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Private Swimming Pools

11.30 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): The matter that I wish to raise today is not only of great interest to people in my constituency of South-East Cornwall; it is of great relevance to people throughout the United Kingdom who holiday in this country.

Last summer, at Honicombe Manor holiday park, near Callington in my constituency, two young girls tragically drowned in the privately owned swimming pool at the holiday centre. The coroner's report, issued two weeks ago, was most distressing because it revealed that, had the pool complied with the guidelines set out by the Health and Safety Executive, the deaths could have been avoided. The pool was not supervised by a lifeguard; there was no emergency alarm or poolside telephone; and the pool shelved rapidly to a deep section that was not properly signposted. All those factors go against the guidelines and recommendations set out in "Managing Health and Safety in Swimming Pools--a document recently updated by the Health and Safety Executive and the Sports Council of England, which I wholeheartedly commend and endorse.

I bring the matter to the House of Commons today in the hope that something can be done to ensure that accidents such as that latest tragedy do not happen again. The problem with private swimming pools--for the purposes of our debate, I mean pools in hotels, camp sites, self-catering complexes and similar establishments, but not domestic pools--is that they are not subject to the demands of specific regulations. They need comply only with the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which states that their owners should accept a duty of care. As I said, guidelines exist on how to do that; they are good and comprehensive, but they are little more than suggestions of how best to meet the health and safety at work regulations. They contain few specific requirements and, if the guidelines are not heeded, pool owners and operators face little threat of disadvantage.

Local authorities have the power to issue orders for improvement, or prohibition orders. However, as illustrated by the case in my constituency, those orders are not always heeded, and the system of checks is not as rigorous as necessary. In light of the number of accidents that have occurred in such facilities, that cannot be allowed to continue.

The coroner at the inquest in the Honicombe Manor case has, in recent years, presided over inquests into seven deaths in holiday industry pools in Cornwall. Statistics prepared by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents show that the number of drownings in private pools has been worryingly high for a number of years. Of most concern is the fact that, although the number of accidents in public pools has fallen, the number of accidents in private pools has not. In 1998, the number of deaths in private pools was more than double the number of deaths in public pools. That illustrates the fact that, if the new guidelines were rigorously enforced in private pools, as they are in municipal pools, lives would be saved.

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Surely it is time to take the advice of the coroner, who said that

The vast majority of those who operate private pools do so responsibly and ensure that the design and future operation of their facilities meet all the safety standards. However, we need to ensure that all pools meet the minimum standards and can be taken out of action immediately if they are found to be substandard. I should stress that I intend to call for such legislation.

My constituency has a thriving tourism industry, so I do not wish to make it more costly or difficult for holiday complex owners to provide leisure facilities. My constituency is also on the coast, so I am only too aware that the number of deaths in swimming pools is tiny compared with the number of deaths in rivers and the sea. I do not want to discourage the use of swimming pools, as it is enjoyable and valuable.

We want our children to learn to swim and to become strong swimmers by swimming regularly, and pools are the safest places for them to do that. However, they are safe only if the pools are properly supervised, if there are clear markings to show where unconfident swimmers can swim within their depth and if there is a clear action plan for when things go wrong, as they sometimes do, albeit rarely. We must also remember that many schools use local private pools for swimming lessons.

The fact that other swimming areas are more dangerous is no excuse for inaction. I fully accept that there will always be risks attached to leisure pursuits involving water. Simple, relatively inexpensive precautions should be taken, however, to ensure greater safety in private swiming pools.

The guidelines issued by the Health and Safety Executive are extremely well thought out. Although they recognise that not all swimming pools will meet top standards at all times, they give clear, sensible guidance on how to minimise risk. We must ensure that the guidelines are properly implemented. Had they been, I am certain that there would not have been a pool with a sharp and badly signposted shelf to a deep section, no poolside alarm and no lifeguard, although not all those might have been realistically available while a small holiday business maintained commercial viability. Had the recommended system been in place, however, the pool would not have been granted a licence until a least its gradient had been lowered and a trained and qualified specialist health and safety inspector had outlined and approved a clear emergency plan.

Several problems relate specifically to swimming pools. We are all aware that swimming pool design and installation differ from what existed a few years ago. We are aware of recent cases in which hair has been trapped in filter systems, injuries have resulted from poorly designed water slides and flumes, and accidents have been caused by poor layout such as low-level overhead pipes. We have also heard about more common problems, such as bad signing of deep areas, sharp

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shelves into deep water and slippery poolside surfaces. We need properly qualified people who are trained specifically to spot those potential problems and enforce recommendations at design stage and when the pool is commissioned for use. Such a regime would not be difficult to implement. Existing environmental health officers need to be qualified in the specialist subject of swimming pool safety.

The vast majority of our swimming pools are as safe as we can make them: it is the others that we must tackle. Even the worst pools are less hazardous than the open sea, but there is room for improvement. When we are dealing with people's safety, we should not delay taking every possible step towards improvement. There is always a cost to increasing regulation. We must bear in mind the fact that, often, only limited resources are available to small holiday complex owners and indeed, local authorities. However, I am sure that all holiday complex owners want to provide safer facilities for their customers.

My aim in suggesting a licensing programme is to encourage a more proactive approach to swimming pool safety, in both their construction and the organisation of their use, than the current system of orders to improve and prohibition orders, which, by their nature, are reactive. If pool owners knew that they had to meet minimum standards before being allowed to open their facilities, best practice would be encouraged from the outset. That would be especially effective in encouraging better swimming pool design, which has been identified by ROSPA as one of the chief sources of danger in such swimming pools. It would involve considerable collaboration between the agency responsible for inspection and the planning authorities, but I do not see that as an insurmountable barrier.

The Health and Safety Executive takes seriously the dangers that can be associated with swimming pools and has, in response to previous cases, commissioned inspections of pools. Unfortunately, when the personnel sent to carry out those inspections are not qualified specialists and the immediate threat of a loss of licence is not a possibility, there will always be some irresponsible owners who do not take the action necessary to comply with the best practice as laid out.

I have spoken to the local council involved in my constituency and it has expressed its support for a scheme of licences. Furthermore, in a recent letter to me the Institute of Leisure and Amenity Management recognised a

To summarise, I am not convinced that the duty of care requirement as created in the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 is specific enough to deal with the particular problems associated with private swimming pools. Most establishments in the holiday industry require adherence to strict safety precautions in relation to fire. Fire certification has dramatically improved consumer safety in hotel accommodation. It is time to introduce similar measures for swimming pools.

We should have a stronger system of licensing starting at the design stage so that safety features could be designed in at an appropriate time. It should follow

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through to the commissioning stage so that a pool is constructed in the way it should be. Pools should be subjected to regular inspection, whether yearly, two yearly or three yearly, with the possible addition of spot checks. There should also be enforcement powers to close down a facility if necessary. Such a regime is called for by the coroner and my local authority and is supported by the professional institution. I ask the Minister to consider these representations seriously so that we reduce the incidence of these tragic accidents.

11.43 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes) : It is a pleasure to respond to my first debate in this Chamber under your supervision, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on securing this debate. I should also like to tell him how sorry I am about the tragic incident that occurred in his constituency in which two young people from, I believe, the north-west lost their lives--[Interruption.] I apologise if that was incorrect. My sympathy goes genuinely to the families who have suffered such an appalling loss.

According to figures produced by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, there are about 10 to 12 fatal accidents in swimming pools each year. Any drowning is a significant tragedy. At least some of that albeit small number of deaths in swimming pools could have been prevented by pool operators taking greater precautions, by bathers exercising more care, or by a combination of both. There has been an apparent blip in the figures this year, showing that a larger proportion of the annual fatalities has happened in private pools. That blip does not affect the trend over recent years, when fatalities in both private and public pools have been more or less the same.

I know that the number of deaths is very small compared with the number of people who use pools, but that is of little consolation to those who have lost family members. I fully appreciate that, and accept the view that any fatality is a tragedy. Statistically speaking, swimming pools are relatively safe. The number of fatalities is very low compared with the estimated 7 million people a year who use them, and the benefits of swimming far outweigh those risks. Swimming pools have been proven to be far safer places to swim than open water, which claims about 400 lives a year.

As the hon. Gentleman will know from his area, in recent years there has been a steady increase in the number of people taking holidays in the United Kingdom. People enjoy an increasing amount of leisure time, and the number of people using swimming pools--especially private pools in hotels and holiday camps--has increased. The Health and Safety Executive is aware of that phenomenon and has taken steps to ensure that the increase in the number of pools and users does not cause unnecessary hazards. The HSE has tried to work closely with industry representatives, local authorities and sports councils to ensure that the best possible advice is available to those responsible for running swimming pools.

We must ensure that pool operators and users take health and safety issues seriously. Pool operators should be aiming for the highest levels of safety, which

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would benefit them as more people were encouraged to enjoy the benefits of swimming in a safe, well-run swimming pool. To help those involved in running pools to focus on what is needed to operate a safe pool, the Government and the Health and Safety Commission have put in place a robust and rigorous regime, which we believe has been instrumental in keeping fatalities in swimming pools at a very low level. That has been achieved through a goal-setting legislative approach, the production of detailed guidance, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and, where necessary, proportionate enforcement action.

I shall say a little about the various elements of that regime. Legislation applies to swimming pools only when a work activity takes place; it does not apply to private pools in people's homes. The legislation applies to public pools and those in holiday camps, hotels and private health clubs. There is no specific legislation, but the Health and Safety Commission and Executive use the provisions in sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, and supporting legislation. Under section 2, pool managers have a duty to protect people working for them; under section 3, they must ensure that their work activity and that of their employees--the provision of swimming facilities--does not cause harm to others, such as pool users or those who have access to the swimming pool. There is a clear locus of responsibility relating to swimming facilities and pool users.

More specifically, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers and pool operators to undertake an assessment of the significant risks involved in their work activity and to identify and put in place the control measures necessary to ensure that the risk of harm is minimised so far as is reasonably practicable. To help pool operators to comply with their duties under that legislation, the Health and Safety Commission, together with Sport England, published the revised guidance to which the hon. Gentleman referred, "Managing Health and Safety in Swimming Pools. The new publication was produced to replace the previous guidance "Safety in Swimming Pools, which had also been jointly prepared by the HSC and Sport England in 1988. It was revised to take account of the requirements of health and safety legislation that had been introduced since then, including the 1999 regulations and the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which make explicit many of the general duties that were set out in the original Act, such as maintenance of the workplace and of equipment, devices and systems.

Mr. Breed : Does the Minister agree that all those regulations are, as I said, largely reactive? They are made after contraventions have occurred, rather than being in place in the first place.

Ms Hughes : I certainly agree that, under the current regime, the onus is on the pool operator to ensure that he or she has undertaken a risk assessment and put in place the measures that that assessment identified as necessary to minimise risk. That is where the primary responsibility lies. There is also a responsibility on local authorities to inspect pools and enforce the provisions

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of the guidance. Together, those two loci of responsibility offer a robust regime which, in the vast majority of circumstances, ensures safety to a standard which, as I said, achieves a very low incidence of accidents and fatalities.

The revision of the guidance presented an opportunity for the HSE to respond to requests from the industry to incorporate other changes that would take account of technological advances in equipment, training methods and so on. To pick up on another point that the hon. Gentleman raised, the revision takes account of the experiences not just of those who use swimming pools, but of managers, inspectors, designers, architects, manufacturers and builders. There is a huge push from the industry as well as from the Government and local authorities to design and build in safety for swimming pools in the way that the hon. Gentleman advocated.

The guidance has maintained a consistently high profile over the year since its publication. It is recognised as independent and was constructed with the input of representatives from the public and private sectors, consumer interest groups and other professional bodies. The HSE and the HSC believe that it has been effective in raising awareness of the many hazards associated with the preparation and use of swimming pools and, as a consequence, has contributed to the reduction in swimming pool fatalities.

Like its predecessor, the new guidance was widely welcomed in all sectors of the industry. Our evidence from pool operators who have taken it up is that they have taken on board the need to incorporate it in their practice. If pool operators follow the advice that it gives, they will have gone a long way towards preventing a further loss of life. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the rigour and robustness of the guidance--if it is followed--should ensure very high standards of safety.

Most privately owned pools in the UK fall under the responsibility of the local authorities that enforce health and safety law on behalf of the HSE--although, as the hon. Gentleman will know, if a local authority owns the pool, the HSE is the enforcing authority. As the risk of serious harm as a result of a visit to a swimming pool is quite remote, the frequency of health and safety inspections is based on available resources and other priorities, based on levels of risk. None the less, the strategy for 1999-2002 devised by the HSE and the local authority enforcement liaison committee, the joint committee that considers such matters, includes as a key indicator and an objective for local authorities a reduction in incidents in swimming pools. Evidence clearly suggests that the HSE and local authorities are aware that the regime's robustness depends partly on enforcement and inspection, and have made it their objective to ensure, through enforcement and inspection, a reduction in incidents. They aim to achieve that through the promotion of the recently published guidance and by raising awareness of specific health and safety risks so that pool operators can take the steps necessary to reduce the risk of an incident happening in their pool.

Under the existing legislative framework, using a goal-setting approach and with the involvement of industry in the production of guidance, the HSE has been able to ensure that a template is available for pool

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operators to reduce further the number of fatalities in swimming pools. That, coupled with enforcement action where necessary, provides a structured and balanced approach to ensure safety. It is through that overall approach to managing health and safety in swimming pools that the HSE has managed, it would argue, to obviate the need for sector-specific regulation, which might, arguably, merely duplicate existing requirements in more general health and safety legislation, and, therefore, as the hon. Gentleman intimated, make it more difficult for businesses and local authorities to provide facilities for people to learn and enjoy the benefits of swimming. We must remember that it is the responsibility of pool operators to ensure that they have done everything reasonably practicable to reduce the risk of harm to people in their pools through either working or bathing.

Mr. Breed: Is the Minister confident that the people who are asked to carry out the inspections on behalf of the HSE are properly trained and qualified? Unfortunately, it seems that, in this case, the main problem was missed twice. No formal qualifications seem to be involved in the inspection of the health and safety aspect of swimming pools.

Ms Hughes: As the hon. Gentleman will understand, I cannot comment on that particular case. I do not know all the details, and, in any case, the district council may take further legal action. Presumably he is questioning me about whether local authority inspectors are competent. In researching the matter for the debate, I have found no evidence to suggest that local authority inspectors in general are not competent. Local authorities make an effort to ensure that inspectors have specific training when they make inspections. If the issue should arise in a particular case, we shall consider it.

The hon. Gentleman proposed that the Department consider the coroner's recommendation, which is, if I understand him correctly, for a more proactive licensing regime, as opposed to the current regime, in which responsibility lies with the operator to conduct a risk assessment, followed by an inspection of that risk assessment and of the measures that it identifies, together with any necessary enforcement action. Taking the picture in the round, I cannot assure him that a system of licensing would be considered the best way forward. However, I assure him that if the coroner, or anyone else, makes such representations to us, we will look at them in detail and consider them thoroughly. We will not just dismiss them out of hand. I hope that that is sufficient for him at the moment.

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