One cold morning in February 2009, investigators from the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK data watchdog, rapped loudly on the front door of a decrepit building secreted down an alley in Droitwich, Worcestershire. It was opened by a man named Ian Kerr – the ICO team informed him they were armed with a search warrant, and were coming in.
The premises was the headquarters of The Consulting Association. While one would never have guessed from its run-down facade or determinedly anodyne name, it served as the nucleus of a ruthless, monolithic conspiracy between big business and British security agencies to identify and monitor the activities of ‘subversives’ and ‘troublemakers’ — for instance, manual labourers who raised health and safety concerns on-site and/or engaged in political activism, and trade unionists — and ‘blacklist’ them from employment.
The files contained their National Insurance numbers, home addresses, vehicle registrations, and clippings from pamphlets, underground left-wing publications and newspaper articles mentioning them — in some cases, there was even information about an individual’s spouse. Also included were cautionary comments — “strike instigator”, “trouble-stirrer”, “Communist party member”, “wears anti-Nazi League badges”, “good worker but very militant”, “Irish ex-army, bad egg”, “talks like a young Alf Garnett”, and “do not touch!” were just a few of the more salacious observations.
His fears confirmed, he started publishing information about Kerr and The Consulting Association online, in the process naming hundreds of workers he believed had been blacklisted on his blog.
In June 2008, investigative journalist Phil Chamberlain wrote an article about the case for The Guardian — no other mainstream news outlet seemed interested in the story, but it was noticed by an ICO employee, who passed it to David Clancy’s desk. Recognising the grave data protection implications, he immediately set about tracking down the individuals named in the piece to get their side of the story in full.
Wainwright’s bombshell insight was sufficient for the ICO to secure a search warrant for Haden Young’s offices, which were raided in September that year, yielding a trove of compromising information about blacklisting, and the name and fax number of The Consulting Association.
Companies that’d utilised the Association got off even more lightly — none were prosecuted, and the ICO served just 14 of them with enforcement notices, in effect warnings to comply with data protection laws in future. Alan Ritchie, then-general secretary of construction union UCATT, alleged that “some of the worst offenders”, which had reaped hundreds of millions of pounds from government contracts, escaped the ICO’s flaccid rebuke — including one firm that submitted 13,000 requests to Kerr in 2008 alone.
Moreover, many of the names contained in the files raised major questions about the full extent, and true scope, of The Consulting Association’s activities — several individuals with detailed profiles had no professional history in or even connections to the construction industry whatsoever, such as Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan, and noted activist Helen Steel, one of the defendants in the notorious ‘McLibel’ trial.
That Kerr’s remit extended far beyond construction was all but confirmed in October 2012 when Clancy shockingly revealed to the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee his investigators only seized “between 5 and 10 percent” of the documentation stored in the Association’s offices.
“We didn’t search every item within the office because our warrant specifically said ‘the existence of a blacklist’. Once we found that, our search, in theory, should stop because we had found the evidence we were looking for…There were lots of other files within the office…filing cabinets full of stuff…What the other 90 or 95 percent was I can’t comment on…We just took the information relevant to our inquiry…We didn’t go through all the other information. We looked and said, ‘we are satisfied that that is the information, that is the blacklist that operates within the construction industry’,” he said.
The understandably incredulous and dumbfounded panel of parliamentarians duly interrogated the ICO’s Investigations Manager with some intensity. What information did he and his team see but not seize? Why didn’t they inspect more material? How did they know there weren’t more blacklists? How did they know the other files weren’t relevant if they didn’t inspect them?
To these extremely obvious queries Clancy had no real answer, but he did provide intriguing insight into what was taken — as a former police officer, he was confident some of the material had been provided to Kerr by law enforcement and/or security services. He based his judgement on both the language contained in certain reports, and the nature of the information held on particular blacklistees — for instance, one file was replete with “in-depth analysis of an individual’s home circumstances and what his neighbours thought about him”, which Clancy concluded was drawn from an official “intelligence record”.
What the remaining 90 — 95 percent of the files contained will literally never be known, for as Kerr told the same Committee the next month, not long after the ICO raid he “burned the whole damned lot, everything”, so thoroughly there was “no chance of any of it remaining” — although he acknowledged having maintained files on around 200 environmental activists.
Again, the precise nature of Kerr’s relationship with the security state will forever remain a mystery, as two weeks after his Committee appearance he died from reported heart failure — although before his passing he told The Times he attended a meeting between construction firm directors and a National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit officer in 2008, at which workers of interest to Special Branch were discussed.
Moreover, in March 2018 the Metropolitan Police confirmed its officers had extensively surveilled and infiltrated trade unions — to the extent Special Branch maintained a dedicated ‘Industrial Intelligence Section’ — and provided information which ended up in Kerr’s files.
In July that year, the 2016 Creedon Report into Operation Reuben, an internal police investigation into blacklisting, was released to lawyers representing the Blacklist Support Group, whose members are ‘core participants’ in the ongoing Undercover Policing Inquiry — to mark the 10th anniversary of the Droitwich raid, the Group provided me with a copy. While heavy on redaction and self-exculpation, the document offers many tantalising indications of clandestine collaboration between the British state and big business, and the role undercover operatives played in ruining the lives of so many innocent people.
The SDS was the Special Demonstration Squad, a now-notorious and defunct Special Branch division set up in 1968 specifically to penetrate protest groups in the UK. Its operatives — often using identities stolen from dead children — would embed themselves in political movements for years at a time, frequently deceiving women into sexual relationships along the way. At least one SDS officer — Bob Lambert, who later headed the unit — fathered a child with an activist.
A dedicated section of the Report deals with allegations SDS officer Mark Jenner, who as ‘Mark Cassidy’ infiltrated left-wing groups — and construction union UCATT — in North London 1995 — 2000 provided information to The Consulting Association.
“A review of the reporting linked to DC Jenner shows during his tenure, he reported on over 300 individuals…by cross-referencing the names with the blacklist, [we] found 16 individuals from the blacklist are mentioned Jenner, some of which entailed detailed reporting,” it states.
However, in just one of many examples of contradictory doublespeak littered throughout the document, the author goes on to suggest there’s no evidence “any of the intelligence provided by Jenner appeared on the blacklist” or “SDS information was passed to blacklisting organisations directly” — while conceding “it is of course possible some information gathered by the SDS was passed to industry contacts on a personal basis by Special Branch officers from other departments”.
“For example, [redacted] claims to have had a reciprocal relationship with Special Branches around the country until [redacted]. However, there is no method for identifying whether this happened,” the report continues.
Royston Bentham of the Blacklist Support Group thinks such equivocation laughable.
“It must’ve came from the top. You don’t have this level of collusion without those calling the shots knowing,” he tells me.
Whatever the truth of the matter, even if information on just 16 individuals spied on by Jenner ended up in blacklisting files by some means or other, he was one of several SDS officers who collected intelligence on trade unionists, directly or indirectly. Another was Peter Francis, who as ‘Pete Black’ infiltrated a variety of groups 1993 — 1997, including the Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign.
He turned whistleblower in 2010, and has confirmed he opened a file on bricklayer Frank Smith, who was involved in both union campaigns for better wages and conditions and anti-fascist activism. Smith was eventually blacklisted, his Association file noting his presence at various protests, and that he was “under constant watch (officially) and seen as politically dangerous”. Francis believes he was responsible for this — after all, how else would a construction manager know Smith attended an anti-BNP rally?
Speaking at an event in Parliament 7 March this year, Francis expressed remorse for his actions, and indicated Smith was one of potentially many workers whose careers he effectively ended.
“I did wrong. I will personally will meet anyone I blacklisted or spied on. Many years later I have problems justifying what I did. I must’ve spied on more than 300 people. I know lives were damaged,” he said.
Troublingly, the Creedon Report makes clear police continue to share information on workers with big business today, via the ‘Industrial Liaison Section’ of the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU). The Unit’s official purview is to “directly combat domestic extremism in society”, including “acts of terrorism motivated by extremism” — indicating the British state categorises spying on trade unionists as ‘counter-terrorism’.
How this information is used by its corporate recipients is unclear, but what’s certain is blacklisting very much remains in operation today. For instance, in 2017 Unite — the UK’s second-largest trade union — exposed compelling evidence of the practice being employed in the state-funded Crossrail project, with emails from the previous year detailing surveillance of workers on the initiative taking part in peaceful protests being circulated between the project’s contractors and employee relations department.
A number of protesters were closely monitored, and much sensitive personal data was collected in the process — several found themselves summarily dismissed from Crossrail not long afterwards. A worker who launched a resultant grievance complaint has had hundreds of job applications turned down since.
In December that year, the trade union giant launched new legal action against a host of firms, including Skanska UK, Laing Limited, John Laing Construction, Kier, Balfour Beatty, Crown House and Carillion will be in the dock.
The trial commences at the High Court 4 June, and Unite boasted in February this year it was “closing in” on Cullum McAlpine, a director of Sir Robert McAlpine and one of the “key architects” of The Consulting Association. By Kerr’s own admission, the company paid his £5,000 fine as a reward for him taking “the flak for it all…so they wouldn’t be drawn into all of this [and] remain hidden”.
However, Royston of the Blacklist Support Group — himself blacklisted by Laing O’Rourke in 2015 — tells me there are unanswered questions about the trade union giant’s own potential role in the blacklisting of workers.
“We need a full standalone public inquiry into all strands of the scandal, including the ‘spycops’ operations, along with how far up this went politically — and legislation to ensure this can never happen again. Only a Labour government will do that, and hopefully bring criminal proceedings against the perpetrators of these heinous abuses of our human rights. Compensation can never equate to justice, only prison sentences for those guilty can. Being in pen three at Hillsborough 30 years ago taught me that,” he says.
For his part, Alan Wainwright says he’s absolutely certain Unite is guilty of both complicity in the practice, and attempting to cover up the scandal. He provided the union — then-named Amicus — with extensive dossiers of evidence relating to blacklisting in January 2006, but despite writing to then-General Secretary Derek Simpson on three occasions subsequently, the information was never acted upon. He claims the documentation was “buried” in order to protect the millions of pounds Amicus received from construction companies at the time.
“Were it not for my persistence, The Consulting Association would most certainly still exist today. I’ve also publicised evidence of blacklisting involving veteran labour manager David Craggs, documenting how he was creating and sharing blacklists as late as 2013 — some workers have told me he’d threaten people with blacklisting to their faces — to no avail. A Unite regional official even threatened me with legal action for writing blog posts about him — you couldn’t make it up,” he tells me.
He nonetheless remains a Unite member, and has repeatedly raised his various concerns with General Secretary Len McCluskey and Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, but he says both have a strong vested interest in ignoring him.
“McDonnell doesn’t want to rock the boat as Unite are the Labour party’s main funding stream, and McCluskey doesn’t want to get to the bottom of the union’s complicity and cover up as it implicates senior officials. The supposed good guys are not really the good guys, and anyone caught in the crossfire just gets trodden all over,” he concludes.
Whether Cullum McAlpine will eventually have his day in court is uncertain. In the meantime, his firm — a major donor to the Conservative party — continues its renovation of London’s Big Ben, a project that could take until 2021 to complete and will cost the British public at least £61 million. All the while, the internationally renowned landmark will remain enmeshed in unsightly scaffolding, only chiming on New Year’s Eve.