Shadow business secretary urges Information Commissioner to take “swift and proactive” action on notifying blacklisted workers
Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna has written to the Information Commissioner to demand answers on blacklisting in the construction industry.
In a letter to Christopher Graham, Umunna said he seen at first hand evidence of the files seized by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) from the Consulting Association in 2009 and had been left “shocked by both the scale of the blacklisting and the level of detail held on the files”.
Umunna - widely seen as a rising star in the shadow cabinet – questioned why the ICO did not do more to investigate the Consulting Association back in 2009 and whether it has any other ongoing investigations into blacklisting elsewhere.
His letter (see below) follows the ICO’s admission to the Scottish Affairs select committee last week that it did not examine up to 95% of the written material held by the Consulting Association and that it should have done more to help notify those on the 3,200-strong blacklist it did seize.
Umunna wrote: “As further evidence of blacklisting in the construction sector emerges, we already know that thousands of people have been affected, livelihoods have been destroyed, reputations unfairly tarnished and families torn apart by consequent financial stress.
“Employees were blacklisted merely for exercising their human right to belong to a trade union, standing up for their colleagues or for raising legitimate health and safety concerns.
“The further tragedy is that the vast majority of the individuals affected have no idea that they were included on the CA list: no way to make sense of why work dried up and they were continually turned away from construction sites; and in some cases, why their lives fell apart.
“We believe you must do everything in your power to ensure that the blacklisted workers are informed swiftly, adopting a proactive approach.”
Meanwhile, Labour MP Tom Watson has called on the Information Commissioner’s Office to inform all 3,213 people whose names are on the blacklist, contrasting the ICO’s failure to do so with the way that the Metropolitan Police was pro-actively approaching all phone-hacking victims.
Watson, who was prominent in the campaign for victims of phone hacking, told the Financial Times: “The Met Police have set the standard for the way that people have been notified over phone hacking.”
He said workers’ lives had been ruined after being placed on the blacklist and it was “now incumbent on the Information Commission to let these people know…they have a duty to do it.”
As Building revealed last month, the ICO has agreed to allow lawyers acting for the GMB to view names on the list and identify its members.
Amid preparations for two separate High Court cases on behalf of blacklisted workers against Carillion and Sir Robert McAlpine, observers believe this will set a precedent for other unions, including Unite and Ucatt, to follow, which could mean legal claims swelling to cover thousands of names.
Chuka Umunna’s letter in full:
Dear Mr Graham,
Blacklisting – The Consulting Association
I am writing further to the evidence given last week by your officers to the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee regarding the blacklisting of individuals by The Consulting Association (“CA”) and related enforcement action taken by the Information Commissioner’s Office (“ICO”).
As further evidence of blacklisting in the construction sector emerges, we already know that thousands of people have been affected, livelihoods have been destroyed, reputations unfairly tarnished and families torn apart by consequent financial stress. Employees were blacklisted merely for exercising their human right to belong to a trade union, standing up for their colleagues or for raising legitimate health and safety concerns.
I have seen at first hand examples of the files held by the CA, run by Ian Kerr until his premises were raided in 2009, and was shocked by both the scale of the blacklisting and the level of detail held on the files – in some cases they even included information on employees’ private lives.
The further tragedy is that the vast majority of the individuals affected have no idea that they were included on the CA list: no way to make sense of why work dried up and they were continually turned away from construction sites; and in some cases, why their lives fell apart.
Given the huge detrimental impact on those affected, it is imperative that they are informed so they can seek redress. With proceedings currently ongoing to seek compensation from firms which are alleged to have used the CA list, only a small window of time remains for those affected to add their names to the collective action. That is why we believe you must do everything in your power to ensure that the blacklisted workers are informed swiftly, adopting a proactive approach.
Giving oral evidence in Parliament last week, Deputy Information Commissioner David Smith admitted that the ICO could and should have done more to ensure that affected individuals were notified. It is crucial that this is now rectified.
I understand that the ICO is working alongside trade unions in order to facilitate this process, and we welcome this approach. However, in their evidence last week, your officers admitted that not all those on the list were trade union members, and so it is crucial that those who do not belong to a trade union who are on the list are not overlooked by the notification process adopted.
It emerged last week that when ICO officials conducted their search of Mr Kerr’s premises in 2009, 90 to 95 per cent of documents on the site were not removed and were left untouched. Understandably, this revelation has caused great concern: it is possible that there are many thousands more employees who were blacklisted, with their details held on files by Mr Kerr.
I would be grateful if you could clarify:
1. Why the ICO did not seek a further warrant to search Mr Kerr’s premises for other files;
2. Given that ICO officials giving evidence last week admitted that there were strong grounds for suspicion that files were passed to construction companies without employees’ knowledge or consent, why a warrant to search the firms listed as having used Mr Kerr’s blacklist was not sought.
3. Whether there are any further investigations ongoing in relation to the unrecovered documents, or have been attempted since the initial raid, and what steps you plan to take in this regard.
4. Are you pursuing investigations into whether blacklists existed in relation to other sectors or were operated and maintained by other bodies distinct from Mr Kerr and The Consulting Association.
I look forward to receiving your response.
Chuka Umunna MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills