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Damning ICO misses the point on blacklisting

Blacklisting has hit the headlines once more, but the information watchdog’s limited investigation may leave the bigger questions unanswered.

The blacklisting scandal has reared its ugly head once more. As the information watchdog defends its handling of an investigation carried out three years agoquestions remain over the true extent of the illegal denial of work that has affected potentially thousands in the industry.

When the Information Commissioner’s Office raided the Consulting Association in 2009 it discovered a blacklist containing data on 3,213 people, but it has now revealed that this was only a tiny proportion of the information it could have removed. Up to 95 per cent of CA’s files were left untouched, leading to speculation that 60,000 workers could have been blacklisted. The ICO rejects this number, but the weight of the unknown now hangs heavy on its shoulders.

For workers who are keen to establish whether they have been denied work, the process of accessing the known blacklisting information has been painfully slow. Until recently the watchdog was only willing to release information on a blacklisted worker if they requested it, and has now admitted that the poor quality of some of the data means that establishing true identity could be a tricky business.

In a sign of progress the GMB and UCATT unions are working with the watchdog to establish whether its members were blacklisted. Though as Labour’s shadow business minister said in his letter to the information commissioner, there is a risk that unaffiliated workers may not benefit from this approach and will simply be left high and dry.

But there may be a wider issue here. While workers and contractors fret over the contents of the CA’s list, it seems the ICO is pursuing only a limited line of inquiry.

The watchdog told Construction News that its main interest in investigating CA was not blacklisting as such: only whether personal data was being held without proper permission.

This was why its warrant was limited, and why it stopped short of rifling through all of CA’s documents to gain full information on workers who may have been blacklisted.

It is worth remembering how CA got hold of its data, but most importantly how easy it can be to ruin a worker’s reputation – builders were denied work because of their union involvement, or simply because of the people they mixed with.

The ICO’s work with the GMB and UCATT to contact workers proactively is unprecedented in its history. But this is not the investigation the industry needs to clear up blacklisting once and for all.

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