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Lord Cope of Berkeley: Before the Minister sits down, I am not sure that he referred to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Molyneaux, about Great Britain and whether it is included. It seemed to me to be a good point which I had not spotted myself on reading the order.
The Great Britain Act was introduced following the Lyme Bay tragedy when four young people lost their lives. Although no fatalities have occurred in Northern Ireland, young people are occasionally injured, and, with the growing popularity of outdoor pursuits among young people, it is important to minimise the inherent risk in such activities.
In general, the existing regulatory framework in Northern Ireland offers a great deal of assurance that the public is properly protected. However, young people are particularly vulnerable to any failure of health and safety management, and the Government are satisfied that there is a need to provide them with additional protection along the lines of the scheme already operating in Great Britain. That scheme is already making a worthwhile contribution to safety standards and the Government are therefore committed to the introduction of a comparable licensing scheme in Northern Ireland.
The draft order has been the subject of wide-ranging consultation with local government and educational, youth and sports interests in Northern Ireland. It was sent to over 3,000 bodies and elicited about 40 responses. The comments received were broadly favourable and it has not proved necessary to amend the draft order. Points raised have generally related to details which will be addressed more fully through further consultations during the preparation of the regulations which are needed to implement the order. However, two areas of broad concern have been expressed concerning the financial implications to operators of outdoor activity centres and the fact that the age range does not encompass over-18s.
The initial compliance cost assessment circulated with the draft order estimated that the ongoing cost to individual centres should not be significant--of the order of £420 every three years. However, fears have been expressed that the true costs under the scheme may be greater than the assumptions or that additional charges may be imposed, such as for spot checks, and may therefore cause financial problems to some operators. This has not proved to be the case in Great Britain, and the Government will seek to ensure that the fee structure in Northern Ireland is broadly comparable to that in Great Britain and does not place an unfair burden on smaller centres. Overall, the aim will be to achieve the necessary safety standard with the minimum of regulation, bureaucracy and cost.
With regard to the second general concern, the decision to focus the legislation on young people under 18 years of age was on the basis that 18 is the legal age for adulthood. This is consistent with other legislation, such as the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, which also recognises that this age group is in need of specific protection. The Department of Education for Northern Ireland is not aware of any activity centre in the Province that caters only for those over 18 years of age. The provisions of the draft order should therefore effectively enable adults as well as children to benefit from the scheme.
I am aware that some centres in Great Britain have chosen to restrict their operation to adults so that they move outside the scope of the scheme. Given the small size of the Northern Ireland market, it is doubtful whether that is a viable route for local operators. However, if there proves to be a significant number of operators not subject to the licensing scheme, either because they opt out of the scope or are exempted by the terms of the associated regulations, the Government will consider the appropriateness of promoting a complementary voluntary registration scheme with a wider scope, such as that which operates in Wales and is being piloted in Scotland.
I believe that it will be helpful to the House if I now outline briefly the principal provisions of the draft order, which is a broad enabling provision, with the detailed provisions to be determined in subsequent regulations equivalent to the Adventure Activities Licensing Regulations 1996 in Great Britain.
The form of the order is similar to the Great Britain Act, but reflects Northern Ireland institutional arrangements. The draft order requires the Department of Education to designate by order a licensing authority (Article 3(1)); and prescribe by regulations the types of providers to be covered by the licensing scheme including the activities to be covered (Article 3(2)); the requirements to be placed on such providers relating to health and safety and the arrangements for payment of fees, a register of licences and the handling of complaints and appeals (Article 3(3)); and the penalties to be imposed for offences (Article 4). The draft order also enables the department to pay grants to the licensing authority (Article 5(7)).
The draft order requires the Department of Education to designate a licensing authority which will exercise functions as prescribed in subsequent regulations. To ensure that the body to be designated is credible, equipped with the relevant expertise, and is able to do the job, the Department of Education is required, under Article 3(1) of the draft order, to consult with the Department of Economic Development before designating the licensing authority.
In Great Britain, nomination of the licensing authority rests with the Health and Safety Commission, which is an independent executive body with the power to make recommendations directly to Ministers. The equivalent Northern Ireland body is the Health and Safety Agency for Northern Ireland, which is an advisory body with the power only to make recommendations to its parent department. Consequently it is that department (the Department of Economic Development) which is identified in the legislation, but it is envisaged that it will take advice from the agency.
Article 5(7) allows the department to make grants to the licensing authority to cover its expenses. As in Great Britain, it is the department's intention that the scheme should, as far as possible, be self-financing through the adoption of an appropriate fee structure, but it is accepted that the fees charged must be affordable, particularly for small operators. The Great Britain scheme has required some deficit support in its initial years. This amounted to £350,000 in 1997-98, but the requirement is declining as the arrangements settle down.
In view of the successful operation of the Great Britain scheme, and taking account of the small number of centres in Northern Ireland (around 30), the department will consider the value to be gained from inviting the Great Britain licensing body to extend its remit to Northern Ireland.
Article 5(3) requires the Department of Education to undertake consultations before making regulations. Those consultations are required to include the Health and Safety Agency and any other relevant bodies.
Outdoor activity centres which cater for young persons under 18 years of age and provide instruction or leadership will be required to register under the licensing scheme. I have already explained the rationale for the age cut-off. The focus on instruction and leadership recognises the additional responsibility which an organisation must bear when it takes charge of the outdoor experience on offer.
In Great Britain the regulations are directed at commercial centres which charge for their services, and local authorities providing a service for schools. Operators with more than one centre must register each separately, to ensure that the required safety standard is achieved in every location providing adventure activities. Certain exemptions are specified--for example, where facilities are provided by an educational establishment to pupils of that establishment and where a voluntary association provides a service to its members. The activities embraced in Great Britain are caving, climbing, trekking and watersports, as defined in the regulations. The emphasis is placed on those activities most likely to be undertaken by groups, and therefore requiring particular attention to leadership and instruction.
The forthcoming consultation on the Northern Ireland regulations will enable further consideration to be given, in the light of the Great Britain experience, to whether the Great Britain scope and exemptions are appropriate.
The regulations will lay down appropriate safety standards. As in Great Britain, these standards will focus on ensuring good safety practice, including risk assessment, staff training and safe equipment. A register of licensed centres will be maintained and complaints against centres will be investigated. Appeals procedures will also be established.
It will be an offence to operate without a licence, when one is required, or to operate other than in accordance with the terms of a licence. A person convicted of an offence under the regulations will be liable on summary conviction to a fine or, on conviction on indictment, to a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years, or a fine, or both. So far there have been no prosecutions under the Great Britain scheme.
In conclusion, the enabling provisions of this draft order will permit young people to benefit from participation in exciting and stimulating outdoor activities without exposure to undue risks, and will give parents and the general public greater confidence in the use of centres offering adventure activities. I beg to move.