Outdoor centres face crackdown

New rules aim to cripple rogue operators
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The Independent Online
OUTDOOR education centres are to face new controls to prevent a repetition of the Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy, the Government will announce this week.

In a tough clampdown, the centres will in future have to be listed on a national register, individually licensed, and subject to inspection and complaints procedures.

But the move, which ministers claimed just a few weeks ago was unnecessary, comes too late for dozens of well-run centres which have closed after being undercut by cheaper establishments.

Now, cowboy operators who employ unqualified staff and fail to take proper safety precautions could be closed down or even imprisoned under measures contained in a Private Member's Bill put forward by David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport.

All centres will face inspections and those that fail will have improvement orders served on them. If they continue to offend they could lose their licences and their owners could be jailed.

Yet many local authorities have already shut down their centres, and at least half the remaining 300 or so known for their high standards are under serious financial pressure.

One of the most highly-regarded centres, the Howtown Outdoor Centre on Ullswater in Cumbria, was closed by Durbham County Council last month. It will reopen next month as an independent business, surviving by employing qualified staff at lower salaries, charging more per child, and opening to the public during school holidays.

Its director, Steve Mitchell, says that the measures being taken this week should have been brought in more than 20 years ago after six teenagers died in a blizzard in the Cairngorms in 1971. If they had been, he says, all the country's 3,000-plus centr e s would have been run by fully qualified staff. Accidents such as the one at Lyme Bay in March 1993, in which four teenagers died, might never have happened.

"If it had been required that they used qualified people, there would not have been the cowboy centres set up, undercutting the established ones.

"Every centre I know is struggling, and it is because there are inferior centres which are able to offer a lower-priced product because they are paying staff less."

Even in adverse weather conditions, Mr Mitchell says, it is safe to take children sailing, abseiling or hill-walking with the back-up of radio contact, flares, a first-aid kit and proper supervision. Where some centres have failed is in not providing these things.

"The whole principle of what we are doing is personal development, facing challenge as an individual or as a group. You take them out over Helvellyn in pretty rough conditions and when they come back they feel they have had a day which is death-defying and mind-bending. They realise their potential is much greater than they thought."

For Mr Jamieson, this week's announcement, expected on Tuesday, will mean triumph at the end of a 22-month campaign. John Patten, the previous secretary of state for education, had dismissed tighter controls on centres as unnecessary, and as recently as last month his successor, Gillian Shephard, took the same line.

Mr Patten announced a four-point plan which made schools responsible for checking safety measures at centres. This strategy, which Mr Jamieson likens to expecting bus passengers to check the driver's licence and MOT, only served to cut the numbers using local authority centres even further.

The turning point for Mr Jamieson came in a meeting with Eric Forth, the Minister of State for Education, last week, when the two men reached agreement on basic principles. His Bill, to be accepted by the Government at second reading on Thursday, will r e quire the Secretary of State for Education to take steps to implement the measures. "I think that safety standards for children transcend normal political divides," he said. "I am extremely pleased to work with the Government to get this on the statuteb ook."