The blacklisting scandal is a disgrace and an affront to justice

23rd January, 2013 1:59 pm

Today’s Labour opposition debate on blacklisting is an important step forward to secure justice for the thousands of workers who were intimidated, stigmatised and locked out of their livelihoods by companies who were only interested in protecting their bottom line.

Throughout the 80s and 90s trade unionists consistently raised concerns about blacklisting, only to be told they were half-baked conspiracy theorists. Now we are finally getting to the bottom of the truth.

The Economic League was the main instigator of the practice through much of the 20th Century. Their sinister activities included collusion with MI5 to gather information predominantly on communists in the workplace, an early form of McCarthyism. They believed that “a shop steward can acquire influence out of all proportion to the real nature of his position.” If only!

By the 80s the League had over 20,000 people on its lists from shop stewards to journalists to Labour MPs. Following growing pressure from the unions and after a Panorama investigation the Economic League folded in 1993, but the practices it utilised didn’t.

The Consulting Association, which is the focus of much of the current debate on blacklisting, took up where the Economic League left off and maintained a list of over 3,000 trade unionists keeping tabs particularly on those who raised health and safety concerns. In 2009 the Office of the Information Commissioner raided the offices of the CA and found that 44 companies, many of which are household names, were paying thousands of pounds a year to make checks on construction workers against the list.

Take the case of Kenny Newton whose name appears on the blacklist and who gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee which is currently conducting an enquiry into blacklisting. Kenny worked for an electrical company at the Shell Oil Refinery in Ellesmere Port. He decided to stand as shop steward. On the morning of the election Kenny was transferred to a new site with the promise that he would return. After two weeks a colleague who he had transferred with was allowed back, but Kenny was never allowed to set foot in that refinery again. He wrote: “there are plenty of my colleagues who have suffered long term unemployment and their family’s extreme hardship from many a spiteful employer but proving it is another matter”.

Scandalously, when prosecution was sought for Ian Kerr the CEO of the Consulting Association (and apparently a previous employee of the Economic League) he was only fined £5000 for data protection issues and none of the firms who paid for the information were fined at all. Meanwhile, the majority of people whose names were on that list still don’t know about it because the Information Commissioner’s Office will only let people check if they are on the list rather than contact them directly. Moreover, evidence from the Select Committee suggests that police and security services could have been involved in supplying some of the information. It’s a disgrace and an affront to justice.

But the injustice hasn’t stopped with the ICO’s discovery and new legislation making blacklisting illegal. Unite cited anecdotal evidence in its submission to the Select Committee that a number of companies employ junior members of staff to monitor employment tribunals in order to identify individuals who were perceived to have ‘employment issues.’ In September last year, campaigners believe that 28 workers on Crossrail were unjustly sacked because they were found to be members of Unite. Just last week, Balfour Beatty confirmed that it conducted blacklisting checks on individuals seeking employment in the Olympic Park.

So what should we be calling for? First, we must push the Government to conduct a full inquiry into whether blacklisting is continuing to be used on public construction projects such as Crossrail. Second, we should consider making blacklisting a criminal offence. Third, we must find a way of enabling those whose names appeared on blacklists to seek compensation retrospectively – perhaps through a levy on the companies which paid for the information in the first place. Fourth, we should consider introducing a right not to be put on a blacklist and a right to compensation for breach. It would help thousands of people too if the Information Commissioner’s Office were to contact all those whose names are on the CA’s blacklist so they can seek redress.

Thanks to the tireless campaigning from the unions, notably UCATT, the GMB and Unite, blacklisting has been kept in the spotlight. But we can’t stop here. Part of Ed Miliband’s vision of responsible capitalism is that whenever public money is spent, it should reward socially responsible companies. Let’s make sure that wherever we have Labour Councils spending public money on construction projects that they choose companies who treat union members as partners and truly outlaw blacklisting. Where we have power, we must use it to bring justice to those workers step by step.

Jessica Asato is the Labour PPC for Norwich North

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  • MonkeyBot5000

    I can’t help thinking that you’ve overlooked a rather simple and poetic way to address the problem.

    Any company that used the blacklist kept by Kerr should be blacklisted themselves. Let’s see how well they do without the government teat to suckle them.

  • It’s worth saying that Tony Blair actually took a very hard stand on Blacklisting when Shadow Home Secretary in 1990 – with support from Eric Heffer in Parliament he proposed a bill that would have outlawed Blacklisting, aimed squarely at the Economic League – it isn’t totally true to say Trade Unionists complaining about blacklisting in the 90’s were dismissed as “half baked conspiracy theorists” – they actually had the support of the Labour Front Bench. the Tory government opposed Labour’s proposed ban – Tory Ministers and MP’s Michael Howard, Tim Eggar, Graham Riddick all defended the Economic League and it’s “vetting”. In response, more or less , to Tony Blair’s vigorous attack, the Economic League folded up in about 1993. However, it hadn’t actually got rid of the blacklist, which was passed on to a new organisation, the Consulting Association. Unfortunately, the 1997 Labour government didn’t outlaw Blacklisting as per the 1990 bill (it remains not legal to discriminate against people for Trade Union activiities , and Data Protection laws mean you can’t secretly keep computer files on people, which are laws that have finally had some effect, but a simple ban on blacklisting which would have cleared up this disgrace wasn’t passed – that’s my understanding.) – the new (and indeed New) Labour government didn’t follow through with the 1990 promise to ban blacklisting, because, I believe, Peter Mandelson persauded Blair it was no longer an issue. So an early – and very admirable – stand by Blair that had some effect, followed by a decade of missed chances. Very welcome that Labour is again taking this issue seriously.

  • It’s very good that the Labour Front Bench are taking this seriously, but it isn’t strictly true to say “Throughout the 80s and 90s trade unionists consistently raised concerns
    about blacklisting, only to be told they were half-baked conspiracy
    theorists.” – In fact, in 1990, the Labour Front Bench supported trade unionists, and proposed laws banning blacklisting – Tony Blair in particular (as Shadow Home Secretary), campaigned hard against blacklisting, ably supported by Eric Heffer : Tory Ministers and MP’s, in the shape of Michael Howard, Tim Eggar & Graham Riddick, spoke out in support of the right to blacklist – or “vetting” – . Unfortunately, when Labour came to power in 1997, Peter Mandelson let Blair think that because the Economic League had folded , this wasn’t an issue, and so there was no need for a new law. Tony Blair’s pretty vocal campaign was a major part of the folding of the Economic LEague, but actually they just kind of went underground and revived themselves as the Consulting Association. Outlawing blacklisting could have been – like the minimum wage – one of the major, union influenced legacies of the last Labour government, but infortunately Mandelson stopped it . So it is good the Labour Party is making this strong stand now, as this injustice has gone on long enough.

    • Hi Soloman, I think I was referring not to the Labour Party, which as you say, did speak out about this at the time, but to the right wing media and Tory MPs who did their best to rubbish what trade unionists were saying. Clearly the blacklisting laws that were brought in by the end of Labour’s time in Government look not to be strong enough which is why I think they need to be looked at again.

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  • Thanks Jessica and sorry for the double reply -I was caught up in “moderation” and thought the first one hadn’t taken- I’ll try and dig out the Tory responses to the 1990 debates, they basically said blacklisting was every employers right. Labour’s current stand is really important, it has brought the issue to the top of the news (more so, I think, than Blair’s 1990 stand, even though that was in itself quite strong) . that said, I think their were problems of the last Labour govt on this was – Peter Mandelson not pursuing the 1990 anti-blacklisting position. To some extent, in fairness, he was probably caught out by the way the Economic League went under but the blacklisting carried on , but at the same time, employers made pretty open threats to use blacklisting against electricians and fitters who went on strike in 1999 on the Jubilee Line Extension (the tube to the dome) and perhaps that should have been a stronger signal to bring forward legislation .

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