FBU leadership hires top barrister in latest bid to block financial transparency

iStock.com / Studio-Annika

REGULAR READERS WILL be aware of the long-running saga over a request by an FBU member (and member of the Campaign for a Democratic FBU steering committee) to inspect the accounts of the union.

By law, all trade union members are entitled to inspect the accounting records of their union – and unions are required to grant access to the records within 28 days of receiving a request.  

The member’s request was submitted over seven months ago. It was made in the light of growing concerns over a lack of accountability and transparency around internal FBU finances.

The member requested to inspect records detailing, among other things, secret severance payments to FBU employees, personal spending by senior officials and donations to external organisations. 

Since the request was submitted, FBU leaders have erected barrier after barrier in an attempt to frustrate the member’s request. First, they wrongly claimed that the member had no right to inspect several of the records; then they unlawfully tried to charge him an upfront ‘administrative’ fee of £2,400; then they claimed that covid restrictions meant they could not facilitate the request (even though virtually all restrictions had been lifted by that point); then they argued that an inspection could not take place because the union’s finance department was too busy with other work.

The antics of the leadership even made the pages of Private Eye magazine.

Only after the government’s official regulator for trade unions – known as the ‘certification officer’ – intervened did the FBU leadership relent and agree to allow the member to inspect all the records identified in his request.

A date of 29 October was fixed for the inspection. However, at the last minute, the member was presented with a draft agreement which the union leadership insisted he sign before being permitted to inspect the accounts.

The document was, in effect, a secrecy agreement which sought to place the member in a legal straitjacket. By signing the agreement, the member would have been under a strict legal obligation to refrain from sharing any ‘personal data’ he came across during the inspection and limited to raising any concerns directly with senior officials or legal authorities.

The member had already agreed that the personal details of employees who received secret severance payments could be redacted. This meant that the only part of his request that was likely to contain ‘personal data’ was the transactions of senior officials using FBU funds. It is therefore reasonable to assume that this is the information that the leadership wanted to keep hidden.

So in the event that the member identified information from those transactions which gave him cause for concern, he would, under the terms of the agreement, be prohibited from placing that information in the public domain or even sharing details with his fellow union members. All he could do would be to submit a formal complaint to the vice-president of the union or to an appropriate legal authority.

The document was also defective in other areas. For example, it wrongly identified the member as an FBU ‘data controller’, and contained an inaccurate and highly-restrictive statement about the purposes for which he was entitled to inspect the accounting records under the relevant legislation. There was no way any member could put his or her signature to such a flawed agreement.

The leadership’s motivations were obvious: they were attempting to cloak their efforts to impede accountability and transparency in a legal argument that had next-to-no merit.

Astonishingly, the union even threatened to bring a court injunction against the member if he refused to sign the draft agreement!

After being contacted again by the member, the certification officer promptly wrote to the union and made it clear that the member was right: the draft agreement had no basis in law, and it could not be used to prevent him inspecting the accounts. The certification officer also made it clear that the union was expected to facilitate the inspection as soon as possible. The union was given a deadline of 18 November to respond.

We have now learned that the union replied to the certification officer on 16 November. In its letter, the union continued to insist that the member would not be permitted to inspect the accounts unless he signed the draft agreement. In addition, the union revealed that it had now engaged the services of ‘leading counsel’ on the matter.

This means that FBU leaders have taken the decision to hire a top barrister – paid for out of union funds – in an effort to help them dodge their responsibilities to be open and transparent about how they spend members’ money.

Members will no doubt be appalled that the union’s leadership is going to such extreme lengths – and with their money – in an effort to block financial transparency. 

The certification officer replied to the union on 24 November, making it clear that the position was unchanged: the right of trade union members under the relevant legislation to inspect the accounting records of their union was not constrained by any requirement that they sign copies of secrecy agreements, and the FBU had a clear legal duty to allow the member in question to inspect the records.

The certification officer gave the leadership a further deadline of 1 December for a response. After that, the scene is set for a public hearing, the outcome of which is likely to be that the certification officer orders the union to permit the member to inspect the records.

FBU leaders are rapidly running out of road in their quest to sidestep their legal responsibilities and to conceal details of their spending decisions. Their actions are an affront to the principles of democracy, accountability and transparency. They should back down now – before they do yet more damage to the reputation of the union.