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Catastrophic Sporting Injuries: Steven Cox

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Margot James.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the case of my constituent Steven Cox, a young man who received catastrophic injuries during a rugby match almost 10 years ago to the day. I want to preface my remarks by saying that this is not a campaign against rugby or against contact sport. I accept and welcome the fact that thousands of my constituents, and millions of people across our country, watch and play rugby. I have a number of successful rugby clubs in my constituency, including Rockcliff, Percy Park and North Shields. I acknowledge that catastrophic injuries occur, and not just in rugby. Thankfully, they are quite rare, but they do happen too often. I believe, and Steven Cox believes, that when they do happen, they should be investigated properly and lessons should be learned, in the hope that the game can be made safer for those who follow it.

Steven Cox was 21 years old when he was catastrophically injured. He was a Durham University student, and was playing for St Chad’s College against St Cuthbert’s. It was an evening match held at Durham City rugby football club ground. Steven was playing tighthead prop in the front row of the right-hand side in the scrum. St Chad’s were losing an eagerly contested match; by all accounts the St Cuthbert’s team were heavier and stronger. The match was nearing the end of the second half when a scrum was called. What happened next is, to an extent, contentious, not least in terms of the speed of the engagement of the teams and how it was called. What we do know is that when the front rows came together, Steven was forced up and out of the scrum, before going to ground having sustained a serious neck injury. He was taken to University Hospital of North Durham and then transferred to a specialist unit in Newcastle general hospital. Steven had two major operations; two of his vertebrae were crushed. In stark terms, he lost the use of his limbs. He has to use a wheelchair and is significantly disabled.

I have asked permission to intervene. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there needs to be better education of the risks of catastrophic injuries in sport? Some of my constituents have experienced such risks in horse riding. The participants need to be fully aware of how they assess the risk and how they deal with the injuries should they arise.

I do agree with that, but the education must be based on evidence. Presumably, some of that evidence will come from an investigation, which is the point I am making. We need to know whether this case was properly investigated.

Steven was aware of what happened, because he remained conscious throughout, but, unsurprisingly, when the time was right, Steven and his family sought answers to what had happened and what the outcome of the investigations were. They looked to the Rugby Football Union, because the game had been played under the International Rugby Board’s code of conduct, and the referee was RFU-qualified to level 5. There were two touch judges who were also qualified to level 5. The game was on an official ground and was floodlit. A number of Steven’s teammates made statements. There appears to have been a referee’s match report, but it contained little detail about what had happened. There was a statement from one of the touch judges, which was made three months after the event, to the insurers’ solicitor, but there was no statement from the touch judge nearest to the incident.

There was a group of RFU officials, including an RFU referee coach, who gave a statement, but did not comment on the accident. An RFU referee assessor submitted a referee assessment, but did not give a statement describing the mechanics of the accident. In short, there was no shortage of expert witnesses, but there has been a shortage of statements from those witnesses. It was not unreasonable for Steven to ask what further investigations were made, not least whether an official investigation had been carried out by the RFU. To find out whether such an official investigation had taken place and, if it had, what conclusions it had reached, Steven had to begin a legal case. From the outset of that process, it was unclear whether there were other documents, including statements by other RFU officials at the game.

It was also very clear at an early stage that the RFU, or at least its legal advisers, was unwilling to give access to information unless it was forced to do so by a court. It also emerged that the RFU itself had little information in its possession as any documents appear to have gone to its legal team or to solicitors representing the insurers, and in some cases those were the same people.

Steven did receive a significant no-faults insurance pay-out after the injury. It is a significant amount to someone looking from the outside, but we should bear in mind that he was just 21 years old, and that the amount was hardly more than one of the solicitors involved could expect to earn in a few years, let alone a lifetime.

It was not unreasonable for Steven not to risk what could be a substantial legal bill should the case fail. After all, he was actually seeking the truth of what happened above anything else. My point is that organisations responsible for investigating catastrophic injuries may also have to take into account their insurers’ interests, and when the legal team at the organisation or the insurers—in this case it was both—come into play, progress is very slow and very defensive. The RFU’s procedure for catastrophic injury clearly instructs anyone involved to speak to no one but the RFU’s solicitors. Members of Parliament are all too well aware of the practice of big organisations with considerable legal support hanging out against a settlement on the basis that the person bringing the case would not risk the cost, not have the resources or run out of money.

Despite that, Steven and his family were determined to get to the truth. Let me place on record my respect for Steven’s parents, Margaret and Tom, and his sister, Rachael, who have pursed this case doggedly. They began a protracted campaign to persuade the RFU to release the information or at least to confirm that it had it. It was a deeply frustrating experience. A freedom of information response confirmed only Steven’s name and that the incident had occurred. At one point early on, the RFU’s legal advisers rejected the very idea that there was a dispute between them and Steven Cox.

Steven and his family came to see me in order to see what further could be done. I will not go into every aspect of the story but, to give a flavour of the RFU’s attitude, I was offered a telephone conversation in which the RFU legal representative would merely “reiterate their position”. I urged the RFU to meet Steven and I offered to be there or not to be there—whichever would help. The RFU invited Steven to a rugby match at Twickenham, 270 miles away from his home, where the deputy head of legal affairs and the head of international and public affairs would speak to him after the match. I was offered tickets for myself and a guest. I was not convinced that that was the way to do things in relation to such a serious issue and, perhaps understandably, Steven and I declined the offer.

Communication went backwards and forwards, with long periods of inaction and silence from the RFU in between. It seems that part of the delay stemmed from the fact that, at every stage, the RFU’s legal department reviewed any response.

To the RFU’s credit, in September 2014 a meeting did take place in North Shields in my constituency. At the meeting, there was a positive discussion, particularly with those who seemed to come from the playing side of the game, but once the meeting was over, normal service resumed, with any meaningful progress being prevented by the legal representatives. Once again, any communication or complaint was, in effect, taken off RFU officials and taken on by its legal team and insurers.

Apart from seeking co-operation from the RFU, I also drew the case to the attention of successive sports Ministers. One of the current Minister’s predecessors met the Cox family and helpfully suggested referral to Sport Resolutions, which was extremely helpful. It actually offered to pay for a review, but again the legal affairs team rejected that, saying that it did not believe that there was a dispute and, therefore, that there was nothing to resolve.

The current sports Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), met Steven and his family last month in what I thought was a helpful meeting and for which I am grateful. On the back of that meeting, I asked for this debate, partly out of frustration with the RFU, but more importantly to see what could be done in the context of lessons learned. I had been thinking about calling for this debate for some time, but the Cox family insisted that I did not do so while the world cup was on, given how important they believed it to be to this country. That is the measure of that family.

I want to ask the Minister three questions. What can be done to counter the lack of independence in investigations when organisations charged with investigating incidents of catastrophic injury also have an interest in protecting their insurers? They are able to use their position as arbiters of the release of information and influence the process. Should there not be a way in which incidents leading to catastrophic injury can be independently investigated, or at least a mechanism by which investigations may be independently reviewed so that safety can be improved?

Secondly, should there not be a body to look after care in sport and to help to ensure that sports in which every participant accepts an element of risk are nevertheless as safe as possible? As Steven Cox observes, there is a Health and Safety Executive for the workplace, but no such overarching body for sport.

Thirdly, why is it that while the RFU receives significant amounts of public money for its sport, it seems indifferent to engaging with my constituent and indeed me to discuss the perfectly reasonable request that we find out what happened on that day and why, and the way in which the case has been handled? Even at this stage, should not the RFU engage meaningfully with Steven Cox to try to bring closure to the case?

I know that the Minister is passionate about sport. I and Members on both sides of the House hold her in high regard, and I wish her well in the weeks and months ahead. I hope she can reassure me about how the investigation of catastrophic injuries may be improved to make playing safer for those who love the game.

In conclusion, let me return to Steven Cox—or, to give him his proper title, Dr Steven Cox. He is now a postgraduate from Durham University who is embarking on a career in engineering. This remarkable young man wants to know fully what happened and to play his part in ensuring that lessons are learned from his experience. I and he hope that this debate will move that forward.

I thank the right hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell) for securing this debate on such an important subject. Discussions about such events are always challenging, but I am in no doubt that everyone in the Chamber is on the same side and wants a safe and secure environment for everyone taking part in sport. Not just as a Minister, but as a long-term participant in contact sport, I am well aware that things can sometimes go horribly wrong. I have been on the field when players have had their sporting choice finished for good due to a horrific injury. While we all do everything that we can to prevent these misfortunes, we accept that sport brings with it an element of risk, but that risk must be mitigated when possible.

It is right that player safety is primarily a matter for the national governing bodies, as the designated authorities with responsibility to regulate their sport, and I expect each governing body to make that its highest priority. That should be not simply for good public relations, but a fundamental aspect of the organisations’ role in delivering their sport.

While there is consensus that everyone wants sport to be safe, I believe that everyone will also agree that when there is an injury in sport, whether catastrophic or otherwise, that should be properly investigated. In Steven’s case, as the right hon. Gentleman made clear, there is a perception that that did not happen.

The right hon. Gentleman eloquently set out Steven Cox’s case, so I will not take up time by going over the incident again. I will say, however, that despite the horrific reason, it was an absolute pleasure to meet Steven and his family in December, thanks to the right hon. Gentleman’s efforts. I know that Steven and his family have gone through very difficult times, but I was extremely impressed by Steven’s perseverance, and by his enthusiasm for and commitment to promoting this important issue and campaigning for greater safety in sport. In fact, it was the meeting with Steven that reinvigorated my and my Department’s energy to push harder on the issue.

Unfortunately, due to the timing of our meeting, which was just before the publication of the sports strategy, I was unable to say how I could make progress on some of these points. However, as the strategy has now been published, and in the light of today’s debate, I can reveal further details. First, however, I wish to deal with a number of the issues relating to the RFU. Following my meeting with Steven, I wrote to the RFU chief executive, Ian Ritchie, and I am pleased to say that he will personally meet Steven. A letter to Steven offering such a meeting to discuss player safety has been or is about to be sent. I know that this will not be the first time that the RFU has met the Cox family, but I hope a meeting with the chief executive is seen as a positive step and one which will help in future.

That meeting will, I hope, be an opportune moment for the RFU to reassure the hon. Gentleman and Steven on his third point—that lessons have been learned in some respects about how to respond quickly and effectively to injuries sustained during games. The RFU has in many respects reassured me, but it needs to do so too for Steven, his family and the wider rugby community.

It is important to acknowledge that the RFU has developed a number of programmes to ensure player safety. Last year it introduced the RugbySafe scheme ,which includes all the RFU’s player safety and wellbeing projects to support clubs, schools, colleges, universities and all other participants in the game. I know that the RFU continues to update guidance as required, and I encourage it and all other national governing bodies to ensure that safety is at the heart of all sporting activities.

On the new sports strategy and what I was unable to say in the meeting with the hon. Gentleman in December but can say now, the strategy explicitly recognises the importance of safety for players and spectators at sporting events, all the way from the grassroots to the elite. The strategy included a commitment to a new duty of care review to consider these issues more fully. Baroness Grey-Thompson, who brings with her a wealth of personal and professional experience, has agreed to lead an independent working group to carry out the review.

The complete remit of the review is yet to be finalised, but I have discussed Steven’s case with Baroness Grey-Thompson and she has already agreed to two things. First, she will meet Steven, hear his views on duty of care and discuss his case. Secondly, the review will consider how we investigate catastrophic injuries in the future. I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the noble Baroness’s review, but I have enormous sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman’s point about independence of investigation. Duty of care, to me, is therefore not just about preventive measures; it is also about confidence in investigation and honest lessons being learned.

Finally, I was interested to note the suggestion this evening from the right hon. Gentleman that we establish a body to look at safety in sport, along the lines of the Health and Safety Executive. He will be aware that, as I stated earlier, safety in sport is generally the responsibility of the national governing bodies, although the relevant sports councils also play a role. It is certainly worth considering the merits of the current system and whether establishing an alternative one would be beneficial, so I will ensure that the duty of care review also considers this suggestion.

I will, of course, update the House as the work on duty of care and safety in sport progresses, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for securing the debate this evening. I know that what happened to his constituent Steven was horrific, but through his campaigning and that of others, alongside progress in guidance and changes to play, I am confident that we can prevent injuries like his from occurring in future. If, unfortunately, they do occur, we can try to ensure better investigation. What we can certainly do is ultimately make sport much safer for everyone in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.