AAI and ‘the period of special measures’

A member of the board that unlawfully hijacked Atheist Alliance International has finally admitted that they knew they were acting undemocratically, but that they did so anyway.

Up to now, others involved have implausibly claimed to have believed they were acting democratically, but say they made mistakes or overlooked the bylaws.

But former unelected board member John Richards now admits they deliberately decided to remove democracy, during what he calls ‘the period of special measures.’

In this article, I will cover:

  1. The new claim about ‘the period of special measures’
  2. Why this claim is invalid, regardless of what happened in 2017
  3. Why the analysis of what happened in 2017 is not correct anyway
  4. How the current claim contradicts previous claims

1. The new claim about ‘the period of special measures’

In a video published yesterday, John says the following:

“In the UK, when an organisation like a school or a primary care medical practice is inspected, if it is deemed to be failing, it can be put into special measures. This means that the existing governance is replaced by a temporary administration. It’s standard UK practice. Under special measures, as you would expect from the name, everything changes. The previous regime and its policies are suspended temporarily, until things can be allowed to get back to normal. The question is was AAI in need of special measures?”

John then lists allegations about AAI in 2017. He says the number of directors dropped, the number of members dropped, outgoings exceeded income, there was an expensive database system, and the website had problems. Because of this, John concludes that, yes, AAI was in need of special measures, then adds:

“While these special measures were in operation, unfortunately, democracy had to be put on hold.”

When asked, in comments under this video, why he didn’t put himself forward for election at the supposed AGM in 2018, John gives two contradictory reasons:

“You missed the bit about special measures suspending the previous regime’s rules, and the bit about it not being possible to call an AGM…”

“it was a ‘Director’s AGM’. I was considered to be within my term of office. This was during the period of Special Measures.”

2. Why this claim is invalid, regardless of what happened in 2017

John supports his claim that ‘special measures’ were needed by listing allegations about the state that AAI was in during 2017. I will later explain why this analysis is not true. But even if it was true, it would not come close to justifying John’s claim about introducing ‘special measures’. Here’s why.

‘Special Measures’ under UK law do not apply to private bodies such as AAI. They apply to schools or similar bodies that are funded by local authorities, and where the local authority has an oversight role in their governance.

This law does not mean that school governors can apply ‘special measures’ that allow them to ignore their constitution. Indeed, a significant unexplained change to their constitution is one of the reasons that school governors can be made subject to special measures.

The key is that ‘special measures’ are applied to board members, not by board members, and they are applied by democratically accountable local authorities, not by private individuals who a board has co-opted.

If you used ‘special measures’ as an analogy for AAI, the result would be the exact opposite of what John suggests. It would support the idea that the member groups (the equivalent of the democratic oversight) could remove underperforming board members, not the other way around.

And that would remain the case even if everything in John’s analysis of AAI in 2017 was true in every detail. As an aside, I will now explain why John’s analysis is not correct anyway.

3. Why the analysis of what happened in 2017 is not correct anyway

John supports his claim that ‘special measures’ were needed by saying that, in 2017, the number of directors had dropped, the number of member groups had dropped, outgoings were exceeding income, there was an expensive database system, and the website had problems.

Directors

Let’s start with the supposedly dropping number of directors.

  • After the 2016 AGM, there were ten board members: CD, ER, JH, OR, SK, KS, GM, CS, NP, MB.
  • On 28 May 2017, there were nine board members: OR, MB, OA, SK, JF, YA, BF, GM, DF.
  • When Secular World Q3/4 2017 was published, it listed nine board members: BF, CWB, DF, JF, JR, OA, PO, SK, NM. This was between September 2017 (as JR is listed) and November 2017 (as HB is not listed). This is the time that the obligatory 2017 AGM should have been convened but wasn’t.
  • It was only after the supposed 2018 AGM (organised by the people who removed democracy) that the number of directors dropped to one: GM. This means there was no convenable board, as that required at least four directors. It also means everything done since then has been invalid.

So why would people think there was a drop in directors during 2017? Well, the supposed board wrote in 2021 that:

“We needed a way to remove board members who did not pull their weight… in mid-2017, there were only three board members who were fully active, so driving through these big changes fell to a handful of extremely hard-pressed board members.”

Note that this is not a claim that there was a drop in directors, but a claim that a small number of directors wanted to remove other directors. This is entirely anti-democratic, and is the true start of the crisis in AAI.

Member Groups

Now let’s look at the supposedly dropping number of member groups during 2017. This is the key measure, not individual members, as it is the member groups who vote at AGMs. When Secular World Q3/4 2017 was published, it listed 32 member groups.

John shows a screenshot of a list claiming that, in December 2017, there were only six current member groups. But Bill Flavell, who compiled that list, has since admitted that was based on a misunderstanding of the bylaws. He did not know that member groups only lapse if they are invoiced, fail to pay, and the board then votes to remove them.

Other Issues

Finally, John refers to outgoings exceeding income, an expensive database system, and problems with the website. I agree that these were important issues, and that John and others joined the board with a genuine desire to help to promote atheism and secularism, and they may have felt overwhelmed by having to deal with these issues.

But these are the type of issues that any board of any organisation has to deal with. However serious you consider them to be, it is not a valid response to refuse to convene an obligatory AGM, and deny the member groups the opportunity to decide how to respond to the problems. The board members simply had no authority to do that.

4. How the current claim contradicts previous claims

John’s admission of deliberately suspending democracy within AAI contradicts the main claims made by other members of the then board.

“We failed to hold an AGM in 2017. We apologise for that. We did, however, try to hold an AGM within 18 months of the 2016 AGM. In the event, we missed the 18 month deadline by some days.” — email from board to members, 2021

“I joined the board in May 2017 and Howard Burman joined in November 2017, so we both should have been subject to election at the next AGM under the 2013 bylaws. The fact is, in those chaotic times when we were fighting to save AAI from sinking, we simply overlooked that requirement. It was an oversight.” — Bill Flavell, 2022

Where John’s claim differs from this is that:

  • up to now, the others have implausibly claimed that they tried to introduce changes democratically at an AGM, and simply overlooked basic requirements of the bylaws,
  • while John is open about claiming that ‘special measures’ were in operation that involved putting democracy on hold without requiring an AGM.

There are many more points to make in any discussion of the hijacking of AAI, so I will leave this article with links to two others:

AAI and ‘the period of special measures’

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