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Building the blacklist: police spies and trade unionists

In 2009 a UK construction industry blacklist, administered by a private company holding files on thousands of people, was busted. Evidence is now emerging of police involvement, bringing yet another layer to the scandal of police spies and state surveillance.

The impact of revelations that police officers operating undercover mounted long-term infiltration of protest groups is continuing to be felt - and one area where information is still coming out involves trade unions.

In 2009 it was revealed that The Consulting Association, a secret organisation set up and funded by the construction industry, had kept files on thousands of workers. The personal information gathered included details on where people lived, newspaper clippings, gossip from site managers, notes from union meetings – even graffiti from toilet walls. These files were then used to vet potential employees and keep out potential troublemakers. An analysis of the files released so far show that raising health and safety concerns and being a union activist was the most likely way to earn oneself a place on the blacklist.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raided The Consulting Association, seized its files, prosecuted Ian Kerr, the man who ran it day-to-day, for breaching the Data Protection Act and warned the companies who had funded it to behave themselves.

A 16-year spying operation had come to an end. But its secrets would only slowly start to spill out – pieced together by journalists, activists and lawyers. One of the deepest secrets was the involvement of the security services. Evidence now coming to light suggests this involvement has been standard practice in the state's treatment of trade unionists.

Passing on 'intelligence'

Following the raid the ICO was confronted with an unusual problem. It now possessed 3,213 files of illegally held personal data which individuals knew nothing about but which may have affected their working lives for many years. It took the decision to become, in effect, the data controller for these files. If someone believes that they may have a file then they can ask the ICO to check and, if correct, receive a redacted copy. The realisation that information from the police, including undercover officers, ended up on blacklisting files has emerged as people inspected their personal data.

A blacklisted worker holds a copy of his file. Photo: Phil Chamblerlain / Creative commons.

One person who Ian Kerr kept a file on was Ellenor Hutson. Today she is a welfare rights officer living in Glasgow but during the mid-1990s, she was a road protester at the Newbury By-Pass, the A30 link road in Devon and the Manchester Second Runway. It didn’t occur to Hutson that she might be on a construction industry blacklist until a letter dropped through her letterbox.

“I was on maternity leave from work,” she said. “A letter came though from UNITE saying I was on a blacklist. It was just random luck that I was a member of UNITE at the time. I put on Facebook that I had got this letter. I got talking to people about this and I realised I had opposed a lot of the projects the big firms were running." After setting up a Facebook page, Hutson discovered dozens of people she knew from the 1990s were on the blacklist.

We know Hutson has a file because her name is in a ring-binder seized by the ICO which was a master list of all the names along with home town and date of birth – but we don’t have her file.

In evidence to Parliament to 2012, the ICO admitted that when it raided The Consulting Association it had not seized everything. It only took the material it believed was covered by its warrant and related specifically to the construction blacklist. Kerr, who began his career monitoring ‘subversives’ in 1969 with the Economic League, told MPs that he had around 200 files on environmental activists.

One of them is John Stewart, who is chairman of pressure group Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise (HACAN). Stewart fears that this could explain why, when he landed in America in 2011 for a speaking tour, he was escorted off the plane by armed guards and sent back to the UK. He told the Evening Standard: “It’s worrying that somebody like me, without convictions, can find myself on a blacklist like this.”

Having a Consulting Association file does not automatically suggest police involvement. However, it is clear that anti-roads protestors were of intense interest to the police and a lot of intelligence was gathered on them. It seems logical that construction companies, if they had a system set up for trade union members, would look to expand that to other people who might cause them trouble. As we shall see later, Kerr admited to links with a police outfit monitoring 'subversives'. We have tantalising evidence of how the flow from officer on the ground to police file to construction company and to Kerr might have worked.

According to Hutson, though, it could only have been information from the police that led to her having a Consulting Association file. She says she was arrested between seven and ten times and each time was asked for her date of birth and her home town – the same info as appears in the masterfile. She would not have given that detail to private security guards or detective agencies and there were no press reports. One person with a now destroyed file is listed as Grace Quantocks (The Quantocks is a range of hills in Somerset). Hutson points out that it was standard practice for activists to adopt the name of a landmark as a surname and give that to the police.

Hutson would have first come to the attention of the police as a 16-year-old when she took part in a demonstration in London in support of striking transport workers. She and a group of others ended up occupying London Transport offices and were arrested. Unknown to her, one of those involved was Jim Sutton. Known to colleagues as 'Grumpy Jim', Sutton was actually Jim Boyling, an undercover police officer who had targeted Reclaim The Streets.

Infiltrating union activities

Another undercover officer took a much closer interest in the activities of construction union members. In 1994 a man calling himself Mark Cassidy appeared in Stoke Newington, London, and gravitated towards the Colin Roach Centre. However Cassidy’s story about being a builder who had lost his father to a drunk driver and come down to London looking for work was just that, a story. Cassidy’s real name was Mark Jenner and he was an undercover spy for the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). Mark Metcalfe, who worked at the centre at the time, has written about the myriad causes Jenner was involved in and says that the damage caused by his infiltration is still being felt.

The centre was also home to the Brian Higgins Defence Campaign set up after a UCATT union official sued union member Brian Higgins for libel. Running to 49 pages, Higgins has the largest of all the blacklist files released so far. Jenner became the secretary for the defence campaign. It may be coincidence but there are entire pages of Higgins' blacklist file which simply record the names of his “Known Associates” dating from around the same time that Jenner was chairing these meetings.

Another person who knew Jenner at the time was Steve Hedley, who is now assistant general secretary of the rail union the RMT. His blacklist file covers around 15 years and is filled with details on what he said at union conferences, his involvement in health and safety activities, disputes he took part in and his political views. Hedley was introduced to Jenner at the Colin Roach Centre. When Hedley went to Ireland as part of a delegation for the Bloody Sunday March the undercover policeman stayed at Hedley’s mum’s house.

One of Jenner’s targets was Alison (not her real name) who was in a relationship with the undercover spy for five years. Jenner cultivated the relationship in order to bolster his cover. Alison remembers numerous conversations with the SDS spy about the building industry and union campaigns, which seemed to be “a big part of what he did during this period”.

During Jenner’s time he attended picket lines over unpaid wages at Waterloo and ferried construction union activists to demonstrations. A source familiar with Special Branch activities against trade unions has suggested that the branch’s industrial desk, responsible for liaising with and monitoring trade unions, may well have tasked Jenner with gathering information on union activists.

Making the link

In the case of Hutson, Stewart and many others we only have the names and no files. It took a lucky break to identify particular files that strengthen the suspicions of a police link to this private spying operation.

As part of an employment tribunal against Carillion, blacklisted engineer Dave Smith was granted a third party disclosure order against the ICO for all the files that related to him. Since the ICO had a lack of staff they suggested that his solicitor could come up and look at the files himself. And because the solicitor was doing it pro-bono he suggested that Smith went instead.

With the chance to look through the ICO's unredacted file, Smith found the files of two people he knew, Dan Gilman and Frank Smith, and realised that the police must be involved. There were references in these files only the police could know about, and which only Smith would have realised the significance of. This fluke brought police involvement in the blacklist further to light.

The information in Dan Gilman and Frank Smith's files contains details of the police questioning the two when they were stopped on their way to an anti-fascist rally. It is highly unlikely that any building firm employee would have seen them being questioned. They were not arrested. There was no press coverage. Gilman has never even worked in the building trade. Yet the information appears on a construction industry blacklist. Indeed a line in Frank Smith’s file says: “Under constant watch (officially) and seen as politically dangerous.” A bricklayer by trade, Smith is a long-time political activist who has been involved in a number of actions on building sites across London calling for better wages and conditions. A source has confirmed that Special Branch opened a file on Frank Smith because of his involvement with anti-fascist activity.

It is not the case that some of those who have blacklist files are demonstrating an unhealthy paranoia about state surveillance – the ICO backs these suspicions. At Smith’s employment tribunal, his solicitor asked David Clancy, who had led the ICO raid on The Consulting Association, about police involvement. Clancy, a former Greater Manchester police officer, replied “There is some information that could only have come from the police or the security services.” 

When giving evidence to MPs Clancy expanded on this saying:  “There were entries such as a person being removed from the country and coming back into the United Kingdom. This was at a particular time when perhaps people from the Republic of Ireland were being monitored. This was what would appear to have been an Irish national and individuals being given security clearance working on MoD construction sites. There was information in relation to the registered keeper details of vehicles. Where would that come from? In one particular case there was what was referred to as “a special” within the database attached to one individual’s records. That seems to be an in-depth analysis of an individual’s home circumstances and what his neighbours thought about him. In my opinion, that would have been part of, in effect, an intelligence record in relation to an individual.”

In a posthumously published interview in The Times, Ian Kerr recalled a meeting organised by The Consulting Association in 2008 when eight construction industry directors were addressed by a “key officer” from the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Netcu). This then Huntingdon-based police organisation had been set up to counter “extremist” protest groups. Kerr told The Times: “They were seeking a channel to inform construction companies [of the information] they were collecting [and] they were wanting to be able to feed it out to the companies.”

The Times reported that, in return, the Netcu officer asked the companies to pass on their own information about potential troublemakers, and Mr Kerr said that a “two-way information exchange” opened up. The ICO has information from this 2008 meeting but has refused Freedom of Information requests to release it. The Metropolitan Police says it does not hold any records from this meeting.

Standard procedure?

Files unearthed by journalist Solomon Hughes regarding Special Branch monitoring of trade union activity during the Wapping dispute show just the kind of detail the industrial desk gathered. As one Special Branch officer told the BBC: “It was very, very important that trade unions were monitored and I as a Special Branch officer did it as efficiently as I could.”

There is evidence of established links between construction companies and the security services. Ken Mullier, formerly a personnel manager at construction firm Mowlem, told a World in Action documentary that “most of the major construction companies have their own employees who are ex-policemen and they’re employed specifically for their expertise if you like at being able to contact old friends who are still serving”. In written evidence to the Scottish Affairs committee this year, building union official John Flavin said: “I was made aware that companies that had Industrial Relations managers met regularly to discuss industrial and trade union activities. I was also made aware that they had regular meetings with Special Branch officers at a public house in Hammersmith.” In correspondence with the lawyers for the Blacklist Support Group, the Independent Police Complaints Commission said: “It was likely that all Special Branches were involved in providing information about potential employees.”

Yet in a report issued in March by Operation Herne, which is investigating the activities of undercover police officers, this wealth of evidence is dismissed in a few short paragraphs. Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, told Socialist Worker: “There is already irrefutable evidence in the public domain that officers from undercover police units actually attended secret Consulting Association blacklist meetings. Yet this is not even mentioned by Herne.”

This is hardly a British problem. The latest edition of the journal International Union Rights details evidence of blacklisting around the world, whilst IKEA’s behaviour in France provides just one example of police collusion. UK blacklisted workers are demanding that the only way to understand the nature of the links between the security services, undercover officers, union activists and the construction industry is for it to be included as part of the public inquiry announced by Theresa May.

About the author

Phil Chamberlain is a freelance journalist who has written for a number of national newspapers and magazines. He is also a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of the West of England. The book Blacklisted: the secret war between big business and union activists, co-authored with Dave Smith, details the construction industry blacklisting scandal, and will be published autumn 2014 by Pluto.