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Holyrood urged to cut off public funding to SFA after clubs’ alleged United Nations’ human rights breaches

AFTER 11 years of fighting for wide-ranging improvements across Scottish youth football, Realgrassroots have no intention of blowing the final whistle on their campaign.

If anything, they are going to redouble their efforts as they go into extra-time in their long-running crusade.

The organisation, which was set up by Scott Robertson of Musselburgh Windsor and Willie Smith of Hillwood Boys Club back, has been informed that MSPs’ demands for change have been rejected by the country’s senior clubs.

The Public Petitions Committee at Holyrood recommended “very strongly” in June last year that multi-year registrations for players under the age of 16 in the Club Academy Scotland set-up should be abolished.

The committee also asked for the current compensation system – described in the past by senior Celtic and Rangers officials as a “transfer market in children” – to be altered so development costs only have to be paid to a club when a player signs their first professional contract at 16.

The proposals were the result of a petition that was lodged at the Scottish parliament by Realgrassroots back in 2010.

Bruce Adamson, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, Robertson and Smith were among those to attend a virtual meeting with Ian Maxwell, the SFA chief executive, on Wednesday.

They have now learned that neither recommendation has been implemented.

Smith is pleased that Adamson has written to Maree Todd, the Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport, urging her to push through legislation that prohibits multi-year registrations.

And he is delighted that Adamson has also contacted the Citizenship Participation and Public Petitions Committee, Health, Social Care and Sport Committee and Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee asking for their support.

Adamson has pointed out that the multi-year registration breaches six articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – which MSPS voted unanimously in favour of incorporating into domestic law back in March.

Smith – who founded Hillwood, where Kenny Burns, Tommy Coyne, Alex McLeish and Ross McCormack all played as youngsters, back in 1966 – believes that both legislation and independent regulation must be put in place.  

He would also like to see public funding to the SFA cut off until their member clubs agree to comply with the committee’s recommendations.

“The Children’s Commissioner has been informed of the so-called compromises that the SFA member clubs are prepared to make,” said Smith. “It is important to state that it is the clubs that run the SFA.

“They are not taking the recommendations over the registration of 15-year-olds on board. They are going to carry on as normal with it. Much to the annoyance of ourselves. This matter is going to end up back at the parliament and is probably going to go legal.

“Leigh McLevy, a solicitor who advises Realgrassroots and is also a member of the organisation, pointed out at the meeting we had with the SFA on Wednesday that legally kids as young as 13 could be asked to sign the registration the 15-year-olds sign.

“The clubs are also abusing this registration. It means that they don’t have to pay a wage to kids at 16 and 17. We have caught five or six clubs not paying the minimum wage – and one paying as low as £1 a week. And the £1 a week wasn’t even paid. It simply triggered the compensation claim.  

“Furthermore, the vast majority of these kids, up to 90 per cent, end up finding themselves in the wilderness of unemployment and the government is landed with a bill for benefits.”

The Public Petitions Committee praised the SFA and SPFL for the changes they had implemented during the years the petition – the longest in the Scottish parliament’s history – was being considered when they released their final report.

Club Academy Scotland players are now allowed to play recreational football. A Child Wellbeing and Protection Strategy that is aligned to the Scottish government’s framework for supporting children and young people is in place. A Young Player Wellbeing Panel has been set up.

But for Robertson and Smith they took too long to implement – the committee stated that progress had been “unacceptably slow” and noted there had been a “reluctance or lack of urgency” to “put the rights and wellbeing of children and young people at the heart of policy” – and did not go nearly far enough.

Smith said: “The changes which the SFA and SPFL have made are insignificant to children’s rights. The two main areas of contention remain unresolved because of them, and it says this in the report, dragging their feet.

“One was the issue of compensation that would need to be repaid by a club for a child under 16. The committee took our view that that person is a minor and should not be subjected to pressure of that nature.

“When a player is 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, they sign a one year registration. At the end of it they can walk away and go to any club they want, to a grassroots football club or another senior club. But at 15 they put them on a three year registration.”

He added: “Tam Baillie, the former Children’s Commissioner, compiled a report for the committee that said that children’s human rights were being abused at that registration point of 15.

“We have spoken to five advocates in law, one who specialises in human rights and one who specialises in sports contracts, who all say the three year registration is not a registration, it is a contract in law. If we could get one of those cases to court they reckon we would win hands down.

“The legal arguments are that these are breaches of United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. They are pretty solid. They are holding them against their will. We have no problem with them introducing a contract at 16 because the player is then an adult.”

The SFA and SPFL have argued in the past that FIFA could take action if the Scottish parliament is seen to be interfering in football matters – but both PFA Scotland and FIFPro have dismissed those concerns.

“They have stated that they should make all the decisions for football,” said Smith. “That is fine. But the government has to make all of their decisions about where their money goes in sport. The best way to sort this out is for them to cut off the money supply.

“The commissioner and ourselves know that SFA member clubs are going to have to be forced down the right road. The commissioner has written to Maree Todd, the Minister for Public Health, Women’s Health and Sport, pushing for statutory legislation that deals with it.

“We would like to see legislation and regulation. But we have argued that if they don’t comply then funding should be removed from them completely. That is an option that is available to the government and is the tool that would perhaps trigger a more positive response from the clubs.

“After 11 years, I am sure they would have thought we would have walked away. I think that has been the tactic. They have been accused by the Public Petitions Committee of dragging their feet. But the bottom line is we have been there for 11 years and we aren’t stopping now.”

The SFA were approached for comment.

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