HL Deb 24 April 1991 vol 528 cc348-66

8.17 p.m.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is high time the old adage, "Good swimmers are those most often drowned" was itself firmly sunk. The truth is that most accidents in water occur when someone has found him or herself there unexpectedly and many such accidents could be prevented if more people knew how to swim.

It is a sobering fact that in the past three years almost 200 children under the age of 15 have died by drowning. More dreadful still is the fact that over 80 per cent. of those children could not swim. I am sure that some of the tragedies could not have been averted in any way but, self-evident as it may seem, it must be stressed that the ability to swim is a critical factor in reducing the risk of drowning.

Research undertaken by the Royal Life Saving Society UK and the Amateur Swimming Association has shown that throughout all age groups the risk of drowning is more significant for non-swimmers, and in the 10-24 age group non-swimmers are three and a half times more at risk than swimmers.

Every parent wants his or her child to be able to swim. Swimming is a superb recreational activity—it is Britain's most popular active participation sport—and one which can be accessible and attractive to every child, including the unathletic and the disabled. And of course swimming is a lifesaver. Not surprisingly, children who cannot swim are more at risk of drowning than adults in the same position. It makes sense to teach life saving skills to the young in exactly the same way as they are taught road safety. Research has shown that children who do not receive the opportunity to learn to swim at primary school become the non-swimming adults of the future.

With the growth in water-related sports such as canoeing, sailing and wind surfing, it is more important than ever not just that every child learns to swim to a minimum standard but also that every child has an understanding of water safety.

The Royal Life Saving Society UK defines a knowledge of water safety as being aware of the hazards, knowing the swimming pool users' safety code, which includes, for instance, advice against swimming after meals, and knowing about safer swimming in open water. It is because of the undoubted link between safety and swimming ability that there is a growing belief that swimming should be accepted as an educational activity. Yet many schools and educational authorities have no requirement at all for their schools to provide swimming lessons—and the level of provision is declining.

The three national governing bodies of swimming—the Royal Life Saving Society UK, the Amateur Swimming Association and the English Schools Swimming Association—became so alarmed about the trend that they formed the Swim for Life Campaign with the aim of securing the teaching of swimming by all schools. In 1988 the campaign surveyed local authorities and schools and found to its dismay i hat more than half had no clear policy for the teaching of swimming while more than 80 per cent. of local authorities in the UK could not meet the basic standards for the provision of swimming lessons.

A more recent survey by the Secondary Heads Association confirms the trend and shows a further reduction in the provision of swimming lessons, with fewer than half of 11 to 15 year-olds having any curricular swimming. Quite apart from the safety implications of the decline, it is clear that the disparity of provision is unfairly placing millions of school children and their parents at a disadvantage by forcing them to make their own provision.

The inequality of swimming provision cannot simply be ascribed to resources or indeed to the political complexion of the local authorities. High and low spending councils have been cutting back on swimming lessons. I am sorry that my own county of Berkshire has just cut out entirely the£82,000 budget which each year enabled 48,000 school children in the county to have swimming lessons. This has produced a public outcry—a petition with 4,700 signatures was delivered to the council—and a saving to the poll tax payer of paltry 40p. I was particularly struck by the comments of Newbury swimming teacher Mrs. Hilary Gough, who is now to be made redundant as a consequence. She said: I am just amazed that they could do this. It is a sad day for the schools in Berkshire and for the children. The children get so much from it. It is to save lives. That is why we do the job". The Government have recognised the importance of physical education in schools and have, quite rightly, placed it on the national curriculum as a foundation subject. So we have the means to ensure that every child receives proper tuition in swimming and water safety and not just those who have more enlightened local authorities. The Government have set up a working group to advise on the form which PE should take on the national curriculum. I am delighted that, in its interim report, the group recommended that all young children should learn to swim by the age of 11. The chairman of the group, Mr. Ian Beer, who is headmaster of Harrow School, explicitly recognised the resource implications of the recommendations, but told the Secretary of State that, after very careful consideration we concluded that these …elements of physical education were too important to leave to chance and they should be an entitlement for all young people under the National Curriculum". However, the Government are concerned about resources and have firmly told the working group to make recommendations which can be, realistically related to the general level of funding which can reasonably be expected to be available". I am glad that the Minister for Sport, Mr. Robert Atkins, took the trouble last week at a conference organised by the Swim for Life Campaign to clarify the Government's position. He said that the Government needed, no persuading of the value of swimming tuition", which is extremely welcome, but went on to say that, we simply cannot impose a duty on schools which they are unable to deliver". That seems fair to me. We need to look more closely at the implication of a fixed educational requirement that every child must be taught to swim. The Swim for Life Campaign addressed this very issue at its conference. A facilities consultant of the Amateur Swimming Association presented an assessment of the cost of teaching every 10 year-old to swim. He placed the cost at£4.8 million.

This approach is particularly sensible as it recognises that resources must be allocated more evenly if there is to be a minimum swimming requirement. It is clearly wrong that some children receive extensive swimming tuition and recreational swimming while others receive nothing at all. The sum of£4.8 million seems a small price to pay when measured against the cost of hundreds of children's lives. It is a tiny part of the multi-billion pound national education budget.

The ASA assessment went on to highlight the cost of not teaching children to swim. We know from surveys that every child who learns to swim then visits public pools, which gain revenue from the visits. Conversely, pools will lose revenue if swimming lessons continue to decline. If every 10 year-old were taught to swim, the trend would indicate a potential revenue gain of something in the region of£138.5 million—far in excess of the cost of the lessons.

My purpose in introducing a Bill to require all school children to be taught swimming and water safety is to promote the implementation of the working group's interim recommendation and to ensure that the Government's concern about resources can be met. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to set programmes of study and attainment targets for swimming and water safety for all pupils in maintained schools as part of the foundation subject of PE on the national curriculum. That goes beyond the existing requirements of the Education Reform Act, which leaves it to the Secretary of State's discretion as to whether swimming and water safety should be specified as part of PE on the curriculum.

More importantly, my Bill would require the Secretary of State to conduct a survey of the swimming facilities available to schools and would give him the power—for a transition period of five years—to exempt a school or local education authority from the swimming tuition requirement if satisfied, on the evidence of the survey, that lack of swimming facilities would place an "unreasonable burden" on them. So if there are rural schools whose children cannot easily reach pools, they may be exempted. But the Bill specifically states that every child must still be taught the principles of water safety, and such schools may only be exempted for the transition period of five years.

The Bill would therefore ensure that the teaching of swimming generally would not be stalled because of the resource problems of a minority of schools and would also ensure that the Government must address those problems by making facilities available after five years. That seems to me a reasonable period in which to provide any necessary increase in resources for swimming tuition, so fulfilling the plea of the Secretary of State for Education for realistic proposals.

The life saving features of swimming make it essential that children should be taught to swim to minimum standards. It would be for the Secretary of State to prescribe targets. The Swim for Life Campaign has welcomed the working group's recommendation that pupils should be able to swim a minimum distance of 25 metres, possess water safety skills and have a sound knowledge of water safety by the age of 11. Those are the modest requirements we seek to implement. The campaign is also concerned that up to a third of swimming teachers employed by local authorities are insufficiently qualified. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools should review the necessary qualifications and set minimum criteria.

This is a small Bill with a big aim. I believe that it will be enormously popular up and down the country. In fact I and the Swim for Life Campaign have received tremendous support from parents and teachers and I have had a great number of letters from Members of your Lordships' House. This is a Bill which will save children's lives and bring pleasure to millions more who are denied the swimming tuition which only the lucky receive. It may require some modest increase in resources but allows its provisions to be phased in so that the burden can be met.

The Government's endorsement of the principle of swimming tuition for all children is most welcome. The Bill will give them the opportunity to translate words into action. I ask the House to agree with the working group on PE that the provision of swimming lessons for our children is too important to leave to chance. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Norrie.)

8.30 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, the aim of this Bill is very simple and very laudable. I believe that everyone should be taught to swim for the simple reason that everyone has the capacity to drown. It is as simple as that. In this country where we are surrounded by quite a lot of water—indeed, there is hardly a city that does not have at least some free flowing water going through it or a large lake into which people could fall—we should all have the capacity to be able to scramble to the edge of the waterside if we happen to fall in.

Swimming is also a part of our physical education. Although it is something of an overspill from the last debate, it is worth pointing out that many leisure activities relating to any form of water sport are virtually impossible to undertake unless one can swim. Indeed, it would certainly be most unwise to take part in any form of boating or sailing activity if one could not swim. On those grounds, I suggest that not only is the Bill very reasonable, but also that it is rather sad that we should have to introduce such legislation.

The Sports Council estimates that 56 per cent. of pupils are being taught how to swim at the age of 11; in other words, 44 per cent. are not. It also estimates that only 41 per cent. of pupils are being given swimming tuition at the age of 14, and 46 per cent. at the age of 15. If we consider that something like half of the pupils across that age group are not being taught to swim, or given any swimming instruction, I suggest that those pupils could become the subject of accident statistics in the near future.

The idea of ensuring that everyone can swim a minimum distance of 25 metres is a very basic requirement. Some people say that that is far too short a distance and that there are certain situations where that level of swimming expertise will not be sufficient to get one out of trouble. However, I believe that we should have that minimum requirement.

The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, spoke thoroughly on the Bill. Therefore, I shall curtail my remarks and emphasise once again the fact that if people are beside water and everyone has the capacity to drown, then everyone should at least have the opportunity to learn to swim. It could save lives.

8.32 p.m.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

My Lords, I fully support the Bill. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, on his clear and comprehensive explanation of the legislation and why it is necessary. I shall shortly home in, not surprisingly, on its importance for children with special educational needs. However, I should like first to endorse the fact that swimming is very important for all of us. It is a life saver and a life enhancer and, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, it is the key to all water-related sports. Swimming is an activity in which you can participate on your own; there is no need to find a partner, an opponent or a team. It is also something that you can do throughout your life. Indeed, local authorities run regular swimming classes for senior citizens.

I should like to quote from the comments made by Terry Barnett to the Southern Region Sports Council on the national curriculum PE working group's interim report. He is chairman of the Southern Sports Federation and vice-chairman of the southern region of the British Sports Association for the Disabled. However, his comments relate to all children. He said: Like learning to read, learning to swim should be seen as a life skill since it opens up so many other opportunities, and for education to deny children the chance to become `aquatically literate' verges on the criminal". Those are strong words. But, on reflection, Mr. Barnett has a good point. I say that because failure to teach a child a basic means of survival must be wrong. "Aquatic literacy" is critical for all children. But for children with a disability or a learning difficulty it is especially important. They need to develop any skills to the maximum in order to compete on an equal footing with their able-bodied peers through all stages of life.

Swimming has always been a valuable and popular sport for disabled people. It is a great confidence booster because it is something that you can do completely without aids; in other words, you leave your crutches or your wheelchair behind you. That increases self-esteem. Water is also the great leveller. The disabled child gets on to a more equal basis with his able-bodied contemporaries and therefore he rises in their esteem.

From the integration aspect, swimming is a sport in which you can participate with able-bodied friends. Members of a disabled family can swim together, or indeed with other families. We should remember what Alf Morris said over 20 years ago: when one member of a family becomes disabled the whole family in effect become disabled and somewhat cut off.

From the beginning swimming has been a very important sport for the disabled sports movement. Pupils from some special schools have achieved tremendously high standards at national and international level. While the move towards the integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream schools is very welcome, teaching PE can present problems. Swimming is probably one of the least difficult sports in which to include children with special educational needs. There is a great need to make young teachers aware of the problems involved.

I should like now to mention the British Sports Association for the Disabled. It has prepared a teaching pack which advises teachers in mainstream education on how to adapt PE activities. It teaches disability awareness. The association has found that lack of communication is really the biggest problem. The pack is at present in the consultation stages and is being considered by the Department of Education and Science. If the Bill is enacted the inclusion of swimming in the national curriculum will not present a problem in relation to teaching children with special educational needs, as for many years there has been an ASA recognised certificate for teachers of swimmers with disabilities.

I very much hope that the Bill will become law. I hope that Clause 1(4) is a sufficient safeguard to ensure that this will become a reality. It is vital to ensure that all children become aquatically literate and also to enable children with special educational needs to become confident, competent and integrated people who can compete on a more equal basis with their able-bodied peers and, ultimately, in the able-bodied adult world. I wish the Bill a safe and speedy passage.

8.37 p.m.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I am aware that among those noble Lords who are taking part in the debate this evening there are some who are expert swimmers. I must admit that I am of a lesser species; I am an aqua funk. I do not relish total immersion unless the water is piping hot and laced with bath oils. However, despite my own inadequacy, I strongly support the Bill. I thank my noble friend Lord Norrie for introducing it.

Ever since my youngest son had a close encounter with a duck pond, I have held the belief that all children should be taught to swim. I was delighted that the school to which my three sons went at the age of eight guaranteed that every child would be able to swim by the first half of the summer term, and that was in an unheated pool. I believe that the aim which is embodied in the Bill—that every child should be able to swim unassisted by the age of 11—is not an impossibility.

One of my children has never enjoyed being in the water. However, I know that if he found himself in a potentially dangerous situation, his ability to swim would improve his chance of survival—unlike the 80 per cent. of the 200 children who have drowned in the past three years, a figure referred to by my noble friend Lord Norrie. That was an appalling loss of life. Moreover, what a terrible toll of grief, suffering, misery and anguish it must have been to those families involved.

I know that there is a belief abroad that swimmers are actually more at risk of drowning and that a person who has had inadequate swimming instruction develops a false sense of confidence and could be in greater danger than someone who cannot swim. That is why some people, like me, avoid the water completely. However, there is evidence which points to the contrary. The ability to swim is a critical factor in reducing the risk of drowning.

A market research survey which was commissioned by the Royal Life Saving Society and the Amateur Swimming Association showed that non-swimmers in the 10–14 and 15–24 year-old age groups are over three-and-a-half times more at risk than swimmers. It also showed that only in the over-35 age group could the drowning risk be broadly comparable. But even then the risk was still more significant for non-swimmers.

Of course, learning to swim is not a cast iron guarantee and, as we all know, swimmers have drowned. Sometimes they drown very close to the edge of the water. Therefore, water safety skills need to be taught at the same time as, or even before, traditional swimming skills. That is why I welcome the fact that the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, and the report of the PE working group to which he referred include a requirement to teach all children an understanding of water safety alongside swimming tuition. My noble friend said, and I agree, that water safety, like road safety, is something that all children should be taught. It does not require any increase in the number of swimming pools or teachers.

I also welcome the Bill's stipulation that there should be national standards of swimming, appropriate to the child's age. At the moment we do not have a common method of assessment, or a uniform definition of the ability to swim—a fact recognised by the working group—and I support that group's determination to reach a common definition. It is important to know at what we are aiming.

A combination of water safety tuition and the provision of minimum standards will curb the phenomenon of the over-confident, weak swimmer being caught out of his or her depth. Other countries do better. A 14 year-old English schoolchild going to school in Australia for the first time was assessed as having a reasonable standard of education but in need of remedial swimming. They clearly take swimming seriously. Nearer to home, the French have not only a programme of building hundreds of 25 metre pools, they have also introduced comprehensive swimming instruction which is already showing dividends in improved standards. In West Germany, every child leaving school can swim. In the Netherlands swimming lessons are given to children aged 7 and over, and there are standard tests to determine their ability. It is reasonable to aim for all British children to achieve at least minimal swimming standards by the time that they leave primary school.

On the issue of resources, I know that finding the resources is a real problem. It is often made worse by the fact that there is so little information as to existing facilities. We do not know the size of the problem. We do not know how many schools have pools or how many pools there are within a reasonable distance of schools. The Bill proposes a survey to find that out. That is a good start. If the Amateur Swimming Association's figures, to which my noble friend Lord Norrie referred, are correct, and, targeted properly, the cost is about£4.8 million, then I believe that that is a price worth paying. In terms of the DES budget of£17 billion, it is the loose change. However, if a national survey reveals that the cost is much greater—there is a reasonable assumption that that may be so—the Bill's provisions designed to phase introduction over a fixed period are reasonable and would receive acceptance from parents, teachers, schools, pressure groups and, I hope, the Government.

I know that the Government are compassionate and believe in the cause. Addressing the Swimming in Schools conference, my noble friend the Minister said that there was no doubt that the ability to swim saved lives, and that the provision of swimming tuition at school could be justified on that ground alone. I hope that the Government follow up such statements by accepting the recommendations of the PE working group. I warmly support the Bill. I hope that the support it receives from all sides of the House will help to convince the Government of the need to provide for swimming in the national curriculum.

8.43 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I fear that I caused unnecessary anguish to the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish of Furness, until he spoke to me yesterday and I assured him that I was not appearing in the debate to take some esoteric legal maxim which would torpedo the Government below the water line. The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, wishing to inject a little light relief into the debate, considered that it would be appropriate if a member, albeit a past member, of your Lordships' swimming relay team, which competes annually on a charitable occasion against another place (when I was a member, I am happy to say that we won) should put in an appearance. I do so with a sense of deep relief because I look upon this as a happy, relaxing occasion. In fact, I did my nocturnal 20 lengths before arriving here this evening.

It is comforting to find that I shall not be subject to the usual relentless attacks of the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, nor shall I receive the double-edged compliments from the noble Earl, Lord Longford, or even submit to the equivocal concurrences of the noble Lord, Lord Richard.

As one of four brothers, I learnt to swim at a very early age. Had I not done so, I doubt whether I should have the privilege of appearing before your Lordships this evening. I remained out of my depth in the shallow end of the RAC pool for a long time, probably a very good training for other subjects in which I remain out of my depth even today.

If any authority is required for the proposition that the ability to swim is a basic, fundamental qualification—what is known nowadays as a foundation subject—one need look no further than Alice in Wonderland. If one goes to the first verse, which was used as such powerful evidence against the Knave of Hearts, one will recall that this is what was said: She told me you had been to her, And mentioned me to him: She gave me a good character, But said I could not swim". That totally discredited the Knave of Hearts in the eyes of the King, as it properly should.

The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, referred to 160 children who drowned by reason of being unable to swim. There is probably another figure hidden in those figures—the number of parents, relatives or passers by who could not stop those drownings because they themselves could not swim. Those of us parents who can swim, cannot properly imagine the sense of inadequacy which an adult who has not been taught to swim feels in relation to his children who are about to learn to swim but have not yet learnt. To learn to swim as an adult, when one inevitably weighs a great deal more than as a child, is a difficult undertaking, and that in itself justifies the early teaching.

Leaving aside, as has been said, the sporting advantages of swimming, swimming has an unrivalled therapeutic quality. Like sleeping it Knits up the ravell'd sleeve of time". It washes away stress. It relieves tension.

Your Lordships probably know that the advice to a newly-appointed judge is to have on his desk in large letters the sentence: Do not interrupt. I am paid to be irritated". I amended mine to read: not interrupt. Swim another 10 lengths". It is more effective.

Your Lordships are probably aware that the country is divided into six circuits for the purpose of the administration of justice. On each circuit there are two High Court judges, called presiding judges, who for a period of four years preside on that circuit. They are ultimately responsible to the Lord Chief Justice for the proper administration of the circuit. That was an invention by Lord Beeching to prevent the Executive totally taking over the administration of justice. I believe that the contribution I most made to the Western Circuit, of which I was presiding judge for four years, was, through the good offices of schools and universities on that circuit, to ensure that there were swimming facilities at convenient times of the day for all the judges who went out on circuit. I have little doubt that it resulted in more measured and more reliable judgments and if statistics could have been taken, would have shown that it kept down appeals as compared with other circuits.

I only wish to add with diffidence—because of the expert selection in your Lordships' House a reference to Swinburne's poem A Swimmer's Dream which is probably known to all noble Lords. I quote from Part V, stanza 2: A purer passion, a lordlier leisure, A peace more happy than lives on land, Fulfils with pulse of diviner pleasure The dreaming head and the steering hand. I lean my cheek to the cold grey pillow, The deep soft swell of the full broad billow, And close mine eyes for delight past measure, And wish the wheel of the world would stand.". I strongly support the Bill which should bring an end to the degree of deprivation which has been referred to. There has also been a reference to resources involving little more than£4 million. Next Tuesday there will be debated in your Lordships' House once more the War Crimes Bill. That Bill discloses that for its maintenance annually it requires the sum of£12 million a year. When one comes to consider resources that may put the matter in its true perspective.

2 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, first I wish to congratulate my noble friend Lord Norrie on the masterly way in which he introduced the Bill. I was also going to speak on safety but unfortunately I have to cut my remarks short.

What I find worrying and not as it ought to be is that as a country with a population of over 60 million, surrounded completely by water, we have not come up trumps with teaching children to swim. Some of our partners on the Continent, at least in the EC—I cannot completely regard them all as partners—are streets ahead of us. I understand that in Germany all children over a certain age—eight, I believe—are taught to swim. They all leave school able to swim. We do not nearly approach that, but I am sure that by means of the Bill which my noble friend has introduced we shall catch up.

It seems appalling that we are a rich country, yet apparently we cannot afford to educate our children sufficiently for them to be able to save themselves from drowning. I was fortunate enough to be taught to swim before I went to my prep school. Many children do not have that advantage in life. I hope that enactment of the Bill will not be too long delayed, but one has disappointments in these matters. It is bad enough when adults drown, but when young children drown it is disastrous.

I was once beneath the water and the only sensation I had was a roaring as though I was walking through a field of grass. I am told that if one gets near drowning one hears church bells. Either I was not near enough to drowning or I did not deserve the church bells! However, it is not the worst way of dying. I shall not waste any more time. I hope that the Bill will become law soon, not after several years, and that it will be passed with all possible speed.

8.55 p.m.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to support my noble friend Lord Norrie and the Bill. His description of it was first class; he covered everything.

I was taught to swim when quite young, so I have been fortunate. As chairman for a great many years of the education committee of my local council and of the social work committee, I discovered that one or two small towns had swimming baths but several did not. With great effort, I persuaded the county council to inaugurate three baths in different areas. Since then they have been enormously popular and children have been taught to swim. The initiative was a great success and it did not cost a great deal of money. If all local authorities provided accommodation for both teaching and enjoyable swimming after people have learnt to swim, that would be very valuable.

It seems to me that the Bill is exactly right. I hope, like the noble Viscount, that its passage through the House will not take too long. I am sure that the Government will accept it because it is obviously right. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Norrie and give my strong support to the Bill.

8.58 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, in the relatively limited time during which I have been in your Lordships' House I have come to recognise the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, as one of our rocks of good sense. He is nearly always right. I give my full support to the Bill. The noble Lord made a cogent and overwhelming case. I am glad that the Bill is receiving such strong and general support from all sides of the House.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, I am not a mighty swimmer. I am not usually eager to plunge in unless steam is rising from the water, but I am glad to be able to keep afloat. Some years ago, when I was on a beach in northern Cyprus, I saw people out in the sea who seemed to be in difficulty. I swam out to see whether I could give them a hand. I discovered that the bathers were four or five British soldiers who could not swim back against the current. I rapidly found myself in the same position. We could not make any ground against the strong offshore current.

My wife was watching from the beach. She asked a Cypriot fisherman whether he would rescue us in his boat. He laughed and declined to do so. She had to ask for assistance from the army who used an amphibious vehicle to rescue us. We remained in the water for about an hour. I was glad that all of us had been taught to swim at some stage and were able to keep afloat. If that had not been the case, I would not be addressing your Lordships this evening.

We are, after all, a maritime nation. From every point of view it is highly desirable that everyone in Britain should learn to swim. As the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, said, there has been an enormous increase in water sports of all kinds. It is desirable that fishermen should learn to swim as they often lose their footing when wading and can drown in quite shallow water. Swimming is an admirable form of exercise, perhaps the very best. However, the most important factor is that the ability to swim should be acquired by all our children and not just by those who are fortunate enough to attend schools where swimming is taught. All our children should learn to swim. In that way we can cut down the tragic number of drowning incidents that occur each year. I warmly support the Bill.

9.2 p.m.

Lord Saint Levan

My Lords, I wish strongly to support the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, in introducing the Bill. I live in Cornwall where over 60,000 children attend schools that are situated not more than 15 miles from the sea. However, recently the primary school's inspector discovered that out of 163 schools, at least 55 per cent. have had to cut down on the swimming instruction that they offer. This is a new and urgent problem. Schools have cut down on their swimming instruction because they now have to pay the cost of hiring pools and lifeguards instead of sending the bill to the local education authority.

For at least 12 years I have been a governor of a large secondary school. I have been a governor for such a long time because I have always had two private ambitions. One of those ambitions which does not concern this debate is that at least some children should learn to play the piano. If the piano is not taught to Grade 5 standard, in 20 years' time very few people will be able to play the organ in our churches and chapels.

The other ambition is that swimming should be taught in schools. But the problem is that if school governors can choose between building a swimming pool or a sports hall, they will immediately opt to build a sports hall because at the moment indoor football, basketball and keep fit classes are in fashion. It is therefore important that some statutory authority should be established to encourage swimming in schools as part of physical education. I am satisfied that enough physical education is offered in our primary and secondary schools. I think that two periods for PE and two for games are probably sufficient. I am satisfied with the provision of physical education in Cornwall. After all, a Cornish jockey rode the horse that won the Grand National. Last Saturday at least 30,000 Cornish men and women travelled to London to watch Cornwall win the finals of the county rugger match. They were known as Trelawney's army as in 1688 the Cornish threatened to march to London if their bishop, Joshua Trelawney, was not released from the Tower of London.

I live on an island off the west coast of Cornwall. The island was visited by 190,000 people last year. Every year my family entertains disadvantaged children from the inner cities. They come mostly from Birmingham and Lancashire. Their reaction to the short boat trip to the island—that is often the first boat trip they have taken—in a slightly choppy sea varies from sheer delight to nervousness and almost terror. If they could swim or had been told something about water safety, the boatman's job would be much easier.

I wish that more children were warned about the seventh wave, that is the sudden breaking of an especially large wave out of a comparatively calm sea. Tragic incidents of drowning have occurred as a result of that wave. It is an even greater tragedy when a young man who can swim is drowned trying to save a friend who cannot. A number of such incidents have occurred in my area.

In recent years there has been an enormous increase in gig racing, dinghy sailing and windsurfing sports. A young man without much money to spend must decide whether to buy a motorcycle or a sailing boat. A young man can buy secondhand windsurfing equipment for as little as£90. Three years ago in Mount's Bay in Cornwall the World Windsurfing Championships were held. A most unfortunate thing happened which even the oldest inhabitants could never recall happening before. For three or four days there was not a single breath of wind. There is no requirement for competitors in sailing races to be able to swim. They are warned that safety is their responsibility and parents are warned that they are responsible for their children.

There is no requirement for fishermen to be able to swim, and many of them cannot. There is no requirement either for lifeboat crews to be able to swim. They wear life jackets and trust their boats. Sailing racing and windsurfing are more dangerous sports than many people realise because they take place in shallow waters, often off a lee shore. Professional seamen would avoid that situation at all costs.

There is of course a wide diversity in the country as regards the quality of swimming pools available to schools. Over a period of time I used to drive a young nephew who was obsessed with swimming from London to Edinburgh. I believe I got to know every municipal swimming pool situated within reasonable distance of the motorway. I was surprised to discover that the poorer areas often had better swimming-pools and better swimming facilities than the richer areas. I suggest that one problem may be that county councils tend to think that the provision of leisure facilities is the prerogative of district councils. A district council has a major problem in deciding whether to build a straightforward swimming pool which is self-financing or a swimming pool combined with a leisure centre in the hope that the leisure centre will finance the cost of the swimming pool.

Swimming should be taught in all primary schools. One solution might be to provide learner pools for young children only, at much lower cost. We know that it is the practice for leisure centres to provide swimming facilities for very young children.

I live in a tourist area and my heart bleeds for young families on holiday in chalets and caravans in wet weather with nothing whatever to do. Indoor swimming in a heated swimming pool would be the perfect answer to keep children happy all day if only they had been taught to swim at primary school.

The inability of primary schools to maintain their swimming programme in Cornwall where the dangers to children who cannot swim are all too obvious leads me to support the Bill to ensure that swimming is taught in the rest of the community.

Finally, in relation to the cost of swimming lessons, transport costs should be within the discretionary powers of the education authority. Until more teachers are trained to teach swimming, parent teacher associations should be encouraged by this Bill to raise money for swimming lessons rather than buying more sophisticated computers as they usually like to do. Sponsored swimming is a very good way to raise money for school funds.

It is not only the risk of drowning for non-swimmers which is the cause of great anxiety. From time to time I have found young mothers in tears because their children are temporarily lost. If they are not traced to the family car or nearest ice-cream kiosk after half an hour's search there remains, only the dreadful possibility that a sea-rescue search 'mill be necessary. Very young families would have much less to worry about when on holiday if this Bill became law.

9.9 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I begin by apologising to the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, for having to leave the Chamber before he had finished his speech. I have discussed the Bill with him on a number of occasions.

Perhaps I may explain to the House that the fact that I a m here on my own this evening does not indicate a lack of interest or support for the Bill on the part of my colleagues. The Bill was programmed to have been debated on the day on which the Government introduced their legislation on the?140 poll tax rebate scheme. Some of my colleagues—my noble friends Lady David, Lady Blackstone and Lord Peston—would have spoken on that occasion. However, they are not available today. One is abroad on a parliamentary visit and the other two have made other arrangements. Their absence does not indicate that I am the sole supporter of the Bill. They are strongly in favour of it.

I was here long enough to hear the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, give pretty chilling evidence of what is taking place. I find myself somewhat at odds with some of the Minister's statistical answers in the previous debate regarding the increase in the number of swimming pools, though he said that those included a number of private pools. The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, made the point that swimming lessons ought to be available to children not as an optional extra but as part of the curriculum so that every child is taught to swim. As I mentioned in the earlier debate, I have been told that for an additional£5 million every child in the country could be taught to swim at 11 years of age.

I have been able to swim from a very early age, though I would not claim to be a Johnny Weismuller by any stretch of the imagination. However, when I have been on holiday with people who are excellent soccer or rugby players and super cricketers I have been surprised to find that they are terrified of water. There is a lot of truth in the suggestion that the earlier children become used to water the sooner they will learn to swim. All the members of my family swim. My two grandsons of nine and seven are both reasonable swimmers.

There are ways in which the programme can be extended if funds can be found. When I was a youngster at school once one reached the stage when one could swim 25 lengths of the local baths one was given a free pass. It was amazing how that kept youngsters off the street during the school holidays. They would have a daily swim; it was somewhere to go.

The availability of the facilities produces the goods. For example, in the 1930s there was a council school in one of the most deprived areas of Manchester which was small and very dilapidated. It has now passed into history. The school was called Osborne Street and it was lucky in its geographical location because next door to it was a swimming bath which was rather longer than the standard length of 33⅓yards. It was no coincidence that year after year, at a time when boys left school at 14 and 15, that school won the squadron schoolboy swimming championship of Great Britain and very often produced the schoolboy individual champion. I knew some of them personally.

I believe that children will readily conquer their fear of water if swimming is made available to them at an early age. I do not go for the idea of throwing youngsters in before they can walk. I do not think that that is very helpful. However, swimming is one of the healthiest means of exercise. It opens the door to people who cannot normally exercise. People who are disabled, sometimes severely, can feel the benefits of motivating themselves and using water. Swimming offers tremendous benefits which ought to be made available to everybody.

I should like to indicate both my own and my party's support for the noble Lord's Bill and the marvellous principle enunciated in it. I do not know what will become of it, but as it appears that we do not have too crowded a parliamentary programme I hope that it will find approval in this Session. We give it our full support.

9.14 p.m.

Lord Cavendish of Furness

My Lords, first I should like to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Norrie for the positive, clear and constructive way in which he presented his Bill tonight. I understand very well why the Bill has attracted such support in your Lordships' House. Perhaps I may make one thing absolutely clear. The Government fully recognise the importance of children learning to swim. My honourable friend the Minister for Sport explained this to the noble Lord when he was good enough to come to see him to discuss the idea of introducing a Bill. He has also said it publicly at the recent conference organised by the Swim for your Life Campaign. But he also explained why we thought a Bill of this sort would be premature and indeed might turn out to be unnecessary.

Reference has been made tonight to the recommendation in the interim report of the national curriculum working group that primary school children should have swimming lessons, and that if they are unable to swim by the time they reach the age of 11 they should continue to have lessons until they can.

I make it plain that the Government have not rejected that recommendation. My right honourable friend has pointed out that the recommendation carries considerable resource implications and he has asked the working group to take those into account in its final report. We hope that those commenting on the interim report will let the working group have their views on the practicality of the recommendation and so assist the group in its future work.

I do not want to dwell at length on the question of resources but want your Lordships to have some idea of the scale of the problem. While I know that in some urban areas the provision of swimming lessons has been reduced or cut altogether, at least in general the facilities could be available. That is not always the case in rural areas. It should be remembered that the working group's recommendation is targeted at primary school pupils. There are roughly 20,000 primary schools in England, many of them in quite remote rural areas. Unless these schools have their own pools and can afford to maintain them sometimes pupils would have to travel quite long distances to reach a swimming pool at no little cost in terms both of the transport required and the disruption to the rest of their education. I acknowledge that the noble Lord's Bill recognises these problems by providing for exemptions. I hope that in return he would acknowledge that this particular provision of his Bill is not without its own resource implication, certainly in terms of the people required to carry it out. More specifically, I would argue that as we have asked the working group to consider the practical problems perhaps it would be better to wait for their advice before we embark on this course of legislation. As I said, I do not want to dwell on this question. It is one that the working group will be considering, and the Government encourage all those with an interest in this area, especially those with some practical experience, to write to the working group with their views.

As I said earlier, the Government's main objection to the Bill is that it is premature. As your Lordships will have gathered, the PE working group is very much in business. Its final report is to be submitted to my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State by the end of June. That report will include recommendations for attainment targets and programmes of study. My right honourable friends will consider those recommendations and will, as a result of that consideration, publish their own proposals for attainment targets and programmes of study. These proposals could, if my right honourable friends so decide, say as part of an attainment target that all 11 year-olds should be able to swim and that the related programme of study should therefore include swimming instruction. Your Lordships will know that at the moment I cannot even hazard a guess at what my right honourable friends will decide. But I make the point simply to show that we already have the power to make swimming lessons compulsory and do not, strictly speaking, need the noble Lord's Bill for this purpose.

I should add that my right honourable friends' proposals are by no means the end of the story. These proposals are published for consultation. The consultation exercise is conducted in England by the National Curriculum Council which is required to report to my right honourable friend on the response to the consultation and on any other matters remitted to it. In Wales, my right honourable friend conducts his own consultations. So there is a further opportunity for interested parties to comment on what is or is not said about swimming in the Secretaries of State's proposals.

Yet another opportunity for comment comes at the next stage in the process when the Secretary of State publishes for further consultation a draft of the statutory order with the draft attainment targets and programmes of study. At the end of the day the order is subject to negative resolution and your Lordships have the opportunity to pray against it and debate it.

I appreciate that I have spent some time on the statutory process that we have to follow in order to establish the detailed requirements of any subject in the national curriculum. I have done so to show the very generous opportunities built in for consultation and comment and to demonstrate how it is impossible for the Government to ignore any point on which those consulted have strong feelings.

I have also said a considerable amount about the national curriculum working group on PE. But they are not the only body active in the field—or should I say the pool? Another working group, the Water Sports Safety Working Group, has been asked to consider in relation to water sports whether the present levels of safety advice, education and enforcement are adequate and effective, to identify areas where improvement is necessary and to suggest what those improvements should be.

The membership of the group reflects a spread of activities and expertise. We expect its report to be published this summer. While it is too early to say for certain what the conclusions of the report will be it is more than likely that it will have something to say about the role of swimming lessons in schools and about the need for education concerning water safety. That report will be further useful advice to my right honourable friends when they are considering the place of swimming in the PE curriculum.

I hope that what I have said will have persuaded your Lordships that the Government are by no means indifferent in the matter of young people and water safety. We are completely in sympathy with the aim of the noble Lord's Bill but given the work that is already in hand, we feel that it may be a little premature.

9.20 p.m.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, I shall not detain the House very much longer. I am grateful for the support that I have received for my Bill this evening, particularly from the opposition Front Bench with the very positive speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Dean, who drew attention to the decline in swimming pool provision, and Lord Addington, who emphasised the importance of setting national standards to assess swimming ability. Their commitment to the principles of my Bill indicates a strong cross-party endorsement for an educational requirement to teach all children to swim. It is an alliance which I hope the Government will have noted.

I am also grateful for the other speeches made in support of the Bill. I thank my noble friends Lady Cumberlege and Lord Massereene and Ferrard. They rightly drew attention to the state of swimming provision for schools in other comparable countries and she wed how it highlights the inadequacy of our own provision. The very fine contribution from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, was clearly inspired by his 20 lengths of swimming this evening. It is quite clear that he must be the fittest of the Law Lords. We heard from my noble friend Lady Elliot, and the noble Lord, Lord Moran, who both drew on their own experience and knowledge. My noble friend Lady Elliot spoke about the success of the swimming pools that were provided when she was chairman of the education committee of her local council and we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Moran, about his experience in Cyprus.

I should like in particular to thank my noble friend Lord Saint Levan. I know that he has taken tremendous trouble to come here this evening. He has come all the way from Cornwall. He is president of the West Cornwall Sea Scouts and Sea Cadets and the YMCA. I know that he is personally very involved in this issue. Finally, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), for her very enthusiastic support for the disabled side. It may not be widely known but in fact she received a gold medal for swimming in the Paraplegic Olympics in 1968 in Israel.

I very much welcome the positive line which the Government have shown tonight. The Swim for Life campaign has had a number of meetings with Ministers and the response has been helpful. It was helpful in a way tonight. It seems that the Government's main concern is about resources. We tried to address that issue tonight. I hope that my noble friend Lord Cavendish will take away with him an impression of the strong political and public support for my Bill evinced tonight. There may be some cost in teaching every child to swim but the cost of failing to take action is surely greater. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.