How a tragedy led to crisis and rebellion at the NCT

The tragic death in 2015 of a child in a cot co-branded by the National Childbirth Trust sparked a revolt at the charity that is still reverberating. Stephen Cook reports.

The death in April 2015 of seven week-old Grace Roseman in a cot that was co-branded by the National Childbirth Trust was a severe shock to the highly respected membership charity, which for 60 years has supported parents during pregnancy and their children's early years.

An inquest into the tragedy heard last December from experts in child development that the Bednest was dangerous because it was possible for one side to stick in a half-lowered position and choke a baby. The design has since been modified.

The Furniture Industry Research Association, however, had certified the Bednest as safe before the co-branding decision was made in 2012, and the charity was not criticised at the inquest. The coroner returned a verdict of accidental death and there was no adverse publicity for the NCT.

But the way its board and executive handled the incident internally has caused a serious revolt, led by a 13-strong group of long-standing members, branch office-holders and experienced volunteers, and plunged the charity into a governance crisis. One campaigner has complained of "a culture of bullying".

The revolt was caused by the NCT's decision to follow advice from the now discredited public relations firm Bell Pottinger to require the resignation of four trustees who had been in post at the time of the co-branding decision in 2012. One of the four, Seana Talbot (below), had been elected as the charity's president in 2015.

Seana Talbot

The charity coupled its demand for resignations with assurances that no trustee was to blame or being criticised. This later prompted four past presidents of the NCT to issue a statement saying: "We feel this action, despite the repeated assurances that no one had done anything wrong, was grossly unfair." Another campaigner called the move "outrageous".

Two of the four resigned quietly, but Talbot and Bryan Macpherson resisted until a few days before the inquest, when they made it clear they were leaving under duress after a number of threats, including one to suspend their membership, thus disqualifying them as trustees. Since then there has been constant turmoil as the campaign group has vainly sought mediation, a special general meeting to consider the reinstatement of Talbot and Macpherson, and an independent review. The charity has instead held four explanatory meetings, attended in all by about 50 members.

The NCT's handling of the case led to articles in Third Sector and the Daily Mail in February, in which Talbot, a leading light in the charity for years, said she had been pressured into resigning.

The saga acquired an extra dimension at the NCT's annual meeting on 4 November this year, when it was announced that she had been re-elected as president after deciding to stand again.

Helen Stephenson

Meanwhile, Helen Stephenson (right), a former director of the Office for Civil Society, who became chair of the NCT in 2015 and took the lead in pressing for the resignations of Talbot and Macpherson, resigned in May this year when she was appointed chief executive of the Charity Commission. The campaign group said it was "surprised and disappointed" by this appointment.

The re-election of Talbot is likely to be seen as a vindication of the protests about the actions of the leadership, and many consider the charity now faces a difficult struggle to heal wounds, rebuild morale and restore confidence in the way it is run. One campaigner predicted "interesting personal dynamics" as Talbot returns.

Not willing to speak

Nick Wilkie, whose appointment as the first male chief executive of the NCT was announced a few days before the death of Grace Roseman in April 2015, at first agreed to be interviewed by Third Sector. He later decided it would "not be in the best interests of the charity". Stephenson said it would not be appropriate to speak now she is in charge of the charity regulator.

Wilkie did not answer written questions either, but provided a general statement (see sidebar) and two reports on the NCT's governance by Andrew Hind, Stephenson's predecessor-but-two as chief executive of the Charity Commission. This information and other sources make it clear that:

- The decision to co-brand the Bednest was made by NCT Trading, the charity's subsidiary; the main charity board was not informed until some time later. The first Hind report said decisions about co-branding new products should in future be escalated to the main charity board for approval.

- The decision to insist on resignations was made despite advice from the charity's lawyers, DK Law, that it had completed all appropriate due diligence and taken all reasonable steps over the decision to co-brand and market the Bednest. The campaigners say there was "no suggestion from the lawyers that resignation for 2012 trustees still in post would be an appropriate response".

- The advice from Bell Pottinger also said the board had done nothing wrong over the Bednest decision but added that "risk of serious harm to NCT's reputation would be significantly reduced if Mr Wilkie were able to give evidence (at the inquest) that, as part of an ongoing charitable governance review, the trustees in place at the time the co-branding decision was taken have stepped aside".

- Talbot pointed out before her resignation that enforcing resignations would undermine the charity's legal defence that it had "taken all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence", and would result in a breach of the charity's rules that there should always be at least nine trustees, with one from each UK nation. She called the proposal "unethical, unnecessary and wrong".

- When Stephenson asked Talbot and Macpherson to resign, only the Bednest Incident Team knew of the decision. The team consisted of her, two other trustees, Wilkie and one executive director. The full board was made aware of the requests only 12 days later, and a week after that it confirmed them. Hind's second report says it would have been "preferable" for the board to confirm the decision before the two were asked to resign.

- A statement to NCT members by Stephenson later said the board had concluded Talbot and Macpherson should resign and the pair were "subsequently" asked to do so. Macpherson complained that this falsified the sequence of events. Hind's second report says a better word than "subsequently" could have been chosen, but "I do not agree that, technically, it was factually incorrect because ... the final decision to both seek and accept trustee resignations was ultimately made by the full board".

- When Talbot and Macpherson resisted resignation, Wilkie told them he was going to suspend their membership because they were risking damage to the charity's reputation and interests. The campaign group says this would have had the effect of removing them as trustees, which only the board may do. Hind's second report said it was "technically unfounded that Wilkie was trying to remove the two". But it added that the charity's articles should be amended so that only trustees could suspend members.

- Talbot and Macpherson were also put under pressure by an earlier threat that if they did not go Stephenson and the company secretary would resign because professional advice had not been followed, and the rest of the incident team would consider their positions.

Campaign focus

Hind's terms of reference excluded consideration of whether it was right for Stephenson and the board to demand resignations, but this has been the focus of the campaign group over the past year. All the NCT will say is: "Trustees sought resignations from the board following a package of legal and reputational advice. As we made clear at the time, there was no criticism of individual trustees."

The campaign group sees this formulation, repeated at the four meetings, as an attempt to equate what it calls "flawed, illogical and unnecessary" PR advice with legal advice; while legal advice must be followed, it points out, the same does not apply to PR advice. "They have said repeatedly that they had to follow the PR advice, suggesting that they weren't allowed to use their own judgement," a group statement said. "Yet our understanding of the Charity Commission's position is that you should consider all advice, and if you do decide not to follow it, be able to demonstrate why."

This appears to have been a really bad decision. Rather than drawing a line under things, it's actually made things worse.

Beck Slack, author and PR crisis management specialist

The decision to follow the advice was, the group says, an attempt to forestall criticism at the inquest (which did not materialise), but has caused "huge harm" to the charity. "I don't think they ever considered the difference in importance between legal advice and PR advice - they just reacted in a panic," says one member of the group.

The group has also described as "untrue" the assertions it says were made by the leadership of the charity at the four meetings that "trustees have collective responsibility for the decision to co-brand" and that "the NCT board was legally responsible for the decisions of the trading board".

Some of these issues were raised at the annual meeting: one member said much of the time was taken up by "the board dodging questions from the floor, giving half-answers to slightly different questions than were asked. The board was urged at least four times to just admit they got it wrong and say sorry. Each request fell on deaf ears. The lack of sincerity on the stage was remarked on to thunderous applause."

Another member said Talbot "gave an impassioned speech in which she referred to the fact that there were challenges to be overcome, but she was prepared to work positively and constructively in the role". Talbot declined to be interviewed.

WHEN CHARITIES FACE CRITICISM, HOW SHOULD THEY DEAL WITH MEDIA INQUIRIES?

Becky Slack

Becky Slack (above), author of a handbook on charity media relations and a specialist in PR crisis management, says that a solid briefing from a lawyer and some media training should give a chief executive confidence to give interviews at difficult times.

"In the absence of those, the alternative is to provide answers by email," she says. "At least this way the organisation has the chance to word its response very carefully. Failing that, an organisation can provide a basic statement that sets out its position. This is not ideal, but it at least gives some control over the message."

In the case of the NCT, she says, it's difficult to give an accurate assessment without reading all the documents. But agreeing to an interview then withdrawing it gives the impression it has something to hide, she says, and deprives it of an opportunity to put its side of the story.

"But it sounds as if the NCT recognises that whichever way it plays this it is going to come out looking bad," Slack says. "It can't provide the information requested - possibly because of poor decision-making and weak governance processes - and there is no turning back the clock on the way it handled the sacking of the previous trustees.

"The latter issue appears to have been a really bad decision and has ended up having lasting consequences: rather than drawing a line under things, it's actually made the situation worse."

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