‘Blacklisting’ firm shut down by ICO

For some time, I’ve been concerned about the little-discussed practice of ‘blacklisting’, the creation and sale of databases of workers thought to be troublemakers, radicals or union activists. Last year, I noted the failed attempt by the British government to legitimise this activity with the creation of the National Dismissal Register, and connected this to earlier surveillance of workers through the Economic League. See this more recent post where I summarised the story in a slightly different context.

But the Economic League, set up after WW1 and finally closed in 1993, had several offshoots. Now, as reported in most of the British press, one of them has been closed down by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). ‘The Consulting Association’, a firm based in Droitwich, Worcestershire had apparently been operating for 15 years selling confidential information on construction workers to all the major building companies. According to the BBC, 3,213 workers’ names were contained on the list and were categorised by political affiliations and union activity etc.

Not surprisingly the firm was owned and run by one Ian Kerr, who was previously involved in the Economic League and who still seems to think he was doing nothing wrong, despite his past, and despite the fact that he had previously denied even the existence of this database. But he, along with all the clients named by the report, including Amec, Taylor Woodrow, Laing O’Rourke and Balfour Beatty and many others – there is a full list on the Guardian site – were breaking the Data Protection Act by illegally keeping and trading in personal information. We’ll see whether the big building firms get away with it; most likely they will simply claim that that they didn’t know the data was illegally acquired and traded.

Given the recent history of the National Dismissal Register to set up databases of troublesome workers, it is particularly ironic that minister, Peter Mandelson, is quoted as applauding this action by the ICO in the various reports.

Privatising political policing in the UK?

Another good piece by Henry Porter on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, against the influence of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), which despite being a private organisation with no public accountability, has a very large influence on policy. The particular concern is with reports that ACPO has set up a new Confidential Intelligence Unit (CIU), to monitor so-called ‘domestic extremists’ which will apparently be based at Scotland Yard. They are currently advertising for a Chief Executive.

According the Emergency Services News, the CIU will target environmental groups and those behind anti-Israel demonstrations and ” infiltrate neo-Nazi groups, animal liberation groups and organisations behind unlawful industrial action such as secondary picketing.” In other words we are back to the bad old days of defining everyone who doesn’t agree with the state as ‘subversives’ and putting them under surveillance. This is hardly new. I was one of a quite a large number of environmental protestors targeted by a private detective agency employed by the government back in the early 1990s, and in fact this kind of activity, far from being incidental to ordinary policing was at the heart of the ‘new police’ in Britain from their foundation in the Nineteenth Century. Statewatch founder, Tony Bunyan’s excellent history of The Political Police in Britain (Quartet, 1977) shows how the experience of colonial rule of India and Ireland was imported back to Britain. Targeting organised labour is hardly new either: immediately after the first world war, the British government introduced the Emergency Powers Act (1920) which was specifically targeted at strikes, and was used many times against striking workers. This was also always one of the major functions of MI5.

This isn’t the only recent story of this nature either. Last year The Guardian drew attention to the practice of ‘blacklisting’ workers, mainly those who are known as union activists or radicals. It was in reference to the new National Dismissal Register (NDR), which keeps a record of all workers who are dismissed from their jobs, supposedly for wrongdoing. The initiative was originally set up a joint venture between the Home Office and the British Retail Consortium through an organisation called Action Against Business Crime (AABC), although after revelations about its activities, the government rapidly withdrew leading to the announcement of its closure to new business on December 19th, 2008. However the website now seems to indicate its resurrection…

We have been here before too. Another product of the post-WW1 paranoia about organised labour was The Economic League, a right-wing anti-communist, anti-union organisation, that had attempted to prevent those it saw as dangerous subversives from gaining employment. (see: Arthur McIvor. 1988. ‘A Crusade for Capitalism’: The Economic League, 1919-39. Journal of Contemporary History 23(4): 631-655). The League was finally wound up in 1993, following the end of the Cold War, and more importantly the massive negative publicity it had endured. However, some of those involved went on to form CAPRiM, which continues to do much the same job of selling blacklists of workers to subscribing companies, and which may or may not be connected to the NDR.

The very significant point here though is that ACPO is an undemocratic, unaccountable, private organisation. Yet it is being allowed to operate a new private intelligence service from within New Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, a publicly-funded and accountable body. This is effectively a kind of privatisation of MI5 functions. There are several questions here.

Firstly, what is the CIU’s relationship to the Metropolitan Police’s National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (NETCU), which sprung to prominence last year with much the same agenda and a disgraceful planted scare story in The Observer implying that environmental activists were terrorists? (the story has since been removed, but see my old blog for some details).

Secondly and more importantly, how can the Home Secretary possibly justify this outsourcing of anti-democratic internal security activities? It was unable to do so with the NDR, and it seems the only reasons for this new public-private initiative is to keep the CIU free from examination (and Freedom of Information requests) from the public and ‘off balance-sheet’ so not subject to National Audit Office or Parliamentary budgetary scrutiny. Yet in that case, how can its position within police headquarters be justified? If it is public, it should be subject to parliamentary and judicial oversight – as the Lords Constitution Committee on Surveillance recently demanded for all surveillance activities – and if it is private, it should not be allowed to benefit from public funds.

They can’t have it both ways.