27 November 2019
Fellows will be aware that at an Extraordinary Meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of London on 24 October 2019, Fellows considered a Resolution from the Council of the Society to remove Mr Hubert Chesshyre from the Fellowship.
The result of the vote and its subsequent press coverage (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/nov/23/society-antiquaries-turmoil-vote-to-back-sex-abuser) resulted in 220 Fellows signing an open letter to The Observer and to Council making clear that they were appalled by the outcome, expressing their support for the victim and emphasising their determination to reform and modernise the Society’s Statutes and governance.
Council welcomes the sentiments expressed in the letter from those Fellows, shares the views of the signatories, and takes it as a measure of support for the reforms that the trustees, with legal advice, are already working on.
The trustees (Council), the Fellows who voted in support of the motion for removal, and our staff were similarly shocked at the outcome of the meeting. The trustees and the General Secretary have thought very deeply about the implications of the result of this vote for the Society. The trustees have always been clear that their primary responsibility is the welfare of the Society and its charitable activities. All are committed to reforming the Society’s governance arrangements so that the Society is able to respond appropriately should similar cases arise in future. It is of the first importance that any Fellows who are considering resigning from the Society because of the failure to remove Mr Chesshyre understand the need for them to remain, to support and vote in favour of the necessary governance reforms.
The Society is committed to acting in a way which is consistent with its status as an educational charity which operates for the public benefit, and as an institution which publicly recognises the achievements of people engaged in the study of past times. In Council’s view, as a body of charity trustees, this means taking action to ensure the Society is seen to act charitably, with care and respect for the victims of abuse, and to remove from Fellowship people who do not meet the Society’s expectations of integrity and good character implicit in their election.
Our Charters, Statutes and Orders underwent a major re-write and modernisation in 2015 which made them far more transparent and, importantly, easier to update and adapt. Unfortunately, the Order governing the removal of Fellows was framed so as to be dependent on a vote in person at a General Meeting (in law, it is generally the case that people whose membership of an organisation is to be removed are given the right to make representations in their defence, in person).
Trustees adopted this approach with the best of intentions, but our attention has been drawn to the unintended consequence that in terms of availability, cost and mobility it sets for many Fellows an unrealistically high barrier to participation in such a decision. Council is clear that in this respect the existing governance procedures are not fit for purpose for a society with a worldwide Fellowship and is actively working on reforms that will enable the Society to take effective action in cases such as these in future.
Options for Reform
Council is presently considering a range of options which it will discuss in detail at its meeting in December. These will include:
- Removing the requirement for removal to be determined solely on a vote at a meeting of Fellows in person (subject to the legal principle referred to above);
- Adopting a Code of Ethics that would support our existing Statement of Values;
- Adopting a range of “hard triggers” such as criminal convictions that would lead to the removal of a Fellow so convicted or that would prevent candidates from joining the Society;
- Appointing an Ethics Committee to investigate all complaints about the behaviour and ethical conduct of Fellows, that would be able to examine sensitive information in confidence and make recommendations to Council regarding sanctions;
- Broaden the range of sanctions available to Council so that the sanctions are proportional to the seriousness of the infringement;
- Introduce a process of appeal to an independent body.
These options are based on similar provisions adopted by many other learned, membership and professional bodies in order to deliver fair and efficient resolution of ethical and behaviour issues.
Process and timetable
Council is bound to follow the governance rules set out in our Charter, Statutes, and Orders as well as complying with charity law and guidance issued by the Charity Commission. Reforming the Society’s governance will entail a major expansion of our governance mechanisms, and it will require careful legal drafting so that we do not face similar difficulties in the future.
The draft reforms will, as a matter of good practice, go out for consultation with the Fellowship, and it may also be desirable for them to be shared with the Charity Commission and possibly the Privy Council Office for their comments. Council will, following the consultation process, draft the final amended Statutes which will then need to be approved by:
- two- thirds of the Council members present and voting at a [trustee] meeting called for that purpose (Statute 18.4.1) and then,
- by two-thirds of the Fellows voting at a General Meeting called for that purpose and held not less than one month and not more than four months after the Council meeting held for that purpose (Statute 18.4.2).
Unlike the process to remove a Fellow, Order 2.1 specifically allows electronic and postal voting for “making, constituting and establishing, or varying, altering and revoking Statutes, rules, orders …..”. Thus, reform of the Statutes will be open to all Fellows, not just those who are able to attend a General Meeting in person. The Fellowship therefore has a crucial role to play in voting to reform the Statutes.
The scale of the task and the need for a consultation period means that Council is currently planning to bring the amended Statutes to a vote at the next Anniversary Meeting (AGM) on 23 April 2020.
In summary, Council is deeply committed to addressing the issues of ethics and governance which this issue has raised, and would also stress that it will be relying on the support of Fellows to carry through the necessary reforms. Council therefore urges all Fellows to remain members of the Society in order to provide that support.
Finally, and most importantly, the Society has been in touch with the victim throughout this process and is grateful to have received their cooperation throughout. On behalf of the Society, the General Secretary has apologised unreservedly to the victim for any hurt which the Society’s unsuccessful attempt to remove Mr Chesshyre may have caused.
Paul Drury PSA
On behalf of Council.
You can read a report on these events from our SALON editor Mike Pitts FSA in the newest edition of SALON.