Safety rope in knots
As the icy waters of the Thames swirl by outside his office, Kevin Dennis touches wood. In his 10 years as head of an outdoor activity centre, he says he has never had to cope with a serious accident. Tens of thousands of young people and adults train in such skills as canoeing, sailing, climbing and orienteering at the County River Centre in Pangbourne, Berkshire, every year. But standards of safety are high and so far there have been no disasters.
But Kevin remembers the tragedy at Lyme Bay, Dorset, three years ago in which four teenagers drowned while they were canoeing off the coast in the care of two instructors employed by a commercially-run activity centre: "Those people should never have been in charge of youngsters when they were not properly qualified."
The public outcry which followed led to MP David Jamieson pushing through the Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Act, passed last summer, which aims to set up a system of licensing and inspecting outdoor activity centres to make sure they reach acceptable standards. Draft regulations under the act published late last year were the subject of intense discussion, with many organisations suggesting amendments. The final regulations are due to take effect in April.
After the tragedy activity centres all over the country faced a flood of enquiries from worried parents wanting to know whether the staff were qualified. The number of bookings on school holiday training courses fell sharply. But at the same time there was a big increase in the number of people - Scout leaders, teachers, leaders of community groups - wanting to train and qualify as group leaders or instructors in the activities they were already running.
At the Pangbourne centre, funded by Berkshire County Council, the two full-time staff and the army of 120 volunteers are all fully qualified in the activities they teach, which range from beginners' courses in canoeing to advanced mountaineering in Wales, Scotland or as far afield as Nepal.
Last year about 30,000 people trained at the centre. They included young people from schools all over Berkshire and beyond, youth groups and community leaders. Outdoor activities such as these have long been recognised as a way of giving people a sense of achievement and confidence. "A lot of young people find school can be very difficult," says Kevin. "This kind of thing can give them a release and a sense of purpose." Crucial to the whole enterprise is that every precaution is taken to minimise risks to personal safety, including a system whereby the volunteer staff are given the chance to extend their own training and qualifications in exchange for their voluntary help training others.
But at many similar centres - there are about 3,000 nationally - it was, and may still be, quite usual to employ unqualified staff, as was the case at the centre responsible for the Lyme Bay tragedy. And other measures to make sure safety procedures are properly followed may often be seriously inadequate.
A survey by the Health and Safety Executive last year showed that a third of activity centres had not appointed someone to ensure they were complying with health and safety law. More than 1 in 10 did not make sure instructors were properly trained, and only half were aware they had a legal responsibility to report accidents and injuries.
Many in the activity centre industry welcomed plans for a scheme to set up a register and inspection system. They saw it as a way of forcing the cowboys at the lower end of the market, who gave everyone a bad name, to raise their standards. The Government initially argued that regulation was best left to market forces in a voluntary scheme of registration and inspection.
But it later changed its position after the judge in the court case which led to the managing director of the centre responsible for the Lyme Bay tragedy being jailed made clear his view: "Where parents and teachers entrust their children for activity holidays, the potential for injury or death is too obvious to be left for the inadequate vagaries of self-regulation."
The draft regulations published last year propose setting up a new system of licensing and registration for activity centres, and listed the activities to be included in the scheme as caving, climbing, mountain walking, paddle sports such as canoeing and river rafting, sailing and skiing.
They also said only commercial organisations should be required to apply for a licence. Schools, voluntary organisations and cadet forces would not have to register. Instead, the commission suggested, they should be encouraged to join a voluntary scheme. But there have been many arguments over the proposals and the final regulations - likely to be broadly similar to those published in the consultation exercise - are now due to be put to ministers for final approval.
The commission says it has had to balance the cost of running the proposed scheme against its effectiveness. And activity centres, when it comes down to it, are not all that unsafe compared, for example, with manufacturing industries or agriculture.
"In the greater scheme of things we deal with activity centres in terms of the number of deaths and injuries," a spokesman said. "Historically they have been very low."
Geoff Good, director of coaching at the British Canoe Union, says there was an obvious need for the act, but believes the legislation should not go too far, by, for example, forcing voluntary groups of sports enthusiasts to register. "At the moment there's nothing to stop someone buying a property by the sea and a few canoes and setting up an activity centre," he says. "That's basically what happened in the Lyme Bay tragedy. "But if you go too far you would be interfering with people's freedom. The new act should reassure people and make sure that the minimal standards that are necessary are applied, and it should prevent anything like Lyme Bay happening again."
John Cousins of the Mountain Leader Training Board says there is a limit to what legislation can do, and doubts whether the new act will make a great difference to the number of accidents: "It will make it easier for a parent to make decisions about whether their kids should go on activity weekends and so on," he says, "but whether it will make a significant difference to the number of kids hurt is unclear."
Martin Hore, vice-chairman of the Outdoor Education Advisers' Panel, believes the Health and Safety Executive should be the body in charge of the licensing system - front runners are believed to be the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and the Central Council for Physical Recreation - and also favours a review after a year of the act's operation.
In his position as outdoor education adviser for Suffolk, he is at the sharp end of the business of checking on safety. He makes inquiries of about half a dozen centres every week to see that they are up to scratch, and welcomes the proposed licensing scheme. "It will ensure that centres which are unwilling or unable to operate to acceptable standards are not permitted to trade," he says.
But many believe the proposals are far too limited. There have been genuine arguments over how the act should work and whether it can be effective. But the forthcoming regulations will be seen by some as hopelessly inadequate unless they go much further than those in the consultation paper.
Jonathan Owen, policy officer at the Association of County Councils, says: "The licensing regime should be extended to cover all activity centres, otherwise there could be a very confusing two-tier system and that would be unfair on parents, teachers and providers. "We are looking for maximum reassurance for parents. The only way to get that is to ensure all potentially dangerous activities are covered by the scheme and all centres where they are a carried out are included."
Laura Simons of the Consumers Association, one of the bodies consulted over the legislation, said: "All children are entitled to the same level of protection regardless of whether the centre they are going to is run commercially or not.
"We are very disappointed with the proposed regulations. They are not going to do the job parents expect. They fail to meet their objectives, and I think parents will be surprised and disappointed with the scheme if it goes ahead as it is presently proposed. People are looking for a guarantee that a minimum standard of safety will be met, and with the scheme as it is proposed, they won't get it."
The man responsible for the act, MP David Jamieson, is happy with the broad outline of the proposed regulations, but, like many others, believes some activities such as pony trekking and mountain biking ought to be included.
He believes the act ought to be reviewed after a year. But overall, he thinks it has already had an impact. "There is a totally new attitude to safety. The whole culture of safety is changing. Many centres now have safety not as a bolt-on spare part but as something you put in first and then build all your activities around. The act isn't going to wipe out all accidents, but it will address those areas where there has been negligence in the past. The chance of another Lyme Bay happening has been greatly reduced."