Last week, Construction News revealed evidence suggesting union representatives may have “liaised” with contractors to blacklist workers from construction jobs.
Knowledge of the blacklist - by the Consulting Association - is not new: an Information Commissioner’s Office investigation revealed its existence in 2009.
But a bundle of files from the blacklist, seen by Construction News, has revealed for the first time the extent of the information being kept, the lengths to which the organisation would go to collect information, and the way the blacklisting operation worked.
Data protection offences
In July 2009, private investigator Ian Kerr, who ran the Consulting Association, was fined £5,000 for offences under the Data Protection Act.
The following year, the government updated the Employment Relations Act 1999 to prohibit blacklisting of trade union members and activists by employers and agencies.
Since then, workers who suspect they have been put on the blacklist have been able to request details about themselves from the ICO.
However, in an effort to protect the identity of sources and other blacklisted individuals on their files, they have been sent redacted copies of the original association documents.
Construction News has now seen scores of these files, unredacted. And for the first time, we can reveal the kind of information being held about individuals on the list.
Most of the 3,000 records are brief. Typically each worker has no more than a page with an entry about involvement in an industrial dispute or allegiance to a particular union. Normally this is followed by examples and dates of jobs applied for and refused.
The 17-page file kept on Dave Smith, released to a recent employment tribunal, however, is among the most involved.
It collects details of Mr Smith’s history as a health and safety representative, newspaper and magazine clippings, commentary from contractor sources, and reports from spies at meetings of cross-union health and safety group the Joint Sites Committee (JSC).
Mr Smith says as a result of his file and his subsequent inability to gain work, his income fell from £36,000 a year in 1999 to £13,000 in 2000.
Early entries, from 1998, are sporadic, but unusually personal. In December, the observation is made that Mr Smith is “small and talking like a younger Alf Garnet”.
By 1999, at the height of the observations, the entries become more frequent. By the middle of the year, several new entries are being made almost monthly.
These range from observations about what car he is driving, to unfounded rumours about serious criminal activities, which he denies. For example, Mr Smith’s file includes an allegation, in an entry from December 1998, that he was responsible for arson at a Schal site in west London.
In June, 1999, an entry of several hundred words ends with the observation: “Smith currently under pressure from wife to obtain employment.”
A different entry from the same month reads: “Dave Smith currently drives 4WD Diahatsu…”
The JSC was a treasure trove for the Consulting Association, as its spy at a meeting takes notes about Mr Smith as well as two committee members and the organisation’s secretary, who was “catholic” and “married with children”.
Under a heading, Joint Sites Committee, the entry reads: “On Thursday 6th August 1992 I attended a meeting of the above organisation… Including latecomers there were 25 people present and the second Thursday each month is a regular meeting.
“The meeting was chaired by ‘Dave’ a Londoner, aged about 30 years, shaven head, slim build and wearing large round glasses. The JSC secretary ‘Mick’ was co-chair.
“Mick is a similar age, medium build, dark neat hair, and spoke softly with a strong Scottish accent. During the meeting I gathered Mick was married with children and has both a trade union and a Catholic organisation interests.
“I learned that the JSC was formed in January 1992 and is run by a seven man ‘Executive Committee.’ The other committee members I identified were ‘Frank’, the treasurer, a stocky dark haired Liverpudlian (strong accent), and ‘Paddy’, very tall (6ft 5ins), slim, large mop of ginger hair and a ginger whispy [sic] beard.”
Most Consulting Association files relate to builders who were denied work because of their union involvement, or simply because they associated with certain people.
Involvement in particularly bitter or longstanding disputes on certain jobs, or allegiance to a particular union, seems to have been enough to get blacklisted.
The two-year dispute between electricians and Drake and Scull on the Jubilee Line extension between 1997-1999 seems to have been one such job. Many of the sparks who participated in this dispute had the phrase “under no circumstance,” printed in block capitals on their files.
Many belonged to the breakaway union, the EPIU. The typical file of one electrician reads: “Worked at Jubilee Line Extension. Allowed himself to be drawn along by the course of events at JLE, 1997 to 1999. Not in front line of action.”
By July 2005, six years after the end of the dispute, according to his file the man was still being denied work.
Steven Acheson, leader of the Manchester branch of the EPIU, believes each of his 100-plus members are on the blacklist.
Michael Anderson, who moved to Ireland for want of work, is blacklisted. As Construction News revealed last week, his file said he was “not recommended” by the union Amicus, now part of Unite. He was neither a militant nor part of the EPIU.
His file reads: “1997 - 1999: Worked at JLE during electricians’ dispute but not involved in any actions.”
“2005 Oct 26th: Information received by… site manager at Heathrow T5 that the above is ‘not recommended’ by Amicus.”
Assumption and hearsay
Hearsay and assumption seem to be equally good reason to have been blacklisted. An entry for one worker reads: “Known sympathiser and possible friend of Dave SMITH. Therefore possible member of JSC. Possible criminal record.”
Another file dooms a builder for being a friend of a friend. His entry begins with a long bracketed paragraph about a man who is described as being close to a militant electrician.
The following line reads: “Bracketed information applies to [someone else] and may similarly apply to the above.” He suffered a litany of job rejections for the following seven years.
The emergence of these cases has already led to a series of employment tribunals. Some, like Mr Smith’s against Carillion, have been unsuccessful. Others will inevitably emerge as workers lay claim to their own files.
At least 100 of those blacklisted over the past two decades have formed the Blacklisting Support Group. Members of this group have largely moved beyond employment tribunals and are planning to bring cases against up to 10 contractors in the High Court.
Inside the Consulting Association’s database
The unredacted documents seen by Construction News reveal a highly organised, “intelligence-style” organisation that could call upon contractors, moles and possibly even trade unions to collect data and rumour on construction workers.
“We always referred to it as an intelligence database,” says David Clancy, the ex-policeman who led the investigation into the blacklisting organisation for the Information Commissioner’s Office.
“We seized 23-24 bundles of files organised alphabetically. Within that there was information on workers including names, date of birth, national insurance numbers and other identifications.
“Then there was the source, referred to by a unique reference number, which identified the contractor alongside initials that would show the main contact. They tended to be the initials of senior people within the HR department.”
With more than 40 contractors listed at the time of the ICO raid in 2009, and more than 3,000 files, one might question how the illegal list could have been so well concealed.
But Mr Clancy says that, even though information was gathered by hundreds of sources, access to the list itself was tightly controlled.
The Consulting Association constitution, also seen by CN, bears this out. Devised in 2003, the 19-point constitution demands
that members of the Consulting Association should be director level.
“Member companies shall be represented by a person of director title or status but will have the right to nominate a deputy,” it says.
It adds: “Membership is restricted to UK-based companies.” Meanwhile, “companies with non-UK parentage will be considered on individual merit”.
The constitution also demands that there should be a “finance committee” made up of a chairman, vice-chairman, representative of founding chairman, and a chief executive. This committee, effectively an executive, is “empowered to make decisions on behalf of the whole association”.
The organisation’s running costs were met by a changeable yearly subscription and a quarterly fee.
Critically, for when the organisation deemed it necessary to liaise with unions and agencies, point 15 says: “The association may seek to co-opt members into its committee for a specific purpose.”