Leading Article: Safely through a difficult passage

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The Independent Online
RITES of passage for young people into adult life should be challenging and are sometimes frightening. As such they are likely to be potentially hazardous. This is a inevitable part of growing up and of separation from parents. But such activities should not be unnecessarily life-threatening.

The deaths this week of four teenagers in a canoeing accident off the Dorset coast revive the issue of where one draws the line between adventure and danger; between helping young people develop and risking their lives. It is too early to learn the lessons from this particular tragedy, except to feel again the weight of such losses. However, it is already clear that the general supervision of adventure holidays is ad hoc, often slack and inconsistent with the protection given to children in other spheres of life.

The confusion reveals itself in the absence of proper statistics. There are no reliable figures detailing the numbers of deaths and injuries among young people involved in activities such as sailing, climbing, canoeing and air-rifle shooting. Anyone is entitled to set up an activity centre providing facilities for the over-eights. There are no mandatory rules setting qualifications for instructors and no official inspection.

A hotch-potch of measures takes the place of careful regulation. The Department for Education has issued detailed safety guidance to schools but the 76- page document is only advisory. Attempts at self-regulation by the industry have failed because the vast majority of activity centres are not members of the British Activity Holidays Association.

This is not a new problem. The Consumers' Association has been campaigning for tighter legislation covering children's activity holidays since 1975. Until this week that campaign could be characterised as the province of killjoys. Now it looks more serious.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, would consider any action thought necessary in the light of the Dorset deaths. In other areas, such as the administration of children's homes, the Government has set stringent standards to prevent further scandal. It should now establish registration of activity centres, with a fee to fund an inspectorate enforcing a comprehensive code of safety.

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