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Historical Sexual Abuse in Football

Volume 777: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat as a Statement the response to an Urgent Question given in the other place by Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for DCMS. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, nothing is more important than keeping children safe. Child sex abuse is an exceptionally vile crime; all of government take it very seriously indeed, and I know that this House does too. Children up and down the country are able to play football thanks to the dedication of thousands of adults, many of them volunteers, and 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 the courage to speak out. It is vital that they should know that their voices will be heard, whether they are speaking about historic crimes or anything that is happening today. And of course coaches, parents and indeed everyone has a duty of care to children, 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 you will understand that I cannot comment in detail, Mr Speaker. 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 NSPCC has set up a hotline, supported by the FA, which anyone can call if they want to talk to someone in confidence. This will help to build a picture of the potential scale of abuse, both historic and more recent, to inform next steps. The number is 0800 023 2642.

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 its safeguarding procedures, will carry out an independent audit of the FA’s practices. Today, my honourable friend the Minister for Sport will write to all national governing bodies to ask them to redouble their efforts to protect children who play their sports. I spoke this morning to Chief Constable Simon Bailey, the national police lead for child abuse, and we agreed that I will convene a meeting with him, the FA and others to discuss the situation.

It is important to turn to 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 CRB, 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 their citizens, and the first duty of us all is to protect children”.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Answer on this subject made in the other place. I should like her to be aware that we support what the Government are doing in this difficult time. I am sure that the whole House will want to pay tribute to the members of the Brazilian football team and all those who have lost their lives in the tragic plane crash earlier today. It shows that sport is universal. I am sure that the whole House also wants to record its thanks to former footballers who have shown unparalleled bravery in sharing their stories and bringing the awful scandal to our attention. Our thanks should also go to the Guardian and other newspapers which have helped bring out their stories.

This has all the makings of a major scandal. It is reported that six football clubs have been named by victims, more than 20 players have now come forward, five police forces across the country are opening investigations and FIFA is monitoring the situation closely. The NSPCC hotline to which the Minister referred had more than 50 calls in the first two hours of opening, and there are now 250 reported incidents. It is vital that all concerned do as much as they can to reassure parents that everything is being done that can be done. Let us remember that a good safeguarding system is in place and that all but a few coaches and volunteers have only the best interests of children at heart.

We welcome the FA’s announcement that Kate Gallafent QC will assist it in its investigations. Can the Minister confirm that this report will be published? We also want to make sure that the police have the resources and powers to ensure that all claims are fully investigated and that prosecutions take place where the evidence exists. Again, I should be grateful for the Minister’s confirmation that this will be put in place. As this scandal may not be restricted to football, can she confirm that the DCMS is looking across the sports sector to ensure that cases such as these do not take place more widely? As she hinted, we have a cross-party duty to protect our children and young adults, and I am sure that, on this, we can all agree.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he said and his support; this is very much a cross-party issue that we need to tackle. Of course, I also express my sympathies to the Brazilian team for the appalling crash. As the noble Lord said, the fact that we are so interested in it just shows how sport brings us all together. I also endorse the bravery of those people who have come forward. My goodness, it takes a lot to do so as an adult when this has happened to you as a child—particularly in football, which I feel has been a male-dominated sport. It must have taken an enormous amount of bravery for those 20 footballers to come out and be open about what had happened to them.

A far as I know, the report will be published, but I will have to go back and check that.

The noble Lord also asked what else we are doing from a wider viewpoint. Earlier this year, Ministers asked the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, to carry out an independent review of the duty of care that sport owes to its participants. Her review covers a wide range of areas, including safeguarding. She is due to report back shortly to the Minister of Sport, and she has set up an independent group to support her in this that includes Anne Tiivas, chief executive of Child Protection in Sport Unit.

My Lords, it is very good that we can echo on a cross-party basis the sentiments that have already been expressed here—and, indeed, the international support for that very unfortunate football team. Will the Minister give us an assurance that there will be a concentration on the one-to-one contact between coach and player, particularly when they are juniors, and how that is monitored? That will ensure that not only parents and participants but also potential coaching staff know what the correct boundaries are and what safeguards apply on both sides. Without them, we are in danger of doing considerable damage.

The noble Lord makes a very good point. That is indeed going to be part of the reviews that are taking place. No stone will be unturned, and we are going to learn a lot of lessons along the way. As the noble Lord said, that is a very important point, and I know that it will be taken back and looked into.

My Lords, the Minister will recall that only last week Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary published a very challenging and frankly thoroughly dispiriting report on the failure of the Metropolitan Police to protect children vulnerable to sexual abuse. I cannot believe that the Metropolitan Police is alone in needing to look again at its procedures and practices. Would she agree that there are no grounds for complacency in any of this business and that the review needs to be very tough-minded and sharp?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. I know that the Secretary of State talked to Simon Bailey, who is the national policy policing lead for ACPO. Each individual is going to have a single police lead. Of course, these will be shared—in fact, five police forces will be engaged in this. As I said, Simon Bailey is very much on this, and is talking to the Secretary of State. I think that that is the way forward.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we need to have the highest possible standards of child protection in sport, but this review must not undermine how it is done by volunteers with children on a weekly basis? The last thing that we want to see is adults removing themselves from this position.

That is so important. We need to have appropriate, robust safeguards in place to make sure that, as parents and grandparents, we can feel safe that, when our children go and play sport, they are properly protected. But equally, as the Secretary of State said in her Statement, all across the country, every day, there are volunteers who are doing magnificent work with children. Of course, we hope that this is a minority—we do not know until we look into it—but the majority of volunteers are doing a marvellous job with children, encouraging them to take part in sport, get involved with other children and take exercise. Those people must not be forgotten.

I declare an interest as a non-executive director of Carlisle Football Club. Like most football clubs at the lower level, we think that we are clear, but none of us is complacent, and the Football League has been very helpful in providing information. We tend to know the youngsters who play for us, but it is important that any inquiry looks at the Premier League, which has tens of thousands of young people going for training six days a week. I suspect that those are the people who are most susceptible today, and I hope that we look at the activity of the Premier League.

I too declare an unpaid interest as a vice-president of the National League, formerly known as the Football Conference. Does the Minister agree that one of the most worrying aspects of these dreadful allegations is the way that they were ignored by the football authorities when they were first made and that it is only as a result of the press coverage in the last few days that they have come to light? The Minister referred to other sports. Do the Government have any information about whether similar allegations are likely to be forthcoming concerning those sports? Will the helpline to which the Statement referred—its announcement is very welcome—be extended to help other people who may have experienced the same sort of event?

The normal contact for someone with an allegation is the police. Since this has come out, 250 people have already contacted the police in England and Wales. The Secretary of State’s letter went out to all sports bodies, telling them that they need to look at their governance to make sure they have the appropriate safeguards in place. The governance code which came out in October covers these points. It will be important for sports bodies to make sure that they are complying with the things the noble Lord mentioned: if they do not, they will not get funding in future.

Does the Minister agree that it is important to make a distinction between professional coaches, who have such power over young people in terms of determining their future in the sport, and volunteers who do not have such a degree of influence?

Does the Minister agree that a distinction needs to be made between professional coaches, who have a considerable amount of power over young people in terms of determining their future in the sport, and volunteers who do not have such influence?

The noble Lord makes a good point. That is one of the things that will be covered by the FA when it has its inquiry.