The Royal British Legion is facing opposition to its plan, agreed by the trustee board in December, to integrate its women’s section into the main charity from October this year.
The central committee of the RBL women’s section, which governs the women-only branches, is resisting the plan and more than 1,000 people had signed a petition against it by Wednesday morning.
The women’s section has 770 branches and about 30,000 members. It provides care and support for former military personnel, partly through financial help to them and their families, and for widows. It contributed £1m to the legion’s income in 2014.
Marilyn Humphry, the national chair of the section, who is also a trustee of the RBL, wrote to its branch and county secretaries in January: "Please be absolutely clear that this is a board of trustees decision, in no way welcomed or agreed by the national officers or central committee of the women’s section."
She said the central committee had produced a five-year plan demonstrating that the section could continue to be viable as a semi-independent organisation, but this had not convinced the trustees.
A document accompanying her letter said that the chair of the women’s section would no longer be on the RBL board and that the "women’s section allowance" – a programme that is fundraised for by members and provides widows with a stipend of £25 a week – would be phased out.
The document said two other programmes fundraised for by members – the president’s award scheme and the children’s fund – would continue, but would be administered by the RBL in future, although women’s section branches would be able to have ring-fenced funds for their beneficiaries.
The document said that women’s section county committees would cease to exist but the central committee would continue.
Another letter, sent by the RBL’s director general Chris Simpkins to the county and branch chairs on 27 January, said there might be some redundancies and the size and cost of the women’s section annual conference would be "much reduced".
The petition, promoted by the Northern Ireland RBL women’s section, calls for the RBL to reverse the decision, which it claims was made "without our consent, communication or forewarning". It has attracted 1,139 signatures over the past three weeks.
Signatories have complained that the RBL head office in London did not consult with branch members about the change, that the women-only branches could lose their identity if forced to merge with the parent charity and that they do not wish to be dictated to by the RBL.
Holli Geddes from Oxted, one of the signatories, wrote: "By closing down the women's section they are isolating a lot of people and are risking the closure of more and more legions overall across the country."
Gillian Ward from Ramsey wrote: "I am absolutely appalled and gutted by the turn of events, which I consider very unfair and unjust, and the RBL and the board of trustees should hang their heads in shame."
The proposal to integrate the women’s section into the RBL was first disclosed to the central committee of the women’s section by the trustees in May 2015. But branch and county secretaries were not informed until after the trustees had taken their decision on 10 December.
Carole Murphy, the branch secretary for the Nottinghamshire women’s section, who attended a meeting of women’s section county secretaries in London on 28 January, told Third Sector that most of those attending were against the move. "The RBL wants our branches to disappear," she said. "The women feel quite upset, undermined and not appreciated."
Murphy said that many branch representatives were concerned they would have to close because they were smaller than standard RBL branches, which are required to have a minimum of 15 members. Some were also worried about having to pay £16 a year to be a member of the RBL rather than the £8 they currently pay to be members of the women’s section.
She said many members had fundraised for their local branches for years and resented the RBL "taking over". Some had showed their discontent, she said, by staging silent protests at regional conferences hosted by the RBL or planning to shut down their branches so the RBL would not be able to run them.
A spokesman for the RBL said in a statement that the charity had decided changes were required to the governance of its women’s section to reflect "current charitable requirements and statutory responsibilities". He said this would allow for more "efficient and rationalised administration" of the charity and the women’s section membership would be able to continue its work "in much the same way as it currently does".
He said: "The details of the changes are yet to be discussed and determined by a committee established by the board of trustees that includes the chairman of the women’s section.
"Trustees place great emphasis on the importance of the women's section and value the work undertaken by its members in support of our beneficiary community."