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Railwatch 087 - March 2001

Why we need to take a little constitutional

The growth of RDS has made it necessary to look afresh at our constitution, which was originally put together when the organisation was formed - with less than 500 members - in 1978. A major overhaul took place in 1985, when that membership had more than doubled, aimed partly at streamlining the society.

A few years later, a procedure for expelling members which has only twice been needed was written in, to safeguard rights and responsibilities. Some fine-tuning was done in subsequent years, and then in the late 1990s came one other major change, when we introduced a full postal ballot for all the National Executive and national officers. This resulted in a threefold increase in the number of members participating in the electoral process.

Now we have contracts with three staff and with a landlord plus an insurance policy for the office. Greater sums of money are being handled. The question of liability of elected National Executive members and officers has therefore had to be addressed.

A constitutional working party of Bill Collins, John Bigny and Robin Fennell has put much work into this matter over the past nine months, taking into account the law affecting unincorporated associations (of which RDS is one). Most of the changes or additions to our constitution proposed by the working party are designed to address this step change and create "a culture of authority". For example, the National Executive can empower a specific member to enter into a contract without putting his or her personal finances at risk. The changes also make clear, or clearer, the rights of individual members and responsibilities of certain officers, sometimes setting down in black and white what has already been happening in practice.

Some amendments, such as a new rule on motions for annual general meetings, have been introduced to safeguard against possible attempts to render a meeting unworkable. The proposed new rule is a redrafted version of one which failed to secure a two-thirds majority when proposed two years ago.

Another addition is proposed to protect the independence of RDS when receiving donations - an issue about which a number of members have voiced concern over the past year. I suspect few members will have any problems in supporting the vast majority of the above mentioned proposals. There is, however a further small batch of suggested amendments which do not result from the growth and increased complexity of our work and operations. These centre on a proposal to ban members from standing for national office or the National Executive after they have served a certain number of years.

I know of no other voluntary body which has such a rule. The reasons are not surprising. If anyone can stand for any office, we are more likely to get the best person for the job, or the person whom most members want.

The new proposal is compounded by the proviso that, if no one is nominated for a particular post then, at some unspecified point, the National Executive can co-opt them for a further year! That brings the risk of extra administration, manipulation, instability and ill-feeling - and who would benefit from that?

Trevor Garrod is general secretary of the Railway Development Society

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