Two words that altered an industry

6th September 1996 at 01:00
The Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy has meant wide-ranging changes to the law on activity centres.

Adventure is by definition a risky business. Under proper supervision, pitting your wits against the elements in the great outdoors can be a thrilling, character-building experience. In other circumstances, it can result in disaster.

Two words sum up the worst-case scenario - Lyme Bay. When four schoolchildren died on that fateful canoeing trip in 1993, everything changed.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport - where the victims lived - put forward a Private Member's Bill. This became the Activity Centres (Young Person's Safety) Act last year.

The Act marks a significant step towards the restoration of public confidence in an industry with a previously good safety record marred by the mistakes of a few less reputable operators.

All commercial and LEA centres offering any of the 26 activities listed under the Act should have applied for a licence to the government-appointed Adventure Activities Licensing Authority by August 1. This month, the authority begins the mammoth task of inspecting and accrediting hundreds of centres that have applied, and chasing up tardy ones. But will they be rubber-stamping existing safe practices or uncovering malpractice?

A report issued by the Health and Safety Executive following a series of inspections made during 1994 and 1995 showed that "the overall attitude of providers to safety was extremely positive".

Ninety-nine per cent of the 311 centres inspected employed qualified instructors, and 69 per cent had a written statement of health and safety policy. "The overall picture to emerge," the report concluded, "indicates a high level of safety awareness."

But two events this year show that there is no room for complacency. In May, a Liverpool-based firm, Mountain Ventures Ltd, was fined Pounds 8,000 for failing to ensure the safety of a 12-year-old schoolgirl. Lynsey Henderson, from the Shetlands, was seriously injured when she fell 30ft into a quarry while bivouacing overnight in Snowdonia last year. An HSE inspector said she would probably have died if her screams had not alerted other campers in time.

And the death in June of 13-year-old Richard Barber while on holiday at a local authority-run centre in North Yorkshire has once again focused attention on the difficulties of legislating against accidents. Richard was among a party of schoolchildren who were abseiling over a waterfall.

The HSE's preliminary enquiries suggest that after successfully completing one abseil, he was making his way along a path to rejoin the group. His body was found in the pool of a lower waterfall. A post-mortem examination showed he died by drowning, but had injuries consistent with a fall. An inquest is scheduled for mid-September.

Outdoor activity professionals are generally supportive of the new licensing regulations, acknowledging that something had to be done, but there are doubts over their scope.

"Everybody was forced by Lyme Bay, whatever the subsequent legislation was going to be, to look very closely at their safety and management procedures, " says Roger Putnam, director of the Foundation for Outdoor Adventure.

"But they have created a sledgehammer to crack a nut and they have missed the nut. It is probably more hazardous cycling to school or going to a centre in a minibus than doing a course.

"Our concern is that this kind of legislation will restrict opportunities for young people to take part in some sort of outdoor adventure. Quite a lot of centres that already work with adults are not going to register for young people - they will think it is not worth the hassle of inspections and the expense."

He thinks that trips run by voluntary groups, which have a worse record of fatalities (14 in the past 20 years compared with 10 on those run commercially), are a greater cause for concern. A "kitemark" scheme designed to give voluntary groups recognition of their safety credentials has been sidelined until the current scheme is established.

"Personally, I think we could have created a scheme to which everybody would have signed up - there would have been tremendous moral pressure to do so. Now we have a statutory scheme that only applies to part of the field."

But some voluntary groups believe their own internal safety procedures and track record will be enough to maintain public and parental confidence.

"We don't think it will affect parents' confidence because our safety record will stand up to any scrutiny," says Jim Davidson, programme and training adviser to the Scouts movement, which sends tens of thousands of youngsters on adventure holidays each year. "The number of incidents where people get severely injured or killed is so small - there are far more accidents in rugby or football."

Local education authorities, however, are in something of a quandary. While LEA-run centres come within the licensing requirements, teacher-supervised trips from school do not. And many of their outdoor centres are used on a part-time basis for several activities, some of which need licensing and others which do not.

The slow progress of the law he initiated has dismayed David Jamieson, a former teacher with experience of school trips. But he is unmoved by calls for voluntary groups to be added to the register.

"What it could mean is a two-tier system among voluntary centres. That could prejudice smaller operations that don't register and then appear not to be covered. We have got to start with the commercial and LEA centres, and then if we feel that the scheme needs to be extended we can look at that."

He does, however, feel that legislation has already had a profound effect on the industry.

"The first thing that people who run these centres now say is 'What's safe?' and then they say 'What's exciting, adventurous and challenging?'. But you cannot legislate with children or adults to make an environment 100 per cent safe."

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