Army of Norfolk and Suffolk women fundraisers left ‘hurt and disillusioned’ at treatment by Royal British Legion
An army of 'hurt and disillusioned' women across Norfolk and Suffolk who have raised millions of pounds for veterans and their dependants are handing back their collecting tins, angered at their treatment by the Royal British Legion (RBL).
More than half of the RBL's Women's Section branches in both counties are reported to be closing, after up to 90 years of voluntary service and fundraising.
A total of 15 of Norfolk's 27 branches have voted to fold, according to Hazel Kingswood, acting chairman of the county's RBL Women's Section and chairman of its Aylsham branch.
She has described national RBL chiefs as 'dictatorial' and 'pre-suffragette' in their handling of change proposals affecting the Women's Section.
Sandra Saban, eastern area representative on the Women's Section central committee, said she believed only three of Suffolk's 19 branches would stay open.
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The planned closures are thought to be a major blow for the RBL which has a proud national reputation for supporting service personnel and which runs the annual Poppy Appeal.
Some closing Norfolk branches are expected to follow Aylsham's lead by continuing to meet, but raising money instead for county-based veterans' charities.
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The rift follows an RBL announcement at the start of the year that the Women's Section, founded in 1921 under the legion umbrella but operating semi-independently, would become a district of the RBL from the end of next month.
The Women's Section national standard would be laid up, county committees cease to exist and the chairman of the national Women's Section would no longer have an automatic seat on the RBL's board of trustees.
The Legion says changes are aimed at cutting administration costs to ensure as much money as possible goes to its welfare work, as required by charity regulations.
Mrs Kingswood said, following an outcry at the announcement, the RBL had extended the change date by one year and set up a joint team with the Women's Section to implement plans, but that had come too late for many branches.
'The damage was done. The branches had made their decision and said: 'We've had enough – to hell with them.'
'We are all volunteers. We will do what we are asked to do, but we don't respond to diktats and we don't trust the board of trustees any more.
'It's treating us in a pre-suffragette manner: 'You will do what we say because we are the men and we are the bosses',' she said.
Many members, including herself, were already concerned that some RBL money was being spent on such things as new offices, Mrs Kingswood added.
Marilyn Humphry, national chairman of the Women's Section, who sat on the board of trustees, had known of the changes, which she opposed, some time before the announcement but had not been able to inform members because of confidentiality rules binding board members, according to Mrs Kingswood.
With declining membership affecting both the RBL and Women's Section, Mrs Kingswood said she understood that change was necessary but believed the membership should have been asked several years ago to help plan a way forward.
She added: 'I feel angry for everybody across the county who has done so much.
There are ladies in their 80s and 90s who have been volunteering for more than 60 years and they should not have been treated like this.
'It's so disappointing that we are going to have to lay up all these branch standards. Everybody is so despondent, hurt and disillusioned.'
Royal British Legion's response
Responding to Hazel Kingswood's criticisms of the Royal British Legion, a spokesman said: 'It remains vitally important to integrate the Royal British Legion Women's Section into the main body of the organisation to comply with charity regulation and governance arrangements.
'Following discussions in June 2016, which took into consideration feedback from the 2016 annual conferences of both the Women's Section and the Legion membership, a joint team representing the Legion and the Women's Section has been formed to develop a plan for integration. The team will work together to identify potential issues brought about by the change, and the aim will be to complete the integration of the Women's Section by October 1 2017.'
Asked whether the RBL regretted the branch closures, or believed chiefs had mishandled the changes, the spokesman said: '...if members wish to close it is their right to do so. However, these closures have not come about by changes made to the Women's Section.'
Commenting on Mrs Kingswood's allegations that Women's Section members had not been consulted, the spokesman said: 'The Legion's chairman and vice chairman, together with two members of the central committee of the Women's Section and, through them, the full central committee, were fully engaged throughout initial discussions from March to November 2015. '
And asked whether Mrs Kingswood was right about some RBL monies being used for such things as new offices, the spokesman said: 'The Legion's primary focus is always in delivering the best possible support and welfare services for its beneficiaries.'
Sir William Cubitt, president of the RBL in Norfolk, said it was a great shame if any Women's Sections branches had chosen to close but their members would be very welcome to join the mainstream RBL.
A lifetime's service
Hazel Kingswood, 67, has been an RBL Women's Section member since 1982. Her late parents, George and Pru Chamberlain, had been Legion stalwarts since the Second World War.
As well as closing her own Aylsham Women's Section branch, founded by women including her mother in 1959, Mrs Kingswood is planning to stop volunteering as a Poppy Appeal collector after 34 years.
Instead, she will devote more time to her volunteering role at the Britannia Veterans' Centre, in Norwich, helping them raise money for Norfolk causes.
She said: 'I dread to think of mum and dad's reaction to what's happened.
'But dad believed in helping people locally and that's what I'm going to do now, instead of seeing the money raised go into a big London pot and some of it used for things which aren't to do with welfare.'
Branch members of Norfolk's RBL Women's Section have been invited to a last hurrah at the Wensum Valley Hotel, in Taverham, on September 3.
As well as food and entertainment, they will hear from representatives of Norfolk-based veterans' charities – including the Walnut Tree Project and Outside The Wire – to see whether other closing branches want to follow Aylsham's example and continue meeting to fundraise for them.