Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 17 May 2001

Vol. 536 No. 4

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

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

I am glad to return to this Adventure Activities Standards Authority Bill. I had just referred to the issue of the membership of the authority and I will continue to discuss the function of the activities standards authority. The authority will cross quite a number of divides with the promotion, encouragement, fostering, facilitation and the regulation of safe operation of adventure activities. As the Minister outlined it will be empowered to administer schemes and grants to procure and provide educational training or advisory services and to carry out research. That broad scope is extremely important. It will advise the Minister on other matters relating to adventure activities and he will be able to confer additional functions on the authority by way of order, after consultation with the authority. That flexibility is very important.

I disagree with Deputy Dukes when he says the authority has too many roles. I come across groups all supposedly looking after a similar issue but they often fall between stools when looking for support. A group might look for funding from one agency which will say it gives advice but not funding and another which will say it gives training but not advice. That is how it happens and groups may have to go from agency to agency seeking support. That this authority will have so many roles looking after many aspects of the one issue will overcome some of the problems we have had in other agencies to date. To have one agency for all aspects is good, in terms of co-ordination, for the true development of activity centres. If it was not to be so broad, then surely it would have come under the Health and Safety Authority and we would not need a new organisation at all. Perhaps the Minister will have a view on that when he replies at the conclusion of Second Stage. If, as Deputy Dukes seemed to say last night, we only want an authority to deal specifically with the safety aspect then surely we do not need this authority as we already have the Health and Safety Authority.

This authority will oversee adventure activities in 13 activities. I see that the definition includes hill-walking in areas higher than 300 metres, orienteering in areas more than 300 metres above sea level, caving, dinghy sailing, kayaking, canoeing, surfing with a surfboard, wind-surfing, scuba diving, snorkelling, abseiling, archery and rock climbing. Is that all embracing in terms of the activities that could be included? Things like jet-skiing, water-skiing and raft racing are much more related to the things that are there than what we mentioned last night. Bungee jumping was mentioned then and I was indirectly asked whether I had participated in it. There are other marine activities that would be related to the activities there but they will be excluded under this. Are they already included under some existing authority? If not, why are they not included? Will the Minister look at this in relation to what he said concerning the facility to expand the scope of the authority by adding or deleting items from the list? He should perhaps look at all water based activities as one thing. That brings us to my original point that if we are to have one group looking after all aspects of these 13 activities then associated activities not coming under the remit of the authority will defeat the whole purpose of the authority.

I am glad that under the role of the authority it will be mandatory for all adventure activity operators within these specified adventure activities to register with the authority and the authority will develop codes of practice for the specified activities. It will be mandatory for the operators to abide by the codes that will be introduced. It is very important that the operators are inspected by the authority and that there is scope, in cases of non-compliance with the code, for the authority to direct an operator to suspend or cease the provision of the activity or to remove the operator from the list. The mandatory aspects of registration and the code of practice and inspections are essential. Last year I pressed for the mandatory training for fishermen, because I believe it is not right to have only a voluntary code in an area with the potential for loss of life. Voluntary codes will not always be followed. People can lose lives unnecessarily and just as in leisure activities, it is important to have mandatory codes in commercial fishing. I welcome the introduction of codes of practice as they improve standards and standardisation.

I spoke on the Agriculture Appeals Bill on Tuesday. This was a long awaited opportunity for farmers to put their cases on many schemes beyond the two schemes being discussed under the Bill. Only now are we bringing in a facility for appeals on a wide range of agriculture schemes. It is already in operation for social welfare. It is just a matter of time before people will ask for an appeals system in relation to this Bill. Can there be an appeals system for genuine cases where people are closed down? Just as in agriculture cases, there will always be a genuine case.

Who will inspect the inspectors and what qualifications will inspectors have? On the issue of charging for inspections, if the Health and Safety Authority does not charge for its inspections why is there a charge being proposed here? Something more constructive would be to link grant aid, particularly now at the start, to bringing people up to a particular standard. That would be more welcome than the threat of inspection fees. Which comes first the inspection or the opening of a centre or what is the time scale? I assume it is like a Bord Fáilte approval and that within a certain amount of time one's premises must get accreditation.

I am very disappointed that education is not being covered. It is noted in the Minister's speech that the Bill only covers those who provide adventure activities on a commercial basis. It does not cover schools or educational establishments and the Minister has said that it is a complex area. Schools get involved in adventure activities but far too little is done. The Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Health and Children are talking about looking at having schools included in the definition. This cannot happen soon enough. While the matter will probably require detailed investigation it should really have been taken on now and should not be something to be considered after the authority has been set up.

The new regulations will perhaps make schools, particularly the less well off ones, unwilling to undertake adventure activities. I am very worried about this. The point was made that disadvantaged schools would lose out because of the cost of inspections. I look at that from the angle that we may compromise safety where it is needed most, if we do not include schools. Schools will provide activities, not on a commercial basis, so they will not have to comply with the safety standards prescribed for commercial activities. Is a death worth a break in safety provision? Is it not worth bringing these people in under the regulations? We compromise safety where it is most needed if we exclude schools and it is exclusively our young people in the school environment who will suffer rather than the commercial operators whose very existence is based on displays of safety. Any cross-departmental review must happen soon.

Schools should engage in more adventure activity. Seaside schools should have access to marine adventure facilities. This should be looked at by the Departments of Health and Children, Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Education and Science, and the Marine and Natural Resources. For safety purposes, they should be run on a commercial basis as those concerned maintain their name by ensuring good standards. When I was at school, our annual adventure day was a ten mile walk to Creagh for charity. Most participants avoided the full walk by taking a short-cut when the teacher was not looking. That is no longer the case in schools. I was involved in Healthy Eating Week and believe that we should look after our children and their health by encouraging them into action. We are aware of the statistics on obesity and that people complain about the lack of facilities for children. However, many children are not culturally attuned to existing sports and recreational facilities.

When I taught in England, the teaching year started on the last day in August and ran to the last week in July. A week was designated in June or July for all children and teachers to be involved in adventure activities. Depending on their means, they went skiing, hiking or engaged in equestrian, marine or other activities. It was healthy because the children learned teamwork. They worked together and got to know the teachers in a different light.

The cross-Border aspect is important. The June 1999 report examined facilities in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. I taught in Coleraine where there were good facilities and the school used the nearby outdoor adventure centres. I live close to Coleraine and once the car ferry to Magilligan, for which I thank the Minister, is operational next Easter, we can be there in 20 minutes. The location of County Donegal shows that we need all-Ireland links on safety. People living in my region do not recognise borders, just distances to the nearest facilities. I live on the Foyle, which is administered by both jurisdictions. There must also be plans for rivers on which so many activities take place, such as angling, boating and yachting and which are used by adventure centres, commercial traffic, cruise liners, rescue boats and so on. Plans must include all interests. The Foyle is a good example of the need for co-ordinated regulations. I suggest that the authority becomes an all-island one.

On the question of facilities, there are opportunities in Inishowen for hill walking, swimming, raft racing, water skiing, jet skiing, canoeing and yachting. Many happen haphazardly and would benefit by being co-ordinated with hotels to be sold as packages alongside equestrian activities and golf. I thank the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources for the leisure study and the infrastructural development. The Ministers, Deputies Woods and Fahey, were the first to invest seriously in infrastructural development in County Donegal for decades.

Council studies show that there is an interest in public-private developments. On the Swilly, Foyle and north coast, perhaps at Bunargy Harbour, marinas should be utilised to generate employment and money. A focus is needed. We suffer from chicken and egg syndrome – without facilities we have no tourism and without tourism we have no facilities. However, Gartan is a good example of what can be done. Water based activities are a healthy option for all ages.

Life is unhealthy for many who have no peace of mind, let alone physical well-being. The legislation is important because physical activities must have standards. The loss of Mr. Davies and the subsequent campaign must lead to some tangible benefit for other families committed to outdoor pursuits. We can introduce regulations but only the operators of adventure centres and participants can ensure safety. We cannot force them but can assist with regulations. It is unfortunate that it requires a stick and not a carrot but the authority will play a major part in the development of adventure activities.

I welcome this timely, important Bill. I took part in most of these activities at various levels. They are called adventure activities because they take place in the wild away from artificial environments. Today, young people, usually the participants, should be encouraged and helped to become involved. There are 13 activities listed in the Bill – hill walking, orienteering, caving, dinghy sailing, kayaking, canoeing, surfing with a surfboard, windsurfing, scuba diving, snorkelling, abseiling, archery and rock climbing. They are fun but there is also risk or danger which contributes to the excitement and fun. The Bill is important in ensuring that risk is measured and people are not placed in grave danger of injury or loss of life. There must be standards in order that there can be fun, risk and adventure but also safety. We must not overdo matters or we will lose the fun that risk brings.

Young people, especially men, like physical challenge and to be tested. These activities test endurance and physical and mental ability. They help develop character and some involve teamwork. They are important and I support any measure introduced by any Minister or Government to support and develop them to enable as many as possible to participate. I support section 14 which states that some of the authority's functions are to promote, encourage, foster and facilitate activities and measures directed towards the safe operation of adventure activities. I welcome this as I do the next part which states that a function is to administer schemes, grants and other financial facilities for the promotion, encouragement, fostering, facilitation and regulation of the safe operation of adventure activities as may be authorised from time to time by the Minister. The authority will provide an important framework for channelling resources and grants to develop these activities. We must ensure the resources and moneys are put in place to enable them to be developed. We will keep a close eye on this when the authority is established.

An adventure activities operator is defined as a person who provides services for members of the public for payment or reward. The Minister should examine this on Committee Stage as a person could provide these services for free. Is there a loophole there? Perhaps we should delete the words "for payment or reward". There is another danger there because if "amateurs" provide training and instruction free of charge, there is a greater risk of danger, accident or injury because somebody who is not trained is providing the activity. I do not know how one can get around this. If somebody has a couple of canoes, decides to take people out in them on a Sunday and has no training, they will not be covered by this Bill unless they get paid. There is a greater risk that might lead to injury or death. That is an issue at which we will have to look very carefully.

I am a bit disappointed that schools have not been linked in here. The Department of Education and Science will have a person on the authority when it is set up but I would like to see a way in which schools could be assisted in developing these activities. Very often young people will only be exposed to these activities through the school. If they are lucky enough to have a teacher who has a personal interest or involvement in one or more of these activities, that teacher will very often give his or her free time to take the students away at weekends or out in the evenings to expose them to these activities. We need a framework where such teachers can be helped and assisted. There are two problems here. First, very often schools do not have the resources to develop these activities and, second, there is a problem with insurance.

One school a number of years ago set up a sailing club. It trained the students not only to sail the dinghies, but to make them – the dinghies were constructed in the school as part of the programme. There was much learning – one could not calculate the amount of learning that took place from start to finish. The programme had to be suspended because the school could not get insurance cover. This is an issue at which we have to look and I hope the authority will take it on board when it is set up.

Some colleagues alluded to the fact that jet skiing, water skiing, sand buggying and so on are not included. These activities are causing some concern. I am not saying we should stop them because people should have the right to use their jet skis, water skis and so on but others have the right to enjoy the beach and the water without the intrusion and the fear some of these activities can cause. Perhaps there is some way to segregate the different activities that occur around our coast. Jet skiing has to be included in this legislation because it is an adventure activity and it can be a dangerous one if the wrong people are involved.

I compliment members of the Defence Forces who have given their time to develop adventure activities down through the years. Many soldiers use adventure activities, such as orienteering and hill walking, to train people, while sailors use activities such as snorkelling. Often young people will become involved in these activities and will possibly join the Defence Forces as a result of being exposed to and taking part in these activities. I acknowledge the great amount of expertise in the Defence Forces in regard to many of these activities. I would like to see a way this expertise could be tapped into. Down through the years the FCA and An Slua Muirí have got involved in these activities. Members who are civilians and not full-time soldiers or sailors have taken part in many of these activities through membership of the FCA and An Slua Muirí. Perhaps there is a way to acknowledge that and to link it into the Bill. Maybe a member of the Defence Forces could be appointed to the authority. We should at least acknowledge that the expertise is there. Many of these activities are linked to the work soldiers and sailors do. It is an area that should not be ignored and should be tapped into if at all possible.

We set up authorities – there is a plethora of them – but when Deputies want to get information about them and what they do and ask the Minister a question in this democratic assembly, the Minister says he is no longer responsible, that the authority is responsible. When we go to the authority, it says it does not have to answer a Deputy and that we have no right to the information. I know authorities may be called before committees once or twice a year, but it is something about which we need to be very careful. I would like a mechanism to be put in place where Ministers can give information without being responsible. Although the authority would still be responsible, the information could be made available by way of parliamentary question. This is possible in other jurisdictions and it is something all parties and Ministers should take into account. Many such authorities are being set up and are doing excellent work but we must remember there is a democratic process and that we are democratically elected. If an authority works on behalf of the State, we, as Deputies, should have the right to come into this assembly and ask Ministers pertinent questions about what the authority is or is not doing and receive a reply in the normal way as we do for other parliamentary questions. This is not happening, and I will keep repeating this. I am not saying the Minister should be responsible as that responsibility has been given to the authority, I am talking about information which is very powerful and important.

I would like a better youth service to be developed. We need to have a professional youth service and centres throughout the country and we now have the resources to do that. The Youth Work Bill passed through the House. This authority should link in with the youth service – I have noticed that there is no link at the moment. I know there are links with various Departments and that we cannot have an authority that is too big. I welcome the fact that the Ministers for Tourism, Sport and Recreation and Education and Science will have representatives on the authority, which is important. We also need to have a representative who has expertise in youth work. Perhaps the member appointed on the recommendation of the Minister for Education and Science should be involved in youth work. We also have to take into account the role of schools. I am trying to ensure nobody is left out, that we can tap into all the expertise and resources and that the work of this authority reaches all those who need it.

The register of operators seems only to take account of those who are doing this work for hire or reward. Perhaps there is a loophole there which we need to consider. I notice that the Department of Health and Children is not included. Many of the activities mentioned in the Bill and others which I am sure will be added to the list in the future are healthy activities and people taking part in them will have to have a certain level of physical fitness. It is good for all of us to get out and about in the fresh air from time to time. Deputies cannot find the time to do that because they spend so much time here and doing political work elsewhere, but it is something all of us should do.

Young men particularly like a physical challenge and to be tested. I note with alarm that suicide is now the greatest killer of young men in Ireland. Involvement in activities such as these builds people's self-confidence and self-esteem. That is why it is so important to develop facilities and encourage as many as possible to use them. These activities should not be confined to an elite who are lucky enough to have a teacher, parent or neighbour who has a personal interest in these activities. Youth clubs, schools and so on should also be exposed to them. Given that it is more and more dangerous to cycle on roads because of the number of cars and the speed at which they travel, we need to make it possible for more and more people, older people as well as young people, to get involved in these activities.

I am particularly pleased that this Bill is before the House. It is not before time, and I am saddened by the circumstances which brought it about.

In February 1995, two young men, Ros Davies and Keith Crowley, were drowned in Dunmore East while taking part in a canoeing exercise at an adventure centre there. It was soon clear that, in common with many other activities involving a high degree of risk, the so-called adventure centres needed to be regulated to copper fasten whatever safety features existed and minimum requirements imposed on the people who operate them.

In October of that year, I was approached by Ros's father, Michael, who asked me to raise the matter of the regulation of these centres in the light of his own experience. Shortly after that, Fianna Fáil were out of Government and the opportunity had passed. I discussed the possibility of introducing a Private Members' Bill in the House, but it was not pursued.

Subsequently, in 1998, the then Opposition spokesperson, Deputy Michael Finucane, introduced legislation for which I commended him at the time. However, it ran to just nine sections and was wholly inadequate to cover all eventualities, while the more comprehensive one before the House today contains 37 sections and includes a schedule. Nevertheless, Deputy Finucane's contribution to bringing this legislation before the House should be acknowledged.

We as a legislature stand indicted that it was a full five years before we reacted to this tragedy which exposed gaps and flaws in the safety measures operating in these centres. I realise that since the Government came to office in June 1997, a great deal of necessary and positive legislation has been passed in this House, but perhaps our priorities are somewhat misplaced given that it has taken this long to have this Bill debated and advanced.

The machinery of State has moved slowly, but I hope the introduction and passage of this Bill will lessen, in some small way, the pain and loss of the Davies and Crowley families and others who have lost family members in similar circumstances.

Part of the problem was in deciding which Department was responsible, whether as an educational area it should have been the Department of Education and Science, or whether as a water-based activity it should have been the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources. In all of this, there is an element of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, but it may be of some consolation to the families of the bereaved that this new measure will considerably improve standards and eliminate problems before they can affect users of the centres. This is borne out by the fact that, Ministers for Education and Science, Tourism Sport and Recreation and Marine and Natural Resources and other interests in this area will all nominate members to the proposed new Adventure Activities Standards Authority. I agree with something Deputy Stanton said about the various authorities. They have come to be at arm's length from the Oireachtas and we often cannot get answers from them. Many such authorities are very good, but they must be made more accountable to the Members of this House who represent the people.

Adventure centres, sports and leisure centres, summer camps and specialised sports camps are a very positive part of life in today's world. They encourage and promote sport at all levels and ages, as well as general activity and exercise. They are a good all round contributor to good health in our community.

For too long, we were a sedentary society, but with increased health education and sound advice, with the increased wealth and leisure time the modern economy provides for us, we now engage far more in sport and other active pursuits. That is to be welcomed and expanded on. Any extra money we can invest in sport and leisure will be returned to us ten-fold through savings in the health service.

I returned within the past hour from a meeting of the Committee on Tourism, Sport and Recreation which met for two and a half hours this morning with the chief executive of the Irish Sports Council, Mr. John Treacy, and other members of the staff of the council. The value of investing in sport as a tool for the prevention of bad health was raised. Such benefits are not tangible. It is very difficult to quantify the savings on health that result from spending money on sport. At a conference which I opened in Waterford on Tuesday morning, one of the points I made was that investing more in young people would keep them out of prison and that if we educated them properly they would become an asset to the community. Again, as it cannot be quantified in monetary terms, it is difficult to convince the powers that be that investment in sport will have important knock-on effects in the future in terms of the nation's health.

That said, we do not want increased participation in sport with its consequent benefits to health at any price. If we are to teach our young people anything, the primary lesson should be the importance of safety at all times. Allied to that is the duty of care which centre operators, coaches and supervisors bear towards their clients. If this is not guaranteed through the industry itself, we as a Government, with the overall good of the people in mind, must remind those in charge that care and safety are still paramount in any industry or field of activity.

As in many other areas of private business, self-regulation did not work in this case, despite the recommendations put forward by the Marine National Surveyors Office in the wake of the Dunmore East accident. The Bill is not totally related to marine activities but, broadly speaking, it can be, and I will confine my contribution to this area.

As a point of principle, I am not normally in favour of licensing or regulating everything in sight. However, in too many cases we have seen private industry cut corners, reduce standards or otherwise fall short of the kind of safe and comprehensive service which the people expect and to which they are entitled. Adventure centres have a potential for disaster, and it is fitting that we should now ensure, in so far as it is possible, that there will not be a repetition of the Dunmore East accident. I am not suggesting that there is something wrong with adventure centres. However, of their nature, they generate a high degree of risk which must be acknowledged and catered for. There must be a body to impose standards if operators do not implement them themselves. That is what is provided for in this Bill.

People, even those who consider themselves experts in their field, cannot be relied upon to apply the common sense and high standards which are necessary in a risk-filled activity. If they did, the rescue helicopters would not be scouring the mountains and seas as often as they do for people who have not exercised the correct level of planning, care and common sense. We have seen all too clearly in the dunes of Tramore, just a handful of miles from Dunmore East, the risks which the rescue services have to take in responding to calls and the price that sometimes has to be paid in the discharge of their duties. I pay tribute to all who operate the rescue services and who regularly put themselves in harm's way in the service of others.

Now that what passes for summer in this country has arrived, I endorse the message which goes out from the Minister for the Environment and Local Government each year regarding safe bathing and boating. It takes just a little common sense on the part of those who indulge in these sports, whether water-based or in the mountains, to take the recommended precautions, to apply a little common sense and to have concern for others. Our annual record in regard to these pursuits leaves a lot to be desired, but like road safety, with a little more thought and consideration, a great many tragedies could be avoided.

We have developed a reputation for fine sporting facilities here, and rightly so. Traditionally it was horse racing, but more recently the development of top class golf courses has drawn more and more high spenders to our country. These people have much to offer us, not only in foreign revenue, but also in enhancing our reputation among other holiday makers abroad. We have long since entered the leisure age and more and more people are turning to sport and physical activity to fill their leisure time. These activities range from the leisurely and relatively safe game of golf to mountaineering, hill walking and water sports. Where these services are being provided by an operator, whether in the public or private sector, the public is entitled to expect the highest standards of safety and care. Those who frequent these activity centres are often primary or secondary school students and depend entirely on the operators and their own supervisors to keep them safe and advised of all the risks involved in their sport.

I am glad more and more trained personnel are becoming available for this purpose. There are several good colleges which are turning out graduates who will raise the standards in the industry if they are given the opportunity. I pay tribute to those colleges which offer recreation management and health and safety courses and those which are specially tailored for the leisure industry – in this respect the recreation management department of Waterford Institute of Technology has been a leader in its field and its graduates are in great demand even before they qualify. They have pioneered this form of education and training in this country and have a proud record in the field. They have raised standards and brought a degree of realism and professionalism to the industry which had not existed before. Pay and conditions in the leisure industry often leave a lot to be desired. Perhaps it is because employers expect their staff to particularly enjoy their line of work that they feel they can impose the kind of rosters, holiday arrangements and conditions which would not be tolerated in any other area of employment.

This is comprehensive legislation for which I commend the Minister. I note that further measures can be introduced under its provisions by means of ministerial order if deemed necessary. The Minister proposes to give the authority adequate powers to discharge its functions and has rightly placed the investigation and reporting of accidents and incidents clearly in its hands. This will be an authority which will have the necessary expertise, which will be representative of all the appropriate interests and which will have all the necessary powers available to it. My one fear is that of the 15 members on the new authority, eight members – a majority – will represent the various activity bodies and operators, some of which have shown in the past that they were not capable of enforcing or implementing recommendations previously made. Bearing that in mind, I wonder if the Minister is satisfied as to the independence of this body. I suggest that the Minister should consider including Michael Davies among his nominees, as he is one of the people who has inspired the legislation.

The penalties provided for under section 5 seem adequate and appropriate and it is heartening to see that there will be proper and meaningful sanctions for offences in this area. I am pleased also with the provisions of section 15, whereby additional functions can be given to the authority if the Minister so decides. Section 16 confers the power to investigate accidents and to produce a report which is to be published. This did not exist before and while there are formal agencies which could investigate death or serious injury, there was no dedicated investigatory body which had the expertise necessary to discharge its function fully or make the recommendations envisaged in this legislation or reach the decisive conclusion which this new body can do. Coroners' inquests, for instance, are confined merely to establishing the cause, time and place of death and, with the exception of one recommendation, have very little scope to influence or dictate change in any area. This has been borne out too often in the past, particularly where large numbers of people have been involved in an incident causing death and where juries have expressed their frustration at the inadequacy of the system.

Publication of the findings of the authority in a report is a new and necessary departure. Too often in the past such reports did not see the light of day but that is now history and, with safeguards for those who might be criticised and blamed, everything will now be in the public domain. The much proclaimed openness and transparency has to be part of any new procedures and I commend the Minister for going as far as he has.

There is also provision for a tribunal of inquiry and while we have more than our fair share of tribunals and investigations at present, it may be necessary in the future to appoint such a tribunal which can call on wide-ranging powers.

Section 34 provides for the development of a code of practice for the safe operation of these adventure activity centres and I am pleased this is mandatory. I expect most operators will behave in a responsible manner but there are always rogue and cowboy operators. It behoves everyone in the industry to root them out as they do the industry no favours by remaining in operation. Section 35 provides for the carrying out of inspections, with power to have an activity or centre suspended or put out of business altogether by removing the centre from the register of operators. Too often in the past we have introduced legislation which remains on the Statute Book but is not enforced. There is no point in bringing in such legislation and I hope this Act will be enforced. I hope the inspectors appointed will be extremely vigilant, that a sufficient number of them is appointed and that enough resources are put into tackling this issue so that the regulations are enforced.

This is good legislation and I hope it will not take too long to have it enacted, especially with the summer looming ahead of us. We do not want to see more tragedies like those we have seen in the past. We have been very slow in bringing this legislation forward but thankfully it is now here. It is my wish that this Bill passes all Stages quickly. That is necessary if it is to come into force before the summer. I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Coveney

I welcome the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of this important Bill. I compliment my colleague, Deputy Finucane, who brought this matter to the attention of the House during Private Members' time just over two years ago and the Bill largely results from his dedication. I favour the principle behind the introduction of the Adventure Activities Standard Authority and I am anxious that it be put in place before the summer months when the vast majority of adventure activities take place.

I have a number of reservations concerning this legislation, particularly regarding the effectiveness of the standard authority to be established. I wish to raise the basic matter of the definition of adventure activities, which has been discussed by other Deputies. Members are aware of the activities that have been listed, which include a number of water adventure sports. Certain obvious water sports such as jet-skiing and water-skiing have not been included, however. I cannot reconcile the imposition of regulations to control windsurfing, surfing and canoeing with the failure to include water-skiing and jet-skiing. If there is a valid reason, I will be happy to hear it. Many of the activity centres we are attempting to regulate provide services for sports not included in the Bill. Many activity centres that teach people to windsurf also provide jet-skis on the beach for recreational use. The Bill needs to be more encompassing in this regard.

There are other areas of adventure activity that need to be covered such as a vast array of equine sports from eventing to pony-trekking along roads. We cannot put in place an Adventure Activities Standard Authority without taking equine sports into account as such activity is one of the fastest growing in Ireland. I listened to my colleague, Deputy Dukes, with some amusement last night when he said that bungee jumping appals him. I ask him not to knock it until he tries it as it certainly involves—

Are things that bad in Fine Gael?

Mr. Coveney

—an adrenaline rush. I also want to mention sports such as gliding, hang-gliding and especially microlighting, a sport which is entirely unregulated. There was a tragic accident involving a microlight in Cork about ten days ago when a young person was killed by the aircraft's motor. We, therefore, need to consider an expansion of the remit of the Bill. We could establish an authority to look after watersports and another to look after land and air based sports. If we attempt to look after all adventure activity, the definition of such activity needs to be more encompassing.

My main concern with the Bill relates to watersports. As one who grew up on the water, was taught how to canoe, windsurf and sail and spent many summers teaching others how to sail, I am somewhat qualified to make informed observations about potential negative aspects that could result if certain questions are not dealt with on Committee and Report Stages. I favour the establishment of a safety standards authority for activity centres, but I am concerned with how the body will perform its function and who will constitute it. It is necessary that we should require adventure activity operators to register with an authority. This would ensure there were common safety standards and common assessment procedures throughout the country. Powers must be given to the authority to impose penalties if it is not satisfied with a code of conduct or its implementation. We owe such procedures to children and adults who participate in adventure activity.

Problems may arise when codes of safety conduct are being devised and enforced by the safety authority. We must not put in place a rigid code with inflexible rules, applying to all centres. It is important to remember that different centres have different risk levels, depending on geographical location, staffing qualifications and available equipment or facilities. If the standard authority is to introduce a code of conduct, it must demonstrate the flexibility to tailor the code to the needs of individual centres. That is the most important point I wish to make. It should be noted that there are very successful codes of practice in many centres. Any new code introduced must complement what is already in place, possibly with an excellent record.

Such flexibility is needed in kayaking, for example. The Irish Canoe Union recommends a safety ratio of one instructor to six students as a general rule, but many activity centres use their own guideline of one instructor to ten students. The latter ratio can be far safer if the group is enclosed in a sheltered and relatively safe harbour, compared to one instructor to six students in an open beach or out at sea. When a code of conduct is put in place, the authority must look at the individual circumstances of each activity centre rather than trying to impose a blunt common standard across the board. If such a blunt standard is imposed, life will be made difficult for private operators. In certain circumstances, matters will not be any safer, an avoidable double negative.

Let us consider, as an example, a summer sailing course in Cork Harbour with approximately 80 or 90 students. The ratio of teachers to pupils required may be far less than that needed in Rosses Point, which is open to the elements and the sea. I hope the Minister will allay my concerns by taking on board my opinion that tailor-made codes of conduct for individual centres, taking into account the codes already in operation, are an essential part of implementing the Bill in a practical way. We must not simply seek to be seen to implement strict codes of conduct and safety.

By focusing on the tough setting and enforcement of rules and regulations, we are missing the point somewhat. The overall goal must be the creation of a safer environment in which adventure activities can take place. A greater emphasis must be put on the promotion and retention of a greater safety ethos and awareness, rather than the enforcement of inflexible guidelines and rules. Clear and well founded evidence suggests that most accidents happen between lessons, for example, at lunchtime when water fights take place or when people run up and down the pontoon, not during a structured lesson. To prove this point to myself, I contacted a busy activity centre in my constituency which has records for the past five years of all accidents, large and small, that happened during courses. Not a single accident happened while the structured course was taking place on the water. All the accidents happened either before or after it when the instruction is relaxed.

For example, people slipped on stones on the beach on the way down to the water and broke their leg or arm, people slipped in the shower and cut themselves or accidents happened when people were messing around in the boats, having water fights or when they went snorkelling after dark. The emphasis in the Bill must be on the creation of a safety ethos rather than on implementing tight, rigid rules on pupil-instructor ratio or on times and limits on the number of people who can go into the water. That is a crucial point that cannot be emphasised enough.

I and people to whom I spoke about this Bill are of the opinion that the awareness of risk is perhaps the most effective way to prevent accidents. The promotion of the awareness of risk can only happen through promoting and retaining an ethos of safety in activity centres across the country rather than through the enforcement of rules. While some rules need to apply, it is much more important that a safety ethos is created in these centres.

If we overdo it on the rules, there is a chance we will kill the fun of the activity. Like the previous speaker, I am not a great fan of imposing rules and regulations for the sake of doing so. We should be sensitive in how we impose rules and how strict we are on doing so to ensure we do not kill the fun of an adventure activity, given that, after all, adventure activity is about adventure. That is why such activities are popular. Such activities will always carry an element of danger, but it is a question of an acceptable risk and of ensuring people are informed of the risk before they take it.

With regard to the powers of the authority, my colleague, Deputy Dukes, said that he had concerns that an authority with responsibility for safety and implementing a code of practice would also be responsible for the promotion and encouragement of adventure activity. I disagree with him on that point. It makes sense for the one authority to promote safety and implement safety regulations because if the one authority is responsible for both, that presents a better opportunity of creating a safety ethos when promoting sport. I welcome that provision.

In relation to the make-up of the 15 member authority, it is important the authority is representative of all those who are involved in this area. Unlike a previous speaker, I do not have a problem with a majority of the membership representing private activity centres. It is important they do not perceive this authority as a threat but as a helping hand for safety. From my experience of having been involved in a number of activity centres, they have an extremely responsible attitude towards safety. Given the support of Government, financially and from an advice point of view, their membership on the authority will be positive and I am pleased they will have eight members on it. I agree with Deputy Stanton who said the safety services, the Irish Coastguard Service or perhaps the RNLI, which know more about marine rescue than anybody else, should also be represented.

I wish to make a point that I always seek to make in the context of legislation when it is relevant. The promotion of water sports generally here has been under-resourced. The greatest resource this country has is the water that surrounds it. We have a collection of harbours, inlets, beaches and coastline that is almost unparalleled in Europe. I would like the Government, through this body, to promote, financially and in any way it can, activity on the water, as it is a positive activity for young men and women to partake in. It is healthy and with the right safety regulation it can continue to grow very successfully.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to this debate. Having listened to Deputy Coveney, the expert on this area, I note many of the points I wanted to make were extremely well made by him.

Like other speakers, I welcome the introduction of this Bill. It follows through on a goal the Minister set himself when he was a mere Minister of State at the Department of Education where he was instrumental in setting up many of the outdoor pursuit centres, particularly under the VEC system. Some of his work is now bearing fruit in the form of this Bill, although it is important we tease it out.

The voluntary code AFAS and others put in place several years ago cannot be ignored. As Deputy Coveney said, it is important to ensure a sensible balance is struck between the sense of adventure people can rightly derive from being involved in adventure sports and the manageable risk they should or should not be encouraged to take. I endorse the creation of a safer environment, which Deputy Coveney spoke about. We have all visited centres, inland and at the seaside, throughout the country where standards have varied. There is no point in pretending there is a uniform standard. The safety ethos we would like to pertain to the operation of these centres is not in place in some of them.

Like many other speakers, on reading the Bill, the first thing that struck me was the list of adventure activities in section 8. Since I was elected here in 1997 I have spoken on occasion about the dangers associated with jet skiing. I am disappointed it is not included in paragraphs (a) to (m) of section 8(1). As Deputy Coveney said, there may be a good reason for not including it, but from the point of view of safety and insurance, there is arguably a good case for including it and I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of doing so. Similarly, I cannot understand why water skiing cannot be included in that list from day one. White water rafting, which those who participate in it do not always get an opportunity to do here, is becoming increasingly popular here among young people who have been canoeing or kayaking and want a further sense of adventure. The inclusion of that activity in the list should also be considered. Parachute jumping, microlighting and paragliding should also be included in that list, if for no other reason than to highlight that the Department is anxious to promote a very high standard of safety in these activities.

I was in Finland last year and witnessed first hand the rigorous standards regime applied to such sports there. It did not dissipate the sense of fun for people who were participating in a wide range of adventure sports which I saw there.

There is another aspect of the debate which needs to be looked at, that is, the use of safety equipment by students engaging in activities like this. Often I am amazed when I see young people canoeing without helmets or lifejackets. To be fair to the Government, and, in particular, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and his Minister of State, Deputy Davern, there has been a development, particularly in urban areas, in recent years to set up pony clubs with support from that Department. By and large the standards applied to the use of horses by inexperienced young people is high, but it would be useful if we ensured that regulations are in place to protect inexperienced people getting involved in the equine industry.

I welcome the register of centres mentioned in the Bill. Coming from a teaching background and having been involved in youth work for years, I am inclined to be more rigid about registration than other people might be. One issue which concerns me is that there does not seem to be insistence on a baseline standard for the registration of centres. It is important to look at issues like the qualification of staff, the suitability of staff and the suitability of premises. The qualifications issue has been improved year on year because there are good post leaving certificate courses being run in further education colleges and in some of the institutes of technology throughout the country, but the suitability of personnel needs to be looked at from another point of view. Somewhere in the Bill, I would like to see some reference to the importance of child protection guidelines in the management and operation of any centre. I cannot understand why that cannot be emphasised more.

While I am on the issue of staff in centres like this, we need to look at the pay and conditions of staff. Often staff have been paid paltry wages. Some centres operated by vocational education committees throughout the country have had no choice but to operate under the community employment scheme and, therefore, the staff are paid low wages, they have poor tenure of office and the conditions are not great. That is certainly something which needs to be looked at by the authority when it is set up.

The powers of investigation and monitoring of centres are crucial. I am pleased to see in the Bill that inspectors can visit without notice and call for any or all of the records of a centre on accidents, levels of personnel, time tables of activities, etc. That is extremely important. The authority should not wait for an accident to happen before inspecting a centre. Undoubtedly the authority will not be able from day one to have a whole raft of inspectors servicing it, but over a period mechanisms should be developed which will allow a core of qualified inspectors to drop in, sometimes on an advisory basis but sometimes in a quasi-inspectorial role, to look at ratios of instructors and back-up staff to participants, as Deputy Coveney has mentioned, and the level of insurance cover for activities. Issues like that need to be looked at.

The issue of investigations and special reports mentioned in section 16 is important and so too is the fact that the report will be published and therefore will be in the public domain. Often it has been very difficult for the relatives of people who have been involved in accidents to get the outcome of reports from the competent authorities so I am extremely happy to welcome that provision in the Bill.

Judging by its composition, it will be a wide ranging and balanced authority. However, the Minister might look at sections 10 and 11, which are about the establishment of the authority itself and about the nominees and the various Departments which should be involved in it. It is important that the national governing bodies of adventure sports would be involved but the National Sports Council, as the statutory body involved in sports, ought to have at least one nominee on that authority. It is, after all, the body which will be setting standards, laying out qualifications for staff for a variety of sports activities and monitoring the implementation of guidelines across a range of areas. It is advisable that it be included in the membership of the authority.

The one area with which I am inclined to take issue is that the Bill covers only those adventure centres or activities run on a commercial basis. The Minister said the Bill does not cover schools or other educational establishments and that this is a complex area. Schools ought to be included as schools, particularly post-primary schools, are now running a wide range of sports related activities. Adventure sports form the core of many programmes like the leaving certificate applied and post-leaving certificate courses. The activities on offer include canoeing, hill-walking and rock-climbing, and increasingly students are engaging in these activities in a robust and vigorous way. Therefore, I would like the Minister, along with his colleague in the Department of Education and Science, to look at ways in which schools and youth clubs would be included within the remit of the Bill. For example, there are Youthreach centres and FÁS training centres which provide activities of this nature. Perhaps the equipment used by some of these schools and centres is not of the highest quality but that does not mean some form of grant aid assistance ought not be made available to these schools to up-grade them. The Bill provides an opportunity to increase standards across the board at a time when all aspects of physical education form part of the school curriculum. It would make a bold statement if we were to include schools and youth centres within the remit of the Bill.

It is a significant Bill in the sports and outdoor pursuits area. No doubt it is expensive to operate adventure activity centres – they do not come cheaply. I am aware of a very fine centre with which I was associated in County Westmeath on the shores of Lake Derravaragh which had to close because of the rising cost of insurance linked with the activities like sailing, canoeing, horse-riding, etc., which it provided and because it simply was not able to pay trained staff high enough wages.

It is important that the Bill be ratified as early as possible, certainly before the summer. It is also important that the authority is properly resourced and seen to have a certain degree of clout within the leisure industry. I commend the Bill to the House.

I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. In the past as a PE teacher I have been involved in outdoor activities and therefore I am very familiar with the terrain, what is involved and the necessity for this Bill.

I compliment the Minister on bringing forward this Bill and I acknowledge the contribution made by my colleague, Deputy Finucane, when he introduced a Private Members' Bill in March 1999. I am confident the debate in the House at that time accelerated the process which saw the Minister bringing forward this Bill.

More and more people are taking to the great outdoors in an effort to escape the stresses of modern living, traffic congestion and pollution. They undertake outdoor activities to rejuvenate and energise themselves and to be at one with nature. As our society becomes more urbanised, the number of people attracted to spend time in rural areas will increase and this will also bring an increase in the number of outdoor activity centres, which have an economic as well as an educational value. Operators are capitalising on the economic advantage of outdoor activity centres.

This Bill is opportune and important. I agree with Deputy Coveney that we have never fully capitalised on our unique natural environment. Tourists come to Ireland because of our culture and our natural environment. Deputy Coveney has particular experience of coastal areas and he says that we have never capitalised on the potential of our coastal areas. We have a vast resource in our coastal zone, which is accessible from all parts of the country. We have not done enough to develop aquaculture and mariculture, nor have we exploited that advantage from a recreational point of view.

This Bill is specific in that it provides for the definition of adventure activities and provision to cater for amendments at a later stage. It defines adventure activity operators and sets up the Adventure Activities Standards Authority. The Bill does not mention the adventure activity participant. There should be some clause in this Bill that would require participants to have medical clearance. If an asthmatic does not inform the instructor of a scuba-diving course, for example, of his condition, it could lead to problems. A person with cardiac problems should probably avoid climbing steep hills. A medical certificate from a doctor would help in these circumstances.

There are some aspects of the Bill which I presume will be amended at a later stage. There are three major issues which need to be addressed and to which I draw the Minister's attention. Section 8(1) lists the activities which are covered. This list must be expanded to include raft building, an adventurous activity practised in most multi-activity centres and which is of particular concern to the Outdoor Education Ireland group. Raft building is defined as the construction of a vessel from ropes, spars and buoyancy tanks, for the purpose of supporting two members above the water line, and is capable of being manoeuvred along a waterway. I ask the Minister to include raft building in any review of the list of activities.

Section 20 deals with charges which the authority may make for the provision of its services. The Outdoor Education Ireland group recommend that no fees or charges should be made against the operators. The authority will require funding for its operation but the operators do not wish to be obliged to raise their charges to pay the running costs of the authority.

The four nominees to the authority from the adventure activity operators are specified to include two nominees from the private sector and two from the public sector. That commitment was given originally and I suggest that the Minister look at this again when he is considering the make-up of the authority.

Section 8 outlines the definition of adventure activities and a total of 13 activities are listed. That should be expanded. The definitions of hill walking and orienteering should be amended to say "remote or wilderness areas", rather than areas more than 300 metres above sea level, which is a restrictive definition. The activity of gorge walking should also be included. It is a popular activity in the Reeks area of Kerry and it can be a dangerous activity.

Section 9 allows the authority to specify the location and the criteria to be used for centres and for their equipment. Equipment for hire should not be included in this set of criteria because EU standards already exist. Equipment can vary from centre to centre and this should be taken into account. Section 9(1) (c) requires clarification. If the operator provides just one activity governed by the authority, does that mean that the operator is exempt? Section 14 outlines the function of the authority. A number of speakers expressed concern about subsection (7).

Debate adjourned.