Earlier this year, more than 200 athletes signed an open letter to UK Athletics Chief Executive Joanna Coates calling for permanent bans for coaches found guilty of abuse.
The campaign was initiated by three British athletes who raised concerns about temporary bans being handed to coaches who breach their licences in the context of physical or sexual misconduct, harassment or abuse.
In response, Chief Executive Joanna Coates stated that she wants to implement a lifetime ban for sports coaches found guilty of sexual misconduct, harassment or physical abuse.
If a lifetime ban is implemented, sports coaches would have their licence permanently revoked and they would never be permitted to return to a coaching role.
Is Implementing a Lifetime Ban Good Safeguarding Practice?
Safeguarding is about putting policies and practices in place that minimise harm and allow people to live free from the risk of abuse and neglect. Therefore, the call to implement lifetime bans on coaches found guilty of abusive behaviour could be perceived as good safeguarding practice- as it may seem logical that removing coaches who have acted abusively would result in safer spaces in sport. Yet, when this issue is considered in more depth, the decision to approve a lifetime ban could be seen as problematic.
Firstly, implementing a lifetime ban discriminates against people with previous convictions which is unlawful under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974). This act differentiates between ‘spent’ and ‘unspent’ convictions. After a certain period of time has elapsed, some convictions become ‘spent’, meaning that people will no longer have to declare them to employers. Simultaneously, convictions will not be disclosed through basic DBS checks and people should not experience discrimination as a result of their conviction.
A sports coach for adults is not exempt from the ROA in the same way as for example, a coach in a children’s club would be. Therefore, UK Athletics would be required to act in accordance with the ROA (1974), and lifetime bans would go against this legislation.
It is important to note that people sentenced to more than forty-eight months in prison will receive a conviction that never becomes ‘spent’. Therefore, those convicted of the most serious crimes would always be known to UK Athletics through basic DBS checks which any employer can request.
Secondly, safeguarding is rooted in social work principles of fairness and justice. Implementing a lifetime ban because of a criminal record is arguably disproportionate in many instances. This is because even after the ‘official’ punishment is completed (be that a fine, community sentence or prison sentence), a lifetime ban would result in a permanent exclusion from the coaching profession, meaning that punishment because of the conviction is in place for the rest of a person’s life.
Similarly, in April 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that indefinite notification, without the possibility of a review, for people included on the Sexual Offenders Register was incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This resulted in an amendment to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 under the (Remedial) Order 2012. The amendment means that people on the register indefinitely can now apply for a review. Thus allowing punishment to be considered on a case by case basis, taking into account the wider context of a person’s rehabilitation journey, rather than imposing an indefinite punishment. Using this logic, a lifetime ban for sports coaches is likely to encounter opposition on the grounds of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is enshrined in the UK Human Rights Act (1998).
An Alternative Approach?
From a social justice perspective, it is important that we do not punish everyone indefinitely as a lifetime ban proposes. Simultaneously, it is also important to highlight that a lifetime ban for any coach found guilty of abusive behaviour will not automatically create safer sporting spaces.
Anyone could instigate abuse in sport settings, not just coaches. Similarly, a lifetime ban would only be effective once an incident of abuse had taken place and been reported and responded to. The bigger question instead should perhaps be, how can we promote safer cultures to minimise instances of abuse from taking place at all?
How can we Promote Safer Cultures?
- Having a safeguarding policy is key for any organisation. This will ensure people know how to report, refer and effectively respond to safeguarding concerns in a timely manner.
- Listening is key. Staff, volunteers and sport participants need to feel confident they can raise concerns and that they will be listened to and supported.
- All sport and activity organisations should have a dedicated safeguarding lead. People in the club should know who this is and how to contact them should they have concerns.
- Staff working in sport and activity should receive safeguarding training to learn how to spot the signs of abuse and how to report any concerns.
- Sports and activity organisations should practise safe recruitment. Whilst this may not be in the form of a lifetime ban, this could be obtaining good references, having regular supervisions and a training programme that sets the standard for appropriate behaviour.
- If someone is known to have previous convictions these should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Part of this process could include organisations giving consideration to the following; how long ago the offences took place, the nature of the offence, was it one offence or many offences, what has the person with convictions done since- for instance have they actively engaged with the rehabilitation process?
- For some people, it might not be appropriate for them to return to a coaching role, but for others it could be safe for them do to so. Either way, making decisions on a case-by-case basis and putting in place appropriate risk assessments would support in minimising the risk of harm and abuse and achieving a fairer approach.
Creating safer cultures will not be achieved by only banning anyone with previous convictions. Instead, it is important we work together to ensure the right policies and practices are in place to minimise the risk of harm and abuse.
Want to learn more?
It is vital organisations such as the Ann Craft Trust and CPSU continue to work with the sport sector to implement safeguarding policies and practices. Contact us for support with implementing safeguarding policies, procedures and safeguarding training.