In trying to avoid scrutiny, FBU leaders are treating members with contempt

Photo by theblowup on Unsplash

WHAT IS IT about democracy that frightens the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) leadership so much? Why do the most senior officials of our union fear members casting a critical eye over their actions and holding them to account? Do they believe in transparency, or don’t they?

Following a decision by the FBU leadership to put significant hurdles in the way of any member wishing to scrutinise the work of the executive council (EC), the above questions demand answers.

The EC is the ruling body of the FBU. It is made up of the president and 13 elected officials representing members in each of the geographical regions of the union. Senior national officials such as the general secretary and assistant general secretary also attend meetings of the EC.

The EC meets regularly and makes crucial decisions in a range of areas which affect all FBU members – from industrial matters such as pay and conditions to wider political and legal issues. The EC also makes key decisions on how members’ money is spent. These decisions, and the debates that accompany them, are recorded in the formal minutes of EC meetings.

Until recently, there was no restriction on the right of FBU members or officials to circulate copies of EC minutes and discuss them openly and freely throughout the union. That is because most people in the union understood that members should have the basic right to scrutinise the actions of their elected EC representatives and hold them to account for the decisions they make on their behalf. Indeed, such principles of accountability and transparency lie at the heart of all democratic organisations.

However, in a circular sent to all FBU regional secretaries in August 2020, the general secretary suddenly ordered that copies of all EC minutes be kept under lock and key at regional offices. He stated that the minutes must not be forwarded either electronically or by hard copy, and any request by a member to read them must be raised directly with that region’s executive council member.

Leaked minutes of an EC meeting on 20 March 2020 further reveal that the general secretary insisted that any member wishing to inspect copies of the minutes at a regional office may do so only ‘under the supervision’ of the regional secretary or executive council member. In other words, members cannot be trusted to read the minutes unaccompanied. It seems the FBU leadership sees members as troublesome children in a kindergarten rather than active participants in a democratic organisation.

Many members live a considerable distance from their designated regional office. It is therefore completely unreasonable to insist there be no method by which members may inspect the minutes of EC meetings other than to make a journey to regional offices. It means, for example, that a member living in Inverness who wished to inspect the minutes of an EC meeting would be compelled to undertake a 340-mile round trip to the Scottish regional office in Glasgow. A member living in Wrexham would be required to travel 280 miles to and from the Welsh regional office in Cardiff. A member living in Penzance would be forced to travel 380 miles to and from the south-west regional office in Bristol.

Moreover, these members would be allowed to view the minutes only if they agreed to have the executive council member or regional secretary breathing down their neck at the time.

(It should also be noted that, owing to the closure of regional offices during the covid pandemic, these diktats from the union leadership meant that, for over a year, it was literally impossible for any member to scrutinise the decisions and actions of their elected representatives on the EC.)

In truth, the leadership knows that most members simply won’t trouble to make a long round trip to their regional office if they wish to inspect the minutes of EC meetings. The measure is designed to deter scrutiny and transparency. It is therefore no exaggeration to state that the minutes of EC meetings have, to all intents and purposes, become classified documents, viewable only by a handful of privileged senior officials.

But there are other disturbing implications to consider. The restrictions mean that any member or official who shares a copy of the EC minutes without authorisation is leaving himself or herself open to internal union discipline. This raises the prospect that someone could be punished under the rule book simply for bringing a record of an EC meeting to the attention of fellow members.

The restrictions also mean that even regional committees and brigade committees are now prohibited from having the EC minutes circulated at their meetings so that the decisions of the union’s ruling body can be scrutinised and debated by local officials.

In a democratic union, this kind of authoritarianism is intolerable.

Why is the EC the only body of the union immune from scrutiny? The proceedings of the FBU’s annual conference are published and circulated every year (they are even uploaded to the union’s website). Minutes of negotiations between local FBU officials and management are routinely published and circulated, as are minutes of meetings of local FBU committees. There are even no restrictions on the circulation of minutes of meetings of the National Joint Council. Yet when it comes to the EC, the transparency suddenly stops.

In 2004, the FBU’s annual conference (the parliament of the union) agreed a policy requiring the leadership to publish and circulate minutes of EC meetings within 14 days of their ratification at the subsequent meeting. That policy remains in force today, but it is routinely ignored by the leadership.

The EC is not a private members’ club. It is – or should be – a democratic and transparent body of representatives elected by – and answerable to – grassroots members. For its meetings to be shrouded in such secrecy is completely unacceptable.

When the current general secretary came to power, he promised greater democracy, accountability and transparency throughout the FBU. He even put that pledge in his election address. He has in the past called directly for the publication and circulation of minutes of key meetings and bodies so that ordinary members can see what is being done in their name and are able to hold their elected representatives to account. In recent times, he has publicly demanded that the national executive committee of the Labour party be democratised and called for the ruling body of the Corbynite pressure group ‘Momentum’ (of which he is a vocal supporter) to publish minutes of its meetings. So why does he implement measures in his own union which are designed to prevent the very democracy, accountability and transparency he once pledged to deliver and still calls for elsewhere?

Sadly, this all smacks of a leadership that has become deeply arrogant with power, is hostile to dissent, has abandoned the promises on which it was elected, and is willing to resort to the most autocratic methods to get its way and avoid proper scrutiny. What is the leadership trying to hide? Why isn’t it willing to allow for minutes of EC meetings to be circulated freely and debated throughout the union? Is the FBU a democratic organisation, or isn’t it?

FBU members across the country should organise to challenge this state of affairs. Local officials should be mandated to raise the matter through the union’s internal committee structures. Every member of our union should have the right to scrutinise the decisions of their elected EC representatives without unnecessary obstacles being put in their way.

We call on the FBU leadership to end this authoritarianism and secrecy without delay.