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The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Nigel Griffiths):
I shall give more than a responseI hope I shall give the House a very satisfactory response. It is clear from the motion, that the position has been set out. The Opposition have had June, July, August, September and now October to consider it. I note that neither my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House nor I received any intimation that this was an unsatisfactory way of proceeding on the matter. Perhaps the Opposition spent rather too long earlier
not listening to the previous debate but formulating a way of raising the matter on the Floor of the House.
Let me explain in clear terms. In the 19 years that I have been in the House, I have heard some spurious points of order. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on the creative way in which he raised the point of order. He has done very well. Far be it from me to criticise the Speaker
Peter Bottomley: The Minister has twice referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) raising a point of order. I thought the motion was debatable and I thought my hon. Friend debated it.
The motion states clearly that the order for the establishment or abolition of SHAs should be referred to Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation. As all hon. Members will know, those Standing Committees are made up of Members from all parties in the House. If they have points to raise about the propriety of the terms of the order, that is the place to do it. As the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) would know if he had ever been a Ministerseveral hon. Members on the Conservative Benches have been Ministers and, indeed, members of the Cabinetit is not uncommon for such orders to be presented to the House of Commons with a deadline that, if it has expired by the time the Standing Committee considers them, does not negate the very valuable contribution that Standing Committees make.
Nigel Griffiths: I will be very happy to give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and, after him, as he is a right hon. and learned Member, to the hon. Member for Eddisbury(Mr. OBrien), because he will tell us from his own experience in Cabinet that the way in which this matter has been handled was inherited from the previous Government.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien: I would very much like quickly to ask this humble Ministergiven that I have never been a Minister I cannot possibly know the answer, but he willwhat, if the order were to be defeated, would be the consequences?
Nigel Griffiths: The consequences would be dire. I have every confidence that Members considering this matter in the Delegated Legislation Committee will reach a proper conclusionthat the Government were right to table the order on 2 June, that it was the right procedure to take, and that it was the best decision for the health service and for health authoritiesand will approve it.
Mr. Lansley: Given that the Governments decision enshrined in the order is so perfect, that it was perfect in 2002 when there was a similar order, that it was perfect in 2004, as the revocation has made clear, and that it is presumably perfect in 2006, the Governments intention is to revoke all of this in 2008 and change it all again.
Nigel Griffiths: That is a rather clever point, but I note that the hon. Gentleman was not a member of the Standing Committees that considered such delegated legislation as he is now criticising. The House came to a view that those were the right measures in 2002, 2003, and in the other years that he mentioned. We are coming close to 10 oclock and I do not wish to enjoy an Alan Clark moment at the Dispatch Box. I have given away enough. This is an order that is worth supporting and I commend it to the House.
I shall begin by mentioning a couple of facts. First, I am a new member of the surf life saving association in the village where I live, Portreath, and I am learning lots at first hand about beach safety. Secondly, I managed to fall off a cliff when I was 17, which resulted in my needing to be rescued, so I have first-hand experience of such matters.
All hon. Members appreciate that the south-west is an important tourist destination, and in many places the principal attraction is the coastline. The issue of safe beach lifeguarding is important to many families, and we have visitors to the south-west in their millions. West Cornwall alone had 1.4 million visitors between May and September this year, and the holiday season is increasing for a variety of reasons. One reason may be global warming, which means that we are getting unseasonably warm weather. One need only look at the front page of yesterdays edition of The Guardian, which showed a little girl paddling in the sea in Sussex. Another reason may be the increasing popularity of surfing, for which there are better conditions outside the peak summer weeks. Surfing is a sport that is growing in popularity, so we are seeing greater numbers in a longer season. Furthermore, we have more sophisticated materials that mean that it is possible to stay warmer for longer if one happens to venture into the water outside the summer months. Whatever the causes, more and more people are visiting beaches over a longer period of time. Although that is undoubtedly good news for the economy in the south-west, it has implications for lifeguard cover.
I want to draw the Ministers attention to some figures from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The RNLI assisted 10,000 people last year, which was 2,000 more than the previous year. It saved 71 lives and carried out 718 rescues, assisting 1,448 people, and those figures cover only the beaches where the RNLI provides cover. The key question is whether lifeguard cover reflects that changing need. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no.
At the moment, lifeguard cover is discretionary, and it is provided by local authorities mainly on an historical basis. In some cases, they provide it on publicly owned beaches; in others, they provide it on privately owned beaches. The service is discretionary in terms of not only whether there is lifeguard provision, but whether there are warning signs, whether there is any emergency equipment and even whether there is an emergency telephone. Because there is no statutory requirement to provide the service, and because there is no accompanying funding as a result, local authorities are increasingly hesitant to increase their cover or provide new services. In Kerrier and Penwith, many local authority-owned beaches are manned by only one lifeguard in the summer, with inferior equipment to that provided on RNLI-lifeguarded beaches.
The season cover provided by local authorities is getting shorter. Anything that is not a statutory service experiences budgetary pressures to a disproportionate extent, a point which is made clear in a letter that I received yesterday from Kerrier district council:
Kerrier historically has provided its own life guard service and is proud of the service provided to date. There are always issues regarding the funding of discretionary services in both revenue terms and the capital investment needed to upgrade equipment...There remains pressures to reduce the cost to the council tax payer in Kerrier and this could take the form of asking private beach owners for contributions towards service provision or even removing services.
The council states that a final decision has not been made, but the threat is there. These pressures are mainly reflected in two areas, the first of which is the length of the season when cover is provided on local authority owned or provided beaches. Kerrier district council says in its letter:
As regards maintaining existing levels of service Kerrier has already reduced the service to cover its main beaches during the summer peak periods and the shoulders of the season, especially half terms. This service used to include a winter patrol where, during the winter months, a beach was patrolled according to predicted surf conditions.
I went to visit the RNLI lifeguards at Perranporth the other week, when it was very quiet because the conditions were quite rough. I talked to the lifeguard, who lives in Portreath. He said that he has had very quiet days on the beaches that he covers in Perranporth, but when he returns home to a more sheltered cove he has found up to 150 people using the beach with no lifeguard provision at all. At a time when using the beaches is becoming increasingly popular, even in the autumn and earlier in the spring, cover is being withdrawn, and is not reflecting the areas that people are visiting.
Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): As I am sure that my hon. Friend is awareI want the Minister to reflect on thisthe availability of effective and cheap bodysuits and wetsuits means that many beaches are being heavily used right through the year. This is not simply a matter of whether local authorities can maintain the cover that they used to provide. There is now a need for much more extensive cover through the year than there was before. I think that my hon. Friend will be able to confirm the number of recent incidents that have required rescue in what would traditionally have been a part of the year when there was virtually nobody in the water.
I thank my hon. Friend; I was just coming to that. I have been flicking through my local newspapers from recent weeks, and they contain several examples. On 21 September, four people had to be rescued dramatically from Hayle Towans. A father and his three sons, who were on holiday, got into trouble on the beach where there was no lifeguard provision, and the coastguard had to be called out. There is a similar story from Newquay on 7 October. The RNLI, commenting on an event where surfers had to be rescued, said that if lifeguards had been on duty, there would have been red flags that would have dissuaded people from going into the surf in such treacherous circumstances. The problem is that surfers sometimes look on bad weather as a bit of a treat and an extra challenge. There need to be clear signals that
these are potentially very dangerous waters. People visiting the area may not understand the local conditions, which may not be immediately visible.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): My hon. Friend raises some important issues. There is great variability. Some beaches have several lifeguards, or have them for a few hours, while others do not have them at all. People who visit various beaches when they come on holiday may find services on one beach and expect them on another where they are not provided. There is no uniformity or co-ordination in terms of the availability of beach safety.
Julia Goldsworthy: My hon. Friend is right. The situation is not predictable. That uncertainty is becoming even more of a problem where local authorities that have historically provided services on privately owned beaches begin to think, because they are discretionary services and there are budgetary pressures, that if a private beach owner is making a profit from it, they should make a contribution.
Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is further complicated in the case of beachesthere are some in my constituencywith multiple landowners, some of which may be involved in businesses that derive benefit from their involvement, such as farmers?
Julia Goldsworthy: I will come to that in due course. At this point, I am talking about entirely privately owned beaches. One example is Saunton Sands, a very large and popular privately owned beach in North Devon. North Devon district council felt that it was no longer able to provide these services on its own, but when it withdrew them, the private landowner had no responsibility to provide additional cover, so a very popular beach now has no lifeguard provision whatsoever. As my hon. Friend said, the matter can get more complicated because beaches are not entirely privately owned or entirely owned by the local authority; in some cases, a significant number of people have some kind of ownership. In my home village of Portreath, the beach is partly owned by the local authority, partly owned by the local village improvements committee, and partly privately owned. If there is to be a statutory responsibility, it will not be easy to resolve where it should lie in cases of multiple ownership.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): As the hon. Lady knows, I was a lifeguard in a previous life. When a public pool becomes overcrowded, the lifeguards can close it and get people out of the water in safety. I have corresponded with the Health and Safety Commission and the position on a beach is incredibly ambiguous. Once people are in the water, who has the duty of care? I am pleased that the hon. Lady has called the debate and I await the Ministers response with interest.
I thank the hon. Lady for intervening. I was about to refer to some correspondence that she had with the RNLI and the Health and Safety Commission. She asked about
statutory responsibility for safety and whether risk assessments should be made on the beach. The HSC response made it clear:
Where a beach is being actively maintained as a leisure amenity on which members of the public are encouraged to use services... the operator... will need to conduct a risk assessment.
However, while the duty of care would include the beach down to the low water mark, the sea itself would not be part of the undertaking, so there is no obligation under health and safety law to assess the risks of swimming or provide control measures such as lifeguards.
The issue is complex and becomes increasingly so when there is more than one owner of a beach. However, the RNLI is working hard to try to clarify the position. There has been a pilot in the south-west since 2001, whereby the RNLI helps extend the season of cover. For example, in Carrick, where the RNLI helps provide lifeguarding services, the season of cover is extended, there is access to better equipment and the organisation looks to provide work placements abroad so that the turnover of lifeguards is not so high and they have a winter as well as a summer job.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Dorset, especially Poole, where there is a beautiful beach, which many of my constituents use, is well served by the RNLI. There is funding, which the RNLI regards as adequate, but the big problem is that, unless responsibility is made clear shortly, the local authority may dip into that money. The service is currently excellent.
Julia Goldsworthy: Partnership working between the RNLI and local authorities already happens but the relationship is vulnerable without clarity about statutory responsibility. The RNLI is worried that, with increasing pressure on local authorities, they will slowly start to withdraw and the RNLI will be left holding the baby.
The Government have been aware of the problem for some time. The Transport Committee raised the matter in 2005 and suggested a meeting with local authorities and the RNLI. The meeting took place and I understand that both parties were initially positive, but there has been no formal response. Although the RNLI met the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) on 19 July to discuss duty of care issues, again there has been no formal response. That is frustrating for those who are worried that services are being eroded and time is ticking on.
Let me summarise the problems. Unclear statutory responsibility means that there is no funding, and many local authorities with a significant coastline find that a great burden. There are also complications about beach ownership. I appreciate that that cannot be cleared up immediately or quickly, but progress needs to be made.
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