Death casts new doubt on safety of Scouting

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Latest fatality highlights a track record which includes five deaths in the past three years

THE FATAL accidents which have rocked the Scouting movement in successive weeks bring to five the number of deaths on Scout-led activities in the past three years, The TES can reveal.

In two of those cases, the negligent behaviour of Scout leaders led to prosecutions by the Health and Safety Executive and large fines.

The Scouts are conducting a top level inquiry into their safety procedures. But the organisation, which has half a million members, is also facing serious questions from outsiders, including commercial and local authority operators who have to adhere to a strict, government-imposed licensing scheme for adventure holidays.

They want to know if the Scouts, and other voluntary organisations, should remain free to regulate themselves.

Last weekend, 35-year-old Scout leader Chris Oliver from Devizes in Wiltshire died after falling 150 feet down a steep gully on the Welsh mountain Cader Idris.

An RAF helicopter recovered Mr Oliver's body, but had to make a second trip to retrieve a terrified scout who had been clinging to the rock face for three hours.

Mr Oliver, it was later found, did not possess "Form M", the Scout qualification which aims to ensure leaders have the skills to take groups into the mountains.Nor did he have ropes or climbing equipment.

Just one week earlier, 10-year-old Jonathan Attwell had plunged 600 feet to his death after becoming separated from his party on the summit of Snowdon. Leaders on that trip were criticised for choosing the east ridge route. "That is not a footpath," Snowdonia warden Sam Roberts told reporters, "it is a scramble."

The two successful prosecutions related to safety procedures at Scout-run activity centres. In 1996, 11-year-old Adil Naseem drowned at a Scout activity centre in Buckinghamshire.

Adil was with pupils from Feltham Hill junior school, west London, who were allowed to use a pool without lifeguards. "The risk of drowning was obvious," the prosecuting barrister said. The local Scout council was fined pound;10,000.

In November 1997 a venture scout died after she slipped under a tractor at the Broadstone Warren Scout camp, East Sussex. Site warden Peter Leyland-Jones had given an inexperienced scout leader a "wholly inadequate" 10-minute driving lesson on a tractor which went out of control and killed 16-year-old Michelle Stanley. The Scouts were fined pound;5,000 with pound;7,000 costs.

In August this year an eight-year-old boy drowned at Broadstone Warren. His body was found in the site's swimming pool.

Safety authorities in Sussex are investigating how Jack Sudds came to be separated from his group. Inquiries will focus on "the working procedures and practices of the Scout Council and its staff."

There have also been "near misses" in the mountains. In 1996 a group of Scouts had to be helicoptered off Cader Idris after becoming stranded in poor weather conditions. The RAF pilot who rescued that group expressed his anger and amazement that they had gone ahead with the trip.

Last summer a small group on a Scout-led expedition on Scafell in Cumbria got lost and had to spend the night in Piers Gill, a steep and dangerous gully. Heavy rain flooded the gully and the four scouts had to abandon their tents and most of their clothes in a desperate scramble to safety. The first their leader knew of their predicament was when two of the group staggered down the hill the following day.

Now the Scout Association has sent letters to all its district commissioners "re-affirming the need for adherence to the rules". But critics in outdoor education say the organisation's "in-house" qualifications structure are the problem.

"Where are the external checks?" asked one head of centre, pointing out that voluntary organisations like the Scouts are outside the licensing structure which was brought in after the Lyme Bay canoeing disaster in 1993.

"I've never been able to understand why they are exempt," said Andy Hall. His Arthog centre in Wales offers outdoor activities for children and trains mountain leaders. "We are inspected, as are local authorities which run their own programmes. I think that voluntary organisations ought to undergo a similar procedure - not of each individual group, but of the organisation's policies and procedures."

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