The man who blacklisted construction workers justified ruining their lives because “they had other agendas” when they raised health and safety issues.
Britain’s largest construction companies set up and ran blacklists of “troublemakers”. This involved spying on the left and infiltrating union meetings. This blacklisting by building bosses continues today.
Ian Kerr ran the West Midlands-based Consulting Association from 1993 until it was shut down in 2009 following a raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
Kerr gave evidence to parliament’s Scottish Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday of this week. The committee is conducting an investigation into blacklisting.
This was the first time Kerr has spoken in public. He revealed shocking new facts about the scale of the blacklisting operation.
Kerr was fined £5,000 in July 2009 for breaching the Data Protection Act by running the blacklist. Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd paid the fine “on the basis that I put myself at the front, took the flak if you like for it, so they wouldn’t be drawn into all of this, but they would remain hidden,” he told the committee.
In addition to paying Kerr’s fine, the firm also paid towards winding-up costs for the Consulting Association. Kerr said the total of both was approximately £20,000.
Kerr also said Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd made up to £20,000 in loans in the early 1990s to help set up the Consulting Association.
That included the price of buying a blacklist—“intellectual property”—from the Economic League (see below).
Cullum McAlpine, a director of a number of Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd companies, was the founding chair of the Consulting Association.
David Cochrane—former head of human resources at Sir Robert McAlpine—was the chair in the last few years. The blacklisting association’s management meetings were also often held at the company’s offices.
Asked to name other directors Kerr’s memory became a little shaky. He said, “I mean, this is going back a long time. God rest them, they may not be alive some of them.”
Construction companies subscribed to the association’s blacklists for around £2,500 a year. They supplied information on employees and sat on its organising boards.
Companies additionally paid around £1.50 per name to have Kerr search his files. Some 44 companies in total were subscribers at one time or another. That averaged out at around 20 companies a year. They included the biggest names in construction, including Skanska, Tarmac, Kier Group and Trafalgar House.
The projects that had used the blacklist included the headquarters for GCHQ, hospital PFI projects, power stations and the Jubilee Line tube extension. Wembley Stadium and the Millennium Dome were also built with blacklisting.
Sir Robert McAlpine, Balfour Beatty “and possibly Skanksa” had used blacklisting for their Olympics contracts, according to Kerr. He claimed he was routing out “troublemakers” in order to “ensure they were built on time”.
Confirming what rank and file electricians have argued, Kerr said that companies subscribed to the Consulting Association had discussed the ongoing multi-million pound Crossrail project.
Kerr said, “There was a lot of discussion at meetings [of the Consulting Association] about Crossrail because there was a perception that it was going to be a problematic contract. Like the Jubilee Line had been.”
People were put on the blacklist for being militant, raising health and safety issues—or for simply being active trade union members.
Sometimes the reasons for blacklisting were ridiculous. One person wrote to their local paper mentioning Nelson Mandela. Another sent a May Day greeting to the Morning Star. But nonetheless it ruined lives.
In contrast, Kerr was paid £47,500 a year on top of a car, life insurance, private health cover and a Christmas bonus of half his December salary.
Kerr claims that the names and the rest of the files were destroyed. He told the committee, “I considered what to do with all this and the obvious thing to do was to get rid of it. It was so thoroughly burnt that there’s no chance of it remaining.”
Kerr confirmed that there was at least one other blacklisting company in existence and that blacklisting continues to this day.
Blacklisted worker Steve Acheson told Socialist Worker, “That man has ruined my life. The secret files the Consulting Association kept on me were used to unfairly dismiss me on job after job, for no more than raising genuine safety issues such as drying facilities and Weil’s disease caused by rats urine.”
“But he was only the foot soldier for the directors of multinational construction firms. Whether they are from big business, the state or the unions, the guilty should be brought to justice.”
Dave Smith from the Blacklist Support Group told Socialist Worker, “Kerr himself is a pathetic figure—but a pathetic figure that got rich and lived the high life by running an illegal blacklist that put thousands of innocent decent hard working people on the dole for years.
“Kerr's actions took meals from our kids’ tables. He may feel no remorse but we are angry and we want justice.
“It was the matter-of-fact way that he described the systematic abuse of power by big business that I found most shocking—as if we were just an inconvenience in the way of companies wanting to make big profits.
“It has taken years of campaigning to get Kerr to spill the beans in public. I have a message for the supposedly respectable directors of multinational construction firms, police officers and corrupt union officials who were all part of this conspiracy—get a good lawyer, because we’re coming after you next.”
Police and spooks
While Kerr denied personally having any police contact, he confirmed that there was liaison between the building bosses and the cops.
He agreed that the Consulting Association’s “main contacts” had liaised with police over the blacklist. These “main contacts” were the directors of construction companies.
Kerr was questioned about his previous activities in the Economic League. He was asked what information the police had given to the blacklisters.
He replied, “As good as the League gave to them. Common sense tells me that it would be a two way street.” He added, “There were meetings between League people further up than me and various police departments. The nature of them were not publicised.”
There were links between the Consulting Association, the Economic League and the security services—particularly over the monitoring of Irish construction workers.
Asked directly if he was involved in the “security clearance” of Irish workers on Ministry of Defence contracts, Kerr said he would only answer the question in private. After a long pause he added, “I didn’t have any direct link is the quick answer.”
The trade unions
Kerr confirmed that some of the information in the blacklist came from within the trade union movement.
Asked if trade union officials provided information, Kerr replied, “Yes I agree with you, that would have been the case. It would have been a particular relationship with a human resources manager in a particular area and that regional officer of the union.”
MPs noted that some of the blacklisting cards contained “references to union membership”. Others were “known to associate with” somebody in a union.
Kerr was asked, “Would that have come from a trade union official or trade union?” He replied, “Probably.”
As well as spying on construction workers, Kerr’s work involved spying on the left. He told the committee, “I toured a lot of the radical bookshops in London in Charing Cross, Caledonian Road, to pick up the sort of publications that would not normally be found in WH Smiths or a normal bookstand.
“I had a subscription to Socialist Worker, the Socialist, Labour Research, a lot of anarchist magazines.”
Kerr clamed, “It was to get a wider overview as to what was being said about the construction industry. Some of the individuals were actually named as authors.
“There’d be a major article in, say, Socialist Worker for example about a particular site problem which may mention one or two of these people.
“It goes back to the days of problems in the industry in the early 1970s. A lot of that was motivated by people who were anti-capitalism—the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Militant Tendency.”
But this went beyond simply reading Socialist Worker. Kerr admitted to attending left wing and union meetings, and to holding files on individual unions and on the Socialist Workers Party as an organisation.
Asked if he had ever infiltrated a meeting. Kerr replied, “Yes I did, the League had a pro-free enterprise stance. Trotskyists were anti-capitalism and companies were interested to know what was being planned and thought about as tactics to try and bring a company to its knees, demand more money, or whatever reason.
“A lot of these were held as public meetings as public places. I went to Birmingham meetings in the town halls, in upstairs rooms in pubs.”
He said, “I would have had a file on the Socialist Workers Party. I had a file on the National Front. Any organisation that seemed to be jumping up and down about construction, it was my role to keep tabs.
“If somebody said, ‘What’s the Socialist Workers Party, I’ve no idea what it is,’ I could look at the file.”
The chair of the inquiry said, “My anxiety is that the youthful errors of somebody in their teens would then be on their file and if never cleaned off they would never have the chance to get gainful employment, establish a home, and get the stability that usually corrects juvenile delinquencies like Trotskyism?” Kerr replied, “The indiscretions of youth was taken into account.”
The chair also said, “I spent years opposing Trotskyists. But then putting their name on cards that could result in them becoming unemployable… It seems entirely different from the battle of ideas.” Kerr replied, “I didn’t deal with how this information was processed.”
The chair asked him, “Did it never occur to you that some of these who had Trotskyist views needed a job as an electrician?”
Kerr replied, “Most of the people who spoke at these meetings were well known. What you were doing really was countering what was going to be put in Socialist Worker or the Morning Star.”
Kerr also revealed that he had around 200 names of environmental activists which started being collected after protests in the early 1990s at projects such as Twyford Down. They were colour coded green in the association’s database. That material was part of a large number of files not seized by the Information Commissioner.
The Economic League
Ian Kerr worked for the Economic League from 1969, infiltrating meetings and compiling blacklists. The Economic League was a shadowy organisation set up in 1919 to combat Bolshevism.
Kerr said, “Within the Economic League was a group known as the services group which was composed of the construction company members who were for the most part members of the Economic League.”
The Economic League closed down after it received too much publicity in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Kerr said, “Because of the problems that the industry perceived it had, going back to the early 1970s, the industry decided it should take steps to cover itself should problems arise… the national strike it had in the early 1970s—it wouldn’t be caught in that way again.”
Kerr explained that following the Economic League’s shutdown, the “servicing group companies decided to continue as an operation”. That is what became the Consulting Association.
Another blacklisting company called Caprim Ltd was set up by the former managing director of the Economic League. According to Kerr, “Director general Stan Hardy and the director of information and research Jack Winder” set up up Caprim for the purposes of checking workers’ CVs.