HC Deb 21 March 1994 vol 240 cc110-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

9.56 pm
Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am very grateful to have been awarded the chance to debate safety in outdoor education. i come to the Chamber with mixed emotions of pleasure and sadness—pleasure that I am able to air views about outdoor education on behalf of my constituents and sadness because of the circumstances in which I have had to ask for the debate.

At 11 am on 22 March last year, eight teenagers from Southway school in my constituency went on a canoeing trip to Lyme bay in Dorset and by 11 o'clock that night it had been confirmed that four of those teenagers had died in that venture. During the past year the bereaved parents have borne their great pain with considerable dignity. They have campaigned for changes in the law with passion and perseverance because it is their wish that no parent should have to go through the agony that they have been through in the past year.

I speak, both as a former teacher and as a parent, as a supporter of outdoor education. Young people—particularly those who suffer the monotony of urban life—need the challenge of the outdoors. It gives direction and purpose to their lives and provides a discipline that is lacking in the lives of many youngsters today. The national curriculum recommends outdoor pursuits to schools and the debate is not about taking away all risk from outdoor pursuits, but about removing all unnecessary risk from those pursuits.

What changes have taken place in the past few years? Because of the onset of local management of schools, many local education authority outdoor centres are winding down or have closed. The debate is not about the merits of LMS, but that is still a fact. Many of those centres are now being replaced by commercial private centres that are run for profit. The debate is not about whether that should happen. Some of those commercial centres are good, some are excellent, some are mediocre and a few are cowboy outfits that are putting children's lives at risk. It is my wish that the poorest centres should be brought up to the standard of the best centres, or should close.

My concerns about the matter are not new. Which? has been campaigning for changes in the law for 19 years—since 1975. In 1991, it carried out a survey of centres in Great Britain. If the Minister has not already seen it, I commend to him Holiday Which? of September 1991 which showed that some of the centres that it inspected were seriously lacking in basic safety measures. It also found, as I have said, that some of the centres were excellent. However, two of the 10 centres inspected were seriously deficient in safety measures.

At that time, calls—the parents to whom I have referred and I have been saying this for the past year—were made for compulsory registration of activity centres, for a comprehensive code of practice for those centres, for appropriate qualifications for instructors employed by activity centres and for a formal system of regular and comprehensive inspection by an independent body. What checks are made?

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wood.]

Mr. Jamieson

What checks are being made on those centres? In a recent. well-reported case, the centre in Lyme bay and several other centres were checked by an inspector who was sent round by the British Activity Holiday Association. Presumably, he gave a clean bill of health to those centres. However, it was later found that he ran a centre that was seriously deficient. He was quoted in no less a journal than the Western Morning News as saying that he had no qualifications. He said that he just used common sense to carry out the task.

Would we allow an aeroplane mechanic working on a aeroplane on which we were about to fly or a surgeon who was about to carry out open-heart surgery to use just common sense? What is wrong with the present system is that any of us in the Chamber, whether we were skilled or experienced, could open an outdoor pursuits centre tomorrow and take youngsters on potentially hazardous outings.

Most local education authorities have good guidance. Over the past year, I have discovered that a few of them have weak guidance. Some have guidance that is virtually non-existent. I am concerned that grant-maintained schools do not have guidance on which to fall back unless they take note of the LEA guidance in their areas.

Some of those schools are now using what is called the named instructor scheme whereby a centre fills in a check list sent in by the school. That check list is checked afterwards. However, the difficulty is that too few schools have people who are competent to say whether that check list has been filled in correctly. Similarly, too few LEAs have outdoor pursuits advisers who can tell them whether that check list has been filled in correctly. The system is fundamentally flawed because those check lists rely on the centres giving truthful and accurate answers about the operation of the centres.

It is estimated that 25 per cent. of children who go to those centres every year do not go through their schools or LEAs. They go straight to the centre from home. Their parents usually find a centre in one of the Sunday supplements. There is no checking in between by any other body to discover whether the centre is working to high standards.

We expect the highest standards of safety in a civilised society in any body that is operating publicly. We do not get on a bus and ask whether the bus driver has a driving licence. We expect that to be the case. However, in outdoor education activities, there is no statutory requirement for any person to have qualifications to carry out those activities.

I want now to consider briefly the Government's response to the tragedy to which I have referred. On 11 November, the Secretary of State for Education released his four-point plan. The first item in the plan is that the Health and Safety Executive should inspect the centres. It came out earlier this year that the Health and Safety Executive will inspect only 100–50 a year for two years—out of an estimated 3,000 centres. On that basis, it will take 60 years to inspect all the centres. If we applied that to motor vehicles, would we say that it is satisfactory to give an MOT to only one out of 30 vehicles? The Minister's plan is seriously deficient in that respect.

There is another point. In written questions, I have asked both the Department for Education and the Department of Employment where those 3,000 centres are in Britain. Neither of those Departments could give me an answer. They simply said that the information was not collected in the form in which I requested it. All that I asked for was the names of the centres and the counties in which they are. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten the House and tell us in what form the statistics are kept, if they are kept at all. Does he know where all the centres are, so that he is in a position to have them inspected by the Health and Safety Executive?

Another point in the Minister's plan is that the reports will be published. I agree with that, but where will the reports be published? How will they be made available to parents who are thumbing through the colour supplements on Sunday to find a centre? How will parents and schools see the reports? I remind the Minister that the Department of Employment said that the first reports will not be available until April 1995 and the second batch will be available in April 1996. Three years after the tragedy, we will have reports on one out of every 30 centres.

I refer to a letter that I received from the Minister on another matter—I asked him about Ofsted reports of private schools. In a letter dated 17 February, he said: The onus is on the school to distribute the report to interested parties or to advise them where reports can be obtained. Will he use the same criteria for those centres or will the reports be openly and freely available to all?

The four-point plan set out further guidance for schools. I am glad that many schools are receiving good guidance. The guidance available in Devon is excellent—it was updated following the terrible tragedy. However, all of the guidance documents still rely on honest and truthful answers from the outdoor centres. That is a fundamental flaw in the present system.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Jamieson

Time is limited; I am sorry but I am unable to give way tonight.

The fourth point in the plan laid out by the Minister is that he will change the articles for governing bodies to reinforce the legal responsibility of governors. Unless other measures are put in place, I am afraid that that will make governors who support outdoor education reluctant to send children on such activities because they would be held legally liable for the shortcomings of centres over which they have no control whatever.

The Secretary of State has set up a steering group—it is meeting at present—to draw up new guidelines. The membership of that group is excellent. I am pleased that it has a number of distinguished members. The work of that group will be of limited value—indeed, it will have negligible value—unless there are some statutory teeth to what it is doing. The draft document refers users to a code of practice set out by tourist boards. That code of practice has been drawn up largely by people who own such centres or who have a vested interest in them. Any code of practice should be drawn up independently by people who do not have a direct financial interest in a centre.

Most of all, what is wrong is that there is no binding requirement on any centre to employ instructors who are properly qualified to carry out the work. We know that some of the people who work in centres start work a matter of days before the activity is undertaken, sometimes with no training at all. They are paid £30 or £40 a week, and are expected to take responsibility for the lives of young children.

What is needed? Clearly, the new guidelines for local education authorities—particularly those which have insufficiently good guidelines at the moment—are right. I applaud what the Minister is doing in that respect. We want all of the guidelines to come up to the best standards. However, they must be backed by teeth. There must be a statutory obligation on the centres.

The Minister needs to address two points. The inspections that take place are carried out by the Health and Safety Executive, but just inspecting a few centres is insufficient. The hon. Gentleman must make sure that far more centres are inspected. They could be inspected by an agency, and the centres themselves could pay. That is a little bit like the MOT test example that I gave. The centres could have some sort of kite mark which would show that they had been tested and had met high standards as a minimum requirement. I know that many good centres would welcome and would pay for such a scheme. That does not necessarily have a financial implication, and perhaps there could be some pump-priming from the Minister. I ask him to address seriously the question of wider inspection.

The other main point is that there should be a clear legal framework for establishing that instructors who are undertaking potentially hazardous activities, such as abseiling, yachting or canoeing on the sea, should have qualifications to carry out those activities. That does not exist at the moment. If we allow just anybody to take children abseiling or canoeing, I am afraid that their lives will be at risk. I have also found out that there are literally millions of children going through the centres each year. I ask the Minister to address the two points of inspection and the statutory qualifications that people should have.

It is my wish, and the wish of the parents who lost their children in the appalling tragedy last year, that there should be changes in the law to make sure that all outdoor education establishments are working to the highest standards. I know that my thoughts, and those of many hon. Members, will be with the parents who lost Simon, Claire, Dean and Rachel. Let us hope that their sad and tragic loss spurs to us change the law.

10.11 pm
Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) for allowing me a few minutes to speak in the debate. I am also grateful to the Minister because he indicated that, hopefully, he would be able to respond in some way.

My concern is the safety aspects of private schools and, in particular, private kindergartens and primary schools. Tragically, the young child of a Mr. and Mrs. Sargeant in my constituency died in a swimming accident at such a private school. The child died basically because of a difficulty with a floatation device.

I am not seeking to apportion blame or neglect in the matter. What concerns me, and what also concerns Mr. and Mrs. Sargeant, is the yawning gap in enforcing the best standards within those establishments. This follows closely on what my hon. Friend was saying.

There are elements of danger in everything, but people—particularly parents—are reassured if they know that those elements of danger, to the best of everybody's intentions, are being closely monitored. There does not appear to be anyone with jurisdiction for safety in private schools, with the exception of the Health and Safety Executive and the police. Admirable as those two bodies might be, I do not believe that they have the breadth, scope and expertise of local education authorities. LEAs examine such matters continually and on a larger scale. In the letter that the Minister kindly sent me dated 7 March he unfortunately gives no undertaking that the Government are prepared to consider that suggestion.

I hope that in response to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport and my speech the Minister will take it on himself to consider the matter more closely. He said in his letter that once an independent school has satisfied the Secretary of State that the necessary standards have been achieved, everything is OK, everything is signed. I remind the Minister that, tragically, standards can be applied in the first instance but may well not continue to be applied.

Unfortunately, there is a yawning gap in the legislation. I sincerely hope that the Minister will examine the case again and will consider the difficulties that have arisen. I hope that there will be some liaison with the LEAs. I hope that their expertise, which I am sure will be welcomed by most of the independent and private schools, can be put to good use.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. Before I call anyone, I must be clear that the Member has the permission of both the Minister and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) to speak.

10.15 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

I wish to intervene for only one minute.

I also lost a constituent as a result of the canoeing accident. I was extremely disappointed that my next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), did not have the courtesy to allow me to intervene in his speech in this important debate, which I am glad that he managed to obtain. It is not helpful if next-door neighbours who have suffered the same tragedy do not stand together to announce such—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I must make it clear that an Adjournment debate is essentially on a subject raised by one Member and answered by a Minister. The custom is for another Member who wishes to take part in the debate to sound out both the Member and the Minister in advance.

Mr. Steen

I merely wished to intervene, Madam Deputy Speaker. I did not intend to make a speech, but because the hon. Member for Devonport refused even to allow me to ask a question, I am having to make a short speech.

I lost a constituent in the tragic accident. I do not believe that if statutory rules and regulations had been laid down the accident would have happened. It was one of those tragedies that occur from time to time which one feels are an appalling waste of life. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not overreact to the tragedy, believing that creating more rules and regulations will prevent such tragedies from happening.

The Health and Safety Executive has an amazing number of things to do. To give it more tasks is unlikely to result in such tragedies being prevented. I hope that the Minister will take that point to heart. We do not necessarily stop such unfortunate occurrences by passing rules and regulations.

10.18 pm
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)


Madam Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. Member have the permission of the Minister?

Mr. Miller

I said to the Minister that I would take only two minutes, and I shall stick to that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) on handling the matter in the way that he has. It is a particularly important issue. I must say in response to the point raised by the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) that such tragedies can be avoided. I rise to speak as someone with many years' experience of canoeing. I built some of the first glass fibre boats in this country in the early 1960s.

When I discussed the day after the tragedy the matters raised by my hon. Friend, I was horrified to learn about the lack of supervision. Basic needs were ignored. For example, the youngsters had been given no training in deep-sea rescue before they were taken across Lyme bay, which is a treacherous piece of water. There were no spray decks on the vessels. The clothing worn, although good, was inadequate. The situation in which those youngsters found themselves was bound to cause a tragedy. It is nonsense to argue that that tragedy could not have been avoided. Way back in the early 1960s, there were canoeing expeditions in British waters, emulating experiences gained by eskimos in Arctic waters, that were supervised far more safely than was this specific incident.

The right place to comment in detail and to attribute blame is obviously another place, but I hope that the Minister will take on board the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport throughout the past year, and the very clear guidance given by the British Canoe Union and other organisations which have clearly indicated that the tragedy should have been, and could have been, avoided.

10.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) on bringing this important matter before the House in the way that he has. As he pointed out, we are in effect at the anniversary of the Lyme bay tragedy to which he referred, in which four of our young people so sadly died. I wish to express yet again the sympathy that I and my colleagues feel and want to express to the family and friends of those young people, and our determination to learn the lessons and to take effective action in regard to them. I also want fully to acknowledge the tenacity with which the hon. Gentleman has rightly pursued the issue, which will have affected his constituents and those of other hon. Members present, and what he has done to promote that inside the House and outside and indeed in my own Department. He has also met the Secretary of State with the parents of the young people.

I shall briefly set out our response and the reasoning behind it, in the hope that I will be able to persuade hon.

Members of our thinking, and of the effectiveness that we believe that it will have. I recognise that the hon. Member for Devonport, the Devon county council, the young people in the Southway school, the bereaved parents and many other people have said that they believe—the hon. Gentleman has repeated it tonight—that the right way forward is to introduce new statutory and regulatory provision, through which there would be a compulsory scheme of accreditation and inspection of outdoor activity centres, whether in the private or public sector. I want to explain why, although we thought very carefully about that, in the end we did not share that view.

First, I do not think that it is necessarily, even now, sufficiently realised what comprehensive and relevant provision there already is in common law and statute law and in regulations. There are the long established and important common law requirements for those acting in loco parentis to exercise a duty of care. There are existing general statutes imposing duties with respect to health and safety and especially, as has been referred to more than once, the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. Within that general framework, there are specific regulations such as the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 and others which apply to activity centres as well as to other premises.

In reply to the point made by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Diner), I believe that those all apply equally to the types of schools that he mentioned, but I would like to examine the point that he made to discover whether that is the case and what other assurances I am able to give him in the matter that he raised during the debate. I will do that and let him know when I have done so.

The regulations require employers and the self-employed to undertake an assessment of risks to the health and safety of their employees and to others, such as members of the public, who may be affected by their work, and introduce measures necessary to comply with the requirements of the law. I cannot comment on matters before the courts, but it is well known that prosecutions are being pursued relating to the events at Lyme bay under existing law by the Crown Prosecution Service.

We therefore believe that further specific provisions for activity centres in that regard would not necessarily add rapidly or significantly to safety. They would undoubtedly take time to frame and implement—more time than the measures which we are currently implementing.

Given the range of existing provisions, there might be serious dangers that additional requirements—even of the kind outlined by the hon. Gentleman—would add burdens on both suppliers and customers of services, including the schools themselves, increasing costs and possibly, therefore, acting as a deterrent to the provision of activities, which the hon. Gentleman conceded at the outset form such a valuable educational contribution to the curriculum of the schools.

Against that background, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out the Government's alternative approach in the statement that he made last November. He announced the Government's programme of action, which consisted of a special programme of inspections of outdoor centres by the Health and Safety Executive and its expert inspectorate, and the provision of information from that programme. On the hon. Gentleman's point about their inspecting "only 100 centres", it is normal practice for the Health and Safety Executive, as it is with their factory and all other kinds of inspections, to look at the profile of the matter and draw up priorities. Those can be altered and made flexible as experience is gained and priorities change. I shall discuss that a little more later if time permits, but it is an important point to bear in mind. Although the number may appear small, the effectiveness may be much greater, as it is with factory inspections. We shall then have new advice and guidance to our partners in the education service, who are the customers for the services provided by the centres.

In his announcement, the Secretary of State emphasised the Government's support for the initiative being undertaken by the English tourist board, in association with others, to devise a code of practice for activity centres and to work towards a new system of accreditation with endorsement by respected national bodies. The Government not only support that process but are and will remain closely involved with it.

We are undertaking a comprehensive series of actions, looking carefully at the quality of health and safety provision in a large and representative sample of centres with information emerging from that process, and the possibility of enforcement measures in response to any deficiencies identified; advice to the schools and others on the education side, including a clarification of relevant responsibilities; and encouragement of and involvement with a national but non-statutory scheme of accreditation, which will form an increasingly important reference point for the users of services.

The action being undertaken is comprehensive, dealing with the various aspects of the question by partnership, which is the right approach, with others involved, building on existing resources in the system and on established lines of responsibility. We believe that approach to be both quicker and of more practical benefit than an attempt to put in place new, more comprehensive and statutorily-based forms of regulation.

Work on all aspects of the action programme is being taken forward urgently. For example, my Department has already been working on new guidance to schools and others in the education service, with valuable collaboration by other agencies both inside and outside Government, with the aim of preparing a new document which we plan to make available next month. That will set out in appropriate detail, but in concise and practical form, information which schools and local authorities will wish to consider, drawn from the lessons of the Lyme bay tragedy. We shall give advice on procedures which they will wish to follow to ensure, as far as is practicable, the safety of pupils attending outdoor centres.

The Health and Safety Executive, for its part, is well advanced with arrangements for the special programme of inspections that will begin on 1 April. It will involve inspectors from six areas of the country, including Wales and Scotland, and from local authorities. More than 100 visits will be made by October this year. Centres are being chosen on the basis of local information, taking account of the proportion of the client group represented by children, the risks associated with the activities offered, the number and range of activities and the knowledge of any previous incidents.

The inspections will go into the quality and numbers of instructing staff, affiliation to appropriate national bodies, arrangements for monitoring health and safety, the suitability and maintenance of equipment, accident reporting and emergency procedures. Special training for the inspectors involved has already been provided and will continue. A published report of the findings of the visits will be made available next spring. If any areas of significant concern emerge before that, that information will be made available.

I hope that I have said enough in the time available to show that we have given this matter careful and close thought. We looked at the alternatives outlined by the hon. Gentleman but, having taken account of the balance of the speed and efficacy with which we could introduce measures, the varying circumstances of the centres, the expertise available through the Health and Safety Executive, and our desire to make those centres as readily available to schools as they have been in the past, the Secretary of State and I believe that the solution which we are offering is rapidly available and practical. We shall monitor it and keep it closely under review.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join us in looking forward to that new regime making a significant and rapid impact and difference to ensure that, as far as we can, the tragedy that occurred a year ago will never be repeated.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.