Volunteer dispute at Alzheimer's Society

The former chairman of an Alzheimer's Society branch committee has called for a volunteers' charter to be introduced after he and his colleagues were dismissed following a dispute with the charity's staff.

The dismissal of the 10 members of the volunteer committee who oversaw the society's Cheltenham and East Gloucestershire branch was confirmed at the end of last month by the society's national board.

Former branch committee chairman Major John Seed told Third Sector Online that the original trigger for the dispute had been jealousy among staff for what had been achieved in the area by one particular volunteer.

He said "a certain amount of spikiness" had built up over a two-year period between the branch committee and staff from the Alzheimer's Society's central office.

He said the society had called a meeting to discuss the staff's complaints about the committee at a time when only three committee members were able to attend, and had given them only 20 minutes to answer allegations which they had only seen at the beginning of the meeting.

He said staff at the society had complained that they had been sworn at by members of the committee, but he said the worst he ever said was "damn", and immediately apologised for it.

"We had no time to consider, let alone offer any evidence," he said. "We were told not to refer to it again. After that we made an effort but there was no proper response from the staff."

The bad feeling came to a head in March when members of the committee were dismissed following Seed's refusal to approve a budget drawn up by the society's central office.

Seed said society staff had ignored his instructions and described the budget as inaccurate and a "balls-up". He added that he had invited investigators from the society's central office to look into the matter but no one came.

He said all of the dismissed committee members felt bitter about the experience and called for a charter for volunteers to be introduced. "Workers have rights, why not volunteers?" he said. "A lot of societies don't appreciate their volunteers. Some people have said to me: ‘that's it: no more volunteering for me'. I personally would be very careful about who I volunteered for."

He also complained that since the dismissals there had been no provision put in place for local people in need.

He said he thought some members of Alzheimer's Society staff should be reprimanded, but doubted whether they would be. "Whatever staff said was accepted," he said.

The Alzheimer's society's director for the west of England, Julia Ashley, said the society's code of conduct already gave volunteers the kind of protection from arbitrary dismissal that Major Seed was calling for.

She said it had been closely followed in this case, but she couldn't give any more details because of the charity's duty to protect the confidentiality of volunteers. She said the decision to dismiss the Cheltenham and East Gloucestershire branch committee "had not been taken lightly".

She said a new committee would be in place in within a month and would honour any commitments the previous committee had made. However, she said that as far as she had been able to discover, the previous committee had only provided an occasional support group for carers.

She said: "We've responded as fully as we can with the information the branch has given us. They couldn't give a list of people with dementia they were supporting, but we believe it was very limited."

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