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Historical Sexual Abuse (Football)

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport what the Government are doing to support victims of historical sexual abuse in football, and what steps are being taken to help to ensure that there is no repeat of it.

Nothing is more important than keeping children safe. Child sex abuse is an exceptionally vile crime, and all of Government take it very seriously indeed, as I know this House does.

Children up and down the country are able to play football thanks to the dedication of thousands of adults, many of them volunteers. The vast majority have no stain on their character. However, where people who work with children betray their trust, the effect is devastating.

I pay tribute to those who have summoned up the courage to speak out. It is vital that they know that their voices will be heard, whether they are speaking about historical crimes or about anything that is happening currently. Coaches and parents have a duty of care to children—indeed, everyone does—and must also speak out where they suspect abuse.

My Department, the Home Office, the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice all have responsibilities in this area. Recent allegations of sex abuse are currently an operational police matter, so Members will understand that I cannot comment in detail.

As soon as this news broke, I spoke to the chair of the Football Association, Greg Clarke, and the chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, Gordon Taylor. I made it very clear that the Government will support them in addressing these issues head-on.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has set up a hotline, supported by the FA, which anyone can call if they want to talk to someone in confidence. That will help to build a picture of the potential scale of both historical and more recent abuse to inform next steps. The number is 0800 0232642.

The FA has instructed independent leading counsel Kate Gallafent QC, an expert in child protection, to deal with its review of the allegations. The internal review will look at what the FA and clubs knew, and when, and what action was or should have been taken. Alongside that, the child protection in sport unit, which assists the FA in relation to its safeguarding procedures, will carry out an independent audit of the FA’s practices. Today, the Minister with responsibility for sport, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), will write to all national governing bodies to ask them to redouble their efforts to protect children who play their sports. Additionally, I have spoken to Chief Constable Simon Bailey this morning, the national police lead on child abuse. We have agreed that I will convene a meeting with him, the FA and others to discuss the situation.

It is important to say what measures we have in place today to prevent abuse. The child protection in sport unit was founded in 2001 to work with UK Sports Councils, national governing bodies, county sports partnerships and other organisations to help them to minimise the risk of child abuse during sporting activities. The unit helps organisations to identify adults who are a threat to children and young people, and to develop safeguarding knowledge and skills among all staff and volunteers. Since 2002, the Disclosure and Barring Service, previously the Criminal Records Bureau, has provided a mechanism to request criminal record information relating to people working or volunteering with children.

The first duty of any Government is to protect its citizens, and the first duty of all of us is to protect children.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. I begin by paying tribute to the members of the Chapecoense football team and all those who lost their lives in the tragic plane crash earlier today. Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families.

We must pay tribute today to former footballers who have shown unparalleled bravery in sharing their stories and in bringing this issue into the public light. I met some of them on Friday morning and expressed that in person. In the light of recent allegations of historical sexual abuse in football, the Professional Footballers Association has said that six football clubs have been named by victims; that more than 20 former players have now come forward; that five police forces across the country are opening up investigations; and that FIFA is monitoring the situation closely.

I welcome the NSPCC opening up its hotline. It received more than 50 phone calls in the first two hours of opening. What else are the Government doing to ensure that victims have a safe place where they can speak out confidentially, which is vital?

The FA, in conjunction with regional associations, needs to ensure that the message goes right through our game, from Sunday league to premier league. What are the Government doing to reassure parents, who will no doubt be worried about these claims? This situation has the potential to seriously damage the reputation of football in our country. I welcome the FA announcement that Kate Gallafent QC will lead the investigation. Let us remember that 99.9% of coaches and volunteers have children’s best interests at heart—an overwhelming majority want the best for them.

We need representatives from the FA, the Government, schools and relevant organisations to work with the police not only to ensure that any historical claims are fully investigated, but to ensure that abuse is stamped out and that our young players have a safe and confidential way to report incidents. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that all the relevant bodies work in conjunction to ensure that victims are supported? As more victims come forward, and as the number of named clubs grows, the police investigation will undoubtedly get bigger. Is there a plan in place to ensure that the police have all the resources they need, and how is the DCMS team looking across the sports sector to ensure that such cases do not happen again in any sporting environment? We have a cross-party duty to protect our children and young adults. Upon this I am sure we can all agree.

I join the hon. Lady in sending my condolences to the victims of the plane crash today. Such events remind us how fragile human life is and how important sport is to people. This tragedy has affected people greatly.

I concur with what the hon. Lady said about the unparalleled bravery of the victims and survivors. In my previous role in the Home Office, I met many survivors of child sexual abuse, as the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), who is here today, continues to do. It never ceases to amaze me how brave and profound somebody is who comes forward and talks with such honesty about their experiences.

The hon. Lady asked about the support available, and of course we have talked about the NSPCC helpline. The NSPCC and its helplines stand ready to support any victims of child abuse from whatever walk of life. The PFA also reassured me last week that it stood ready to support victims. It is happy to take calls from victims of historical and non-recent abuse, so that it can support them and make sure that appropriate measures are taken.

The hon. Lady is right that the vast majority of coaches and volunteers are honourable and working in the best interests of children, but it is true that parents and others must remain vigilant, as in any walk of life, and make sure that our children are not left vulnerable to abuse. We must take those necessary steps and remain vigilant, no matter what the activity, be it sport, music, dance, creativity or anywhere children might be with people who might wish to hurt them.

The hon. Lady is right that we need to work together, and I welcome her cross-party support for what we are doing. As I said, I spoke to Chief Constable Simon Bailey prior to coming to the Chamber, and he reassured me about the work of Operation Hydrant, the long-standing cross-force police investigation into all allegations of non-recent abuse. He has assured me that there will be a single policing lead for each of the investigations to make sure that all the information coming in is treated appropriately and that all intelligence is shared. It is incredibly important that we bring perpetrators to justice.

Finally, the hon. Lady asked about other sports. As I said, my hon. Friend the sports Minister is writing today to all national governing bodies and regularly meets them, as do I, to make sure that the safeguarding measures in place are as robust as possible. We need to learn all lessons and continue to be vigilant.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the FA’s internal review must be a properly resourced investigation looking at the culture within football that allowed abuse to take place for so long and to go unreported and un-investigated for so long? Furthermore, does she agree that if the report is to have credibility, it must be published in full and in public, so that we can all learn the lessons of football’s problems and make sure that children are safeguarded properly in the future?

My hon. Friend is right that the review needs to be properly resourced, and the FA has assured me that that will be the case. When I spoke to Greg Clarke, he made it absolutely clear that it would be transparent in every way. No good will come from anybody trying to cover anything up. We need to know exactly what happened, how it happened and what went wrong, and to make sure that those mistakes are not made again.

On my behalf and that of the SNP, I echo the comments by the Secretary of State and the shadow Minister about the tragic plane crash in Colombia this morning.

The allegations of sexual abuse are abhorrent and deeply tragic. Anyone who abuses a position of trust to prey on young people and children must be brought to justice. Stereotypes of masculinity in football and society in general can make it extremely difficult for men and boys to come forward and speak out as victims of abuse. The players that have come forward have shown immense courage in doing so, and we hope any other victims will be able to do the same.

The Scottish Football Association has backed the dedicated NSPCC helpline, and remains in contact with the NSPCC and is working with it to respond appropriately if more victims come forward. The SFA has also set up a dedicated email address—childrenswellbeing@scottishfa.—for people to get in touch confidentially. If anyone in Scotland has been affected, we urge victims to come forward and seek help and support using this email address or the NSPCC helpline. May I ask the Secretary of State what structures her Department will put in place to ensure a joined-up approach across the UK in supporting any victims who come forward?

I start by congratulating the Scottish Football Association, which has done joint safeguarding work with UNICEF. I believe that to be a very positive step and I offer my congratulations on it. My hon. Friend the Minister for Sport has been in contact with the SFA this morning, as she has been with other football governing bodies from other parts of the United Kingdom. We want to make sure that we work together on this matter. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on wearing his white ribbon. I am fiddling in my pocket, but I do not seem to have mine there. The white ribbon campaign is a fantastic one, demonstrating that we all stand against abuse. I appreciate that the white ribbon campaign deals specifically with violence against women and girls, but the fact that men are standing up against that abuse as well is incredibly important.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the bravery of the individuals coming forward in a very masculine world, and I think we live in a changed environment in this respect. I think there is more opportunity for people to come forward nowadays. I listened to an interview on Radio 5 “Sportsweek” on Sunday, and I was impressed by the honesty with which an individual victim spoke. It was incredibly brave. It is very difficult, but I urge all victims and survivors to come forward.

The revelations about football are shocking, and I applaud the fact that the Minister for Sport is going to write to the governing bodies of other sports. When it comes to the monsters who perpetrate these disgusting acts, in times gone by there was a chance that they would have looked at the possibilities in other sports as well. What else, then, are we going to do, other than write to the governing bodies, to ensure that there is a proper investigation into other sports to make sure that this was not going on elsewhere?

I understand that my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about this issue. He, like me, represents a constituency that is close to where the allegations took place. As a constituency MP, I pay particular attention to what has happened to my constituents. I urge both my and my hon. Friend’s constituents to come forward in this respect. The Minister for Sport will write to all governing bodies, as I have said, but this is an ongoing process, and we continue to work with all sports to make sure that safeguarding efforts are as robust as they possibly can be.

We have to pay tribute to Andy Woodward for starting this process. He took an extremely brave step. I concur with the Secretary of State that we need to encourage others to come forward and speak in confidence in the first instance to the helplines that are available. Simon Bailey has said that he expects other institutions to be brought into this, which might result in other sports’ governing bodies having in effect to investigate themselves. There must be some sort of independent oversight, so will the right hon. Lady tell us what discussions she has had with colleagues in other Departments? What are the Government going to do to ensure that this House and the public can be reassured that there is independent oversight of the investigations into these sports’ governing bodies?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the bravery of Andy Woodward. I understand that during the time I have been on my feet, over 250 reports have been made to the NSPCC helpline, of which 51 are in Cheshire alone.[Official Report, 30 November 2016, Vol. 617, c. 5-6MC.] It is also important to make sure that the police have the time and space they need to carry out proper investigations and inquiries, ensuring that they obtain all the evidence. We want to see perpetrators brought to justice wherever possible, and we need to make sure that the police have time to do that. I understand from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth, who has safeguarding responsibilities, that the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse will look to establish whether it is appropriate for this issue to be covered as part of its overarching work to understand what happened with historical child abuse and the failings in the system.

Before I was elected to this place, I worked as a criminal barrister for 16 years, so I have defended more than my fair share of paedophiles. It undoubtedly takes huge courage for someone to come forward and explain how they were abused as a child. It is also an unfortunate part of the particular wicked perversion of a paedophile that they should be cunning and deceitful. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although we do not want a witch hunt, we do need to be sure that everybody involved with children in sport understands the nature of these wicked, horrible people? That is why it is so important to put in place rigorous measures to safeguard our children and keep them safe.

I agree absolutely with my right hon. Friend, who has huge experience of the criminal law and of this particular area. In my previous Home Office role, I met a number of sporting bodies regarding DBS and other checks, and this included the FA, which I know takes this matter incredibly seriously.

I associate myself with the remarks of others about the hideous and tragic crash in Colombia earlier today.

I pay tribute to those who have come forward and initiated the national discussion that we are now having. It takes immense courage, but the impact on others who might have suffered is huge, encouraging them and strengthening their resolve to come forward. Last weekend, I stood on the touchline watching my son play for Milnthorpe Corinthians against Kendal Wattsfield. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of children play football every weekend. It is our national game. I thoroughly respect what the FA is doing with its investigation. What I am saying is in no way an attempt to undermine or criticise the FA, but given that this is the national game and the potential scale of the problem, will the Secretary of State ensure that there is independence in the investigation and that resources are put into it? We must not simply allow the sport to investigate itself.

The hon. Gentleman speaks about the huge enjoyment that children get from grassroots sport. In common with him, I enjoy seeing my children play in grassroots sport. I do not think any of us should ever forget the massive benefits that come from children’s involvement in sport—being part of a team, being outdoors, getting into the routine of turning up for practice and the general camaraderie of it all. That is incredibly important. When it comes to grassroots sport, we should take the same approach as parents as we do with any other situation that we put our children into. We make sure that we are confident that we trust the people whom we allow to make contact with our children. We must trust and respect them, and ensure that they go through the appropriate safeguarding checks.

On the issue of an independent inquiry, it is important to remember that the inquiry led by Professor Alexis Jay is looking at a variety of matters. For example, it has taken the reports of Dame Janet Smith from the BBC, and it is important that the inquiry is given the time to look at institutional failings. Even more importantly, we must allow the police the time and space they need to carry out their investigation.

All Members share a sense of horror about what we have heard in recent days. Will the Secretary of State thus confirm that all the appropriate resources are in place, so that these matters can be thoroughly investigated. Will she also undertake to ensure that this will be kept under constant review?

Yes, and I think our record as a Government stands firm. We could look at Rotherham, for example, and the extra resources that were put in there to make sure that the survivors of child abuse had the confidence to come forward, so that cases could be brought. Yes, the Government stand ready to provide support.

Many parents might be shocked to know that, under changes brought in by the previous coalition Government, there is no requirement for volunteers, such as a football coach, to have a Disclosure and Barring Service check if they are being supervised by someone in regulated activity. This was raised many times when the Bill went through the last Parliament. Will the Secretary of State consider looking further at that to give the reassurance to parents that their children will be kept as safe as possible?

I think the hon. Lady should recognise the need to ensure that safeguarding takes place in an effective way. DBS checks are required for people who may be left alone with children. We must ensure that those checks are maintained and that the DBS is allowed to do its job. Of course, if failings are found as a result of these inquiries, I will stand ready to work with other Departments to ensure that safeguarding takes place as robustly and appropriately as possible.

These really are shocking allegations, but do not many of us here know inspirational coaches in our communities who inspire our children to play sport not just for the sake of achievement and winning medals, but to get fit and to experience that sense of team spirit, togetherness and camaraderie? I fear for the volunteers who give up their time, come rain or shine, to work with young people and encourage them to become involved in sport. Will the Secretary of State work with all sports governing bodies, including the Professional Footballers Association and the Football Association, to ensure that those who give up their time to volunteer will continue to do so?

My hon. Friend has made a point that I have been attempting to make. We must ensure that those inspirational coaches—volunteers who give up their time because they genuinely want to help and work with young people and who have no intent to hurt those young people—are allowed to do their job. We must ensure that we have appropriate, robust safeguarding that gives parents the comfort that they need and protects our children, but we must also ensure that volunteers come forward and those inspirational coaches are allowed to do their fantastic work.

I have had extended conversations with the right hon. Lady’s Department, with the Department for Education and with Sport England. What my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) said is true: there is a big loophole. Indeed, there is a loophole when sports do not have governing bodies, and there is also a loophole when the people involved are self-employed. Will the Secretary of State undertake to look into that, given that it will also be affecting music tuition?

I invite the hon. Lady to meet my colleague the Minister for Sport, who would be happy to discuss those matters with her.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) on tabling the urgent question and my right hon. Friend on the way in which she has responded to it. In a place like Kettering, football is 95% a voluntary activity for the players and coaches. Basically, the dads are the coaches and the mums wash the team kit. [Interruption.] In the vast majority of cases, the dads are the coaches and the mums wash the team kit: that is what life is like in middle England. I think that they would want me to ask the Secretary of State to ensure that the judges get the message that, when these people are caught, exemplary sentences must be handed out to make clear that such behaviour is totally unacceptable.

I think I ought to put on the record that it is quite clear that not all coaches are male. My hon. Friend the Minister for Sport is a grassroots football coach, and an extremely competent one at that. I also know of many husbands who are very good at washing the dishes and making the food. I am sure that my husband, if he is watching the debate, would be concerned if I did not put that on the record. However, my hon. Friend’s point about the sentencing of offenders is very important, and I can tell him that I work with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that appropriate sentences are available.

Given the growing number of professional clubs that are allegedly accused of being somehow involved in this affair, is it not time that the Government concentrated on football governance again? For six years we as a Parliament have dragged our feet, and the coalition and this Government have done nothing about it. Corporate governance and the “fit and proper persons” test should be involved in deciding who runs football clubs, so that those at the bottom, our children, can be assured that they are being looked after by those at the top and that there is responsibility.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government published the new governance codes for sport on 31 October, and I hope that he welcomes the work we have done to ensure that all sport is subject to proper and appropriate governance. It is important for us to be certain that we can have confidence in our sports governing bodies.

I pay tribute to the courage and bravery of those who have exposed this dreadful act. I know that we are talking about historical football abuse, but will the Secretary of State tell us what strategy she has to work with the Department for Education, the devolved Administrations and, indeed, all the governing bodies of all sports to reassure parents that their children are safe when playing sports, and also to reassure the coaches who give up their time, mainly voluntarily, to provide the sporting infrastructure that enables children to participate?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will be reassured to know that that is exactly what we are doing. We are writing to the governing bodies of all sports and working across Government to ensure that we have a co-ordinated response.

What is being done to ensure that those who are under suspicion in relation to the 1980s and 1990s are no longer involved in our national game, or indeed in any other sport?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that the police are making inquiries and that the DBS checks would ensure that those with criminal convictions would not be given disclosure certificates allowing them to work with children. They would also probably be barred from working with children.

Football, by its very nature, is a transient sport. Children move from club to club, and, obviously, professional football players move from club to club and even from country to country. Can the Secretary of State confirm that enough resources will be made available to ensure that victims are positively identified, rather than our relying on self-referral to the helpline? We need to understand how many victims there are if we are to assess the scale of the problem and offer support where it is needed.

It is important to look at patterns of behaviour to establish whether players may have been exposed to perpetrators, as would happen in any other investigation of this nature, regardless of what the background of the contact between the perpetrator and the victim might have been. It is also important for victims to come forward. While I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to go out and actively seek those victims, we will not find any unless some are prepared to come forward. Once again, I pay tribute to the bravery of the victims and survivors who have come forward and told their stories in such an honest way, allowing the police to obtain the evidence that they need, so that we can bring the perpetrators to justice.