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Unions call for tougher blacklist action

ICO serves enforcement notices on only 14 of the blacklist subscribers and draws a line under its investigation

Unions have called for action against the unpunished blacklist users after the Information Commissioner’s Office served enforcement notices on only 14 of the subscribers.

The ICO declared its investigation over after the 14 were this week banned from using data obtained from the blacklisting database run by The Consulting Association

The regulator said it could not take action against other contractors found to have received invoices from The Consulting Association as it did not find enough evidence against them.

Alan Ritchie, general secretary of construction union Ucatt, said: “While I recognise the move to issue enforcement notices on the construction companies listed, I believe straightforward prosecutions would have been a more appropriate response.

He added: “It appears some of the worst offenders have been omitted from the ICO action, including a company that made nearly 13,000 individual checks on workers in 2008 alone. We need to remember that a number of these companies had secured hundreds of millions of pounds from publicly-procured contracts while at the same time operating a blacklist on those same sites.

“There must now be an additional process to bring other guilty companies to account for the misery they inflicted on thousands of construction workers and their families”.

Six of the 14 companies hit by the notices, following breaches of the Data Protection Act, were divisions of the UK’s biggest construction firm, Balfour Beatty.

Balfour Beatty’s Civil Engineering, Construction Northern, Construction Scottish & Southern, Engineering Services (HY), Engineering Services and Infrastructure Services divisions were all hit.

Both the Engineering Services and Rail divisions of Emcor also received notices, as well as CB&I UK, Kier, NG Bailey, Shepherd Engineering Services, SIAS Building Services and Whessoe Oil & Gas.

However, a list of The Consulting Association’s invoices for last year shows that several firms received higher bills from the blacklisting company than those served with notices. Where Balfour Beatty Scottish and Southern was invoiced for £75 in 2008, Skanska was billed for £28,122 and Sir Robert McAlpine £26,840.

Deputy information commissioner David Smith said: “Fourteen firms paid for personal details about construction workers without those people knowing. The individuals were denied the opportunity of explaining or correcting what may have been inaccurate personal information about them, and which could have jeopardised their employment prospects in the construction industry.”

A spokeswoman for the ICO said that as things stood, the watchdog’s investigation was over. She said that any of the 14 firms ignoring the terms of their notice could be prosecuted.

Kier declined to comment on the action, while Balfour Beatty reissued a statement it made in April.

It read: “Balfour Beatty does not condone the use of ‘blacklists’ in any circumstances and has taken steps to ensure that none of our companies use such services.

“We are of course co-operating fully with the Information Commissioner in his investigation, and in addressing any concerns that he may have.”

NG Bailey confirmed in a statement that it had received the notice, and said it was committed to complying with all legislation and strengthening its Data Protection compliance.

Shepherd Engineering HR director Lisa Stevenson said: “As we have confirmed previously, and in full co-operation with the ICO inquiry, following minimal historical use, SES ceased use of any of the Consulting Association’s services in January 2007.”

Emcor Group (UK) chief executive Keith Chanter said: “Emcor Group UK is an equal opportunities employer and it is our policy not to discriminate on any grounds.

“We do not condone the use of blacklists and we have co-operated fully with the Information Commissioner’s Office in addressing their enquiries.”

Blacklisting – The ICO investigation

The use of The Consulting Association’s construction blacklist came to light following an ICO investigation earlier this year.

The ICO found that Ian Kerr of Droitwich, on behalf of The Consulting Association, held details of 3,213 construction workers and traded their personal details for profit.

At Mr Kerr’s business premises the ICO seized copies of invoices to construction companies for services, including employment checks on individuals.

On 16 July 2009, Mr Kerr was fined £5,000 for breaching the Data Protection Act and ordered to pay £1,187.20 costs.

The fine, handed down at Knutsford Crown Court, was met with shock by the construction industry with both lawyers and unions branding it “weak” and “insufficient.”

More than 40 companies were named by the ICO as subscribers to the list but several contractors have already distanced themselves from it.

Both Morgan Est and Bam Construct told Construction News that they were in the clear while Skanska and Sir Robert McAlpine also ruled out the possibility of enforcement action being brought against them.

The ICO has received more than 1,827 enquiries from members of the public about their data and, as a result, 120 individuals on the database have now had their information returned to them.