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Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Bill

6.55 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a Bill of extreme importance that was taken through another place by Mr. David Jamieson, the honourable Member for Plymouth, Devonport. It is important because it refers to safety measures for the younger end of the spectrum, covering people up to age of 17. Moving the Second Reading in another place, Mr. Jamieson said,

Members who have stayed behind this evening and those who wish to take part in the debate will be aware of the appalling tragedy in the Lyme Bay area when four teenagers from the Southway School died on a canoeing exercise. Unfortunately, it was no accident. They died due to the criminal neglect of the people whom they and their parents thought were responsible for them; that is, the people who were running the St. Alban's activity centre.

The managing director of the centre is now serving three years for manslaughter. While one may say that it is a punishment which is well deserved, it gives no comfort or succour to the people who lost those children in such terrible circumstances. I am blessed with two grandsons who are now reaching the age when they are

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beginning to feel their way in life and are eager to take part in those sorts of outdoor activities. I know what a blow it would be to me, to my wife and to the parents if something happened to them because somebody was not performing properly. The Bill is an attempt to plug the hole in that type of situation.

Parents, governors of schools, national and local education authorities, teachers' unions, organisations involved in running activity centres, townswomen's guilds and many others have called for action because the strongest instinct of any parent is to protect their child from danger. That is the history behind the Bill.

As it stands the Bill has the fullest support of the Government. I express my thanks and those of other people involved to the Government for the speed with which they have acted, allowing the Bill to make such rapid progress. They are to be commended for that. Those like myself and the mover of the Bill in another place are extremely grateful.

The Bill seeks to protect people under 18 years of age. After that time they are adults and can make their own judgments about what they do. The measure will bring into being specific regulations which will do away with self-regulation. The regulations will be made by Government Ministers. The Bill has cross-party support and is backed also by the Government, by educational organisations, by sports groups such as the Central Council for Physical Recreation, by local authorities—I received communications from some today—and by the ACC, the ADC and the AMA. They all want to see the Bill progress as quickly as possible. There is a need for urgency. I hope that your Lordships' House can proceed in a manner which will put the Bill on the statute book by the time we rise for the Summer Recess.

I express my appreciation to the Department for Education for a document it sent me explaining the Bill in detail. I shall not go through it this evening because it is rather long. But should any noble Lord wish to examine it in order to discuss it at a later stage I shall be happy to make it available.

The Bill contains four main elements. First, it sets up a licensing authority which will oversee the accreditation and licensing of activity centres. In particular, centres will have to agree to follow a code of safety practice which will include the suitability of equipment and the qualifications and experience of instructors. The code of practice currently being finalised by the Activity Centres Advisory Committee will, I am sure, form an excellent basis for that.

Secondly, the Bill establishes an inspectorate to ensure that centres abide by the code of practice. When the inspectorate encounters activities that are causing immediate danger to children it will have powers to stop that activity immediately. If it encounters sloppy or potentially hazardous activities and practice, it will be able to issue notices of improvement to give centres a period of time to improve standards. It is my hope that such powers, over time, would lift the standard of centres that were not operating to proper and desirable safety levels and bring about higher safety standards as quickly as possible.

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The ultimate sanction on a recalcitrant centre that continued to ignore high standards of safety and put children at risk would be the removal of its licence after which it would be an offence for the centre to continue trading. If it did, the result could be a heavy fine or imprisonment.

Thirdly, the Bill sets up a complaints procedure for consumers or others who have reservations about the safety of activities at a particular centre. Such complaints could be quickly followed up by competent independent inspectors. If that procedure had been in place in 1992, Joy Cawthorne, the former instructor at the St. Alban's centre, who warned the managing director that unless his safety standards improved he would have to explain one day to parents why their child was not coming home, would have had somewhere to take her complaints.

Fourthly, following some government pump-priming funds, the scheme should be largely self-financing with centres paying for their accreditation. That is similar to car owners paying for their MOT certificates.

The Bill is enabling legislation which sets out the framework for safety in outdoor centres. If it becomes law, following a period of consultation with the industry and other legitimate interests, statutory instruments will have to be laid before the House for the detailed legislation. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that if the Bill becomes law he will act without delay to ensure that the secondary legislation is introduced. I hope that that can be completed quickly to allow the legislation to take effect early in 1996. I ask the Minister to make it plain —I think that he has already indicated it in conversations —that the Government will expedite the business as quickly as they can.

I do not want to say more. I think I have explained what the Bill is about. It is about ensuring as far as one possibly can that youngsters up to the age of 18 do not go on outward bound courses, whether at sea or on shore, where they are at risk because someone who is in charge of them is not qualified and cannot look after their interests to the maximum. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Dean of Beswick.)

7.3 p.m.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I shall not delay the House very long for the simple reason that there is not very much to say other than that this is a very good Bill. It is a pity that Parliament once again finds itself being reactive but I am afraid that that may be the nature of some of our jobs here. Unless we have a fault pointed out to us in the first place, we cannot correct it. As the noble Lord, Lord Dean, mentioned, one tragedy would almost certainly have been avoided if what is suggested in the Bill had been in force at the time.

It is odd that the Bill applies only to those who are under the age of 18, although those who are minors should undoubtedly be first to receive the protection of the law. It is to be hoped that older people in outdoor activity centres will receive some knock-on effects, for

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one would have thought that someone who discovers rock climbing at the age of 40 would need just as much support from the law and from regulation as someone who is aged only 16. Indeed, knowing how reflexes slow down, one would have thought that they might need more. We desperately need such a Bill.

I shall draw my remarks to a close for the simple reason that my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie is an expert in this field and knows far more about the practicalities of this subject. In those circumstances, I shall sit down and allow him to enlighten the rest of us.

7.5 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Addington, I rise to support the Bill. I thank my noble friend for his extremely kind words and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, on introducing the Bill. It seeks to ensure that adequate minimum standards are maintained by the operators of activity centres when offering adventurous recreation and training to young people under the age of 18.

I should declare my interest. I am an active canoeist and hill walker. I hold qualifications as a joint services mountain expedition leader and as a British Canoeing Union instructor for the open canoe. I am a member of the Scottish Canoeists Association and have built 15 open canoes. I lead an outdoor group in Clackmannan and offer canoeing instruction on a voluntary basis. I am therefore very interested in the proposals in the Bill, as I am certain that all my fellow outdoor pursuits instructors will be thankful that they will be able to avoid being browbeaten by their managements into instructing in subjects that they know they do not have sufficient experience or qualifications to teach.

The national centres of excellence, such as Plas-y-Brenin and Glenmore Lodge, recruit only very experienced instructors with substantial formal qualifications, employing them as instructional officers grade one. These are people who can offer senior instructor qualifications in at least four disciplines. However, there is no requirement at present for the various organisations which offer outdoor activities to maintain this high standard, because, of course, they are required to run as businesses and to make decisions orientated towards the marketplace rather than towards excellence. I accept that that is probably a little unfair, as many outdoor organisations have the aim of introducing people to activities and getting them started rather than pursuing their activity to the utmost degree.

In the world of outdoor activity in general and canoe instruction in particular there are generally three types of organisation involved. First, there are activity holiday companies, which offer one-off introductory sessions—a different one each day. Secondly, there are education authority centres, which generally offer instruction within the context of a personal development course. Thirdly, there are the outdoor activity centres, which offer specific training in the techniques and philosophy of the chosen activity. Those centres have a skills-based approach.

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The prospect of a requirement for more experienced and qualified instructors poses not too much threat to those already in the industry. For existing instructional staff, the prospect is that there will be a greater emphasis by managers on career development for their staff. There is no pool of higher qualified instructors currently unemployed waiting to move into jobs which are currently filled by less qualified staff.

I should like to raise one or two questions about the operation of the Bill as an Act. I hope that the Minister will be able to help me with them. First, will the Secretary of State be required to consult the governing bodies of each outdoor activity? Clause 3(3) seems to imply that he or she will, but Clause 3(4) implies that such advice may be overridden or dispensed with.

Secondly, can the Minister clarify exactly which Secretary of State we are talking about? For example, will it be the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Welsh Secretary of State or which one will it be? Thirdly, following along that vein, I wonder why this sensible legislation is seen as inappropriate for Northern Ireland, which is an area with exceptional opportunities for outdoor activities. Fourthly, like my noble friend, I ask whether there is any prospect of this legislation being extended to cover all activity centres. Why should slapdash management be allowed when only adults or those over 18 years of age are to attend? Might that not mean that companies may switch away from the under-18 market, denying them the chance to adopt activities that may become a distinct part of their whole lifestyle?

I can see that adults should be better able to discern the inadequacies of the instructional arrangements they may find, but halfway up a rockface is hardly the place to discover that the instructor has little experience and is under-qualified. In any case, adult trainees are attending because they do not know and want to know more. Similarly, there may be adults attending who have been sent by a third party to attend as part of a wider programme.

I conclude by saying that these outdoor activities are safe and reasonable activities to be introduced to young people of all ages. There have been tragic but very rare incidents involving new entrants to outdoor activities; namely, the Cairngorm and Lyme Bay tragedies. Most fatalities in outdoor activities occur to experienced participants.

In any outdoor activity the management has to take into account the weather and to plan flexibly around it, sometimes disappointing trainees. For example, my solo canoe trip journey down the Beauly Firth last Thursday was wholly appropriate on Thursday, but it would have been ludicrous on Friday. Your Lordships might not have needed to hear me had I tried to undertake that journey on Friday. Anticipation of difficult weather conditions and the ability to understand the practical consequences of weather forecasts is vital. Programmes must be advertised as flexible and staff trained to offer many activities to meet that flexibility. The increased use of radios and portable telephones readily recommends itself. I hope that the regulations will make the provision of voice communication mandatory.

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My final point is that I hope that an anomalous situation will not arise about the use of a centre's facilities by a top athlete who is aged under 18 years. Those with their own personal training programme often make use of the facilities of their local centre to undertake training far in advance of the centre's usual programme. I hope that there is no intention to prevent that from continuing. I commend the Bill to the House.

7.13 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene very briefly from the Labour Front Bench, to congratulate my noble friend Lord Dean upon so comprehensively bringing to this House a Bill which was introduced in the other place by his parliamentary colleague, David Jamieson. Having read Hansard and having terrible memories of the events which caused this Bill, one can appreciate that there can be no one in either House who wishes to delay the passage of this Bill. I am certainly looking forward to hearing the Minister giving the assurances which my noble friend Lord Dean requested for the record.

The House is indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, who, out of the blue as it were, turns out to be someone who is perhaps better informed than any of us on the nature of this Bill and the need for it. It is an interesting feature of this House that one never knows who will bring his or her experience to bear. Certainly, my noble friend Lord Dean has demonstrated the width and breadth of support for legislation of this kind.

When I knew that David Jamieson had had the good fortune to conceive and produce this Bill because of his association, my memories went back to Devon. It is more than 50 years ago that I came across a place called Slapton Sands. Royal Marine commandos were trained there during the war and I was one of them. Terrible tragedies occurred there. There was the incident of German E-boats turning up in the middle of the night and shooting down many brave American soldiers who were training. Those were virtually man-made tragedies, but this particular tragedy could and should have been avoided. This Bill is going to provide a mechanism whereby such tragedies should be avoided in future.

My memory also went back to a number of other things arising out of the pressure on teachers and the teaching profession, including governors and head teachers. There is a range of things which they now do which they never did before. My mind brings up the issue of mini-buses. Legislation is required as a result of the genuine desire of the teaching profession to be helpful to youngsters so that they can lead a better life and take part in wider activities. What we have is born out of tragedy, and perhaps we can do things better in future.

I also like to believe that what we are doing will bring a little solace to the parents of the youngsters who were the victims of this dereliction. Nothing can bring back their loved ones. But I believe that they will feel a little easier in their minds that something is being done. I refer not only to the parents and the friends of those who lost their lives, but also to the rising generation

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and the teaching profession. We in Parliament, given the opportunity, must not hesitate to seize it. I very much hope that the Minister will say the right words.

I very much hope too that this Bill does not fall foul and become the victim of what I call "parliamentary skulduggery" in the other place. I do not believe that there will be any intention to sabotage the Bill, but there are Members of this House who are as experienced as I in the ways of the other place. Very often such matters may get into a queue. Because people have their own imperatives this legislation could fall victim to parliamentary skulduggery without the aims of the Bill being necessarily thwarted or upset. I greatly look forward to the Minister saying the kind words which should be helpful. In this House it is good to have an opportunity to say that here is a piece of legislation about which there is no animus, and to which all of us, including the Minister and the department, are willing to give a very fair wind. We on these Benches certainly wish the Bill well.

7.17 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I too congratulate Mr. David Jamieson on bringing forward this Bill. Fortune, it seems, favours the persistent. It is a great tribute to Mr. Jamieson that we are here today to debate this important matter. Many in another place have made glowing reference to his sterling and unstinting efforts over the past two years to raise the profile of safety in outdoor centres. It is with the greatest pleasure that we add to these tributes. He has succeeded in persuading us all of the merits of the case for change. Party politics have been set to one side and that is as it should be where children's safety is concerned. We are delighted too to see the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, presenting this Bill. His wide knowledge of the subject is well known and he has given the House a clear understanding of the Bill and the intentions that underlie it.

Perhaps I may set things out as we on the Government Benches see them. This Bill seeks to provide for the regulation of centres and of the providers of facilities where those under the age of 18 engage in what the Bill describes as "adventure activities". Two years ago in Lyme Bay four youngsters—Claire Langley, Rachel Walker, Simon Dunne and Dean Sayer—needlessly lost their lives. I have found it as heart-rending to listen to noble Lords today as it was to read the press coverage after the accident and during the trial. We all mourn the loss of those young lives. Our hearts go out to their families, who have borne this loss with such impressive dignity.

The Bill envisages the Government bringing forward detailed provisions under regulations. We agree that that is the best approach. Much of the detail can be settled only after an extensive consultation. As part of that process, it is envisaged that the Health and Safety Commission will be conducting consultations of its own and will bring forward proposed health and safety regulations for the Secretary of State's consideration. It is important that the new arrangements fit properly with what already exists.

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Perhaps I can give some comfort to the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie. We shall be consulting extremely widely should the Bill come into law. However, I cannot tell him at this stage which Secretary of State will be involved. That will depend very much on the nature of the consultation. As far as the Bill is concerned, the Secretary of State must remain anonymous.

Turning to Northern Ireland, the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which the Bill serves essentially to reproduce, does not apply to Northern Ireland. Technically, therefore, the Bill could not be applied there. The Northern Ireland Office is, however, looking carefully at the provisions of the Bill to decide how it might be emulated there—quite possibly through Orders in Council.

On the points about extending the Bill to all activity centres and to people over the age of 18, perhaps I may say that such activities are already within the scope of the health and safety legislation. We do not envisage using the Bill to extend that legislation, but perhaps the success of the measures introduced under the Bill might in the future lead to their emulation.

The Bill stipulates that there may be conditions in licences relating to inspections. We think that that, too, would be absolutely the right way of proceeding. A centre offering an activity covered by the regulations would not be able to operate without a licence, and one of the conditions of the licence would be that the centre would be subject to inspection.

Inspectors would need to look at a variety of things, but we believe that it is important that they adopt the lightest touch consistent with satisfying themselves as to the safe conduct of activities in the centre. Most importantly, inspectors would need to look at the competence of those with responsibility for young people, and at their training and qualifications. If the two leaders involved at Lyme Bay had been appropriately qualified those fateful events might not have happened—indeed, they probably would not have happened.

We also consider it important that inspectors should look at management issues. For instance, centres should have sensible safety policies and should conduct assessments of risk. But we would not intend that inspectors should interfere in matters that relate, for example, to comfort or welfare.

Should this Bill reach the statute book, the Government would wish to consider very carefully and precisely, and to consult fully on, which outdoor activities should be governed by the regulations. At this stage, it seems to us that there are certain activities which probably should fall within the scope of the statutory registration scheme. Mountaineering, canoeing, some small boat sailing, wind-surfing, mountain-biking, caving and rafting spring to mind. A case can no doubt be made for others.

It also seems to us that (subject to consultation) it would be appropriate to exclude from the regulations single sports private clubs offering facilities for their members, like football or rugby clubs and the local yacht club. We would not—I want to make this absolutely clear—be seeking to require licences for low-risk activities, or those which just take place from

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time to time on a voluntary basis. Perhaps I should add in response to the last concern expressed by the noble Earl that his point about top athletes training at centres has been registered and will be taken into account in our deliberations.

I should also make clear how we see the respective roles of inspectors from the licensing authority, from the Health and Safety Executive, and from local authorities. We must be sure to avoid duplication of effort, but at the same time ensure that each is clear about their duties so that nothing slips through the net.

Health and Safety Executive and local authority inspectors will continue to have their powers of inspection under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act, and will still have the power to issue improvement and prohibition notices, and to take prosecutions wherever they consider this necessary in the interests of health and safety. They will also have powers to investigate accidents and incidents, and to follow up complaints. This Bill will enhance those provisions.

The new licensing authority inspectors would be inspecting adventure activity centres and providers solely in the context of duties specified in the Bill. If the licensing authority inspectors discovered dangerous practices they would have the power to place restrictions upon the provider's licence, or indeed to revoke the licence altogether. Should enforcement through the courts be necessary, the licensing authority would notify the Health and Safety Executive or the local authority immediately of the need for enforcement, and they would carry that forward.

We do not see any need for a vast bureaucracy resulting from this Bill. It is difficult to say in advance of consultation precisely what would be required. But we envisage an operation of no more than, say, a dozen to 20 full-time equivalent inspectors.

The Activity Centres Advisory Committee, in the work that it has done towards a voluntary scheme, has estimated that some modest pump-priming government money would be needed over the first two years or so. We agree that this is likely. It is intended that thereafter the scheme should become self-financing. Fees to providers should be modest and a sliding scale of fees could be introduced to lighten the burden on small-scale operators.

Safety cannot be guaranteed by statutes and regulations. Outdoor adventure is a most excellent experience, but it will always be a risky one. The risks are all the greater because young people are, by definition, inexperienced.

But it has struck me from today's debate that the very act of, and success in, coping with danger is likely to give children a higher regard for safety. For that reason, it is educationally desirable that tutors should set challenges which entail some uncertainty. But that must be within reason and within an environment that is controlled enough for potential disasters to be averted. That is what this Bill will help to do.

We are content with the Bill in principle; we are content with it in detail; and we wish it a swift and easy passage through this House.

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7.27 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, I should like to express my appreciation to the Members of your Lordships' House who have participated in this debate, which has been extremely interesting. I do not have much to say in reply.

I should like to thank both speakers from the Liberal Benches for their contributions. I thank particularly the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, for his detailed questioning. He is obviously pretty much an expert on this subject. I say "pretty much" because it is a question of how one evaluates things. However, I believe that when the Government consult people in an advisory capacity, it is people like the noble Earl who should be consulted and who should have some input. That would be of immense benefit to everybody.

I was glad that the Minister took the trouble to reply to the question about people over the age of 18. He said that their position was covered by other legislation. When one is dealing with an organised activity involving people both below and above the age of 18, legislative problems can arise. Nevertheless, I should like to express my appreciation to the Minister for his detailed answer to the points that have been raised.

I hope that the Bill will proceed as rapidly as possible. I know that that is the wish not only of the sponsors, but of the Government who want to look after the youngsters and to prevent a recurrence of the appalling tragedy that took place in Lyme Bay. The sooner that such events become history, the better for everybody. I hope that your Lordships' House will now give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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