Sharon Hodgson MP

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West.

Water Safety debate 17.06.14

Sharon secured an Adjournment debate on water safety to press Ministers on the need for greater education for young people on the dangers of swimming in lakes and rivers.


Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): Just under a year ago at the start of the six-week summer holiday on the 23 July 2013, 15-year-old Tonibeth Purvis from Barmston in Washington in my constituency, and her friend Chloe Fowler who was 14—she was from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson)—tragically died after drowning in the River Wear at Fatfield in Washington. It was a lovely hot sunny day, much like we saw last week and will hopefully see again this summer. To cool off, Chloe jumped into the river. Unfortunately, that particular stretch of the River Wear has a fast current and is up to six metres deep in the middle. It is full of hidden hazards, as many rivers are. It was not long, therefore, before Chloe sadly got into difficulty. Seeing her friend in trouble, Tonibeth immediately jumped in to help her, along with a number of other friends they were with. They quickly found themselves in trouble as well, Tonibeth to the point where she was also overcome. The emergency services were called immediately, shortly before 3 pm. Unfortunately, by then it was already too late. Tonibeth was not located until 8.49 pm, and it took a huge team of emergency service workers—who by all accounts were fantastic—another hour to find Chloe.

The only saving grace of this terrible tragedy is that more young people did not die that afternoon. As her friends said in paying tribute to her in the days following the tragedy, Tonibeth died a hero, trying her best to rescue her friend. She was quite rightly recognised for that heroism as the winner of the editor’s choice award at the Sunderland Echo’s Pride of Wearside awards in November last year. As a mother myself, I do not know if that brings much comfort to her family. I sincerely hope it does.

The parents of Tonibeth and Chloe are not the only ones currently living through the nightmare of losing a child to drowning. Drowning is the third most common cause of accidental death among children in the UK. According to the response I received from the Office for National Statistics to a parliamentary question I tabled in September last year, between July 2008 and December 2012 coroners recorded 48 accidental deaths of children and young people aged under 20 in natural water. That is 48 individual tragedies, 48 families devastated and 48 schools, colleges and wider communities affected—and one persistent problem. Those figures may not tell the whole story, as coroners figures only record the primary cause of death.

The figures for deaths in water—the WAter Incident Database, or WAID, statistics compiled by the National Water Safety Forum—were put at 47 for under-20s in 2011 alone and another 42 in 2012. Those figures show that this is primarily an issue for boys, who account for 78 of the 89 deaths in those two years. None of these figures, of course, include Tonibeth and Chloe or any other young people who lost their lives last summer or since. I understand that in the six-week hot spell we had last summer there were 36 deaths. Of course, many other children and young people have come close to losing their lives. Some have suffered serious injuries or been left traumatised by getting into trouble in the water. When we take all age groups into account, there are some 400 deaths a year, which is the equivalent of one every 20 hours.

The fact is that the vast majority of these individual tragedies can be avoided if people possess a basic understanding of how to look after themselves and know what to do in an emergency, whether it happens to them or others.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this subject to the House for consideration. In my constituency, unfortunately, we have had similar experiences, usually during warm spells of weather. Does she think that advertisements and warnings should be sent out through local press and local government to ensure that people are aware of the dangers in quarries, rivers and the sea? Those are the danger spots whenever the weather is warm.

Mrs Hodgson: I will come on to prevention shortly.

The Royal Life Saving Society were, opportunely, in Parliament today, hosted by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who had hoped to attend the debate. It held a briefing session for MPs and peers on this very subject ahead of drowning prevention week, which begins on Monday 23 June and runs until 29 June. It conducted research last year that found that 68% of people said they would not know what to do if they saw someone drowning, or how to treat them even if they were able to recover them safely from the water. However, in spite of that self-awareness of lack of capability, 63% of those people said they would still jump in to try to save a family member who was drowning, and 37% said they would even do so to try to save a stranger.

Most victims of drowning are alone, but it is little wonder that the kind of selflessness and heroism that was displayed by Tonibeth can so often lead to an even deeper tragedy. In the hope of preventing such tragedies, the RLSS has made a number of demands in its “manifesto for water safety”, which I think require close consideration by the Minister and, indeed, other members of the Government.

The RLSS argues that schools should ensure that every child is taught the basic principles of water safety, and personal survival skills. That means that children should understand the risks involved in various water environments such as currents, loose banks and vegetation, and should know how best to enter and exit water, which includes what it is best for them to do if they fall in. It means that they should be able to orientate and contort their bodies in the water, especially if they are caught in a current and need to turn to face the direction in which it is taking them so that they avoid hurting themselves and do not miss opportunities to grab something. It means being familiar with the typical survival skills that would generally occur to us, such as treading water, making ourselves buoyant, and swimming in clothing. Swimming itself is, of course, a very important skill, but it is also important to be taught the techniques that make it possible to rescue other people safely, which include keeping their heads back and above water.

The current school curriculum mentions safety, but the target of being able to swim 25 metres by the end of primary school is the real priority for most schools. Being able to swim 25 metres would certainly help, but doing so in a warm, clear swimming pool with lifeguards at hand is completely different from having to swim 25 metres, or even 5 metres, in a cold lake or a river with a strong current and hidden hazards.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): My hon. Friend was right to list all the water safety skills that children should be taught, but does she agree that every school leaver should be a life saver? Should not all young people be taught cardiopulmonary resuscitation, how to place people in the recovery position, and other ways of saving people’s lives once they have been rescued?

Mrs Hodgson: Yes. Those are all valuable life skills. If I had to choose an overriding priority, I would choose water safety education and survival skills.

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for what she said earlier about the work of the Royal Life Saving Society UK and its visit to the House. Does she agree that, ahead of the summer months, Members in all parts of the House have a unique opportunity to promote the drowning prevention message to young people in particular? Is that not something that we can all do together now, in the short term?

Mrs Hodgson: Yes, I do agree. I should like to think that, following the debate, an all-party parliamentary group could be set up. Perhaps it could be led by the hon. Gentleman, who showed such great leadership in organising today’s event in which the RLSS highlighted the importance of life-saving. I can think of no better gentleman to chair such a group. I should be more than happy to be a qualifying member, as, I am sure, would other Members who are present this evening.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the RLSS argues that water safety education should be extended, in an age-appropriate way, to key stages 3 and 4. It believes that such education should be directed at the age group that is most likely to take risks around water and get into difficulty as a result, and that parents should be notified about their children’s progress. In the context of the tightening of budgets, it also recommends that schools should consider focusing on pupils who cannot swim. I am sure that many young people would be disappointed if they were told that they could not take part because they had already got their badges, but there is some sense in doing that, as long as the competent swimmers receive good-quality provision in some other sporting activity at the same time. The RLSS also calls for Ministers to give schools a clear understanding of what is expected from them in this regard, and then to ensure that progress is inspected and reported on so that schools are accountable to parents for that progress.

The Minister may be aware of a survey by the Amateur Swimming Association which found that nearly 20% of schools, and 25% of academies, do not know their swimming attainment rates, or do not offer swimming at all. It also found that 51% of primary school children are unable to swim the minimum of 25 metres by the time they leave primary school. This concern about the decreasing priority given to swimming is echoed by Councillor Fiona Miller, who represents the Washington East ward in my constituency, where this tragedy occurred, and who is also a swimming teacher. She also reminded me that many schools used to get resources on water safety and many other things from the Youth Sport Trust, but increasing numbers of those schools are reviewing their membership of this body in light of fragmented and squeezed budgets. These figures and concerns are extremely worrying, so I hope the Minister is able to provide some figures of his own, particularly on the provision of swimming in primary academies, which are not bound by the curriculum at all.

The RLSS also calls on the Government to provide support for an annual public awareness campaign highlighting drowning risk, which would be useful for adults and children alike, as well as to ensure that there are sufficient safe places that children and young people can go—and can afford to go—to swim during the summer holidays, or indeed at evenings and weekends. I hesitate to make this point because I do not suggest for a moment that there is any causal link between the Government’s actions and any drownings, but Labour’s free swimming initiative provided such a valuable opportunity for so many young people to swim safely and to learn to swim at any time, but especially over the school holidays, and it is a great shame that it was scrapped.

There has certainly also been an increasing threat to public swimming baths as councils struggle to balance their budgets in extremely challenging times. In my constituency, campaigners found out just this week that they had been successful in lobbying to save Castle View enterprise academy’s pool—which is widely used by the whole community, including local primary schools—from having to close its doors. As savings become ever harder to make for local authorities, the future of other pools across the country will increasingly come into question, and many of them will not get the reprieve that this particular one has had, and some may have to put up prices.

I know that there was a degree of indecision at official level as to which Department was to answer this debate. The prevention of drowning accidents, and therefore of the loss of lives and serious injury, is a cross-cutting issue, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport all have a stake in this, as do their local and national partners and agencies, but, as we know, there is always a risk with cross-cutting issues that they will fall between the cracks in both Whitehall and at a local level, rather than the overlap helping to bridge those gaps. Just as in so many other areas, one of the best preventive tools that Government have at their disposal is our education system, and therefore although I admire—and, indeed, like—the Minister who is here tonight, I am disappointed that an Education Minister is not here to respond. Just as with healthy eating and lifestyles and sex and relationships education, this is an area in which we can, through education, give children and young people the skills and knowledge they will need at the very point in their lives when they will need it, as well as for when they grow up, and not just in order to pass exams or help them get into Oxbridge, but to help them lead safe and healthy and, therefore, long and happy lives.

I therefore look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on what his Department and others across Government are doing to this end, and I ask whether they will look at the very modest and sensible recommendations from the RLSS, and what further ideas and policies the Government may be convinced to explore in the near future to help try and prevent another tragedy like the one that shook Sunderland last year, and which has left such a devastating gap in the lives of Tonibeth’s and Chloe’s family and friends.

As I mentioned earlier in my speech, drowning prevention week is next week. It is a great initiative usually aimed at primary schools, but this year it is being expanded to secondary schools as well. As far as that campaign will reach, however, it will not reach all schools and it will not reach all children. It would be a major, and very timely, boost for this campaign if the Minister were able to say tonight that the Government will take some of the RLSS calls for action on board, or perhaps come forward with some other proposals, so I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

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