I was honoured to speak in this year's St David's Day debate in Parliament. You can watch my speech in full and read the transcript below.
thank my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), a good friend, for securing this debate and congratulate her on doing so. It has been a great week; the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) has spoken about the Wales in London events, which have been tremendous. Being at the Guildhall last night with so many people celebrating our Welshness was an honour and I really enjoyed it. It is funny that we are here.
My hon. Friend has spoken about the amazing work she has done with colleagues, and I have had the honour of being able to work with her as well. This gives me the opportunity to talk a little about a charity—this goes hand in hand with the work she has been doing—called The Sharing Table. It was set up a few years ago by Andrew Copson, an amazing man who has given his time to fundraise, with a lot of support from local people, and to make partnerships, particularly with Gower Gin; Andrew and Siân support the charity, as key partners. The Shared Table delivered more than 130 hampers of locally sourced meat and veg to people in Gower last Christmas—when this started it was just 13 hampers in 2019. I thank Hugh Phillips, the butcher, and Shepherds for making that possible, along with Carolyn Harris—sorry, I meant to say, “My hon. Friend”. I do that all the time, Mr Deputy Speaker, as you know, but I do apologise.
That charity has also put and is putting small kitchens into schools. We talk about food poverty, but it is important that young people and families learn how to cook and what different food tastes like when we face a health crisis and a cost of living crisis. It is important that children learn what different fruits and vegetables taste like and what to do with them. One of the latest kitchens that has opened is in the constituency of my hon. Friend, in Morriston. I hope that by working alongside Swansea Council the charity will put more kitchens into schools and work with young people and their parents so that they can cook a well-balanced family meal. That is key and that work is amazing.
The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned the beautiful city of St Davids in his constituency. I spend many of my holidays there and I do not send him any emails to say that I am there. I was honoured to be there at Christmas to spend time with my family, and being in the cathedral for mass is a wonderful experience. If anybody gets the opportunity to do that at Christmas, it really is something special.
I do not wish to leave out the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), my very good friend. As he knows, Aberaeron, has a special place in my heart. My auntie and uncle live there and my godparents used to live there. I am not going to go through everybody and say how wonderful their constituency is, because I must say that the Gower constituency is the most beautiful place to live. I am very proud of everybody who lives there—my constituents, who continue to support me and give generously.
My constituents also speak highly of the potential of Swansea bay. I know that the Secretary of State has done a lot of work on what was to be the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, which we now hope will realise itself in the blue lagoon project. The potential of Wales and the green industrial revolution has been mentioned. I do look to him for support for the Labour-led Swansea Council and its leader Rob Stewart in terms of harnessing the tidal energy that we have in Swansea bay.
I will have a bit of a rant now, Mr Deputy Speaker. A year ago today, I spoke up in this House about the Welsh Rugby Union. The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire told us how he had heard an amazing advocate for women’s football, and football, in Wales last night. There are many, many people who are amazing advocates for rugby in Wales, and I am one of them. I believe passionately that being Welsh also means having a sense of identity. For me, many, many moons ago, that meant being able to represent my country by playing rugby for Wales. I find it really hard to believe that we are too scared—the hon. Member for Ceredigion also made reference to rugby—because we are having a bit of a tough time in Wales. It makes me sad that we cannot big up the talent that we have. I want to big up our talent. We have an amazing captain of our men’s team in Ken Owens. He is an amazing man, one of the bravest. All the team are brave, because the situation in which they find themselves is really difficult for all of them and for their families, but they are not looking for pity. What they want is to make rugby better. I did not stand up in this House a year ago to say, “Isn’t it terrible what’s going on? Isn’t rugby awful in Wales?” It is our job in this place to call out poor practice and poor governance when they impact on how we feel about our sport, which is rugby in Wales.
Since I spoke up about the culture of misogyny and sexism a year ago, much has happened. I know that the former Secretary of State met the women’s team. He told me that, by the time he had left the Chamber, he had been invited by the Welsh Rugby Union to pay a visit to the Vale to meet the women’s team. I was really disappointed—not with him, I was glad he went—that, having spoken out, nothing much really happened. It took some very brave women and an amazing journalistic team in “BBC Wales Investigates” to pull together evidence of the poor behaviour in the Welsh Rugby Union. In my inbox, I have more than 30 emails to reply to. They are from women and families—and men—who have written to tell me about their experiences with the Welsh Rugby Union. That is a lot of people who want to tell me about their experiences, but there are also quite a few people who do not want to tell of their experiences to anybody, because they fear the backlash. Charlotte Wathan, who spoke out in the BBC Wales programme, is scared that she will never get a job now. She may have made herself unemployable. She needs to work, but she has spoken out. She has not done that because she wants to be on a 30-minute programme on BBC Wales, and have the focus of everything on her.
Another woman who spoke out was anonymous. An actor spoke her words. Why was that? Why did Amanda Blanc, the chief executive of Aviva, step down from the executive board? To be honest, why were those questions not asked? So far what we have seen is the departure of the chief executive of the WRU, which is probably right. But it is not just about one person. This is a cultural system that is impacting not just on women in sport—in this case rugby—but on the men. That is because the culture has also impacted on the wellbeing of our men’s team as well. It is a culture and it is everywhere.
I am glad that a taskforce has been set up by Sport Resolutions, funded by the WRU, to address these issues. I ask the Secretary of State to support me—I have told him how many people want to speak out—and to look for reassurances from Sport Resolutions. Will he state today that the anonymity of the people who need to speak to Sport Resolutions and to the taskforce that it is setting up will be kept at all costs? Otherwise, we will never get to the bottom of it, which makes the taskforce absolutely futile.
I never thought that after nearly six years in this place, I would be standing in the Chamber ranting about rugby, but it means so much to me and it makes our country proud. Somebody said, “All this talking down of rugby in Wales is not going to encourage young people to play sport,” but that is nonsense. Playing sport—whatever sport it is—getting out there and being part of a team is the best thing that anyone can do. It is brilliant.
I am not saying that Wales is a terrible place or that rugby is a terrible sport; it is not. In my heart, I want it to be better—the best it can be. I want Warren Gatland to go to that World cup, with Ken Owens running out as the captain, and do the best he can to show how brilliant it is to be Welsh, so that we can feel proud of those boys and girls on the pitch. The women’s Six Nations is coming up, and the girls had quite a good season last year, so it is an exciting time to be in rugby.
Jonathan Davies, or Jiffy as we fondly know him, spoke out on “Scrum V” just after the programme had aired on BBC Wales. He said that this is a moment in time—a turning point—and that if the Welsh Rugby Union and rugby in Wales do not get their act together now, they never will. As parliamentarians, we have to put pressure on the Welsh Rugby Union to make the right decisions and to be transparent.
Intervention by Rob Roberts MP
The hon. Lady is making a wonderful speech. She is right that the range of subjects that we discuss in the Chamber is often a surprise to the general public, and rugby in Wales is a particularly hot topic. Does she agree, in the spirit of what she has said, that the people who are trying to brush this issue under the carpet need to understand that, in such cases, sunlight is often the best disinfectant?
Tonia Antoniazzi MP resumes
It is not often that I agree with the hon. Member, but sunlight, transparency and asking those questions are the best things.
I find it hard to believe that there have been such a number of grievances and non-disclosure agreements at the Welsh Rugby Union. Let us make no bones about it: all organisations will have grievances and non-disclosure agreements, but it is important that someone sitting on an executive board should be told how many there are and what their nature is, otherwise they might go to a Senedd Select Committee and not be able to tell it how many grievances and non-disclosure agreements there are. I find that difficult, because the data should be held by human resources and available to at least the executive committee. What does it tell us when there are no minutes of meetings and the minutes are not routinely published or available? It tells us that there is no sunlight, which we need to have.
When I am told that what has happened at the WRU is bigger than at Yorkshire cricket, and that is confirmed by others who know what is going on, I hope that we will all—I am not precious about it—stand up and ask those questions if we have the opportunity to meet the WRU. We need a root and branch review of rugby in Wales and what it means for everybody in all those clubs across Wales, from a small child starting off in tag rugby to those in our elite male and female games, as well as the mums and dads watching on the sidelines and washing the kit. I have met with my clubs since this has all come out and, interestingly, they have been quite engaging. We all need to ask our rugby clubs—although this is not just about rugby—how they engage with women and girls. They do not have to have a women’s team, because it is not all about playing. It is about being part of a club, being a rugby wife, rugby mum or rugby sister—a fan of the sport. If we can get clubs to audit the skills of the women and girls involved in them, that will encourage them to get more women sitting on their committees. Having more women give up their time to do that is how we will get more parity and equality of representation at the top of the WRU.
Intervention from Stephen Crabb MP
The hon. Lady is making a remarkable and important speech. She was at the Guildhall last night. Does she remember the remarks of Noel Mooney from the Football Association of Wales about its transition from being dominated by men to something approaching parity between men and women, and how that led to better quality of decisions? An audit of how clubs involve and work with women—the kind of exercise that the hon. Lady talks about—is valuable in its own right, but it will also lead to better decision making because more diverse viewpoints help the decision-making process.
Tonia Antoniazzi MP resumes
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution, because he is right that Noel Mooney, the chief exec of the Football Association of Wales, did say last night that the dynamic has changed and that different ideas have been brought to the table, leading to better leadership and management.
I have a good friend who lives in Australia. She sits on the board of Rugby Victoria, which has imposed 50:50 representation. She has been ridiculed by other people that she is only on the board because of certain body parts, which is ridiculous. It is actually brilliant, however, because she is not a rugby player, but her daughters are, her son is, and her husband was. That is what I am trying to say. We had all-women shortlists to get better representation in the Labour party. That is the kind of thing we need to do in order to move forward. Clubs need to change their perception of what a woman’s place in rugby is. It is a cultural issue that all sports have problems with.
A word that has been said to me is “tokenism”. People say, “It’s just tokenism, Tonia. We don’t buy into it.” I do not buy into tokenism, because this is not about that; it is about being the best we can. However, we did see tokenism, disappointingly, in a knee-jerk reaction from the WRU when it decided to say, “We’re banning Tom Jones’s famous song ‘Delilah’.” I had not heard “Delilah” for donkey’s years, but I went to a rugby match, and everybody in the bar and on the train was singing it, and it was uncomfortable. I am not going to rant on about “Delilah”. It gets sung. We know the words. We all know that the words are wrong, and it would be great if we could change some of them, but hey-ho.
The word tokenism strikes at me. At the time of the WRU decision, Louis Rees-Zammit tweeted:
“All the things they need to do and they do that first…”
It is true; the WRU needs to do better for everybody involved in the sport, be they our little ones playing, the regions—that is a whole other debate—or the elite team. The Secretary of State is well placed to have those conversations, and I know that he has spoken with Nigel Walker, the interim chief executive. I know what a great man Nigel Walker is, and I hope that he and Ieuan Evans can turn this around, but it needs a massive shift.
I think I have finished talking about Welsh rugby union and rugby in Wales, but I hope that everybody in this House will join me in saying that we absolutely love rugby and want to big up our players, and that it represents who we are at every single level, whether we have played, watched or just gone along to help out. It is everybody’s; it is ours.
On another note—still on rugby, but with a different edge—the people who go to rugby clubs are all volunteers. I know that the Secretary of State met Rachel, one of my constituents, at Lancaster House. Rachel runs Tempo Time Credits, which is a brilliant way of getting people to do more volunteering and of encouraging more diverse groups of people to volunteer and support their local community. Rugby is a sure-fire win to get people involved. Our Tempo Time Credit volunteers can provide support to local rugby clubs, and they then get rewarded, perhaps with tickets to go to the Scarlets or the Blues—they could go to the Ospreys, but I suppose it depends. [Interruption.] Definitely. I do not want to cause a war in the Chamber. I just wanted to give a really big shout out to all those volunteers, because they make sport happen, not just in Wales but across the United Kingdom. For us, that is really important.
I will bring my comments to close. I thank everybody who has made this debate happen. I am grateful for the diversity of debate when we talk about Welsh Affairs. I am a very proud Welsh-Italian, and I am proud to have been able to stand up in the Chamber today and speak for those who feel that they do not have a voice.