Sports minister urges FA to bring in Eni Aluko and get on with the reform

• Sports minister says Football Association must learn lessons from case
• Crouch gives under-fire FA chairman Greg Clarke her qualified backing

The sports minister, Tracey Crouch, has urged the Football Association to take up Eni Aluko’s offer to help it reform after agreeing its reputation had been “tarnished” by the way it treated the former England player. Crouch also warned the FA it had to quickly learn lessons from the case and that the necessary changes to its culture had to come “right from the top”.

However, Crouch stopped short of saying the FA was not fit for purpose, and gave her qualified backing to the under-fire chairman, Greg Clarke, who she insisted is on a journey to improve the organisation.

“The FA handled the Eni Aluko case really badly,” Crouch told the digital, culture, media and sport select committee. “It was a mess and it has quite rightly taken the shine off the work the FA has done to reform. A cultural shift takes time. Eni Aluko has said that she wants to be part of that change. I hope they listen to her. I think she has a lot to offer. She would be a great asset in driving those culture reforms.”

Crouch also dismissed Clarke’s claim to parliament last month that he had been unable to investigate Aluko’s case after she reported deeply inappropriate comments by the former England Women’s team manager Mark Sampson under sports governance rules. However, although she pointed out that Clarke was wrong, she later generously described it as “an innocent misinterpretation”.

And while agreeing that Clarke and the FA chief executive Martin Glenn’s disastrous performance in front of the DCMS last month had not painted the organisation in a good light, Crouch refused several times to say whether it was fit for purpose.

“It is not for the minister to say whether the chair or chief executive should be in place,” she said. “We would go down a very dangerous place if you want me to fire them. Because if I can fire them I can hire them. And you do not want a minister of state to have that power. We sit here and criticise Russia and China but this would be the same.”

Crouch also balanced her criticisms of the FA by pointing out the progress that had been made in many areas, including term limits for board members and a plan for better diversity on the board.

Elsewhere, Crouch hinted that she was amenable to the idea of an independent sports ombudsman to investigate cases of bullying, discrimination and other cases of wrongdoing in British sport. The government is yet to give its response to the idea, which is a key recommendation of a cultural review of UK Sport by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, but Crouch said she was looking closely at the proposal.

“We recognise there are issues that need to be addressed in sport and, especially, elite sport,” she said. “We are looking at the recommendations in some detail – in particular in relationship to the ombudsmen. I think it is an idea we need to explore more. However, once we have the right grievance policies in place in individual sports we might not need to have an independent ombudsman.”

Crouch also accepted that there needs to be far better ways for whistleblowers to come forward without fear of discrimination or losing their jobs.

“No matter where you work you should not be subject to bullying, discrimination or harassment,” she said. “It is really important we have those safeguards in place for whistleblowers.”

Tellingly, when asked whether there were any national governing bodies with strong whistleblowing policies, she said she “couldn’t think of any off the top of my head”.

It was also put to Crouch that UK Sport had only one person employed on athlete welfare. “That is something they are addressing‚” she replied. “The new chair, Katherine Grainger, has come in with a very different background and will put the athlete right at the heart of what UK Sport is doing. They are looking to beef up the athlete voice. There is change happening in UK Sport.”

There have also been calls for elite British athletes to be treated as employees by UK Sport, rather than just being recipients of grants, so that they could get better protections at work. However, Crouch stopped short of backing the idea, calling it “a complex issue”.

“When you do that it changes National Insurance and pensions, these are things that have to be looked at,” she added. “Ultimately we do have a structure in place that supports a high-performance programme.”

More than 15 gymnasts, coaches and parents have come forward to the Guardian in recent days to discuss the problems in the sport, including bullying, as well as being critical of the behaviour of the chief executive of British Gymnastics, Jane Allen. However, Crouch told the committee she did not think British Gymnastics was in crisis. “The new chief executive is working very hard to change the culture and has introduced some of the best safeguarding practices in all the national bodies,” she added. “I don’t believe British Gymnastics is in crisis, as has been suggested.”