FBU leadership LOSES legal bid to block disclosure of spending activities

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LEADERS OF THE Fire Brigades Union (FBU) have LOST their legal bid to suppress details of how they have personally spent the union’s funds. In a written judgement, handed down today (11 March 2022), the official regulator for trade unions – known as the ‘certification officer’ – ruled that senior officials had no reasonable expectation of privacy on questions of how they had spent the union’s money, and ordered them to open the books.

The verdict comes after a sustained attempt over 10 months by the FBU leadership to prevent a member of the union (who is also a member of the Campaign for a Democratic FBU steering committee) from exercising his legal right to inspect the union’s accounting records.

After his request met with repeated obstruction and delay, the member submitted a complaint to the certification officer, who has the power to investigate complaints by union members and, if necessary, impose penalties on unions and order them to comply with their statutory obligations. The complaint was considered on 22 February.

The union was represented in the matter by Oliver Segal QC, one of the country’s leading barristers. Barristers of Segal’s standing usually charge several thousand pounds a day for their services.

But the union’s defence against the member’s complaint collapsed. In her 32-page written judgement, the certification officer concluded that there was no lawful basis for the union to continue denying the member access to the accounting records and ordered the leadership to permit him to inspect the records within 14 days.

The outcome once again leaves FBU leaders facing serious questions about their judgement and integrity.

The long-running saga began in April 2021 when the member wrote to the general secretary, Matt Wrack, seeking to exercise his right under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to inspect a number of accounting records held by the union.

The request was made in the light of growing concerns over a lack of accountability and transparency in the area of internal FBU finance.

A number of controversial spending decisions by the union leadership – some of which even reached the pages of Private Eye magazine – have come to light over the past couple of years, including:

  • the payment of large sums of “hush money” to a string of departing FBU employees – some of whom had made allegations of mistreatment
  • colossal donations to politicians and political parties without any consultation with members or local committees
  • the purchase of expensive fitness equipment solely for the personal use of a senior official

The member requested to inspect the full accounting records detailing these and other transactions. By law, the union was required to permit him access to the records within 28 days of the date of his request.

But for almost a year, the leadership put up barrier after barrier in an attempt to frustrate the member’s request. First, they wrongly claimed that the member had no right to inspect a number of the records. Then they unlawfully demanded the member pay an upfront administration fee of an eye-popping £2,397. Then they claimed that the inspection could not take place because the union’s finance department was too busy with other work.

The member patiently dismantled each of these arguments and, eventually, a date of 29 October 2021 was fixed for the inspection to take place. However, at the last minute the union leadership pulled another stroke – this time drawing up a so-called “confidentiality agreement” which they insisted the member sign before being granted access to the records.

The agreement was designed to prevent the member from sharing any “personal data” he may have acquired during the inspection. Given that the only personal data the member was likely to see were the names of senior officials alongside details of their personal spending activities, it was quite obvious that this was the information the union leadership wanted to keep hidden.

The agreement drawn up by the leadership had no basis in law and was clearly intended to inhibit accountability and transparency. After the member refused to sign it, the leadership threatened him with a court injunction! Shortly afterwards, they cancelled the scheduled inspection altogether.

When the matter eventually came before the certification officer, FBU leaders argued that public disclosure of the names of officials alongside details of how they had spent union funds would interfere with the privacy rights of those officials under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as well as their right to a “private and family life” under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Therefore, they insisted, if the member wasn’t prepared to sign the confidentiality agreement, the certification officer should allow the union to redact the names of officials from the records.

It was a desperate defence which showed no respect for the law, nor for the principles of democracy and openness.

Astonishingly, the union even argued that disclosure of the names of senior officials would breach a piece of GDPR legislation that allowed individuals to keep secret the fact that they were members of a trade union! In other words, in their attempt to suppress details of how they had spent union funds, senior officials were even willing to rely on a law which, they claimed, allowed them to keep hidden the fact that they were members of the FBU at all – an incredible (and quite shameful) tactic from those who are the union’s most senior figures and are supposed to be its most vocal champions and most enthusiastic recruiting sergeants.  

In his argument, the member pointed out that case law had already established that questions of how trade union officials had spent the funds of their organisation were not the private and personal business of those officials, and that privacy laws were not intended to grant those officials anonymity on such matters. The case for disclosure overwhelmingly outweighed the case for privacy. In any case, the law was clear that GDPR should not prevent disclosure of information in circumstances where such disclosure amounted to a legal requirement on the part of the data controller – and, in this case, the data controller (the FBU) was legally required under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to grant the member access to the unedited records.

In her ruling, the certification officer sided emphatically with the member, observing that “Those individuals affected by the disclosure of the relevant records are the most senior national officials of the FBU… They should therefore have no expectation of automatic protection under Article 8 [of the European Convention on Human Rights] in regard to their use of the FBU’s funds.”

She went on: “The FBU is a voluntary organisation funded by fees from its members, and it is right that FBU members should have access to those records in order to hold the FBU to account.” 

This whole affair has once again thrown a spotlight on the unscrupulous and anti-democratic nature of this FBU leadership. In an attempt to block transparency and accountability of their spending decisions, the leadership has been prepared to bring the union’s reputation into disrepute and squander thousands of pounds of members’ money on a legal defence that was as weak legally as it was morally.

Only a leadership which had become supremely arrogant, and which considered itself above the normal rules of scrutiny, would resort to such tactics.

Despite what they may think, the current crop of leaders do not own our union. It is not their personal property, and the union’s money is not their money. They are supposed to be elected representatives of our union, not its proprietors.

This saga proves once again that this FBU leadership is no longer fit to lead. Our union’s members deserve better.