Open letter to the trustees of The Vegan Society

Dear Council,

As Chair of The Vegan Society, I was falsely accused of blocking complaints against trustees (even by at least one current trustee) with the corresponding investigation showing such allegations to be unfounded:

422. As to the suggestion that RM was seeking to block the progress of the investigation by labelling team members racist for raising the complaints and seeking to deal with them, I have received no evidence to support this assertion. In particular I have seen no evidence that either EKZ or RM have labelled Vegan Society employees “racist” for seeking to deal with this complaint.

But it seems clear that current trustees are now blocking complaints – and the disparity between the society's response to complaints made by friends and family members of current trustees and the lack of response to complaints against those trustees speaks to the unlawful conflicts of interest and loyalty that The Vegan Society allows to dominate these and other proceedings. (Notably, such corruption is also the subject of a number of these complaints.)

For example, when a member of the society, and self-professed "pal" of several trustees, made a formal complaint against two other trustees last year (16 December), the complainant posted on social media just days later (24 December) to say that they had received "assurances from The Vegan Society that the numerous complaints received are being processed in a fair and transparent fashion, with the appropriate professional advice in place". The investigation into such complaints was then concluded within 6 months (9 June) with the complaints shown to be rooted in pre-existing relationships and prejudices, and no action recommended against the trustees so accused.

354. I consider that there are a number of mitigating factors. These include

(1) TB’s complaints against EKZ appear to have been motivated by a profound personal animosity towards EKZ related in part to EKZ’s identity and protected characteristics [young, Black, disabled, queer, non-binary], to their stance on a number of political and ideological issues and to TB’s friendships with individuals who were displaced from leadership positions by the election of EKZ as Vice Chair.

(2) That EKZ was identified as a target for complaints by TB on social media. TB encouraged his followers and other individuals to search for adverse information on EKZ and to provide it to him and to complain to the Vegan Society

349. I have concluded that content in two posts made by EKZ were unprofessional and inappropriate. It follows that the vast majority of complaints made against EKZ have not been upheld.

350 … Critically, those comments can be related back to the Vegan Society and EKZ’s association with it. I make clear that I do not criticise the fact that EKZ expressed frustration, disappointment and anger with the Vegan Society in those posts. It is the means of expression - the language used that I consider to be inappropriate and unprofessional given that the posts can readily be related to the Society.

351. In these respects, only, I consider that in relation to the two posts I have identified EKZ’s actions fell short of the standards to be expected of a trustee.

358. I do not consider it fair, proportionate or necessary for a formal sanction to be applied to EKZ.

441. I do not uphold any of the complaints brought against RM. There is no evidence to suggest that RM has acted unlawfully or in breach of his obligations as a Trustee or as Chair of the Society.

Disappointingly, those who made or supported such false accusations (from both within the society and without) have refused to retract them or apologise, almost a year later – instead continuing to undermine those who were democratically elected to lead the organisation, and whose only "crime" was to volunteer their time to help the society broaden its appeal by taking a more consistent approach to injustice. Furthermore, the current trustees of The Vegan Society have chosen to protect the offenders rather than offer any support to those wrongly accused.

Nevertheless, the QC did recommend "that the Council of the Vegan Society… adopts a written complaints procedure for dealing with complaints against trustees", and the Council of trustees has now had over six months to do so. Therefore, any failure to handle more recent complaints appropriately would be especially damning. (Indeed, anticipating this need, I'd already shared a draft of a potential procedure with Council at the start of May – i.e. a full month before the QC's recommendation.)

However, when current and former members (including former trustees) have submitted formal complaints against current trustees (or the society per se) since then, they have not received assurances similar to those provided in December (even after several months) and no investigations appear to have even been started (let alone concluded).

At least four individuals are waiting on responses regarding at least six complaints. These include the following:

  1. A formal complaint from 16 February 2021 regarding trustees' "conflicts of interest and loyalty" (put on hold by complainant on 28 March 2021, then re-opened on 17 July 2021). This includes specific concerns about:
    1. trustees' rejection of legal advice from both the Charity Commission and the society's own lawyers in order to protect their personal interests;
    2. trustees' apparent complicity in last year's malicious complaints, and their refusal to recuse themselves from investigations into allegations made by their friends and family members;
    3. omissions and inaccuracies in a Serious Incident Report provided to the Charity Commission (potentially a criminal offence under Section 60 of The Charities Act);
    4. The Vegan Society's extremely selective requests for amendments by the media – e.g. asking for a fact to be diluted to an allegation, yet failing to challenge blatant falsehoods (added to the complaint in August).

    Response received the day it was re-opened to say "I’m writing to acknowledge receipt of this complaint. I will pass it to the board today."

    On 20 September, the society advised that "complaints are being currently looked at in detail by certain trustees ahead of the next Council meeting on Oct 1st."

    However, more than two months later, and more than four months after the complaint was re-opened, the complainant has received no further response.
  2. A formal complaint from 19 July regarding governance, trustees' conflicts of interest, complaint handling, duty of care, interference in elections, breaches of confidentiality, a lack of accountability, and other "concerns raised against certain council members from staff, ex-council, membership and external providers".

    Response received the same day to say "I’m writing to acknowledge receipt of this complaint which I have passed on to the board."

    However, more than four months later, the complainant has received no further response.
  3. A formal complaint from 11 September regarding trustees' failure to deliver on a commitment from the previous September for "an external investigation into all issues regarding concerns about possible racism raised at Council level... to be initiated within one month" and including more than 25 accusations of oppressive behaviour (mostly racism) by current trustees.

    Response received the same day to say "I’m confirming receipt of this additional information and that it has been passed to the board."

    On 20 September, the society advised that "complaints are being currently looked at in detail by certain trustees ahead of the next Council meeting on Oct 1st."

    However, more than two months later, the complainant has received no further response. Additionally, the promised investigation into racism is now over a year late.
  4. A formal complaint from 27 September regarding false claims by a trustee on The Vegan Society website.

    Response received on 1 October to say that a change had been made. Reply from the complainant the same day to say that the amended claim was still false.

    However, over two months later, the complainant has received no further response.
  5. A formal complaint from 27/29 September 2021 regarding "failure of The Board of Trustees to release the full QC Report", trustee support for a "witch hunt", "overt racism", "Minutes of Meetings… abbreviated so as to be meaningless", failure to address inaccurate reports in the media, and "a cover up".

    Response received 29 September: "I’m writing to acknowledge receipt of this complaint and hope to be able to update you on how this will be handled by the end of the week."

    However, over two months later, the complainant has received no further response.
  6. A formal complaint from 30 September 2021 regarding "the fact that members have not had the opportunity to view the full QC report on which so much of their membership funds was spent".

    Response received the same day to say "Thank you for sharing your concerns which I have passed on to the board."

    However, over two months later, the complainant has received no further response.

Notably the above list does not include additional concerns about the society's handling (both timescales and omissions) of my recent Subject Access Request – let alone anything raised by the information that was provided in response (see below).

None of these complainants have received any "assurances from The Vegan Society that the numerous complaints received are being processed in a fair and transparent fashion, with the appropriate professional advice in place" – despite the QC's recommendations, and December's complainant receiving such assurances within a matter of days.

When trustees of The Vegan Society prevent outstanding complaints regarding their alleged misconduct in office from being addressed appropriately and impartially (or even just consistently), such trustees must be removed. And I call on both The Charity Commission and the members of The Vegan Society to ensure that this happens.

But I'm done. For 25 years, I've been a member of the society. I've run stalls for the society at various events (often at significant personal expense), recruited members and trustees, served as both a trustee and Chair, and provided a 75% discount on professional services (to a value of around £90,000).

For the last four years, I have particularly sought to challenge the society's institutional racism – its refusal to back an article on the society's own blog calling for vegans to oppose all oppression, its platforming of oppressive individuals (and support for others that platform them), its under-representation (other than performative stock photography and occasional tokenisation) of Black vegans and vegans of colour (particularly those of marginalised genders), and its relentless abuse of a young, Black, disabled, queer, non-binary trustee. I did consider remaining a member of the society solely to bring further vital motions to future AGMs – especially as current trustees renege on prior commitments and ignore the complaints above. However, I imagine that this Council would block any such proposals, rig the voting, or simply ignore any successful resolutions. Nevertheless, other members might like to do so – or even to stand for Council (see The Vegan Society website for more details on either option). But be prepared for an environment that is extremely hostile to those opposed to other systemic oppressions.

The response to my recent Subject Access Request has also revealed the depths to which longer-term trustees are prepared to sink in order to preserve their fiefdom (including exploiting my father's death from cancer to dishonestly disparage me) and how this even predates our election to Council. Given that the society has (in my opinion) utterly failed in its legal duty of care to its voluntary trustees, we must engage in self-care instead.

Therefore, I can no longer justify remaining a member of a "charity" whose leadership is so corrupt, self-serving, spiteful, petty, racist, cissexist, ableist, etc. – and I hereby cancel my membership. Undoubtedly this will be cause for celebration by the bigots and the bullies. But I know I am not the first either to resign from Council or to cancel my membership in protest at the harmful actions of current trustees and their allies (to the well-being and reputations of individuals, the society, and the cause). And I doubt I will be the last.

Finally, with such trustees only seeming to care about income from trademark licensing, regardless of how unethically any products are produced, I intend to boycott products that carry the society's trademark "as far as possible and practicable", and to notify licensees why. (I have already switched from the still-untested VEG 1 supplement to an alternative.) Naturally, I will also continue to boycott those organisations run by individuals responsible for last year's malicious complaints (e.g. Tim Barford of VegfestUK, Global Vegfest, Forca Vegan, Plant Powered Planet and Yaoh, and Brian Jacobs of London Vegans) as well as any others that I consider to be complicit in using bigotry and bullying to uphold and reinforce oppressive power structures within the vegan movement (e.g. Plant Based News and Vegan Camp Out). And I call on all vegans who genuinely oppose oppression to consider similar action.

Yours sincerely,

Robb Masters (he/they)
Former Chair of the Board of Trustees ("Council") at The Vegan Society

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