Alan Parker, education officer of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, said delegates at a seminar held in London this week found the parallel statutory and voluntary regulations confusing. They also thought the regulations failed sufficiently to emphasise teaching children to behave safely.
The 96-page consultative document, issued by the Health and Safety Commission, sets out a statutory scheme for six activities with strict rules for commercial providers. This will be run by a new national licensing authority which will also oversee a voluntary scheme.
The commission says that activities should be licensed if: there is a significant risk of death; the competence of the instructors or leaders is crucial; the activity is vulnerable to changes in weather or the natural environment; and when there is a significant risk to the group if things go wrong.
"It was the failure of management to make proper provision for these factors which led to the tragedy at Lyme Bay in 1993 where four young people lost their lives," says the document.
The proposals implement the safety provisions of the Activity Centres Act, due to come into force next spring. This was adopted by the Government last January from a Private Members' Bill sponsored by David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, where the victims of the canoeing accident lived.
The HSC said that Parliament had decided that licensing was to be used to regulate providers of adventure activities where young people's safety could be at risk, but not all activities were equally hazardous.
The commission decided that caving, climbing, mountain walking, paddle sports (canoeing and rafting), sailing and skiing met the criteria, but will keep the range of activities under review. Schools will not be required to hold a licence where they are providing for their own pupils "as education authorities, school governors, proprietors and teachers already have legal obligations of care," says the HSC.
The new licensing authority is intended to ensure that centres have sufficient numbers of competent instructors, appropriate equipment, can give first aid and have information about risks and precautions.
Given the demand from schools and parents for some assurance that all adventure activity centres are safe, the HSC recommends that the new authority should also run a parallel voluntary scheme in co-operation with the national governing bodies of sport and the Health and Safety Executive. The approved associations would be awarded a "kitemark" rather than a licence. Key elements would need to be common to the statutory and voluntary schemes to ensure public confidence and avoid confusion.
"If both schemes are run by the same body to equivalent safety standards, a seamless service should be available to both providers and consumers. The resulting single point of enquiry for schools and parents will result in a powerful commercial pressure for providers to opt into the voluntary scheme where there is no statutory obligation to hold a licence."
The Central Council of Physical Recreation, in the running to become the new licensing authority, has welcomed the document although it is also aware of concerns about the quality of the educational experience offered at centres.
Roger Putnam chairs the umbrella organisation for outdoor activity groups, the Outdoor Council for Education, Training and Recreation, which is another likely contender. He said he expected "some eyebrows to be raised" at the small number of activities included.
The consultative document is available free from HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6FS. Comments by November 24 to G Gilmour, Strategy and general division, General policy section, Health and Safety Executive, 7th floor, North Wing, Rose Court, 2 Southwark Bridge, London SEl 9HS. Organisations interested in being nominated as a licensing authority should apply by October 31 to J Grubb, division as above, Room 721, Rose Court etc.