When I first started as MP in 2005, one of my first visits was to the Derbyshire Headquarters of St John Ambulance in Chesterfield.
The volunteers and staff I met were enthusiastic and passionate when they talked about St John.
When they asked me to become Derbyshire St John Honorary Ambassador, I was delighted, and in that role I have met and spoken to hundreds of volunteers and First Aiders, cadets and band members, nurses and drivers.
But recently I have noticed that the enthusiasm has been dampened and the passion has turned to concern for an organisation that is loved by its volunteers and the communities they serve.
For 125 years, St John has provided life-saving First Aid education and training. The organisation has grown to have 40,000 volunteers working now as they did before in the communities in which they were born and raised.
In former industrial areas like North East Derbyshire, St John is intimately associated with mining and pit villages where St John First Aiders saved countless lives by training people who could give help quickly and on-the-spot.
Like many other organisations, St John as a national charity has to spend its money wisely and it has a large debt to service and fill.
But the fears that people have voiced to me is that the pursuit of making money has led to control being taken away from local units, the very life-blood of St John, with bank accounts and assets now no longer being in the control of local members.
The uniforms, for example, are being changed. The black and white that is so familiar to everyone at local events will now be replaced with green – it will look very much like that of the NHS ambulance service.
And whilst the green uniform will no doubt be just as smart and will be worn with equal pride, this was a decision taken nationally, a decision which many members felt was taken without consulting them and which has, without a doubt, cost St John a lot of money. Added to that, many members have a deep emotional attachment to their smart black and white uniforms.
These may seem like minor points but they are important. When people locally give money to St John they give it to their own volunteers, people they know and trust and whose hard work they want to reward. In many cases, we don’t know when we might have our lives saved by one of them.
But most worrying is that volunteers don’t know where to go to raise their concerns and are fearful of suffering consequences if they do. It has put many members in a difficult situation. They want to protect the organisation which they love but they don’t want to do anything that damages the image of St John.
That is why this week I am asking all St John volunteers who have concerns to write to me or email and let me know. All correspondence will be dealt with in the strictest confidence. Something has to be done to ensure that St John remains in the hands of those people to whom it belongs – and that is its volunteers in its own local communities.