UK: Safety, Wellbeing And Welfare

Last Updated: 22 May 2017
Article by Simon Osborne

Duty of care report offers welcome protection, says Simon Osborne

Last month, Baroness Grey-Thompson published an independent report for the UK Government entitled 'Duty of Care in Sport'. The sector is under greater scrutiny than ever before, following allegations of sexual abuse in football and bullying cultures in other sports, such as cycling. The report shines an important light on the many and varied responsibilities that sporting bodies have with regard to the people involved in the system, such as personal safety and injury, support for mental health issues, and the care given to people at the elite level.

Although some of the recommendations seem skewed towards sporting bodies in receipt of public funds, and are already covered by legal duties and/or the provisions in the Code for Sports Governance (the Code), the report does highlight some important areas of governance.

The report made seven priority recommendations, the first of which was for a sports ombudsman to be created. This ombudsman (or Sports Duty of Care Quality Commission) would have powers to hold every national governing body (NGB) to account for the duty of care they should owe to all athletes, coaching staff and support staff. This sounds good in principle, but the key issue will be exactly what powers it has, whether NGBs will listen to it, and who will pay for it. Baroness Grey-Thompson recognises in her report that no new public money will be available to implement all her recommendations.

Second, Baroness Grey-Thompson suggests the Government should measure duty of care via an independent benchmark survey, giving equal voice to all stakeholders in the system. This would allow the system to be monitored to see whether duty of care policies intended to improve standards in sport are really working, thereby helping to inform future policies and investment decisions. Again, this is fine in principle, but arriving at the correct methodology will require some careful calculation and it is not yet clear who would administer it and what machinery it would feed into.

Third, all NGB boards should have a named duty of care guardian with an explicit responsibility to engage with participants across talent pathways and in community sport, and to provide assurance at board level. This assurance would be evidenced in a public statement in each NGB's annual report.

Making acceptance of a duty of care a mandatory condition of future funding, with all funded bodies being obliged to demonstrate application, may address the issue of getting NGBs to listen. If a negative finding by the ombudsman affected future funding applications, that might provide some enforcement. Similarly, the financial lever could be a powerful motivator for getting NGBs to address their governance arrangements with a nominated board member for governance and a public statement helping to instil some level of accountability. The main oversight here, however, is how one would hold NGBs to task for non-publicly funded activities.

Fourth, an induction programme should be required for all participants entering top-level sport, including the steps involved with entering the elite system, what may be expected while training and competing, and how to prepare for exiting elite level. Parents, guardians or carers should attend induction sessions until the participant reaches the age of 18 and consideration should be given to how they might possibly be involved beyond this, relatively young, age. Financial and pension advice, the role of agents, first-aid training and information about medical issues, coaching qualifications, media training, behaviour of parents, and understanding exploitative relationships should also be covered.

Fifth, there should be independent exit interviews for elite athletes leaving formal programmes, the results of which would be taken into account during future funding discussions.

Sixth, it was suggested the Government establish a 'Duty of Care Charter' setting out how participants, coaches and support staff could expect to be treated and where to go for support and guidance. Participants who receive funding should be offered honorary contracts, which set out the roles and responsibilities of the sport and participant. The charter could be incorporated into the Code, but it does raise the question again of what needs to be done for non-funded activities.

Baroness Grey-Thompson's final recommendation is for the Government independently to fund the British Athletes Commission to enable it to provide the best support to participants on talent pathways in Olympic and Paralympic sports. She feels by increasing confidence in grievance and dispute resolution in this way, it will reduce the need for escalation, thereby saving time, money and stress.

As Baroness Grey-Thompson states: 'The most important element in sport is the people involved, whether they are taking part, volunteering, coaching or paid employees. The success of sport, in terms of helping people achieve their potential, making the most of existing talent, and attracting new people to sport relies on putting people – their safety, wellbeing and welfare – at the centre of what sport does.' I could not agree more.

Although there is a period of upheaval ahead for sports organisations as they look to implement the Code, there is an opportunity here not simply to increase the compliance burden on organisations and sport more generally, but to effect a change in culture and education.

Sport is by its nature competitive, but success should not be at the expense of the individuals involved. Concerns about bullying, harassment, discrimination and abuse must be tackled if the current system is to improve on what has gone before. These recommendations go some way towards that, and it is right that a duty of care towards participants, coaches and others involved in the system, such as volunteers, should be the primary focus. However, there is also reliance on requirements which seem likely to work only if there is a funding carrot, or stick, attached.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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