Britain’s secret blacklisting scandal is back on the agenda, and thousands could finally see justice [VIDEO]

Tom Coburg

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has announced the re-opening of its files on the blacklisting of workers. But questions remain over how far the ICO will extend its review; and how many of those who had their livelihoods destroyed by blacklisting might receive compensation for it.

The Consulting Association specialised in blacklisting – whereby people were denied work because of their politics or union activism. Companies subscribed to its list, in order to vet workers when they applied for jobs. The ICO raided the Consulting Association in 2009. But only a third of the companies subscribing to it subsequently received disclosure (enforcement) orders. Thousands of files held by the Consulting Association, meanwhile, went missing (see below).

And there is also a much bigger cache – compiled by an organisation that spent 70 years blacklisting not just construction workers but workers of all trades.

This article examines historical cases of widespread blacklisting that need investigating. We will publish a follow-up article on the work of modern vetting agencies in due course.

The companies subscribing to the Consulting Association

According to [pdf] author Phil Chamberlain, the ICO seized a database including details of 3,213 workers during its 2009 raid.

Before he died in 2012, Consulting Association manager Ian Kerr handed over several documents to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry [pdf] into Blacklisting in Employment (see p93 for the Services Group list).

Workers subsequently received a total of £80m in compensation. But around two thirds (30 companies in total) did not face litigation. This is because only 14 Services Group companies received disclosure orders.

Missing files

Also, David Clancy (the ICO investigator who led the 2009 raid) confirmed that thousands of Consulting Association files went missing. He told the Scottish Affairs Select Committee: “There was a lot more stuff that wasn’t covered by our warrant.”

When asked how much ‘stuff’ his team had actually seized, Clancy replied:

I would say between five and ten percent of the stuff. We didn’t search every item within the office because our warrant said the existence of a blacklist. What the other 90 or 95 percent was I can’t comment on because we didn’t go through lots of it.

A handwritten note by Kerr suggests he had every intention of destroying the Consulting Association files. In the note (a leaked file seen by The Canary), the crucial words are “Destroy data” in the fifth line of the second paragraph:

Sworn testimony of Mary Kerr (Ian Kerr’s wife) to the High Court of Justice in January 2016 confirmed [pdf, p3] that the blacklists related to the Services Group were sold for £10,000 to the Consulting Association by its predecessor the Economic League on its demise in 1993:

Ian removed the record cards from the League’s Birmingham office the day before the Economic League was wound up. The cards were then ‘sold’ to the Consulting Association for £10,000 by Jack Winder and Stan Hardy, albeit they had previously been the property of the Economic League, as a large proportion of cards had originated from the Economic League itself, rather than the Services Group.

But that’s not all

The Services Group lists held by the Consulting Association were miniscule, compared to the lists held by the Economic League. Those lists (or most of them) still exist (as leaked documents). They contain names and addresses. And many have annotations detailing workers’ political affiliations, or information about health and safety issues they may have raised.

Here is an extract from a leaked file seen by The Canary:

State collusion?

In 1987, Michael Noar, Director General of the Economic League, said:

Of course, the police and Special Branch are interested in some of the things we are interested in. They follow the activities of these groups in much the same way as we do and therefore they do get in touch with us from time to time and talk to us and say ‘were you at this demonstration or that’… In the course of discussions, there is an exchange of information just in the ordinary course of talking.

More recently, Gordon Mills, a former Chief Inspector with the now defunct National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU), notoriously attended a meeting of the Consulting Association.

And in October 2013, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) suggested that police had colluded in the Consulting Association blacklist. It said that it was “likely that all special branches were involved in providing information”. Detective Inspector Craddock of Operation Herne denied this was the case. He said he had seen “no conclusive evidence” that Scotland Yard had shared information with the blacklisters.

Victims demand justice

In a recent video, several workers refer to blacklisting in the 1970s, which is when the Economic League (not the Consulting Association) was active:

The video features actor Ricky Tomlinson, who in 1972 participated in Britain’s first national building workers’ strike.

Tomlinson and 23 other people were arrested for picketing in Shrewsbury. Six of the accused, including Tomlinson, went to jail. Government papers later showed that Prime Minister Edward Heath and his ministers had ensured the broadcast of a biased TV documentary about the strike on the day of the trial.

Tomlinson’s has since discovered that he had an entry on the Economic League blacklist (showing his real name – Eric Tomlinson – and his then address and birth date). Here is an extract from his file (leaked file seen by The Canary):

How far will the ICO go?

The ICO told The Canary that the current investigation is not a new one into the Consulting Association, but a review of blacklisting generally.

As well as investigating vetting agencies, the ICO may also decide to re-open the case against the 30 Services Group companies which didn’t receive disclosure notices. And they may seek further information about the missing Consulting Association files.

But will the ICO also examine the activities of around 700 companies [pdf] that subscribed to the Economic League? If that happened, any legal action could see people like Ricky Tomlinson and tens of thousands of other workers awarded compensation for the damage incurred to their livelihoods.

This is Britain’s ‘other’ blacklisting scandal. And it should not be buried in history.

Disclosure: the author of this article was a co-founder of League Watch, which received thousands of leaked Economic League files.

Get Involved!

– Read more on blacklisting at The Canary.

– See more from Spies at Work. And read Spies at Work (a history of the Economic League) by Mike Hughes.

Featured image via Reel Video/YouTube

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