Piers Merchant – 1985 Speech on Fairground Safety

Below is the text of the speech made by Piers Merchant, the then Conservative MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, in the House of Commons on 27 June 1985.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of fairground safety.

This has become a matter of wide public concern. It is of direct concern to every parent, for while every child loves a fairground, regrettably, every child is also a potential victim of tragic accident.

It is a matter of concern to Government, too, in framing safety requirements under the law, and I take this opportunity to compliment the Minister and his predecessor on the keen and positive interest that they have shown in this area of safety. I know that the Minister intends to keep the whole matter under review, and I hope that he will give serious consideration to the continuing concern of myself and many others. The subject is equally of interest to many right hon. and hon. Members, many of whom have had to deal with the aftermath of tragedy in their constituencies. I am particularly pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) here, because I know that he has a particular interest in the subject, and I understand that he generally thinks along the same lines as me.

I congratulate the Health and Safety Executive and its team of inspectors on stepping up their work on fairground safety, particularly on the thorough work that they did this week at the Newcastle Hoppings, about which I shall say more in a moment. I recognise, too, that the showmen involved have a vested interest in safety. Of course, they do not want accidents on their rides. They want to entertain, not cause misery. They want credibility, not public boycott. And naturally, they want to earn their living.

The Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain has shown an admirably positive attitude towards safety. Together with the Health and Safety Executive, it has within the past year, implemented the new safety code, and is carrying out a valuable self-policing role. I pay a particular compliment to the Showmen’s Guild national president, Mr. Whiteleg, who earlier this week travelled to Newcastle to meet me at the Hoppings so that we could together tour the site and examine safety in practice. We saw the log books that are now being kept by operators under the voluntary code of practice. We looked at the machines that were being run and at the safety measures that were recently introduced to make the various items of machinery more effective. Mr. Whiteleg is a genuine man, with honest purpose. If all showmen were as reliable, there would be fewer accidents, and the voluntary code could be relied upon to be 100 per cent. successful.

Unfortunately, however, not all the showmen are as honourable as Mr. Whiteleg. Let me quote the words of Mr. Rodney Harrison, managing director of Harrison Brothers Amusements, who comes from the north-west of England. In an interview earlier this year he said:

“It’s time somebody spilt the beans on a small rotten core within the industry. A few of them are getting away with murder under the present system of inspection. Faulty machines are camouflaged. I’ve done it, everyone’s done it. I know for a fact that when the inspector arrives to check the safety of a fairground half the rides have parts missing, but if the inspector can’t see inside the mechanism of a ride then he can’t check it properly. There are lots of good people in the business but the rotten core, perhaps 5 or 7 per cent., have their activities covered up.”

This week, in the centre of my constituency, on a 26-acre site on Newcastle town moor, has gathered Europe’s largest travelling fair, known locally as the Hoppings. I welcome the fair. I welcome the fun and enjoyment that it will give to many in my area whose daily lives may be dreary and dull. I welcome the business that it brings to the many small businesses that have shows, rides and stalls, many of them local, others travelling from a distance. I am glad that this year has been largely accident-free.

Last year a 17-year-old girl, Julie Pearce, was trapped by her foot on the Superloop, a huge contraption that sends cars at incredible speed up to 60 ft or 70 ft above the ground and then down again. She was swung round by that machine and eventually flung out, falling 60 ft from the top to the ground. She is still in hospital 12 months later, having suffered multiple injuries. I am glad that she is now fast on the mend. It is a miracle that her life was spared.

Four weeks ago there was another accident in the northeast. A few miles from the Hoppings is the Spanish city at Whitley Bay on the coast. There a 12-year-old-girl was killed and three others injured when the bolts on the safety harness of a machine called the twister sheared off. On 2 June this year, six people were hurt, two seriously, at Wolverhampton when the phantom chaser collapsed. On 6 May 19 were hurt, 14 treated in hospital, all children, when the chairoplane went wrong at a fairground at Felixstowe. On 27 April this year 17 were hurt, all aged between 11 and 16, at Dover when the “lifting paratrooper” collapsed. These are all fairly major incidents that have happened in the past three months.

In the past five years, according to the reply given to me by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, accidents causing major injury have trebled—from 13 in 1980, there were 20 in 1981, 23 in 1982, 28 in 1983 and 38 in 1984—a constant increase year on year. Over the past eight years, 25 deaths, 158 major accidents and 283 minor injuries have been recorded.

These figures do not show everything. They do not catalogue all the minor injuries and near misses. I shall quote a letter that I received this morning from a concerned mother:

“On Monday this week I went with some members of my family to the Hoppings on Newcastle Town Moor, and I accompanied my 3½-year-old son on the dodgem cars. A notice asked customers to ensure that children wore the safety belts attached to the car … I made quite certain Tim was wearing his properly. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to prevent a really rather nasty bump to his head, when our car and another collided. Tim was jolted forward and his forehead banged against the steering wheel. He cried for some time from pain and fright, and we got first aid from the St. John Ambulance on the site, but I’m glad to say it comes under the heading of ‘minor injuries’. What concerns me, however, is that I feel it could have been avoided. The belt was not adjustable to take into account the quite marked variation in sizes and ages of children, and it was the great degree of slack left in the belt that allowed Tim to be virtually unrestrained in it.”

“As a mother of three children, I know bumps and scrapes are part of childhood, and I know parents have responsibilities themselves to assess risks and hazards. However, with regard to dodgems (a tremendous favourite with even very young children of three and four) I feel that belts should be adjustable, or parents should somehow be informed of the risks involved to small children whose heads are level with the steering wheel. I hesitate to suggest ‘no under-fives allowed’, but I wonder if we were lucky in Tim escaping with only a painful bump. How common are broken noses, jaws, teeth and so on?”​

One can tell from the tone of that letter that the writer is a responsible mother, and not prone to exaggeration or undue concern. One is aware that in this accident the bump was minor, but head injuries, by their nature, can easily become serious injuries. She makes a valuable point about safety instructions and gaps that still exist in safety procedure.

I hope that the examples that I have given illustrate the severity of the still remaining problem. I have said that the Health and Safety Executive has tried hard to tackle the problem within the existing framework of the law. It now has the voluntary code of practice that has recently become applicable. It is also carrying out more inspections than ever before.

However, the executive faces a number of problems. First, the law is vague. The Health and Safety at Work Etc Act is so general when it comes to applications to fairground sites that it is often extremely difficult to secure a prosecution. Both the law and the voluntary code lack teeth. Then there is also the pressure of time and work on the executive. The factory inspectors did better than ever before in the last year, but they were still able to carry out visits—single visits normally—to only 25 per cent. of fairgrounds. To put it the other way round, three quarters of all fairgrounds were not visited.
Under the law, there are no mandatory requirements for the Health and Safety Executive to inspect at regular intervals. There are no clear, defined legal requirements on safety harnesses, how they should be constructed, where they should be sited. There are not sufficient legal requirements on designers and manufacturers, on testing of equipment before it comes into service or on giving a type approval to new fairground machinery, often the source of the accident statistics.

The fact remains that the absolute duties under the Health and Safety at Work Etc Act that apply to a factory do not apply in the same way to fairground sites. Fairground sites nevertheless attract many children and the atmosphere is much riskier than the workplace or factory.

Even under the voluntary code, doubts have arisen about the nature of inspections and sometimes about the type of inspector selected. Because the code is voluntary and the onus is on the machine operator or fairground to choose the inspector, there are cases of inspections being done by people with few qualifications in machinery and engineering.

There are obvious shortcomings with safety harnesses. On Monday, when I visited the Hoppings with my 15-month-old daughter, I was encouraged to get on a rocket-shaped vehicle that goes round in a circle and goes up in the air when the passenger pulls a lever. It is a fairly old machine—I remember going on it when I was a child. It has an open cockpit out of which it would be extremely easy to fall, especially for a youngster who was in the wrong position while whirling around. As it moves fairly high above the ground, someone who fell out at speed could suffer serious injury. There was no safety harness in the machine and the operator was not aware of any safety risk. That shows that there is a long way to go on educating machine owners and operators.

The partnership between the Health and Safety Executive and the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain has operated well, but it could be developed so that there is a closer partnership because, ultimately, self-policing is the best answer. There must be a clearer framework for education into better attitudes and more awareness of ​ safety so that showmen, who are brought up in a rather free atmosphere can be persuaded to think more in teens of safety requirements such as are found elsewhere.

We must give the law more teeth in regard to inspections, their frequency and who does them. There should be safety harnesses and we should consider type approval of machinery at the design stage. Such matters cannot be left to voluntary good practice. I hope that I would be the last person to encourage unnecessary laws, but legislation must be considered in this context. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will investigate that possibility and that change might be made by simple amendment, perhaps to the Health and Safety at Work Etc Act 1974, setting out responsibilities for showmen at fairgrounds.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is also worried about fairground safety and that everyone who is involved in what is now a sensitive area wants to do what is best for children, who need watertight protection from risk, for owners and operators and for the general public, as we are all involved with fairgrounds at some stage. I am confident that my hon. Friend will keep the matter under review and I hope that he will find it possible to tighten up present requirements. I look forward to hearing his response.