An activity centre used by schools is in receivership. Frances Rafferty reports. An activity holiday company which has failed, leaving more than 8,000 schoolchildren at risk of losing their deposits, lost its business through the Lyme Bay canoe tragedy in which four teenagers died, receivers said this week.
The company, Howglen, which trades as Devon and Dorset Adventure Holidays (DDAH), is now in the hands of receivers with debts of approximately Pounds 1.5 million. The receivers, Nigel Vooght and Peter Buckle of Coopers Lybrand, aim to trade as usual and sell it as a going concern.
Schools which have booked with the company will lose their deposits if they cancel their holidays.
Nigel Vooght said: "The impact of the Lyme Bay canoe tragedy had a severe impact on bookings, resulting in losses being incurred from 1994 onwards. The company was unable to recover sufficiently from this setback. Servicing the debt of Pounds 1.5 million ultimately proved too onerous for the company. "
A former employee of DDAH was given a three-month sentence last year for lying about his qualifications and for issuing false training certificates. Ian Woods had claimed to be a top instructor with the Mountain Leader Training Board.
During the trial, Jonathan Goodge, for the defence, told magistrates that Woods's employers had been aware that he was not qualified. This was denied by DDAH. Anne Dearle, the magistrate, said that Woods's actions could have put people's lives at risk.
The receivers will work with the management team and staff to deliver holidays booked at the main activity centre, Hyde House, Dorset, which has five lakes, two miles of river and a golf course. The two other centres, Buckland Manor and Woodside Adventure Centre, both in north Devon, will be closed and holidays will be transferred to Hyde House.
Nigel Vooght said: "We are spending Pounds 200,000 to improve health and safety standards. We are also checking that the staff are fully qualified and trained, and if they are not they won't be working for us. So far no schools have cancelled, and we aim to offer them the holiday they booked for."
The National Association of Head Teachers says current legislation will not be enough to prevent further tragedies. Consultation has just closed for regulations to the Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Act which became law last year.
The union said: "The public will be particularly dismayed to learn that, with the exception of the Lyme Bay incident itself, no other major accident occurring to young people in the outdoors which has aroused public concern in the past 20 years would have been within the scope of the present proposals. "
Bill Taylor, of the Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres, said the Act only dealt with activity centres and did not address the problem of children being supervised by untrained teachers and staff when taking part in outdoor activities.
He said overwhelming support for a proposal that the Health and Safety Executive should be the licensing authority for activity centres had been ignored by the Government.
David Jamieson, the Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, who pioneered the Act, said: "There has been a huge consultation process and the scope may be widened. But as it stands the Act will ensure that any centre a school sends children to will be accredited and safe."