British athletes have ‘fewer rights than an Uber driver’ says Damian Collins MP

Sean Ingle
Damian Collins said UK Sport ‘desperately needs’ to appoint an independent ombudsman. Photograph: Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Britain’s elite athletes “have fewer rights than an Uber driver” and desperately need an independent watchdog to protect them, the chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee has warned.

Damian Collins MP told the Guardian that the worrying number of bullying, sexism and racism cases inside the UK Sport system was directly linked to the lack of employment rights for athletes and it is not enough to hope for change to happen organically.

His comments come as Dame Katherine Grainger, the new chair of UK Sport, admits her organisation has faced “significant challenges” over the past 18 months that can no longer be brushed under the carpet. and

Speaking before the UK Sport’s World Class Performance conference, which begins in Manchester on Monday, Grainger said: “I recognise and accept that there have been a number of difficult issues across a range of sports in recent months that have challenged our system, and we have to rise to that challenge. These issues do not take away from the achievements of our athletes and coaches, but neither can we brush them under the carpet or just hope that they go away.”

Grainger said UK Sport was conducting a “root and branch review” of its policies following reports of a culture of fear in organisations as diverse as British Cycling, British Swimming, British Bobsleigh and British Gymnastics. “We have to aim to be the best in the world at athlete welfare, culture, governance and integrity just as we aim to be so in performance,” she said. “And we have to be seen to be the best in order to maintain public trust and pride in our achievements.”

However, Collins said more must be done to reform the culture of UK Sport – including an independent sports ombudsman, operating outside UK Sport’s control, which he believes is “desperately needed”.

“We’ve seen too many cases of sports bodies effectively marking their own homework,” said Collins, whose DCMS select committee has recently investigated bullying and misclassification in paraports and the Football Association’s disastrous handling of the Eni Aluko affair. “There’s basically no outside scrutiny. If there was, they would have better procedures in place.”

“One of the big things that has come out is that athletes don’t have very many rights in the face of the governing body of the sport in which they participate,” he said. “In many ways they have fewer rights than an Uber driver has and that has been at the heart of the problem.

“Because they don’t really have those rights, the governing bodies have got away with not having the sort of proper grievance procedures that would be normal in a lot of professional workplaces. That is something that needs to change.”

As things stand, elite British athletes are not treated as employees by UK Sport but rather as recipients of grants. The sports minister, Tracey Crouch, in her appearance in front of the DCMS select committee last week, stopped short of backing the idea of changing this, calling it a “complex issue”.

Crouch did acknowledge that she was considering the ombudsmen idea, as recommended by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson in a review into the culture of British sport in April.

Collins also urged UK Sport to bring in far better whistleblowing procedures. “There has to be a way for people to bring in concerns and at the moment it just doesn’t exist,” he said, pointing out that Crouch had not been able to name a single sport with appropriate whistleblowing procedures when she spoke to the DCMS select committee.

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