they think fit. Attention was drawn to this responsibility in a Question to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government on 23rd June last year. In reply, the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry said that he did not think that there was a case for amending the powers of local authorities with regard to providing life-saving appliances, but he was sure that the authorities were well aware of their responsibilities.

Her Majesty's coast guards have an interest when boats capsize, and the coast guards are frequently called upon to use life-saving equipment provided for the rescue of ship-wrecked mariners, and they use that equipment to help bathers and others who are cut off by the tide on the cliffs or who otherwise find themselves in difficulties. The coast guards are able to call out the nearest lifeboat if there is a chance of its being able to help. The gallant services of lifeboat crews are well known, not only in attending big ships in distress but in rescuing people in the smallest craft, even children carried out to sea in dinghies.

Life saving at the seaside and on our rivers has traditionally been left to the care of local authorities and voluntary organisations, and they certainly do valuable work. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the St. John Ambulance Brigade and the Royal Lifesaving, Society are at present conducting a water safety campaign, and this should be of great value in drawing the attention of the public to the need for commonsense safety precautions. In addition, for some time now the St. John Ambulance Brigade has been arranging what it calls a "Save the Life" week in various places throughout the country in which special emphasis is laid on the value of artificial respiration and first aid.

Finally, I want to emphasise, particularly with regard to children, that this is a family and individual responsibility. Like my hon. Friend, I speak as a father of young children who takes his children to the seaside every year. The fact that public authorities and voluntary organisations are doing useful work in this matter does not exempt the individual from taking reasonable precautions to safeguard not only his own life and his children's lives but also those lives which may be endangered if rescue has to be undertaken in difficult circumstances.

I hope that the publicity which may be given to this matter as a result of my hon. Friend's initiative tonight will help to prevent reckless and unnecessary hazarding of human life. He has made various definite and constructive suggestions which could play a valuable part in saving life. I am sure that all concerned will study them carefully. We are grateful to my hon. Friend, and I propose to invite the attention of my colleagues in the other Departments concerned to what he has said in this debate. The voluntary societies will, I am sure, be particularly glad to consider the paddle float and other methods of rescue to which my hon. Friend has so wisely drawn attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Two o'clock.