Hard Questions for SPCK

So far we’ve been challenging Mr J Mark Brewer, but let’s not forget who handed the shops over to him in the first place: SPCK. Doug Chaplin has been raising questions over at MetaCatholic.

Discussing the situation in Worcester, where the shop is still trading under the SPCK name, he asks:

Behind everything, and rather overlooked, is the question whether the trustees of SPCK ever really did due diligence on the handing over of their chain to SSG in the first place. Were they so anxious about the way in which (like many independent bookshops) they were losing money in a not very friendly marketplace, that they simply took the first plausible solution that presented itself? Did they bother, in fact, to inspect the gift-horse’s mouth? They have been publicly very silent on this.

As the chain fell apart, so SPCK realised that the agreement was falling apart, and withdrew their trustees, and the licence to use the name SPCK. But how seriously have they policed the misuse of their trademark? What are they doing about such glaringly obvious breaches as that in this picture. Do they not mind that another “charity” is trading in their name?

Another part of the agreement, as I understand it (I’d be grateful for correction if I’m wrong) is that if the bookshop chain was viable after a number of years (seven?) was up, then the shop properties owned outright by SPCK would be transferred to the ownership of SSG. If (and I think the situation given UK law must be dubious) SSG has filed for bankruptcy what are SPCK doing to take back control of their property?

It might be that the SPCK trustees are acting behind the scenes. Or it might be that they have washed their hands of an embarrassing mess. But in the meantime bloggers like Dave Walker who have tried to keep this in the public eye, are effectively taking the brunt of SPCK’s failure.

I am not convinced that it is enough to say in their annual report: “There are a number of significant legal issues betwen SPCK and SSGGCT that have not been resolved at the year end.” (p7). Isn’t it time the Bishop of Gloucester as chair, and Simon Kingston as General Secretary, were a bit more overt and courageous in defending, literally, the honour of the SPCK name, standing up for all those employees they left stranded, and supporting those like Dave who have upheld their cause? I wonder if Bishop Michael Perham has been by Dave’s cartoon tent for a supportive word?

These are good questions, especially when set against the backcloth of this letter from the Revd Dr Julian Cummins (sadly now deceased), published in the Church Times back in December 2006:

Sir, — I resigned as a Governor of SPCK because I opposed the decision to transfer the 23 bookshops to the St Stephen Charitable Trust (SSG) (News, 1 December). I feared the worst, but felt that SPCK should be given the chance to prove me wrong.

[comments about SSG’s ban on selling the Qur’an]

SPCK has run bookshops across the world for well over 100 years. They have been open to theological and religious exploration. They have been a joy to visit. That is why I became a Governor of SPCK five years ago. Those principles have now been undermined at their fundamental roots.

I believe the transfer to SSG was a gross error. I opposed it as strongly as I could. The deed has now been done, and the next step must now be determined. It is time for the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, Chairman of SPCK, to come up with a credible plan for the future, and to ensure a reversal of the SSG decision.

My thanks to Mark Bennet for bringing this letter to my attention.

SPCK: your silence almost speaks more loudly than words. 

  • With objections expressed this strongly at the time, why did you still go ahead with the transfer?
  • Why did you not put adequate safeguards in place for your staff?
  • What are you doing to address the current situation?
  • Why have you left it for people such as Dave Walker and myself to — as Doug puts it — take the brunt of your failure?
  • What are you doing to support the staff you abandoned? 

It’s supposed to be books that get remaindered, not people!

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21 responses to “Hard Questions for SPCK

  1. I’m sitting here looking at the Bishop of Gloucester’s last letter to SPCK staff. I’ve looked and thought about it a lot. There’s even an answer to him in my draft box (dated about six months ago). Trouble is that I had a look at who the trustees were and then I was afraid that I would damage my keyboard. The oldest charity in the UK should have had booksellers on its board of trustees. But then again the good old class divide would have made that impossible.

  2. The people on the SPCK board, so said an old manager of mine, were only there to get the fact on their CVs. At the time we were told that the only solution to SPCKs loses were for the bookshops to be taken overen bloc, or for all to close down – no middle ground was ever sought. After the collapse of the takeover talks with STL – I seems to remember people up in arms about that as well, what a God-send it would’ve been in retrospect- we were told that all the shops would now be closed. It seems that SSG were th knights in shining armour to take over the shops! Given this desire to hand over every single one of the shops, and with no other takers, the SPCK board of governors decided to hand them over without, seemly, too many questions being asked.

  3. I remember when the announcement was first made in London that SSGCT were taking over the shops and I received the news by telephone. Within 3 minutes I had checked out SSGs then uncensored website and knew that it could never work. How is that SPCK thought it could ?

  4. SPCK will say something like, “in restrospect” instead of, “we didn’t do our homework”.

  5. Valiant for Truth

    Julian Cummins raised the issue of the shop takeover at the SPCK AGM in 2006, but was reprimanded for his remarks by the present Chairman of SPCK. He announced his resignation and this was rudely accepted – “I think you ought to resign” was the shouted reply. This exchange was not recorded in the minutes of the AGM, and at the 2007 AGM, there was no mention of the sad death of Julian Cummins.

  6. Valiant for Truth, did the SPCK at any time show any concern for the workers in the bookshops.

  7. SPCK did care for the staff and did want them to continue to have jobs. Closing the shops would have cost a great deal in redundancies, etc (but the sale of a couple of sites would have covered much of that). Many of us thought this was a better option – everyone would have been paid their due. There were several other organisations prepared to cherry-pick the best shops and so these would have kept going while the poor-performing ones which were dragging the chain down would have closed. If SPCK had closed those shops five years ago the chain would have been profitable – but this was one of the hard choices that the management team at that time seemed frightened to take. Julian Cummins was one of two members of the Board who had previously declared that all the shops should be closed asap.

    At the end of the day all the evidence we have does point in the direction of SPCK not fully researching who they were gifting the chain to. There was haste on their part for a variety of reasons. SSG was not fit to take over the shops and its senior executives proved incapable of running the chain.

    Yes, SPCK is at fault – and I believe it knows this, is very distressed by it and is working behind the scenes to clear up some of the mess – but you still can’t get away from the fact that it did try and put agreements in place to preserve the staff, the shops and the theological culture of the chain and SSG cold-heartedly reneged on every single one.

  8. Pax, when will SPCK pull the plug. Some of us lost lots.

  9. asingleblog – what do you mean by pull the plug? Does anyone know what SPCK could still do? They need to wrest the properties back and make sure that SSG has no further association with the SPCK name. But what else? It is too late for SPCK to go back into bookshops – that they don’t want to do and the culture has moved on. Other organisations will have to take their place.

    What they could do is sell the properties and put a proportion of the money aside as compensation for those of us who have suffered at the hands of SSG. That would be the ‘decent’ thing. Or a decent thing, to do.

  10. Interesting question – what is the best that SPCK can now do?

    Too much detail is hidden to know, but I hope, for lots of people’s sakes that they are properly on the case.

    There have been some hopeful relaunches of independent shops, which I hope will prove commercially viable. Is this doable with some of the other sites too, in some reasonable way?

    But possession is said to be 9/10 of the law (probably inaccurately) and legal tangles look to be stringing the situation out – to no particular benefit of anyone so far as I can see.

  11. Pax Vobiscum’s last suggestion is probably the most realistic way forward for the SPCK now.

    I find it staggering that not a single member of the SPCK Board has felt that the only honourable thing would be to resign given the scale of misjudgement displayed in their agreement with SSG. They are clearly well meaning, but that doesn’t necessarily equate with competence.

  12. DifferentlySane

    Didn’t several of the board resign back last year, around the time SPCK withdrew their name from SSG’s use (not that that seems to have stopped them)?

    here: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/47694-book-chain-drops-spck-name.html

  13. DifferentlySane – are you, perchance, thinking of Bp Michael Perham and Simon Kingston resigning from the Board of SSG? That was when SPCK withdrew use of the name. They were the 2 SPCK Governing Body members on the board of the SSG Charity – ostensibly to see fair play and, in Simon’s case at least, to give guidance through their knowledge and experience. But the other 3 board members belonged to the family Brewer. Hence the 2 SPCK members were always outnumbered and always outgunned. And totally ignored.

    I’m sure, if you want SPCK to admit where they made a mistake, there are better ways to do it than people resigning. We need action not reaction.

  14. And recogniton of responsibility, not blame; there’s no doubt that they know full well now how big a mistake they made.

    I’m not interested in blaming anyone for what’s happened; but I would like to see some sort of public statement of support from SPCK for the people they left in the lurch.

    Bishop Michael appealed to booksellers, “Stick with us” — then walked away about three weeks later. I’m sure there’s much more to it than that, but the simple denial of responsibility posted on SPCK’s home page isn’t good enough.

    Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” I’m not asking anyone at SPCK to lay down their life. But please: show your former colleagues (Bishop Michael’s word) you care.

    Thank you.

  15. Valiant for Truth

    One of the reasons Bishop Michael had for going on to the Board of SSG was to protect staff pensions. The Church of England Pensions Board required a C of E link in order to be able to take on SSG. Unfortunately, staff and former staff who have recently contacted the Pensions Board with concerns about their pensions, have been told they will have to wait for a reply as the matter is in the hands of their legal department. Many people are especially concerned about what has happened to their AVC payments.

  16. I have heard it said that some Very Important People in CofE tried hard to advise the SPCK Board against the transfer. Some of them are still Very Important, and we don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes.

    At some point, the SPCK Board will have to give account of their stewardship.

  17. Phelim McIntyre

    Some people at SPCK ARE trying to get something done about SSG. I spoke with Simon Kingston at CRE and was told then, before the documents from the bankruptcy trustee in the States appeared, that the Brewer’s were trying to sue him. He is trying to get as much done as possible to rectify what can be recified. The problem is not with Simon Kingston and those below him – it is with those above him.

    While Simon was willing to talk with people before SSG appeared about shops going independent some of the governing body were of a different mind. One, who is an SPCK author, thought the shops should have been closed years ago and why did SPCK watse their energy on something that was not needed. When SSG came along I expect that certain members of the governing body saw a great opportunity to dump what they considered a white elephant onto someone else. Hence there being no real negotiation with the staff as should have happened under TUPE (it was announced near the end of October and SSG took over at the start of November), and the lack of investigation into what the Brewer’s actually believed. Like Plato, and others, I looked up SSG’s website and didn’t believe it could work. I remember saying thatit wouldn’t work and was told by a manager (not my one) not to be so negative. Just over a month later he admited that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be – it was worse. Even in my worse nightmare about what the future held for the SPCK bookshops did I imagine the horror story we have now.

  18. DifferentlySane

    Pax Vobiscum: Ah, that makes sense. My mistake.

  19. Page 7 of the SPCK Annual report for 2007 states that the transfer of the bookshops to the SSG was ‘decided by a unanimous vote at the trustees meeting’. In the light of the late Dr Cummins letter, the support of the trustees may not have been quite as unanimous as the report suggests.

  20. Pingback: Straight Talking from SPCK « SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info

  21. Pingback: Unravelling the Knots « SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info

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