Board of Trustees, Governance

BPS – Failures in meeting its charitable obligations?

David Pilgrim’s piece on this site draws attention to the dysfunctionality of the BPS and raises questions about the constitution of the Board of Trustees.

Here I want to take a closer look at that issue.

The BPS has massive problems with its infrastructure.

The British Psychological Society is a charity, and as such has to abide by certain rules laid down by the Charity Commission.  The Charity Commission website defines the Activities of the BPS  “As specified by the Charter, Statutes and Rules of the Society”.  

The Royal Charter states: “The objects of the Society should be to promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology … setting up a high standard of professional education and knowledge.”. And “To maintain a Code of Ethics and Conduct for the guidance of Members and to compel the observance of strict rules of professional conduct as a condition of membership.” (my emphasis – I believe that the BPS fails dismally in this regard, and I intend to address this issue in a subsequent blog).

The BPS Code of Ethics required by the Royal Charter (3.4 Integrity) states that psychologists should act with integrity which “ … includes being honest, truthful, accurate and consistent in one’s actions, words … Psychologists value honesty, probity, accuracy, clarity and fairness … in all facets of their scientific endeavours.”.  And that there should be “Honesty, openness and candour; Accurate unbiased representation; Fairness; Avoidance of exploitation and conflicts of interest …”.  Rule 1 of the Member Conduct Rules (also required by the Charter) is that “Members must not act in a way that damages, or is likely to damage the reputation of the BPS (or is contrary to the object of the Society as set out in the Royal Charter).”.  

I think that the Society also fails badly in these requirements. How can that happen? 

To answer that question, we need to look at the rules for how charities are governed.

According to the Charity Commission website  (https://www.gov.uk/set-up-a-charity) “Trustees are responsible for the operation of your charity. They must show they understand their legal requirements…. your trustees’ background and experiences can help: bring different points of view to a discussion, give insight into your beneficiaries’ needs and experience, make contacts in the community, think of new ways of doing things.”.  And “As trustees, you have a duty of care to prevent risks to your charity’s reputation as well as the people it helps. As trustees, you must: always act in the best interests of the charity – you must not let your personal interests, views or prejudices affect your conduct as a trustee, act reasonably and responsibly in all matters relating to your charity – act with as much care as if you were dealing with your own affairs, taking advice if you need it, only use your charity’s income and property for the purposes set out in its governing document, make decisions in line with good practice and the rules set by your charity’s governing document, including excluding any trustee who has a conflict of interest from discussions or decision-making on the matter.”. 

This is what is said about “Risks and trustee liability”:  

“You can be liable to your charity if you act unlawfully or negligently as a trustee. Although your charity might run up debts or other liabilities as a result of decisions you make, you and the other trustees won’t be liable if you have:  acted lawfully, responsibly and reasonably, followed the rules in your charity’s governing document, taken reasonable steps to manage risks.  But if you can’t prove this, you could be ‘in breach of trust’ to your own charity. Trustees act jointly when running a charity, so the trustees as a group would be liable to repay any loss to the charity.”.

The Commission can take trustees to court to recover funds lost to their charity as a result of a breach of trust.  (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/trustee-board-people-and-skills?step-by-step-nav=3dd66b86-ce29-4f31-bfa2-a5a18b877f11).

It specifies that there is a “legal duty to act in your charity’s best interests, manage your charity’s resources responsibly and act with reasonable care and skill.”.  And that it is “vital that Trustees deal with conflicts of interest, implement appropriate financial controls, manage risks and take appropriate advice when you need to.”  (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-essential-trustee-what-you-need-to-know-cc3/the-essential-trustee-what-you-need-to-know-what-you-need-to-do).

Now let’s take a look at who are the Trustees for the BPS:  

Statute 18 of The Royal Charter (Royal Charter and Statutes, BPS, 2017) states “The Board of Trustees shall comprise the Officers of the Society and other members … Presidential team, the President and The President elect… The Officers of the Society…. The Honorary Treasurer and Honorary General Secretary. The Board of Trustees shall include the following other members  … The Chairs of the Boards of the Society; At least two and not more than five other members co-opted to the Board in a manner determined by the Representative Council in accordance with the Rules.  The President shall chair all meetings of the Board of Trustees at which he or she is present and in his or her absence the President-Elect or the Vice President.”.

 So, I believe that a huge problem for the BPS is that its Trustees are individuals who are deeply embedded in its operational status quo. The people who are meant to have oversight of the actions of the Society are the same people taking those actions (or in many cases, inactions).   

Their duties are specified: “The Board of Trustees shall conduct the business of the Society consistently with provisions of the Charter and these Statutes and shall supervise the expenditure of all moneys on account of the business of the Society and do all such other things as are necessary for the transaction of the business of the Society and the furtherance of its objects… The Board of Trustees may, from time to time, at their discretion appoint from among their members or otherwise such Committees as shall appear expedient and may, from time to time, modify or dissolve any Committee. Any Committee so appointed shall in exercise of the powers delegated to it conduct its affairs in accordance with such regulations as may be imposed on it by the Board of Trustees.”.

There is also “a representative council which shall advise the Board of Trustees (“the Representative Council”). It will comprise:

(1) The Officers of the Society; the President, Honorary General Secretary, Honorary Treasurer, President-Elect and Vice President;

(2) The Chairs of the Boards of the Society;

(3) A representative from each of the Member Networks approved by the Board of Trustees;

(4) Co-opted Members who shall serve for one year as prescribed in the Rules.”.

So – to summarise – the Trustees, who are meant to impartially have oversight of the functioning of the Society, are the same people who effectively run the Society, and there is also a Representative Council which advises the Trustees, which is mainly the same people again.  So if you include being a member of the Society, many of the Trustees are in quadruple roles (e.g. Member, Chair of a Board, member of the Representative Council and Trustee).

At the time of writing there are 12 Trustees listed on the Charity Commission website, and an additional one on the BPS site.  Of the 13 on the BPS site, 12 have, or have had, senior positions in the BPS system (e.g. Chairs of Boards, Divisions, Sections etc).

How can Trustees in quadruple roles fit in with the demands of the Charity Commission to avoid conflicts of interest?  I believe that avoidance of such a conflict is imperative, and not simply that it is there, but that it is seen to be there.  At the moment it looks exactly the opposite, that the Trustee group is likely to be seen to be full of conflicts of interest.

It appears that the Statutes of the Society regarding Trustees and other roles are such that they are in direct opposition to the requirements of the Charity Commission.  How on earth do you square that circle?

There is a serious and urgent need for the BPS to review this structure, and for it to be clearly seen to be and complying with Charity Commission regulations.

Ashley Conway  1/12/20