Campaigners against the construction industry blacklist have reacted with anger after the Metropolitan Police (MPS) refused to ‘neither confirm nor deny’ (NCND) whether the Blacklist Support Group has been the subject of surveillance by undercover police units including Special Branch.
The statement from the MPS came in a 9 October 2014 written response to a Freedom of Information request by investigative journalist Phil Chamberlain. He had requested “copies of any files held by the Metropolitan Police (including Special Branch) on the organisation called the Blacklist Support Group. This is a group campaigning for the rights of those refused work because of their union activities.”
MPS responded that it was in the “public interest” for them to refuse to “confirm or deny in order to safeguard national security” the existence of files on the Blacklist Support Group. It did though admit it held information that “some information is held that may ‘relate’ to the Blacklist Support Group.”
It would be highly unlikely there was not a paper trail at the MPS HQ. A Select Committee investigation found that the undercover police unit known as the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) attended and gave powerpoint presentations to meetings of the Consulting Association blacklisting organisation. The head of the covert blacklisting organisation, which was financed and controlled by major construction companies, was prosecuted for holding illegally files on construction workers. Construction firms paid on a case-by-case basis for frequently inaccurate information contained in these files.
It was Chamberlain’s investigative work that led to a raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office on the Consulting Association, closing it down in 2009.
The MPS response notes there was a pre-agreed police line on queries about the Consulting Association, spelled out in the FOI response. “IF ASKED: is it true that NETCU shared information with the Consulting Association? We do not discuss matters of intelligence.”
Supt Steve Pearl, who ran NECTU, is now a director at Agenda Security Services, which provides employment vetting services. His former boss, ex-Assistant Chief Constable Anton Setchell, who was the senior police 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 construction companies subscribing to the Consulting Association.
MPS could in these circumstances have confirmed or denied the existence of files on the Blacklist Support Group. The Freedom of Information Act allows this where the response would “inform issues that are currently the subject of public debate in relation to government surveillance and improve the quality and accuracy of public debate, which may otherwise be steeped in rumour and speculation.”
Instead MPS chose to adopt a NCND defence. Given the huge public interest in the undercover police surveillance of women activists deliberately targeted by officers from the Special Demonstration Squad and other secret political police units, it seems a difficult decision to justify. The NCND position adopted by the MPS in relation to the women activists was defeated in the High Court in September. Some of the women activists currently suing the Metropolitan Police themselves appear on the Consulting Association blacklist.
A number of blacklist activists, including Blacklist Support Group secretary Dave Smith, have been refused copies of their own personal police files, with MPS arguing that providing the documents may jeopardise ongoing criminal investigations.
Responding to the Met Police’s latest refusal to come clean, Smith said: “It is without doubt that the police and security services are spying on trade unionists fighting for justice on the issue of blacklisting. They have colluded with big business to deliberately target trade unionism over decades. Shrewsbury, Orgreave, blacklisting; the list goes on and on. The refusal to provide any information whatsoever smacks of an establishment cover-up. Blacklisting is no longer an industrial relations issue: it is a human rights conspiracy.”
Lawyers working for the Blacklist Support Group have submitted a complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) about the role of the police in blacklisting. Despite accusations of an establishment cover-up, even the police have been forced to admit the flow of information was not purely one way.
Sarah McSherry, a solicitor from Imran Khan and Partners, said: “While correspondence from the police in relation to this complaint continually raises concerns about the quality of their investigation, it is interesting to note that they confirm that they have identified a potential ‘flow of information between Special Branch and the construction industry’.”
A blacklisting group litigation case returns to the Royal Courts of Justice on Thursday 16 October.