Hopes that a new voluntary scheme for making sure activity providers for children are up to the mark are dashed, as Wales opts to keep the existing scheme. Ed Douglas reports on the growing confusion.
Imagine you’re a freelance outdoor instructor based in Birmingham. You have a regular gig taking a group of school kids into the Welsh hills, a course you’ve been running for several years. Because your clients are under eighteen, you’re required to hold a licence from the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority.
This was the body set up in the aftermath of the Lyme Regis canoeing tragedy in March 1993, when four young people lost their lives. It’s an expensive piece of paper to get; the process currently costs £750. Yet it’s regular work and so, unlike for most freelances, it’s worth your trouble and expense. And the kids love being in Wales.
If that’s how you really make your living, then get ready for some big changes. The whole subject of licensing in the outdoors has been under review for some time and that process is now drawing to a close. What happens next is already causing consternation among outdoor instructors.
Thanks to devolution, all four home nations now have responsibility for their own regulatory system. And despite the outdoor learning sector wanting the same rules across the whole of the UK, there’s a real danger that instructors may face a different regime in each country. That is leading to a lot of confusion.
The starting gun for these reforms was Lord Young’s 2010 review of health and safety legislation for the UK Government, called Common Sense, Common Safety. This included the recommendation to “abolish the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority and replace licensing with a code of practice.”
In an age of media hysteria, especially when it comes to young people, you’d think this was a rash move. Yet since the AALA was established there have only been two fatal accidents involving providers requiring a license. As it turned out, these providers weren’t prosecuted under the terms of their license but under existing Health and Safety laws. And one of them was acquitted. What’s more, it costs £1.24m to run AALA, money that gets sucked straight out of the outdoor learning sector.
So it’s understandable that training boards and outdoor learning specialists have regarded AALA as a very big and very pricey hammer for a very small nut. And there are other anomalies. AALA only covers certain activities and doesn’t include either climbing walls or ski schools. AALA’s licensing is also supposed to be reviewed every three years, but that hasn’t happened since 2004. And the same company – Tourism Quality Services – has been issuing licences since the scheme was established.
The end result is many talented freelance instructors have steered clear of getting involved with young people because of the expensive licensing system. With government desperate to raise exercise levels and fight obesity that can’t be right. So reform was needed, but, as John Cousins of Mountain Leader Training explains, what’s replacing it is “about as bad as it could be.”
The favoured system was an industry-led certification scheme, the existing Adventuremark, a non-statutory safety scheme devised by the Adventure Activity Industry Advisory Committee. Activity providers would want this considerably cheaper but well respected standard because clients wouldn’t want to hire someone who didn’t hold it. That at least was the idea.
But at the start of March, a month before the consultation process in Scotland was due to finish and before England could announce its intentions, Wales decided to stick with the existing AALA licensing scheme. There was little or no consultation with activity providers beforehand and little indication of why the decision was taken. It’s worth pointing out that TQS, the licensing providers, are based in South Wales.
Providers immediately saw the problem. Would our Birmingham instructor, taking English kids to Welsh hills, be required to register? And if so, wouldn’t she now take them to the Lake District instead, where a license isn’t required?
Cousins says Scotland has been looking at three scenarios for their future arrangements. The first option is complete deregulation, the option most likely to pertain in England. The second is the kind of non-statutory industry-led scheme that Adventuremark promises, and the third is to retain the licensing scheme as Wales has done.
There’s no word yet on which option Scotland will choose, although the second of these options is being discussed positively. It’s also likely that English providers will voluntarily start applying for Adventuremark as a reassurance to clients that they follow best practice. Northern Ireland, by contrast, never joined the AALA scheme in the first place, and now has the kind of scheme that Scotland is considering under option two..
Wales has said that it will review their decision “in due course”, but in the meantime, the new system looks like being complex and unwieldy. Cousins says there will be no increased risk to the UK’s young people. But it seems another opportunity to sort out this longstanding issue in everyone’s best interests has been lost.