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Governance reforms at the WRU

Emily Ford, Policy Adviser at The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland, looks at the the board changes recently voted through at the Welsh Rugby Union.

Date: 18th Apr 2023

Author: Emily Ford, The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland

Board reforms underway to tackle sexism

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) has voted in favour of major board reform, following allegations of sexism and misogyny within the organisation. At an extraordinary general meeting (EGM), 97.2% of the member clubs which voted were in favour of the governance changes, which required 75% support to be passed. Interim chief executive Nick Walker commented that this is a step in the right direction towards changing the governing body’s culture, and that it was now time to implement the changes.

A more skills-based, diverse board

The WRU sought to change its articles of association in order to enable a modernisation of the composition of its board, with the aim to bring in more expert knowledge and diversity. Currently, the board consists of 12 directors, eight of whom are voted into position by the WRU member clubs, including the chair. There are three independent non-executive directors (INEDs), including the Professional Rugby Board chair, and the WRU’s CEO makes up the twelfth board member. The changes mean that the number of INEDs will double from three to six – and that the chair of the WRU board will be independent for the first time. The number of elected national or district directors will be halved from eight to four, which had led to fears that member clubs may feel that their influence was being diluted.

The current board only includes one woman, Catherine Read, who is one of the three INEDs. The WRU is seeking to redress this gender imbalance and has set an ambition to have at least five women on the new 12-person board. Under the changes, one of the top two jobs – CEO or chair – will also be held by a woman, and one board member will have a specific remit to represent women’s and girls’ rugby.

These changes were laid out in a special resolution, which was the only matter up for discussion at the EGM, held in Port Talbot. Following the vote of approval, the WRU expects the new board to be in place within the year, and has imposed a deadline of 31 December. The search for a permanent CEO continues, and the current chair, Ieuan Evans will stand down once a replacement has been found.

Damaging allegations

The urgent need for board reform arose after allegations of sexism, bullying, sexual harassment and misogyny were uncovered in a BBC Wales Investigates programme, first broadcast on 23 January. These allegations led previous CEO Steve Phillips to resign and resulted in a Senedd hearing at which both Walker and Evans appeared. Previously, Amanda Blanc, CEO of Aviva Group, had sat on the WRU board in her role as chair of the Professional Rugby Board, but stepped down in November 2021. She cited her experiences of misogyny within the organisation as the cause of her departure, describing them as ‘deep rooted’ problems that were a ‘ticking time bomb’.

 As a result of these allegations, an independent review has been launched to scrutinise the WRU’s organisational culture, administered by Sport Resolutions and led by Dame Anne Rafferty, a former Court of Appeal judge. The review’s scope encompasses the WRU’s culture, the actions and behaviour of its staff at all levels, the effectiveness of its whistleblowing policies and its responses to individual complaints. These will be considered during the period from 2017 to the present, although this timeframe is subject to change as more evidence emerges. The WRU has stated its intention to publish the review’s finding and recommendations in full.

The WRU is by no means the only sports governing body which is having to confront its culture. Over recent years, investigations have been undertaken into several bodies, from cycling to bobsleigh, and the issue has received significant attention from the Sports Councils. In the past few days, a review has found evidence of bias and discrimination against women in Scottish Rugby, criticising its board for a lack of representativeness – despite recent board reform. Scottish Rugby has commented that it will be establishing a working group which will aim to improve its governance. A further example is Cricket Scotland which was found to be institutionally racist in a review published last summer by Plan4Sport, and it has since been put into special measures by sportscotland. The review recommended changes to the board’s composition and the creation of an action plan agreed with sportscotland. More recently, law firm Harper Macleod published a governance review and found that Cricket Scotland did not have sufficient evidence of a uniform set of standards, ethics and regulation, nor of an anti-racism and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) platform. The review recommended a new board and committee structure.

In gymnastics, the Whyte Review produced a damning report last year about allegations of abuse and mistreatment, which highlighted the inattention paid to safeguarding, welfare and organisational culture. Back in 2017, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson authored her Duty of Care report, in the wake of which (alongside a spate of news stories) The Chartered Governance Institute produced a report on organisational culture in sport. Organisations continue to grapple with a lack of diversity and the need to create an inclusive environment for all.

The need for change

Since its inception over 140 years ago, the WRU has evolved as an organisation and now has an annual turnover of almost £100 million. With this growth comes new and different challenges – and it has been a challenging start to 2023 for the Union. Not only must the WRU now consider issues such as EDI, but it must also meet the requirements of modern corporate sponsorship, without which it would be unable to continue fielding a world-class team and supporting local rugby across Wales. As Walker had warned before the EGM, sponsors could walk away if they are unsatisfied with the WRU’s handling of the recent allegations and its governance arrangements. History has indeed shown this to be the case; Cricket Australia lost several sponsorships after the ball-tampering scandal in 2018, as did FIFA in the wake of the 2015 bribery allegations. In general, corporate sponsors tend to have more sophisticated governance in place than the sports bodies with which they are partnered, and are sensitive to the reputational impact that governance failures could have on their brand.

However, the motivation for such reforms cannot merely be financial or reputational. To facilitate the wider cultural change needed within the WRU, the organisation as a whole must undertake a journey and recognise the benefits and importance of increased diversity. Governing bodies seeking to promote their sport within local communities should ensure that their own behaviour truly reflects the claim that ‘sport is for all’, by offering people a place at the table and treating individuals with respect and fairness, regardless of their background, Despite promised swift changes to the board, it will likely be some time before the WRU becomes a truly inclusive organisation which welcomes the viewpoints and voices of all.

Emily Ford is Policy Adviser at The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland