Trade union watchdog finds that FBU leadership breached union rules when blocking application for membership from firefighter who had made accusations against officials

THE FIRE BRIGADES UNION (FBU) leadership is facing fresh embarrassment after the official trade union regulator – known as the ‘certification officer’ – found that the union’s executive council breached internal rules when it blocked an application for membership from a firefighter who had made accusations against officials.

The ruling – which levelled personal criticism at general secretary Matt Wrack – will come as a further blow to a leadership already mired in a number of scandals.

The certification officer, Sarah Bedwell, handed down her judgment this morning (22 April 2024) after hearing a complaint that had been brought by the union’s regional secretary for London, Jon Lambe.

Lambe alleged that the executive council had exceeded its authority when it overruled a decision by the London regional committee to approve an application from a firefighter seeking to rejoin the union. The hearing heard that the firefighter had resigned his membership in 2018 and had subsequently levelled a number of serious accusations – including of racism and corruption – against several officials within the union.

Lambe argued that under rule B2(1)(iv) of the union’s rule book, the regional committee’s decision on the rejoin application should have been final, and the executive council had no power to intervene in the matter.

For its part, the union leadership argued that the firefighter’s application was invalid, as the correct process had not been followed at local level. It also argued that the executive council was in any case entitled to block the application under rule C3(6) of the rule book, which gave it the power to take any action it deemed necessary for the conduct of the union’s affairs. The executive council had wanted the application to be stayed until such time that certain inquiries had been concluded (though the nature of these ‘inquiries’ appeared to change over time).

In the end, the certification officer sided with Lambe and flatly dismissed the leadership’s arguments. She found that any concerns over the processing of the application had been raised belatedly by the leadership and had not prevented it from treating the firefighter’s application as valid when the decision to overrule the regional committee had been taken. She also found that, so far as the executive council had any power to act under rule C3(6), such power was subject to existing rules – in other words, any actions taken by the executive council under that rule must not conflict with other established rules of the union – and that, in overruling the regional committee, the executive council had indeed breached existing rules.

The ruling is bound to leave the FBU leadership facing serious questions as to its judgement in the matter. Instead of recognising what appeared to be obvious – that it had breached the rules – the leadership dug in and tried to defend its actions, even enlisting the services of one of the country’s leading barristers, Oliver Segal KC (no doubt at the cost of thousands of pounds).

Notably, the certification officer aimed personal criticism at general secretary Matt Wrack for his decision not to give evidence to the hearing, despite having played a key role in the events that led to the firefighter’s application being blocked. Instead, Wrack sent along a national officer – Mark Rowe – who had had no previous involvement in the affair. The certification officer expressed her frustration at this decision, as it limited the scope of evidence available to her.

Wrack’s actions will add to the growing impression of him as a kind of ‘Macavity’ figure – the troublesome cat who had a habit of disappearing from the scene of his misdeeds and leaving others to take the rap.

The certification officer’s ruling that rule C3(6) does not provide the executive council with unfettered power – and that such power as it has must always be exercised in a way that does not conflict with existing rules – is likely to have major implications for the leadership’s defence to a complaint recently submitted to her that the executive council breached the rule book when it terminated disciplinary proceedings into allegations that Wrack and national officer Riccardo la Torre had broken union rules. When making that decision, the executive council had relied on advice from barristers Nick Toms and John Hendy KC that it had the same power to act under C3(6) that the leadership claimed it had in relation to the rejoin application. That argument has now been destroyed, and it is therefore difficult to see how the complaint over the termination of the disciplinary proceedings will not succeed.

In her ruling on the Lambe complaint, the certification officer ordered the leadership to conduct discussions over a proper process for future rejoin applications and to issue guidance to local officials. Though she also had the power to order the union to pay a financial penalty for the leadership’s breach of rules, she declined to do so on this occasion (not least because Lambe had stated at the hearing that he did not wish to see the union penalised). However, the certification officer made it clear that she may not be so forgiving next time. ‘I may take a different approach to a financial penalty should such a breach occur again,’ she wrote – perhaps in a subtle attempt to persuade the union not to waste everyone’s time by resisting the complaint into the termination of the disciplinary proceedings against Wrack and la Torre.

For FBU members, the question remains: how much longer can we put up with a leadership that shows constant disregard for the union’s rules, policies and democratic processes? That is a question that will need to be confronted sooner rather than later. 

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