Boost for 'character-building' school trips as ministers warn parents who sue after mishaps – The Observer 30 May 2004

The 'compensation culture' of suing over everyday mishaps was under fire last night after cabinet ministers warned it was strangling children's opportunities for sports and adventure trips. They fear parents have become too quick to lay blame for accidents that were once seen as bad luck and that fear of being sued is seriously deterring teachers, Scout leaders and other volunteers from supervising character-building holidays and activities for the young.

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, and Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, are spearheading efforts to prevent an American-style litigation gold rush, arguing that combating child obesity will be harder if children are metaphorically wrapped in cotton wool. Sporting bodies could be asked to prepare 'statements of risk' explaining the pitfalls of common activities to parents, alongside what safeguards should be expected – such as wearing lifejackets while sailing or helmets on rock climbing trips. Parents who let their children take part would do so in full knowledge of the potential dangers, but remain free to sue if precautions are not followed. 'It's absolutely clear that schools are being deterred from taking children on trips, either away in this country or abroad, because they fear the consequences of compensation if there's an accident,' Jowell told The Observer . 'Everybody accepts it is valuable when children are growing up to have these experiences, but they need to be offered by people who are properly qualified.'

The move came as teaching union the NAS/UWT warned of 'ambulance chasing' lawyers targeting homes near schools, touting for business from dissatisfied parents. 'There are leaflets being pushed through doors saying "has your child had an accident at school? Have they missed out on any education? We can help",' said Chris Keates, its acting general secretary. 'We are talking about things that in the past would have been regarded as accidents – a child running across the playground and stumbling and cutting their knee. That has not in the past generated a solicitor's letter.

The Home Office, along with other departments, has blocked a bid by a cross-party group of MPs, backed privately by Clarke, to change the law by drastically limiting the right to sue. But ministers are thrashing out a compromise package to be unveiled later this summer. Besides risk statements, possible ideas include a clampdown on the use of legal aid to sue public bodies, and making it easier for schools to get insurance. Clarke will meet officials from the NAS/UWT, which has warned members not to lead out-of-school activities because of the litigation risk, next month. 'It's through things like sport and school visits and that sort of enrichment that excitement about learning can be created,' said a source close to Clarke. 'The culture that you can easily get sued – and it's not worth taking these kids out because if anything goes wrong you are going to get the blame for it – is a blockage in what we want to try and achieve.'

Next month the Legal Services Commission is expected to report on calls to restrict legal aid for cases involving public bodies. Stephen Byers, the former cabinet minister, said education authorities alone are spending £200 million a year fighting lawsuits. 'We are drifting pretty quickly into the American system, and we need to think carefully about whether we want to go down that road,' he said. 'You now have school play areas being closed down because of the risk of suing over play equipment.' Julian Brazier, the Tory backbencher, has tabled a private member's bill together with Labour's Frank Dobson and the Liberal Democrats' Lembit Opik which would force parents to sign legal 'certificates of risk' for children taking part in trips and activities – waiving rights to sue unless there was clear evidence of negligence. Brazier said reform was urgently needed, with even well organised activities being 'squeezed out' of children's lives: 'It means that less adventurous children will become obese, and the more adventurous children will find ways of their own to do things which won't be at all safe.'