A WEEK has flown by since the SRU Board and Council issued a joint statement which sought to draw a line under the Keith Russell affair, and the general consensus amongst those outside of the Murrayfield payroll remains that this was an exercise in obfuscation by the governing body rather than a demonstration that the major issues raised have been properly addressed.
This whole sorry episode has been simmering away since Russell was summarily sacked as the SRU’s Director of Domestic Rugby in May 2017, and it erupted into a major PR and constitutional crisis when employment tribunal judge Joseph D’Inverno delivered a scathing verdict on the conduct of Scottish Rugby’s Chief Executive Mark Dodson and his General Counsel Robert Howat in early June 2018.
A week after the news of that judgement broke, a first joint statement from the Board and Council revealed that Colin Grassie, as Chairman of the SRU Board, had instructed Lesley Thomson QC – a former Solicitor General for Scotland and an independent non-executive director on the Board – to review the Russell dismissal.
Then, at August’s AGM, Grassie acceded to growing pressure over various related issues which were raised by Russell and others in the aftermath of Judge D’Inverno’s judgement, by announcing that the use of NDA’s for all non-playing staff since 2011 would be reviewed with expert, external assistance.
PricewaterhouseCooper [PwC] were brought in to interview the relevant former staff members, but their full remit has never been revealed. Similarly, Turcan Connell have provided legal advice but we do not know the basis upon which they were instructed.
The culmination of all this was last Friday’s statement, which was published 15 weeks after the judgement was delivered, with not one Murrayfield executive being mentioned by name, let alone a hint that anyone has been held to account.
There are too many issues which are fundamental to what the game in this country stands for up in the air at the moment for this whole thing to be put to bed.
As a starting point, here are ten key questions which must be answered –
- Notwithstanding the clear breach of employment law, was Lesley Thomson satisfied with the reasons given for Keith Russell’s dismissal in the context of having an open, fair and inclusive work environment at Murrayfield? We are told in the tribunal judgement that Mark Dodson specifically chose Russell from a group of excellent candidates. Russell came from Glasgow Life (the charity that delivers cultural, sporting and learning activities in behalf of Glasgow City Council). He is highly respected in the public and third sectors, which tend to work differently from commercial operations. If Dodson wanted him to interact with public bodies such as sportscotland and with regard to matters such as Cashback for Communities funding, then was Russell sacked for doing exactly what his professional background had trained him do? Being thorough, consulting with all parties, refining proposals, more consulting, agreeing policies and implementation? Or because his face didn’t fit? Or both? None of the reasons put forward by Dodson and Howat was given any credence by Judge D’Inverno in his ruling which found the dismissal to be substantially unfair.
- Back in June, Mark Dodson said: “We are not hiding. When the recommendations come out from Lesley Thomson, they will be incorporated into our methodology going forward. There will be no secrets. If she’s got criticism of me or other people then so be it. There is no sense of a cover-up. Are the recommendations going to be published? Yes, because I don’t want to walk around with a cloud over the organisation. We’ve got nothing to hide.” What happened to these noble sentiments?
- The joint statement from the Scottish Rugby Board and Council issued on Friday 21st September said that: “Scottish Rugby Board and Council, after taking external, independent advice and in line with staff privacy policies and data protection legislation, have confirmed that no further information within Ms Thomson’s report can be made public.” Who gave this independent external advice? Will the detail of this advice be made public? As Keith Russell suggests: “Not releasing the report, even if significantly redacted, surely demonstrates that there is something more that they do not want to be made public”. If this secrecy is because of negative comments about the senior management culture, then why is there no action against any staff directly involved? Russell added: “In the tribunal, both Mark Dodson and Robert Howat stated that they were aware of employment law and performance management processes but that they had simply ignored this. What benefit is there to add to the HR department if advice is just going to be ignored?”
- Is it appropriate/ethical for Scottish Rugby as a governing body of the sport to appoint a crisis communications specialist to manage the fall-out from this PR disaster with stake-holder clubs? How much is this service costing Scottish Rugby?
- The joint Statement also said: “The Board and Council reiterates its earlier position and the pride it has in the positive culture within Scottish Rugby.” Does Colin Grassie still claim that Keith Russell’s description of the culture at Murrayfield as being ‘toxic’ is “a characterisation that we as a council and board simply do not recognise or accept”? If so, should someone without any preconceptions have been brought in to spearhead the review process?
- Have those former employees who have signed Non-Disclosure Agreements been released from the obligation in the instances where the proscribed material is clearly not commercially sensitive? If not, why not?
- Friday’s joint statement explained that PwC had advised that the documentation available did not make it immediately obvious why certain settlement agreements were considered necessary. Scottish Rugby apparently “provided additional context in this regard”. But was PwC satisfied with this context? And were the former employees given the opportunity to respond to the additional context given that, by its very nature, it gave one side of the story?
- Colin Grassie said at August’s AGM that: “Since September 2011, there have been 14 settlements concluded for non-playing staff. Every single one of these is being reviewed by independent experts appointed by the Board.” But the joint statement said: “The Board also conducted additional checks on agreements entered into in the same period relating to the early termination of fixed term contracts of on-field non-playing staff, with similar conclusions reached and shared with the Council.” Why were these settlement agreements not referred to PwC? The Offside Line is aware of a number of former staff members, involved in the rugby side of the business but not players, who have signed agreements and were not interviewed by either the Board or PwC. So, how many confidentiality/non-disclosure agreements have really been signed since 2011?
- Will Mark Dodson apologise unreservedly to Keith Russell? To the clubs? And to the Scottish rugby public?
- Did Colin Grassie discuss the Keith Russell tribunal case with Mark Dodson before extending the Chief Executive’s contract at the end of March (after the tribunal hearing but before the judgement had been delivered)? If so, was Mark Dodson open, candid and precise about the details of Keith Russell’s dismissal, the torrid nature of the tribunal hearing, the high probability of an adverse judgement and the inevitable reputational damage such a ruling would cause himself and his employers?