Membership of the Kennel Club – suggestions for reform

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

“When people criticise me for not having any respect for existing structures and institutions, I protest. I say I give institutions and structures and traditions all the respect that I think they deserve. And they have to earn that respect. They have to earn it by serving people. They don’t earn it just by age or legality or tradition.” – Myles Horton, American Educationalist and mentor of Marin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks among many others.

Before I begin I should make it clear that I am a member and supporter of the Kennel Club and its objectives. I also believe that in most respects our governing body is doing the right things and working hard to protect the interests of dogs and dog owners and also that it regulates their activities fairly.  Inevitably institutions (and the Kennel Club is certainly an institution) tend to become bureaucratic but this is the way of the world.  Finding a balance is not easy but if the choice is between an organisation being administratively top-heavy or chaotic, I would opt for the former. So the following focuses on just one area of criticism although one I believe to be very important.

When I first came into dogs at the beginning of the 1970s I really gave the Kennel Club very little thought. It was a distant organisation rather like the government upon which the individual could have little impact and no control. As I began to meet members of the Club and learned how the organisation was structured I became increasingly concerned for I quickly discovered that they had very little impact or control either.

But things were changing.  A few years earlier, in 1966, Florence Nagel, a racehorse trainer and a well known and very successful breeder of Irish Wolfhounds – a ‘doyen’ if ever there was one, challenged the Jockey Club in the courts over their refusal to grant training licences to women.  Roger Mortimer, in his history of the Jockey Club published in 1958, said of the matter that ‘although most fair-minded people agree the Jockey Club has served racing well and has the best interests of racing at heart, the list of  its faults is damning: a closed shop, hopelessly out of touch with the feelings of average supporters of racing, ingrained, backwards looking conservatism, against reasonable and progressive reform and occasionally applies disciplinary measures in a manner arbitrary and unjust’.

The judge which examined the case was Lord Justice Denning and one commentator of the time said ‘the Jockey Club has a poor comprehension of social change and stubbornly clings to its 19th-century view of what was a fit and proper role for women in racing’.  Lord Denning agreed and she won her case.

First the Jockey Club – then the Kennel Club

            In the1970s Mrs Nagel, a member of the well established Ladies Branch of the KC, turned her attention to Clarges Street and the threat of legal action quickly forced the General Committee and membership to review their ‘gentlemen only’ policy and allow women full membership.   The Ladies Branch had about the same number of members as the then ‘Gentleman’s Club’ so the number of members virtually doubled overnight in that year. In 1980 the first female member was directly elected – a Mrs Angela Cavill.

It was in the 1970s that too close friends of mine, one held in very high esteem by breeders and exhibitors giving tickets in very many breeds while the other had at one time been employed in what was then the Judges Department, were turned down as members of the Kennel Club (although both were, quite rightly, later elected to membership).  This was the major factor which coloured my view of the organisation for very many years despite me knowing and becoming friends with many members. As a result I have constantly and, some would say, obsessively criticised the Club for its attitude to potential members and even meting out what sometimes seems like ‘punishment’ to highly respected and successful participants in our sport.

It was not until Peter James was elected Chairman I felt enough confidence to feel that my name could go forward without me being turned down but I have continued the pressure for reform (mostly to no avail).  A number of very minor changes have been introduced but those changes made little difference to the attitude of the vast majority of non-member exhibitors and breeders or, for that matter to the general attitude of the membership to them.    But a major transformation has now taken place in that last year the club became a Company Limited by Guarantee – a change in status I first proposed over 15 years ago.  This change had little to do with the Club’s attitude and approach to membership and it does have a downside (mainly in the legal requirement of proxy voting as I have indicated in articles over the last two years) but the important ‘upside’ is that there is now a legal framework within which the Club has to work and which demands transparency, fairness and equality.

Increasing access to KC membership

            Bearing this in mind, I have requested a discussion at the forthcoming Annual General Meeting of the Kennel Club where I will point out that a Company Limited by Guarantee has a number of legally binding responsibilities to the community it professes to serve and/or represent. One of these must be to increase access to membership.

At one time I was of the view that, as in most other countries, membership of the governing body should be a prerequisite for taking part in the activities which it regulates. If we were starting with a blank sheet in the second decade of the 21st Century this is almost certainly the structure which would be considered ideal. However, both our legal framework and our democracy is founded on precedent and I accept that a complete restructuring of the current framework is simply not feasible.

Nor, perhaps should it be, for there is also the question of choice. Should people be forced to become a member of an organisation if they do not wish to? In some countries there is a legal requirement that people should vote: this is not the way we do things in the United Kingdom. But this does not mean we should not attempt to introduce change and all aspects of membership surely has to be on the Club’s agenda.

The coming AGM is crowded and therefore no issue is going to have as much time as it deserves, so I am suggesting a number of points for brief discussion which I hope will have enough support from members for the General Committee to set up a subcommittee or working party to examine the options – knowing that the membership will be prepared to consider them seriously if formal proposals are put forward in 2015.

These key issues are:

  • The current restriction on the number of people who can be proposed by any individual member in a twelve month period (it is currently two within any 12 month period – does any canine association have such a rule and can there be any good reason for it other than to provide a barrier to non-members?
  • Membership fees. These are currently £150 a year. There is a motion on the AGM agenda asking that the membership approve an increase. I will be voting against: it is far too high already.  It is not only a barrier to membership but emphasises, to those not members, that membership is somehow ‘privileged’.
  • Joining fees.  This is currently £300: a figure that raises the ‘privilege’ bar even higher.
  • Committee interview.  If one is a member of an organisation one should presumably be trusted to be responsible: what reason can there therefore be for a further interview at this stage where it is already recognised that the prospective candidate will be accepted for membership.
  • Greater publicity for the option of transferring to full membership from ‘Associate Member’ after a six-year period.
  • Town/country membership.  The vast majority of members virtually never go to the clubhouse. Is there any sensible reason why, like almost all clubs based in London, that those who do not use the clubhouse should pay the same as those that do. You may not fly business class but you can still use the airport lounges on payment of fee: surely a similar principle could apply here.
  • Use of the clubhouse if there were a larger membership base.  The comments attached to the previous suggestion apply here and there is no reason that the cost of town membership should not rise substantially if the premises began to be too crowded.
  • Use of the club house by those elected to committees, subcommittees, councils and other working parties but who are ‘Country Members’.  There are two possible solutions here: one is that the official side of the club finances pay the agreed fee or that the fee would be waived for those occasions that they attended meetings.
  • Last but not least, the deletion of the ‘maximum number of members permitted’ clause in the Constitution which will make it clear that the Kennel Club is open to all who wish to join.

I very much hope that members will agree that the General Committee make arrangements to discuss these matters in detail and report back in 2015. It is in this forum that the real and fascinating debate will take place should the suggestion be accepted.

Members constantly tell me that they do not believe that there is any special ‘status’ attached to being a member of the Kennel Club. If this is the case it will send a very curious message to non-members if they are not prepared for wider membership issues to be discussed.

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