Dog kennels are better regulated and have more inspections than activity centres, a legal absurdity which should end next year when a new Act comes into force.
From October 1997, it will be illegal to run an outdoor activity centre without being inspected and licensed, Labour MP David Jamieson told a conference in Leicester last week.
The conference was held the day before the third anniversaryof the Lyme Bay tragedy when four teenagers from his Plymouth Devonport constituency died on a canoeing trip. "A tragedy brought about by gross criminal neglect by the management of the centre," said Mr Jamieson.
After the tragedy, he launched a campaign to regulate centres with the help of the bereaved parents. This culminated in a private member's Bill which became the Activities Centres' (Young Persons' Safety) Act last June.
Regulations, announced this week established a licensing and inspection scheme to be run by an independent body, Tourism Quality Services Ltd, which administered the Wales Tourist Board's voluntary accreditation scheme for outdoor centres. The Act, due to be published next month, gives inspectors powers to close centres. The Health and Safety Commission (HSC) can take centre managers to court if they flout the law. They can be jailed for a maximum of two years and fined.
The independent licensing body will set standards for equipment, qualifications for instructors, and safety management. A code of practice will state what levels of skills are needed to cope with different hazards.
"This should prevent another Lyme Bay tragedy where the instructor barely had a qualification to show she could steer a canoe in a straight line on calm inshore waters," Mr Jamieson said.
The Act covers 26 activities in the categories of caving, climbing, trekking and watersports. Six activities were originally listed, but this was criticised as too narrow.
The new body which will process licence applications from April 16 will also set up a complaints procedure. Activity centres' brochures will have to include a licensing emblem and a telephone number of the licensing authority so that schools can check on them and ask to see reports.
Mr Jamieson said he was satisfied with the outcome of the HSC's re-drafting of the regulations after consultations which had delayed their implementation.
His early attempts at regulation had seemed doomed when John Patten, then the Education Secretary, produced a plan which placed responsibility on schools to check out centres' competence and safety management rather than setting legal standards.
"You don't ask to see the train or taxi driver's licence before you take a journey. In a civilised society you expect them to be properly qualified. Why should we be expected to entrust our children's lives in that way?" He said the legislation would not end all danger and accidents, but it should put safety first.
Jenny Hand, senior youth work adviser of the National Youth Agency which organised the conference, thought that the Act could create double standards because it did not cover centres run by the voluntary sector.
Parents might think that a non-commercial centre was inferior because it did not have the stamp of approval under the Act.
John Bevan, who chairs the executive board of the NYA, said the development of the voluntary scheme had been "put on the back burner in the rush to get the statutory side right".
When the draft rules were published last September they were attacked by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. The association said the regulations would cause confusion by creating parallel statutory and voluntary systems.
The HSC reckons there are about 3,000 commercial activity centres around the country and its survey, carried out last year, showed that a third of centres had still not appointed anyone to ensure they were complying with health and safety laws.