Colin Smyth MSP on the future of Scottish Football

I spoke in the chamber about the future of Scottish football and how we can build a better and safer environment to grow the next generation of talent here in Scotland. You can watch or read my contribution below:

https://youtu.be/0FT_UlbLb0M

It is a privilege to speak in this important debate. I commend the Public Petitions Committee for the considerable and lengthy work that it has undertaken in tackling with vigour issues that have remained unresolved in Scottish football for far too long. I am not a member of the Public Petitions Committee, but I am a member of the Health and Sport Committee, which, as Clare Haughey explained, has undertaken an inquiry on a topic that is very much related to the Public Petitions Committee’s work on youth football—child protection in sport. I will focus my brief comments on that issue.

We all know that sport, including football, has the power to inspire our young people, make them healthier and develop in them a real sense of achievement: in short, to be a force for good. That is in no small part thanks to the tireless and selfless commitment of the thousands of dedicated and mainly volunteer youth coaches right across Scotland. They give up their time, often at personal cost, to make a profound, inspiring difference to the lives of the young people whom they work with. It is important that we recognise the positive impact that those coaches make on the health and wellbeing of individuals, local communities and wider society.

In recent months, however, we have all heard of the tragic cases of former youth footballers who have come forward to tell their personal stories of historical sexual abuse in football, with a small minority of abusers—they are not coaches—using their position of influence to perpetrate sickening crimes. It is those tragedies that prompted the Health and Sport Committee to undertake its inquiry. The inquiry’s purpose is not to examine those tragic cases, because that is very much for the police and courts, but to seek assurances that the current safeguards that are in place in sport are such that child abuse could not, and would not be allowed to, happen today.

The committee considered a number of areas, with a particular focus on the protecting vulnerable groups scheme. Ensuring that adults who work as coaches or are in similar roles have undergone the necessary PVG checks should be a fundamental starting point for safeguarding children and young people. However, the committee learned that participation in the PVG scheme is not mandatory for those who work with young people in sport and that there is no requirement for talent scouts and other intermediaries to undergo PVG checks.

Although it is an offence knowingly to employ a person on the barred list, evidence from Disclosure Scotland to the committee’s inquiry confirmed that for an organisation

“it is not an offence ... to employ somebody if it did not know they were barred.”

Presumably, that includes cases where the organisation has not had a PVG check carried out.

It was clear to committee members that there is a need to be more explicit about when PVG checks are required. The committee said in its recommendations that there is a

“compelling case for the PVG scheme to be made mandatory”

and concluded that

“the current system may not be preventing unsuitable people from doing regulated work.”

The inadequacies of the present voluntary system were dramatically brought home to the committee by what can only be described as the shambles of the Scottish Youth Football Association’s handling of PVG checks. As Clare Haughey said, during our inquiry, the BBC claimed in December 2016 that 2,500 coaches working in youth football had not been PVG checked. When the Scottish Youth Football Association appeared before the committee to give evidence and to be questioned on the number of outstanding PVG checks, the figures that it provided lacked consistency—frankly, the committee was misled. We found out that the SYFA had rejected offers from Disclosure Scotland and Volunteer Scotland of assistance in clearing the backlog of PVG applications.

Throughout all that, the Scottish Football Association took the view that the SYFA was an autonomous organisation that was simply affiliated to the SFA. As the committee concluded, such a soft-touch approach by the SFA simply was not working effectively to protect children and young people in football—as the committee convener said, the SFA was “asleep on the job”. Although the SFA and the SYFA are not accountable to Parliament, the SFA and other sporting bodies receive public funding. The committee took the view that, in future, such grants should be conditional on adequate child protection procedures being put in place and adhered to.

Although the PVG system is a vital part of the safeguarding process, we know that it alone is not enough to guarantee safety. The Professional Footballers Association Scotland made that point in its evidence to the committee. It stated that

“PVG checks only raise issues when an individual has a criminal record”.

The committee heard that since 2002, Children 1st has worked with sportscotland to deliver the safeguarding in sport service. That support goes well beyond PVG checks and maintains a set of minimum operating requirements, which are currently being updated to

“take a broader ... more child-centred and rights based approach.”

That is something that I very much welcome.

It is fair to say that, since the Public Petitions Committee and the Health and Sport Committee began their inquiries and shone a light on many of the issues described in the debate, there have been a number of improvements. For example, the SYFA has made improvements in dealing with PVG checks, and the SFA has issued a new directive to ensure that its members follow the child and wellbeing policy and is conducting an internal review that is taking place at the same time as the current PVG review and the child abuse inquiry.

However, whatever processes or procedures are slowly being put in place, a recurring theme in the evidence to the Health and Sport Committee was the fundamental cultural problem in sport whereby children are not properly valued and their wellbeing is not at the centre of people’s thinking. That theme is also evident in the work of the Public Petitions Committee.

Children 1st told the Health and Sport Committee:

“The recent allegations of historical child abuse in sport are the latest manifestation of society’s collective failure to listen to, believe and respond to children who have been abused.”

Former Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland Tam Baillie raised specific concerns about the culture and power imbalance in football and the unfair treatment of children, arguing that

“it is in the clubs’ vested interests to have complete control of the children”

and that

“everything is done to the advantage of the professional football clubs and to the disadvantage of the children involved.”—[Official Report, Health and Sport Committee, 7 February 2017; c 34.]

When giving evidence, the chief executive of the SFA denied those claims but, as we have heard today, it is a denial that, frankly, lacks credibility.

It is clear from today’s debate that the two committees share the view that the football authorities have an overriding duty to eradicate the imbalance and, indeed, any perception of it. The Health and Sport Committee is very clear that, if that is not forthcoming from the football authorities, the Scottish Government should act through legislation.

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