Reinstate Lee Fowler – electrician sacked after raising concerns about safety on site in Liverpool.
Thursday 20 April, 1:00pm
The Dock Road
SAFETY BEFORE PROFIT
Unite is stepping up its search for information into the possible collusion by trade union officials into the blacklisting of construction workers.
In April 2022 Unite established an independent inquiry into allegations that some union officials may have colluded with the blacklisting of construction workers.
Workers were frequently denied work for raising safety concerns on site, with an illegal industry-financed blacklisting organisation, The Consulting Association, coordinating the list which included details on over 3,000 site workers.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Blacklisting is a disgusting practice which ruins workers’ lives. Unite has been and continues to be at the forefront of stamping out this practice once and for all.”
Blacklist Support Group statement
Solidarity with Lee Fowler, who has been dismissed by the electrical contractor Bilfinger after he raised safety issues at the Cargill’s Refinery site in Merseyside (next to the new Everton football stadium construction project). The experienced and highly qualified electrician made several complaints about unsafe working conditions and helped four co-workers to obtain a pay rise.
Lee Fowler commented after his dismissal: “I got the four lads a 14% pay rise and I raised health and safety concerns about the site. I was involved in a serious accident myself, and the subsequent report found no blame on my part whatsoever. I have repeatedly asked to see the safety documents relating to my accident, and that request has been repeatedly denied. And for that I was dismissed? I have fought for workers’ health and safety for over 30 years: they won’t silence me!”
Lee Fowler is a member of Unite the Union who are representing him.
Frank Morris and Tony Seaman, UNITE Executive Council members for construction issued a joint statement: “It is really disappointing that in 2023, we continue to see workers who are prepared to raise genuine concerns about safety being targeted. Despite all that was promised by major contractors in the High Court in 2016, this issue continues to blight our members lives.
“Blacklisting is one of the reasons that the construction sector has such a horrendous safety record. We cannot stand by and watch union members be repeatedly victimised. Unite will never stop fighting the harassment faced by workers who stand up for their rights. An injury to one is an injury to all”.
Blacklist Support Group posted on their Facebook page:
Lee Fowler is a leading member of the Blacklist Support Group – having first been blacklisted after becoming an OILC safety rep in the North Sea in the early 90s.
Construction workers who raise concerns about potential hazards that could affect people on site and the surrounding community should be applauded. The industry has glossy posters that encourage workers to speak out. But time and again, workers who are conscientious about safety get sacked. Get your banners ready, another blacklisting dispute is about to kick off.
IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
Claim No: QB-2021-000523
QUEEN’S BENCH DIVISION
DANIEL GUY COLLINS
(1) CROSSRAIL LIMITED
(2) COSTAIN GROUP PLC
(3) COSTAIN LIMITED
(4) COSTAIN CIVIL ENGINEERING LIMITED
(5) COSTAIN ENGINEERING & CONSTRUCTION LIMITED (6) COSTAIN INTEGRATED SERVICES LIMITED
(7) SKANSKA UK PLC
(8) SKANSKA CONSTRUCTION UK LIMITED
(9) SKANSKA RASHLEIGH WEATHERFOIL LIMITED
(10) SKANSKA MAJOR PROJECTS LIMITED
(11) SKANSKA TECHNOLOGY LIMITED
(12) T CLARKE PLC
(13) T CLARKE CONTRACTING LIMITED
(14) T CLARKE SERVICES LIMITED
(15) NG BAILEY GROUP LIMITED
(16) NG BAILEY LIMITED
STATEMENT IN OPEN COURT FOR DANIEL COLLINS
Mr Collins is an electrician. During the period from 1998 until 2014 Mr Collins worked in the construction industry on various construction projects including projects at Heathrow Airport, St Pancras Station, Farringdon station and Tottenham Court Road station. During this time, Mr Collins had no significant difficulty in finding work on construction projects and any gaps between periods of employment were relatively short.
For simplicity, in this statement, Mr Collins has referred to the 2nd to 16th Defendants by the name of the group of companies to which these Defendants belong, i.e.
‘Costain’, ‘Skanska’ ‘T Clarke’ and ‘NG Bailey’.
From 2011 onwards, Mr Collins’ experiences, of the way in which construction workers are treated by construction companies, led him to gradually becoming more active in his union, Unite. In particular, he was concerned about the importance of construction sites being safe places to work.
Mr Collins also campaigned against ‘bogus self-employment’ in the construction industry, i.e. employment agencies insisting on construction workers working on a self- employed basis. He campaigned for construction companies to comply with construction industry rules which require construction companies to ‘make every effort to offer any vacancy on a directly-employed basis’ instead of using employment agencies. Mr Collins knows that workers who are self-employed have no employment rights and that agency workers have very few employment rights and no job security. One such campaign led to NG Bailey agreeing to directly employ Mr Collins, and a group of other agency workers, at Tottenham Court Road station in September 2014. NG Bailey made Mr Collins redundant 3 months later.
In February 2015, whilst working on the Crossrail project at Bond Street station, Mr Collins raised a safety concern about workers using what he considered an unsafe makeshift narrow walkway with no handrails, while carrying heavy bags of concrete and other equipment.. However, Mr Collins did not consider his concerns were addressed and, 3 days later, he was dismissed, despite having previously been assured that there was 3 years’ worth of work available on the project.
After Mr Collins was dismissed, he and other activists demonstrated outside the site, to draw public attention to the fact that he believed that he had been dismissed for raising a health and safety concern. The main contractor at Bond Street station was the Costain Skanska Joint Venture.
From February 2015 onwards, Mr Collins found it increasingly difficult to find work in the construction industry, particularly on the Crossrail project. Mr Collins did everything he could to find work. He would find out, from other electricians he knew, which construction sites were recruiting electricians and who the contractor was. He would apply to contractors direct. He would also try to find out which employment agencies the contractor was using and apply to the employment agencies. He followed the employment agencies on ‘LinkedIn’ and used social media to find out when they were recruiting electricians. He regularly rang employment agencies and emailed them his CV. However, despite Mr Collins’ best efforts, he was never again able to get work on the Crossrail project.
On more than one occasion, Mr Collins’ approach to an employment agency resulted in him being offered work on the Crossrail project and then told, at the last minute, that he was not required. For example, in March 2016, Mr Collins was told, by an employment agency called CSS, that he would be starting work at the Paddington Crossrail site on 21 March 2016. The main contractor at Paddington was the Costain Skanska Joint Venture and T Clarke were a subcontractor. On 18 March 2016, Mr Collins got a call from the employment agency informing him that the order for labour had been cancelled due to all vacancies having been filled internally.
Another example is that, in June 2016, Mr Collins was told by an employment agency that there was work available on the Crossrail Old Oak Common project. The electrical contractor on this project was NG Bailey. On 9 June 2016, the employment agency emailed Mr Collins induction forms and directions to the Old Oak Common site. Mr Collins completed the induction forms and returned them that evening. On 13 June 2016, the employment agency phoned Mr Collins and said that the work was no longer available, due to all vacancies having been filled internally by the client. It is employed staff became available to work on the project.
Mr Collins found the process of constantly making applications for work, but not getting anywhere, draining. He suspected that the reason he was unable to get work was because he is a trade union activist. He tried not to think about this and just carried on applying for work but he formed the view that the construction companies did not want to take him on. It was hard for Mr Collins, knowing that he had worked hard to become very skilled at what he does, and feeling that he was being discriminated against for standing up for his principles, as a trade unionist.
Mr Collins’ difficulties in finding work made it difficult for him to meet his financial commitments. There were times when he was not able to pay his household bills and he had to rely on his partner to pay them. Mr Collins built up credit card debts. At times, he had to rely on financial support from his parents and from trade union activist groups, including the Blacklist Support Group.
Mr Collins considers that he has always been good at his job and it was difficult for his family and friends to understand why he was struggling to find work. Mr Collins has always had a very strong work ethic but he sometimes worried that people who did not know him well would think that he was lazy.
In 2016 Mr Collins made the difficult decision to leave the construction industry because of the difficulties he had experienced, in finding work in the sector. Since 2016, Mr Collins has worked as Maintenance Electrician in the civil air transport sector. Mr Collins is still an active trade unionist but his experience of being a trade unionist in the civil air transport sector has been much more positive. Unlike when he worked in the construction industry, Mr Collins does not consider that his trade union activities have threatened his ability to earn a living.
In 2016, Mr Collins began submitting Subject Access Requests to construction companies. He wanted to know why, despite making numerous applications for work, he had been unable to get work.
The responses to the Subject Access Requests are redacted. It is the Defendants’ position that these redactions are necessary to comply with data protection legislation. The responses include information which, Mr Collins firmly believes, shows that construction companies and employment agencies misused his private information, for the purpose of preventing him from getting work on the Crossrail project, because of his trade union activities.
For example, the response to the Subject Access Request which Mr Collins submitted to Costain included an internal email dated 13 February 2015 which said ‘His name is Daniel Collins 33 years old has worked for NG Bailey’s not sure how long but was in London and finished last two weeks so see what you can find out cheers’. Another email, sent the following day, said ‘We have a potential issue. Danny Collins is part of the Unite activist group. I will call.’
Another example is that the responses to the Subject Access Requests made to Costain, Skanska and T Clarke included private information about a grievance which Mr Collins had submitted, to an employment agency called Premier People Recruitment, in 2015 when he was working at Heathrow Airport. This dispute had nothing to do with Costain, Skanska or T Clark. Mr Collins believes that there was no legitimate reason for these companies to hold this information. In addition, the Labour Manager at T Clarke forwarded the email correspondence, concerning Mr Collins’ grievance against PPR, to the Group Chief Executive and the Group Managing Director on 18 November 2015 commenting: ‘Read and Delete!!! I hope we never end up with this bloke on any of our sites! [REDACTED] For your information PPR are a Technical recruitment agency working out at Heathrow supplying labour for the Tunnel work which is what this is all about.’
Another example is that the responses to the Subject Access Request which Mr Collins made to Costain and T Clarke included an email dated 19 March 2016 at 1.54 pm which said ‘Investigation so far Collins rang CSS two weeks ago & requested a job specifically for Paddington [REDACTED] Significance of above someone is feeding R&F information from the Paddington location, about when recruitment is taking place, & then to chase for employment at that time. Almost certainly [REDACTED] in my view. It is only thanks to the strict vetting instituted by TC before any electrician commences, after there Romford fight that we are not faced with an issue on Monday. Bond st. CSS are on a potential supplier list for LMOB our preferd electrical contractor, albeit not in contract yet. Action. Will be at Bond St Wednesday & will raise with the team the above event & the importance that LMOB must mirror what TC are doing when there supply chain recruits… [REDACTED] is aware of all of the above, & is totally engaged & supportive on process to ensure CSJV runs trouble free. [REDACTED] in finality the R & F will keep trying, but if we & our supply chain carry out the proper process, we will be ok’.
An earlier email in the same chain, sent on 19 March 2016 at 9.15 am, said ‘Close. But well batted & defended by [REDACTED] Trust England defend as well in Paris tonight.’
Mr Collins believes that these emails show that T Clarke (TC) were vetting electricians to screen out union activists. Mr Collins believes that LMOB is a reference to another electrical contractor (LMOB Electrical Contractors Limited) and R & F is a reference to Rank and File, a trade union activist group which Mr Collins is a member of.
Mr Collins considers that he has always been a reasonable and moderate person and that he has never set out to cause any problems at work. He simply believes that people have a right to have a safe place of work and to have a voice at work. He wants to work with employers, to improve working conditions for the benefit of workers and employers, and his intentions have always been genuine.
The Defendants’ actions caused Mr Collins a great deal of upset and distress and, he believes, brought his career in the construction industry to an end. Mr Collins feels strongly that the way in which he has been treated by the Defendants is disgraceful and very unfair.
Mr Collins’ solicitors sent letters before claim to the Defendants, requesting disclosure of unredacted documents, on 14 July 2020.
The Defendants refused to provide unredacted documents on the basis of their obligations under the data protection legislation but did provide some limited further documents which were not in the initial responses to Mr Collins’ Subject Access Requests.
For example, the further disclosure from T Clarke included an email dated 21 April 2015 saying ‘Frank asked me to forward this onto you; careful it is private and confidential. Before you start to read it’s 12 pages of an outcome of a recent appeal hearing concerning one Danny Collins (Crossrail engaged agency worker Electrician that was removed from the project). T Clarke was not Mr Collins’ employer at Bond Street. Mr Collins believes that there was no legitimate reason for T Clarke to have this document.
Another example is that on 21 March 2016, the T Clarke’s Labour Manager sent an email to different employment agency (i.e. not the agency which had offered Mr Collins work at Paddington) saying, ‘I have the R&F after me again messers [sic] … and Collins. CSS offered them a start on Crossrail for us and I cancelled the order.’
Mr Collins issued court proceedings against the Defendants in February 2021 for blacklisting, breaches of data protection and misuse of private information. The Defendants all filed defences, denying that they had acted unlawfully and denying that they had blacklisted the Claimant, breached data protection legislation, or misused his private information, for the purpose of preventing him from getting work on the Crossrail project, because of his trade union activities.
The Defendants made a Part 36 offer to settle Mr Collins’ claim in December 2021, the Defendants’ position is that they did so for purely commercial reasons and without admission of liability or wrongdoing. Mr Collins has accepted this offer. As part of the settlement, the Defendants have paid damages to Mr Collins and have agreed to pay Mr Collins’ reasonable legal costs. Mr Collins accepted the Defendants’ offer in the knowledge that, if he were to reject the offer and go on to either lose or prove his case at trial but be awarded a lower sum in damages, then he could be liable for very substantial legal costs.
Defendants’ position that they do not accept liability. However, Mr Collins’ belief is that the settlement was tantamount to an acceptance of liability on the part of the Defendants and he, therefore, feels fully vindicated in having brought this claim.
As a union activist, Mr Collins is aware of the fact that, in 2009, the Information Commissioner raided the offices of an organisation called the Consulting Association and seized a list of the names of thousands of construction workers, which had been used by construction companies to vet workers who applied for work. As a member of the Blacklist Support Group, Mr Collins knows that a significant number of the workers on the Consulting Association list were union activists, and that many of them have experienced long periods of unemployment and financial hardship. He is also aware that the Second, Third, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Defendants were also Defendants in the subsequent High Court claims for compensation, which were brought by hundreds of construction workers, and that, in 2016, the Second, Third, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Defendants made a Statement in Open Court apologising for their actions which, they accepted, had unlawfully caused damage and distress to the construction workers affected. Mr Collins is dismayed that, despite their previous apologies, the Defendants appear to him to have continued to operate a secretive system of misuse of private information about union activists seemingly for the purposes of preventing them from obtaining employment.
Nevertheless, Mr Collins hopes that, despite the Defendants’ denials of liability, the fact that he brought this claim will have caused the Defendants to reflect on their treatment of him and of other union activists. He hopes that the Defendants will now be prepared to move away from what he believes to be a culture of hostility towards trade union activists in the construction sector and engage with trade unions, in a genuine and constructive way, with the aim of rebuilding trust and improving industrial relations in the construction sector.
Finally, Mr Collins would like to express his thanks to his trade union, Unite, without whose support he would not have been able to bring this legal claim. Mr Collins is confident that Unite will continue to support union activists in exposing blacklisting construction companies to account for their actions.
A copy of this statement has been shared with the Defendants to Mr Collins’ claim.
The Defendants maintain their firm denial of liability in respect of the claim and do not agree with Mr Collins’ perception of events referred to in this statement. However, they recognise that Mr Collins is permitted to have this statement read in open Court.
Unite news release. 21 March 2023.
A landmark case involving allegations of contemporary “blacklisting” on the flagship Crossrail project has concluded following a statement in open court yesterday (Monday 20 March).
Unite member Daniel Collins, an electrician, took a case for blacklisting, breaches of data protection and misuse of private information against construction companies Crossrail, Costain, Skanska, T Clarke and NG Bailey.
Mr Collins had the full support of Unite who instructed employment solicitors Thompsons to act on his behalf.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “This was a hugely significant case and demonstrates how Unite will back its members to the hilt.
“Unite is totally focused on defending the jobs, pay and conditions of its members and it will use all avenues available to defend their interests.”
In February 2015, while working for the Costain/Skanska joint venture at Bond Street, Mr Collins raised serious safety concerns. He was dismissed from the project three days later.
After that date, and even though he was continually applying for work across the Crossrail project, Mr Collins was not able to secure a position. On a number of occasions, he was offered roles which were later withdrawn.
As a result of being unable to secure work, Mr Collins was forced to leave the construction sector and had to seek employment elsewhere.
Mr Collins then made a series of subject access requests that revealed how personal information about him had been widely circulated. This included an internal email from Costain that said: “We have a potential issue. Danny Collins is part of the Unite activist group”.
He also discovered that Costain, Skanska and T Clarke held private information on him concerning a grievance he had submitted to an employment agency Premier People Recruitment (PPR), concerning an unrelated matter when he was working at Heathrow Airport. Mr Collins believes the details of the grievance had nothing to do with Costain, Skanska and T Clarke and there was no legitimate reason for them to have the information.
In addition, the Labour Manager at T Clarke had forwarded the email correspondence about the grievance to his company’s group chief executive and group managing director and said: “Read and delete!!! I hope we never end up with this bloke on any of our sites.”
Although the companies involved denied liability, they agreed to pay damages to Mr Collins and have agreed to pay Mr Collins’ legal costs “for purely commercial reasons and without admission of liability or wrongdoing”.
Rachel Halliday, the solicitor from Thompsons who acted for Mr Collins during the case, said: “We were proud to represent Mr Collins and to secure him a settlement of his claim.”
The involvement of Costain and Skanska in the case is significant. The two companies, alongside Strabag, have formed a joint venture company and are undertaking work on HS2 at Euston Station and in London. Unlike other joint venture companies working on HS2, the Skanska Costain Strabag joint venture has refused to agree an access agreement with Unite and won’t allow officials access to its welfare facilities to speak to workers, even though this is required by the client HS2.
Notes to editors:
For media enquiries ONLY please contact Unite senior communications officer Barckley Sumner on 07802 329235 or 0203 371 2067.
Construction giant Murphy’s has sacked four Unite members, including the long standing steward, for attending a union meeting in a site canteen in Limerick. Originally 14 workers were suspended but only those most associated with the union were dismissed.
This is blatant union victimisation. Unite has submitted an unfair dismissal claim, but are also campaigning to get the four union members reinstated.
REINSTATE THE MURPHY 4!
Action! Murphy’s are up for a Pipeline Guild award in the West End of London. Lenny Henry is giving out the awards. Seems like a great opportunity for some rank & file action:
Tuesday 14th March (assemble from 5pm)
Pipeline Industries Guild Awards
Grosvenor House Hotel
Spread the word – bring your mates, banners & dancing shoes.
Blacklist Support Group
Blacklist Support Group update and statement
The public inquiry into undercover policing held hearings this week at the end of Tranche 1, and involved a number of lawyers making closing statements based on the evidence so far.
The most important statement was from the Counsel to the Inquiry – which was effectively a summary of what Sir John Mitting (the judge overseeing the inquiry) is thinking right now. It is damning of the police.
The non-state non-police Core Participants statement is also significant. Blacklist Support Group are core participants in the public inquiry, so this is our collective response. There is an index at the start.
Blacklist Support Group statement:
” A few years ago, we were slated as conspiracy theorists for suggesting that undercover police infiltrated trade unions and blacklisted activists. This week, the spycops public inquiry has acknowledged that it did happen. It is a massive admission by the state, brought about by our collective struggle. Massive ‘thank you’ to everyone who has stood with us. Solidarity with our sister campaigners.
“Blacklist Support Group (BSG) are core-participants in the public inquiry. Blacklisted workers recognise the importance of the statement made by the counsel to the inquiry. In many ways Barr’s closing statement provides vindication for our fight. We have only got to this point because by the work of activists, investigative journalists, lawyers, unions and a small number of politicians, in waging campaign to uncover the truth about the nature of political policing in the UK. It is no thanks to the Metropolitan Police, the Home Office or the multiple arms of the state apparatus who have sought at every opportunity to cover up their wrong doing and delay the process.
“BSG applaud our fellow non-state non-police core participants, our legal teams and sister campaigns: Police Spies Out of Lives, Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance, The Monitoring Group, Undercover Research Group, Unite the Union, FBU and NUM who have stood shoulder to shoulder for over a decade in this fight for justice.
“Counsel to the Inquiry’s closing statement admits that the SDS political policing was unjustified and that undercover police officers joined trade unions to spy on internal union meetings: ‘trade unions and trade unionists are both mentioned in SDS reporting. Specific justice campaigns often feature in SDS reporting… for example the reporting on the Shrewsbury Two Action Committee’.
“Yet counsel to the inquiry also claims that trade unions were not ‘specific SDS targets or that individual trade unionists were reported upon solely because of their trade union activities’. This is a legalistic tautology. Information about what trade unionists said at union meetings was gathered by undercover police officers claiming to be union members. This intelligence was sent back to Special Branch. This is spying on trade union activities: plain and simple.
“Counsel to the inquiry also accepts that intelligence was shared with employers to blacklist British citizens because of their perfectly lawful political and trade union activities. This is state sponsored blacklisting: plain and simple”.
Keep the faith.
Press reportage (not a single word on BBC, ITV, C4, Sky News or radio).
Blacklist Support Group
Electricians are demanding energy firms SSE and Scottish Power intervene after one of their contractors allegedly sacked and blacklisted three colleagues when they sought recognition for their union Unite.
They warn labour shortages in the booming high voltage energy sector could lead to an erosion of safety standards without the protective effect of unions and on-the-ground union safety reps.
The three were sacked by Kirby Group Engineering on 23 December 2022, leading to a protest outside SSE’s Glasgow headquarters.
Greig McArthur, one of the sacked workers, who joined a second protest on 5 January 2023 outside the SSE HQ, said the firings came as the company was about to enter discussions at Acas over a recognition agreement with Unite.
McArthur said the protesters are calling on SSE and Scottish Power to “take some responsibility for their subcontractor firms behaving like this.”
He added it was critical there was a “healthy trade union influence in this sector so that these projects can benefit from the on-site effects of having union safety representatives.”
The workers’ case will be heard by an employment tribunal on 27 January.
Lord Tebbit has revealed when he was Secretary of State for Employment in the Thatcher government (1981-83), he received reports from senior Special Branch officers about union activists, which apparently included such specific detail as where the union members went on holiday.
The Tory grandee’s revelations came at a 16 March 2021 parliamentary meeting to discuss ongoing problems with the public inquiry into human rights abuses carried out by undercover police chaired by Sir John Mitting.
The parliamentary Zoom meeting was hosted by Richard Burgon MP and the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS) that was attended by MPs and members of the House of Lords from across the political spectrum. Lord Tebbit told the meeting that he also held private meetings with a former General Secretary of the EETPU to discuss how to tackle leftwing members of the electricians’ union.
Lord Tebbit’s comments came in response to a contribution from Dave Smith, secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, who highlighted that the internal police investigation Operation Reuben has already confirmed that undercover police from the UK’s political policing units including the Special Demonstration Squad and even MI5 had infiltrated trade unions and the intelligence they gathered was shared with major employers and the notorious blacklisting organisations; the Economic League and The Consulting Association.
Thousands of workers in the construction industry and other sectors who took on the role of a union safety rep or shop steward had their employment prospects blighted by blacklisting, which resulted in long periods of unemployment and in some cases family breakdowns or even suicides.
Providing information and briefings to key business contacts was part of the industry liaison role of the Special Branch Industrial Unit and the police continues to provide such briefings today via Operation Fairway and the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit Industrial Liaison Section.
At the end of the meeting, Dave Smith thanked the Conservative peer for his contribution saying, “during our long campaign and at the public inquiry we have continually asked how high up the political chain intelligence about union members gathered by police spies was shared. Thank you for confirming that it went all the way to the top of government.”
Also speaking at the parliamentary meeting were:
Lois Austin – Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance
‘Alison’ – Police Spies Out of Lives – talking about the experiences of women activists who suffered sexual and human rights abuse by spycops
Suresh Grover – The Monitoring Group – who spoke about Black & asian family justice campaigns that were infiltrated by undercover police
Lydia Dagostino – solicitor for the Non-State Non-Police core participants in the public inquiry.
Parliamentarians attending included:
John McDonnell MP (Lab) – founder member of the Blacklist Support Group
Diane Abbott MP (herself a core participant in the public inquiry)
Hilary Benn MP (Lab) – who spoke about an undercover police officer Lynn Watson being involved in a protest at his constituency office.
Chris Stephens MP (SNP shadow spokesperson on employment)
Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP (Lab)
Baroness Shami Chakrabarti (Lab)
Nadia Whittome MP (Lab)
Katy Clark MP (Lab)
Aspana Begum MP (Lab)
Anne McLaughin MP (SNP)
My name is Dave Smith, and I am an ex-construction worker who has been granted Core Participant status in the union strand of this Inquiry. I am speaking on behalf of the Blacklist Support Group, a campaign set up by and representing union members who were unlawfully blacklisted by major construction firms. When the BSG first spoke about being blacklisted for our union activities we were ignored by the authorities and ridiculed as conspiracy theorists. But blacklisting is not a conspiracy theory. It is conspiracy fact – and it involves the collusion of the police and the security services.
Trade unions arose during the period of the industrial revolution and the British Empire. At the same time that dynastic fortunes were being made in the slave trade, parliament was passing the Combinations Acts to make trade unions illegal. State spies were sent to spy on working class organisation ever since. Hostility towards trade unions – just like racism and sexism – has become so deeply ingrained in the mindset of the British establishment that it has carried on through the generations.
My good friend Lord Hendy has already mentioned the famous case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were transported to Australia for joining a union in 1834. But a less well-known event took place in the very same year. A meeting of the Master Builders in Ludgate Hill in London, where major employers drew up a plan to keep unions off their sites. Every craftsman looking for work was forced to sign the infamous ‘document’, declaring that they would never join a trade union. Failure to sign would result in dismissal or refusal of work. Without the welfare state, this would mean destitution for the workmen and their families.
In 1919, ex-military intelligence officers together with Conservative MPs and the captains of British industry set up the Economic League, to wage in their own words ‘a crusade for capitalism’ by keeping left wing union activists under surveillance and denying them work. The Economic League had both direct formal and (countless) informal links with the police, that resulted in thousands of workers losing their jobs in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, mining, engineering, banking and local government.
The Inquiry will find that after the Economic League closed down in 1993, Cullum McAlpine, a director of Sir Robert McAlpine Limited bought part of the Economic League blacklist to set up a new organisation called The Consulting Association. This secret body was comprised of major construction companies including; Balfour Beatty, Laing O’Rourke, Costain, Skanska, Kier, Bam, Vinci, AMEC and AMEY. It illegally orchestrated the blacklisting of construction workers and appointed a former Economic League employee, Ian Kerr, as Chief Executive. Files were kept on 3213 individuals, which included their name, national insurance number, address, photograph, phone number, car registration, information about their medical history and family members.
When a blacklisted worker was elected as a union representative, raised concerns about safety on a building site, submitted an employment tribunal or took part in a protest, this was recorded on his or her blacklist file. Every job applicant on major building projects, had their name checked against the blacklist and if there was a match, the worker would be refused work or dismissed. Each name check cost £2.20, the last set of invoices for Sir Robert McAlpine alone, when the company was building the Olympic Stadium was for £28,000. This is not a few managers chatting after work. This is industrial scale systematic blacklisting of union activists.
The Consulting Association did not have spies on every project; instead construction companies nominated a ‘main contact’, usually at director level; who received information from managers on site and then forward it to Ian Kerr. The Consulting Association even had its own constitution, which required companies to attend secret quarterly meetings with attendance at director level of the firm.
The consequence of the blacklisting conspiracy was that during the middle of the building boom, when employers were crying out for skilled labour, highly qualified and experienced workers found themselves virtually unemployable. When other construction workers were taking their families on holidays to Disneyland, blacklisted workers defaulted on their mortgages. The partners of blacklisted workers have spoken about having to take on two or three jobs to keep the family afloat, not being able to afford trainers or school trips for their children. One wife of a blacklisted worker has spoken about making the painful decision not to have a second child because of the family’s financial hardship. It is hardly surprising that there were arguments in relationships: families lost their homes and there were divorces.
In the 1990s I worked, and was a union safety rep, on the Jubilee Line Extension, and some of my fellow workers who took part in a safety dispute over the lack of fire alarms at London Bridge station ended up being blacklisted. Some of those blacklisted workers took their own lives. No one can say that blacklisting was the sole reason for these suicides, but prolonged periods of unemployment and family tensions cannot be good for anyone’s mental health.
Blacklisting is also responsible for workers’ deaths in another way. When union safety reps are repeatedly sacked just for highlighting unsafe working conditions such as asbestos, electrical safety or poor scaffolding, that sends out a message to other workers on site. It creates a climate of fear where other workers keep their heads down rather than speak up. The conscious blacklisting of safety reps is undoubtedly a contributory factor in the appalling workplace fatality rates in construction, the sector with consistently the highest number of deaths of any major industry in the UK.
Parliament was so outraged by the Consulting Association that as a direct consequence it introduced the Blacklisting Regulations 2010. A select committee investigation into Blacklisting in Employment published seven reports and called blacklisting a “real live conspiracy”In 2016, a High Court trial was settled when the UK’s biggest building firms made a public apology and paid damages for their blacklisting activities.
This Inquiry will find that is was not just the major employers who kept union activists under surveillance and contributed to our blacklisting – it was the political police at the heart of this public inquiry too. The police’s own internal investigation, Operation Herne has concluded:
Para. 4.2 – Police, including Special Branches and the Security Services supplied information to the blacklist funded by the country’s major construction firms, The Consulting Association and other agencies. Operation Herne finds this allegation is Proven
Para. 13.1.2 – Special Branches throughout the UK had direct contact with the Economic League, public authorities, private industry and trade unions.’
At the start of the opening statements, Counsel for the Inquiry stated that:
“The reporting of undercover officers refers to trade unions and to the trade union activities of some trade union members. There are concerns about why such information was recorded and what it was used for; in particular, whether it was passed to those who blacklisted workers”.
This Inquiry has already disclosed evidence that shows that from its very inception, spying on left-wing trade union activists was a central part of the Special Demonstration Squad’s (SDS) activities. The SDS annual report from 1972 alone records intelligence being gathered in relation to the miners’ strike and building workers strike of that year.
The intelligence gathered by SDS officers spying on union activists was added to Special Branch registry files, which acted as a central database for political activists targeted by Special Branch. Once information about an individual was placed on the registry files, it became available for anyone within Special Branch and the security services to access.
Lord Hendy has already highlighted to this Inquiry a disclosed report from a conference in the 1970s that clearly shows that Special Branch held specific files on trade unions; TGWU, AEUW, ASTMS, APEX, NALGO, CPSA, NUT. Plus the Shrewsbury Pickets, Pentonville 5, the Con Mech & Bryant Colour Works disputes and the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions.
Only two years after the formation of the SDS, the Special Branch Industrial Unit was established “with the aim of monitoring trade unionists from teaching to the docks” and developing a network of well-placed contacts in industry. These included directors of multinational companies and, according to Special Branch officers interviewed for the BBC TV series True Spies, General Secretaries of TUC affiliated trade unions. These police informants had a two-way sharing of information with officers from the Special Branch Industrial Unit. This Inquiry will find that intelligence gathered by both undercover and uniformed officers, was available to the Industrial Unit and was passed onto both major employers and blacklisting organisations.
A number of SDS officers worked for the Special Branch Industrial Unit, either before or after their undercover deployment, hardly surprising given the considerable degree of overlap between the work of the two units. One such officer was HN336, who during evidence yesterdaystated that Chief Superintendent Herbert Guy Lawrenson (known as Bert), head of C squad within the Met Police Special Branch at the time of the formation of the SDS,went to work for the Economic League.
Somewhat astonishingly, Operation Herne makes no mention of Chief Superintendent Lawrenson’s role in the Economic League. But according to Herne, the Special Branch Industrial Unit had a dedicated officer who was their official liaison officer with the Economic League. Blacklisted workers are particularly interested in the relationship between officers from the Special Branch Industrial Unit and Bert Lawrenson (who in many cases will have trained them and been their former boss).We expect this inquiry to fully investigate it.
In addition to the Special Branch registry files, police intelligence about political activists was also analysed and collated on the National Domestic Extremism Database, originally compiled by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), another undercover police unit central to this inquiry. The database holds information on thousands of British citizens that the state considers to be domestic extremists, many of whom have committed no crime whatsoever. Another police unit responsible for collating the Domestic Extremism Database was the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU). NETCU’s former head, Superintendent Steve Pearl, explained in an interview to the Daily Telegraph that the unit was set up to: “take over MI5’s covert role watching groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, trade-union activists and left-wing journalists”
In October 2008, Detective Chief Inspector Gordon Mills from NETCU gave a PowerPoint presentation to one of the secret Consulting Association meetings. Eight senior managers from the blacklisting companies attended. The presentation identified left wing activists as ‘emerging threats’ for which the ‘companies needed to have strong vetting procedures in place’. In a witness statement compiled for the High Court blacklisting trial Ian Kerr, the Consulting Association chief executive claims that NETCU:
‘wanted an output for their information…. I gave them the email addresses of the contacts in the construction industry and they would feed them information.’
NETCU and the Special Branch Industrial Unit are now both dissolved and absorbed into SO15 – Counter Terrorism Command. So state spying on union activists is now classified as counter-terrorism. Of course, the sharing of police intelligence across all sectors of industry has not ceased. It continues through Operation Fairway and the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit Industrial Liaison section. Disclosing information to industry contacts which has gone on for centuries is now officially sanctioned using what are known as Information Sharing Agreements. This Inquiry will find that in 2010, the office for the National Coordinator Special Branches urged police forces across the UK to become “more proactive” in putting on Special Branch briefings, to share information with academics and contacts in business and the public sector.
When police give briefings to industry contacts about individual activists – what precisely do they think the consequences are going to be? The ongoing sharing of such information with third parties will have negative impacts not just on the employment prospects of trade union activists, but potentially on access to universities or funding streams for community based anti-racist campaigns.
I now wish to raise the issue of specific incidents of political police units spying on unions relevant to the Blacklist Support Group and the eight individual core participants in the union strand. I will concentrate on a small group of union activists who all appear on the blacklist, and for over a decade from the early 1990s until the mid 2000s, were spied on by three separate SDS officers: Peter Francis, Mark Jenner and Carlo Neri.
This Inquiry will find that Mark Jenner, an undercover police officer from the Special Demonstration Squad infiltrated the construction workers’ union UCATT using the false name Mark Cassidy. Claiming to be a joiner, he attended Hackney Branch of UCATT, his union subscriptions were paid by a bank account set up by Special Branch. During his deployment he attended numerous union picketlines, protests, meetings and conferences. After each meeting pages of handwritten notes were typed up, presumably to be used as intelligence to be fed back to Special Branch.
Jenner also infiltrated a campaign group called the Colin Roach Centre, which amongst other activities was the home of the Hackney Trade Union Resource Centre. Numerous union branches and union related campaigns used its premises, including two small union groups infiltrated by Mark Jenner: the Building Workers Safety Campaign and the Brian Higgins Defence Campaign. The undercover police officer actually chaired some of the meetings and used his position to contact union branch secretaries from UCATT, UNISON, Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), Electrical and Plumbing Industries Union (EPIU), National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA). He also wrote letters to the well-respected safety body, London Hazards Centre and Inquest, the charity that supports those campaigning over deaths in police custody. Brian Higgins and John Jones, both core participants, were leading members of the groups Jenner infiltrated and both have entries on their blacklist files relating to those campaigns and the Colin Roach Centre.
Jenner also attended events organised by the London Joint Sites Committee, which brought together union activists to fightback on issues such as pay cuts, safety, and victimisation of union reps. I personally remember Jenner being particularly disruptive at meetings we both attended in Conway Hall. While spying on picket lines over unpaid wages at Waterloo, Jenner also came into contact and spied on other core participants; Frank Smith a blacklisted bricklayer, UCATT shop steward and Branch Secretary; and Steve Hedley, currently Senior Assistant General Secretary of the RMT rail union. In the late 1990s, Hedley was part of a union delegation to Northern Ireland as part of the peace process organised by the Hackney Trade Union Resource Centre and the Colin Roach Centre. Jenner was also part of that delegation and stayed at Hedley’s family home during the trip.
Union activism is not only about terms and conditions. It is multifaceted and all individual Core Participants in the union strand are also anti-racist and anti-fascist activists. Actively opposing fascism is viewed as something to be proud of by the trade union mo At the time of Peter Francis’ and Mark Jenner’s deployment, British National Party thugs and the fascist paramilitary group Combat 18 were terrorising communities, no doubt contributing to the rise of appalling racist murders such as those of Stephen Lawrence and Ricky Reel. Fascists also planted bombs in Brixton, Soho and Tower Hamlets. They vandalised union offices, including the office at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, where computers were destroyed and swastikas daubed on the walls.
Unsurprisingly, activists from construction unions were often asked to provide stewarding to defend labour movement events from fascist violence, especially during election campaigns. One loose network of union activists who helped steward events, myself included, was known for a short period of time as the ‘Away Team’. Peter Francis, Mark Jenner and Carlo Neri all spied on us.
For the record: we accuse Mark Jenner, and through him the British state, of interfering with the internal democratic processes of an independent trade union. They did this by covertly joining the union UCATT, by actively participating in debates and voting at union meetings on policy motions sent to the national conference and to the Regional Council; by distributing literature favouring a particular candidate during Executive Council elections; by publicly calling for the sacking of an elected union convenor; and by being particularly antagonistic at meetings thus creating divisions within the union. This is in direct contravention of international law signed and ratified by the United Kingdom, specifically: International Labour Organisation Convention 87 and the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 11. We expect the Inquiry to fully investigate the allegation.
Mark Jenner also used his skill of deceit to groom ‘Alison’, an activist for the National Union of Teachers, into having a five year co-habiting relationship during his deployment. The misogynist abuse of women activists is one of the most disgraceful human rights violations of the whole spycops scandal. Alison is of course a core participant.
When Jenner’s deployment was coming to an end, another undercover SDS officer, using the cover name Carlo Neri was sent to spy on the same group of activists.
The Inquiry will hear how, on more than one occasion, Neri incited Core Participants Frank Smith, Dan Gilman and Joe Batty to fire bomb a charity shop in North London. Joe Batty was a TGWU union steward who has been denied Core Participant status. The undercover officer claimed the shop was run by Roberto Fiore, the leader of the Italian fascist Forza Nuova Party. Fiore fled Italy after being wanted by Italian police in connection with the terrorist bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980 that killed 85 innocent people.
For the record: we accuse Carlo Neri of being an agent provocateur, of deliberately attempting to entrap union members by inciting them to commit arson. Again for the record: the spied upon activists wanted nothing to do with the proposed attack: they are trade union and anti-fascist activists, not terrorists.
Carlo Neri also deceived a Transport and General Workers Union rep from a homelessness charity, Donna McLean, into a relationship. Donna McLean is of course a Core Participant.
At one point during this deployment, Neri orchestrated a split from Donna McLean and moved in with Steve Hedley as a lodger. In October 2004, Steve Hedley was victimised and sacked from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project, a dismissal and dispute that appears on his blacklist file. Neri turned up on the picket line, spying on union members showing solidarity with Hedley.
There is a restriction order and a ruling stopping me from revealing the real name of Carlo Neri within this I have given an assurance that I will not break the restriction order by using his real name and therefore I won’t. However, I can say that I have known Carlo Neri’s real name for over five years, having worked with other activists and the Undercover Research Group to uncover it. When my book was published in 2016, in respect to his family, we took the decision not to use his real name. But Carlo’s real name has now been fully in the public domain for over 18 months.
Last week I heard Rajiv Menon QC being told he would be silenced for asking a question that the chair of the inquiry did not approve of. I am not a Queen’s Counsel, I am a blacklisted construction worker trying to get the truth of how me and my friends have been treated by the state. I will not be silenced.
Four weeks ago, I wrote an article for Tribune magazine opposing the Covert Human Intelligence Source (Criminal Conduct) Bill currently going through parliament. The proposed legislation will give all future undercover officers impunity from prosecution for any crime committed while on deployment including murder, torture and rape. To highlight the dangers of this horrific Bill, I cited the incitement to commit arson and Carlo Neri’s real surname was published. Neither myself, nor Tribune magazine have breached the restriction order.
But inside this public inquiry, the very body set up by parliament to get to the ‘truth’, no one is allowed to mention Neri’s real name. On Sunday night I watched the BBC adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials on TV. And being in this inquiry feels like stepping into an alternate universe; the one where the Magisterium holds onto power by clinging to an outdated view of the world, covering up the truth and deciding what people can and can’t know.
This Inquiry will find that the SDS did not just spy on trade unionists; the intelligence it gathered was passed onto employers and found its way onto the blacklist.
One of the most glaring examples so far uncovered comes from the undercover SDS officer Peter Francis, who was deployed in the early 1990s. While undercover, Peter Francis opened the Special Branch registry file on Frank Smith which included entries about his anti-racist role in the Away Team and his relationship with an American woman, Lisa Teuscher. This inquiry will find that Frank Smith’s Consulting Association blacklist file includes an entry which reads:
“Under constant watch officially and seen as politically dangerous”
Peter Francis claims this almost mirrors the wording of information that he used when he opened the Special Branch file on the blacklisted bricklayer. How could the blacklist possibly know that Frank Smith was being spied on by the state, unless that information had been passed on by the police or the security services?
Francis also gathered intelligence on Lisa Teuscher, primarily because of her role in the anti-racist campaign group Youth Against Racism in Europe. He was also specifically tasked by the Home Office to find evidence that could be used in relation to her immigration status, including a previous marriage. Following the SDS intervention, the Home Office tried to deport Ms Teuscher by refusing her indefinite leave to remain. Her passport was held for seven years, while she appealed the decision. Prevented from meeting her family, Ms Teuscher describes this period as ‘traumatic’. Eventually Ms Teuscher won her appeal but after seven years of constant stress, she was physically and mentally exhausted and eventually returned to the US, where she has now settled.
Despite never having worked in the construction industry, the Consulting Association blacklist also held information about Lisa Teuscher, including that she was “the girlfriend of Frank Smith” and that she was “involved in several marriages of convenience”. This information was placed on her blacklist file at the time that she was involved in her battle with the Home Office and is similar to the information that Peter Francis added to her Special Branch file.
No one is suggesting that Peter Francis personally provided the intelligence gathered during his undercover deployment to the blacklist. That was not his job. It was more senior officers from the Special Branch Industrial Unit or NETCU who were tasked with sharing information with “industry contacts”.
Another glaring example of where information from Special Branch registry files appears on the blacklist relates to an incident in November 1999. Every Remembrance Day, the National Front lay a wreath at the Cenotaph. In November 1999, Frank Smith, Dan Gilman and Steve Hedley participated in a counter-demonstration. Operation Herne has confirmed that the three core participants were observed by police on the day and that intelligence about their participation at the Cenotaph was added to Special Branch files. Within a few days, the same information appears on the blacklist files of the three activists, along with information that they were members of the Away Team.
All the information cited above was supplied by the blacklisting construction firm, Costain. This inquiry will find that two senior industrial relations managers for Costain both had close relationships with Special Branch; Dudley Barrett (now retired) and Gayle Burton (now a senior executive at the Jockey Club).
The only plausible explanation for how such very specific information about the Cenotaph incident and the Away Team appeared on the blacklist is that Special Branch gave it to a Costain manager. Any other explanation suggested by the police is laughable.
If the purpose of this police spying operation was genuinely to detect serious criminality or public disorder, why were none of us ever charged or prosecuted with a serious criminal offence? The waste of taxpayers money, the personal intrusion, the human rights abuse, the collusion with an illegal blacklist cannot possibly be justified based on preventing crime. It is clear that the purpose of the British political police units is not to stop crime, they exist to keep activists from justice campaigns, political groups and trade unions under surveillance. This is political policing – end of.
BSG accuse both the Special Branch Industrial Unit and NETCU of routinely sharing information reciprocally with senior business executives on both a formal and informal basis. It is through these officially sanctioned communication channels that intelligence gathered by undercover and uniformed officers appears on blacklist files. The ideological reasoning and purpose of both the state and corporate spying operations are almost identical; the national interest and the vested interests of big business are incorrectly viewed as one and the same. That intelligence about left wing activists was shared between the UK political police units and major corporations is hardly surprising.
Despite the designated lawyers representing some of the undercover officers claiming that the “police are neutral”, the state is never neutral in a major dispute between big business and trade unions.
Police collusion in blacklisting is not an aberration or the actions of a rogue unit, it is standard operating procedures for the UK’s political police. What the core participants in the union strand want from this inquiry, is for the police to reveal the detail of how state collusion with employers works. This Public Inquiry is not a trial. We expect a narrative verdict that explains not only the mechanics, but the ideological justification by senior police officers and politicians for such actions.
The Core Participants and the BSG are not the only union members that the undercover police spied on. There are seven million union members in the UK. Even today, trade unions remain the largest voluntary organisations in civil society, organising collectively for equality, for safety, for fair wages. Seven million members of the public, want to know if their meetings and conferences were infiltrated by undercover police officers? If police groomed female activists in their unions? If the state provided information about their union reps to employers?
The police lawyers will repeat the mantra that unions were not the target of the undercover surveillance and what we suffered was “collateral intrusion” or the new phrase, that we were “the subject of peripheral reporting”. But trade unionism isn’t a business relationship: union members are not customers. Union members are the union. There is a saying in the union movement: an injury to one, is an injury to all. Union members support each other irrespective of race, sex, class or political leanings. This is called solidarity. If undercover police sat in on our meetings or turned up on our picket lines to gather intelligence about union members – they were spying on trade unions. If the political police units kept a secret database with files on specific unions and activists – they were spying on trade unions. Claiming anything else is just smoke and mirrors.
It is time for the police to come clean and name names. Yes, we want the names of the undercover officers who spied on trade unionists to be released. Yes, we want the names of the trade unions and all of the 1000 political groups that were spied on by the spycops to be released. But we also want much more than that.
It is in the public interest and part of the terms of reference for this public inquiry to know what was done with the intelligence gathered by undercover sources. We want to know which other union members lost their jobs or were denied work because of information supplied by the police to industry. We are calling on the Inquiry to force the police to publish the names of Special Branch Industrial Unit’s ‘key industry contacts’ that both supplied and received information. We want the directors and the companies that were supplied with information about union activists to be named. And from the point of view of the Blacklist Support Group, if any trade union officials were amongst the ‘key industry contacts’ supplying information to the police, we call for them to be named as well.
In construction we have found their blacklist, but we are not the only one. For decades, the Not Required Back system has blacklisted workers on oil and gas platforms who complain about safety. The BBC kept a Staff Transfer Register (of those vetted by MI5), the Subversion in Public Life database run by the security services was used to blacklist civil servants, and the retail sector’s National Staff Dismissal Register blacklist was actually funded by a £1million grant the Home Office.
In the 2002 BBC TV documentary series True Spies, SDS officers explained that Fords Halewood factory in Liverpool provided Special Branch with a list of all job applicants to vet. One of the officers stated that:
“It was very, very important that trade unions were monitored… We were expected to check these lists. You call it blacklisting and that’s what it is. In any war there are always going to be casualties”.
Does the secret state believe it is at war with trade unions? Are we still viewed as the enemy within?
We demand to know whether intelligence gathered by undercover police was supplied to any of these blacklists or the companies that subscribed to them. We believe that some form of blacklisting occurs in virtually every sector of the UK economy, but mostly remains hidden – as does the role of the police. For this Inquiry to have any credibility, it needs to fully investigate our concerns.
Another aspect of political policing the BSG is concerned about, is what happened to police and MI5 spies and their supervisors after they stopped working for the state? I have already mentioned Bert Lawrenson leaving Special branch to work for the Economic League. But he is not the only one: Assistant Chief Constable Anton Setchell, was the officer in charge of the UK police domestic extremism machinery between 2004 and 2010, is currently head of global security at Laing O’Rourke – one of the blacklisting construction companies. Superintendent Steve Pearl, who ran NETCU, is now a non-executive director at Agenda Security Services, Barrie Gane, the former deputy head of MI6 sits on the Board of Threat Response International: both companies spy on activists for corporate clients.
Control Risks, another private security firms that employs former state spies had a £59,000 contract with Crossrail to keep union activists under surveillance. Those spied on included Frank Morris, the first union rep on the publicly funded project, who was sacked within a few days of being elected and has suffered long periods of unemployment ever since due to blacklisting. Are the ex-police spies using their relationships with former colleagues to garner information about campaigners and union activists?
Given the mass privatisation over the past four decades, has there been a blurring of the lines between state and corporate spying? We believe it is essential that this Inquiry investigates whether any state spying functions formerly carried out by the undercover police units or MI5 have been outsourced to private companies. Which companies have been given contracts? How much taxpayers’ money have they been given? If state spying is now privatised what is the political oversight? Are these privatised spies exempt from FOI Act and public scrutiny?
Unfortunately, we are extremely sceptical that the Inquiry will be a success.
Everything we know so far about the spycops scandal in relation to trade unions and blacklisting is because activists have uncovered it. Not because those in authority have willingly admitted or disclosed the evidence of their wrong doing, but because it has been unearthed by activists, investigative journalists, campaigning lawyers, MPs and trade unions. One of the core-participants in the union strand is Steve Acheson, an electrician who stood on a picketline in Manchester for over three years to highlight the blacklist, which was finally exposed when a whistleblower came forward and gave evidence at an employment tribunal. Steve has one of the largest blacklist files in the country and was almost unemployable for nearly a decade, nearly losing his home. It is people like Steve who have helped uncover the truth – not the police.
When the BSG first complained about police involvement in blacklisting in 2012, the Metropolitan Police refused to even accept the complaint. Only after an appeal by Imran Khan and Partners was it passed onto the Independent Police Complaints Commission, who quickly confirmed that:
“it is likely that all Special Branches were involved in providing information about prospective employees”
This was immediately disputed by Chief Constable Mick Creedon, who claimed there was no such evidence. We now know this to be simply untrue. At every step, the police have obstructed our fight for justice and we fear that the police will continue to deliberately obstruct the work of this Inquiry.
By way of example, NETCU was deliberately set up under the auspices of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), who are now known as the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC). The effect of this, was that although being funded directly by the Home Office and all of its staff were serving police officers, NETCU was outside the scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act.
The police officers working for NETCU complied reports, exchanged correspondence, and kept minutes of internal meetings. All requests for the documents relating to the Consulting Association meeting to be disclosed have been refused by the police, instead they claim that all NETCU records were destroyed and there was no transfer or copying of any information.
On behalf of the BSG I will go out on a limb and state for the public record that this is a blatant lie. Are we and the public seriously to believe that after seven years, not one single document produced by NETCU was worthy of transfer to the Met Police or has been accessed by the police since?
Ask the families of football supporters who were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough or miners falsely arrested at Orgreave or the Birmingham 6 whether the police The undercover officers in the spycops units were trained to lie – this is not ‘name-calling’ as the lawyer for the MPS stated – it is a fact. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to suggest that some ex-police officers will lie when questioned by this Inquiry. This Inquiry has a choice, either it accepts everything it is told by the police as the truth, or it accepts that police officers, and especially the UK’s political policing units, have lied and do lie, and therefore the Inquiry needs to be sceptical about accepting their statements at face value.
Unfortunately, from what we have seen so far, the Inquiry has repeatedly given the benefit of the doubt to the police. An incidence of this is that despite admitting that spying on union militants is a central role of SDS activity, the police claim that in 40 years of undercover deployments, only one police officer actually joined a trade union.
I am not a lawyer, but I imagine that when barristers meet at legal events and social functions they ask each other what Chambers they are at? In the labour movement, they ask each other what union they belong to. Any SDS officer targeting union activists on an extended deployment who was not a member of a union would stand out like a sore thumb. Yet to date, the police claim that in over 40 years, only one undercover officer ever joined a trade union? Are we seriously meant to believe this? Yet when we met the Inquiry team in 2018, this is what they were told by the Chair.
Giving the police the benefit of the doubt is illustrated in their continued refusal to provide Core Participants with copies of their own police files. None of us would be Core Participants if the police had not already accepted that we had been kept under surveillance. I have applied for my police file, plus files relating to the Blacklist Support Group. On both occasions, the police response was that they can ‘neither confirm nor deny’ whether the police hold any files on me, citing national security and the potential to interfere with ongoing criminal investigations as the reason. So much for police transparency.
In July 2018, the Blacklist Support Group held a meeting with the Inquiry team, where we specifically requested that the police files for Brian Higgins and John Jones be released. This was because the two core participants were both severely ill and in their seventies. We were given assurances by the Chair of the Inquiry that everything possible would be done to make this disclosure happen. More than two years later, the files have still not been released. Brian Higgins passed away in June 2019, without ever being able to see the extent of the state spying on him. What possible national security reason can there be for denying a dying man access to his police file from the 1990s? I am in close contact with Brian’s family and I am putting it mildly by saying that the family are furious by the way they have been treated by the police and by this Inquiry. This Inquiry should be aware of the responsibility it owes to those who have not survived the long years of waiting for the truth.
In relation to Tranche 1 of this inquiry which starts in 1968, the BSG represents construction union activists with blacklist files that go back as far as the early 1960s. Yet, rather than seeing the full evidence bundle, the only disclosure we have seen so far are heavily redacted versions of Operation Herne and the SDS Annual Reports from 1968-1975.
If these reports are going to be used as core evidence in the Inquiry, I wish to make the following Firstly, the Herne Report. What is so striking is the use of language. The police repeatedly use terminology such as ‘alleged victimisation’ and ‘supposed blacklisting’ in relation to the core participants in the union strand. This is despite the fact that the investigating officers had full access to the Consulting Association blacklist, parliament changed the law because of the scandal and the firms had made a public apology in the High Court. The Herne Report is not a transparent, no-stone-unturned investigation seeking the truth: it is the police preparing their defence for this inquiry.
There are 74 Appendices in Operation Herne – including witness statements with the former Special Branch contact with the Economic League – none of which have been disclosed to BSG.
It would however be churlish of me not to thank the officers compiling the Herne Report for their glowing review of the book written by myself and the investigative journalist Phil Chamberlain, which is described as, “the most comprehensive collection of material on the subject”. I assure them we will use that quote in our future marketing. Their assessment also demonstrates the need for accounts from activists who have uncovered the truth, to be treated with as much (if not more) validity as witness statements from the officers.
Secondly, in relation to the SDS Annual Reports. These remind me of the Annual Reports that multinational companies involved in blacklisting provide to shareholders at their AGMs. What is noticeable, is while such annual reports identify areas in the globe where the companies operate and may even mention corporate ethics, they always omit any mention of the number of fatalities on their building projects or prosecutions for breaches of safety laws. Or ongoing investigations for human rights violations. Not once have I seen any mention of the employers’ role in blacklisting in their annual reports. This is hardly surprising, as the reports are a PR documents written by senior executives with a vested interest in securing a continued funding stream. The SDS Annual Reports fulfil the exact same purpose.
Yet even these heavily redacted and sanitised documents raise concerns that there are other documents that may be of relevance to the BSG. One example is the explicit mention of the Shrewsbury Two Defence campaign which set up by rank and file members of the construction unions to support Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson was an explicit target of the SDS. The two union activists were imprisoned in a notorious miscarriage of justice involving collusion between the security services and major construction firms. Nearly 50 years after the event, successive Home Secretaries have refused to release the official papers into the Shrewsbury Pickets, citing national security. This shouts of an establishment cover up.
One of the leading members of the Shrewsbury Two Defence campaign was Mick Abbott, a scaffolder whose life was blighted for four decades due to blacklisting. His blacklist file starts in 1964, with multiple entries about his role in the Shrewsbury campaign. If SDS officers had infiltrated the campaign, it is implausible that Mick Abbott, and other blacklisted union activists that helped run the Shrewsbury Two Defence campaign, would not have been under surveillance. Sadly, Mick Abbott passed away in 2014, so he will never know if the police were spying on him or supplied information to employers about him.
SDS annual reports also refer to the 1972 national building workers strike as being a central area of concern. If the SDS was keeping union activists under surveillance during the 1972 strike, it is again implausible that at least some of the blacklisted workers from that period were not the targets of surveillance, as they were the very activists leading the dispute. Yet despite making repeated applications to the inquiry, the BSG has been denied permission to view all the evidence from Tranche 1 and our lawyers are unable to even suggest questions to be asked of the witnesses. This does not in any way speak of a transparent, fact-finding and truth-seeking Inquiry.
In fact, rather than being transparent and accessible, the Inquiry has set up as many barriers as possible to prevent core participants, the public and the media from being able to view or listen to proceedings. Oral evidence is only possible to be viewed by pre-registering. Those lucky enough to be selected must travel to London during a lockdown to sit in a hotel room and watch the proceedings on a TV screen. Otherwise, the only way to view the evidence is via a transcript feed, which is like being transported back to the 1980s to watch the Inquiry on Ceefax. This just doesn’t work. Journalists can’t check quotes, which makes it impossible to post reports in time for the TV and radio news.
Dominic Casciani, the BBC Home Affairs correspondent leading for the state broadcaster has tweeted: “it is virtually unusable for reporters trying to follow it remotely. The words are appearing via a fast scrolling video feed that can’t be paused or rewound… This basically means, from a practical perspective as a working reporter, that a public inquiry becomes largely impossible to report”
At the start of each day, the chair states that “members of the public, are entitled to hear the same public evidence as I will hear and to reach your own conclusions about it.” This is patently not true. But easily resolvable if the inquiry live streamed all evidence, exactly as the Grenfell public inquiry is doing. Unfortunately, there seems little chance of this, and we seem to be watching a good old fashioned establishment cover up take place before our eyes.
In conclusion, the treatment of blacklisted workers by the British legal system does not make us optimistic. The multinational corporations that ruined so many lives were literally able to buy themselves out of a High Court trial involving over 700 claimants. That is not justice. Blacklisted workers do not expect the state investigating itself to provide ‘justice’.
Our participation in this inquiry is based on the slim hope that at least some evidence of the anti-union bias, institutional racism and institutional sexism of the British state spying machinery will be exposed to public scrutiny. We are here to shake the tree and see what falls out. Keeping this dark underbelly of anti-democratic political policing hidden is against the public interest – it only helps the perpetrators of wrong doing – not the survivors or the British public.
The police can claim all they like that they were protecting democracy. But by spying on trade union members and colluding with our blacklisting, the UK’s political policing units are actually protecting big business and capitalism. And for the avoidance of all doubt: capitalism and democracy are not the same thing.
Thank you, and solidarity with all the non-state Core Participants.