Accounts dispute takes extraordinary twist as FBU leaders seek to hide behind law which, they claim, prohibits disclosure of their status as union members! / Bet_Noire

ON 22 FEBRUARY 2022, the official regulator for trade unions – known as the ‘certification officer’ – will consider a complaint by a member of the Fire Brigades Union (who is also a member of the Campaign for a Democratic FBU steering committee) that the union acted unlawfully by refusing him access to its internal accounting records.

The long-running dispute has been covered by us in previous blogs. It has also reached the pages of Private Eye magazine. A full account (no pun intended) of the saga, and of the union leadership’s discreditable actions, can be read here.

The union is being represented in the matter by Oliver Segal, one of the country’s leading QCs. Barristers of Segal’s standing usually charge a vast fee – up to several thousand pounds a day – for their services.

The member has requested access to a number of accounting records, including those detailing confidential payments to departing union employees, donations to third parties, and personal spending by senior officials.

Both the member and the union have made their submissions to the certification officer.

The union is insisting that the member sign a ‘confidentiality agreement’ which would prevent him publicising the names of senior officials alongside any information detailing how these officials had spent union funds. In other words, the union wants public anonymity for these officials. But even the union has recognised that neither it nor the certification officer has any power to force the member to sign such an agreement. So, as an alternative, the union is seeking permission from the certification officer to redact (remove) the names of officials from the records it discloses to the member.

In defence of its position, the union has cited various pieces of privacy law. Some of the union’s arguments are bound to raise the eyebrows of members. For example, the union claims that disclosure of the names of senior officials would contravene their right to a private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Members will doubtless have their own view as to whether the question of how these officials have spent union funds should be deemed their own ‘private’ business.

More startlingly, the union has cited Article 9 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This article prohibits organisations from disclosing certain ‘special categories’ of information about individuals, such as their ethnic origin, political opinions or religious beliefs. One of these categories is ‘trade union membership’. The union says that disclosure of the names of senior officials in response to the member’s request to inspect the accounts would, by definition, reveal the fact that these officials were trade union members – and this would breach their rights under GDPR!

In other words, in their attempts to block disclosure of their own spending decisions, the FBU’s most senior officials are seeking to hide behind a law which, they claim, allows them to keep secret the fact that they are union members at all!

This truly takes us down the rabbit hole. Everyone knows that these officials are members of the union. They are its most senior representatives – its public face. They represent the union at the highest level – at key national meetings, in the media, and at public rallies and demonstrations. Their personal details are plastered across the union’s website. They are supposed to be the union’s biggest champions and most enthusiastic recruiting sergeants.

It is therefore extraordinary that these officials should seek to rely on the GDPR ‘special category’ article which, they argue, allows them to keep details of their FBU membership a secret. It tells us everything we need to know about their motivations in this affair.

Should the union succeed in its bid to be granted permission to redact the names of senior officials alongside details of how they have spent union funds – and there is no indication that it will – it would be no victory at all. It would just mean that, using legal technicalities, these senior officials had wriggled out of their obligations to be open and transparent about how they run the union.

The certification officer has indicated that she expects to hand down judgement by 15 March.

For updates, follow us on Facebook here and Twitter here.