As the report from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was published, ministers bowed to public pressure by agreeing to subject all centres to compulsory registration and inspection.
Parents, teachers' organisations and MPs have been campaigning for tighter controls on the country's 3,000-plus centres since March, 1993, when four teenagers died during a canoeing expedition in Lyme Bay, Dorset. The centre at which they were staying was later fined £60,000 and its managing director jailed for three years for manslaughter, but until yesterday ministers maintained that a voluntary code of conduct was adequate to raise safety levels.
Inspectors from the HSE visited more than 200 centres between April and October. They found that most applied proper safety standards, but about 10 per cent gave cause for concern and five centres were issued with formal improvement notices.
Some 16 per cent had no training system for their staff, 8 per cent had no procedures for dealing with emergencies and 6 per cent had no proper means of ensuring that equipment was safe and well-used. Vigilance should not be allowed to fall as the memoryof the Lyme Bay tragedy fades, they warned.
Yesterday, the father of one of the Lyme Bay tragedy victims welcomed the Government's "U-turn" but said the HSE report showed children had been put at risk unnecessarily since his daughter's death.
Dennis Walker, father of Rachel Walker, said cowboy operators who undercut reputable centres should be put out of business. "It is very alarming that something like 10 per cent are woefully inadequate. If there had been safety measures in place our kids would be here today," he said.
The new measures, contained in a Private Members' Bill put forward by David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, will introduce compulsory registration and inspection of centres as well as a formal complaints procedure.
The Bill will receive its second reading on Friday and will be followed by a consultation period before the detailed regulations are drawn up. It will come into force next January and all centres are expected to be registered by early 1997.
Yesterday, the Minister of State for Education, Eric Forth, accepted the measures in the Bill. "The Government supports this Bill in principle. We intend that there should be the minimum bureaucracy consistent with doing what is necessary to improve the safety of children when using outdoor centres or similar facilities," he said.
"This is a considerable move of position by the Government and I welcome that. Many centres are now saying it is essential for restoring public confidence. The sad thing is that good centres are going out of business because teachers are not able to tellwhich centres are good and which are bad," he said.
The Government's change of heart comes after years of concern about the dangers to children and teenagers of poorly organised activity centres staffed by the inexperienced and the underqualified.
The first major public outcry about standards goes back to 1971 when several teenagers based at an activity centre in the Cairngorms died from exposure after becoming lost in the mountains.
Doug McAvoy, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said yesterday: "A single centre not coming up to scratch is one too many. Licensing and regulation is the best way to ensure the safety of young people visiting such activity centres."