It's been a busy year for the National Trust. The charity, which boasts more than five million members, has rarely been out of the headlines amid criticisms of its restructuring programme and controversial report on properties with links to colonialism. And now a fresh fight looms over hunting ahead of next month's annual general meeting.
A proposed motion calls for the Trust, the UK’s largest private landowner, to outlaw all legal trail hunting on its land. The charity’s board of trustees are yet to take a position on whether to back the proposal but have said they 'are keen to hear the views of the membership on this subject.' It will be the second time that members have voted on a ban on trail hunting, after a heated debate in 2017 led to claims of a dirty tricks campaign.
Trust rules meant that members could not introduce another motion to ban hunting for four years, meaning next month's motion will be the first available chance to vote on it. And now Steerpike can reveal there are similar concerns about foul play concerning the online voting system by which motions are voted on for the AGM.
Hunt saboteur supporters on social media such as the North East Hunt Monitors group have been urging non-members of the Trust to sign up on the charity's website by filling in 'any random 8 digit number' in order to 'vote for the ban.' The Countryside Alliance, which is campaigning to repeal the hunting ban, claim they have 'been made aware of concerns' and 'seeking urgent clarification from the National Trust and the independent company responsible for the voting process' so that only votes from legitimate members are counted. On the other side, the 'Keep the ban' campaign has raised similar fears about improper votes being cast.
— Hilary McGrady (@HMcG_DGNT) September 4, 2021
To be clear - in common with most ballots-verification of eligibility happens AFTER the vote has been sent -. The independent company then matches votes sent to the names and numbers in our membership database. Only eligible ones are counted.
Asked for an explanation, a spokesman for the Trust said that the charity take the integrity of the AGM voting 'extremely seriously' and that Civica Election Services would be independently administering the election process. They told Mr S that: 'Every vote submitted online and by post is verified by Civica for eligibility against our membership records, ensuring only those received from legitimate members are counted.
'There is no question of any vote being derailed by non-members voting. It is very common for the verification to happen at this stage of the election process, and is the same system the Trust has successfully used at its AGMs for many years. We are confident in its robustness, accuracy and independence.'
Steerpike hopes both sides concur with that verdict when the total votes are in.