Rows rock St John Ambulance

Charity crisis » Months of feuding ends in the resignation of the venerable organisation's top brass in protest at 'autocratic' boss
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The Independent Online

Its uniformed volunteers have tended the sick and wounded at football grounds, demonstrations and state occasions for more than a century, an unchanging feature of the British social landscape.

But away from the terraces and the tea urns, the well-heeled charity that runs the St John Ambulance Brigade is enmeshed in a dispute worthy of The Forsyte Saga.

A row between the staff at the head of The Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem threatens the reputation of one of the most prestigious organisations in the country, whose influential members raise £50m a year and rub shoulders with royalty.

The chief commander, deputy chief commander and chief treasurer are all resigning after crossing swords with the Prior, Lord Slynn of Hadley – the law lord who heads the charity. One colleague describes him as an autocrat who has upset and alienated several senior staff.

"The organisation is being let down by an autocratic prior," said Lady Fiona Barttelot, a trustee and chief fund raiser who is herself stepping down on St John's Day, 22 June. "I don't think Lord Slynn is the right person for the job. He is the wrong person to lead St John Ambulance for the next three years."

Leaked documents reveal a charity in turmoil with extraordinary behind-the-scenes in-fighting among its hierarchy, many members of which support the outgoing chief commander, Baroness Audrey Emerton, who was made a life peer in 1997 – one of the few career nurses ever to receive such an honour. Baroness Emerton has also been a volunteer with St John Ambulance for five decades.

Michael Fowle, the chief treasurer who is also quitting, wrote in one memo circulated among senior staff: "Lord Slynn does not possess leadership or team-building skills of the kind needed to inspire trust and confidence among the senior volunteers and the directors at national headquarters ... He has alienated certain key officers; he has been unable to work with his chief commander and deputy chief commander."

Michael Webb, who has already resigned as the deputy chief commander, said: "The relationship at the top of the charity – between Lord Slynn and Baroness Emerton – is the problem ... It is difficult for the two to get on." In his resignation letter, he described the row as "eating into the core of the organisation".

Lord Slynn had been a legal adviser to the organisation until his elevation to prior – in effect, chairman – in 1999. He told The Independent on Sunday that the charity had decided to make no outward comment in an attempt to keep the matter in-house. But he did say, "I have never regarded myself as autocratic."

St John Ambulance has an annual income of £50m, raised through donations and a profitable division providing first-aid training courses. Its origins date back to the Crusades. The Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem was founded in 1099 to treat sick pilgrims. It disappeared in Britain during the Reformation until its revival in the 19th century.

Lord Slynn has his supporters. Sir Robert Balchin, a former director-general of St John Ambulance for six years until 1990, said Lord Slynn had taken over during a period of transition and at a time when the St John Ambulance and other charities such as the Salvation Army had suffered a "dearth of volunteers".

Sir Robert accused Lady Emerton of being a "St John groupie," adding: "It is all rather sad but Lord Slynn became the wall against which she threw herself and she has come off second best." Lady Emerton made no comment, other than to say: "Bob Balchin has not been part of the HQ staff for eight years."

A current colleague, who did not wish to be named, said: "Lady Emerton is an absolutely outstanding achiever. How many other nurses have gone to the House of Lords? St John Ambulance is a very big organisation and it needs to be run in a professional way. He [Lord Slynn] doesn't do that."