Football coach checks slip through the net

youth football match Image copyright Getty Images

Dozens of youth football coaches and officials who were flagged as a potential danger to children appear to have slipped through the net.

BBC Scotland has learned the Scottish Youth Football Association (SYFA) was warned 116 of its members were under investigation by Disclosure Scotland.

The SYFA said it was only aware of 69 cases and had taken action to suspend them - meaning 47 were not dealt with.

It said it was urgently trying to clarify the discrepancy.

Scotland's Children's Commissioner said the matter needed "urgent consideration".

BBC Scotland can also reveal Scottish football's governing body, the SFA, has stripped the SYFA of its strategic child safety responsibilities.

The SYFA had been dogged with criticism since December when it emerged it had 2,500 coaches working with children without any background checks.

The criticism included a stinging rebuke by the Holyrood Health and Sport Committee which also took aim at the SFA for being "asleep at the wheel".

Under Freedom of Information legislation, Disclosure Scotland told BBC Scotland's investigations team that over a three-year period - 2014 to 2016 - the vetting body had notified the SYFA 116 times that one of their members was being "considered for listing".

What is 'considered for listing'?

Image copyright Disclosure Scotland
Image caption PVG checks are carried out by Disclosure Scotland

It means that the vetting body Disclosure Scotland has obtained information or intelligence that a person either working with or applying to work within a vulnerable group, in this case children, may not be suitable for that work.

Disclosure Scotland then puts them on the "consideration" list and places them under investigation until they are either cleared or completely barred from working with children.

Once notified a member has been 'considered for listing', SYFA policy is to immediately suspend them as a precaution until the end of the Disclosure Scotland investigation when they will either be allowed back to work or banned.

What does 'listed' mean?

After an investigation, if Disclosure Scotland is still concerned about a person's suitability or safety to work with vulnerable people, the person is put on a list which means they are completely barred from working with that group.

Listing happens in the most serious cases and it is a criminal offence to ignore this.

The figures

  • 116 - The number of officials placed under investigation by Disclosure Scotland from 2014-16 over concerns they may not be suitable to work with children. SYFA notified on each occasion.
  • 69 - The number of times the SYFA said they were notified of a "consideration for listing".
  • 47 - notifications for which the SYFA has no records

Freedom of Information request

The SYFA was notified 116 times of people 'considered for listing' but it told the BBC it could only find records of 69 notifications - 40% short of the total number.

This means the organisation tasked with protecting young footballers has no trace of 47 occasions over the past three years when it has been told one of its members might be a danger to children.

Image caption Children's Commissioner Bruce Adamson said the discrepancy needed urgent consideration

Bruce Adamson, the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland, told the BBC the matter needed "urgent consideration to get to the bottom of it".

He said: "What the [Health and Sport] committee found was a real concern about the [SYFA] not seeking support when it needed to and not having the proper procedures in place, and I think that the figures that you have come across through your Freedom of Information request indicate the same thing: that this is an organisation that is not doing things properly at the moment and needs additional support."

Barred outright

Relatively few who are considered for listing end up barred completely. That is an action reserved for the most serious cases.

For Data Protection reasons Disclosure Scotland said it was unable to say how many SYFA officials had been listed, or barred outright from working with children between 2014 and 2016.

The SYFA said its records showed three people had been "listed"' in the same period.

But the BBC understands this number to be at least five - which means there are potentially two or more people banned from working with children about whom the SYFA can find no records.

It is a criminal offence for someone who is "listed" to do regulated work in the UK with the protected groups they are listed for.

It is also a criminal offence for an organisation to employ a "listed" person to do that kind of regulated work.

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Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who chairs the Health and Sport Committee, said it may have to recall the SYFA for further examination.

He said: "We are very concerned and obviously, following on from that [committee] report, information coming forward like this would cause, I believe, the committee great concern and it may be something we have to look at again."

In a statement, a spokesman for the SYFA said: "SYFA records show a figure of 69 notifications of members being considered for listing during that period and three actually listed.

"We will be contacting Disclosure Scotland as a matter of urgency to clarify any discrepancy."

In a clear sign the SYFA has lost the patience and confidence of the governing body, an inquiry has been launched by the SFA into its affiliate association over its safeguarding policies, including how it operates its background checks on coaches, called Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) checks.

Pending the outcome of this inquiry, the SFA has effectively stripped the SYFA of its strategic responsibilities to make decisions on child wellbeing matters "without seeking and obtaining the prior agreement of the Scottish FA".

Image caption Donna Martin said child wellbeing issues were being referred to the SFA

Donna Martin, child protection officer for the SFA, told the BBC: "They can no longer make any decisions around child wellbeing; anything that's raised in the sense of a concern, and issues around PVG, have to come to [the SFA] first.

"And what we hope is that the inquiry gets into the level of detail that [the SYFA] recognise their role and responsibility in keeping children and young people safe."

A spokesman for the SYFA said: "We've had a number of very encouraging senior-level discussions with the SFA in recent weeks on Child Wellbeing and are committed to a far more closely aligned approach on this and other matters.

"A wide-ranging review of our systems is under way and we will be working in partnership with the SFA to make any necessary improvements."

The moves comes as the SYFA announced plans to close a loophole allowing coaches to work for three months before having to undergo background checks.

An SYFA spokesman said: "As a result of our ongoing review of child protection systems, we plan to eliminate the current three-month provisional membership period for the forthcoming season - 2017/2018.

"This means all officials will have to complete a PVG application form in full before they can participate in any activities involving children.

"As at present, until an applicant has been fully approved by Disclosure Scotland, they must, at all times, operate under the direct supervision of a PVG-checked official when dealing with players."

The SYFA concerns come amid a torrent of child sex abuse in football allegations across Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The SFA launched a major inquiry into the scandal following a series of BBC Scotland investigations, and earlier this month the inquiry said it was "entering the crucial stage " of hearing from survivors.

  • Additional reporting by BBC Scotland's Calum McKay and Liam McDougall.

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