Statement from Paul Ranford – resigned Finance Manager of the Society
This statement is being distributed now in Lincoln’s Inn. We wanted the rest of you to share it too.
Statement from Paul Ranford, Resigned Finance Manager of the Society
My name is Paul Ranford. I am a Member and the current Finance Manager of the Society. I have given notice of my resignation as Finance Manager – a job I much enjoy – on the grounds of loss of confidence in the actions of the Trustees. I want to set out why. My statement here is supported by written evidence which I have with me today in the form of minutes, emails, or accounts. Insofar as these comments refer always to members of the Board, or the Board, as if they were all the same, I would like to make it clear that we have very much appreciated the principled honesty of Wendy Jones, Barry Kernon and John Simmons, in particular.
Four months ago, The Poetry Society was at the peak of its reputation and influence. Well regarded by its stakeholders, highly energetic and creative in its art, benefiting from careful stewardship of funds, we emerged from a very worrying period of uncertainty when we heard that we had been successful in our detailed bid for increased public funding when all around were being cut. The Director, Judith Palmer, was almost entirely responsible for that successful bid. I admired her dedication and commitment; as I did that of the Editor of Poetry Review and all the Staff at the Society.
In early April the then Chairman undertook discussions with the Editor without informing the Director and reached an agreement that “for a 3-month trial period” the Editor would report to the Chair rather than to the Director, that the Editor would henceforth work mainly from home, and that the Editor’s hours and days would be relaxed to 3 from 4 days a week with no alteration in pay. This was agreed by the Board at a confidential meeting on 13 April.
The Director was informed of these changes on (or about) the day that the ACE award was made, just before she was due to have a much-needed holiday. The Director found the new arrangements unacceptable, as I could well understand. They were divisive in terms of the other staff, who didn’t enjoy such benefits, and they implied errors of judgment and failures of the Director’s ability that were neither deserved nor accurate. They seemed like a personal slight, a humiliation, especially when she had just led the Society to an extraordinary result with the Arts Council.
I was not the only member of staff to feel like this. We asked for a meeting with the Trustees to gain an understanding of what was happening. That meeting (on 15th April) began with the Chair noting that ACE had “no concerns” with recent developments, and a warning that all staff attending should avoid personal remarks in case they constituted a “grievance” – a baffling and aggressive thing to say. The Chair then informed us of the Editor’s new working arrangements. The Staff raised some concerns, particularly: (1) that Trustee intervention in management issues so soon after announcement of the Arts Council award seemed ill-timed – we had a plan to work to which would involve significant changes, why not implement that plan rather than some ad hoc arrangement? (2) there were several practical difficulties involved in Poetry Review being produced by an Editor working from home, when the Production Manager undertook print management from the office supposedly in partnership with the Editor – we did not think these difficulties had been properly thought through.
We were also uncomfortable, as Staff, to be discussing the personal employment terms of one of our members, especially when those terms seemed unfairly favourable. For example, one Trustee said that the Editor “wastes a lot of time travelling to and from the office”, which seemed a tactless remark to staff who spent their own time and money in travel. Our concerns were transmitted to the Board in writing on 9 May 2011. We received no substantive response until 3rd July after complaining at its lack.
Discussions continued with the Director on her return from holiday. I attended some of them as a non-participating note-taker for the Director.
On the 10th May, I attended a meeting between the Chair, another Trustee and the Director. Here, the Director was informed that there was a need for “some shift in the culture of the Poetry Society”. But no investigation had been carried out into the existing “culture” in the office. So this seemed like odd management practice.
On the 19th of May, the Director resigned. On May 20th, the Chair and another Trustee visited the office and informed us that: (1) the Director was to be excluded from the office, her keys returned and her personal items collected by her during one accompanied visit out of hours; (2) that her email account was to be closed, and access to the computer system was to be denied immediately; (3) that there would be no handover of the information held by the Director; and (4) that here was to be no further contact with the Director.
We were shocked by these grim arrangements, which left us effectively rudderless. I asked one question – had any attempt been made to consult with any member of the Staff in the room at the time (all senior staff except the Editor were present) before taking the action that had led to the Director’s resignation, or which related to the necessity for such an abrupt departure? The answer was given by a Trustee – “I don’t know why you think that would be appropriate.”
I was so appalled by these actions of the Trustees and these arrangements, and their effect on the staff, that I tendered my resignation to the Board on May 22nd. I have since been working out my notice. During this time, the behaviour of the Trustees worried me more and more.
Staff were informed about the resignation of Jo Shapcott, the Society’s President, on 10th June, one full week after the event, via our own website (which had been updated by a member of staff, remotely while on holiday, on instruction from the Trustees). Trustees treated staff protests about this in a wholly dismissive manner. Members would not wish their Trustees to act in this way.
At a Board Meeting on 8th June, the Arts Council had made the following statement:
“In our view, there are some doubts about whether the Poetry Society is currently able to meet the terms of its Funding Agreement – in the areas of governance, management, leadership, reputational risk and reasonable care.” (Very similar concerns have since been disclosed to Kate Clanchy in correspondence from the Arts Council.) The Arts Council then went on to require assurances from the Board concerning all these areas in a document to be delivered by 6th July in order to “release the next grant payment” which was due in early July.
This was (and remains) highly alarming news. What shocked me even more, however, was subsequent communication from the Trustees. On 13 June, for example, the Trustees wrote to a group of enquiring concerned members saying “we can assure members that the Arts Council is fully informed of developments in recent weeks and has assured the Board of its continued commitment to both the Society and the Poetry Review, which it sees as an excellent and integral part of the Society’s funding” (We never did find out why Poetry Review came into that discussion.) Directly to staff, on 29th June (3 weeks after the Arts Council concerns had been received) a Trustee denied knowing whether ACE had any concerns which might result in the grant being deferred. Staff were finally informed about the suspension of the grant on the 1st of July (thank you, John Simmons). It is not easy to understand how these documents and actions reconcile with each other.
To the date of the EGM, that funding grant of £78,000 (due to be received in early July) has still not been received and appropriate assurances requested by the Arts Council remain undelivered.
As Finance Manager, I became increasingly worried about one other issue: the willingness of the Trustees to disburse the Society’s money on legal activity in defence of a potential action for constructive dismissal taken by the Director. In April, this bill was £1,500, in May it was £5,000 – in June it was £16,500. That totals £24,000 so far, and counting – we do not have the bill for July. In any event, that is an awful lot of legal advice for an action that has not yet commenced. PR advice cost a further £3,000.
I also became concerned about the potential settlement costs if the Director did sue for constructive dismissal. Constructive dismissal is not easy to prove, but I had seen for myself and understood from the Director that her union had advised that she had a strong case. The whole thing – lawyers and settlement – might add up to £50,000 or £70,000 or even £90,000+ in total. The total free reserves of the Society as last reported, built up over 100 years, was in the region of only £120,000.
This recklessness worried me more and more, and I believe members will find it truly shocking. All I could see was the Poetry Society being significantly damaged for no good reason that could be explained to me.
I wish to assure Members that I have beseeched this Board, as individuals, in my resignation letter of 22 May and in long emails since then, to consider their positions and not to continue to imperil the Society’s standing with the Arts Council. I have been met with stubborn refusal from the previous Chair and the Acting Chair to accept that these are truly urgent issues. My concerns have treated dismissively – and occasionally condescendingly. At last, after my most recent attempt failed last week (14th July), I determined to put these concerns to the Members at this meeting and allow them to consider the matter and decide on whether they had confidence in this Board. I must tell you that I do not. Over to you.
Paul Ranford FCA MSc BA(Hons)
21 July 2011