Close the loopholes and safeguard children and young people in sports
The ‘position of trust’ in law that applies to teachers and social workers should be extended to sports coaches and assistants, writes Bambos Charalambous
Twenty years ago, Ian Ackley first spoke out about the sexual abuse he suffered as a 12-year-old boy at the hands of ex-football coach Barry Bennell. As the first whistleblower, Mr Ackley was one of the victims whose testimony helped to prosecute Bennell. But it was only recently that the full scale of the abuse became known when, earlier in February of this year, Bennell was given prison sentences amounting to 454 years to run concurrently.
Bennell was a football coach and talent scout and his convictions relate to his crimes against 12 of his former players. The power was in his hands as he offered children the dream of becoming professional footballers. They trusted him and he used his power and their trust to groom the former players, and their families, so he could molest and rape the young boys.
Ian Ackley, who now lives in my constituency of Enfield Southgate, approached me to tell me about his harrowing experience and to ask for my help. Mr Ackley wants the government to close certain loopholes that he believes leave children and young people vulnerable to abuse in sports. I agree that we must improve the safeguarding legislation and I am pleased to have secured a Backbench Business Debate on Tuesday 1 May. I will be calling on the government to ‘close the loopholes’ to safeguard children and young people in sports.
The ‘position of trust’ in law that applies to teachers and social workers, should be extended to sports coaches and assistants. This ‘position of trust’ means that they are not allowed to engage in sexual activity with the young people they look after. Other loopholes in safeguarding and the DBS system need to be addressed so that talent scouts and football coach assistants come under regulated activity. Now, football coaches come under regulated activity, but their assistants may not. The rules allow those who have been deemed unsuitable to work with children through DBS barring, to still work with children when it is not considered regulated activity. These two changes would help to protect young people and children from grooming and sexual abuse by the trusted figures in their lives.
The Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch MP, and the Shadow Minister for Sport, Dr. Rosena Allin-Khan MP, have endorsed both of these calls. The FA and various sports associations have been in contact with me to offer their help and are keen to share best practice with grass-roots sports clubs that may need more support to implement safeguarding policies and procedures. There is plenty of support for these changes and the recent media attention on the Bennell case should have jolted the government into action, but nothing has been done.
There are thousands of well-run sports organisations and even more decent and inspirational adults involved in sports coaching. But we must feel confident that our legislation is robust enough to stop the very few who attempt to use these positions to groom and abuse young people and children.
Bambos Charalambous is Labour MP for Enfield Southgate. His Westminster Hall debate is on Tuesday 1 May