Why are FBU leaders attempting to prevent members from inspecting the union’s accounts?

Photo by Colin Watts on Unsplash

The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 is a major piece of legislation regulating labour law and the activities of trade unions in Britain.

Section 30 of the Act enshrines the right of all trade union members to inspect the accounting records of their union. This section of the Act was designed to ensure that senior officials of trade unions remain answerable for how they spend members’ money.

The Act requires a trade union to grant access to the accounts within 28 days of receiving a request from a member. The Act also permits a union to charge for ‘reasonable administrative expenses incurred’ when facilitating a request.

On 9 April 2021, a member of the Campaign for a Democratic FBU steering committee submitted a request to inspect the Fire Brigades Union’s accounts. Our group has become increasingly concerned at the lack of transparency and accountability in the area of internal FBU finance. (For example, last year, we highlighted how, in 2019, FBU leaders donated a massive £220,000 of members’ money to the Labour party’s general election war chest – without consulting a single member or local committee.)  

The request to inspect the accounts was sent directly to the general secretary, Matt Wrack, who passed it on to a national officer. In correspondence with the national officer, the member identified in very clear terms the specific records he wished to inspect.

By law, the member should have been permitted to inspect the records by 7 May 2021.

The national officer initially insisted that the member had no right to inspect several of the records identified in his request and tried to fob him off by referring him to a copy of the executive council’s annual report on the union’s website (which provided none of the information requested by the member).  

The member wrote a detailed reply, setting out why the union was wrong and drawing on previous legal judgements which supported his right to inspect the specific records identified in his request. He also offered to amend parts of his request to help move matters along.

For almost a month, the member heard nothing more. During this time, the legal deadline of 28 days for granting the member access to the records had passed. Eventually, the union responded. In that response, the national officer was forced to concede that the member was, after all, entitled to inspect the records identified in his request. However, the national officer went on to inform the member that he would be granted access to the records, but only if he agreed to make a payment of – wait for it – £2,397.00!

The union claimed that this figure represented the ‘reasonable administrative expenses’ that it was entitled to charge under the Act. It was an astonishingly high fee to demand and was obviously designed to discourage the member from following through with his request. The figure amounted to more than the monthly take home pay for the average firefighter. It was plain that, in charging such an exorbitant fee, the union leadership was abusing both the letter and spirit of the Act.

The member replied again and cited, in his support, a further legal judgement which established that no union could demand payment of a fee for inspecting the accounts before it had complied with the request. The member also challenged the size of the fee being demanded. He explained that public bodies usually charge £25.00 per hour of officer time spent on retrieving information requested under the Freedom of Information Act and, while the union was not a public body, there was no reason why a similar calculation should not be applied in this case. For example, in the legal judgement he had cited, the union involved – Ucatt – had charged a fee of £315.00 for two officers to spend a day and a half collating a colossal 16,000 pages of information – a far larger bundle than anything the FBU was being asked to provide.

In its next response, the union – realising again that it didn’t have a leg to stand on – agreed to revise the figure down to £315.00 (the same figure charged by Ucatt in the cited judgement). This was a bit more reasonable, but still too high. However, in this response, the union still gave no indication of when the member might be permitted to inspect the accounts. The national officer who wrote the letter simply said that it was a ‘busy time for the finance office’, and he would propose some dates once the collation of the records had been completed. Considering that the legal deadline for granting the member access to the records had expired several weeks ago, this simply wasn’t good enough.

So the member wrote back and insisted that he be granted access to the records within the next three weeks. In the circumstances, this was a reasonable deadline to set. However, in a response dated 25 June 2021, the union again gave no indication of when the member might be permitted to inspect the records. Instead, the letter informed the member that the union had now referred the matter to the government’s trade union certification officer ‘for clarification on a number of points’.

This was a very obvious stalling tactic designed to kick the request into the long grass. The union gave no indication of what ‘clarification’ it required from the certification officer. In any case, the member’s request had always been clear and unambiguous.

At the time of writing (26 June 2021), we are 78 days from the date of the request – 50 days beyond the legal deadline for permitting the member to inspect the records. The FBU leadership is in clear breach of its legal obligations and seems to be doing everything it can to stymie the member’s request.

Having seen every one of its objections to the request dismantled, FBU leaders are now resorting to blatant delaying tactics. Why are they playing these silly games? What are they trying to hide? Why are they going to such extraordinary lengths to obstruct a member who is simply trying to exercise his legal right to inspect the accounts of the union?

Sadly, this is entirely consistent with the conduct of the FBU leadership in general. It is a leadership which treats the union as its own private property. It is a leadership which has forgotten the meaning of democracy, accountability and transparency. It is a leadership that thinks it is above scrutiny. It is a leadership which prefers to purge opponents rather than debate with them. It is a leadership which has grown increasingly arrogant and authoritarian with its lengthy occupancy of office. It is a leadership which has become a law unto itself.

Campaign for a Democratic FBU will continue to shine a light on the sharp practice and chicanery of this leadership. The union’s members deserve better.