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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 19 Jun 2001

Vol. 538 No. 3

Adventure Activities Standards Authority Bill, 2000: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Adventure Activities Standards Authority Bill, 2000, addresses serious issues regarding the safety of people in outdoor activity centres. As the Act will have major implications for the industry, it is important that the structures put in place by the Act are effective and operable. I have a number of suggestions for the Bill, some of which I made before the suspension of the House last week. I hope the Minister has considered them for inclusion.

Outdoor Education Ireland, among others, is the leading partner in the setting and implementation of safety standards and good work practices in adventure sports. This should be publicly acknowledged, and recognition should be afforded to the respective vocational education committees and the Department of Education and Science for their leadership. As I have said in the past, Cappanalea in County Kerry is one of the finest examples of an outdoor activity centre in Europe and is recognised as such. People come from Europe and beyond to see how it operates and to witness its good practices. It should be used as a model for all outdoor activity centres.

While it is proposed to exclude educational institutions and schools from the legislation, the outdoor education centres, as leading players in adventure education, should be fully included in the licensing scheme and should act as a resource to the schools in the provision of safe adventure education programmes on the curriculum. Having read some of the contributions of other speakers, I noticed that Deputy Keaveney drew attention to the exclusion of the educational institutions and schools from the legislation. Will the Minister address this?

Outdoor Education Ireland, the organisation responsible for outdoor public education centres should have a seat, by right, on the proposed authority. Similarly, the Chief Executive Officers' Association should have one, as a public provider of adventure education. Two of the four seats for providers on the authority should be dedicated to the public providers as they represent the largest sector in outdoor adventure-sport provision.

Substantial, indirect costs for providers associated with the compliance of the agreed safety standards will be incurred by instruction, training, the need for enhanced qualifications, equipment investment and the renewal and upgrading of facilities. There should be no direct costs in terms of fees or charges associated with the licensing of providers. Those direct costs must be borne by the State as is the case with the Health and Safety Authority. No fees should be charged to providers. Will the Minister of State respond to this point? Substantial costs will be involved in upgrading such centres, providing retaining, improving equipment and so on. This will be a major imposition on the providers who in most cases do not make large profits. Activity centres generally pay their way and cover the costs of wages, but very few people involved in activity centres make big money. Most of them are sports enthusiasts who are involved as much for the love of the activity as for the money. If a major financial charge is imposed on the providers of activity centres, which will happen as a result of this Bill, the State should help them. The Minister of State might refer to that point.

While there is scope for the authority to expand the list of prescribed activities, that list should be expanded from the outset to include raft building, of which I have some experience. This is a potentially high risk water based activity which is practised in most multi-activity adventure centres. While the more traditional adventure sports already have operational guidelines, raft building has no generic industry-wide safety guidelines. For that reason and in the interests of safety, I strongly recommend that raft building is included in the list of prescribed activities outlined in the Bill.

This is important legislation. Activity centres will become more popular in the future. Many in the corporate sector book them for weekends for their employees to improve staff cohesion, to encourage co-operation among the workforce and a healthier lifestyle and to motivate employees. It is becoming a big business.

Outdoor activity is becoming a big business in America and usually we follow what happens there. Some major American corporations such as Boeing, Dupont, Johnson & Johnson take employees to such centres for weekends or for a week at a time to work out and partake in vigorous activities. This will also become a trend here.

It is also becoming popular for families to go to such centres. I am aware of families who go to Cappanalea and other outdoor activity centres for weekends. It is a great way for a family to bond and to increase understanding.

It might be ideal for Members of the Dáil.

It would be a very good idea to go into the wilds and the wilderness.

This is a area of opportunity. I compliment the Minister of State on bringing forward the Bill. It is time this industry was regulated. It is important that it should be, as the practice that went on in the past led to the unfortunate accidents referred to earlier. We must ensure similar accidents do not happen in the future. What we are doing here is laying a framework for the future to ensure the safety of people who go to these centres.

I understand the Minister of State will share his time with Deputy Brendan Smith.

I am grateful to the Minister of State for giving me the opportunity to make a short contribution on this important legislation.

This Bill is most welcome and it is probably long overdue. A number of speakers mentioned the importance of outdoor education and adventure centres. A centre of particular interest to the Leas Cheann-Comhairle and myself is the Tanagh Outdoor Education Centre in County Monaghan near Cootehill, which is run by County Monaghan Vocational Education Committee. I hope it will be possible to ensure better co-ordination between the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources and the Department of Education and Science on the recognition of these centres and the promotion of activity, particularly outdoor sports.

A matter that has been brought to the attention of public representatives from inland areas, in particular, are the difficulties arising from jet skiing on inland waterways. I refer in particular to parts of Lough Oughter in County Cavan. I would like jet skiing policed, as people who go angling, swimming or who take leisurely recreational activity on the waterways often complain to me about groups who jet ski and take over the waterways and prevent others from participating in other water based sports. I hope it will be possible to provide in the legislation for proper policing of that activity.

With regard to the composition of the forum, local authorities should be represented on it and rescue groups should have an input into the consultative process. This legislation has come about as a result of widespread consultation by the Department at home and abroad. I am pleased that consultation took place over a wide-ranging area. The list of adventure activities is wide-ranging and some of the hitherto less popular activities have grown in popularity in recent years. Provision is rightly made to add or to delete particular disciplines.

I am concerned about the exclusion of schools from the provision of adventure activities and I hope the Minister will reconsider that. I hope it will be possible for schools to be included as providers. We have a good deal to learn from Great Britain and the North where adventure centres are plentiful and are in constant use by schools, particularly at second level. Valuable cross-community exchange visits take place between Fermanagh and Cavan and adventure centres seem to be a key area in providing the necessary facilities to enable such cross-Border co-operation to take place.

As I said earlier, I would like the rescue services to be represented on the consultative forum. I hope the Minister of State will take into account the valuable role played by the rescue services and the local authorities in monitoring, providing and nurturing outdoor activities which are particularly relevant in inland counties.

I thank all the Deputies for their contributions to the debate on this Bill. I was pleasantly surprised that so many Members had an interest in this area and I particularly commend Deputies Bell and Deenihan who sat through the entire debate. Deputy Connaughton also spent a good deal of time here. The contributions of Deputies on all sides were well researched and I assure them every idea they put forward this evening, including those put forward by Deputy Smith, will be considered. We on this side of the House, or my two excellent officials, do not have a monopoly on knowledge on this subject. Any idea that can improve this legislation and help reduce the incidences of death or injury will be most welcome and given strong consideration.

I am delighted the Bill did not become a political football. I commend the Minister, Deputy Fahey, on introducing it and I acknowledge the work of Deputy Finucane in bringing about its introduction. The Bill probably arose as a result of the efforts of Michael Davies, whose son Ros was lost in an accident near my home in County Wexford a few years ago. Michael Davies pursued this issue like a terrier, never letting go. Sometimes that focus is required to ensure legislation such as this is brought before the House. I hope his wish will be fulfilled when this Bill is passed.

Recently I attended the opening of a coastguard station in Youghal. It was commendable to see so many people involved in search and rescue activities, often at risk to their own lives. I also presented certificates to members of the RNLI. One young man jumped into the sea at Rosslare and kept a person who had lost consciousness afloat until help could arrive. This young man, Michael Sinnott, put his own life in danger. I also presented an award to a 92 year old lady who has collected for the RNLI for 60 years.

In Kilmore Quay I recently opened a memorial garden to commemorate approximately 1,000 people who had lost their lives at sea. Having seen the commitment involved in search and rescue activities around our coast, I am convinced that the Bill before the House is long overdue. If everybody used common sense, however, legislation would probably not be necessary. If only people intending to put out to sea would take a little advice. I always take opportunities such as this to remind people that a question that might seem embarrassing can often save a life. I have yet to go to a pier wall or harbour and not see some old fishermen sitting around. All one need do is ask these people for their advice as to whether it is wise to put to sea and so forth. The same applies to all sports. There are plenty of people who have expertise and experience. When one asks them a question, one might not get the answer one likes but one might get an answer that will save one's life.

No Member of the House wishes to be a spoilsport. However, we are anxious to ensure that what begins as a day of fun for our constituents will end as a day of fun and will not end in tragedy, as we have seen occur far too often. Deputies will recall from the introductory remarks of the Minister, Deputy Fahey, that the main purpose of the Bill is to provide for the enactment of a new legislative regime, by way of a statutory authority, to promote and enhance the safety of all persons, particularly young persons, who engage in adventure activities in adventure centres.

The Bill was introduced as a result of the death of young Ros Davies and another young person. I have an intimate knowledge of that incident. The person who reported that people were missing and lost had made his way across Waterford harbour estuary to my local hostelry. Many a big ship did not make it across that estuary so his action required great bravery. The saddest element was that he told us – he was in bad condition himself when he reached home – the young boy was within 100 metres of his life being saved but, unfortunately, had caved in because they could not see the shoreline. When one hears at first hand about that incident, it is clear that the time has come to regulate these centres. It is time to apply common sense and if legislation is required to do that, so be it.

The voluntary inspection schemes operated by the centre standards board of the Association for Adventure Sports and the Irish Sailing Association have served the participating part of the adventure activities sector well. It is clear, however, that a sizeable part of the sector has opted to remain outside the scheme and is not subject to any form of outside scrutiny. It is to be expected that this part of the sector is of greater danger to public health and safety. There is, therefore, a need to establish a legal framework to place the entire sector on an equal footing and to provide for the safety requirements that a modern society demands.

The establishment of the adventure activities standards authority is a key and innovative step designed to lead to the safer environment for all persons involved in adventure activities that is desired. I am confident that the mandatory registration of adventure activity operators and the mandatory requirement that operators abide by any codes of practice that the authority develops, along with the regulatory scheme for specified activities and the inspection scheme, will meet the required need for giving safety top priority.

It is important that the statutory authority envisaged in this Bill should be set up as soon as possible and be charged with making proposals on all matters necessary to implement the regulatory and inspection scheme. The Minister and I are determined that every effort will be made to have the new statutory regime in place, in the sense of notifications and inspections, before the end of this year. It is also important that the authority, once established, should be able to conduct investigations into any accident or occurrence related to adventure activities, as this process will also serve to keep the authority up to date on particular risks or dangers in an adventure activity and allow it to amend its regulatory scheme or codes of practice to combat it.

I took note of the many various points raised by Deputies and I will now deal with some of them. I understand the concerns expressed by Deputies Dukes and Bell in relation to the proposed authority being allowed to make charges for the provision of its services. The provisions of the Bill in this regard are similar to those contained in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 1989 which allow the Health and Safety Authority to make such charges as it considers appropriate or necessary. By including such a provision in this Bill, the intention is that any charges to be made by the new authority would be designed to offset administration costs and would not be so prohibitive as to discourage operators from registering with the authority. I am certain no operator will feel the charges are too steep. I thank the Deputies for focusing attention on this issue.

However, I accept the point that the Health and Safety Authority does not at present charge for its services. This principle and the Deputies' views on this matter will be considered when the new authority is established. The question of invoking such charges is being addressed in consultation with my Department. The real focus, which is safety in these centres, will be my focus when this Bill is enacted.

A number of Deputies referred to the definitions of adventure activities included in the Bill and questioned the absence of certain other activities from these definitions. Any issues raised by the Deputies will be considered. In response to Deputy Smith, the issue of jet skis is to the forefront of the Minister's and my attention. I hope we can put regulations before the House in the near future which will meet with the Members' approval.

I thank all Members who contributed to this debate. I particularly thank the Opposition for not making this Bill a political football. It is far too serious for that. I hope the work done this evening and before now on the Bill will help reduce the number of people injured or who lose their lives in activity centres.

Question put and agreed to.