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Lives lost to `vagaries' of self-policing

Anthony Dore investigates the implications for schools of the Lyme Bay canoe tragedy court verdict, the first conviction for corporate manslaughter in the UK, which has provoked widespread calls for tighter regulation.

"Where parents and teachers entrust their children for activity holidays, the potential for injury or death is too obvious to be left for the inadequate vagaries of self-regulation. Authoritative control, supervision and, if necessary, intervention are called for. Nothing less will do to demonstrate that lessons have truly been learned."

With these strong words and an order that they be passed to the Department for Education for "immediate re-appraisal", Mr Justice Ognall began his conclusion of the 16-day Lyme Bay trial.

Moments before, he had sentenced managing director Peter Kite to three years in prison for the manslaughter through negligence of four Plymouth sixth-formers who drowned during a disastrous canoeing trip last year.

And in the first successful case of corporate manslaughter in English legal history, Mr Kite's firm OLL - formerly called Active Learning and Leisure - was fined Pounds 60,000.

Centre manager Joseph Stoddart was acquitted when the jury failed to come to a decision after nine hours of deliberation at Winchester crown court.

The judge's call for regulation joined that of MPs, most of the outdoor education industry, the parents of the dead teenagers and even The Sun's leader writer.

This week the families' campaign came a step closer to success, with the first reading in the House of Commons of a private member's Bill sponsored by David Jamieson, the Plymouth Devonport MP in whose constituency three of the four dead teenagers lived.

Noel Dunne, whose son Simon was one of the four killed, said: "There are still children going to centres doing what our children tried to do. I find it strange that at this late stage the Government is reluctant to support his Bill" The Department for Education has claimed that self-regulation is adequate for the estimated 3,000 centres in Britain which net Pounds 420 million a year from nine million visitors.

Whether that will remain the case is unclear. A DFE spokeswoman said: "The department will look at the statement from Mr Justice Ognall and the evidence from the trial with care."

The Government view is based on advice from the Health and Safety Executive which is inspecting 200 activity centres as part of ex-education secretary John Patten's four-point plan after the disaster last year. The report on the inspections is due next year, but a Health and Safety Executive spokesman said: "Early indications (from the inspections) show to us that overall standards of health and safety management are reasonable in the industry. In comparison with other areas, the risk from this industry is fairly low." HSE figures show that in the year to March 31, one member of the public died at an activity centre and 160 were injured compared to seven deaths and 4,869 injuries in schools.

David Jamieson's Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Bill would set up a compulsory accreditation scheme with inspectors who could serve notices of improvement which would have to be met in 30 days or the centre would be closed. Mr Jamieson, a Labour MP who claims to have cross-party support for the Bill, says the Government has given him "no indication of support" despite a meeting with Eric Forth, Minister of State for Education.

Mr Jamieson said: "We must have a scheme that requires inspection initially and a body to deal with complaints. We want people to write to Gillian Shephard supporting the Bill. If the Government want to oppose it, they can kill it off."

Roger Putnam, spokesman for the Activity Centre Advisory Committee, says Pounds 250,000 to Pounds 300,000 from the Government now would be enough to set up a voluntary accreditation and inspection system in time for the 1996 season. The system would inspect 500 centres in its first year, 1,000 in the second and 1,500 in the third. Those which passed could advertise the fact; the system would work on the basis that schools and parents would only use approved centres. Mr Putnam says that the system could easily be adapted for a statutory role by ACAC, which was set up to improve standards in the industry with members from local education authorities, private companies, national governing bodies for various sports, and the DFE.

Mr Putnam said: "We are asking for initial funding. We hope the real cowboys would be excluded in the first round of inspection."

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