I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Sexual Offences Act 2003 to make sports coach a position of trust for the purposes of child sex offences;
and for connected purposes.
I rise today to introduce this Bill out of sheer frustration at the lack of progress to extend the positions of trust legislation to sports coaches. I was in post as sports Minister when the scandal of historic abuse in football broke. It was a no-brainer that while safeguards in sport are much better than they were, loopholes existed and this is by far the greatest of them all. When positions of trust was first discussed in the late ’90s, organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Christian Institute and others raised concerns about the exclusion of sports coaches. They continue to welcome efforts, alongside newer organisations such as the Offside Trust, to expand the legislation to protect young people from abuse by those who hold some form of power over them.
I will never forget the bravery of the former Crewe Alexandra player Andy Woodward, who publicly revealed that he was a victim of Barry Bennell, a prolific sex offender who is now in prison for multiple counts of abuse. Due to Andy coming forward, the Football Association and the NSPCC set up a hotline dedicated to helping footballers who had experienced historical sexual abuse. In the first week, the hotline received nearly 900 calls. The footballer sexual abuse scandal has been widely documented, but the problem is not limited to football. In the weeks that followed, I listened to heartbreaking testimonies of athletes from various sports, speaking out about their experiences of historical sexual abuse at the hands of coercive coaches or managers who abused their position of trust for their own gratification.
How sport reacted to those horrific stories is something that should be recognised. The FA did what it had to do for football and the same was done for other sports. Within a relatively short time, sport as a whole, while recognising that many of the incidents in the press were historical and took place before much of our child protection legislation was in place, instigated internal changes to safeguarding practices to ensure that procedures were in place today to maximise protection against abuse in sport. All sport, with support from Sport England and the NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit, made positive changes in a relatively short time to the way they keep their participants safe. They rightly took responsibility and they took it seriously. Yet the one reasonable request of Government they asked, one that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and I supported, is the one area that still lacks progress: to close the loophole in the misuse of positions of trust legislation to include sports coaches.
Under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is illegal for certain professions, such as teachers, to engage in sexual activity with a 16 or 17-year-old, as they are considered a person in a position of trust. The Act prescribes a limited number of roles, but does not extend into a range of non-statutory settings that may be subject to far less scrutiny than those covered by the Act. We should perhaps reflect briefly on why we have that particular section of legislation in the 2003 Act. People who work in schools as carers or youth workers will have gone through the required Disclosure and Barring Service checks. Although some might fall through the cracks, ultimately people who pose a known risk to children or vulnerable adults will not, if the system works properly, be allowed to work in that sector. The legislation adds an extra layer of safeguarding to prevent those in positions of trust from forming relationships with children who, although they are over the age of consent, are not considered legal adults and could be abused, given the nature of the power balance. At present, a continued reliance on the law of consent and the accompanying Crown Prosecution Service guidance, such as the aide-mémoire on the abuse of power, places the responsibility on young people themselves to recognise and resist sexual advances from adults in positions of authority over them who are not on the current prescribed list.
Therefore, when an adult occupies a position of authority over a child it is not practical or possible to differentiate the inappropriate utilisation of this position by the adult from the potential exertion of the influence. It also requires children to go through a criminal justice process that some might argue is currently not supporting victims of child sex abuse, given that the latest Office for National Statistics data suggest that only 4% of cases of child sexual abuse reported to police lead to a charge.
I have spent a significant amount of my life coaching sport, so I concur with sports and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that in sport, especially but not exclusively, the elite pathway is a vulnerable area. In my view, the Ministry of Justice should have acted straightaway to close the loophole in the 2003 Act. When I was dealing with the issue as sports Minister, it was claimed that if the legislation was extended to sports coaches, it would also need to be extended to music teachers, private tutors, and faith and driving instructors. My response, as the daughter of a social worker who has spent her working life dealing with child sexual abuse, is, “Yes, it absolutely should be.” I fail to understand why it should not. Concern about the scope of the prescribed list is a poor reason to avoid taking a policy position and changing the positions of trust provisions. Anyone in a position to influence another person’s journey through life, meaning that a power balance rests with them, should not be able to abuse that position via a sexual relationship. Someone’s place in the team or time on the pitch, or the competitions in which they are entered, should not be vulnerable to another person’s physical or emotional demands.
The legislation can be easily amended, either by adding to the list or removing it altogether. The MOJ, at the time, asked for evidence of why change was required, and although evidence was provided, nothing has happened. A freedom of information request found that between 2014 and 2018 there were 653 cases in which adults who could be regarded as being in a position of trust had had a sexual relationship with a 16 or 17-year-old. Of the 495 cases in which the adult’s role was recorded, the majority were in sport, and the data showed that such incidents had increased. Sport is doing what it can to prevent dangerous people from working with children and young adults. It has enhanced its safeguarding procedures, as part of the implementation of the sports governance code, which I oversaw as Minister, and many use enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks. However, while the loophole exists, in the eyes of the law it is deemed okay for someone to have sex with someone over the age of 16 who is in their trust while in sport. Therefore, coercive and abuse behaviour will continue, legally, and the lives of many more youngsters will be ruined. There is no time for dither or delay. The legislative loophole needs a legislative solution. So although I do not need to, as it goes without saying, I commend my Bill to the House.