The time has come to try and make sense of what I saw and heard at Cardiff. As always, it's my personal take and it'll be fascinating to hear what others think. The following is intended as the first of two reflections, the first focused on internal matters, whilst the second will look at the external.
As I remarked following day one, given the farce of last year, I believe quoracy from the beginning was a surprise to many and as it turned out, an unhappy one for some on the top table. What I think I saw at Cardiff was a particularly unhappy General Secretary; a largely clueless leadership in the shape of the joint National Chairs; a barely-disguised fractiousness within the officer group, some very disillusioned and dismayed officials and a disconnect between the top table and the membership.
For a union that supposedly prides itself on being open and democratic, what became increasingly clear to me, as the meeting began to plough through business, was that far from being open and honest with the membership, information had to be ferreted out and forensically requested at every turn. There were genuine gasps at learning that our joint Chairs have presided over 8 months of inquorate NEC meetings and astonishingly the motions passed on indicative votes at last years inquorate AGM remain unratified. Apparently three branches, including Wales, have no members of NEC identified. Why?
I heard several questions about membership levels and quoracy, but honestly can't remember the answers and that's possibly deliberate. In the end I asked a Steward and was told the quoracy figure for this AGM was 253, based on 5% of the membership. If my maths are correct, that translates into a membership of 5060, including Professional Associate members. Despite this obvious decline, I don't remember any serious discussion as to the reasons or how the situation can be addressed.
We eventually became aware that getting a budget agreed took so long that many committees failed to meet for months, if at all, and with such draconian cuts in authorised funding, only one physical meeting a year is currently allowed. This is clearly part of the reason there were so few motions up for debate this year. Personally, I'm utterly astonished that a trade union came up with a budget that effectively meant key committees that are vital in order to progress the work of the union, were effectively prevented from operating. Someone needs firing, or heads need banging together.
We were repeatedly told how over-worked the staff at Chivalry Road were and that the campaign to sign people up to Direct Debit was taking up so much time, staff could not be spared to service committees. I for one don't buy that argument at all and the joint Chairs need to get a grip on things if the General Secretary can't.
I think it's worth bearing in mind that all this has (not) been going on behind the scenes during the period when the current joint Chairs were standing for re-election and the membership were blissfully kept in the dark. There was a time when members were treated to a regular email from the leadership to help keep them informed and engaged, but I think we can now see why this was quietly dropped and instead left to the General Secretary and his often pedestrian blog.
In his address, I notice the General Secretary once again rehearsed the tired argument that effectively blames the membership for not being more active and for not being willing to take direct action. In essence, no mea culpa, 'it's not my fault'. I'm very tired of hearing this argument because I blame him and the current leadership for being utterly lack-lustre, in stark contrast I have to say to the new Chair of the POA who so inspiringly addressed us on Saturday morning. The membership desperately need inspiration, but where is it going to come from?
Returning to the issue of a disconnect, amongst other things we discovered that the extremely modest contribution to the Edridge Fund had been quietly and disgracefully reduced from its former level, based upon a percentage of membership. This was something angrily reversed when put to the membership, but not before the top table had the audacity to argue against. It really does come to something when a union with cash in the bank pleads poverty over a relatively paltry sum of, it turns out, about £3,500 in order to support colleagues who find themselves in dire financial straits.
The disconnect between top table and membership was something on clear display at every turn during this AGM; a joint Chair in her opening address that alludes to this blog by castigating people for making critical comments regarding Napo officers and officials 'on social media', stating that there are 'proper channels' for such matters, but neglecting to mention that the NEC has been inquorate for 8 months. I've said it before and I say it again - this union is dysfunctional in terms of its leadership structures and is a situation that requires urgent attention.
I have alluded to an unhappy General Secretary and fractiousness amongst the top table. Anyone that paid attention to the recent election process for Chair will be aware that Chas Berry openly signalled a breaking of rank by campaigning on a platform of continued support for Collective Bargaining and hence a position diametrically-opposed to that of others on the top table. Although losing out to the incumbents for leadership, he won this argument convincingly in a barn-storming performance that I'm sure ruined the General Secretary's day. He may not be Chair, but watch this space in terms of Chas taking a lead in exercising some influence over our General Secretary.
There was more bad news for the top table over the piece of work by Dean Rogers and Tania Bassett, 'One Probation One Profession'. Surprise and dismay were expressed at this having emanated from officers, that it had not had the involvement of Professional Committee and that the consultation process, having been held over the summer period, was almost designed so as not to be noticed. The motion supporting this initiative was defeated.
Which brings me on to the Saturday morning farce involving an Emergency Motion rather sensibly calling for NEC reform. Having been accepted by Steering Committee, the proposer began to shed some welcome light on the dysfunctional nature of this absolutely key committee that should be holding the Executive, including General Secretary, to account. Amongst other things, we hear of long agenda's, possibly designed specifically to prevent discussion of key matters rather than facilitate it? One is left wondering if this situation is not something that has arisen by design rather than accident?
A certain irony was quickly highlighted in that the TUO committee to be mandated to look into the situation, was itself effectively defunct, there being only two members, six vacancies and not having met for months, but at least something was happening to draw attention to the situation. Well, that's until a challenge from the floor to the order of business was astonishingly carried, resulting in the Emergency Motion moving to the end of the agenda and hence quite likely never-to-be-reached. The sheer perversity of this decision took my breath away and although clearly irritated, Chair of Steering Committee Jan Peel very wisely chose not to waste time demanding a card vote.
As it turned out, to the surprise of many, the end of business was reached comfortably by 12.50 on Saturday, due largely to a whole raft of non-contentious motions, including that of 'Reform of the NEC'. Time will no doubt tell if it makes a blind bit of difference. As was wryly pointed out, even if TUO Committee get their act together, it could be reporting to an inquorate NEC....