Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Women in revolt over Legion shake-up

MORE than 30 volunteers have quit the Royal British Legion in the Henley area in protest at plans to scrap its dedicated women’s section

MORE than 30 volunteers have quit the Royal British Legion in the Henley area in protest at plans to scrap its dedicated women’s section.

The organisation’s Harpsden and Kidmore End branches used to have separate groups for women but these are being closed in order to save money.

The charity says that membership of women’s sections is falling nationally so it no longer makes financial sense to keep them going.

Instead, all branches are being amalgamated into mixed-sex groups.

However, only two women in Harpsden have opted to stay on while the remaining 26 have resigned in protest.

In Kidmore End, which had 16 female members, more than half have left. The women say the existing arrangement created a sense of friendship and camaraderie that will be lost under the changes.

Many are now looking to support other charities and community causes instead.

It is claimed that up to 10,000 of the Legion’s 32,000 women members across the UK have resigned.

Gillian Spiers, who joined the Harpsden women’s section in 1992 and has been chairwoman for the past three years, said the change was announced by letter in January.

She and her colleagues replied, urging the Legion to reconsider, but she said their letters weren’t even acknowledged.

The group, which formed 70 years ago, has now accepted its fate and will disband following a farewell party at Harpsden village hall from 2.30pm to 4.30pm tomorrow (Saturday).

It met once a month for a range of activities, including guest talks and outings and helped the men’s group to organise fund-raising events.

Mrs Spiers, 73, whose father Ted Gibbs was an RAF instructor during the Second World War and whose husband Ray is a member of the branch, said: “We were very disappointed at the news.

“The announcement started with ‘as you all know’ but none of us had been told anything. That was the first we had heard of it.

“Apparently it had been in the pipeline for some time but they didn’t say anything until a decision had been made.

“It came as a massive shock. Our ladies had worked hard for years and years and did most of the Poppy Appeal collections.

“They raised thousands of pounds for people in need of help and the cause was very dear to their hearts.

“Most of them preferred to do their things separately so they’ve voted with their feet. There’s more of a compassionate atmosphere when it’s just women.

“The Legion has handled this very poorly. It is concerned about its finances but with so many members leaving this will become an even greater problem. I think it underestimated how unhappy many people would be and if it thinks this is going to make things easier or save money then it is badly mistaken.

“These branches are a social lifeline for a lot of women. Most members are pensioners who don’t have a great deal of money but give what they can because they believe in it.

“We have been treated appallingly and with contempt. Most of the correspondence we’ve received has been self-justifying waffle and I’m not at all surprised by what’s happening all over the country.

“It makes no sense to cast off an entire army of volunteers and it’s going to be costly. It could even lead to departures from the men’s section as we have a lot of support there.”

Mrs Spiers said the group would continue to meet informally and take part in fund-raising activities.

She said: “We value the sense of loyalty we’ve built up and aren’t going to abandon each other because of this. One member has even suggested that we call ourselves the ‘Harpsden Rebels’!

“We will at least be free to raise money for something local or whatever we choose.”

Pam Pratt, former chairwoman of Kidmore End’s women’s section, which disbanded in June, is now raising funds for wounded servicemen’s and women’s charity Blesma instead. She believes her group raised about £18,000 for the Legion during her time in charge.

She said: “We don’t feel all the work we did for them was appreciated. We’ve done so much and they’ve just knocked us back. It’s a great shame and we feel we weren’t wanted.”

Harpsden and Kidmore End were the only branches in the Legion’s Thames Valley group with women’s sections. The Henley, Peppard, Benson and Ewelme, Shiplake and Dunsden, Bix, Nettlebed and Watlington branches were already mixed.

John Pragnell, secretary of the Harpsden branch, said: “I’m disgusted at what has happened.

“It’s a great shame that we’re losing so many members though I completely understand why they are leaving.

“The women have raised more money than we have, not just for the Poppy Appeal but for our Benevolent Fund. It might take a few years but takings will eventually suffer if there are fewer collectors.”

A Legion spokesman said women’s sections were first consulted on the changes early last year and were still closely involved in talks on integration.

He said: “It will make more efficient use of the public funds donated to the charity for the good of our beneficiaries.””

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