NCT in crisis over Sainsbury sponsorship

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The Independent Online
It was the driving force behind the transformation of modern childbirth - deep-breathing exercises and breast-feeding instead of epidurals and infant formula.

But the National Childbirth Trust is now finding its high principles and liberal values questioned by rebel members who are threatening a mass breakaway from the 40-year-old charity. The dispute has been rumbling for months after shocked members discovered the trustees had, without consultation, accepted conference sponsorship from Sainsbury's, which sells an own-brand milk substitute.

They believe this contravenes the NCT's commitment to breast-feeding. The anger was compounded by increases in subscription rates, from pounds 12 to pounds 36 for new members and pounds 1 to pounds 5 for the unwaged, which they fear will reinforce its image as a well-off middle-class club.

Now the rift is to be aired in public after the rebels submitted special resolutions and forced an extraordinary general meeting (EGM). It is to be held in London on 3 July.

The opponents of the sponsorship deal say the trust, a network of classes and support groups, should not take money from companies which produce or sell breast-milk substitutes.

They want this principle confirmed at the EGM and have set up a fund, the EGM Information Trust, to help publicise their concerns. If they fail, they may form a new charity.

Sheila Kitzinger, the childbirth guru and a former NCT adviser, said yesterday that that would be sad.

"If the NCT cracked up, there's no other organisation that could take its place."

The rebels claim the risk is significant. A survey by two trust tutors found up to three-quarters of breast-feeding counsellors who represent the NCT on outside bodies felt compromised by the Sainsbury's deal.

They believed it breaches World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

Up to half the counsellors and tutors said they would resign if the issue was not resolved.

The row is also causing anxiety in the branches. One went independent in January and others are reportedly in difficulty.

Ros Barber, chair of the Uckfield branch, in Sussex, said two neighbouring branches had folded into theirs.

Committee members were so disillusioned they did not want to do the work. "I don't think you can make a big decision ... without consulting the members," she said.

"I passionately support what the NCT does but if they don't sort it out, I'm out."

Mary Broadfoot, a breastfeeding tutor who trains the voluntary counsellors, said it would be difficult to attract counsellors back if they left.

"We will have parents looking for this service and it just won't be there."

She said accepting sponsorship from Sainsbury's could be seen as endorsing its own-brand infant formula. "They have a stake in breast-feeding failure."

Kim Margey, chair of the Glasgow branch, lamented the lack of consultation and the loss of independence.

"Independent advice is one of the things we value. I would be extremely upset if I left, but the principles have got to be stood by." Mary Barnard, the NCT chair, said they regretted the meeting had been called, at a possible cost of up to pounds 40,000, instead of trying to resolve the matters through the consultation procedure the trust has set up.

"We would have preferred to let the consultation take its course," she said. They had believed the Sainsbury's deal was acceptable under WHO guidelines.

She added that membership had not been increased for several years, and the trustees had to balance the pounds 3.5m a year budget. "It would be sad if the breast-feeding counsellors left, but this is not a single-issue body. We want to be able to offer a range of services to a huge range of people." A Sainsbury's spokeswoman said they did not promote infant formula, even though they stocked it.

Mrs Kitzinger said she opposed sponsorship from manufacturers, but supermarkets stocked a range of products and there seemed room for debate.

The essential point was there should be democratic consultation. "It does seem to me that they have neglected to develop ways of communicating between members.

"There's always been conflict bubbling in the NCT. In some ways it's the sign of a healthy organisation. But if you have too many bubbles you run into trouble. You may explode."