Two days ago (on 13 June 2015) the UK’s Vegetarian Society Extraordinary General Meeting passed a special resolution to remove the accountability of the trustees to the membership, permanently. The way the vote went is unsurprising. The trustees and Chief Executive have repeatedly mislead the membership as to the purpose of the meeting and the implications of that vote. That deception by the trustees is soon to be the subject of a legal challenge and has already been reported to the Charity Commission. See: http://www.vegsocmembersrights.org/ for details.
We may have lost that battle, but the war goes on.
None of the many and varied justifications put forward by the trustees for the disenfranchisement of the VSUK membership make sense.
* Despite the claims of trustees (letter of 21 May), members could already opt out of being a company member, with the acompanying liability to pay a whole £1.00 if the society went bust after 160 years and the need to disclose their address to other shareholders on request (VSUK Company Membership Policy, Sep 2011).
* The model constitution provided by the Charity Commission actually does not encourage charities to disenfranchise their members, in contradiction to the claims of VSUK’s trustees. The Charity Commission’s own statistics (from 2004) state that the majority of UK charities had not done this.
* Claims by the trustees and Chief Executive that the change is “necessary to campaign more on environmental issues” are self-evidently untrue. Friends of The Earth does not operate in the way that the VSUK now does.
* Statements that “Members will continue to be at the heart of our charity” and “We will continue to build a real sense of community for all members” (leaflet “Growing for Our Future”) are not consistent with the plans of the trustees to become accountable only to each other and the Charity Commission, not to the members.
* Claims in the same leaflet that they “need to keep costs down” by passing this proposal are undermined by the trustees paying to send all members a petty and spiteful letter (naming and shaming those opposed to the proposal, giving their home addresses to all members) and then reminder cards, both separately from the magazine. If any government proposed to abolish elections “to keep down costs” and remain in office forever I doubt that the population would be happy. Democracy costs money, but it is money well spent. Without democracy a membership institution has no legitimacy and members are not encouraged to participate.
* To add insult to injury, the trustees will be charging the members more each year.
Trustees claim to adher to the Nolan principles, devised for government ministers.
These include honesty, objectivity, selflessness, openness and accountability. As I said to the Chief Executive (Lynne Elliott), you cannot hold trustees accountable by “unliking” their policy on Facebook, you need to be able to vote them out. I cannot see how the trustees have been “honest” in their EGM notice and the reasons for their proposal. They certainly have not been “open” in disclosing the advice from “consultants” they have paid for, and which is supposed to have led them to make this divisive governance decision. They could have chosen to have a full and open debate in the magazine, with implications spelt out in detail and arguments for and against. In the absence of “openness” it is impossible to know whether they have adhered to “selflessness”, or whether they intend to award themselves salaries later (unlike the majority of UK charity trustees in Grant Thornton’s 2013 review of governance).
Should they decide to do this members would now have no say in the matter. It is also possible that the apparently autocratic, remote and over-professionalised trustees anticipate that their expensive “KIN” event on 11 July 2015 is likely to be a financial disaster and do not wish to be held accountable for this. Without “openness” as to the reasons for their potentially disastrous governance decision it is also impossible to know whether they have been objective, or not.
To my mind the main asset of the UK’s vegetarian movement is the energy and enthusiasm of the organisers of local vegetarian groups. The trustees may now control Parkdale and the VSUK bank accounts without any accountability to the membership, but the strength of the vegetarian movement lies elsewhere. Meetup, Facebook and Twitter combined will not campaign on a wet afternoon on the local high street. You don’t encourage local groups by disenfranchising their members. On the contrary, this measure will encourage them to disaffiliate from VSUK. Similarly, members are not encouraged to campaign actively for vegetarianism by being reduced to the status of passive customers within the Vegetarian Society.