The SPCK AGM, Unfinished Business and Unanswered Questions

David Keen writes

The SPCK Annual General Meeting is happening this Thursday – 1st October – and the annual report and accounts for 2008-9 are online. There is a passing reference to the former SPCK bookshops:

“SPCK continues to have a number of significant legal issues with Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust in regard to matters connected with the former SPCK Bookshops. The Charity Commission has appointed an Interim Manager for the Trust, and progress is being made.” (page 6)

Others have stronger views than I over how much responsibility SPCK should shoulder for handing over their bookshops (and staff, customers, and suppliers) to a family of charlatans, who have unfairly dismissed over 30 former staff, been censured in the US courts for a fraudulent bankrupcty claim, and finally been booted out by the Charity Commissioners. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Some better news for former staff: the report reveals that their pension scheme, which is managed by the CofE pension folks (as far as I can tell), had a big shortfall as a result of the CofE revaluing its pensions (though it was struggling before this). SPCK has started making additional payments into the fund of £285,000 to top it up. This is going to be paid for the next 15 years, and the whole amount has been put on this years balance sheet – £3,832,000.

As I recall from comments on this blog, there is some question about whether the Brewers have kept up with pension payments to the staff they inherited from SPCK. Whose job is it to retrieve those: SPCK? Charity Commissioners? Church of England Pensions Board? What happens if they aren’t paid? Maybe this is a question which needs to be asked at the AGM.

Though the pension fund has imploded, SPCK are at least doing their bit to support former bookshop staff on this front. But we’re not out of the woods by any means.

Couple of other things:
– SPCK have nearly £300k in a restricted fund for Newcastle Bible House, which seems to be for the purpose of Christian retailing in Newcastle. This is listed in the accounts. What’s going to happen to this?

– Do the premises of former bookshops still belong to SPCK, or were they completely made over to the Brewers? The shops, as I understand, were given over with restrictive covenant, and at least one has been sold on by the Brewers for another use. I’m not sure what the legal situation is here, whether the shops revert to SPCK if the covenant has been transgressed.

There are other questions which need asking at the AGM, so if any readers of this blog are planning to be there, here is your mission, if you choose to accept it…..

47 responses to “The SPCK AGM, Unfinished Business and Unanswered Questions

  1. Valiant for Truth

    In 1949 a church in a tiny hamlet of mainly farmers in one of the remotest parts of the Pennines, gave ten pounds, ten shillings to SPCK (one of only two charities to which money was given) at a time when its Diocesan Quota was six pounds, eight shillings (eat your hearts out Anglican clergy of today!). SPCK Bookshops were always the public face of SPCK which so helped the fundraising for SPCK Worldwide projects. People also felt they wanted to support the continued existence of the shops which helped and served them. If the freehold of the former shops is lost to the Brewers by SPCK, how will the supporters, like those Pennine farmers feel? Generous giving by all types of people for over 300 years made SPCK great. Now such people will feel betrayed and let down if the Brewrs win.

  2. Valiant for Truth

    Sorry, correction (big one) donation to SPCK TEN SHILLINGS, TEN PENCE! Forgot the old £sd!

  3. Usdaw managed to get some money for some workers through working with the CC. Maybe the SPCK will get this mess resolved by working with the CC. Maybe the SPCK will inform its former employees about the pension development. Why should they need to read about it on this blog?

    My anger at the SPCK remains undimmed. Those who got some redress through USDAW are the lucky ones. How many others were there and what is the SPCK doing about them?

    That AGM agenda looks fairly fixed. I hope that some have tried to add to it. By the time you get to AOB everybody gets fed up.

    “Good” article in Christian Market Place today. “And then there was one”. What a sorry excuse for a bookshop is the last one? No blame apportioned to staff.

  4. While I recognise the anger towards SPCK having worked for the shops at the time of the failed STL/SPCK merger and the overall feeling of hope and pleasure that someone had been found to take over the chain – that someone being SSG – SPCK were not the only ones taken in by the Brewers. Publishers, the Christian press and even some booksellers were taken in and the blame should be portioned out. As I have said before there is a lot that has happened and is happening that people can not talk about. If you go to the spckwatch blog and look at the figures associated with the bankruptcy ( you will see that the Brewers claimed that they were suing Simon Kingston and two others for $6 million – why because he stood up to them but has not been able to talk about it to the press. SPCK and Simon Kingston are acting but as those who have been waiting for USDAW to get them money will tell you legal action takes time and that discression (silence is the better part of valour. The SSG saga is one part of a large company (publishing and missionary work across the globe) and they legally have to cover all of this in one day and will not be able to talk about on going legal actions. It would be wrong and an injustice to everyone else to have the day dominated by SSG. No I am not a member of SPCK staff or management, I am not a member of SPCK so can not attend or ask questions at the AGM. As Phil G and others will tell you I have worked over the last two years to enable people across the book trade to talk and meet to discuss the ongoing problem in private and work on how we can support those who need it.

    I left the Chichester shop where I was assistant manager with a nervous breakdown due to the treatment I received from the Brewers (and some staff in other shops) and am still owed three weeks worth of holiday pay (£576) . Oh yes, and after being told by USDAW they could not help me I have had to write that money off. The picture received at the day of prayer for the Christian booktrade of a deep wound covered by a plaster is more accurate than people realise but we need to apportion balme across the board, even towards the staff in certain shops who collaborated with the Brewers (some of whom were sacked by email and have received pay outs) and publishers who didn’t listen to the warning signs. And then we must not forget the Booksellers Association who ignored the cries of their members and have remained silent on this issues as their role is to represent the oweners of bookshops not the actual staff.

    By the way, the Bookseller article was inaccurate. The shops were gifted in 2006. It was the day after the agenda three years ago that the managers were told what was happening – that SSG were taking over as of November 1st. It was in 2007 that we found out the extent of what had been gifted over.

  5. Thanks for posting this, David (if anyone’s wondering, have been a tad distracted recently with moving home and now job hunting — still with LST but not viable long-term from our new location).

  6. the banckruptcy papers are frudulent so they prove nothing but htat the brewers are crooks. It is the same as the C & D. Kingston is not blameless.

  7. Valiant for Truth

    While hearing that SPCK are doing a great deal, those who were at the AGM in 2006 still feel considerable anger and pain. Many shop managers were present as they had all been asked to be a meeting on the following day. In the AGM it was obvious that something was happening and one Governing Body member tried to challenge and illuminate, but was shouted down. As well as staff, long standing SPCK Members were kept in the dark because the “decision” was to be made by the Governing Body that afternoon and the Brewers demanded a secrecy package. So, staff who were directly concerned and long term SPCK sponsors and supporters, were kept in the dark until the following day and then handed a fait accompli. Within a very short time, people became aware why the secrecy clause was necessary.

  8. I think that David’s questions are good ones. I do hope that those who ask them will not be fobbed off. I would want to know which lawyers the SPCK are working with and what their relationship with SSG is now. I can hear the answer: we are taking legal advice. Xpect smokescreens and mirrors. Sorry to be cynical.

  9. No SPCK are not innocent but what about those who were part of the “coalition” who introduced the Brewers to SPCK? Why are people not moaning about them? As to the secrecy of the negotiatians, with Ottakers/Waterstones HBOS/Lloyds and other takeovers people are kept in the dark until the last moment to stop there being damage to the negotiations. What SPCK did was not immoral or adnormal, this secrecy clause is normal business practice under law. The STL negotiations were only made public because of a leak to the press, otherwise the first thing we could have known about it was the failure or success of the negotations. As to the managers being at the AGM, many of them went normally as that was their right, for them the meeting the next day was the extra thing.

    What about those who were staff at the time of the take over and after certain members of the “coalition” who signed what was a change of contract without negotiation though we ten knew the true colours of the Brewers – did they not help boulster the Brewers’ position? Where are the complaints about them? Some of these people have received pay outs for being sacked by email – proof that justice is blind. Having read the minutes, talked to others who were at AGM, and read the resignation email sent the member of the governing body (which I have kept a copy of along with all the emails) the terms “challenge and illuminate” are a bit of an exageration in that he wanted the shops saved in a way that could have damaged the the other work of SPCK – including taking money from missionary work to prop up shops that were not making money.

    As to the bankruptcy documents being fraudulent, this is a mute point. Looking at the documents the American atourney did not find them all fraudulant, it was the way that the bankruptcy was attempted that was fraudulant rather than the claims. Having spoken to people high up in SPCK at a CRE over the last couple of years while the ammounts may not be accurate the actions taken by SSG are. There are high level legal actions going on which can not be talked about and by having time and money taken fighting long term legal battles SPCK are paying a hidden cost. I believe that when the legal actions are finally over the whole story will come out from SPCK and then people will be aware of what has been going on. Yes we are all still hurting but the AGM is not the time to ask questions which can not yet be answered as it will only make people feel ignored when they are not being. PS Thanks to the managers who have read my earlier comment and have emailed me privately to support what I have been saying.

  10. Valiant for Truth

    To add to David’s comments on the Newcastle Bible House and to clarify for those not in the know, the Newcastle Bible House was taken over by SPCK, so when the shop in Ridley Place closed earlier this year and had a notice posted on the door, the Newcastle Bible House also closed. Full details of the history of the Bible House can be found in “The Shop On Pilgrim Street” by Joan Histon published in 2002 by Hickory Tree Press ISBN 0951962647. It was founded in 1864 by Newcastle businessmen for Newcastle people. Original founders included Mr Bainbridge and Mr Fenwick, retail names highly respected by North Eastern shoppers. It can only be hoped that somehow this mission can be reinstated in Newcastle.

  11. We’re coming up to October. Not my favourite month. Phelim, just a few comments.

    Who were the people (names not needed) who introduced the Brewers to the SPCK? I haven’t read about them on this blog. Was it on Cartoon Church and thence forgotten?

    Secrecy in negotiations is normal. It should not preclude people from asking questions…shed loads of them…no matter how uncomfortable they are. Use Durham as an example.

    The STL negotiations were a result of a leak to the press? Brave leaker. Ordinary staff are usually the last to know.

    The change of contract issue? I believe some were trying to look after part-time staff. It was a sticking point. At the time the SPCK had jumped ship. Some were trying to protect jobs (first responsibility of a manager and a union) and trying to protect Christian Bookselling.

    You have e-mails that have not appeared on this blog. Why?

    You thank the managers who have sent you private e-mails. Why are they not as brave as you?

  12. I don’t think there’s any point in asking questions simply for the point of stirring it, though the various questions of detail will clearly signal to people there that there is unfinished business.

    Given that the pension fund payment for former staff is the biggest thing on the balance sheet, I don’t think it would skew the AGM to ask some questions about the former bookshops. I think we all accept that SPCK can’t comment on ongoing legal issues with SSG, but there’s are other issues here which they can comment on without compromising themselves.

  13. Good news at last. Looking at letter from the Pension’s Board. They’re dealing with Peter Gotham so I guess that the SPCK are doing the same. The first open and informative news in a looong time.

  14. ASBO, before the Easter after the Brewer’s had taken over a document was sent round that we were all ordered to sign. This stated that we agreed that we would not talk to the other shops and the media. At the Chichester shop we had a retired solicitor who had worked in employment law and had a barrister friend who was still active in employment law. They both looked at this document, as did people on behalf of other shops and advised us not to sign as it was a change of contract and should be negotiated. This is before the chnage of contracts and the negotiations that saw the manager at Durham and others forced out. SPCK still had board members at the time. Some managers and others staff were still so relieved that it wasn’t STL who had taken over the bookshops they signed even when other people in the same shop didn’t.

    Managers have sent me private emails to support me and often feel that adding their voice to what I am saying is not needed. Some are still recovering mentally and physically for the public price they paid while working for the Brewers and others are unable to go public because they still have legal battles ongoing.

    I have kept EVERY email that the Brewers, members of SSG, SPCK and the shops sent out before I left. Why have they not appeared onthe blog – because copies are in the hands of the press and solicitors, many are not relevant to this site (reminders of obscure saints days), and some contain details that I would need permission to post from the original author (not the Brewers).

  15. Thanks Phelim. I loved those obscure saint’s days ones. 🙂

  16. 1. SPCK needs to be able to get on with its ongoing missionary work without being vilified for a terrible mistake – which was just that, a mistake. They did not deliberately give away our shops and our livelihoods to an unscrupulous new owner. They were cheated by the Brewers.
    2. If SPCK were able to publicly say sorry to all of its former employees for this mistake that would be good.
    3. Re: the person who introduced the SPCK to the Brewers. That person attended the meeting at which the managers were introduced to their new bosses and was supposed to be part of the new management team. Shortly after they were cut out by the Brewers and I believe have since deeply regretted making that initial introduction.
    4. Re: the leak of the possible merger between SPCK & STL. All the SPCK managers and staff and most of the Wesley Owen managers and staff knew about it and discussed it freely, many on both sides with much trepidation. Any of them could have tipped ‘the press’ off. At the time this was the wrong deal for both charities and would have been draining on STL’s resources.
    5. The UK booktrade is in a deep crisis and many areas of the Christian booktrade are struggling. While we all want closure on the Brewer debacle we need to concentrate our efforts on the mission that is left on the high street.
    6. I hated those obscure saints days with such a passion I wanted to smash the computer into a thousand tiny pieces.

  17. Those saints day reminders were the only the only thing that had me rolling around.

  18. Phelim McIntyre

    Thanks Pax – what you have said helps sum up a lot of what I am saying. I know who it was who first met the Brewers and the pain he has suffered but wanted people to remember that SPCK did not seek out the Brewers and were not the only ones culpable.

    Even so there are two types of silence, one that is now in place because of legalities and another one that is even more deafening. While SPCK can not speak now because of legal actions being taken on behalf of them and SSG why was some one (looks towards Glouster diocese) so silent? Also I remember before SSG were even on the radar a senior managre telling me that one member of the governing body (looks North to a team rector) who stated that they did not know why SPCK had not got rid of the shops long ago and the best thing that could happen was to shut them down. I wonder if this attitude amongst a number of the governing body applied undue pressure for a deal to be done too quickly so proper checks were not made. If so it is these people who are guilty of allowing what has happened to happen rather than some of the people who are caught in the firing line.

    ASBO I both hated and loved the obscure saint posts. While they were one step up from spam it was fun making up other obscure saints to compete with some of the ones MB sent us. The best I could find was one when I was on holiday in February(and got the message about the press release – which was the first thing anyone in the Chichester shop knew about the SPCK/STL thing because this is when it was leaked). I was at a Christian centre named after St Rhadagund. This was not the most appropiate name as the centre was a no-alcohol and she is, as well as being patron saint of Jesus College Cambridge, patron saint of Brewers (as in those who make beer not the conmen type) and washer women.

    Remember the icons? One of the only ones we sold was bought by myself to give to the manager on her retirement. Why? It was the patron saint the church the shop is dedicated to, St Olave/Olaf. And yes I do use full staff discount.

    • I remember those Icons big time. I remember unwrapping them and thinking “American Bling”. At the time I looked up the patron saint 0f booksellers and found that he was the patron saint of firemen. Phil Brewer descibes himself as “a fireman” on twitter. He cetainly set up a fire didn’t he.

  19. Phelim McIntyre

    Does anyone know how many of the “franchises” are open and running? If so who are they paying rent to?

  20. Hereford and Truro. I was wondering about them too?

  21. Valiant for Truth

    And we still don’t know what’s happening in Canterbury.

  22. VfT, the last time there was contact with Canterbury there was a true blue brewerite volunteer in charge. I should have copied the e-mail. Grr.

  23. Phelim McIntyre

    asbo when was that? Last thing I heard was the shop was closed.

  24. The shop was closed for a while then Brewer opened it with a volunteer two half days a week. I’m pretty sure that the shop has closed. I don’t know what happens to the building.

  25. Valiant for Truth

    Well, according to the post, with photograph, on this Blog, it was still trading as Canterbury Christian Bookshop in July. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble repainting the exterior, including the new name. Would that have been a Brewer volunteer, or some unsuspecting local tradesperson who didn’t get paid by the Brewers?

  26. So, did anybody get to the AGM?

  27. Valiant for Truth

    To attend the AGM one has to be an SPCK Member (paid-up) or a member of staff. Not many bookshops staff ever became Members. I understand some former SPCK staff who retained Membership did attend, but feed back has been slow. One person did ask about the bookshops – staff and premises – I gather, but I don’t think there was any new information revealed.

  28. I know that this is going off topic. It’s just that a planespotting Marple sent an alert. I was told to google taildragger/aeronca. I’m told that it’s a 1941 Aeronca chief. The planespotter tells me that Brewer doesn’t know that he is a wanted man or else he wouldn’t provide his telephone numbers. I don’t know who the planespotter is but thanks. I have limited computer usage so maybe someone intelligent will find out how to do a screen shot. I didn’t think that that plane was Brewer’s to sell. The cost of putting it into a hangar was on the fraudulent bankrupcy claim.

  29. Does the CC know about the plane .

  30. Frankly Justice I don’t know why somebody who is going bang is selling a plane. Have to laugh at Brewer’s efforts though. He just can’t seem to get rid of the plane.

  31. Brewer has removed Third Space Books website.

  32. I thought he used a free website. He loves everything free. By the way, he really loves that plane. He changed his facebook picture.

  33. Valiant for Truth

    What a waste, indeed what a wasted opportunity! SPCK had eleven freehold shops after the sale of Bristol (mentioned in the Annual Report). Apart from two (possibly three as we don’t know what’s happening in Canterbury), the shops are all now closed doing nothing at all. If, because SSG have not kept to the covenant agreed with the fisrt handover of shops and also of those yet to be handed over, and the shops have reverted to SPCK ownership, what a shame that the Charity Commission aren’t getting a move on, because thet could save many jobs in the Christian book trade. And, remember, many publishers and booksellers in the Christian arena are registered charities (take note CC). Durham Cathedral is a charity. If these shops could be retrieved, perhaps some of them could be rented out by SPCK as a source of income. Not just to newcomers, but to existing players, both independents and chains. No names, but one chain has branches in cities with a closed SPCK, and is having to pay sky high commercial sector rents. Perhpas SPCK could offer a better deal. The Day of Prayer included working together in its thoughts. Healthy competition will always exist, but now it’s more likely to be competition between bricks and mortar and internet, so the bricks and mortar gang need to think about co-operation to survive to prclaim the Gospel in our High Streets.

  34. If the Brewers go away and walk off into the sunset there would be fewer problems.

  35. Last I heard the CC were going to return stock to suppliers and then pulp some. It makes you want to weep.

  36. I wonder if I should get in touch with the CC about the Chichester shop. I had a box of books and cds which I had paid for and other stuff there from when I was assistant manager. Because I was unable to get in to the shop and the shop could get no stock the staff took the box of books and cds and attempted to resell them just to fill the shelves.

  37. I’m looking at the WHERE NEXT item on the sidebar and just getting angry all over again. That “Ship of Fools” post gets at me every time.

  38. Valiant for Truth

    Agreed, ASBO, and how exciting it was in the summer of 2008 that so many joined the cause. Now, however, having read about USDAW’s success at Tribunal, I fear a lot of people will think the end is nigh and people are happy. Far from it! I fear still much more legal wheeling and dealing is necessary to be finally rid of the Brewers, as this is the only way that many will feel totally clean and able to move on. Thanks again to our dedicated Bloggers, but to everyone else who followed us in 2008, please stay on board (with apologies fro the Ship of Fools pun).

  39. You’re so right VfT. This is far from over. Back in 2008 there were many who were posting comments and they helped so much to keep spirits up. Because fewer of us are asking questions or posting comments it gets more difficult. Many of us followed advice and complained to the CC about the Brewers. Maybe a lot more of us need to contact Peter Gotham and ask him about the way forward. I have had no reply to three e-mails I’ve sent him.

  40. asingleblog, I think we all thought when the CC got involved in this mess of the Brewer brothers , we all thought brilliant . I shall be e-mailing Peter Gotham. I want to know why Durham is still being run by Phil Brewer.

  41. Third Space Books available online again with just Durham on the website. I tried the e-mail but was warned off by my virus protector. Horrible man that Phil Brewer.

  42. For those who have gone, for those who are still suffering, my thoughts and prayers are with you all.

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