‘Setting the record straight’ – with a litany of half-truths and distortions! Our response to the FBU leadership’s scurrilous attack on us

FOR FOUR YEARS, this blog has been scrutinising the actions and decisions of senior officials of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in a way that those officials have rarely been used to. In that time, we have shed light on a wide range of issues – some of them highly controversial – which the leadership of the union would have preferred to keep hidden from members.

Perhaps most notably, we single-handedly exposed the ‘hush money’ scandal inside the FBU, which involved secret payments being made to a string of union employees – including elected national officers – who had made allegations of mistreatment. Some of these employees had made direct claims of bullying against the general secretary, Matt Wrack, and, in all cases, the individuals were required to sign non-disclosure agreements (known as ‘gagging clauses’) in return for the payments.

This scandal was later covered in the pages of Private Eye magazine and even reared its head in parliament last week when Wrack was quizzed about it by a committee of MPs.

All our previous blogs on this and every other issue can be located on this website. Readers will see that we don’t engage in smear or abuse, and we always support our claims with facts and evidence.

We stand by everything we have published over these past four years, and we are proud to have brought to the attention of FBU members information that would otherwise have been denied to them.

In recent weeks, we have highlighted further wrongdoing by senior officials of the union.

First, we revealed that national officer Riccardo la Torre used union funds to bankroll his legal defence after going on to his personal social media account late at night and republishing defamatory allegations about a member (we should say, in the interests of transparency, that the member is involved in running this blog).

Second, we revealed that, after the union’s vice-president Steve Wright conducted a disciplinary inquiry which found that both la Torre and Matt Wrack had broken union rules in relation to the process that led to la Torre being granted that financial assistance, the executive council (EC) took the unprecedented step of terminating the disciplinary proceedings and cancelling a hearing that la Torre and Wrack had been ordered to attend.

And, third, we revealed that ‘independent’ legal advice upon which the EC had relied when making the above decision was written by two barristers who both knew Wrack personally and had undertaken political campaigning alongside him over many years. Even more controversially, one of the barristers was a long-time friend of Wrack’s brother.

Clockwise from top-centre: Matt Wrack, John Hendy, Nick Wrack, Steve Wright, Riccardo la Torre and Nicholas Toms

Last Friday (8 March), the FBU’s head office issued an ‘all-members circular’ (which we shall henceforth call ‘the head office circular’) which sought to address these latest revelations. The head office circular – which was entitled ‘Setting the record straight: false and inaccurate claims regarding FBU rules and processes’ – made a targeted political attack on this blog and those involved with running it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the circular contained a number of half-truths and distortions.

Below, we set out the full background to the matters covered in the circular and rebut the attacks on us. We will show that, far from ‘setting the record straight’, the circular is an attempt to deceive and mislead members.


Late one Friday evening in 2021, Matt Wrack went on to his personal X (formerly known as Twitter) account and alleged that an FBU member had stolen IT equipment belonging to the union. The allegation was a despicable lie. After receiving notice of legal action for defamation, Wrack quickly issued a public retraction and apology. He also promised to refrain from repeating the allegation.

Wrack’s irresponsible conduct caused deep embarrassment to the union and led to calls from members for his resignation. His statement of retraction and apology is still present on his X account and can easily be accessed by anyone wishing to see it.

La Torre republished Wrack’s false allegations on his own personal X account but, unlike Wrack, did not retract them. Consequently, the member issued a legal claim against la Torre for defamation.

The claim was brought against la Torre as a private individual; the FBU was not a named party in the proceedings. However, at a meeting of the EC on 6 July 2022, the then EC member for the East Midlands region (now the assistant general secretary) Ben Selby proposed that the costs of la Torre’s legal defence be met from union funds. This controversial proposal was agreed by the EC.

The member who brought the legal action against la Torre had correctly issued his claim in the High Court (where all defamation claims must be lodged). However, His Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) subsequently allocated the claim to the County Court, which does not have jurisdiction for defamation claims. This was a serious administrative error by HMCTS.

Given that the court to which the claim had been allocated had no power to hear it, the member had little option but to discontinue the claim (by which time the limitation period for bringing a fresh claim in the High Court had expired). After carrying out a detailed investigation, the HMCTS senior management team confirmed that the member had lodged his claim correctly, admitted full liability for the court allocation error, apologised unreservedly to the member and confirmed that it had taken immediate remedial action to ensure the error did not occur again. (The letter containing the admission and apology from HMCTS was shared with la Torre’s lawyers and the court, and is therefore a matter of record.)

Under court rules, a person who discontinues a claim is automatically liable for the other party’s legal costs, regardless of the reason for discontinuing. This meant that the member was responsible for la Torre’s costs. However, given HMCTS’s unequivocal admission of liability, the member expects to recover those costs, and discussions between the member and HMCTS lawyers are already under way in that regard.

What does the head office circular say about these matters?  

While the head office circular makes reference to the legal claim against la Torre, it provides no details of the background to the claim. Specifically, it does not mention that the claim arose because the general secretary went on to social media late at night and falsely accused a member of being a thief, nor that la Torre had republished those defamatory allegations. Neither does it make any reference to Wrack’s public retraction and apology. Presumably the author(s) of the circular realised that to provide this detail would bring renewed attention on Wrack and la Torre’s irresponsible behaviour and cause further embarrassment to the union. So they decided to omit this information from the circular.

The circular does confirm that, on 6 July 2022, the EC took the decision to use union funds to bankroll la Torre’s legal defence. It then states that, in making this decision, the EC took into account the member’s ‘pattern of behaviour’ towards la Torre. This is a total red herring. There was no ‘pattern of behaviour’ towards la Torre (other than occasional legitimate criticisms that any senior official of a democratic organisation should expect to receive from members and activists). And, even if there was such a ‘pattern’, it would still not justify the EC’s decision. Because, in the end, this was a private legal matter relating to a senior official’s activity on his personal social media account undertaken outside of work hours, and it was therefore deeply inappropriate that union funds were directed towards it.

The head office circular states that the union was not ultimately ‘required to fund any costs of defending the claim’. But that was only because the union was fortunate in recovering its costs as a result of the court allocation error. The fact is that, until that point, the union was bankrolling la Torre’s legal defence in the full knowledge that it might never recover those costs.

Many members will think it appalling that their money was ever used in this way – regardless of whether the money was, through good fortune, eventually recovered. It’s hardly much different from a senior official using union funds to bet on a horse and then trying to justify that decision by arguing that the funds were eventually recovered because the horse came in first!

Why should FBU members ever be expected to foot the upfront costs for a legal case relating to a senior official’s inappropriate conduct on his personal social media platform? Could ordinary members expect to receive such favourable treatment if they had acted in the way la Torre did? We probably all know the answer to that question.

Ultimately, the decision to meet the upfront costs of la Torre’s legal defence undeniably represented a serious misuse of union funds.

The head office circular then goes on to defend la Torre by stating that he did not ask for the financial assistance. But that misses the point. The fact is that la Torre willingly accepted the assistance when it was offered to him. He could have rejected the assistance, but he chose not to do so. That means he is culpable on the issue.

Moreover, la Torre should perhaps be called upon to confirm whether he privately played any part in the decision by Ben Selby to propose to the EC that the union fund his legal defence. It is well-known that la Torre and Selby are close political allies and friends. Many people will therefore find it hard to believe that la Torre knew nothing of Selby’s proposal before it was made to the EC. In the interests of openness, la Torre should clarify what he knew, and when.      


Leaving aside that la Torre should not have been granted union funding in the first place, he was at least required, under a long-established FBU fairness and equality policy (known as ‘All Different, All Equal’), to make a formal application for that assistance. At that point, an investigation would have taken place to determine whether he had what is known as an ‘arguable defence’. If it was decided that he had no such defence, assistance would have been denied.

Wrack, as the general secretary, was required under the policy to ensure that the correct process was followed.

However, it was alleged that neither la Torre nor Wrack met their obligations under the policy, meaning that no investigation took place to determine whether la Torre was even entitled to the substantial funding he was receiving. Such a failure by la Torre and Wrack would represent a serious breach of union policy.

On that basis, the member who brought the legal claim against la Torre submitted an internal union complaint, and a preliminary inquiry was undertaken by the vice-president, Steve Wright.

Wright compiled what has been described by a well-placed source as a ‘very thorough and professional’ report. The report concluded that la Torre and Wrack had indeed broken union rules, and the pair were ordered to face a disciplinary hearing on 22 February.

However, after being presented with so-called ‘independent legal advice’ by Selby at a meeting nine days before the planned hearing, the EC decided to take the unprecedented step of terminating the disciplinary proceedings and cancelling the hearing.

What does the head office circular say about these matters?  

The head office circular states that the member only raised his internal union complaint after the legal proceedings had run their course. This is hardly relevant, but is easily answered anyway. The member only became aware of the EC’s decision to bankroll la Torre’s legal defence a couple of months ago when a copy of the minutes of the EC meeting in question were shared with him. (Copies of EC minutes are notoriously difficult to obtain since the issuing of an order by Matt Wrack that they must effectively be kept under lock and key at FBU regional offices.)

The circular then confirms that ‘a hearing before the EC was scheduled for 22 February’. The circular reports this fact as though the hearing just materialised out of thin air! It makes absolutely no mention of what prompted the hearing – namely that the vice-president of the union had carried out a thorough inquiry and had concluded that the member’s complaint was well-founded and that la Torre and Wrack had broken union rules. The author(s) of the head office circular omit to mention this fact. In fact, there is not a single reference to the vice-president’s report and conclusions in the entire circular! Presumably the author(s) of the circular recognised that to draw attention to these facts would be to undermine their overall argument.

The head office circular then confirms that the EC terminated the disciplinary proceedings and cancelled the hearing after receiving legal advice from two barristers. It states that the barristers concluded that the complaints were ‘without merit’ and that the union ‘should not progress or consider the complaints further’. The circular also states that the barristers advised the EC that pursuing the disciplinary case against la Torre and Wrack could ‘place the FBU at serious risk legally and reputationally’.

However, no evidence is provided in the circular to support this argument. In fact, taken to its logical conclusion, this argument could be used as a justification for blocking any disciplinary action against senior employees of the union in the future. This in turn would mean that senior employees are effectively exempt from rule book disciplinary procedures, thereby creating a two-tier system of discipline within the union – one for ordinary members and another for the union’s elite.

If la Torre and Wrack wished to rely on the legal advice in their defence against the allegations, they (or their representatives) should have adduced it as evidence at the planned disciplinary hearing. That was the proper place for those legal arguments to be considered. Instead, the normal disciplinary procedures were completely upended to ensure the pair did not have to face a hearing at all.

The circular then makes the argument that as neither Wrack nor la Torre played a part in the decision to grant the latter legal funding, it would have been ‘highly unusual’ or even ‘perverse’ to have sanctioned them. Leaving aside that, once again, the proper place to consider arguments of this kind was the planned disciplinary hearing, the logic of this particular argument would mean that the ‘All Different, All Equal’ policy was effectively dead in the water. After all, if the relevant committee (for example, a regional committee or the EC) has the power to decide that a member will get assistance regardless of whether he or she has made (or intends to make) an application in line with the policy, and regardless of whether an investigation has taken place to determine whether he or she has an ‘arguable defence’, then the entire process on which the policy is founded becomes redundant. That’s where the decision of the EC has potentially led us to – the effective abolition of the policy itself.

The head office circular then claims that the EC had the power under the rule book – specifically under rule C3(6) – to terminate the disciplinary proceedings and cancel the hearing. Frankly, this is nonsense. Rule C3(6) states:

‘The executive council shall, subject to these rules and to the decision of conference, have full power and authority to take such action as it deems necessary for the conduct of the union’s affairs…’

The words ‘subject to these rules and to the decision of conference’ are crucial here. What those words mean is that while the EC has the authority to take what action it sees fit in the interests of the union, any such action is constrained by existing rules and decisions of annual conference. In other words, the EC’s power under that rule is not absolute; it can only take action that does not conflict with other rules and with decisions of conference. (Indeed, any alternative to that position would mean that the EC could ignore existing rules and conference decisions at will – a highly undesirable scenario and one that the wording of the rule was plainly designed to prevent).

The ’All Different, All Equal’ policy – and all requirements and obligations under it – was agreed by annual conference. Everyone in the union is therefore bound by it. Furthermore, rule G3 of the union’s rule book makes clear that where the vice-president has conducted an inquiry and concluded that an official has broken the rules, a disciplinary hearing must take place. There are no exceptions to that rule.

It is quite clear, therefore, that the EC did not have the power under rule C3(6) to terminate the disciplinary proceedings and cancel the hearing. By taking this decision, the EC was plainly contravening an existing rule.  


We now come to arguably the most controversial part of the whole affair. The EC was led to believe that the legal advice urging them to collapse the disciplinary case had been provided ‘independently’ by two barristers. Those barristers were Nicholas Toms and John Hendy.

After learning of the EC’s decision to terminate the disciplinary proceedings, this blog published information showing that, far from being ‘independent’ in the matter, both barristers had longstanding links with Matt Wrack, and one of them – Toms – had been a political ally of Wrack for over 40 years, had campaigned alongside him in the same political groupings and committees and, most controversially, was a long-time friend of Wrack’s brother, Nick.  

Shockingly, these obvious conflicts of interest were withheld from EC members when they were considering the legal advice.

The head office circular does not deny our revelations about the links between Wrack, the barristers and his brother. Instead, the circular rallies to the defence of both barristers and tries to persuade members that they really were the most appropriate choices to give the EC legal advice because they were experts in employment law and had worked with the FBU previously.

But all of this misses the point. The credentials and experience of the two barristers are irrelevant. If a conflict of interest exists, then credentials and experience don’t even come into it. The barristers should not have been instructed to provide the advice, and both – but especially Toms – had a duty to declare a personal interest and to refuse to accept the instructions.

Let’s look at it in another way. Imagine a private company was pursuing disciplinary proceedings against an employee. In advance of the disciplinary hearing, the company wants to make sure it is on safe ground, and so it contacts lawyers who arrange for the company to be provided with legal advice from a barrister. The barrister considers the matter and advises the company in the strongest terms to immediately terminate the disciplinary proceedings against the employee. The company feels it has no choice but to follow that advice.

However, it later transpires that the barrister who provided the advice to the company had personal connections with the employee in question and had been a long-time friend of that employee’s brother.

In that scenario, the company would have every right to be furious that this conflict of interest had not been declared by the barrister. The barrister’s connections with the employee and an immediate member of his family would plainly undermine the credibility and impartiality of his advice. The barrister could not expect to get away with such conduct by trying to persuade the company that, outside of this conflict of interest, his credentials and experience really were impeccable!

That is exactly the scenario that has occurred in the FBU. It is an appalling and indefensible state of affairs.

Under their code of conduct, barristers are obliged to refuse to accept instructions if a conflict of interest exists (or potentially exists), or if their independence might be compromised. On that basis, Toms and Hendy should not have accepted the instructions. (This blog can confirm that a formal complaint about Toms and Hendy’s actions will be made to the Bar Standards Board, the body that regulates barristers across England and Wales.)

The head office circular attacks this blog for highlighting the personal and political links between the barristers and Wrack. The author(s) of the circular clearly wanted this information to be kept secret. They didn’t want the EC or ordinary members to know about those links. That tells us everything we need to know about their attitude towards accountability and transparency.

The circular also states that ‘there is no question’ that the barristers gave ‘their best professional and legal advice’. But there very plainly is a question about that, and any reasonable person can see it. The author(s) of the circular cannot possibly know what was going through the minds of the barristers when they were drafting their advice and whether they decided to put their personal and political connections with Wrack (and his brother) out of their minds.

In business, public services, politics, government and elsewhere, very strict rules exist around conflicts of interest between different parties. Such rules exist for a reason – to help guard against corruption. Those rules cannot be set aside just because one party says it is confident that another party wasn’t unduly influenced by a conflict of interest. Such a defence would fall at the first hurdle. Yet that is the defence being offered to us in the head office circular.   

Almost comically, the circular then criticises this blog for not attempting to answer the arguments set out by the barristers in their legal advice. The small fact that the advice has not yet been released beyond the EC might provide an explanation for that!


The head office circular claims that our blog operates anonymously. That is a straightforward lie. It takes about 10 seconds to browse our website and learn who is involved in the blog. Those involved have always been open about their participation.

The circular also claims – though without giving any detail – that our blog has published ‘misleading’ material. This is a lazy slur. We can support, with facts and evidence, everything we have published.

The circular accuses those involved with this blog of pursuing an ‘unhealthy’ interest in criticising senior FBU officials. This really gives the game away. The leadership of the union plainly thinks it is ‘unhealthy’ for ordinary members and activists to scrutinise the work of senior officials and hold them to account for their decisions and actions. They aren’t used to such scrutiny, and they don’t like it. Such an attitude again serves to demonstrate the leadership’s contempt for the principles of internal democracy, accountability and transparency.

We have consistently offered to take part in a head-to-head debate with the general secretary (or any senior official) to discuss our concerns – and those of many members – over how the union is being run. Despite previously claiming that he is always willing to debate with opponents and critics, the general secretary has repeatedly ducked our invitation. We extend the invitation again here. If the general secretary continues to refuse it, members will surely draw their own conclusions about his reasons for doing so.

It is clear from the head office circular that the union’s leadership is rattled. They know that our blog is throwing a light on things that they have desperately tried to keep hidden.

We make no apology for the blogs we have published, and we will continue to hold the leadership to account.

It’s what members deserve.

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