Why were FBU members charged the cost of deluxe fitness equipment purchased for the personal use of a senior official?

iStock.com / Osarieme Eweka
  • FBU general secretary ordered purchase of exercise bike costing over £2,000 from union funds
  • Bike bought solely for personal benefit of senior colleague
  • Was investigation into complaint compromised by interference from assistant general secretary?

WHEN IT COMES to internal finances, a good rule of thumb for trade union officials is that they should treat members’ money as if it were their own. FBU members pay a level of contributions that is higher than in most unions, and they are entitled to expect senior officials to manage their money with care.

Campaign for a Democratic FBU has raised serious concerns over recent months about a lack of transparency and accountability in the area of internal FBU finance. We exposed how, over many years, senior officials working at the union’s head office secretly paid out huge sums in the form of “hush money” to a string of departing employees, some of whom had made allegations of mistreatment. Staggeringly, much of this information was withheld from the union’s own ruling executive council. In August, the scandal even reached the pages of Private Eye magazine.

We also revealed how, in 2019, the leadership donated a colossal £200,000 from the union’s political fund to the Labour party’s general election war chest without consulting a single member or local committee, and later gave £25,000 to the hard-Left candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey’s bid for the party leadership, again without consulting members or local committees.

We have reported how, on two occasions, the leadership spent many thousands of pounds on nationwide roadshows to be fronted by the general secretary at precisely the moment his re-election campaign began – even though FBU rules expressly prohibit the use of union resources for the purposes of promoting candidates in internal elections.

We have highlighted the mystery surrounding the workings of the union’s finance and administration committee (‘Fac’) – a key body comprised of a handful of senior officials which makes crucial decisions about spending and operations. This committee operates in virtual secrecy. It has, in effect, become a shadow executive council, making decisions under the radar and in a way that prevents members from exercising proper scrutiny. Minutes of its meetings are not circulated beyond the executive council, meaning there is a fundamental lack of transparency and accountability. 

We have reported how the FBU leadership tried to prevent us exercising our legal right as members to inspect the union’s accounts.

We also exposed the fact that a key employee based at the union’s head office, whose wages were paid by members, was ‘loaned out’ for several months to an external political organisation which just happened to count the general secretary as a member of its governing body. When we asked the general secretary if the executive council had approved this decision and who paid the employee’s wages during the period of the loan, he refused to answer.

A few months ago, another disturbing story reached us via a whistleblower. After being given the basis of the story by the whistleblower, we checked the facts thoroughly with other individuals who had knowledge of events. The story goes like this.

Some time ago, an employee of the union was approached by the general secretary, Matt Wrack. The general secretary instructed this employee to purchase an exercise bike, and to use an FBU credit card when making the purchase. The employee was told that he shouldn’t purchase just any old model of exercise bike; it had to be a “good” one.    

When the employee enquired as to the reason for the purchase, he was told that it was for the purposes of allowing another senior official of the union to maintain his personal fitness. The official in question had been released from duties by his fire service employer in order to work on a full-time basis for the union.

The employee duly made the trip to the Kingston-Upon-Thames branch of John Lewis and, using an FBU credit card as instructed, purchased a high-end exercise bike costing in excess of £2,000. In the words of the whistleblower, “This wasn’t an ordinary exercise bike; this was the Rolls-Royce of exercise bikes.”

The bike was then assembled in the senior official’s office at the union’s headquarters, where it remained for a lengthy period, before later being transferred to the official’s union-owned private flat.

Rule G1(1)(ii) of the FBU rule book states that a member of the union commits an offence if he or she “wrongly or fraudulently receives or misapplies funds of the union”. There could surely be no doubt that in ordering the purchase of deluxe fitness equipment solely so that a colleague could maintain his personal fitness, the general secretary was misapplying the funds of the union. This seemed a blatant and undeniable misuse of members’ money.

On the basis of the information obtained, a member of our steering committee submitted a formal complaint to the union. Under the rule book, any complaint about a full-time official of the union must be investigated by the vice-president. The current vice-president is Ben Selby, who also serves as the executive council member for the east Midlands region (and is regarded as one of the general secretary’s closest allies).

The letter of complaint gave a detailed version of events and disclosed the identity of the employee who had made the purchase on the instruction of the general secretary.

Last week – four months after the complaint was submitted – the vice-president revealed his findings. In a letter to the complainant, the vice-president stated that he accepted the exercise bike had been purchased using union funds. He also accepted that it had been purchased for the personal benefit of a senior official. However, quite astonishingly, the vice-president concluded that no offence had been committed. This, he said, was because the union owed a “duty of care” to the senior official, which included helping him to “safeguard his health” while he was away from frontline firefighting duties and working for the union in London.

Members will doubtless be stunned at this explanation. Why on earth should FBU members be expected to pay through the nose for equipment designed to allow a senior official to service his personal health and fitness requirements? What does it matter that the official in question had been released from his firefighting duties by his employer and was working for the union in London? Many FBU officials up and down the country are released by their employers to work full-time for the union; but none have been provided with expensive equipment to help them maintain their fitness, and most wouldn’t dream of asking for it.

In any case, fitness equipment and facilities are arguably more ubiquitous in London than in any other town or city. If the senior official in question wished to “safeguard his health”, it would have been quite easy for him to do so, and without requiring the union’s members to stump up over £2,000.

The vice-president’s conclusions also compel us to ask the question that if this extravagant purchase was considered legitimate, then what wouldn’t be legitimate? Once such a precedent is established, there becomes no limit to what senior officials may spend to “safeguard” their health and maintain their fitness (consultations with Harley Street healthcare professionals? Gym membership at the Harbour Club in Chelsea?). 

In truth, there was no legitimate business case for the purchase at all, and no special reason why the general secretary should have ordered it. Neither was there any tangible benefit in the purchase for FBU members. In ordering the purchase, the general secretary was plainly misapplying the funds of the union.

In the letter detailing his findings, the vice-president claimed that the bike was a union “asset” which was available for use not just by the senior official in question but by all members of staff at head office. However, testimony from FBU employees past and present would suggest this to be completely untrue. Many members of staff did not even know the bike existed, let alone that it was available for their use. The bike was never stored in a communal area; it was only ever located in the personal office of the senior official or at his union-owned private flat.  

When we challenged the vice-president on the perverse findings set out in his letter to the complainant, he stated that he now considered the matter closed. But, in a further twist, an examination of the “document properties” associated with the electronic version of his letter revealed that the author wasn’t the vice-president at all; it was the assistant general secretary, Andy Dark. This raises all sorts of questions over procedure and propriety. The role of vice-president is a vital one, particularly in the area of internal union discipline. Those holding the role must remain scrupulously impartial, and members submitting complaints against senior officials are entitled to expect those complaints to be investigated by the vice-president without fear or favour, and without interference from other officials. If, as it appears, the vice-president colluded with the assistant general secretary – the accused person’s own deputy – and allowed him to draft the investigation findings, all the while passing them off as his own, it would be a serious violation of the investigation process.

When we put this point to him, the vice-president claimed that the assistant general secretary’s name was listed as the author only because he had “created the letterhead” some months ago. However, given that previous letters sent by the vice-president using exactly the same letterhead had listed his own name as the author, this seems highly improbable.

When the vice-president took up the role earlier this year, some in the union were hoping for a reset. His predecessor had received criticism – including from members of the executive council – for being too close to senior leadership figures and too willing to do their bidding. Unfortunately, the new vice-president appears to be following in that vein.

When this leadership came to power, we were promised an end to the practices of the previous regime, which included embarrassing media stories about £800 curries at upmarket restaurants. Ironically, when he was a rank-and-file activist, the current general secretary spent much energy on challenging financial impropriety by senior officials of the union, including helping to compile a dossier exposing serious wrongdoing. He has also repeatedly called for more accountability and transparency in other organisations, such as the Labour party. It is quite obvious that, as the years have passed, this leadership has fallen well short of its promises and does not hold itself to the same unimpeachable standards it demands of others.

In recent years, the FBU has been under considerable financial pressure, with all regions and sections forced to make savings in order to ensure the union remains viable. When it comes to questions of spending, members and local officials up and down the country will understandably be concerned at the lack of accountability and transparency at the highest levels of the union, and the obvious lack of financial rectitude being shown by the leadership.

This latest episode demonstrates, once again, that we have a leadership that treats our union as its own personal property, a leadership that considers itself above the normal rules of scrutiny, a leadership that shows contempt for internal democracy, accountability and transparency, a leadership that spends large sums of members’ hard-earned money with total abandon.

The fight to change things goes on.