Licence to thrill?;Platform;Opinion

19th March 1999 at 00:00
The licensing of activity centres, introduced after the Lyme Bay tragedy, seems not to have made adventure any safer. Iain McMorrin outlines an alternative scheme.

Six years ago, on March 22, 1993, eight students and a teacher from the Southway school in Plymouth, together with two instructors from the St Albans Centre in Lyme Regis, set out to canoe across Lyme Bay to Charmouth, a distance of two miles.

The journey was to end in tragedy. An offshore wind, an incoming tide, inadequate equipment and inexperienced instructors resulted in the group being split up and blown out to sea. After they had been in the water for six hours, they were rescued by helicopter. Four of the students later died in hospital.

In response to the calls for regulation of activity centres which followed this tragedy, John Patten, education secretary at the time, introduced a four-point plan, which included a survey of activity centres followed by inspections by the Health and Safety Executive, guidance for schools and councils and changes in schools' governing articles to make explicit the legal duty of care concerning health and safety.

Regulation was enshrined in the Activity Centres Act 1995. This Act was the brainchild of David Jameson, MP for Plymouth Devonport, in whose constituency Southway school is situated.

The Act requires all providers of adventurous activities for young people under 18, whether for educational purposes or for activity holidays, to apply for a licence to operate, and to submit to inspection by a licensing authority. The regulations came into force in April 1996.

The contract for establishing the licensing authority was awarded to Tourism Quality Services Limited, a Cardiff-based subsidiary of Associated Quality Services Limited, whose principal interests are in the inspection of hotels and holiday companies. TQS set up a separate company, the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, which invited providers to register and recruited a team of eight inspectors to undertake sample inspections during the autumn of 1996 in preparation for comprehensive inspections which began in the spring of 1997.

Having operated for two years, the licensing authority is currently being reviewed by the Department for Education and Employment. A consultation document has been circulated asking that responses be submitted by April 9.

If the providers of adventurous activities are to be properly regulated, then any system for doing so must be compulsory rather than voluntary. Whether they should be licensed, however, is open to question. The provision of adventurous activities is recognised by the HSE as not carrying a high risk. It sits somewhat uneasily, therefore, alongside the other "industries" which are licensed; nuclear installations, asbestos removal, storage of petroleum, explosives and offshore installations, all of which, according to HSE statistics, carry a much higher risk of death or serious injury. The highest risks are agriculture and the construction industry, neither of them licensed.

The cost of a licensing scheme is an important consideration. The DFEEestimates that in the current financial year the scheme will cost pound;600,000. Half of this will be covered by licensing and inspection fees and half by a government grant. The average annual cost to a provider is estimated to be pound;345.

The "scope" of the scheme is also contentious. The four broad categories of activity which were thought to pose the greatest risk and for which a licence is required are: caving and potholing; climbing and abseiling; trekking (which includes walking, pony trekking, mountain biking and off-piste skiing); and watersports (which includes canoeing and sailing). The list is not comprehensive and there is, therefore, the opportunity for a provider to avoid regulation by offering alternative activities.

The number of providers who have applied for a licence reflects both the cost and the scope of the scheme. Although the AALA anticipated around 3,000 applications, fewer than 1,000 were received and, at present, about 900 providers hold licences. This suggests that a considerable number of providers have either discontinued because they see the scheme as too costly or they have continued to operate but are doing so outside the "scope" of the licensing scheme. The net result in either case will be fewer opportunities being offered to young people.

There is reason to believe that the AALA has not had a significant effect on the safety of adventurous activities in those centres which applied for a licence since, on inspection, most were found to be operating safely. So far, only 17 have had licences refused.

Bearing in mind that the provision of adventurous activities is generally not considered to be high risk and that the present licensing scheme is limited in scope, costly and bureaucratic, it seems appropriate to consider an alternative. The broad structure of the scheme could be as follows:

* All providers who offer outdoor and adventurous activities to young people under the age of 18 would be required to register with the HSE. The provider would be required to list the activities under provision but there will be no need to define "scope" as all activities would fall within it.

* There would be a registration fee based on the size of the establishment.

* The management of the registration process would become an HSE responsibility.

* The provider would be subject to inspections which would be conducted under the direction of the HSE as and when appropriate. There would be no automatic annual inspection and it may be that high-risk activities will be inspected more often.

* Providers would be required to operate under approved guidelines. Where possible, these would be existing National Governing Body guidelines.

* A standing advisory committee comprising a group of specialists should advise the HSE.

The merits of a broad, statutory but non-licensable scheme are considerable. Principally, it will encourage the wider development of safety cultures, because it will ensure that all providers register and are therefore open to inspection. There is no doubt too that it will be less cumbersome and less costly to administer.

Iain McMorrin is a former head of an outdoor education centre and is now chair of the Mountain Leader Training Board. He was a member of the advisory group which drew up guidelines after the tragedy at Lyme Bay.

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