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Letter: `Handbag vote' can swing Trust motions

Sir: I was extremely interested to read the letter from Lesley Webb (7 October) on the motion coming to the AGM of the National Trust requesting more details on how many mandated and unmandated votes are cast in order to arrive at decisions.

In 1990 I was the proposer of a successful resolution to ban the hunting of deer with hounds on National Trust property. However, it appeared that the margin of success was relatively small - by approximately 4,500 votes. But shortly after the AGM The Sunday Times published an article indicating that of the total 130,000 votes cast, the then chairman, Dame Jennifer Jenkins, had used approximately 50,000 discretionary proxy votes in an attempt to defeat the motion.

Senior officials of the Trust confirmed that without the chairman's "handbag vote", members had voted in a ratio of 5-1 for the anti-deer-hunting resolution. The article also indicated that the chairman had refused to discuss the number of votes involved even with the 49 members of the Trust's council.

Lord Oliver said in his report into the constitution of the Trust that a member's knowledge of how votes have been cast "cannot serve any useful statistical purpose that I can envisage". But those of us who succeeded in this resolution found the statistics both revealing and useful, as, I am sure, did those who lost a similar resolution to ban fox-hunting when they learned that, without the chairman's "handbag vote", members had voted 4-1 in favour of their motion.

It was the Earl of Antrim, when he became chairman of the Trust in 1965, who described it as a self-perpetuating oligarchy. Yet Lord Oliver stated that an examination of election results "over the past few years does not reveal any reluctance to introduce new blood".

I feel Lord Oliver must have been looking at different statistics from those I examined, which indicate that from the years 1990-1995 inclusively, 41 out of 43 retiring council members seeking re-election were re-appointed.


West Quantoxhead, Somerset