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House of Commons

Friday 27 January 1995

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

9.34 am

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received a request from the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement later today, or would you allow him to do so, to clarify the apparent conflict and embarrassment that arises from the fact that his parliamentary private secretary, the hon. Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham), has declared in the Register of Members' Secretaries and Research Assistants that Mr. John Kennedy of John Kennedy Associates, a public relations firm, is his researcher or secretary?

I draw the matter to your attention because John Kennedy has been the spokesperson for the unrecognised Bosnian Serb Government and for Radovan Karadzic in London. Clearly, on the face of it, there is an acute conflict of interest and it is an embarrassment to the Secretary of State in his difficult diplomatic task, at home and abroad, of promoting the interests of the United Kingdom and carrying out the necessary international brokerage to reduce the problems of that dreadful conflict. We need some clarity and a statement today to explain that link.

Madam Speaker: That is a rather convoluted point of order. The Government have not informed me that they want to make a statement today, although there is time for them to do so, should they so wish. If that is the case, time will be set aside.

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Orders of the Day

Activity Centres (Young Persons' Safety) Bill Order for Second Reading read.

9.36 am

Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a rare honour that the House bestows on a Back-Bench Member to have the pleasure and privilege of introducing a Private Member's Bill. It offers me a special opportunity to present a Bill on behalf of my constituents, which is relevant to parents throughout the country.

Sometimes, when a tragedy occurs where no one is at fault, it leaves us with a feeling of helplessness because no law, however well-intentioned, can overcome human error or an act of God. Sometimes, however, a profoundly significant event highlights the need for a change in the law and galvanises people of determination and good sense to change it--an event that was totally avoidable and was due, not to human frailty, but to human neglect. The Lyme bay tragedy was one such incident and because that event triggered the Bill, hon. Members will understand if I refer to it several times during my speech.

In March 1993, four teenagers from the Southway school died in Lyme bay. That was no accident. They died due to the criminal neglect of the people whom they and their parents thought were responsible for them--the people running the St. Alban's activity centre. The managing director of Active Learning and Leisure, Peter Kite, is now serving a three-year prison sentence for manslaughter.

Parents, governors of schools, local education authorities, teacher unions, organisations involved with running activity centres, the townswomens' guilds and many others, have called for action in this important matter. They have done so because the strongest instinct in any parent is to protect their children from danger. It is an instinct that is so strong in parents that they will often put their child's life before their own.

The parents who lost their children at Lyme bay are here in the House today, as are some of the survivors of that appalling incident who tried to rescue their schoolfriends. My constituents Dennis and Jackie Walker, Noel and Sylvia Dunne, Carolyn and Bob Langley and Gerry and Jackie Sayer have all suffered the greatest loss that any parent can suffer--the loss of a child. It was such an unnecessary loss, of four young, healthy people in the very prime of their lives.

Over the past 22 months those parents have borne the overwhelming pain of their loss with great dignity and, with extraordinary courage, they have turned grief into action. Realising that their own children can never return, they have campaigned unstintingly to ensure that no other parent will suffer in the same way.

My constituents, as well as many other parents, sent their children on activity courses because they believed that young people should have challenges, and the experience and excitement of the outdoors. There should be opportunities for young people to push their strength and endurance to the limits, and to find in themselves

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hitherto unknown capacity. In an age of television games and videos, the challenge of the outdoors is of even greater importance, especially for children who live in our great conurbations and monotonous inner cities. Those children, some of whom lack play space, need to find genuine adventure.

The national curriculum recognises that the outdoor environment has an important role in the physical, emotional and intellectual development of our young people. Our society puts greater stress on outdoor activities. Those who support the Bill support such activities for children, and want to see them grow and expand. But we must distinguish between activities that are exciting and challenging, and activities that are dangerous. We must distinguish between activities that are adventurous and exhilarating, and those that are hazardous.

Abseiling can be fun and exhilarating with ropes that are in good order and a competent instructor, but abseiling can be dangerous, as in a case recently reported in The Times Educational Supplement . It stated that Alan Cottle, the outdoor education manager for Surrey, visited Hyde house centre in Dorset and found that children were abseiling from a tower, but the instructor did not know how to use the braking mechanism. In his report on the incident, Mr. Cottle said:

"I was alarmed to see some appalling practice which was totally unsafe".

It is significant that the Hyde house centre is owned by Devon and Dorset Holidays, whose owner, Chris Reynard, had shares in Active Learning and Leisure, the company fined £60,000 for manslaughter in the Lyme bay case.

I wish to examine briefly the present position of activity centres and the framework in which they operate. There has been a rapid growth in those wishing to participate in such activities. Local education authority centres have declined in number as more funds have been delegated to individual schools and less has been held back by authorities. Squeezes on budgets have meant that many local education authority centres have closed and commercial centres have filled the gap.

I have no intention today of exploring the philosophical or political arguments on the ownership of the centres, which is not at issue in the Bill. Whoever owns the centre, it must be operated to standards that make it safe for our children to use. At present there is no need for anyone who sets up a centre to register. Anybody can set up a centre, almost at will.

It is a curious irony that we live in a society in which, if we send our dog to a boarding kennel, we can be assured that it is registered and meets high minimum standards, yet if we send our child to an activity centre, there is no requirement on the centre to register and no legally required minimum standards. In a civilised society, consumers have the right to expect high minimum standards of quality and care, whether in old people's homes or dogs' homes or hygiene in food shops. The Bill extends the right to safety standards for our children at activity centres.

A Health and Safety Executive report was published on Tuesday this week into activity centres inspected since April 1994. The report confirmed my belief that most

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centres work to satisfactory or high standards and some centres, both commercial and local authority, work to excellent standards. However, in their detailed examination of 192 centres, the executive reported:

"some areas for improvement were noted and appropriate action was taken to deal with both serious and less serious concerns." The executive also established that 76 per cent. of centres with five or more employees had a written safety policy. That means that 24 per cent. of centres did not have a written safety policy. It also stated that 87 per cent. of centres had undertaken risk assessment of the outdoor activities provided and 13 per cent. had not undertaken that risk assessment. Some 92 per cent. of centres had procedures and equipment in place to deal with emergencies, such as procedures for evacuation from, and communication with, remote locations and 8 per cent. of the centres did not have such safety procedures. It found that 84 per cent. of centres ensured that formal or informal training was provided for instructors, while 16 per cent. did not provide that training.

I wonder how many of us would fly in an aeroplane knowing that 16 per cent. of pilots had not received training and that 24 per cent. of airlines did not have a written safety policy. Yet that is the very environment of risk into which we launch our children when we send them to outdoor activity centres. In all, it is estimated that there are 3,000 such centres around Britain. There is no register--no list--so we do not know whether that figure is accurate. The Health and Safety Executive's report appears to show that about 10 per cent. of the centres work below a satisfactory safety level. That means that 300 centres do not meet the required standards and each of those centres takes hundreds, if not thousands, of children through its doors each year.

It is also estimated that 75 per cent. of children are booked into centres by their schools and the other 25 per cent. are booked in directly by their parents. We must ask: how do parents and teachers distinguish between good centres and bad centres, and how do they know when they are making their choice that they are choosing a safe centre that works to high standards?

The position for teachers, governors and parents was made more difficult by the four-point plan introduced by the former Secretary of State for Education in November 1993, in which governors were made corporately and legally liable for the safety of children from their school booked into an activity centre. The situation in grant-maintained schools is even more difficult, in that the governors are individually and corporately legally liable for the safety of children engaging in these activities. Therefore, governors have rightly said that they cannot take responsibility for matters which they are not competent to judge.

Under the Bill teachers will still have a general care of duty, in loco parentis, and nothing can take that duty of care away from them. But how does that extend to a teacher who in good faith hands over responsibility for an activity to a person who he believes is an expert instructor in that activity? That is precisely what happened at Lyme bay. The teacher handed over responsibility for the canoeing activity not knowing that one of the instructors had a qualification that an eight-year-old could have achieved in an afternoon and that the other instructor had barely more.

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The Bill will be welcomed by all responsible centres, and I know that many people are concerned about these matters. Evidence in recent months to the Select Committee on Education has come in droves, and it all states the same thing. It is almost as if those providing it are working from a script. They all say that there needs to be compulsory accreditation and inspection and a framework of law to cover these centres.

It is interesting to note that much of the evidence has come from the industry and that many centres report that in the past 15 months business has fallen by up to one third because public confidence in it has been undermined. Some of them say that a huge burden of paperwork and bureaucracy has descended upon them as schools and local education authorities seeking to meet the criteria of the fourth point in the four- point plan ask for lengthy questionnaires to be completed for each trip. Sometimes an inspector from the local authority calls as well to ensure that the documentation has been correctly completed. It is rather as if each passenger who gets on a bus has to ask the driver whether he has a PSV licence and the bus has an MOT certificate.

Only by compulsory accreditation of all centres will we restore confidence in the outdoor activities industry, relieve good centres of all unnecessary bureaucracy and form-filling and ensure that teachers and parents will know which centres are working to high safety standards and which are not. At the end of the Lyme bay trial Mr. Justice Ognall said:

"The potential for injuries and death is too obvious to be left to the inadequate vagaries of self-regulation."

Hardly a parent in the country would disagree with that assertion. I shall now outline the Bill's main provisions. It sets out to raise standards of safety for providers of facilities for adventure centres in total or part for young people under the age of 18. Centres that cater exclusively for those of 18 years or over are excluded from the Bill. The facility would have to include some form of leadership or instruction and I do not intend the Bill to cover providers of equipment such as boats on a boating lake where there is no instruction or leadership.

When the regulations are drawn after consultation it is most important that family outings and some social and voluntary groups are excluded. We shall need to take great care when drawing up regulations to ensure that the line is drawn in the correct place. The Bill contains four main elements. First, it sets up a licensing authority which will oversee the accreditation and licensing of activity centres. In particular, centres will have to agree to follow a code of safety practice which will include the suitability of equipment and the qualifications and experience of instructors. The code of practice that is currently being finalised by the Activity Centres Advisory Committee will, I am sure, form an excellent basis for that.

Secondly, the Bill establishes an inspectorate to ensure that centres abide by the code of practice. When the inspectorate encounters activities that are causing immediate danger to children it will have powers to stop that activity at that point. If it encounters sloppy or potentially hazardous activities and practice, it could issue notices of improvement to give centres a period of time to improve standards. I hope that over time that would lift

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the standards of centres that are currently not operating to proper safety standards and allow them to continue trading, but, of course, to higher safety standards.

The ultimate sanction on a recalcitrant centre that continued to ignore high standards of safety and put children at risk would be the removal of its licence, after which it would be an offence for the centre to continue trading. If it did, the result could be a heavy fine or imprisonment.

Thirdly, the Bill sets up a complaints procedure for consumers or others who have reservations about the safety of activities at a particular centre. Such complaints could be followed up by competent independent inspectors. If that procedure had been in place in 1992, Joy Cawthorne, the former instructor at the St. Alban's centre, who warned the managing director that unless his safety standards improved he would have to explain one day to parents why their child was not coming home, would have had somewhere to take her complaints and a competent authoritative body could have acted on them. Had such a remedy been available we might not have needed this debate, four children might not have lost their lives and Mr. Kite could still be trading.

Fourthly, following some Government pump-priming funds the scheme should be largely self-financing with centres paying for their accreditation. I liken that to car owners who currently pay for MOT certificates.

The Bill is a piece of enabling legislation which sets out the framework for safety in outdoor centres. If it becomes law, following a period of consultation with the industry and other legitimate interests, statutory instruments will have to be laid before the House for the detailed legislation. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that if the Bill becomes law he will act without delay to ensure that the secondary legislation is introduced. I hope that that can be completed before Christmas to allow the legislation to take effect early in 1996. I ask the Minister to make it plain that he agrees with my desired timetable.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton): I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman because, as he knows, Lyme bay is partly in my constituency. Could he expand a little on his ideas about financing? Does he accept that the fees paid by local authorities and persons may be variable? How does he see that operating? Obviously, it is important that we do not make these activities so expensive that parents cannot afford to have their children carry them out. There is considerable concern about that and, although I support the Bill, that issue needs greater explanation.

Mr. Jamieson: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, which has a good motivation. No one who supports the Bill wants centres to go out of business. However, in the current unregulated environment, many are going out of business because people do not have the confidence to use them. The right hon. Gentleman will understand that it would have been wrong of me to present the Bill today and try to put precise detail on a charging scheme for centres. The Bill provides for consultation with the industry and other interested parties before decisions are taken on such matters. It is my intention to follow the ACAC's guidelines. It has already costed the voluntary programme of accreditation that the Government had in mind. It suggested a scheme that initially was pump-primed to set

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up a small licensing body, which could then charge fees, at differential rates, depending on the size of the centre. We must remember that some centres are multi-million-pound organisations. They have said they would be willing to pay a small fee to become accredited so that people would have the confidence to use their centres. The hon. Gentleman will understand why, although I am telling him my thoughts, I am not putting any detail on the costings. That must be part of the consultations.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South): Does my hon. Friend agree that, although there may be a case for differential charging based on the size and volume of a business, that must never be allowed to lead to differential standards between centres?

Mr. Jamieson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. The thrust of the Bill is that there should not be differential standards at centres. They must all follow high standards of safety for children. However, we must not financially penalise small centres or people who want to set up small organisations to the extent that we put them off. When we reach the secondary stage of the legislation, we must carefully consider that point to ensure that those who want to come into the industry and start a small business can do so. In drawing up the Bill, I was anxious to ensure that it covered only aspects of safety for children. It does not cover other aspects such as hotel arrangements and other general provisions at centres. Those are matters on which sensible teachers and parents can make decisions. If a teacher or parent who visits a centre before the proposed holiday does not like the look of the hotel arrangements or the cleanliness of the premises, he can quite properly make a decision about that, acting as a sensible adult. However, what a teacher or parent cannot sensibly do when he arrives at the centre is to make an assessment of whether the instructors are competent to carry out the activities and whether the equipment is suitable for the task.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton): As a fellow Plymouth Member, I greatly support the Bill. I can recall what the hon. Gentleman referred to as the sense of shock and trauma in Plymouth when the tragedy occurred. I commend him for the way in which he has introduced the Bill, which is a balanced and sensible response to what was obviously a gaping hole in our law. He has my entire support.

Mr. Jamieson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support.

I make no apology for having been deeply critical of the Government over the past 22 months for not taking action in this important matter. The campaign for a change in the law has been a long, hard fight with many harrowing experiences on the way for the bereaved parents, especially the three-week trial of those accused of the manslaughter of their children.

It is difficult for an Opposition Back Bencher to get a Government to change their mind. Therefore, I come here today in some humility to welcome the Government's recent change of heart. I thank the Minister for his co- operation and the guidance that I have received from his Department in recent days. I also thank him for

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making a statement on Tuesday not only showing his support for the Bill, but positively welcoming it. I hope that we can work together in the coming months to get the Bill through Parliament to Royal Assent and then, as urgently as is prudent, to get the statutory instruments through the House.

I am also grateful for the support of many other hon. Members who have encouraged and assisted me, in particular the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) and for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks), both of whom share my concerns. I am also grateful to many of the teaching unions, in particular the National Union of Teachers and its leader Doug McAvoy and his staff. They have worked behind the scenes talking to teachers and others.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, South-East may not know this, but Doug McAvoy and I went abseiling at Kit Hill in his constituency last year. I leave him to surmise why it was me who went down the rope while Doug stood by and watched.

If the Bill reaches the statute book, it will be a fine testimony to the many who have campiagned for it, in particular the bereaved parents who lost their children in Lyme bay and who have selflessly turned their grief into action--not for their children, but for other people's children. Their courageous determination has inspired me and, I am sure, many others who have a cause in which they fervently believe, that, through people power, Governments can be moved. Most of all, if the Bill becomes law the names of those young people who died at Lyme Bay--Rachel, Simon, Claire and Dean-- will be engraved upon it.

The House is perceived to be at its worst when we appear to be in constant disagreement. The Bill is an opportunity for it to be seen at its very best --putting aside the usual differences on a matter that transcends the party political divide: the safety of children. 10.7 am

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West): I pay the warmest of tributes to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson). He has been at the forefront of the campaign, and it has been his determination and his will that something could, should and must be done which have brought us to this point today.

My interest lies in the fact that the St. Alban's centre is in my constituency. On that tragic day I shared the thoughts and feelings of so many people--how could it possibly have happened? Everything that has followed, including the trial, has emphasised more and more the need for positive action to be taken, and such action not to be left to a self- regulatory body but to be imposed upon centres so that they have no choice.

The ACAC's report clearly shows that there is no way forward other than by statutory legislation, and I accept that. However, it is important that we bear it in mind that any such control must relate, first and foremost, to the training and the capability of staff. We certainly should not--and here I look to my hon. Friend the Minister--over-legislate or write out what I would term the "acceptable risk". There is such a thing as acceptable risk. If we take it away from young people, they will say, "I don't want to do this; I'd rather stay at home playing a video game than go to a so-called activity centre only to be cossetted and mollycoddled." Can we bear in mind, therefore, the need to legislate but not to over-legislate?

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The Lyme bay tragedy illustrates only too clearly the opposite ends of what is acceptable. On the day of the accident, two groups of young people were involved in waterborne training in the Lyme bay area--one group at the "so-called" St. Alban's challenge and activity centre.

I feel a slight sense of guilt over this matter. Of course, I knew about the St. Alban's centre and its general role, but I had always seen it as a residential centre. I had not been told or informed in any way that it was moving into this wider field of activity. Had I known about that, because of my background, I would have visited the centre and taken an interest. I would not say that I could have avoided problems, but I would certainly have looked at the centre with a keen eye, knowing what should and could happen in such a place.

All hon. Members know what happened at the St. Alban's centre on that day. Just down the road on the Cob at Lyme Regis, an adventure, training and education centre was still open, although sadly it has now closed. It was run by Dorset county council. Two groups of youngsters, those at the centres at St. Alban's and at the Cob, were involved in waterborne activity on that day.

The Cob centre was run by totally competent staff. On that morning, the manager did not allow the youngsters to go outside the harbour. Capsize drill in the harbour was the only activity undertaken. That was because the manager had looked out, was a local person, knew the sea conditions and had been properly trained. He looked after the children who were in his charge, as he had done for the last 25 years.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): Could the hon. Member advise us whether the centre is still open and who managed and ran it?

Sir Jim Spicer: As I said, sadly, the county council has closed the centre. That is a tragedy. The centre should still be open. One of the reasons for the closure is that Lyme bay and all activity centres have seen a downturn in usage. The influence brought to bear to keep that centre open might have worked, had it not been for the fact that so much bad publicity surrounds activity centres in general. Any centres associated with Lyme Regis, however, will have an uphill battle in restoring the confidence of schools and individuals. That is sadly the case.

The problem was the difference between the way in which the two centres were run. That highlights the need for action to be taken and the need for action by the Government.

I was driving from London to my constituency listening to the radio and I heard this remark by Mrs. Langley:

"My daughter Claire will not have died in vain if ways can be found of stopping such a tragedy ever occurring again".

As Mrs. Langley and the other parents are in the Gallery, it would be right to say that those words would be echoed by all parents and by every hon. Member in the House.

The hon. Member for Devonport made it clear that he wanted the legislation to move ahead quickly. I hope and expect that, when he comes to reply, my hon. Friend the Minister will stress that fact. Let us be clear that, as from today, no centre in the country can neglect the measures that they know will be imposed on them shortly. As from today, any centre that has not already set in train all the measures that are outlined in the Bill and that will follow in the next two or three months, can take it for granted

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that they are out of business. A warning should go out to all centres that, as from today, they cannot afford to ignore the need for safety allied with qualifications.

On what happened in Lyme bay on that day, I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has already received the file on the coastguards and on the investigation that followed. I have an assurance from him that he will consider closely the internal coastguard investigation and the evidence at the trial. All my points are made with hindsight and always with the thought, "If only". On that day and every day, we have around our coastline harbourmasters who are capable and competent of playing a part when waterborne activity takes place at sea. If there were a requirement for any group of young people, or anyone in charge of a group of young people, to book in with the harbourmaster and to say, "We are going to do X today," two things could happen. First, the harbourmaster could say, "In my view and with my local knowledge, you can do that, but make sure that you telephone back to me the moment your exercise is completed"; or he could say, as could have occurred on the day of the tragedy, "I do not think it is a right and proper for you to engage in that activity today. My advice is don't do it." I hope that we will make better use of harbourmasters' skills because they are on the spot. Those in Lyme bay have far more local knowledge than the coastguards, who are based at Portland--far removed from the scene. If the harbourmaster had known, much could have been different.

The world is full of "if onlys", but all hon. Members and everyone in the country will applaud the Bill and will be delighted that the Government have seen fit to endorse it. We hope that it will be on the statute book in short order.

10.17 am

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer). I am sure that his comments, and those that many other hon. Members will make today, will be warmly appreciated and accepted by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) on his luck in the ballot, and on his choice of subject for his Bill. My hon. Friend referred to the shambles that often exists in the Chamber. We know what our constituents feel about that. Thankfully, this is one of the good days for Parliament. It is a pity that there are not more good days, when Bills, such as those that my hon. Friend and, indeed, Conservative Members introduce, have the cross-party support that I am sure exists today.

I offer the deepest sympathy, not only to the parents of the four young people who died in the canoeing accident, but to all the people who suffered in the tragedy. Their lives have been spared, but we all know that the suffering caused by that event will long continue. One often hears of accidents and loss of life. One often asks what one could have done to avoid such occurrences. In this case, clear evidence exists that standards and the lack of positive supervision were a major factor. I am sure that my hon. Friend's proposals will be strongly supported by parents and all those involved with activity centres.

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I have here a copy of Wednesday's Daily Express which contains the headline

"One in 10 activity centres still a risk".

The article states:

"The new report, by the Government's Health and Safety Executive, found that 8 per cent. of outdoor centres have no plans for dealing with emergencies."

It continues:

"Criticising the delay in introducing controls, he"--

Mr. Denis Walker, whose daughter Rachel was killed in the tragedy--

"said: `I find it unbelievable that the Government has waited 22 months to act.'"

This press comment reveals that problems still exist. I do not wish to make this a party political issue as it is far too serious for that but I wonder whether the Government would really have acted if my hon. Friend had not introduced the Bill. Twenty-two months is a very long time for no action to be taken, which is why it is so important that my hon. Friend's Bill is supported not only today but in Committee.

The press report makes it clear that, after tragedies of various kinds, it can take an enormous length of time to get the relevant authorities to take meaningful action that will save lives and avoid any recurrence of such events.

Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester): I am following closely what the hon. Gentleman says and, like all hon. Members, I was moved and impressed by the way in which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) presented his Bill, which I am sure we shall all support. The hon. Gentleman speaks of the need for speedy action but I advise an element of caution, having some years ago been involved in a knee-jerk reaction on the issue of playground safety. There are times when, as it were, the best can be the enemy of the good. The important thing is that we know that we cannot live in a risk-free world and that what we are trying to establish is a minimum standard to ensure that such tragedies do not occur. The widest consultation will be essential to ensure that we increase the activities available and do not reduce them by hasty over-reaction and the introduction of instant bureaucracy to solve a crisis that does not exist everywhere.

Mr. Cox: That is a fair point but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport said, there are some very well run activity centres and it is their standards that we seek to establish everywhere. There are already superb guidelines.

Young people can be extremely keen and full of enthusiasm. Our experience with our own children tells us that they often have no fear or fail to see potential dangers. As my hon. Friend said, it is important that parents, teachers and youth workers are aware of that fact and know that there are clear guidelines on safety and supervision at all activity centres.

The Minister has yet to speak but I hope that he will give a commitment that the Government will support my hon. Friend's Bill. It is in Committee that matters of genuine concern can be ironed out and I hope that that will be so in this case but what concerns me in this instance is the phrase "in principle". We know that it can

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mean anything to the Government of the day. Anyone can say that he supports the Bill "in principle", but we need the Minister to say what that really means.

Since I have been a Member of Parliament I have heard several comments such as, "Yes, it is a good idea and we shall support it but someone else must do it and take the responsibility"; "Yes, these proposals are needed, but we must not force them on authorities"; or, "Oh yes, it is an excellent idea but we must consider the costs involved." We hear such things all the time, from Government's of all parties.

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr. Eric Forth): Perhaps I could save the hon. Gentleman's time and that of the House by drawing attention to clause 1, which states:

"The Secretary of State shall by order designate a person . . . to exercise such functions as may be prescribed by regulations relating to the licensing of persons providing facilities for adventure activities."

That could not be clearer. So that the hon. Gentleman does not get hung up on the phrase "in principle", I repeat what I have said outside and foreshadow what I hope to say later--the Government support the Bill. If we support the Bill and the Bill contains such a notion, there can be no doubt about what will happen.

Mr. Cox: I am delighted, and hope that that clear commitment is imprinted on hon. Members' minds, but I must point out that another measure --the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill--was also supported by hon. Members of all parties, and we all know what happened to that. However, I heard what the Minister said and will listen with interest to his forthcoming speech.

Mr. O'Hara: Further to my hon. Friend's point about the phrase "in principle" and any safeguard that it may offer, has he read clause 1(4), which states:

"In exercising their functions under regulations made under this section the licensing authority shall have regard to any guidance given to them from time to time by the Secretary of State"? Should it not be made clear that that would in no way compromise the independence of the person charged with carrying out the functions outlined in the first line of the long title of the Bill?

Mr. Cox: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but we shall have to wait for the Minister's comments and until the Bill reaches Committee where, as we know, the nuts and bolts will be sorted out. I am sure that my hon. Friend's point will be examined at that stage. My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport said that we may well get complaints from activity centres once the Bill has been passed. They might say that too much pressure is being placed on them or that the costs involved are too great but if any activity centre does not support the principle of the Bill it should not be in business. It is as simple as that. I am sure that hon. Members, parents and those who work with young people would warmly welcome the demise of any such organisation.

I may well be the only London Opposition Member to speak in this debate so I must stress that activity centres are of great benefit to young people living in London. Many young Londoners visit the centres to enjoy a wide range of facilities and that is to be welcomed. I am sure that hon. Members who represent constituencies in other large cities would make the same comment. The centres are, however, often a long way from the areas where the

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