FBU “hush money” scandal: the general secretary speaks – but here’s why his denials don’t stack up

REGULAR READERS will be familiar with the ongoing controversy – which has even reached the pages of Private Eye magazine – concerning payments of “hush money” by senior officials of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) to a string of the union’s employees, a number of whom had made allegations of mistreatment.

The affair came to light after a whistleblowing ex-employee contacted this blog and described how, over many years, a “toxic” atmosphere had taken hold at the union’s head office in south-west London, leading to a number of complaints and the departure of several members of staff, including elected national officers.

Large sums of FBU members’ money were spent on buying the silence of these employees: each was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) – commonly known as a “gagging clause” – in return for the payment. Scandalously, full details of the payments and NDAs were, in most cases, withheld even from the union’s ruling executive council (EC).

NDAs are regarded as controversial instruments throughout the trade union movement, with many trade unionists believing they allow employers to sweep bad practice under the carpet. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) itself has expressed serious concerns over their use in the workplace.

So far, the FBU’s general secretary, Matt Wrack, has – publicly, at least – remained tight-lipped about the affair. However, we can reveal that, in response to concerns raised formally at a meeting of the EC, the general secretary described the allegations published by this blog as a “slur” and fiercely denied that there had been any “secret backroom agreements”. He also claimed that “every case” had been “reported to the executive council”.

A pretty emphatic denial, it has to be said. However, there’s just one problem: the general secretary’s defence contains more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. In fact, as we will show below, his words could easily be seen as misleading.

The EC meeting in question took place on 11 August 2021 – just a few weeks after the revelations first appeared on this blog. A leaked copy of the minutes of that meeting records that the-then EC member for the south-east region of the union, Richard Jones, tabled a number of questions about the affair. The minutes show that Jones informed the EC that his regional committee was “dismayed and concerned” at the revelations and wanted to know, for the period of the previous 15 years, how many employees had departed the FBU with confidential pay-offs and gagging clauses, and how much these payments had cost the union’s members.

The section of the minutes recording the general secretary’s response to Jones is worth republishing in full:

“The general secretary said that he was slightly alarmed that the regional committee appeared to be influenced by comments on a blog without any evidence. There was a lack of clarity on why there was a time period of 15 years. The acceptance that there were secret backroom agreements was a slur. He said that every case was reported to the executive council. The most recent circumstance had been reported and was not challenged or questioned whatsoever. The union will often reach settlement agreements for members to avoid dismissal. They were often mutually beneficial. There was not one case where an individual had not agreed and accepted the agreement.”

Observers will note that the general secretary conspicuously failed to give any actual answers to the specific questions asked by Jones. But, leaving that aside, let us break down his response and examine each point in turn.

“The general secretary said that he was slightly alarmed that the regional committee appeared to be influenced by comments on a blog without any evidence.”

On the contrary, this blog published the revelations only after speaking directly with a whistleblowing former employee. This individual provided us with an abundance of evidence. After that, we spoke to other former employees who also had knowledge of events. All corroborated the claim that several employees had received confidential pay-offs and, in return, been required to sign gagging clauses and give a commitment not to bring any legal claims against the union (a fact that the general secretary did not dispute in his response to Jones). Some even passed us documentation proving their account of events, including evidence that they had complained of being bullied at work.

“There was a lack of clarity on why there was a time period of 15 years.”

We imagine the answer to this is that 15 years reflected the approximate time period that the current general secretary had been in office and during which the practice of making confidential pay-offs and issuing gagging clauses had begun to occur.

“The acceptance that there were secret backroom agreements was a slur. He said that every case was reported to the executive council. The most recent circumstance had been reported and was not challenged or questioned whatsoever.”

This is where the general secretary’s defence really begins to fall apart. It was a “slur” to suggest there were “secret backroom agreements,” he claims, and “every case was reported to the executive council.” In other words, every case where a departing employee was given a confidential pay-off and required to sign an NDA was reported to the EC.

Well, we decided to check that claim, and we found that it quickly unravelled. We took, as examples, the cases of three senior employees who we know departed the union with confidential pay-offs and NDAs – namely the head of IT, Bob Birchall, head of communications, Lynne Wallis, and long-serving national officer Sean Starbuck. (We should make it clear that none of these individuals was the source of our information. Neither do we make any criticism of them – or any other employee – for having accepted a settlement agreement; we’re sure they had entirely legitimate reasons for doing so.)

We secured copies of the minutes of the EC meetings at which the departure of these employees was announced (minutes of EC meetings are usually very comprehensive and often run to several pages).

First, Bob Birchall. The EC minutes for 8 December 2016 record the following:

“Bro Green [national officer Dave Green] then reported on the IT project. He advised the executive council that Bob Birchall would leave the union’s employment on 31 December 2016. Bro Green recommended that the union employ ‘Modern Networks’ to run the union’s IT. This was agreed.”

That’s it. A bland statement that Birchall would be leaving the union’s employment at the end of the month. No reference to any settlement agreement, let alone the specific details of that settlement agreement, such as why it was deemed necessary to reach an agreement in the first place, the sum of the pay-off and the existence of an NDA.

Next, Lynne Wallis. The EC minutes for 24 April 2018 record the following:

“The general secretary reported that Lynne Wallis, head of communications, had left the FBU and therefore a replacement was being sought. The verbal report was noted.”

Again, no reference to the fact that a settlement agreement had been reached, nor to any complaint of mistreatment, nor any details of the sum of the pay-off, nor the existence of an NDA.

Finally – and perhaps most controversially – long-serving national officer Sean Starbuck (who was elected by thousands of members but left the union in 2021 after challenging the general secretary for his position at the ballot box and allegedly being subjected to mistreatment). The EC minutes for 28 June 2021 record the following:

“The general secretary informed the executive council that Bro Starbuck would leave the union at the end of that month … The general secretary proposed that a circular be sent to members to inform them of Bro Starbuck’s departure and that the executive council were currently considering how best to proceed in regard to national officer positions. This was agreed.”

Once again, no reference whatsoever to any settlement agreement, nor to the fact that the employee had complained of mistreatment, nor to the details of any severance payment, nor to the existence of an NDA.

To guard against the possibility that the full details regarding the departures of Birchall, Wallis and Starbuck had been provided to the EC “off-minutes” – i.e. that, for reasons of confidentiality, the information was relayed verbally but not recorded in the minutes of the meeting – we spoke to EC members who were in attendance at all three meetings. In the case of Birchall and Wallis, the EC members confirmed that there was little, if any, discussion beyond what appeared in the minutes. In the third case, EC members were informed by the general secretary and president that an “agreement” had been reached on the termination of Starbuck’s employment, but the specifics of that agreement were “confidential” and no questions or debate about it would be entertained. In other words, precise details of the pay-off, the terms of the agreement, and even the reasons why it was necessary to seek a settlement agreement with Starbuck in the first place, were withheld from EC members, and those same EC members were left in no doubt that no further information would be forthcoming.

So there we have it: three high-profile departures involving pay-offs and NDAs, and in all three cases the EC was denied the full details.

What’s more, this blog has been scouring leaked copies of the minutes of executive council meetings going back several years, and covering a period when we know that other employees departed the union with pay-offs and NDAs, and we have yet to find a single instance where proper details were provided to the executive council. Even if, in some cases, the EC was told “off-minutes” (as it was in the Starbuck case) that an agreement on termination had been reached with the employee, it would be almost certain that the general secretary and other head office officials would have insisted (just as they did with the Starbuck agreement) that EC members should not ask questions about the details of that agreement as they were “confidential”. (This itself raises the question of why it was deemed appropriate to keep even this limited information off-the-minutes: after all, minutes are supposed to be the formal and historical record of a meeting and should, other than in the most exceptional circumstances, contain all significant points of information.)

In the context of everything we have described above, it was entirely legitimate and accurate for this blog to assert from the outset that the EC was largely kept in the dark about the details of the pay-offs and gagging clauses.  

Which in turn means that the general secretary’s reassurances to Richard Jones and other executive council members that there had been no “secret backroom agreements”, and that the EC was always kept fully abreast of these matters, ring decidedly hollow. There plainly were a number of secret backroom agreements. How else can we describe the practice of the FBU’s most senior officials authorising sizeable severance payments to departing employees, requiring those employees in return to sign gagging clauses and commit to not bringing any legal claims against the union, and then either failing to notify EC members of those facts or, at most, informing them in the vaguest terms that an agreement had been struck with the employee but then withholding details of that agreement on the grounds of “confidentiality” and insisting no questions be asked? If you want a definition of “secret backroom agreement”, this practice easily fits the bill.

Many members will see immediately that this practice is a recipe for potential corruption. It effectively permits the union’s most senior officials to reach private agreements with each other (or with other close colleagues) using considerable sums of members’ money and without any scrutiny or oversight whatsoever by anyone else in the union – not even by its governing body!

Anyone who still isn’t convinced that this is a deeply unethical way of operating should consider the following scenario. Imagine that senior managers in a local fire and rescue service used large sums of taxpayers’ cash to strike private agreements with each other (or with other close colleagues) on the terms of their departures (including cases where allegations of bullying had been made), and then told members of the relevant fire and rescue authority – the elected representatives of the voters – that they mustn’t go prying into the detail of those agreements because they are “confidential”! In other words, no-one beyond the actual signatories to those particular agreements (and perhaps their lawyers) was ever entitled to know the detail of them. That is the equivalent of what has been going on at the top of the FBU. It is an appalling state of affairs.

For completeness, we will also address the final couple of sentences of the general secretary’s response at the EC meeting. He says:

“The union will often reach settlement agreements for members to avoid dismissal. They were often mutually beneficial.”

Far from happening “often”, we would say it is actually quite rare for a fire and rescue service to reach a settlement agreement involving a severance payment (which, by definition, means using taxpayers’ cash) and NDA with an employee whom the service feels it has a legitimate reason to dismiss. If a fire and rescue service is seeking to strike a settlement agreement, it is usually because the employee has brought (or is believed to have good grounds to bring) a legal claim.

“There was not one case where an individual had not agreed and accepted the agreement.”

Well, by definition, an agreement can only be reached if the parties agree to it, so this amounts to a statement of the bleedin’ obvious!

All things considered, it is quite clear that the claim by the general secretary that there have been no “secret backroom agreements” simply cannot hold. The union’s most senior officials have been caught freelancing with large sums of members’ money in an effort to prevent a string of employees from pursuing legal claims for mistreatment and to keep them quiet. And nothing beyond the sketchiest details (and often not even that) was ever provided to the union’s governing executive council.

There must now be a full and independent external review into employment practices at the union’s head office. Nothing less will do. If these events had occurred in a local fire and rescue service, the FBU leadership would have been first out of the blocks in demanding such a review. Members are entitled to know what has been going on over so many years.

Moreover, the general secretary should go back to the executive council and correct the record. He should apologise for providing a distorted version of events in his response to Richard Jones, and he should now answer all the questions that he failed to answer on that occasion.

There can be no room for confidentiality when it comes to FBU members’ money. To insist otherwise is to go against the principles of accountability and transparency that underpin the whole concept of democratic trade unionism.

It’s time to clean the stables.

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