HC Deb 14 May 1976 vol 911 cc908-15

Order for Second Reading read.

3.38 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) on his success on getting his Bill through. If he can gather together 100 or more hon. Members who are waiting outside to give me some support, perhaps he will let me know.

Since I received the consent to introduce the Bill on 5th February, the day after your own introduction to high office, Mr. Speaker, two of my sponsors have joined the Government and can therefore be with me only in spirit. They have assured me that they are. Their appointments show that I chose hon. Members of some distinction to support me because their talents have now been recognised by the Prime Minister.

The Bill is simple. I seek merely to extend the powers of local authorities under Section 233(i) of the Public Health Act 1936 to enable them to ensure that the proprietors of private swimming pools, in hotels, holiday camps and private schools maintain them to standards which are satisfactory to the local authority. That is already a requirement for public swimming pools, under byelaws passed 40 years ago. It is now time to cover private swimming pools. I should have liked to go further in the Bill but a Home Office working party has been looking into water safety for two years and I hope that it will make more far-reaching proposals.

Since I introduced the Bill the South Wight Council has particularly requested that the Bill should include private schools as it wishes to see them properly supervised. I believe that entry to a school in my constituency has been refused.

The matter has been causing concern in other quarters. At a meeting on 3rd February this year of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents attention was drawn to tragedies in private schools, including a recent tragedy when two schoolchildren were drowned. The report of the meeting said that the education authority had been making inquiries about life-saving aids, but the view was expressed, and supported, that it was far more important to have fully trained supervisors than to spend large amounts of money on equipment for emergency use. It is the supervision angle that local authorities are particularly concerned about.

Support for my Bill has come from the Isle of Wight Hotels Association, which is directly concerned, and the Isle of Wight Tourist Board, which makes certain recommendations for amendments, which can be dealt with in Committee.

I have had drawn to my attention an interesting article in Municipal Engineering of 30th April, which talks about the growing problem of swimmers' itch". It says: A developing problem in the States and one which perhaps should be considered in the UK because of the large number of private swimming-pools now installed and in use, is ' swimmers' itch'. Dermatitis, conjunctivitis, pharyngeal infections and meningo-encephalitis cases have been traced back to the use of private pools and particularly 'whirlpools' incorporated in the pool design…It raises the point that there are needs for public health controls over private swimming-pools. Our apparently improving summers are producing much increased interest in swimming-pools for private use in hotels, clubs, hostels and private dwelling-houses. Added to the large numbers of school swimming-pools already in use and those planned, the number distributed throughout Britain is running into thousands. It is a problem to which we shall have to pay attention.

It is the Government's view, confirmed in a letter to me from the Home Office, that where no separate charge is made for entry to a pool, it is not normally possible for local authorities to impose the model byelaws under the Public Health Act 1936, and that therefore further legislation is necessary. However, it seems that the old Newquay Urban District Council—I do not know of which authority it is now part—got round the problem under a local Act of 1967 by deleting some of the wording of the 1936 Act. Perhaps the Minister will see whether that method could be extended to the rest of the country.

I gather that the Government may not be disposed to allow me a Second Reading, on the ground that this action is premature, but I urge them to think again. I ask all hon. Members to think of the people who will drown this summer because of the failure to impose proper safety regulations.

Miss Vera Bryant, Water Safety Organiser of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has written, on safety in hotel swimming pools: The fact that upwards of 700 people accidentally drown in the United Kingdom every year and that some 40 of them do in swimming pools stresses the need for more adequate parental supervision of children observation of the rules of water safety; vigilance at all pools plus on-the-spot telephone for emergency calls, whether they be owned by local authorities, hotels, holiday camps, or schools; and facilities for all to learn to swim well and to learn to life save. Far too many of us fail to realise that water can be lethal, even a few inches, and drowning can happen very quickly. She goes on to talk about a recent tragedy in a Bournemouth hotel swimming pool.

I wish to mention in particular Mr. T. E. Payne of Erith, a guiding light for the Bill, whose son unfortunately died in an accident at a holiday camp in my constituency only last year.

The matter is urgent. I accept that a better vehicle for the legislation that I have in mind would probably have been the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I tried to table an amendment to that Bill last Monday, but it was ruled out of order because of a technicality. Therefore, if the Minister intends to ask the House not to give this Bill a Second Reading, I hope that he will consider the possibility of tabling an amendment on this matter to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. If he likes, I will draft the amendment and he can consider whether it has any chance of being included when that Bill goes to another place. That Bill may be a suitable vehicle to cover the situa- tion and will give local authorities the power I seek in my Bill. I hope that it will avoid many of the tragic accidents which take place in swimming pools, and which inevitably will occur again. Even better, the Minister could advise the House to give my Bill a Second Reading so that we may be able to examine these matters in greater detail in Committee. I commend the Bill to the House.

3.46 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Guy Barnett)

In moving the Second Reading of the Bill, the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) spoke of the growing problem of the number of accidents in swimming pools. On the other hand, it is only fair to point out that the number of accidents may well be related simply to the increased opportunities and the facilities available for young people at swimming pools.

The hon. Gentleman quoted some statistics, and I shall do likewise. I am sure he will agree that, whatever statistics one quotes on a subject of this kind, everybody regards it as an appalling tragedy when a person or a young child is drowned in a swimming accident. It may assist the House if I give the latest available information on accidents in swimming pools, if only to illustrate the scale of the problem.

The principal source of information is the Office of Population Census and Surveys, which publishes reports each year based on death certificates issued by coroners. The latest information relates to 1973 when there were a total of 816 accidental deaths by drowning in England and Wales. Of that number, 59—only 7 per cent.—occurred in swimming pools. The figures can be further broken down into public pools, recreation centres, municipal pools and so on, amounting to a total of 26; hotels and holiday camp pools, 8; school pools, including universities, 2; private pools, clubs, hostels, and so on, 8; and others, including domestic pools, 15.

In some respects the fact that many examples appear to come to light may make people believe that the number of accidents is greater than it is, but this is in no way to underestimate the appalling tragedy for a family when an accident of this kind takes place. I could give the House other information about the situation, but the hon. Gentleman has illustrated the matter very well from his own research.

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that at this stage the Government must resist the Second Reading of the Bill. I do not in any way wish to decry the intention behind the Bill, which I believe to be wholly admirable. Indeed, the measure would have the Government's support, apart from the existence of a few matters which I shall deploy in a few moments.

There is no question of the Government not wanting to safeguard life, or not wanting to do anything that can be done to help towards that end. We agree that anything along those lines should be encouraged. However, with any legislative matter it is important that we should be sure of the ground before we proceed. If we are to take action we must be certain that what we seek to do will satisfactorily do the job that needs to be done and will leave no loopholes.

As we have been talking about accidents, it is as well to emphasise that the great majority of swimming pools are well managed and maintained to a high standard. No doubt there are exceptions where high standards are not achieved and maintained. It is unfortunate that so often the legislation that passes through the House is concerned with a minority of cases where proper standards of safety or health are not observed. We pass legislation in an attempt to tighten up standards. Nevertheless, our general impression is of a high standard.

Unfortunately the Bill would not necessarily correct the position, as the power of the local authority to make byelaws would be permissive and not mandatory. It may have been that the hon. Gentleman was pressing his case too far when he referred to deaths which might not take place this summer on the assumption that the passage of the Bill would necessarily lessen the risk of death by drowning. It is important to point that out. Under the Bill it would be up to the local authority concerned to decide whether it wished to make the byelaws under the Bill. The present powers in Section 233 of the Public Health Act 1936 enable local authorities to make byelaws in respect of swimming pools not under their control. That power has been exercised by only 33 local authorities in the past 20 years.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a Home Office working party is considering the whole issue of water safety. It is examining the means adopted by local authorities and others to prevent drowning accidents and to effect rescue. Its report is expected later this year. We believe that it would be wrong to proceed with legislation, or for the Government to give a view on legislation, until the working party's report has been received and there has been time for proper consideration of its contents and recommendations. Until we have seen the report we shall not be in a position to say whether any improvements in the law are necessary or practicable.

Well-intentioned though the Bill may be, I suggest that we should not give it a Second Reading. Before I conclude, I shall say something about the present position because of the important matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised. In Part VIII of the 1936 Act local authorities have powers to make byelaws with respect to swimming baths under Section 233. Under Section 223 a local authority has power to make byelaws in respect of its own management, and under Section 233 in respect of swimming pools and areas not under local authority management. However, in Section 233 there is an exclusion in respect of swimming pools which are not open to the public and for the use of which no charge is made. As I understand it, it is in respect of those swimming pools that the Bill is to deal. In fact, the definition has been drawn to cover swimming pools in hotels, holiday camps and in the private sector.

The byelaws which local authorities can make under Section 223 of the 1936 Act in respect of their own swimming pools relate almost entirely to public health and safety. Those made under Section 233 for baths not under local authority control relate to such matters as the purity of the water, adequacy and cleanliness of the accommodation, the conduct of persons using the baths and the prevention of accidents.

The category of baths with which the Bill would deal has never been covered in this way before. There is undoubtedly growing concern about the number of deaths from drowning accidents. After fatal accidents on the roads and in the home, drowning accidents probably represent the next largest group. I illustrated this point earlier by quoting statistics showing the degree to which death by drowning is a serious aspect of the accident problem.

I want to say a word or two about the Home Office working party on water safety which is examining the means adopted by local authorities and others to prevent drowning accidents and to effect rescue. The working party expects to report before the end of 1976. It is expected that the report will cover safety in public and private swimming baths, including the adequacy of the existing law, the need for a code of practice on pool management and the problems posed by private swimming pools.

Until this report is published we shall not be in a position to say with authority that improvements in the law are either necessary or practicable. I ought also to mention that there is the issue of law enforcement—inevitably at the moment one which has to be thought of in terms of expenditure. Expenditure would be involved if there were to be proper enforcement of regulations which might arise as a consequence of any report we receive.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I am obviously interested in the Minister's reply and particularly in the activity of the working party. I have made two points to the hon. Gentleman about the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which he piloted through the House last Monday. Does he not think that there is scope for an amendment to the Bill which could cover, in the interim period, the point I have been trying to get over, allowing local authorities access to private swimming pools, particularly in private schools and holiday camps, enabling them to make recommendations as to how facilities could be improved?

Mr. Barnett

On Monday of this week I knew the answer to that question. Unfortunately I cannot recall it now. I have had a number of things on my mind this week. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on that point. The hon. Gentleman tabled an amendment to the Bill—an amendment which was not called. The issue was not therefore discussed. I believe that the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity of raising the issue on Second Reading.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I was about to raise the issue on Third Reading but the Bill went through in about one and a half minutes flat. I was caught out.

Mr. Barnett

I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. I repeat that there is no question that the intention of the Bill is other than wholly admirable. No one wishes to underestimate the degree to which this is a serious problem deserving our attention. That is why the Home Office working party has been set up. Later this year I hope that its report will lead to some recommendations upon which action may be taken. Whether that action should be in legislative form, let alone in terms of the legislation proposed by the hon. Member, is another matter.

Nevertheless, because we fully accept that the intention of the Bill is good I would like to congratulate the hon. Member on moving its Second Reading and on the concern he has shown over this subject. There is no question of the Government's concern because as I said—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.

Back to