The events taking place at the top of the Fire Brigades Union are shocking. Is it time to start using the ‘c’ word?

THE ‘C’ WORD. Corruption. A serious charge, and not one that should ever be made lightly. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to discuss the events that have occurred at the top of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) without the word seeping into the conversation.

Anyone who doubts this should look at the facts – as recently revealed by this blog – surrounding the departure from the union of John McGhee. Below, we outline the scenario as it unfolded in that affair. FBU members may wish to consider the optics of what follows and judge for themselves whether the ‘c’ word is justified.

Let us paint the picture…

An individual is employed as a national officer of the FBU. He is one of a small group of the union’s most senior officials working out of its head office in London. This cluster of officials runs the FBU day-to-day and is answerable under the union’s rule book to the governing executive council.

The national officer has worked for the union for many years and receives a generous salary (equivalent to that of a group manager in the fire and rescue service). Eventually, he decides that he would like to take early retirement and draw his pension.

Confidential discussions commence between the national officer and two or three of his head office colleagues, including the general secretary. These are the same senior colleagues he works alongside every day.

The executive council is told in broad terms by the general secretary that the national officer is seeking to retire early and that discussions with him are under way. No specific details are given, though an assurance is provided that any agreement would not result in an overall financial detriment to the union.

An agreement is eventually reached between the national officer and his head office colleagues. That agreement allows for the national officer to take early retirement and draw his pension. However, curiously, the agreement also provides for the national officer to receive a termination payment. That payment reportedly amounts to several thousand pounds and is standalone. It cannot be linked to the national officer’s normal pension entitlement or any other provision in his employment contract. In normal circumstances, the union would be under no obligation whatsoever to make such a substantial and irregular payment to a retiring national officer.

When wrapping up the agreement, the small group of officials involved in the discussions decide that they want to keep the whole thing private. So they insert a “confidentiality clause” into the agreement. This clause prohibits all signatories to the agreement – including the national officer himself – from disclosing any details to third parties.

When he goes back in front of the executive council – which, let us not forget, is the union’s ruling body – the general secretary mentions that an agreement has been reached with the national officer on his request to retire. However, doubtless mindful of the “confidentiality clause”, he provides no details of that agreement to the executive council, and he does not disclose that a substantial termination payment was made to the national officer.

Executive council members are left believing that this was a routine early retirement with no overall financial detriment to the union.

The national officer duly rides off into the sunset, and no-one is any the wiser…

So there we have it. A tiny group of the union’s most senior officials decide between themselves to strike a secret backroom deal that sees one among their number – one who just happens to be on the point of retiring – awarded a substantial (and unorthodox) payment from union funds, and no-one else in the organisation knows a thing about it. What’s more, the “confidentiality clause” inserted into the agreement is designed to ensure that no-one else could ever know about it. Members are kept in the dark. Officials are kept in the dark. Even the executive council is kept in the dark (which seems to be an express breach of rule C3(6) of the union’s rule book, under which “the executive council shall have full power and authority to determine the salaries of all the full-time employees of the union and to administer arrangements for pension, retirement and kindred benefits for these employees”). Nobody aside from the handful of signatories to the agreement is ever permitted to know the details of this significant transaction. Head office officials have seen to it that the transaction has, to all intents and purposes, been rendered untraceable.

But the story – and controversy – do not end there. It would appear to have escaped the attention of the signatories to the McGhee agreement that a piece of legislation exists which allows members of trade unions to inspect the accounting records of their union. This right is enshrined in section 30 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 – a piece of law designed to promote transparency inside trade unions and ensure that senior officials remain accountable to members for the manner in which they spend union funds. The existence of this legislation means that the “confidentiality clause” inserted into the McGhee agreement is, as far as the financial details of that agreement are concerned, effectively meaningless.

So, having come by information suggesting that McGhee departed the FBU with a secret pay-off, a member of the union (who, we should say, is also a member of the Campaign for a Democratic FBU steering committee) contacted head office and made a request to inspect the accounting records containing details of any payment made to McGhee as part of a severance agreement.

There seemed no way out of this for the union’s head office. The law was clear: all members have an express statutory right to inspect any accounting record of the union. No ifs, no buts.

But the union’s head office had other ideas. In responding to the member’s request, a senior official admitted that McGhee had received a payment when departing the union. However, that payment, said the official, was made as part of a “settlement agreement” that – you’ve guessed it – contained a “confidentiality clause”. On that basis, the union had, upon receiving the member’s request, written to McGhee and asked him whether he would consent to “the figure” being disclosed to the member. McGhee refused. Therefore, said the official, the member’s request would be denied. “We are not willing to provide this information to you,” the official stated to the member. “We fully respect Mr McGhee’s right to privacy as set out in Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights.”

Not only was such an approach an affront to the principles of democratic accountability and transparency (remember, we are talking about members’ money here), but it was also, in a legal sense, complete drivel. The union’s head office seemed to be arguing that McGhee possessed some sort of veto over whether members could exercise their statutory rights! As though a “confidentiality clause” agreed privately between a handful of the union’s senior officials took precedence over the law of the land!

Such an argument was, of course, a total nonsense. As was the suggestion that the union was somehow prohibited from disclosing the information by the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). This convention was never intended to prevent members of trade unions from knowing how their money was spent. Indeed, previous judgments by the trade union regulator and employment tribunals (see, for example, Mortimer v Amicus and Mills v Unite) have made it clear that neither “confidentiality clauses” in contracts nor the ECHR provides trade unions with a ‘get-out’ from their legal obligation to grant their members access to the accounting records. Of course, any other scenario would mean that the entire purpose of the legislation allowing members to inspect the records would be completely subverted.

The member who submitted the request has now lodged a formal complaint with the trade union regulator. It is almost certain that that complaint will be upheld (resulting in more negative publicity for the union as well as a financial cost to members).    

So that’s the long and short of what happened in the McGhee affair. How, we might ask, is it possible to look upon these events as anything other than deeply crooked and unethical? How arrogant must these senior officials be to think they can get away with authorising substantial payments to each other while simultaneously conspiring to ensure their actions can never be subjected to the slightest degree of scrutiny or accountability? Where are the checks and balances? Where is the oversight? What would be to stop these officials authorising evermore substantial payments to each other in the future?

In their scheming and underhandedness, the FBU’s most senior officials have attempted to prevent any member, official or committee of the union from using any democratic mechanism – or even the law – to obtain details of a substantial gratuity paid to a retiring colleague. Every route to investigating that transaction is met with the message: “Sorry, it’s all confidential. We cannot tell you.” The whole situation is Kafka-esque!

The truth is that the leaders of the FBU believe themselves to be beyond the normal rules of scrutiny and oversight. They treat the union as if it were their own personal property, and they think they can escape accountability for how they spend members’ money.

We must not let them get away with it.

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