The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has chosen an anti-hunt campaigner and former MP as its new chief executive (sometimes known as Director General). Jackie Ballard was selected for the £90,000-a-year job from a shortlist of four after presentations were made to the charity's ruling council last Saturday. She was offered the job earlier this week.
She beat Steve Marshall, the former chief executive of Railtrack, after the two other candidates, Michelle Thew and Maj Gen Michael Laurie, had been eliminated. One member of the council has resigned in protest at both the appointment and the chaotic process that preceded it, and others threatened to follow suit during the week.
Reformers within the society are furious that someone with little financial expertise or experience of running such a large organisation will be charged with pulling the charity out of its current financial crisis.
The RSPCA is facing a series of cuts after it lost £16 million on the Stock Market and has already put major capital projects on hold, including the building of animal centres and hospitals. Staff are considering industrial action over changes to their terms and conditions.
There is also expected to be a strong reaction from some senior staff at the charity's headquarters, in Horsham, West Sussex, who have already voiced privately their concerns over the possibility of Mrs Ballard taking the top job.
Mrs Ballard, 49, is said to have won over the council with a "politician's speech" during which, in contrast to other candidates, she used no spreadsheets or figures to show how she intended to pull the society out of its financial troubles.
Jacq Denham, a business adviser, resigned from the RSPCA council earlier this week and said she was rewriting her will to cut out the society, which has been the main beneficiary for the past 34 years.
She said: "Jackie Ballard has no experience of running this size of organisation. She has employed eight people in the past, now she is going to be employing 1,800. What the RSPCA needs is someone with financial experience and Steve Marshall was head and shoulders above the other candidates. Maybe he was too strong for the liking of some members of the council.
"Mrs Ballard was asked the difference between cash flow forecasts and management accounts and she said she had never even heard the terms. It beggars belief that she has been offered the job."
Mrs Denham, who was a member of the six-strong panel originally charged with selecting a new chief executive, said the process had been dominated by vested interests and by people wanting to increase their own profiles in the organisation.
"The whole process was flawed and it has been since the beginning. There are good people who applied for the job and didn't go forward to the final selection because of people's personal interests.
"Richard Ryder, the chairman of council, put forward Jackie Ballard. He's a failed Liberal Democrat candidate, she's a failed Liberal Democrat MP."
No conflict of interest
separate legal opinions were sought during the selection process
over David Thomas, the chairman of the panel, and his support
for Ms Thew, who is the chief executive of the British Union
for the Abolition of Vivisection.
Mr Thomas, a solicitor, had argued that there was no conflict of interest in his being involved in the interviews, a view confirmed by two of the legal opinions.
The selection panel, which Mr Thomas chaired, failed to agree on a single name and wanted to send the names of both Ms Thew and Mr Marshall to a meeting of the full council. But Mr Marshall refused, leading to the re-interviewing of all the candidates last Saturday.
Mrs Ballard, even though she was the first candidate to be rejected by the panel, was formally offered the job after giving her presentation to the full council.
Mr Marshall is understood to have said that he would not accept the job as a reserve if she turned it down.
He said in a short statement yesterday: "I wasn't entirely surprised by the result, but I'm very sad not to have the opportunity to work with the society." Friends said he had made a case for changes at the RSPCA, to refocus it away from campaigning and back towards animals.
Mrs Denham, 55, said the society was in desperate need of reform and she criticised the way the ruling council had become dominated by infighting and internal politics. She added:
"The member of staff who said in the Daily Telegraph that the RSPCA is run by amateurs is absolutely right.
"I am making an appointment with my solicitor to change my will, so that will lose them a substantial amount of money."
Mrs Ballard was not available for comment.
Mrs Ballard is a passionate anti-hunt campaigner, although she represented Taunton for the Liberal Democrats, a town in the heart of Somerset, the most hunted county in Britain.
Born Jacqueline Mackenzie in Scotland in 1953, she read social psychology at the London School of Economics and worked for two years as a social worker. She married Derek Ballard, a quantity surveyor, in 1975 and a year later they moved to Somerset in search of the "good life".
After becoming a mother, she was recruited into the Liberal Democrats in 1986 by Paddy Ashdown, her local MP. Despite her vocal dislike of fox and deer hunting, Ms Ballard, who divorced in 1989, won the Taunton seat in 1992.
She rose through the ranks of the party to become women's affairs spokesman. She contested the Liberal Democrat leadership election in 1999 on a ticket of "who cares wins". She came third.
In 2001 she was beaten in the general election by around three hundred votes by Adrian Flook, the Conservative candidate. Her dismissive attitude towards people employed by the various hunts was undoubtedly a crucial factor in her unseating. When she appeared on BBCs Question Time two years ago, she advised a kennel master in the audience to "start training for a new job" when he voiced concern for his familys livelihood in the event of a hunt ban.
A vehement feminist, she quit England after losing her seat to study in Iran, where women are often described as second-class citizens.
Her appointment to head up the RSPCA is certain to be extremely controversial in the run-up to the Governments own hunting Bill.