FBU leadership pulls plug on inspection of accounts after member refuses to sign secrecy agreement

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  • Last-minute cancellation of inspection is latest in series of desperate attempts by leadership to block scrutiny of spending decisions
  • Secrecy agreement “designed to impede accountability and transparency”
  • Leadership threatens member with court action if he doesn’t sign

WHY ARE FBU leaders trying to prevent members from exercising their legal right to inspect the accounts of their union? What are they trying to hide? Why are they showing contempt for internal democracy, accountability and transparency – as well as the law?

Members will doubtless be asking these questions after learning of the latest bid by the leadership to stop a planned inspection of the union’s accounts from going ahead. The leadership pulled the plug after a member who had requested to inspect the accounts refused to sign a secrecy agreement that had been presented to him at the last minute. The secrecy agreement contained a number of rigid and unacceptable conditions stipulating what the member may have done with any information he gathered during the inspection. It was unquestionably designed to impede accountability and transparency.

The eleventh-hour move is the latest in a series of desperate attempts by FBU leaders to prevent the inspection taking place. For six months, they put up barrier after barrier in an effort to deny the member access to the accounts. Every barrier was patiently dismantled. Then, just when it looked like there was nothing more they could do to thwart the inspection, the leadership set up another roadblock.

The leadership will now almost certainly be forced to account for its actions at a hearing in front of the official trade union regulator.

Under existing law – in the shape of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 – all trade union members have the right to inspect the accounting records of their union. The Act requires a trade union to grant access to the accounts within 28 days of receiving a request from a member. The legislation is designed to ensure that senior union officials remain answerable for how they spend members’ money – which is, of course, a good thing.

The right of members under the Act to inspect the accounts of their union is clear and unequivocal. It is not constrained by any requirement that members sign secrecy agreements stipulating how they may handle any information they gather during the inspection.

Over recent months, we at Campaign for a Democratic FBU have become increasingly concerned at the distinct lack of accountability and transparency surrounding internal FBU finances. We have documented those concerns in previous blogs. Against the background of those concerns, a member of our steering committee made a request, back in April, to inspect the FBU’s accounting records.

In his request, the member identified a number of records he wished to inspect. These included personal spending by senior officials, donations to external organisations, and records of payments made as part of severance agreements with departing FBU employees.

By law, the member should have been granted access to the records by the second week of May. Instead, his request met with determined resistance by the FBU leadership.

First, the leadership tried to argue that the member was not entitled to inspect several of the records identified in his request. But when the member cited a previous legal case showing that he was perfectly entitled to view the records, the leadership was forced to back down.

Then the leadership tried to insist the member pay an upfront fee before any inspection took place. Staggeringly, they set this fee at an eye-watering £2,400(!) – a figure obviously designed to discourage the member from following through on his request. But again the member drew the leadership’s attention to a previous legal case showing that the union had no right to insist on an upfront fee.

Then the leadership tried to delay the inspection by citing difficulties connected to the covid pandemic – even though virtually all restrictions had been lifted by that point.

Then the leadership claimed that an inspection could not take place because the union’s finance department was under too much pressure with other work.

By this time, the union was in serious breach of its legal responsibilities to grant access to the accounts within 28 days of receiving a request. Only after the member made a complaint to the certification officer – the government’s official regulator for trade unions – did the leadership finally agree to provide all records and arrange a date for the inspection.

That inspection was scheduled to take place tomorrow (29 October). But on 20 October, and completely out of the blue, the member received a letter from the union. That letter, carrying the signature of a national officer, was accompanied by a draft agreement. In the letter, the national officer informed the member that he was required to sign the draft agreement in advance of the inspection.

The draft agreement – which can only be described as a “secrecy agreement” – had no status under the relevant legislation. The agreement contained a list of unacceptably rigid conditions and was deeply flawed in all sorts of other ways. For example, it wrongly assigned to the member the same responsibilities as an FBU “data controller”; it made a highly restrictive (and inaccurate) statement about the purposes for which a member may inspect the accounting records under the legislation; and it required the member to accept that he must not use any personal information gathered from the records for any purpose other than pursuing a formal complaint or legal proceedings.

This final stipulation meant that if the member came across information that called into question the actions of officials, he would be prevented from raising his concerns outside of very tightly-defined and restrictive channels. So, for example, if the member had found that an individual official or committee of officials had misapplied funds of the union, his only recourse would be to submit a formal complaint about the matter to senior officials or to pursue legal proceedings. He would not be able to raise his concerns publicly – or even with other members of the union!

This plainly amounted to a blatant attempt on the part of the leadership to gag the member. In demanding he sign such an agreement before permitting him to inspect the accounts, the leadership was clearly seeking to avoid scrutiny for how they managed the finances of the union. They were also acting well beyond the boundaries of the relevant legislation.

In a letter of reply, the member made it clear to the FBU leadership that his legal right to inspect the union’s accounts was not contingent upon his signing the draft agreement, and he would not do so. The member’s right under the relevant Act to inspect the union’s accounts was unqualified, yet here was the FBU leadership trying to attach all sorts of qualifications to it.

In response, the leadership maintained that the member was required to sign the draft agreement and, quite shockingly, threatened him with a court injunction if he didn’t sign! They also said that they would seek to recover the costs of any court action from the member personally!

But still the member stuck to his guns, telling the leadership again that the legislation did not require him to sign a secrecy agreement before any inspection of the accounts could take place. This prompted the leadership to inform the member – at less than 24 hours’ notice – that the inspection was now cancelled.

Such conduct by FBU leaders will be seen by most right-thinking people as deplorable. That a union leadership should resort to threatening a member with court action simply because he has sought to exercise his legal right to inspect the organisation’s accounts is truly inexcusable.

The matter will now go back to the trade union certification officer for adjudication.

Once again, the FBU leadership is left with serious questions to answer. This is a leadership which has always been very quick to talk about its commitment to internal democracy, accountability and transparency. Yet, whenever it is challenged or asked to account for its decisions, its deeply authoritarian nature comes to the surface.

The FBU’s general secretary has previously stood for election on a promise to give grassroots members’ greater control and oversight over how union funds are spent. He even once wrote a pamphlet which made that very case.

The title of the pamphlet..? Whose Money is it Anyway?

Many FBU members will today be asking themselves that same question.