wildcat loophole

Agenda: Legal loophole puts children playing sport at risk of abuse

By Agenda
Joanna Barrett

Joanna Barrett

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Joanna Barrett

NSPCC Scotland policy and public affairs manager

At the end of 2016, Andy Woodward bravely came forward to talk about the sexual abuse he had endured as a young footballer at Crewe Alexandra. A scandal grew as more and more individuals came forward with their own accounts of abuse at youth football clubs up and down the country. Many of those culpable for such abuse have since been brought to justice, and these stories have seldom been out of the headlines ever since.

In the wake of these allegations, in 2017 Holyrood’s Health and Sport Committee held an inquiry into child protection in sport. To this inquiry, NSPCC Scotland made two key recommendations: review the Disclosure system; and extend the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act definition of ‘position of trust’.

Last week, the Scottish Government delivered on our first recommendation. Plans were unveiled to reform the Disclosure system, the process of criminal record checks which stops unsuitable people from working with children or vulnerable adults. The changes will clarify and simplify the Disclosure process, and are a positive step. Among proposals is a plan to make Protection of Vulnerable Group checks – the most stringent checks – mandatory for everyone in a ‘regulated role’, to recognise the power and influence some individuals working with children and young people can have on them.

But, so far, there has been silence on ‘position of trust’, despite this, too, being about the power and influence of adults.

Currently, it is a criminal offence for a person in a ‘position of trust’ to have a sexual relationship with 16 and 17 year olds in their care. The offence is very narrow, being limited only to certain professions like teachers and care workers. It doesn’t apply to sports coaches or youth workers. And yet we have seen tragic headline after tragic headline highlighting the power and influence sports coaches have over children, and how some have horribly abused their position of trust.

Our concern is that all those who have a special opportunity to develop trusting and close relationships with young people are not treated the same in law. This leaves 16 and 17 year olds without protection from the sexual advances of adults who are supposed to have their best interests at heart. Why is a young person protected in the classroom but not on the football pitch? We think this is a legal loophole which should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The Health and Sport Committee asked the Scottish Government to consider changes and the Government consulted on it last year. However, now over two years after the Committee reported, the Scottish Government has made no commitment to change. Indeed, following its consultation, has said nothing at all. And yet, in response to NSPCC calls, the Ministry of Justice in Whitehall is currently undertaking a review of the equivalent ‘position of trust’ offence in England and Wales.

We know that the overwhelming majority of sports coaches do an excellent job and work tirelessly with children to make them healthier, more confident and to develop their talents. But there can be no room for complacency. That there has been no progress on this pressing child protection issue is deeply concerning.

NSPCC Scotland’s Close the Loophole campaign is demanding that the law is strengthened to ensure that those working in sport – and indeed other regulated roles – are held to the same high standards we should expect from all professions where adults are in a position of trust over children and young people.

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