Activity licensing reform 'as bad as it can be'

Posted by Ed Douglas on 29/03/2012
Credit: Ian Hey

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.



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Anonymous User
29/03/2012
This will lead to Midlands instructors going to the Lakes instead of N.Wales, but probably won't change where Welsh instructors take young people. Result? Wales looses potential income to Notrthern England. Probably won't effect me much in Devon, except I may not use the Brecon Beacons anymore! What a complete mess. Lets hope someone see's sense! But in view of past performance there's not much hope of that!
Anonymous User
29/03/2012
Unfortunately there seems to be little 'Common Sense' in the 'Common Sense Common Safety' strap line - Scotland looks like it may be different just because it can - chaos is going to rule
Anonymous User
29/03/2012
My company hasn't renewed its AALA/AALS licence and is not taking on under 18s work while this fiasco runs and runs. Adventuremark appears to be a bureaucratic train wreck and costs more than the Licence it aims to replace. My 2p? - National Governing Body awards should serve as the bona fide that the outdoor professional won't hand your kids back in a coffin.
Anonymous User
29/03/2012
NGB awards and current log books, record books should count for more in this fiasco!
Anonymous User
29/03/2012
I think there are a few inaccuracies in your article.

Currently I hold an AALA licence. It costs me £715 for a 2 year licence, so the actual costs are£357.50 per annum, very reasonable considering the amount of professional advice and support available from the inspectors. The majority of AALA licence holders are actually granted 2 year licences with only a few larger businesses having to renew their licence every year.

You say that the new Adventuremark scheme will be "a considerably cheaper but well respected standard". But the truth is that it will take many years before Adventuremark is as well recognised as AALA and it is far more expensive for instructors. Their fees for providers applying directly are £750+ VAT for the first year of a 2 year licence, then £150+VAT in year 2.

Additionally as I work with schools I may also need a licence from Learning Outside the Classroom which we can add to our Adventuremark licence for £400+VAT for year 1 of a 2 year licence with an additional £150+VAT in year 2. This totals £1740, a significant increase in cost compared to £715. Particularly for small businesses who may not be VAT registered.

Getting rid of AALA is a clearly a cost cutting exercise by the government. Without a statutory licensing body there is bound to be confusion in the industry - if those of us who work in the outdoors are struggling to work out what is going on then how on earth are our clients meant to know what various logos means and what standards they should be looking for.

But times are tough and £1.24million sounds like quite a saving for the government - but this isn't actually the correct. The cost to the tax payer of running AALA each year is actually less than 400,000 further more AALA have put forward a proposal for a new inspection regime which would meant that they could become entirely self funding - without increasing the licence fee.

So if AALA can become cost neutral whilst offering a cheaper alternative to providers than Adventure mark or other inspection schemes then I cannot understand why we would want scrap statutory licensing and change to a wishy washy voluntary code of practice.

In an recent article in Grough Mag, MCoS said they expected Scotland to follow Wales in maintaining AALA at least in the short term. Instead of attacking Wales and Scotland for their decisions perhaps England should take another look at it's decision and opt to keep AALA in place too.

As you rightly state "since the AALA was established there have only been two fatal accidents involving providers requiring a license." This to me says that AALA is clearly doing an excellent job. Arguments about the scope of activities covered by AALA should surely lead us to review this rather than to scrap licensing all together. One thing is certain - scrapping statutory licensing is not going to make activities safer for young people, and the confusion is very likely to damage our industry.
Anonymous User
29/03/2012
As an Englishman who has moved to Brecon from Fort William, I can see the need as much as anyone to have one effective scheme for the UK. But it seems that the author is complaining that there have been only two fatalities involving bodies requiring an AALA license? Would you like to see more fatalities under a new, more expensive scheme, to prove it's need? I think that Ed Douglas has made an excellent case for keeping the scheme as it is, and at £1.24m, it's quite reasonable compared to the alternative.
Anonymous User
30/03/2012
Actually, posting as Ed Douglas, but I can't seem to log in as such.

Two commentators have suggested that because there have been just two fatal accidents since AALA, the system is necessarily working and I must be nuts to wish it away. I think you'd have to compare it with stats from before AALA to draw that conclusion.

I was also pointing out that prosecutions were brought under Health and Safety legislation. If H&S law is already protecting the public, is it necessary to have a statutory scheme?

For myself, I'd trust someone who had been through a solid training scheme more. But that's my personal view.
Anonymous User
30/03/2012
Posting as John Cousins

Our error for quoting £750 rather than £715 for an AALA license, which can for some be for two years. Very interesting to hear from ‘anonymous 5’ that ‘AALA have put forward a proposal for a new inspection regime which would meant that they could become entirely self funding - without increasing the licence fee’. This sounds very interesting. I was at a meeting on Monday of the ‘UK accreditation transition group’ who the HSE originally put together in the autumn. It includes reps from MLTUK, RYA, AHOEC, OEAP, SAPOE, BAPA, EOC, Skillsactive, NUT, SAAF and AAIAC and none of us knew about this proposal. This group is doing its best to make sense of the devolved decisions on behalf of the outdoors and while we’ve corresponded with HSE in the last few days we haven’t heard anything about this (in case anyone doesn't have their head round this HSE is AALA). It would be good to share any such information so I’d welcome details (john@mltuk.org).

In the case of Adventuremark it is currently always issued for two years and LOtC is not an additional cost if they are applied for together. Added to this when the Adventure Activity Industry Advisory Committee set this up it was with scheme, rather than individual approval in mind. So most Adventuremark badges are currently being gained via organisations such as the BCU, BASI, MIAS, AHOEC, BAPA etc. The fees involved can therefore be managed by that body in as cost effective way as they can manage. With the likely demise of regulation, in England at least, MLTUK will now investigate how we might accredit our awar holders who are ‘single sport, sole trader’ under this system in as accessible manner as possible. An industry led system would also have the advantage that we could manage the parameters of such a scheme i.e. the sector (industry?) could decide on frequency of inspection, duration of licence or any other matter and therefore evolve the scheme over time. Finally it is worth noting this is a not for profit system that AAIAC have put in place.
Anonymous User
30/03/2012
Hello John - this is Anon 5.

The difficulty is not all activity providers are members of organisations such as the BCU - the business I run doesn't really fit into any of the current organisations - we are somewhere between AHOEC and BAPA. This means that whichever way we apply for an Adventuremark it is going to cost us more than our current AALA licence. In real terms we currently pay £715 ever 2 years. If we sign up to Adventuremark this will increase by £365 to £1080 every 2 years. We are VAT exempt therefore are not able to claim back the VAT on the licence. A quote from Lord Young "Removal of licensing would allow businesses to make financial savings" In reality this is not going to be the case, especially as it looks like we may need to duplicate licensing for Scotland and Wales.

When writing about AALA becoming self funding I was referencing a document I received last year from Marcus Bailie Head of Inspections for AALA - I believe this was widely circulated. I have included an excerpt below...

"I currently like the concept of a Register of Adventure Activity Providers (RAAP) which some providers are statutorily obliged to join (e.g. those currently within the remit of Licensing) but others could join if they wished, such as NGB accredited providers, holders of Adventuremark, YET members, and similar. I argue that the RAAP should be overseen on behalf of government, ideally the Department of Education, but with representation from other bodies such as HSE, Sport and Recreation, etc. An integral element of registration would be inspection prior to registration and sample inspection thereafter, as and when appropriate. Lord Young may well be right that inspecting every provider on a fixed period basis is disproportionately expensive for the benefits it provides. Sampling some providers some of the time (as the VAT system requires) is very much more proportionate and appropriate.

The advantage of this is that it maximises on the use of existing robust accreditation schemes, brings other up to a similar standard, and helps to develop others. The advantage for each accreditation scheme is that they get to opt into a bigger regime of assurance, complete with government oversight.

With fewer, but more targeted inspections of a wider range of providers the RAAP could be, more or less, operationally self-funding with government oversight provided at government expense. Even this could be modest, and certainly less than the current Licensing scheme costs. Direct civil servant involvement could largely be limited to financial and governance issues, steered by a small management group with representation from, ideally, DfE, HSE, SRA and the sector (e.g. Chair of AAIAC, CEO of IOL, perhaps) meeting a few times a year (as at present) .

The day to day work could be contracted to specialists in the field, as at present with 3As and AALS."

Please let me know if this is new to you and I will forward the original document.
Anonymous User
31/03/2012
"The fees involved can therefore be managed by that body in as cost effective way as they can manage." Would the BCU manage this in a similar way to that which it's demanded all it's coaching members to be illegally CRB checked through the BCU, at a ridiculous cost?
Anonymous User
18/04/2012
Sorry Ed Douglas, but your figures are wrong. Adventuremark is considerably more expensive than AALA for small businesses such as my own. Like Anon 3, I will not be taking on under 18's work in AALA territory until this is sorted. I agree that NGB awards should be the criteria on which safety is based...an annual inspection and handing over 750 quid every 2 years does not ensure safety.

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