HL Deb 17 June 1991 vol 530 cc20-4

3.42 p.m.

Read a third time.

Clause 1 [Amendment of Education Reform Act 1988]:

[Amendments Nos. 1 to 6 not moved.]

Lord Norrie

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Since I introduced the Bill nearly two months ago I have received a large number of messages of support and helpful suggestions from other noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, and my noble friend Lord Saint Levan have taken great trouble to table constructive amendments to my Bill, although they are not here in person this afternoon. I thank them for the interest that they have taken and for the fact that the amendments were tabled in the spirit of support for the general principle of the Bill.

Unfortunately, this debate was originally scheduled for eight o'clock this evening but due to pressing commitments, my noble friend Lord Saint Levan could not make it up from Cornwall in time and the noble Lord, Lord Monson, has been unavoidably delayed on business abroad. Both have asked me to convey their apologies to the House.

In his amendment the noble Lord, Lord Monson, has drawn attention to the important issue of exemptions on medical, religious and cultural grounds. Clearly there needs to be provision within the Bill for exemptions on a number of grounds, not least those outlined in his amendment. I accept that the Bill is defective in this respect and I shall ensure that when it reaches its Committee stage in the Commons it is appropriately amended.

My noble friend Lord Saint Levan seeks to amend the Bill so that its provisions apply to primary schools only on the grounds that the optimum age at which to learn swimming is between eight and 11. This would considerably reduce the costs. My noble friend has a valid point and I appreciate the sentiments behind his amendment. I am conscious of the need to ensure the most efficient use of the resources available for teaching swimming.

It is for that reason that when I introduced my Bill I made it clear that initially at least resources should be targeted on a programme of teaching 10 year-old children to swim. However, I also believe that there needs to be flexibility within the legislation so that, for example, if resources permit, a programme of remedial swimming lessons can be introduced for secondary school pupils who are unable to swim.

Since my Bill was given a Second Reading there has also been a further statement of clarification from my honourable friend the Minister for Sport in an adjournment debate in another place introduced by the honourable Member for Stalybridge and Hyde. The Minister made a welcome reaffirmation of the Government's support for the principle of curricular swimming and the objective of teaching every youngster to swim by the age of 11. However, he went on to repeat his reasonable anxiety that to do that immediately would require a substantial increase in funding resources.

When I introduced my Bill, I quoted from an assessment made by the Amateur Swimming Association at a recent conference organised by the Swim for Life Campaign that the cost of teaching all 10 year-olds to swim is £4.8 million. Since that conference, the ASA's facilities consultant has made a further estimate that at least £30 million is currently being spent in an untargeted and disorganised fashion on pool hire, swimming teachers and transport in teaching children to swim. In other words, if these figures are correct, the cost of teaching 10 year-olds to swim could easily be met within the current education budget.

The only source which has questioned in principle the objective of teaching swimming in schools has been a letter in The Times from the director general of RoSPA, Julian Wethered, who repeated the widely held misconception that swimmers are more at risk of drowning than non-swimmers. The issue was dealt with admirably during the Bill's Second Reading by my noble friend Lady Cumberlege. However, as it is the solitary public criticism that has been made of the principle underpinning the Bill, I wish briefly to address it this afternoon.

It is self-evident that someone who has received inadequate swimming instruction and who develops a false confidence could be in greater danger than someone who knows that they cannot swim at all and avoids the water. However, the research undertaken in this area by the Royal Life Saving Society UK and the Amateur Swimming Association shows clearly that in most cases ability to swim is a critical factor in reducing the risk of drowning. Many people who drown find themselves unexpectedly in the water and only about one-quarter are actually in the water to swim.

Mr. Wethered says that teaching children, an understanding of the dangers and a respect for water", is more important than teaching them to swim, as though these activities were mutually exclusive. Of course it is not sufficient merely to teach people to swim. That is why both my Bill and the National Curriculum Working Group's report include commitments to teach all children, alongside swimming tuition, to understand water safety, to be aware of the hazards, to know the swimming pool users' safety code and to know about safer swimming in open water.

My Bill also stipulates that there should be national standards of swimming appropriate to a child of that age. The working group has also recognised the necessity of teaching children to swim to a specified definition. Drowning prevention, therefore, will be brought about not just through teaching people the hazards associated with water, but through a combination of education and practice comprising water safety education, safe swimming practices and supervised swimming by lifeguards. Is it not better for children to learn safe swimming practices from a qualified teacher than to learn by themselves, by trial and error?

The National Water Safety Committee was so concerned at the letter in The Times that at its meeting last week it passed a minute recording its total support for the principle of teaching swimming in schools and deploring wholeheartedly the letter from the Director-General of RoSPA. This committee, for which RoSPA provides the secretariat, comprises every major organisation concerned with water safety, including the Beach Advisory Committee for Devon and Cornwall, the British Canoe Union, Her Majesty's Coastguards, the Institute of Baths and Recreation Management, the St. John Ambulance Brigade and the Surf Life Saving Society of Great Britain, as well as the three national governing bodies of swimming: the Royal Life Saving Society UK, the Amateur Swimming Association and the English Schools Swimming Association.

To sum up, in spite of the intervention from the Director-General of RoSPA, I am delighted by the reception which my Bill has received. Since I introduced this Bill back in April, the support for swimming on the national curriculum has gathered pace. In another place my honourable friend the member for Congleton has introduced a Private Member's Bill similar to mine under the 10-minute rule, and co-sponsored an Early Day Motion welcoming the recommendation of the National Curriculum PE Working Group which has been signed by 240 Members of Parliament of all parties. The sponsors of the Bill and Early Day Motion include five former Ministers for Sport.

I am confident that, when the National Curriculum Working Group reports to the Secretary of State at the end of this month, it will reaffirm its recommendation that all primary school children should learn to swim and have a knowledge of water safety skills. I hope that he will accept the report, at least in principle. Finally, I hope that my Bill, and the debate which it has generated, will have helped to demonstrate the breadth of cross-party support for the principle of teaching swimming in schools and that the Government will allow it to proceed when it passes over to another place. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Norrie.)

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I rise to support this Bill. I believe that noble Lords from all parts of the House have supported this Bill during its passage through your Lordships' House. Statistics have been compiled to show the number of deaths that are attributable to drowning. I do not claim that teaching someone how to swim will automatically prevent him from drowning. Some people drown as they become too adventurous and swim where they should not.

I believe the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, mentioned a figure of £4.8 million. If that money were provided, it would mean that by the age of 11 every child would be taught how to swim. I believe that, if that were the case, there would be a tremendous reduction in the number of child deaths due to drowning. Unfortunately there has been a substantial increase in the number of young people who have died through drowning. There has also been an increase in the number of people in general who have died through drowning, but that increase is mainly attributable to young people who do not know how to swim. This Bill will go a long way towards remedying that situation. We on these Benches, and I am sure the rest of your Lordships' House, give the Bill enthusiastic and unqualified support.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I, too, support the noble Lord's Bill. Sadly I could not attend its previous stages as on each occasion those stages took place at a late hour in the evening. However, as my noble friend has just said, I am sure the Bill will be supported in all parts of your Lordships' House. I am an ex-teacher and I am not sure when swimming ceased to be taught. When I was teaching every primary school child was taught how to swim. That could not have cost governments millions of pounds as the PE teachers taught the children how to swim. I was a PE teacher and therefore I do not understand why these vast sums are referred to. However, it is typical of the Government nowadays to say that any provision that is referred to will cost a lot of money. This is an important Bill and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, upon introducing it. If he needs any further support at a later stage, I hope he will call on Members of this House to provide it.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, I would have supported this Bill right through its passage in your Lordships' House but I was out of the country at that time. In the 1950s a big building programme took place in this country. I was enormously in favour of building swimming baths, as they do not take up much land. That was an important factor in those days. However, a more important reason for constructing swimming baths is that, as a sport, swimming does not require a lot of brain power. One does not have to be clever to be good at swimming. Swimming is a wonderful sport for bringing children together, some of whom feel inferior to others perhaps because of their colour. Quite stupid children can obtain great prizes for swimming. Therefore I am strongly in favour of swimming and of the Bill.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I must apologise to the House as the rapidity of today's Business meant that I missed the first part of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Norrie. I wish the Bill well. As I stated on Second Reading of the Bill, as everyone has the capacity to drown everyone should at least know how to swim so that all have a chance to save themselves. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, I, too, think swimming constitutes good exercise for everyone. Once swimming pools are constructed, they are not the most difficult things in the world to maintain. Also they do not require a great deal of land. Swimming constitutes good preventive medicine as it helps to reduce the incidence of heart disease, for example. I recommend that the Bill be given the full support of both Houses of Parliament.

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.