I beg to move,
That this House has considered the safeguarding of children and young people in sport.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. A few months after my election I was contacted by one of my constituents, Mr Ian Ackley, who is present here today, who told me that he was one of the people who had been sexually abused as a child by the serial sex offender and predatory paedophile Barry Bennell, who was convicted of 43 counts of historic child sex abuse in February this year. I shall briefly tell Ian’s story, to illustrate the failings of the past, and then explain what I think still needs to be done to safeguard children and young people in sport.
Ian told me how, as a talented young footballer aged nine, he had been spotted by Bennell. Bennell used his charm and suggested connections to top-tier football clubs to persuade parents to allow their sons to sign for his club White Knowl, which he ran in north Derbyshire. Ian told me that early on, as the team was doing well, and having won the trust of his parents, Bennell suggested that Ian stay overnight at his place so that he could talk tactics with him and Ian would be fresher for the game the next day. The parents, being very trusting and totally taken in by Bennell, consented to the stay-over; the sexual abuse began immediately. Ian was not the only child to stay over. On some occasions there would be a number of boys there, some sleeping in the same bed as Bennell. Staying overnight at Bennell’s place soon became the norm. It is hard to imagine that happening today, but those were different times.
Ian, in talking to me, made it clear that many parents of boys from other Manchester youth teams that his team played against were aware of Bennell’s abuse. On some occasions they confronted Bennell at matches, but it would seem they had either chosen not to report the abuse to the police or to take the matter further, or else that they had not been listened to. Ian told me that the sexual abuse stopped when he was 14 years old, when Bennell wound down his youth football club. Ian’s football career came to an end a few years later. In 1996 he went on to become the first person to publicly blow the whistle on Bennell’s abuse in the “Dispatches” television programme, which led to Bennell being convicted of a number of sexual offences against him.
The trauma and anguish of being sexually abused remained with Ian and are still with him. Since the recent revelations about Bennell came out two years ago, Ian’s personal and work life have suffered. Ian has used his experience with other abuse victims Paul Stewart, David White and Derek Bell to set up an organisation called SAVE, which seeks to engage with victims and others, to inform and provide advice about safeguarding in sport, and to raise awareness about potential loopholes and oversights in procedures and day-to-day activity.
I, like many others, assumed that the sexual abuse by Bennell that Ian and others suffered could not happen today because we live in different times from the 1980s, and sport has changed beyond all recognition since that time; but on closer inspection I think that there are areas that need improving. Before preparing for this debate I met with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the head of safeguarding at the Football Association and a representative of the Lawn Tennis Association, and I spoke to a number of people involved in safeguarding. The FA has an exemplary safeguarding policy endorsed by the NSPCC child protection in sport unit, which it should be proud of. It even has a grassroots football safeguarding policy, which covers everything—recruitment of volunteers and staff, creating a safe environment, criminal record checks, travel and trips, vulnerable people and even cyber-bullying. Ideally, all clubs should fully implement and abide by those policies, but I have a concern about how very small Sunday morning football clubs, which are run predominantly by volunteers, will be able to ensure that all those steps are taken without finding them extremely burdensome.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on what is undoubtedly a timely debate. Of course young people and children should be safeguarded, but does he agree, having alluded to volunteers, that we must respect the integrity of the many thousands of them who are above reproach, and ensure that the tiny minority who have been abusive are completely and utterly isolated and alienated from dealing with young children in sport?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Trying to close the loopholes, to stop abuse happening, is paramount; but we must also take into account the fact that many smaller clubs are run entirely by volunteers, and we must thank the genuine volunteers who are there for the benefit of the young people in the sport.
More structural support is needed at the regional or county level to ensure that small clubs get help with implementing safeguarding policies. There should be someone at the regional or county level who ensures that the policies are adhered to and that proper monitoring takes place. It is often at the smaller clubs that abuse will first happen, as in Ian Ackley’s case. We also need to ensure that children and young people feel able to speak out and feel that they will be listened to when they call out abuse. That is why we need to make sure that they can do so in a safe environment, and that they are encouraged to speak out. Children and young people could be given confidence during player induction at sport settings about speaking up if they come across abuse, and there are other means whereby clubs can encourage young people to speak out whenever they come across abuse or anything happens to them.
When I met the Lawn Tennis Association I was staggered to discover that not all tennis clubs are affiliated to it. It has approximately 2,700 members, but more than 1,000 clubs are not registered with it. Some people might say, “So what? What difference does it make?” This year, for the first time, the LTA has made it a requirement that all affiliated clubs use only LTA-accredited coaches, who must meet a minimum safeguarding standard. Unregistered clubs, on the other hand, are free to appoint whomever they choose as a tennis coach. According to the LTA, there are more than 800 “accredited tennis coaches”. There are other coaching courses apart from the LTA’s, but it is worth noting that some accreditation can be obtained online for as little as £80. That means that a child or young person could be having lessons at an unregistered tennis club with a coach who obtained their accreditation online by answering tick-box questions.
What I am saying is in no way intended to call into question good unaffiliated tennis clubs and coaches, but, as we have seen time and again, people who abuse children and young people find a way to get close to them, just as rain gets through cracks in the pavement. The question arises whether coaching courses should be licensed and have Government-approved kitemarks to give people an idea of the quality of the safe- guarding training undergone by the coach. Perhaps that could be a role for the child protection in sport unit, which already gives ratings to governing bodies. It is often hard for parents to navigate all the different accreditations and codes, and anything that makes things simpler, and easier to understand, should be encouraged.
More needs to be done about summer sports courses. As things stand, there would be nothing to stop me or anyone else hiring a field and setting up my own summer football skills course for kids. With some clever marketing, I could be up and running with some cones, bibs and footballs. I think more checks need to be carried out in those casual arrangements, too. It is the sort of thing that local authority trading standards teams could check, provided they had the funding to do so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that all sports clubs, at whatever level, dealing with children should have whistleblowing policies under which they can refer themselves to a Government or sports organisation and procedures that are available for parents and children alike?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Whistleblowing is important and must be catered for as far as possible. Clubs should be able to report things higher up and whistleblowers’ reports should be properly investigated.
Having mentioned coaches, I want to turn to the definition of “regulated activity”. The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 tightened the definition of regulated activity in relation to children to mean working “regularly” —four or more days in a 30-day period—and “unsupervised” with children. Coaching falls into that category. If someone satisfies those criteria, sports clubs can carry out an enhanced DBS—Disclosure and Barring Service—check, with barred list check to see whether the individual is barred from working with children. However, it is an offence for a club to ask for an enhanced DBS check on an individual if the role does not require one. For example, the coach who coaches the youth team every Thursday night would be classified as falling into that category, but their assistant, who is technically supervised by the coach, would not be caught by that legislation.
Supervision does not always prevent abuse from happening, as it often happens in plain view, with people disbelieving that someone whom they have got to know well and even considered a friend could ever commit such vile acts of abuse.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I would like to place on the record my support and complete admiration for those victims who have so bravely spoken out about their terrible experiences at the hands of Barry Bennell. They were let down. My constituents who were victims are fighting tirelessly so that something like that can never happen again. It is so important that no stone is left unturned.
I think that my hon. Friend was referring to someone who has been convicted. We should congratulate the people who came forward and whose cases led to convictions. More cases may follow, and we do not want to go into that area, but my hon. Friend makes a good point about the bravery of the people who came forward.
A predatory individual could simply seek a supervised role with a sports club that would allow them access to children and young people. They could be groomed over a long period and, once the individual had built a trusting relationship with them, they could be exploited and abused. There is evidence to show that adults who have been barred from working with children will continue to try to get access. The NSPCC has discovered that, since the definition of regulated activity was changed in 2012, more than 1,100 people who have been barred from working with children because they pose a threat have been caught applying to work in regulated activity by the DBS. I am not aware of any statistics in relation to unregulated activity.
Sports clubs can find it complex to identify which role should be classified as regulated activity and which should not, and could be at risk of committing an offence of over-checking if they decide to carry out a DBS check with barred list information on an individual in a role that does not require it. It is clear to me that that places sports clubs in a difficult position and that the definition of regulated activity needs to be amended and widened.
Another area that needs re-examining is “Positions of trust”, as defined by sections 21 and 22 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. As the law stands, children are protected from being groomed into sexual relationships by trusted adults with power and influence over them. That applies to teachers, social workers and doctors, but not to sports coaches or youth leaders. That creates the absurd situation that if a physical education teacher teaching football at school engaged in sexual activity with a 16-year-old child, that would be an offence, but if the same individual in a sports coaching role did the same thing outside school, that would not be. There should be no distinction between the two, and the law needs to be changed accordingly.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. We can put safeguards in place for the future, but what more can be done to help those victims who have been traumatised—those people who are living with the trauma day in, day out?
The hon. Gentleman poses an excellent question. There needs to be much more support for those people in relation to their mental health. Many people are suffering trauma as a result of past events. We need to ensure that there is a proper support network for them, so that they get the counselling, advice and therapy that they need in order to come to terms with the appalling effects of historical sexual abuse.
To return to the point about positions of trust, many national governing bodies for sports want to see the change to which I referred, and have told the NSPCC that more than 50% of all safeguarding cases arise from inappropriate relationships with sports coaches. I understand that last year the Minister announced that a ministerial commitment had been secured to extend the “position of trust” provision to sports coaches. I invite her to update us on the progress of that commitment.
Closer working with the police will be necessary. I have been made aware of instances in which the police have suggested that an individual may pose a risk to children at a sports club, and that has led to the individual’s suspension, only for the police to take no further action because the suspension means that there is no longer a risk. That sort of practice exposes clubs to challenges to their decisions to suspend and may have an adverse effect on an innocent individual.
Many victims of abuse will need advice and support when reporting it and also in the aftermath, when they may suffer from depression, have suicidal thoughts, be at risk of self-harm and suffer with their mental health generally. I know that last year the Government published a Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health, but will the Minister give serious consideration to out-of-hours provision of support for victims?
At the start of the debate, I touched on how Barry Bennell was able to get away with his sexual abuse of boys, despite it being an open secret in Manchester and other places. It is the responsibility of us all to call out abuse when we see it. I would like to think that, given the recent sex abuse scandals, none of us would tolerate knowing about any such abuse and not reporting it.
Playing sport should be fun, safe, enjoyable and rewarding. The purpose of this debate is to ensure that it remains so for children and young people. For the sake of people such as Ian Ackley and the other brave victims who spoke out about their abuse, and those who have not done so or were not able to do so, who have been robbed of their youth by the actions of evil men, I hope that by speaking up and taking action now, we will be preventing future abuse from happening in sport.
I appreciate that some of the matters that I have mentioned may fall outside the Minister’s remit, but I want to ensure that these issues have been properly aired and I hope that she will be able to use this debate to influence her ministerial colleagues to bring about the changes that will make children and young people in sport safer.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing this timely and important debate, and on the sympathetic way in which he outlined the case of Ian Ackley. I also welcome Ian to Westminster and congratulate him on his bravery, because it is only through his bravery and that of others that dangerous individuals such as Barry Bennell have been locked up—put away—and a light has been shone on this unacceptable and despicable practice.
Young people being interested in sport is key for their development and fitness, and it is important that we do everything possible to give them a positive environment when they are learning and nurturing their skills and developing the traits that we hope they will take further into a sporting career, or just into life generally as they get older. Of course it is imperative that we protect children in sport. However, it is also important, as the hon. Gentleman said, that we protect adults who genuinely want to help children in sport. We must alienate and root out the small minority who would use their place in sport to try to harm children in despicable ways.
I want to focus my remarks on what we are doing in Scotland to safeguard children in sport. There is currently a partnership between Children 1st and SportScotland, working with local authorities, local sports trusts, leisure trusts and sports clubs to ensure that we do as much as possible to protect young people in sport. Children 1st and SportScotland published a 116-page document entitled “10 steps to safeguard children in sport”. It is important that everything is in there to ensure that the maximum guidance is available to everyone involved in sport. It is imperative that we get that document to all people involved in sport in Scotland and across the UK.
In preparation for this debate, I spoke with my local sports development officer in Moray Council, Kim Paterson, who explained that she is the only tutor in Moray—quite a wide geographical area—who is delivering the safeguarding and protecting children course. Since January she has run 10 courses and each of them has had the maximum 20 participants, so 200 people in Moray have taken the course in the past few months.
Kim told me that a number of people are almost forced by their national governing body to do the course, so they approach it like a tick-box exercise—they feel that they have to do it. However, when they leave at the end of the day, they tell Kim and others involved in the class that they never knew there was so much information available about protecting children in sport. They might start the course a bit apprehensive about having to do more training, but they leave with far more information, and that is a positive development. If they want to go on further, there is the In Safe Hands course delivered by Children 1st, which is the next level up, looking at child protection officers within local clubs.
People sometimes see these courses as tick-box exercises; they attend once and then never go back. However, it is best practice to renew them every three years. We should all be encouraging people to ensure that they keep up to date with the standards expected of them. Children 1st and SportScotland are looking at an online version for refresher courses in future, which I would very much support.
The debate is timely and reminds us of the bravery displayed by Ian Ackley and others to ensure that individuals who caused harm in sport were brought to justice and did not get away scot-free. As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said, we live in different times, but that does not mean that we should be complacent. If we became complacent, by assuming that this might have happened in the ’70s or ’80s but would not happen in 2018, we would all be letting down children and young people in our areas.
There has been progress across the UK—great work has been done to protect and safeguard children and young people in sport—but I truly believe that there is more to do. Today’s debate reminds us all of the horrors of the past. We must ensure that we do not allow that to be a distant memory and we keep up our efforts to ensure that our children can continue to enjoy sport, to gain from sport and to live their dreams in sport, but that they do not suffer nightmares, as many did under Barry Bennell and others.
I can give you a categorical assurance that I will not mention any names, Sir Roger, but I do want to speak on this subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) on securing the debate—we spoke about this issue on the train last Thursday and I understand his reasons for bringing it forward. It is a very important issue for all of us in this House. We are aware of your guidance, Sir Roger. I would like to give a Northern Ireland perspective on this debate. I look to the shadow Minister and the Minister, as always, for suitable and helpful responses.
As the proud father of three strapping young boys, and the even prouder grandfather of two young granddaughters, the issue of child safeguarding is close to my heart. As a father, a grandfather and an elected representative with direct contact with my constituency, and as someone who has been involved in sports over the years, my heart aches when I hear of a child going through any form of abuse, whether mental, physical or sexual. I wish to play my part in ensuring that no child whatsoever goes through that pain.
There are some 430,000 children under the age of 18 in Northern Ireland. Of those, almost 2,100 were identified as needing protection from abuse in 2017. We all know that that is not a true picture of how far abuse goes. We all suspect that it goes much further than that. Throughout the Province there is abuse taking place that will never be talked about, and for which justice will never be served. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and I were just talking about that. There were probably lots of things that happened when we were younger that were never spoken about. It certainly did not happen in the circles I was in, but that does not mean it did not happen elsewhere, because obviously it did. Over 58,000 children were identified as needing protection from abuse in the UK in 2016. This is a UK-wide issue that must be addressed in a UK-wide manner. This is the place to do that: in this House with the Minister present.
I read the NSPCC’s briefing on preventing abuse of positions of trust, which was very helpful. I agree with the points that it made, and which the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate explained so well in his introduction. It states:
“Sex crimes committed by adults in positions of trust have increased by more than 80 per cent since 2014...The number of offences where professionals such as teachers, care staff and youth justice workers targeted 16 and 17-year-olds in their care for sex rose to 290 in the year to June—up from 159 three years ago. Nearly 1,000 crimes were recorded over the period, with the figure steadily rising year on year.”
Current legislation does not include all sports roles, for example coaches, assistant instructors or helpers. We also need to include sports organisation and settings, such as clubs, leisure facilities and events, within these definitions. We need clarification. The legislation needs to be tightened so that all of that is covered. Is that something the Minister intends to do?
I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for securing this important debate. Does the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) agree that we should also consider the role of the Charity Commission? A case in my constituency has shown that although the commission is good at ensuring that clubs and organisations have correct policies in place, it lacks the teeth to carry anything through. When concerns are raised, it is very slow to follow up with action.
The hon. Gentleman rightly outlines an anomaly that needs to be addressed. Again, I look to the Minister for a response. I would like to see it addressed in legislation, and this debate gives us an opportunity to do just that.
At present, abuse of a position of trust within most sports contexts is not illegal, although there might be circumstances in which the law does apply to sports coaches, for example if they are employed by and operating within a school. The hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) touched upon that as well. The NSPCC’s view is that, because of the vulnerability of young people and the particular circumstances of sport, the legislation should be extended to roles and settings within sport. We are deeply indebted to the NSPCC for its briefing. It has outlined a number of things that will be very helpful to the Minister. I ask the Minister: when can this be done? When can the initiatives and helpful suggestions set out in the briefing and offered by hon. Members be taken on board? I know that the Government, the Minister and hon. Members are willing, so to me it is a matter of seeing where we should prioritise moving this. It must be high on the list of priorities and we must look for imminent legislative change.
I am sure that we were all moved by the stories of the Olympic gold medal-winning US gymnasts who eventually spoke out about their coach. I was shocked at how widespread the abuse was. My next thought was, “Could this happen in Northern Ireland, in the United Kingdom, or anywhere we have some representative, control or input? How are we protecting our children who want to excel and who put their trust in coaches and staff, but who are taken advantage of?” In Northern Ireland, people who work with children must have clearance, but that protects children only from known offenders. What legislation is in place to ensure that the first inappropriate touch or talk is reported as a crime, and that steps are taken to convict? We must get to that stage.
There is no protection in sporting circles for 16 and 17-year-olds, who are not protected under normal sexual consent laws. That needs to change. As the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said, the loophole must be closed and laws on positions of trust must be extended to the work of all those involved with children. People, including us in this House, are blessed to have an input in how to help a child or a young person to grow in sport, education and life, and as a family member. It is so important to have the right laws in place to ensure that happens in the right way.
The bravery of those who have come out after years of dealing with the secret pain of their abuse must be applauded. No one in this House or further afield could fail to be moved by some of the stories that we have heard publicly—very publicly, usually. Moreover, those people must be the catalyst for desperately needed change. We must look to those people, who have come through so much, and who speak out to make a change and to ensure that no other child goes through what they have gone through, and say that we will stand with them.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for securing the debate. The hon. Gentleman’s point reminded me of ChildLine, and how important a phone call to ChildLine was. Given the problem that we have, perhaps the Government should look at that again and reintroduce it across the whole of the UK to let children speak. This time, the Government should give ChildLine the money—I think it was running out of money because of its charity status. We need a lifeline for those kids so that they can speak to someone they can trust.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are all aware of the good work that ChildLine does and the initiatives that it has set out. We need to give it support and assistance in any way we can. We should ensure that it is more available, and that young people can take advantage of it. What the NSPCC did at the beginning was a great step. Many people in my constituency, across Northern Ireland and across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland took advantage of that opportunity.
We must not only stand with those people, but speak out alongside them and act as they have acted, for the sake of my granddaughters and other children across the country. We always look to the Minister for support and guidance. Today we ask her to take action and to do what she can to protect all our children.
Before we proceed, I am aware of an element of disquiet, so I will place the ruling on the record, so that everybody understands why I have said what I have said. I imply no personal criticism to any Member. The Standing Orders for public business clearly state:
“Appellate proceedings, whether criminal or civil, are active from the time when they are commenced by application for leave to appeal or by notice of appeal until ended by judgment or discontinuance”.
They are therefore sub judice. I understand the strength of feeling in these cases—were I not in the Chair, I might share it—but the fact is that one of these cases is the subject of leave to appeal and therefore cannot be referred to.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger. I am delighted to take part in this timely debate and I pay tribute to my colleague on the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for securing it. He opened proceedings with a moving and powerful speech in which he spoke about the traumatic abuse suffered by his constituent. I commend everyone who has come forward for their bravery.
It is worth remembering the huge benefits that sport can have for the young. I often speak about the power of sport to influence positive change, and that is never truer than when we consider the impact of sport on the young. The power of sport can improve a young person’s self-confidence and discipline. Moreover and crucially, as we continue to debate our response to childhood obesity—nearly one third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese—sport can help children to lead healthier lives. Governments play a pivotal role in promoting that through policy and financing. If we in Scotland are to secure the legacy of the 2014 Commonwealth games, it will be through Scotland’s children and young people.
As a parent of two young girls, I have always encouraged them to get involved in sporting activities. Although my eldest plays football, the vast majority of their physical activity is done through the medium of dance. There is an argument to be had about whether dance is a sport or an art—I would argue that it can be both—but that is for a future Westminster Hall debate, at which I am sure the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will join me.
The coaching and encouragement that my daughters receive from their excellent teachers improve their self-confidence and discipline—sometimes, at least. I am aware of the trust and responsibility that all of us as parents put in coaches who help our children. I cannot speak highly enough of my daughters’ dance teachers, and the vast majority of coaches take very seriously their responsibility for the welfare of children in their care.
This debate is not about limiting the sporting opportunities for young people and children. In fact, it is the opposite: it is about how we can ensure that young people can flourish by having robust safeguards in place to ensure that they can participate in sport and physical activity safely and with confidence.
Over the past year or so, we have read horrifying headlines of child abuse cases in sport. Such cases have forced us to face the potential danger of children being exploited in sport. The courageous victims have made us confront whether appropriate safeguards are in place to ensure the protection of young people.
An NSPCC report highlighted the extent of those dangers and the real and frightening situation facing our young people. According to the NSPCC, the number of recorded sexual offences against children has increased in all four countries in the UK over the past year. Although those cases are not exclusively related to offences committed in a sporting environment, we would be foolish not to consider the issue in a sports setting and assess what can be done to ensure the welfare of young people in sport.
One way to do that is to better understand what abuse is. The NSPCC’s child protection in sport unit states that there are four types of abuse that young people in sport can experience. They include neglect, which can occur when a coach repeatedly fails to ensure that children in their care are safe; a form of physical abuse, where the nature and intensity of training or competition exceed the capacity of the child’s immature and growing body; and sexual abuse, which is another form of exploitation that young athletes experience all too often, as we have sadly seen. We also need to be mindful that young people and children can suffer from emotional abuse if they are subject to constant criticism or bullying behaviour, as was brought up in the Anti-bullying Week debate that I led late last year.
We must always remember that abuse can take many different forms, and if we are going to be successful in eliminating that type of behaviour, we must be able to better identify abusive behaviour when it happens. We need to do a lot more to support children who have been abused and we also need to take firm action to prevent it from occurring in the first place.
In Scotland, we have a fantastic organisation called Children 1st—the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) has stolen my thunder somewhat in mentioning it—which works with SportScotland, sporting organisations and clubs to ensure that they have proper safeguards in place to protect children from abuse. It provides advice and training to staff, coaches and volunteers on the development and implementation of child protection policies, and it operates a helpline for those who have concerns for a child’s welfare. As we have heard, it recently launched the Safeguarding in Sport initiative in partnership with SportScotland, which aims to improve the safeguards in place for Scottish sport. The aim is simple: to create the safest possible environment for children in sport by working with parents, coaches, teachers and volunteers to improve the child protection policies and practices that clubs should have in place to ensure the welfare of children and young people.
Safeguarding in Sport has just published advice to all junior clubs that work with young people and children. Its recommendations include having a named contact for the co-ordination of child protection. That role should be clearly defined, to ensure that the responsibility for the welfare of children is paramount. It also recommends having a child protection policy that reflects national guidelines and that is adopted by the relevant management structure in the club; a variety of child protection training methods—as we have heard from the hon. Member for Moray—at appropriate levels for those working or volunteering with children and young people in sport; a much more stringent procedure for the recruitment and selection of those who work with children and young people, including access to the protecting vulnerable groups scheme membership checks; and a disciplinary procedure for managing concerns about and allegations of poor practice, misconduct or child abuse, including provision for referrals to the children’s list.
I can speak highly of the work that Children 1st does to help to ensure that young people participate in sport safely. Its work puts the responsibility and the onus on the clubs, coaches and parents with regard to the welfare of the child, but Safeguarding in Sport will support those people in meeting that responsibility.
The SportScotland young people’s sport panel ensures that the voices of young people themselves are heard on this issue. Those young people played a crucial part in developing the new standards for child wellbeing and protection in Scottish sport. That work led to the introduction of new standards for child protection in sport, which are centred on the needs and rights of the child.
The introduction of those new standards is to be welcomed, as they will hopefully strengthen the existing safeguards. However, we should also applaud the way in which those standards were introduced and developed. Involving young people in the process ensured that their views were at the forefront of what needs to be done to ensure the safety and wellbeing of young people in sport.
There are approximately 1.1 million coaches in the UK. Most of them are volunteers who give up evenings and weekends to provide young people with sporting opportunities. Coaches accept a lot of responsibility and it is important that we support them in the same way that they support children and young people. The last thing we want to do is to design a system that deters well-meaning people, who often are parents themselves, from becoming coaches. Crucially, however, we all want robust policies in place that allow young people to enjoy sport in a safe and secure way, and it is vital that community clubs are supported in that endeavour.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Roger; it is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
First, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for calling this debate. I know that this issue is so important to him, and he has been tireless in working to secure this debate. I was extremely sorry to hear the story of his constituent, Mr Ackley, who spoke so bravely about the sexual abuse that he suffered. That cannot have been easy, but Mr Ackley has provided a voice for those who do not have one.
Sport should be enjoyed and loved by all. It has a unique propensity to build communities and friendships, to inspire and motivate, and to tackle much wider issues, such as obesity and mental health. Also, as a parent of two young girls, I know how much sport can bring to children’s lives.
I am passionate about sport because I truly believe it has the power to impact positively on all of our lives, and at every opportunity we should encourage our children to be healthy and happy. That is why, most importantly, sport must be a safe space for all our children, free from predators and those who wish to cause harm.
Historical child abuse is one of the great issues of our time. For decades, it has loitered on the doorsteps of institutions. That time must end now. The scale of the revelations that we have heard about in just the past 10 years has shocked the UK to its core, and it is our collective responsibility across Government, across party lines and across governing bodies to tackle the issue. We must ensure that victims are supported and perpetrators punished, and we must do everything in our power to prevent it from ever happening again.
This issue is by no means confined to football or sport. We owe a great deal to the victims who have spoken out and I pay particular tribute to Andy Woodward, who waived his right to anonymity and told The Guardian that he had been sexually abused as a young player. His truly shocking and harrowing account paved the way for many other victims to come forward. Woodward’s actions sparked an inquiry that would change the face of football, and I pay tribute to the bravery of all those victims who have come forward since then to share their stories, not least Mr Ackley himself.
Within a few days of the revelations emerging, I tabled an urgent question for the Government and wrote to all sports governing bodies requesting a full review of their current safeguarding strategies, to make sure that there are suitable procedures in place to properly investigate historical claims, and that there is capacity to root out offenders.
Given that we had discussed the issue, I am pleased that the Government have included sports coaches in the law relating to the position of trust. What progress has been made on implementing that?
I am sure that many Members present will join me in welcoming the Scottish Government’s recent decision to consult on introducing mandatory disclosure checks on all sports coaches in Scotland. However, it is important that we are not simply reactionary. We must continue to work with Sport England, the NSPCC, the police, the CPSU and national governing bodies, to ensure that we set universal standards and instil best practice.
My shadow Front-Bench colleagues and I have pushed for the introduction of mandatory reporting, to place a legal duty on people working with children to report suspected abuse, suspicions and known abuse to children’s social services. Our view has not changed and nor will it. Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect must be introduced, because it is more than just a tick-box exercise. It is a chance to save lives and we owe it to our children and to all those brave people who have stood up and called out their experiences. Without mandatory reporting, we will never break the culture and we will never instigate meaningful change; without it, we will allow the perpetrators to continue unchallenged, as many of them have been for so long.
Everyone here today wants to see an end to this scandal and we are all working to achieve the same goal. Now is the time to act, ensuring that good practice is shared and, where necessary, new practices are put in place, so that abuse does not take place in sport at any level.
Thank you very much, Sir Roger, for calling me to speak; as always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I start by thanking the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) for securing today’s debate and I welcome the opportunity to raise awareness of this important issue and to highlight what we are doing in this area.
This is a subject very close to my heart. As the daughter of a social worker and the former coach of a football team in my constituency, I have a great appreciation for the important role of safeguarding, not only in society but in grassroots sports clubs. I have been pleased to see the positive impact that improvements in safeguarding over the years have had on young people, including at all levels of sport. However, it is vital that we build on the provisions that are already in place, so that all young people in sport receive the very best protection.
Like the hon. Gentleman and others in this House, I commend the immense bravery of all those who have spoken out about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of individuals in trusted positions in sport. I had the privilege of meeting his constituent, Ian Ackley, just before this debate. At the end of our conversation, he was generous enough to say, “Thank you for all you are doing.” My response was to say, “No, thank you”—not you, Sir Roger, obviously, but Mr Ackley—because without his bravery and that of others we might not be having this debate today. I do not want to open the papers in 20 years’ time and see another Ian coming forward because we did not pay enough attention to the systems that I am responsible for now.
I also pay tribute to Andy Woodward, whose bravery was mentioned by the hon. Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan). I continue to support Andy on a regular basis and I listen to what he has to say, including where he thinks things should change. I would actually call him a friend now. I hope that is what this Government are seen as; basically, we want to ensure that we change things, so that this type of abuse never happens again.
Child sexual abuse is an abhorrent crime and it is right that we learn from it to make sure that it never happens again. Events over the last 18 months have highlighted unacceptable behaviour that went unchallenged for a long time. Sadly, this abuse has not been confined to football or the UK. Colleagues will be aware of the courageous gymnasts in the United States who have spoken out against their team doctor, and we have learned about widespread abuse within USA Swimming. In the UK, the allegations of child sexual abuse in football related to cases that took place several decades ago. The independent review commissioned by the FA into the allegations will produce some important findings that we will all need to consider when the report is published.
Safeguarding in sport is much stronger than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the majority of these dreadful events occurred. That said, we must remain vigilant and continue to identify gaps in provision. The Child Protection in Sport Unit, which is part of the NSPCC, was founded in 2001 to be the expert organisation on child safeguarding in sport. As part of their funding agreements with Sport England and the requirements of the code for sports governance, all funded organisations must comply with the CPSU’s standards for safeguarding and protecting children in sport. All 43 county sports partnerships and 44 regularly funded national governing bodies meet and maintain those standards. We have also taken steps to promote best practice in non-funded sports. In March, I launched a code of safeguarding in martial arts to set consistent standards and provide parents with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about where to send their children for instruction.
In our sports strategy, we recognise that the care of participants must be a core part of our approach to boosting participation. I asked Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson to carry out a review of sport’s duty of care to its participants. One of the key findings was that it can be difficult for people to come forward with allegations about inappropriate or harmful behaviour, particularly at the higher levels of sport. It is vital that everyone in sport feels able to speak out if they have been subject to harassment, bullying or abuse. That is why we have enhanced whistleblowing practices within the governance code of NGBs. I have been clear that sports must co-operate and ensure that they foster healthy cultures, or they will have to answer to me. I am monitoring the situation carefully and working with UK Sport to ensure that each funded sport has robust grievance and whistleblowing policies in place.
Today’s debate has rightly raised the issue of inappropriate coach-athlete relationships. Sexual abuse is a criminal offence, regardless of the age of the victim or the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. Grooming is also a criminal offence. We encourage anyone who has been subject to grooming or abuse within sport, or is aware that it is happening, to have the confidence to report it to the police.
Concerns have been raised about seemingly consensual relationships between coaches and young athletes in their care. Children under the age of 16 are not legally able to consent to sex: sexual activity with a child under 16 has long been and remains a criminal offence. However, there are clearly concerns that a 16 or 17-year-old, who may be above the age of consent, could be a victim of coercive behaviour due to the nature of the relationship between a coach and an athlete. Colleagues have rightly pointed out that I, as the Minister for Sport, am working closely with colleagues across Government to develop proposals to extend the definition of a position of trust under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to include sports coaches. We are also investigating what further support we can give to sports organisations to help them handle these cases.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate also makes an important point about regulated activity. We must acknowledge that DBS checks form only one part of the overall picture. Employers should use a range of checks to help them make safer recruitment decisions about whether individuals are suitable to work with children. These are two areas of policy that are primarily owned by other Departments, and I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that, but I can assure him and others that my officials regularly discuss these matters. I am working closely with ministerial colleagues to make progress as quickly as possible.
As someone who has experienced the system as a coach and as a manager, I want to say that grassroots clubs take DBS checks very seriously. If coaches or managers do not have certificates, they can have their charter status removed by the county FA and be suspended from the leagues they are in. I assure Members that grassroots football clubs do not take this issue lightly.
I thank all Members who have contributed today, but I take a moment to thank the NSPCC and the CPSU for their tireless work protecting children. Their campaigns, support and guidance are incredible, and both organisations helped the FA enormously in the immediate aftermath of the exposé of historic child abuse in football. I encourage colleagues to highlight to their constituents the NSPCC guide to the questions that parents should be asking clubs that their children go to about their safeguarding policies. As the hon. Gentleman said, we all have a responsibility on this issue. My door is always open to anyone who wants to discuss safeguarding in sport.
At the very centre of this issue are children, who must be safe to enjoy sport free from harm. We all know of the benefits that young people gain from sport. It helps develop communication, teamwork and physical and mental health, to name just a few. Across the UK, children participate in sport with the help of thousands of supportive and responsible adults, most of whom are volunteers. We must not lose sight of the fantastic work these adults do to create fulfilling opportunities in sport for our young people. None the less, just one case of abuse in sport is too many. We have made good progress, but we must continue to respond to the new and evolving challenges we face. I want to see the UK continue to lead the way in all matters of welfare and safeguarding so that we have a system in which every child is valued, protected and safe.
First, I thank the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) for speaking about the excellent work that Children 1st does in Scotland. There is much we can learn from it, and I look forward to finding out more about that. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said that unspoken abuse was a UK-wide issue. He also talked about positions of trust and roles and settings. Those are important issues, and I am grateful to him for making those points. The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) spoke not only about sport but about the issues outside sport in dance and other activities. They encompass the wider child safeguarding issues we need to take into account. He also talked about getting a better understanding of the definition, the excellent work of Children 1st and the need to involve young people in setting policies and standards. Often, we draw up policies and forget to involve young people, and it is important that we bring them on board. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) spoke about safe spaces in sport, our collective responsibility and mandatory reporting. Again, we need to take those into account. That could be progressed further.
It is pleasing to hear the Minister’s comments and about the positive steps she has taken. I hope we will see more action, particularly in relation to positions of trust and regulated activity. I hope she will keep us informed about that, but she is right that it is not only about those areas; we also need wider support to ensure that DBS checks are taken seriously at the regional and county level. She spoke about non-funded sport, which needs far more support than the governing bodies, about the duty of care to participants and about the need to speak out.
I agree with the Minister on the excellent work the NSPCC has done. Its briefings for this debate were exceptional. We need to involve it as much as we can in these issues. Obviously, we should not forget the support that comes from adults and volunteers. As she rightly said, one case of abuse in sport is too many. I hope that she will come back at some stage with positive news about positions of trust and regulated activity. I am grateful for her response today. It has been a helpful debate, and I hope it will be the first step in ensuring that young people and children enjoy sport and get amazing benefits from it, but are kept safe for as long as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the safeguarding of children and young people in sport.