National Trust comes under attack

The National Trust came under attack last weekend from angry members who argued that selection procedures for new trustees are undemocratic and unfair.

Under the present system, members unable to vote in person at the annual general meeting (AGM) can allow the chairman of the trust to cast their vote as he sees fit. At the AGM held on Saturday, the chairman had more than 100,000 discretionary proxy votes to cast.

Nicholas Fry, a member of the trust and trustee of the Friends of Chester Cathedral, stood unsuccessfully for council this year. He said that a candidate's success often hinged on discretionary votes. "As a result, the council has become a self-perpetuating oligarchy. If someone doesn't know who to vote for, their vote should not be included," said Fry.

The use of discretionary proxy votes this year ensured celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson Wright and Nicholas Soames MP were among the eight new members voted onto the council. Both received around 13,000 discretionary votes with other candidates receiving as few as three.

Soames and Dickson Wright are advocates of hunting, which has been a contentious issue in the trust for some time. Fry argued that the decision to allocate them large numbers of discretionary votes this year was political and intended as a concession to the pro-hunting lobby. However, both candidates maintained that their views on hunting would not interfere with their role.

A similar system applies to voting on members' resolutions proposed at the AGM. Another member attending the AGM said he felt the trust should be very worried about the level of discontent among members on this issue.Tim Butler, solicitor and secretary to the trust, defended the system arguing that discretionary proxy voting allowed those who were content with the way the organisation was being run to express this. "Without the discretionary proxy voting system, it is likely that only those with axes to grind would vote," he added.

He said that discretionary votes were carefully allocated on the advice of a nominations committee to reflect any needs for skills or diversity on the board.

But Fry said that this was not consistent. Last year, Dickson Wright received around 60 discretionary votes and this year she was given more than 12,000.

The trust's governance system, including the use of discretionary proxy votes, is under review. Butler, who is also on the committee, said the review would either find an alternative to proxy voting or undertake to educate members of the advantages of the system.

At the AGM, the trust also welcomed the Dent family as its three-millionth member.

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