PA Sport

Jess Varnish starts landmark legal action against British Cycling and UK Sport

Jess Varnish starts landmark legal action against British Cycling and UK Sport
By PA Sport

10/11/2017 at 22:40Updated 10/11/2017 at 22:50

Former Great Britain track sprinter Jess Varnish is suing British Cycling and UK Sport for sex discrimination, detriment for whistle-blowing, victimisation and unfair dismissal, Press Association Sport understands.

Former Great Britain track sprinter Jess Varnish is suing British Cycling and UK Sport for sex discrimination, detriment for whistle-blowing, victimisation and unfair dismissal, Press Association Sport understands.

Having been dropped from British Cycling's elite set-up in April 2016, only four months before Rio 2016, Varnish accused ex-technical director Shane Sutton of using sexist language towards her.

When that allegation was combined with further claims from other athletes of bullying and discrimination, Sutton was suspended and then resigned.

A British Cycling investigation later cleared him of most of the allegations but agreed that he had used discriminatory language, and an independent investigation strongly criticised Sutton and the governing body's handling of Varnish's case.

It is understood the 26-year-old rider took that case, which could end up having as dramatic an impact on British Olympic and Paralympic sport as the Bosman ruling had on European football in 1995, to an employment tribunal in Manchester on Monday.

There, in a preliminary hearing, she gained a significant win as the judge dismissed UK Sport's attempt to "strike out" her case at the first hurdle, as well as its applications for costs and deposit orders.

If granted, Varnish would certainly have faced bankruptcy if she lost the case, but the upfront cost of finding a deposit to cover UK Sport's legal bill would probably have forced her to drop the case.

This tactic would appear to run counter to the growing consensus in British sport - prompted by several high-profile abuse, bullying and discrimination cases - that athletes need better grievance procedures and whistle-blowing protection.

A source close to Varnish told Press Association Sport: "What British Cycling and UK Sport are saying in public is very different to what they are doing in private."

The source added that Varnish, a former European and 10-time British champion, is not "doing this for the money...she is doing this because she is passionate about the fact athletes still have no real rights, no pension, no grievance policy, and that is not something the rest of us would put up with".

The next step is another preliminary hearing in April when the crucial issue of whether Varnish, and therefore all funded Olympic and Paralympic athletes, should be treated as an employee, a worker or self-employed.

Currently, athletes funded by UK Sport, via their national governing bodies, are treated as self-employed contractors. Therefore, they pay no income tax and national insurance on their grants but also have no pension rights and have not been covered by the governing bodies' HR policies.

That last point is starting to change, largely as a result of the cases involving Varnish, England footballer Eni Aluko and others, but the issue of tax, national insurance and pensions is far more alarming for the governing bodies and UK Sport.

Varnish's legal team, however, believes the principles are straightforward: UK Sport provides the money and contract templates, the governing bodies provide the place of work and uniform, and the athletes should not be treated as freelancers.

They say the athletes could be made exempt from tax, in the same way the armed forces are when deployed, but should have pension rights and access to staff grievance procedures.

UK Sport has declined to comment but a spokesman for British Cycling said: "We are in an ongoing and positive dialogue with Jess and look forward to reaching a resolution which all parties will regard as equitable."

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