A Statement from the former Poetry Society Director, Judith Palmer
On Friday 22 July 2011 members of the Poetry Society recorded a resounding No Confidence vote in its Board of Trustees at an Extraordinary General Meeting called to discuss the ramifications of the recent spate of resignations at the organisation. One of those resignations was mine, yet the Board neither invited me to attend nor to present my evidence to members. In the hope of ensuring that the meeting stayed focused on the Board’s alleged reckless financial mismanagement, and on the urgent need to call this to account to protect the Society’s future, I forwarded only a brief outline statement. Given comments made at that meeting, I would now like to expand on this here.
On 19 May 2011 I reluctantly resigned from my position as Director of the Poetry Society. I explained my reasons to the trustees, stating:
“I loved the job I had, and the team I worked with. I was proud of our achievements and was looking forward to delivering the 4-year programme which had just been agreed. In a few weeks, the Trustees’ unilateral decisions, have made the Society a very unhappy and unproductive place. There’s total confusion. Non-executive trustees have unilaterally taken over responsibility for areas of my job. Agreed staff procedures aren’t being followed. Funding relationships are being mishandled. I’m no longer free to run the organisation using my professional judgement, and under these circumstances I cannot be held responsible, if the organisation begins to fail.”
Decisions were increasingly being made that I had no knowledge of or influence in – decisions made outside the contexts of normal, open, minuted meetings. I had a duty to carry out the instructions of Trustees, but found myself unable to reconcile this with my obligations to staff, funders, and members.
When I left, the Poetry Society was in excellent shape. I wished it well, and hoped it would flourish under the good stewardship of the Board of Trustees.
These are some of the circumstances that led to my resignation:
On 30 March 2011, after a year of huge uncertainty about the Society’s future, we received the good news that our funding bid to the Arts Council had been successful, and we had been awarded a 31% increase in funding.
Two days later, I was called to a meeting by the Poetry Society’s Chair of Trustees, Peter Carpenter. I believed we were going to be discussing the urgent problems facing other organisations in the Poetry Sector. Quite out of the blue, I found there was something else on the agenda.
The Chair told me he’d been waiting until after the funding announcement to tell me about a proposal put to him by Fiona Sampson, the Editor of Poetry Review, a proposal that he’d been discussing with her since January without my knowledge. She requested a new working arrangement whereby she would reduce her days, work mainly from home, and report directly to the Board. I must emphasise that this was put forward as a permanent arrangement. It was initially communicated to me verbally and, a few days later, in writing.
The timing was completely unexpected. Although the relative integration / independence of the Society’s magazine Poetry Review within the Society’s activities had been a regular subject of debate throughout the Editor’s tenure, and long pre-dated my appointment, this had not been a recent subject of discussion.
In September 2008, before my time as Director of the Poetry Society, Fiona Sampson approached the Society’s Board of Trustees with a similar proposal. She requested that her fixed-term contract be made permanent and that the structure of the Society be altered to raise her status and allow her to report directly to the Board rather than continue to be managed by the Director. The Board rejected both suggestions (7 October 2008). The Arts Council was involved in the discussions, and supported the Board’s rejection of the proposal at a subsequent Board meeting I attended on 20 November 2008.
I queried with Peter Carpenter the timing of this revival of Ms Sampson’s proposal in 2011. We had only just submitted a detailed 4-year plan to the Arts Council that had been supported fully by the Board. The plan had reflected a fully-integrated Poetry Society, and this was the vision endorsed by the Arts Council. To make such a significant change now seemed to me both dishonest and dangerous. Our funding offer from the Arts Council remained only conditional.
Carpenter apologised, but explained that poets were putting pressure on him, the Board were going to split over it, and that Ms Sampson had suggested she would otherwise leave.
I raised serious operational concerns about how the proposal would work in practice, explained that many other members of staff would be affected and they would need to be consulted. I explained that the staff had all been working hard in an atmosphere of great uncertainty and did not deserve a major upheaval just when they were expecting to enjoy some well-earned stability. I must emphasise that I did not reject the proposal: however, I gave my opinion that the proposal was potentially destabilising and could jeopardise the Society’s future funding; and that our urgent priority ought to be playing an active role supporting those poetry organisations that had received cuts in funding, rather than looking inwards. I clearly needed more time to consider this. The Chair’s response was unexpected. I was forbidden to discuss the matter further with him, in an email dated 2 April, 11.36.
There followed, in my opinion, the most extraordinarily stubborn and ill-considered sequence of actions by the Board. A confidential Board meeting was called (4 April, 08.34). I petitioned the Chair four times to think carefully before preventing the Arts Council from attending the meeting as stipulated in all previous funding agreements. The Chair replied: (5 April, 08.09) “There is no need for ACE to know of the content of our board discussion… It is confidential to the board and thus only the business of the board.” I pleaded to be given the chance to gather information for the Board in order to help them make an informed decision. (5 April, 09.16). This was refused. I asked to know what would be discussed, and was told that it would be only ‘organisational structure and related issues’ (12 April, 09.31). I was not invited to attend the meeting, and neither were the staff who usually attended Board meetings (Paul Ranford and Rebecka Mustajarvi). However, I would be required to return, unaccompanied, to hear ‘the outcome of our discussion’.
I was unprepared for the nature of this confidential meeting on 13 April. With no independent witnesses present, and with no preamble, I was read out two Board decisions: ‘There will be a formal job evaluation of the Director’s role & responsibilities’ and ‘The Board accept the proposal as set forward by the Review Editor’. I asked to discuss this, and was told that that was inappropriate. There was no written proposal to discuss, no costings, no time-frame, no implementation framework, no staff consultation plan. I prided myself on running a professional organisation and I was responsible for safeguarding the employment rights of staff. I was responsible to funders and members for delivering against agreed objectives. If the Board were not prepared even to allow me input into such significant decision-making, I warned them I would have to consider my position. I further warned them that they were acting in disregard of my rights and interests and I might have to consider resignation.
This meeting was timed immediately before I was due to go on a long-planned trip to Australia, and I took the precautionary measure of sending a formal letter (17 April) requesting that no organisational change be made until proper discussion could take place on my return. The Board waited until my return, but implemented the proposed changes immediately and without discussion (10 May). Peter Carpenter confirmed he would “split off Poetry Review so it reports to me [Peter Carpenter]”. I feared this was the first step towards a much more profound separation of the Review from the Society.
As the Board began to take legal advice, they appear to have realized the depths of the hole they had dug for themselves. They insisted the restructuring proposal was not permanent, but just a 3-month trial (though with no end game declared for determining whether it would continue or not). And they appear to have tried to find things to justify their actions in retrospect. They maintained suddenly that the proposal was being implemented to ease my workload, for example; or that it was as a result of strangers talking at a party regarding an apparent rift. I do not accept that any actions were taken as a result of a desire to ease my workload, and I have been given no evidence of people talking at a party. Indeed, I have received inconsistent accounts of this alleged conversation. My job description was then re-written and casually presented to me. Finally, months after I left, I learned for the first time, from remarks made by the Acting Chair at the EGM, and reported in the press, that apparently Trustees were giving me a ’breathing space’ from contact with another member of staff – even though they had reassured me time and again there had been no complaints about my management.
I raised concerns about the divisiveness of giving one member of staff preferential terms and conditions and perhaps making her feel isolated; I raised concerns about the need for proper consultation with staff; I raised concerns about the need to have a structured plan to avoid operational confusion; I raised concerns that there was no business case for the changes imposed; and I raised concerns about spending and funding. I also raised concerns about the way I felt I had been treated personally and what I felt to be unacceptable and unremitting bullying behaviour towards me.
If the Board were implementing organisational changes, I asked why they didn’t recognize the necessity of contacting the HR consultants we had on retainer for employment law advice – who could and should have been consulted, free of charge, and whose indemnity policy that protected the Poetry Society was now no longer valid as their advice had not been sought. An invoice from lawyers Harbottle & Lewis was presented to me, and I had to sign a cheque for expenditure that I had been unaware had been commissioned by the Trustees. I had previously secured the services of a legal firm pro bono for the Society, and was never asked if we had any existing arrangements in place before Harbottles were instructed. I believe Members and funders should have full information as to how funds are being spent, and it is for that reason that I raise this point.
Eventually, there was chaos, with different Trustees in and out the building, contacting different members of staff directly (rather than going through me as was usual practice) with random unplanned instructions. Trustees insisted I drop important planned priorities to attend unplanned meetings about their ‘organisational changes’. On one occasion the insistence that I attend a meeting at 24 hours’ notice prevented me from preparing for a presentation on which a £100,000 funded project depended. When I requested the proposed meeting be rescheduled to enable me to carry out my job effectively, my request was refused. I asked again if I could give my view on the place of Poetry Review within the structure of the Society, and was told (9 May) “please would you explain why you assume that the status of a meeting that members of the board choose to have with the Editor depends upon ‘the contents of our discussion’.
I wrote Trustees a letter (11 May) outlining my grave concerns about the consequences of the Trustees’ recent diversion from our agreed priorities for the current year. Included amongst my concerns was this: “It is a condition of Arts Council funding that the organisation tell the Arts Council if it wants to make significant changes to the agreed programme…We urgently need to discuss the further impact of recent events upon our Arts Council funding. I am concerned that the funding was awarded to us on the basis of a certain set of circumstances, which have now been fundamentally changed without any discussion with me let alone the Arts Council.” I reassured Trustees that we had an excellent relationship with the Arts Council, and in my professional judgement ACE would be supportive as long as we talked things through openly and honestly with them.
I found the behaviour of certain Trustees increasingly intimidating and on 17 May I received a direct instruction to conceal information regarding issues within the Poetry Society from the Arts Council at a forthcoming meeting. Despite the fact that our funding agreement insists “The success of the relationship relies on effective communication and the sharing of information”, I was told I must convince the Arts Council it was ‘good news, good news, good news’. I was told that if I let the Arts Council know I had any concerns about governance, I would face immediate disciplinary action. I had grave concerns about governance, and would not lie about this, and so on 19 May, I resigned. I felt I had no option but to take this step.
Peter Carpenter accepted my resignation, and on 20 May, he and Trustee (now Acting-Chair) Laura Bamford, arrived unannounced at the Society’s offices to cut off my email and tell staff they were not to let me back in the building. I was not in the office, since I had booked a day off. They didn’t think to tell me personally my employment had been immediately terminated and I would not be required to serve the notice that I had given them. I was on a train to Liverpool when a letter was couriered to my home address, which I therefore did not receive until two days later. Certain members of staff were apparently invited to read through my emails while I still remained uninformed that I was no longer working for the Society. There was to be no handover – no cancellation of meetings, no changing of bank signatories, no guidance notes left or to-do lists talked through.
This is only a brief summary of the events that led me to resign. It was not (as has been suggested) because of my working relationship with a member of my team or due to my workload.
To deflect attention from their own actions, it seems the Board have tried to throw people off the stench with false allegations about myself and Fiona Sampson, and the prospect of legal action.
I have not taken legal action. I have repeatedly reassured Trustees that I have no wish to take legal action. The Poetry Society’s Board of Trustees, however, has already spent £24,000 on legal advice – on a range of matters – in the few months since they first adopted a new management style and decided to step beyond the bounds of their usual remit. Last year, there was zero expenditure on legal advice. In addition to the £24,000 already spent this year, at least £3000 has been spent on unplanned additional PR, supposedly to mitigate reputational risk. To give you an idea what these sums mean to an organization like the Poetry Society, some of its staff earn around £17,500 a year. Imagine how those staff must feel, watching this wanton expenditure. Imagine how painful it is for us to contemplate the toil and the toll of raising the money that the Trustees have so recklessly thrown away.
Members must now ask whether these Trustees were acting in good faith and in the best interests of the Poetry Society. Given the current state of the Poetry Society’s Arts Council funding (suspended until further notice), the Board’s ‘no-one need know’ approach does not appear to have served the Society well. Out of concern for my colleagues I have been wary of making the Board’s actions public. It seems quite clear, however, that funding cannot flow again, until the truth is out and a new Board is up.
All of the above can be supported by letters, texts, emails, and witness statements.
Those Trustees on the Poetry Society Board throughout 2011 were Laura Bamford, Alan Jenkins, Emma Bravo, Jacob Sam-La Rose, John Simmons, Duke Dobing, Wendy Jones, John Richmond, Barry Kernon, Jacqui Rowe and Anne Jenkins.
Robyn Bolam and Peter Carpenter have since resigned.
27th July 2011 10:00 am – This post has been updated with minor corrections