Socialist Worker

‘Inadequate’ fine for construction blacklist

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2154

One of the men behind a huge construction blacklist pleaded guilty last week to breaching the Data Protection Act.

Ian Kerr has been involved in blacklisting workers for at least 30 years.

He drew up a blacklist of thousands of construction workers and sold the information to prospective employers, Macclesfield Magistrates court heard.

Kerr built up a database of more than 3,213 workers which included details of their trade union activities and employment.

Kerr’s offices were raided by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) which uncovered evidence he was selling the details. He operated the current list for as long as 15 years.

Kerr, from Droitwich in Worcestershire, pleaded guilty through his solicitor.

Magistrates were told more than 40 companies paid an annual subscription of £3,000 to Kerr’s firm, Consulting Association, for access to the list.

Among the firms using the list were Balfour Beatty, Robert McAlpine, Laing O’Rourke, Costain and Skanska.

Adrian Long, chair of the magistrates, said it was unclear who profited from the Consulting Association’s activities and instructed the ICO to undertake further investigations.

He said, “We need to know the nature of this organisation and exactly what sums of money were involved.

“Was (Kerr) simply an employee and others were financing the organisation and taking the money?”

Long ordered the ICO to establish the “structure, ownership and finances” of the Consulting Association.

He said the maximum fine of £5,000 for breaking data protection laws available to magistrates was “grossly inadequate”.

He referred the case to the crown court which can impose a much stiffer sentence – to the applause from construction workers in the public gallery.

Outside court, electrician Steve Acheson said, “I was unfairly dismissed in 2000 and later won an industrial tribunal against that company.

“Because of that information being on Kerr's blacklist, few companies would employ me. To be out of work for such a long time, it affected my health and my family.

Devastated

“My life was devastated. I couldn't understand why nobody would employ me. There was no recession then. I am a highly qualified and experienced electrician and I work hard. But nobody would take me on because of this blacklist.

“It makes me very angry that for many years Kerr was earning a living denying others the right to do the same.”

Jim Woods, 60, a joiner, said on the steps of the court, “The lives of myself and many others were adversely affected without being given the opportunity to challenge the information. Most people who were blacklisted on the building sites were trying to defend the terms and conditions of their fellow workers.”

More evidence has come to light that Ian Kerr began investigating trade unionists and leftwing activists in the 1970s for the Economic League, a secretive, rightwing vetting organisation set up in 1919 to fight Bolshevism.

The league had files on as many as 45,000 people it considered to be “subversive”, “troublemakers” and “extreme leftwing”. It was paid by more than 2,000 companies to vet potential workers against its list and weed out those it believed were active trade unionists.

Michael Noar, the League’s director-general between 1986 and 1989, told the Guardian that Kerr had worked for the organisation for a long time, infiltrating “a lot” of trade union and political meetings, recording who had said what and taking away documents such as attendance lists.

Effective

Noar said, “He was a key guy. He was one of our most effective research people.”

Minutes from internal Economic League meetings in 1988 show that Kerr liaised with construction companies who were collectively known inside the league as the Services Group.

They got extra help with vetting and covert intelligence-gathering on union activists, leftwing workers and workers who complained about safety or rights at work.

The League had by the late 1980s begun to run into financial trouble as the media and campaigners exposed its methods. Companies stopped subscribing not because they were against blacklisting but because it emerged that the League kept inaccurate files, based on hearsay.

Documents show Kerr put forward suggestions about how it could raise more money from the Services Group.

A confidential letter from the Costain construction firm to the Economic League in 1988 names Kerr as an important official in the organisation.

The league was wound up in 1993 and at about that time, the information commissioner believes, Kerr took the league files on construction workers and set up the Consulting Association.


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News
Tue 2 Jun 2009, 18:21 BST
Issue No. 2154
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