Leading Article: When an adventure becomes a disaster

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The Independent Online
THE Hayley Hadfield case, whose outcome we reported yesterday, is the stuff of parents' nightmares. A girl of 11 taking a night hike on an adventure holiday in May 1992 falls down a slope and hits her head. Yet the supervising adults fail to call an ambulance for one and a quarter hours. Three days later, she dies.

The fines imposed on the holiday camp and its owner leave two reasons for concern. One is that the law does not provide for custodial sentences even in cases of extreme negligence. The magistrate described the camp owner as 'guilty of the most callous and reckless disregard' of his responsibilities - but could not send him to prison. The other is that such incidents are no less likely now than then.

Parents may rightly clamour for prosecutions and imprisonment after they lose a child in such an incident; but they would undoubtedly prefer a thousand times over that the accident had never happened. Prevention before the event, rather than punishment after, must be the aim of government policy.

We argued in this paper eight months ago that adventure holidays for schoolchildren are not properly regulated. Responsibility for safety is divided between the Health and Safety Executive, which looks after centres that are primarily educational in purpose, and local authorities, whose job is to supervise those devoted to leisure. Legislation lays down general rules; more specific details on how these centres should be run are to be found in a pamphlet called Safety in Outdoor Education, which is no more than advisory.

Since then, civil servants have consulted other civil servants, and John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, has met the parents of the four children killed on a canoeing expedition in March at Lyme Bay in Dorset. A prosecution is under way in that case, too, which should help to pin down who was responsible.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of parents have sent their children on adventure holidays without any reassurance that proper safety procedures are in place. The collecting of statistics on these accidents has not improved, so nobody can tell whether things are getting better or worse. It has now become a matter of urgency. Mr Patten should either publish his proposals this week, or be ready to tell the House of Commons why he cannot.