FBU accounts saga: what happened next

flickr.com / Ken Teegardin

REGULAR READERS of this blog will be familiar with the saga surrounding an attempt by the leadership of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to prevent a member from inspecting the union’s accounting records.

The member (who also sits on the Campaign for a Democratic FBU steering committee) had sought to exercise his right under law to examine the records after becoming aware of examples of questionable expenditure by senior figures of the union, including secret “hush money” payments to departing members of staff; colossal donations – without consulting members or local committees – to political parties and politicians; and the purchasing of deluxe fitness equipment for the personal use of a high-ranking official.

After the leadership threw up numerous obstacles in an effort to prevent him having sight of the records, the member submitted a complaint to the official trade union regulator (known as the “certification officer”). In their submission to the certification officer, the leadership accepted that they had a legal obligation to grant the member access to the records, and they acknowledged that the member had already agreed in correspondence that all personal data other than names of individual officials could be redacted from the information. However, the leadership also argued that, unless the member was willing to enter into a “confidentiality agreement” preventing him from sharing the information, the names of officials should be redacted, too. This would have meant, of course, that the officials in question could not be identified against their spending activities.

In defence of that position, the leadership asserted – quite extraordinarily – that senior officials had a “right to privacy” on matters of how they had spent the union’s money.

The certification officer emphatically rejected the union’s argument, ruling that the leadership had acted unlawfully in seeking to block disclosure of the records and that senior officials had no right to privacy on questions of how they had spent the union’s money. She ordered the union to disclose the records within 14 days.

There was then a further lengthy delay after the leadership revealed that a number of the records they had been ordered to disclose had been destroyed or gone missing – something they had not made the certification officer aware of during the complaint process, and which effectively placed them in contempt of court. The member subsequently submitted a further complaint to the certification officer and, eventually, the destroyed and missing records turned up.

However, things got murkier still. For, in a further twist, the union’s executive council – its ruling body – then took the unprecedented step of issuing a personal order to the member to refrain from placing into the public domain any of the information provided to him (including names of officials alongside their spending activities). The member was told that, in the event he ignored the personal order – which may well be the first such order ever to be issued in the FBU’s history – he would be liable to internal union discipline.

When the member asked the leadership to clarify whether the personal order extended to a ban on him sharing the information even with fellow members of the union, they refused to provide an answer!

So while the member has now been granted access to some of the records (certain records have still not been provided), he is effectively under a personal order from the leadership of the union to keep every bit of information confidential.

In other words, what the leadership was unable to achieve through the offices of the certification officer, they have sought to achieve through the issuing of an unprecedented personal order which comes with the threat of discipline if it is ignored.

In fact, given that the only issue in dispute before the certification officer was the question of whether the names of individual officials should be redacted from the records, the personal order prohibiting the sharing of any information contained within the records amounts to a significant hardening of the leadership’s position.

The executive council’s order is, of course, nothing more than an attempt to subvert the decision of the certification officer. It is the work of a leadership which is increasingly dictatorial in its management of the union and has shown itself to be scared of democracy, accountability and transparency. It’s why they tried every trick in the book to prevent the member inspecting the records in the first place; it’s why they refused to recall the union’s parliament during a pivotal and protracted pay dispute; it’s why they insist that minutes of executive council meetings be effectively kept under lock and key; it’s why they witch-hunt dissenters; it’s why they repeatedly refuse to implement resolutions democratically passed by the union’s conference; it’s why they suspend key elections (and then dissemble about it) when it appears the result might not go their way; it’s why they casually break the union’s own internal rules when it suits them; it’s why they create policies on the hoof and then, in an attempt to cover their tracks, falsely claim those policies had always been in force; and its why they think nothing of bullying a 66-year-old female employee whose only crime was to gently question the outcome of an internal disciplinary case.  

We are quite certain, however, that the accounts saga is not done yet.

Watch this space.