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The critical spotlight of safeguarding is again illuminating the stirring issue of how we can protect children in sport more effectively. Following several scandals, Andrea Coates, the head of UK Athletics, signed a petition with 200 athletes last month requesting a ‘zero-policy’ for coaches found guilty of sexual misconduct and demanded nothing short of a lifetime ban.

To make matters worse, recent Government reforms to DBS certificates and disclosure legislation, has unwittingly opened up a controversial loophole. In some cases, applicants no longer have to disclose cautions for sexual misconduct when applying to work with vulnerable adults or children. Surely children involved with such highly sensitive safeguarding roles should be, well, safeguarded?

Additionally due to Covid-19, society has seen the biggest change to transmigratory working patterns since the automobile revolution of the 1970’s. People, avoiding crowded and long commutes, living in the countryside and working from home, will soon be joining their new local clubs and gyms as trustees, coaches, supervisors and volunteers.

And let’s be honest, there isn’t any conviction that drives more terror and fear into the heart of a safeguarding officer than somebody with a criminal record for sexual offences. With the number of high profile cases in the media over the last few years of sports coaches committing prolific offences against children over long careers, is it any wonder we have simultaneously witnessed heightened caution within the sector when it comes to membership of sporting clubs? Time and again we hear from people who have playing sport at their local club for years, only for somebody to Google their name and drag up historic media articles. Before you know it, rumours are spreading within the club and beyond and in the worst cases we’ve seen, completely ostracised from their local community.

This is exactly why Safeguarding Officers should be extra careful not to judge a book by its cover, so-to-speak. Offence categories cover a wide-range of behaviour yet all too easily feed into our primal fears and stereotypes. For example, urinating in the street may be recorded as ‘indecent exposure’ and sex between teenagers that consider themselves in a mutual relationship could be ‘rape’ or ‘sexual assault against a child’, depending on their age at the time.

Therefore, it is important to look at each application on a case-by-case basis by having a fair and robust risk assessment and a process that provides the applicant the opportunity to provide their side of the story, preferably face-to-face. Nacro’s Employer Advice Service is frequently working behind the scenes with advisory or professional bodies, like the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and the Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU), to develop and promote best practice in relation to criminal record risk assessment and fair process.

In the absence of informed assessments, sports clubs risks making poor, discriminatory and unfair decisions. Research shows that safeguarding decisions in the community tends to be based on a fear of sexual offending within the narrow stereotypes of stranger and predator danger (Hudson and Henley, 2015). This is sadly the negative experience echoed all too frequently by Nacro service-users joining sport clubs up and down the country.

Although some clubs and governing bodies have tightened their safeguarding processes, they still continue to impose indiscriminate blanket bans. The big problem is that blanket bans, by their all-encompassing nature, are unlawful because they do not differentiate between spent and unspent convictions. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, s.4 (3.b) states “a conviction which has become spent….shall not be proper grounds for dismissing or excluding a person…or prejudicing him in any way.” A registered membership of a club is not exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act in the same way as, for example, a children’s coach. Hence an attempt by a sports club to regulate membership in this way, via a blanket ban, is unlawful.

Nacro, in partnership with the Child Protection in Sport Unit (created by the Department of Culture Media and Sport) have recently updated their joint guidance – Making Fair and Safe Decisions about Membership – to help safeguarding officers understand their legal rights and responsibilities when making decisions about a member’s criminal record. The guidance outlines how to make safe, fair and balanced decisions based on evidence and an informed understanding of the risks involved.

If you work with or know of anybody facing a sports ban, our Criminal Record Support Service can advise. Please email helpline@nacro.org.uk.

Justin Tracey, Criminal Justice Adviser