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The RNLI proposes a compromise, which offers a viable way forward. It suggests that any beach that
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exceeds a specified amount of usage, whoever owns it, triggers a risk assessment of whether there should be lifeguard cover or more emergency equipment. The RNLI offers to undertake that risk assessment free of charge, provided that it goes on to determine the cover that is needed. That process could trigger negotiations about who is responsible for the duty of care on the beaches. Again, it needs to be accompanied by clarification from the Government.

If the proposal gets Government approval, it could result in the roll-out of the RNLI’s support through lifeguard provision, not only in the south-west, where it has already proved beneficial, as my hon. Friends testified, but in places such as Brighton, which cry out for access to those extra resources. If the programme that has been trialled in the south-west cannot be rolled out, we will experience declining provision when use of beaches is increasing.

This is not an easy issue to resolve. There have been plenty of warm words, but, unfortunately, not enough action. I hope that the Government will take up the RNLI’s offer, and that there will be an opportunity to respond formally to the representations made over two years. There is a fantastic opportunity before us. Cornwall’s surf life saving clubs are among the most vibrant in the country, providing beach and pool lifeguards to the highest standards. The county is also bidding for the 2010 world surf life saving championships, which would be an amazing prelude to the Olympics and a real way to champion the popularity of the sport and to put Cornwall on the map. It would be ironic if we were hosting such an event but not providing world-class surf life saving lifeguard cover.

I do not want to see our position undermined. The Minister and her Department have had long enough to consider this problem. We need to see progress, and I hope that I shall receive assurances from her tonight that that will be the case.

10.15 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend on securing the debate. I also declare an interest as a former member of the Polurrian Surf Life Saving Club in my constituency, which is also in the shared district of Kerrier.

Some important issues have been raised. First, although the meeting in December with the Minister’s predecessor involved local authorities, I emphasise that they have not been fully involved in discussions since. Certainly, the Royal Life Saving Society needs to be involved in discussions henceforth, as it has a large body of experience in this area.

Secondly, under financial regulations, as local authorities understand them, any expenditure over £20,00 must be put out to tender. In view of that, any contracts in relation to beaches that are the responsibility of local authorities must be put out to tender in each and every case. As far as future contracts and arrangements are concerned, that issue should be thrown into the melting pot.

Thirdly, local authorities in my area—Penwith as well as Kerrier—have 35 years’ experience of beach
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safety management. Therefore they have worked on risk assessments, and duty of care and ownership issues, with the search and rescue service—which is also based in my constituency—the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Royal Life Saving Society and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. They have developed risk assessments, which are now being rolled out on beaches monitored and patrolled by local authorities. It is important that that be considered in any future work undertaken. This issue is particularly knotty, and many people should be involved to help the Government, and each other, to find a solution. I hope that all partners and stakeholders will be involved.

10.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I congratulate the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) on securing this debate and raising this important issue.

I have just been racking my brains to remember what was said on the BBC programme “Coast”. I think that it was that we are never more than 73 miles from the coast—I might be wrong on the number—wherever we are in the UK. Beach safety is therefore an important issue for us all. Day trips and longer vacations to the seaside are a popular form of recreation. As the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) knows, only a month ago, I made a ministerial visit to Cornwall, where I took the opportunity to spend a little more time and to visit some of the very nice beaches. Of course, tourism makes an important contribution to local economies in many coastal towns.

Beach safety impacts on the experience of visitors and can have a significant impact on the reputation of local areas. It is therefore important to local areas that beaches are maintained as good-quality, safe environments for all. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, other hon. Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) for raising such points in debate this evening.

The discussion on how best to promote safety and avoid accidents on our beaches has been with us for some time. As the hon. Lady stated, it was recently raised by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which has expressed concerns about the future of lifeguarding in some areas. The concern is that some local authorities, and other beach owners that have funded provision of this service in the past, may be planning to reduce their contributions, owing to budgetary constraints.

The RNLI is a key player in this field, having provided lifeguard services in the south and west of England since 2001, with 62 beaches being covered in the summer months. According to its own figures, its staff saved the lives of 71 people in 2005, and attended 8,664 incidents. On average, participating local authorities fund 40 per cent. of the cost of providing lifeguard services, which are administered through service level agreements.

Recently, however, the RNLI has reported that some local authorities are becoming reluctant to renew existing SLAs, and that some are unwilling to contribute towards beach safety generally. The institute
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wants to reverse that trend and is calling for a lead from central Government on who is responsible for beach safety and lifeguard provision. As the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne noted, it has asked for a standard risk assessment for beach safety to be put in place, with a duty to provide lifeguarding once a threshold is exceeded.

Beach safety provision is a complex issue, however. Looking at how safety on beaches should be provided and who is responsible for it reveals those complexities. The problems include determining who owns the beach and whether there currently exists a legal duty of care for a beach owner to provide protection. Another element involves deciding the practical measures that should be put in place.

Most beaches are owned by local authorities, whose jurisdiction normally coincides with their boundaries. Coastal local authorities in England and Wales have administrative control and jurisdiction over areas down to the low-water mark. In the main, beaches not owned by local authorities are owned by private companies and charities. In those cases, those bodies would be considered to hold the primary duty of care towards beach users, where there is held to be such a duty.

Although local authorities have a duty of care towards their service users, there is currently no statutory duty on them to ensure beach safety or produce risk assessments on beach safety. Legally, it would be unreasonable to expect a local authority, or other beach owner, to offer protection against the naturally dangerous properties of the sea. It could also be argued that to impose on any beach owner a duty to protect persons from self-inflicted harm sustained when taking voluntary risks in the face of obvious danger would also be unreasonable.

As matters stand, it is at the discretion of a local authority or other beach owner to decide whether or not to implement beach safety measures. However, where a beach owner has created a “reasonable expectation” regarding the level of safety of a beach—for example, by promoting it to visitors or previously providing a lifeguard service— that action in itself is generally held to establish a duty of care. In other words, users would be entitled to use the beach on the assumption that appropriate safety measures would continue to be provided. Therefore, if a local authority currently providing lifeguard services decided to withdraw them, there is an argument to suggest that a risk assessment should be carried out first.

Placing a statutory duty on beach owners to provide beach safety could be viewed as one solution to the problem of ensuring that beaches are safer, and it might reduce the number of accidents and deaths on beaches. Such a course of action could involve requiring all coastal local authorities to risk-assess the beaches falling within their jurisdiction and to provide appropriate remedies to alleviate potential problems.

Requiring beach owners to risk-assess their beaches and provide safety measures raises a number of practical issues, however. For example, there would need to be guidance about the categories against which a beach should be assessed and who would carry out the assessment. In addition, the guidance should also cover how frequently and when the assessment should take place, as well as what level and type of risk would require safety measures.

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Clearly, placing such a requirement on beach owners would have cost implications. A cost is involved in assessing the risk level on beaches, given that the assessments would need to be conducted by a suitably qualified body.

Julia Goldsworthy: The RNLI has made it clear that it understands that undertaking risk assessments would involve a cost, and that is why it has offered to undertake them. That would overcome some of the problems that the Minister has described.

Meg Munn: If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I shall explain why that might not be as straightforward as she suggests.

I said that the assessments would have to be carried out by a suitably qualified body, and there is a possibility that that body would have to take out some professional indemnity insurance. Implementing additional safety measures would also carry additional costs. For the majority of beaches that are local authority owned, that could place an additional cost on them which would need to be funded.

The Government remain committed to ensuring that the net additional costs of new policies that they impose on local government are funded as required under the Government’s new burdens rules. These rules help to ensure that the Government do not put pressure on council tax. Furthermore, the forthcoming local government White Paper places a strong emphasis on providing local government with much more scope to take its own decisions on local issues. Our thinking here is that local authorities and their partners are best placed to assess the costs and benefits of actions at local level and to take a view on resulting local priorities.

In January this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), then a Minister at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister but now a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry, stated to Parliament that there were no plans to place a statutory obligation on local government to provide beach safety, and that remains our view. In practice, however, one must not overlook the fact that many beach owners already provide beach safety measures, including signage and lifeguard services, most notably where a beach is being actively promoted as a visitor destination.

In addition, the Department for Transport funds the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which in turn operates Her Majesty’s Coastguard. Her Majesty’s Coastguard is an on-call emergency organisation responsible for the initiation and co-ordination of all civilian maritime search and rescue within the UK maritime search and rescue region. This includes the mobilisation, organisation and tasking of adequate resources to respond to persons either in distress at sea or at risk of injury or death on the cliffs—I am glad that the hon. Lady avoided that when she was younger—or shoreline of the United Kingdom.

Matthew Taylor: I want to be clear about what the Minister is saying. She seems to be saying that the Government want safety to be provided, and that they encourage local authorities to provide it and do not want them to withdraw it. However, the Government
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do not want to make it a statutory obligation, because they would then have an obligation to ensure that the appropriate funds were available. Is that correct?

Meg Munn: If the hon. Gentleman listens a little more carefully, he will understand that I am saying that it is for local authorities to decide what they want to spend their money on in their local areas. Clearly, a local authority such as mine would not have a need for such expenditure, but would need to spend money on other things. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, because I want to continue to develop these points, and we are getting a little short of time.

Local authorities that have expressed their views on the subject of beach safety and lifeguard provision state that they do accept a duty of care for the beaches that they own, and that they can and do carry out risk assessments. They wish to retain the discretionary power to choose what cover to provide, and those that use the Royal National Lifeboat Institution service value it but do not wish to be tied to using one provider. This picks up on the point raised by the hon. Lady a few moments ago. In some cases, they choose to use voluntary lifeguards such as those trained by the Royal Life Saving Society.

There are other incentives for local authorities to provide beach safety measures. Tourism is a powerful economic driver, and a further powerful draw for local areas is the number of beaches that possess a seaside or blue flag award. The seaside award recognises well managed beaches that are clean and safe. There are two categories—rural and resort—and 242 beaches in England hold this award at present. The blue flag campaign recognises beaches throughout Europe that fulfil strict criteria relating to both water quality and
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the surrounding beach area. To be considered, a beach must have attained the guideline standard of the bathing water directive before being assessed for various other criteria. In England, 93 beaches hold this award at the moment. The guidance for these awards specifies that a risk assessment should be conducted by an appropriately qualified person, following which any necessary beach safety measures should be put in place—for example, a requirement for lifeguards to be on duty during the summer season and for a record of all incidents to be maintained. Because tourism and economic development are discretionary services at local authority level, however, pursuing such awards cannot, and should not, be enforced.

To conclude, it is clear that the issue of beach safety is a complex one that requires a number of elements to be resolved, including funding, the practicalities of imposing risk assessments and follow-up measures, how to include private beach owners, and clarity on legislation. As I said earlier, we stated to Parliament in January 2006 that there were no plans to replace the current discretionary power to provide beach safety measures and undertake risk assessments with a statutory obligation to do so. Indeed, the forthcoming local government White Paper will highlight the importance of reducing top-down control and allowing local people and places greater discretion to decide priorities for their areas. There can be few more local issues than beach safety, and it follows from this that it would be for a local authority and its partners to decide whether the level of priority—

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half past Ten o'clock.

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