A recent report commissioned by the United States Soccer Federation (the Report) has found that abuse and sexual misconduct is systemic in the US National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and that stakeholders at all levels have either engaged in or turned a blind eye to such abuse.

The systemic nature of this abuse has once again raised the important question as to whether sport's governing bodies have appropriate and relevant safeguarding measures in place. With the publication of the Report bringing the conversation around what US organisations are doing to improve safeguarding in their respective sports to the forefront, sports organisations, and governing bodies in particular, across Scotland should be asking themselves whether they are doing enough to meet their safeguarding obligations.

What is safeguarding and why is it important?

Safeguarding is the action that an organisation takes to protect vulnerable adults and children from various kinds of harm, abuse or neglect. This includes ensuring there are measures in place to secure and enforce these protections, for example, by implementing appropriate policies and procedures.

It is essential for an organisation to understand safeguarding for various reasons:

  • Firstly, it ensures better protection and support for the most vulnerable people in society.
  • Secondly, it means organisations are better placed to meet their legal safeguarding obligations under applicable safeguarding legislation.
  • Thirdly, it allows organisations to assess the consequences that safeguarding (or a lack thereof) can have, such as reputational damage or disputes in relation to processes, governance and conduct.

Do you know your safeguarding obligations?

Although the Report focuses on safeguarding in sports, issues of safeguarding are largely homogenous and arise across different sectors. Some of the key sectors affected by safeguarding issues are charitiessports and leisurehealthcare and social care services.

It is crucial for an organisation to consider: (i) whether it or the sector it operates in is susceptible to safeguarding issues; and (ii) whether it is doing enough to meet its safeguarding obligations.

In order to carry out this assessment, it is important to be aware of and understand your sector-relevant duties, as well as your wider statutory duties to ensure you adequately protect the relevant individuals. Wherever you have any questions in relation to your safeguarding obligations, and whether you’re meeting those obligations, independent legal advice should be sought.  

Safeguarding tips for your organisation

The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) has published some key tips to help organisations ensure they are appropriately safeguarding vulnerable adults and children. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Developing policies and procedures that will help make sure that children and vulnerable adults are protected from harm.
  • Ensuring those policies and procedures are implemented effectively and understood by everyone within the organisation.
  • Having clear lines of responsibility and accountability within the organisation to deal with any safeguarding issues that arise.
  • Training staff to identify potential harm, and to know when and what action to take in such circumstances.

To further ensure your organisation is effectively dealing with safeguarding, you should deal with safeguarding issues promptly, act transparently, embed safeguarding within your culture, address issues correctly and learn from any incidents that may occur.

Action points

Safeguarding impacts organisations across various sectors, from local authorities and government to healthcare, education and social enterprise. With the recent spotlight on US sports organisations, good safeguarding can never be taken for granted and, for us here in Scotland, regular reviews of safeguarding policies and practice should form part of any organisation's risk management.  

In practice, this means that your organisation should take the time to reflect on whether it is doing enough to protect vulnerable persons, the extent to which it is currently meeting its safeguarding obligations and whether additional measures need to be taken to satisfy its obligations.

If you have any questions on safeguarding generally or on how you can ensure that you are meeting your safeguarding obligations, please contact a member of our Regulatory & Compliance team.

This article was co-written by Trainee Solicitors Ussamah Nasar and Josh Grieveson.