EXPOSED: The cosy relationship between the FBU’s general secretary and two ‘impartial’ barristers who helped block a disciplinary case against him and a national officer colleague

Matt Wrack (centre) flanked by barristers Nicholas Toms (left) and John Hendy

THIS BLOG CAN today reveal that legal advice that persuaded members of the Fire Brigades Union’s (FBU) ruling executive council to terminate disciplinary proceedings against general secretary Matt Wrack and national officer Riccardo la Torre was written by two barristers who both knew Wrack personally and had undertaken political campaigning alongside him over many years. We can also reveal that one of the barristers is a longstanding personal friend of Wrack’s brother.

The revelations seriously undermine any claim that the legal advice was ‘impartial’ and will leave Wrack and la Torre – as well as the two barristers – facing questions over their integrity. One FBU official who was shown evidence of the links between Wrack and the barristers told this blog, ‘I think this makes Wrack and la Torre’s positions untenable. The whole thing looks as dodgy as hell.’

As this blog revealed 11 days ago, Wrack and la Torre were set to face an internal disciplinary hearing after an investigation conducted by the FBU’s vice-president, Steve Wright, found that the pair had broken union rules. However, just nine days before that intended hearing, the union’s assistant general secretary, Ben Selby – a close ally of Wrack and la Torre – presented the executive council with legal advice. This blog has learned that that advice was drafted by barristers Nicholas Toms and John Hendy.

The legal advice from Toms and Hendy was treated as top secret. After discussing its contents, executive council members took the unprecedented step of terminating the disciplinary proceedings and cancelling the hearing – a decision which, as well as constituting a breach of the union’s long-established disciplinary procedures, opened them up to the charge that they had created a two-tier system of discipline within the union.

However, what executive council members didn’t know – because they were not told – is that both Toms and Hendy were personal acquaintances of Matt Wrack, and the pair had a history of political collaboration with Wrack stretching back many years. What executive council members also did not know – again because they were not told – is that Toms has been a personal friend of Wrack’s brother, Nick, for over four decades.

During the 1980s, Toms, Matt Wrack and Nick Wrack were activists together in the Militant Tendency – a Trotskyist group whose members infiltrated the Labour party before eventually being expelled. In subsequent years, Toms and Matt Wrack sat together on the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee – a socialist pressure group inside the Labour party. They also campaigned together in the Left-wing group Momentum, and both were active supporters of a small faction within that organisation called ‘Forward Momentum’.

It appears that Wrack’s older brother, Nick, is even closer to Toms. The pair served together on the executive committee of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers – a legal campaigning organisation – and Toms delivers lectures for a political discussion group, ‘Talking About Socialism’, set up by the elder Wrack. In a Facebook post, Nick Wrack described Toms as a ‘friend’ whom he had known ‘for over 40 years’.

Meanwhile, the second barrister involved in providing the legal advice to the executive council, John Hendy, is also well-known to Matt Wrack and has collaborated with him on several trade union and labour movement projects. The pair have often spoken alongside each other on political platforms. Indeed, as recently as last week, a flyer emerged showing that Wrack and Hendy were listed to share a platform at a political meeting.

Matt Wrack and John Hendy alongside each other on a flyer for a political meeting

Additionally, Wrack is active in a small think-tank set up by Hendy called the ‘Institute of Employment Rights’. Membership of the institute operates on a strictly ‘invitation-only’ basis. The institute’s website lists Hendy as its founder and current chairman, while Wrack is listed as one of the small number of members. Wrack has spoken at events organised by the institute and has helped to publicise its work – something for which Hendy as the institute’s founder is doubtless very grateful.

Matt Wrack speaking at an event organised by John Hendy’s
Institute of Employment Rights

Meanwhile, Nick Wrack and Hendy were once fellow candidates for a small Left-wing anti-EU political group – ‘No2EU’ – which stood in elections to the European parliament.

FBU members will no doubt find it astonishing that two barristers commissioned to provide so-called ‘independent’ advice to the union on the merits of pursuing disciplinary proceedings against two senior employees had such longstanding personal connections to one of those employees and, in Toms’s case, a member of that employee’s immediate family as well.

It is equally astonishing that this potential conflict of interest was not brought to the attention of executive council members when they were considering the legal advice.

Toms and Hendy’s actions could potentially land them in hot water with the Bar Standards Board, the body which regulates barristers across England and Wales. Under rule 21 of the board’s code of conduct, barristers should not accept instructions to act on behalf of a client if ‘there is a conflict of interest, or real risk of conflict of interest, between [their] own personal interests and the interests of the prospective client in respect of the particular matter’ or ‘there is a real prospect that [they] are not going to be able to maintain [their] independence’.

This blog can confirm that some FBU members are actively considering whether to submit a complaint to the Bar Standards Board about the actions of Toms and Hendy.

Executive council members had every right to expect that the legal advice being provided to them was impartial. At the very least, they had a right to know of any relationship between the instructed barristers and the individuals – Wrack and la Torre – who were the subject of their advice. Yet they were kept in the dark throughout.

These revelations once again speak to a leadership regime, headed by Matt Wrack, which has lost its moral compass. Never before have the FBU’s funds, rules and policies been so frequently treated with contempt by the people running the union. Too often the current leadership treats the union as though it were its own personal fiefdom rather than a democratic, membership-led organisation.

The FBU desperately needs change at the top. The stables must be swept clean.

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