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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.
Column 116Members 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. Olner), 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
Column 117matter 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,
Column 118information 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.
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