HC Deb 25 January 1967 vol 739 cc1730-40

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

3.48 a.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

In spite of the very late hour, I am still of the opinion that the subject I wish to discuss on the Adjournment is worth raising. I am very glad indeed to have this opportunity to draw attention to a grave and tragic problem which now demands a real plan of action from both the Government and local authorities. Representing as I do a seaside constituency, I know that every summer brings its toll of drowning tragedies and incidents, in which brave men and women risk their lives to rescue yachtsmen or bathers who have got into difficulties.

Looked at from a national point of view, the figures of deaths from accidental drowning reveal a grim situation. In 1965 in England and Wales 801 people were drowned in inland and coastal waters, and of those, 252 were under 15 years of age. These figures do not include accidents or disasters to trawlers, coasters, or other larger merchant vessels. In addition, it has been estimated that 75 per cent. of all such deaths take place in rivers, lakes and other inland waters. These figures are truly appalling, each representing a personal and unnecessary tragedy which, by its very nature, takes a very large toll of young people.

The situation could well get worse. There is now an explosive growth in interest and participation in small boats and yachting. Schemes for new marinas abound, while more and more of our rivers and canals are being used for leisure purposes, and when one looks at the success of the recent boat show, it would appear that in a few years' time the whole nation will be "messing about in boats".

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of this problem and much good and much work has been done by local authorities and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to come to grips with it. In 1962, R.O.S.P.A. set up the National Water Safety Committee and then appointed a full-time water safety organiser to plan and administer an all-the-year-round water safety campaign and to act as secretary of the National Water Safety Committee.

The terms of reference of this committee are straight forward and include the promotion of water safety by all educational means, to investigate causes and remedies in respect of drowning accidents and to make recommendations on matters of water safety policy. Its representatives include such diverse bodies as the Board of Trade, the Central Council of Physical Recreation, Thames Conservancy and the National Schools Sailing Association. At the same time, two very useful booklets were produced—"Water Safety Code" and "Safety Afloat".

Some 329 local authorities subscribe to the R.O.S.P.A. water safety scheme, including 20 county councils. Local authorities have certain powers to deal with water safety. In his circular 52/65, the Minister of Housing and Local Government urged them to look again at their areas and ensure that everything possible had been done to eliminate sources of danger, by fencing where appropriate, and the provision of life-saving appliances and life-saving patrols. The circular also referred to the importance of campaigning and told local authorities that they could make financial contributions to voluntary organisations undertaking such activities.

Another respect in which local authorities have a vital part in the prevention rather than cure form is in the provision of swimming baths. Only 40 per cent. of our children can swim and the figure for the adult population is probably about the same. Yet more than 600 local authorities, excluding rural districts, have no municipal indoor pool and I am afraid that the present economic restrictions are inevitably curtailing the construction of new pools.

Last month, I understand, the Home Office was given Departmental responsibility for water safety problems affecting more than one Government Department, and I welcome the right hon. Lady who will be replying to my speech. What is in some doubt among those who are interested in and concerned about water safety is the precise rôle which the Home Office will play. I presume that it will act as the central Government co-ordinator and prodder in these matters and I hope that it will be equally concerned with inland waters as with coastal waters in view of the very high proportion of deaths which occur in inland waters. I look forward to a clear statement of responsibilities in the right hon. Lady's reply.

Having sketched in the background to the problem, I have a number of suggestions as to positive action and I hope that the Minister will be able to give a favourable answer to them. First, the fact that local authorities have to get Ministerial consent before making financial contributions to voluntary organisations which are undertaking educational campaigns in water safety must act as a brake on the authorities taking such action, and surely this could be left to the discretion of the authority concerned.

Secondly, following a resolution passed at the R.O.S.P.A. National Water Safety Conference last October, at which 250 local authority delegates were present, the Minister of Housing and Local Government is exploring the existing legislation with regard to water safety to see what changed requirements seem necessary and desirable. I am thinking particularly of the dangers in crowded waters where such activities as surfing and water ski-ing take place and the local authorities are powerless to control them or to reserve certain areas for bathing. I hope that the Home Office can provide a head of steam behind this exploration so that urgent action can be taken.

Thirdly, can the Home Office give more positive guidance and encouragement to local authorities to help them co-ordinate the various life-saving organisations in their areas and where necessary producing rescue plans for surfing beaches and the like. I am sure this is a field in which R.O.S.P.A.'s National Water Safety Committee could give invaluable help.

Fourthly, local authorities have the power to provide standardised warning notices and adequate life-saving equipment and lifeguards and the Home Office might consider whether permissive powers are now adequate and perhaps minimum standards should be laid down in recognised inland and coastal resorts.

Fifthly, we need a really massive educational campaign using all modern means of communication and aimed particularly at young people. We spend £700,000 a year on road safety education and I do not grudge one penny of it, but the amount spent on water safety education is a minute fraction of this and most of it has been subsidised from R.O.S.P.A.'s limited income.

The National Water Safety Committee has been and is doing a first class job on a shoe-string budget, and I hope that R.O.S.P.A.'s request for an annual grant of £5,000 to cover this work will receive early favourable consideration. The City of Liverpool, alone has a plan to spend this amount on a "learn to swim" campaign this summer, and I am sure the Government will be prepared to help R.O.S.P.A. to co-ordinate this work at national level. I understand that the financial position is such that, if such a grant cannot be found, R.O.S.P.A. will have to curtail its water safety activities from March next and that would be disastrous to the progress that is being made.

Sixthly, would it be possible for the new enlarged police forces to have a full time water safety officer who could be invaluable in bath education and in giving advice to users and operators of aquatic recreational centres?

Finally, I commend to the Minister the excellent lifeguard training course run by the Atlantic College extra-mural department. There is surely ample scope here for similar courses to be held at technical colleges and universities and perhaps some link could be established between young people who pass such a course, or who pass the ordinary lifesaving course, and the voluntary lifeguard services, including the Royal Life Saving Corps now developing its Life Guarding Corps, the Surf Life Saving Association of Great Britain, which operates on beaches, and the British Canoe Union Life Guarding Corps, so that their skills are not wasted.

It may not be too fanciful to envisage a truly national life guard service built upon such foundations which could play a very positive part in saving life both in coastal and inland waters, somewhat akin to the form of the present voluntary special constabulary.

I said that this was a grave and tragic problem. I welcome the Home Office's new responsibilities in this field and I hope that the Minister will be able to give very real support and encouragement to all those who are working to make our coasts and waterways safer.

4.0 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Department (Miss Alice Bacon)

I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) for letting me know in advance the points to which he was to refer. It has been of considerable help, particularly at this time in the morning. I fully appreciate the urgency with which the hon. Gentleman views the need for action on the various matters which he has mentioned. According to figures provided by the Royal Life Saving Society the total number of deaths from accidental drowning in 1965 was 622. These are the figures for the United Kingdom. Of these, 501, not 801 as the hon. Gentleman said, were in England and Wales and the Channel Isles. About one-quarter of these deaths were in coastal waters and the remainder in inland waters of various kinds, including rivers and streams, canals, lakes, ponds and reservoirs, as well as in the home. About one-third of these accidents involved children under the age of six.

Serious as these statistics are, it is some encouragement to find that the total for 1965 is less than in 1963, when there were 642 and 1961, when there were 732. Figures supplied by the General Register Office for England and Wales show that the number of accidental deaths from drowning in 1955 was even higher, namely, 984. Clearly all possible steps should be taken to maintain this downward trend. The problem is to decide how this can best be achieved. The hon. Member has rightly pointed to the wide variety of Government Departments responsible for legislation bearing on different aspects of water safety, but the circumstances in which these tragic accidents occur are so varied that it is almost inevitable that different Departments should become interested in different aspects of the problem at different times.

The Ministry of Transport, as parent Department of the British Waterways Board, is indirectly concerned with water safety on the Board's inland waterways from time to time, but immediate responsibility for safety measures on and along the Board's canals rests with the Board. In some areas, active steps have been taken to educate the public about the danger of allowing children to play near canals, notably in Liverpool and Bootle, where after a series of tragic drownings in 1965, the local authorities set up a working party with the British Waterways Board to settle physical safety measures and distributed a warning leaflet to all householders near the canal.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government is generally responsible for legislation from which local authorities derive a number of their powers to deal with water safety problems. By Section 233 of the Public Health Act, 1936, local authorities may make bye-laws, subject to confirmation by the Minister, with respect to swimming baths and bathing pools.

The same Act enables local authorities to provide life-saving appliances at any place, whether or not these places are used for bathing. The local authorities may also incur expenditure on safety measures in respect of unfenced or inadequately fenced sources of danger away from the highway. This legislation enables local authorities to spend money on the provision of life-saving patrols on beaches and they are further empowered, subject to the Minister's consent in each case, to make financial contributions towards the expenses of voluntary organisations undertaking local activities for various purposes, including such activities as educating the public to the need to observe safety precautions when bathing. By way of support for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents' National Water Safety Cam- paign in 1965, local authorities were reminded of their various powers in a Circular from the Ministry, issued in July of that year.

The Department of Education and Science has powers under the Physical Training and Recreation Act, 1937, to make grants to voluntary bodies in aid of sport and physical recreation, but it is doubtful whether these powers would cover the provision of funds to voluntary bodies for water safety purposes. However, bodies such as the Amateur Swimming Association to which grants are made recognise the importance of the safety aspects of their activities.

Local education authorities are, of course, empowered and encouraged to provide instruction in swimming for school children. The Dolphin Trophy scheme, run under the auspices of the Royal Society's National Water Safety Committee, is designed to encourage swimming in primary schools.

The interest of the Home Office in water safety arises primarily from the function my right hon. Friend has of confirming certain byelaws under the Public Health Act, 1936 with respect to public bathing. These byelaws cover such matters as the provision of lifesaving appliances and other safety devices. The Home Secretary also confirms byelaws made by local authorities to control seaside pleasure boats for the purpose of preventing danger, obstruction or annoyance to persons bathing in the sea or using the seashore, and he is responsible also for certain other public health legislation relating to the control of pleasure boats.

The safety of those in boats is primarily the responsibility of the Board of Trade under the Merchant Shipping Acts. The Acts provide measures for the safety of ships of all kinds and those who sail in them. The hon. Gentleman knows what those various measures are.

Pleasure yachts of less than 45 feet in length which carry 12 or fewer passengers are not at present covered by statutory regulations requiring the provision of lifesaving and other appliances, but the Board of Trade has set up a working group representing all interests to recommend what appliances small craft not covered by the regulations ought to carry. Vessels carrying 12 or fewer passengers for payment or which are let on hire may, as I have already said, be controlled by local authorities, which may also regulate the speed and navigation of coastwise boats of any size.

The Board of Trade wrote on 12th January, 1967, to all local authorities and harbour and river authorities inviting their co-operation in enforcing the Board's regulations for vessels requiring passenger certificates and reminding them of the Dowers they themselves can exercise. Guidance was given also on the kinds of conditions the authorities may consider it desirable to impose.

Against this background of various responsibilities, I appreciate that there has been some anxiety among local authorities and voluntary bodies about the apparent absence of any one Department to take responsibility for and to co-ordinate matters relating to water safety as a whole and not simply to specific aspects of the subject.

One matter in particular which brought this difficulty sharply into focus was the application made by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to more than one Government Department for an Exchequer grant to help in its water safety activities. Following recent discussions, it has been agreed that the Home Office should deal with this application on behalf of the central Government, and it has been agreed also that the Home Office will deal with safety problems which are not specifically the concern of other Departments or which call for co-ordination between Departments.

I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he was pleased that this had gone to the Home Office. Speaking personally, I should have thought that the Home Office could probably have given away a few of its responsibilities rather than take on others, but this is something which we willingly undertake, and we shall do our best to see that it is carried out.

There is no question of the Home Office assuming any of the statutory functions of other Departments, but I hope that the working arrangements I have described will facilitate any necessary approach to the Government on water safety problems.

My Department has already begun work on its new responsibilities. Two discussions have been held with the Royal Society on the subject of water safety generally as well as on their application for a grant. I recognise the valuable work undertaken by the Royal Society since 1962, but there are a number of matters which still need to be considered before we can reach any firm decision on their application for a Government grant.

In particular, we should like to know more about the views of local authorities. We propose to meet the local authority associations to discuss with them, for example, whether they consider the existing powers of local authorities to be adequate; whether they think the Government should intervene in the organisation of local water safety rescue service; and whether publicity should be centrally organised. We should also like to find out precisely how far local authorities themselves are prepared to contribute towards the cost of publicity and other water safety services. It was about matters of this kind that concern was expressed at the meeting of the National Water Safety Conference held last October, and to which the hon. Member has made reference again tonight. We shall pursue these various lines of inquiry as soon as we can.

I should now like to comment briefly on certain other matters which the hon. Gentleman has raised. The suggestion that local authorities who wish to make contributions to voluntary organisations should be relieved of the necessity of seeking ministerial sanction in each case has, I understand, already been raised and is being considered by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

I understand, too, that agreement on a national colour code for beach warning signs is also in prospect and that the Ministry are considering whether to issue a circular endorsing the code.

The hon. Member's suggestion that each police force should appoint a full-time water safety officer to educate and give advice to users and operators of aquatic recreational centres has its attractions, but I am sure he will appreciate that there must be many demands on police manpower, and we must give overriding priority to the war against crime and not use police officers for work which can properly be done by civilians. The police are always prepared to give advice and assistance as far as is appropriate to their resources and responsibilities, but it would not be right to expect each force to appoint a full-time water safety officer.

I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman has said about lifeguard training and the possibility of a national lifeguard service.

In reviewing, for the purpose of this debate, the action already taken by the local authorities, voluntary organisations and central Government Departments, I have been impressed by all that is being done in the interests of water safety in its many aspects. I must not forget to mention the part played by others, including the police, fire, coastguard and lighthouse services and by the armed forces. We shall certainly consider, in consultation with all concerned, whether any further measures are necessary to strengthen and improve the excellent work which is already being done in this connection.

I have taken careful note of the suggestions made in the course of this useful debate we have had today, and we will do everything possible to deal with the various points raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Four o'clock a.m.