Fresh “hush money” revelations: a second FBU national officer was secretly paid off after making bullying allegations – and this one received over £100k

Former FBU national officer Paul Woolstenholmes

THIS BLOG can today reveal that an elected national officer of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) who had made a complaint of bullying against the general secretary, Matt Wrack, was paid a staggering £109,000 of members’ money as part of a secret backroom agreement to end his employment and keep quiet about his alleged treatment. We can also reveal that the general secretary failed to provide any details about the payment or the circumstances of the official’s departure to the union’s ruling executive council.

These revelations surrounding the exit of Paul Woolstenholmes – against whom this blog levels no criticism – will disturb members across the FBU and leave the general secretary and his fellow senior leaders facing serious questions – particularly coming, as they do, so soon after the publication of similar revelations over the departure of another elected national officer – Sean Starbuck – who, as this blog revealed last week, was paid £50,000 as part of a private settlement after he too made allegations of mistreatment.

The secret payments to Woolstenholmes and Starbuck represent the latest instalment of the ongoing “hush money” scandal inside the FBU, which has seen a string of employees depart the union over recent years with confidential pay-offs and gagging orders. In many cases, the individuals had made allegations of mistreatment, and not even the executive council was provided with the full details. The affair has even reached the pages of Private Eye magazine, and this blog today repeats its call for an independent review into the culture at the top of the union.

The facts surrounding Woolstenholmes’ departure are particularly troubling. Woolstenholmes served for many years as an FBU official in his home county of Suffolk before, in 2003, being elected as a national officer in a ballot of the membership. He was re-elected five years later.

In his national role, Woolstenholmes was one of the most senior figures in the FBU and worked alongside other leading officials at the union’s head office in south-west London. He held responsibility for crucial areas of the union’s work and, like all national officers, reported directly to the general secretary.

At the beginning of 2014, Woolstenholmes disappeared from the radar for several months, amid rumours that he had booked sick from work after making a complaint of bullying. In early 2015, he left the union for good. No details about the circumstances of his departure were provided to members – many thousands of whom had elected him into office.

However, this blog has seen a copy of notes taken at a meeting held to discuss Woolstenholmes’ formal complaint. The meeting took place on 30 January 2014 at a hotel near the union’s head office in Kingston-Upon-Thames and was attended by Woolstenholmes, his representative (fellow national officer John McGhee), the union’s then vice-president, Jim Barbour (who was responsible for investigating the complaint), and Barbour’s assistant, executive council member Andy Noble.

The notes reveal that Woolstenholmes alleged that he had endured mistreatment over a considerable time, in particular that he had been repeatedly “undermined” and “undervalued” by the general secretary. He reeled off a number of examples of the mistreatment he had allegedly suffered and added that he believed that “all national officers had at some time mentioned wanting to leave”. Woolstenholmes’ representative told the meeting that he felt the general secretary’s behaviour met the Acas definition of bullying and harassment.

On 6 January 2015, a private agreement – which this blog has seen – was reached. That agreement provided for Woolstenholmes to be paid a settlement figure of £109,401.16 in return for him agreeing to terminate his employment, forego his right to pursue any legal claims against the union, and keep quiet about the circumstances of his departure.

Exactly a week later, a meeting of the executive council – the union’s governing body – took place. This blog has seen a copy of the minutes of that meeting. Given the seriousness of the events surrounding Woolstenholmes’ departure – in particular the amount of money involved and the implications of a democratically-elected senior official leaving his role prematurely after alleging bullying – members could be forgiven for thinking that the matter was subjected to proper scrutiny and debate before the executive council. In fact, it appears to have featured as little more than a footnote at the meeting. The item was squeezed in under “Any Other Business” at the end of the meeting. The minutes do not even refer to Woolstenholmes by name, and simply record the following:

“The general secretary informed the executive council of a recent staffing development. He explained that no details or information would be given, as that would be inappropriate.”

That was the extent of it. Two vague sentences. A long-serving and democratically-elected senior official had left the union in controversial circumstances and with a substantial pay-off and gagging order, yet the union’s ruling body was told nothing.

By way of confirming that the minutes were a true reflection of the discussion (such as it was!) that took place, this blog spoke to a member of the executive council who was present at the meeting. He told us that the minutes were accurate and that none of the details surrounding Woolstenholmes’ departure were provided to the executive council.

Members will understand that this kind of clandestine practice, which was replicated with the departure of Sean Starbuck and others, is a complete affront to the principles of accountability and transparency. It effectively means that the union’s most senior officials have given themselves the power to reach private backroom deals involving substantial sums of members’ money and without even the minimum amount of scrutiny or oversight by anyone else in the union – not even by its governing body!

In that sense, the practice is also a recipe for corruption. Where are the checks and balances? How is it even possible to hold those responsible to account for these decisions if everyone else in the union is prevented from even knowing the detail of them? What mechanism exists to stop it happening in the future – perhaps next time involving even more substantial sums? How can any self-respecting union allow its senior leaders such latitude that they consider themselves free to make secret payments involving such eye-watering amounts of members’ money and without anyone saying, “Do you mind if we just check what you’re doing here?” Aren’t trade unions supposed to treat allegations of workplace bullying with the utmost seriousness? Can it be right that senior officials who find themselves the subject of accusations of bullying can use huge sums of members’ money to buy the silence of their accusers rather than allow an internal disciplinary process to take its course? Who on the executive council has the backbone to speak up about this scandal on behalf of members?

It seems plain that, as in the case of Sean Starbuck’s departure, the union’s rules have been breached. If the payment was given to Woolstenholmes in recognition that he had indeed been bullied and could have mounted a viable legal claim, then those responsible have breached the union’s rule requiring all members and officials to treat others with respect and dignity. If those who agreed the payment do not accept that Woolstenholmes had been mistreated or could have mounted a viable claim, then they are arguably guilty of a very serious misapplication of the union’s funds. It must be one or the other.

We stress again that we attach no blame to Paul Woolstenholmes. Like Sean Starbuck and other employees who departed in similar circumstances, he appears to have been a victim of a toxic culture at the union’s head office. His reputation is therefore not tarnished in any way by these revelations. It is clear, however, that the non-disclosure agreement signed between him and a handful of senior officials is now null and void. And rightly so.

As we have argued previously, there can be no room for “confidentiality” when it comes to the question of how the FBU’s most senior officials spend our money. This is about integrity. It is about democracy. And it is about accountability and transparency. All of these things matter far more than the desire of senior officials to have the freedom to operate in secrecy.

It’s time to clean the stables.

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