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November 28, 2012

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Keeper of construction blacklist says he was just following orders

The manager of an illegal database that contained information prejudicial to the employment prospects of thousands of construction workers has spoken out in public against the major construction firms that established and subscribed to it.

Ian Kerr appeared before the Scottish Affairs Select Committee at Westminster yesterday (27 November) to answer questions about his role in the Consulting Association – the West Midlands firm that was shut down by the Information Commissioner in 2009 for illegally gathering and making available to subscribers information on and personal details of more than 3200 building workers.

Kerr was prosecuted under the Data Protection Act in July 2009 and fined £5000 for ignoring people’s right to privacy and trading personal details.

Giving evidence for nearly four hours yesterday, Kerr said his role as chief officer of the company was “merely” to collate the information on workers provided by its construction-industry subscribers and disseminate that information back to subscribers seeking details of particular workers. He added: “You could have dialed me up like the speaking clock – I just provided what was on the cards.”

The Committee reminded him that he has previously stated that he was the “wrong person to prosecute” in this matter, and Kerr responded: “Yes, it should have been the members of the Consulting Association – I was just their employee. The chair at the time [David Cochrane, then head of HR at Sir Robert McAlpine] would have been the obvious person. The member companies effectively cut me adrift. I have had no contact from my main contacts there since.”

Committee chair Ian Davidson acknowledged that it did seem “not entirely fair” that Kerr should be the only one to carry the can and promised that “these matters will be pursued further”.

Kerr explained that the Consulting Association was set up in the mid-nineties by construction-firm members of the Services Group – a body within the Economic League, for whom Kerr had worked since 1969. He said these firms were determined not to be caught out again by the type of industrial unrest that occurred in the 1970s.

Asked who the first officers of the new Consulting Association were, Kerr replied: “I was asked to be chief officer, and the first chair was Cullum McAlpine, for the Sir Robert McAlpine group.” Among its original members he also named representatives of major construction firms John Laing, Tarmac, Amey, Amec, Taylor Woodrow, John Mowlem, Balfour Beatty (Construction and Civils), Higson, Keir, Norwest Holst, Nuttall, Willmot Dixon and Morrison Construction.

Explaining how the database worked, Kerr said: “The member companies paid an annual sub [£3000 at the time the company was shut down, in 2009] and then a ‘fee per use’ each time they accessed the body of information – this was around £1 to £1.50 per name-check request. There was a clearly established routine: the main contact at each firm was the head of HR – senior level, in any case – and they, or their department would fax through a name and we would check it on the Consulting Association register.

“Any information resulting from that was then sent to the main – senior – HR contact. Based on that information, he – not me – could then recommend a course of action. I gave no comment, or suggestion as to what he should do.”

When the Committee chair suggested that attaching such information to a particular name implied criticism Kerr said “yes” but repeated that it was up to the companies themselves what to do. “Some companies were more hard-nosed than others, in terms of what course of action they decided to take,” he added.

Pressed by Mr Davidson to divulge which companies these were, Kerr offered up Balfour Beatty and Skanska.

The Committee asked Kerr what was the perceived problem the company was trying to solve: “Why were you all doing what you were doing?” He replied: “These companies could find a lot of their time was taken up because of groups and individuals acting outside the normal and well-established mechanisms in the construction industry. [We did what we did] to allow these companies to get on with what they needed to do – finish the job.”

It was then put to Kerr that his job was essentially to help the construction companies “not to employ trouble-makers”. He maintained that his role was only to “bring the names to their attention – not to facilitate them not employing those people” but when it was suggested there was no other purpose for which the information could possibly be used, Kerr said: “I accept that.”

To clarify, it was put to him again that “what you were doing was working with these companies to allow them not to employ certain people” and “your primary function was to collect information on people and provide it for clients who didn’t want to employ them”. “Yes,” admitted Kerr.

He made an attempt to deny the information he kept amounted to the “dictionary definition” of a blacklist, saying if a name was on there “it didn’t mean they wouldn’t be employed – full stop”. When the Committee pointed out that “for £1 or £1.50, you could influence whether somebody could get work and put dinner on the table” Kerr reiterated he just provided the information – the subscribers made the decisions.

He was also reminded that all of the information collated was negative and largely related to political activity, and when he was asked to clarify that all of the information was “on disruptive activities and not on how good a worker they were”, he agreed. He also agreed to the Committee’s assertion that the reference cards held on each worker amounted to “titbits of information you acquired from various sources and were certainly not a full reference”. Likewise, he accepted that he made no effort to verify the information the company was given.

Kerr denied having ever been personally approached by any government department, or anyone in the public sector, or having been given any information from these sources. He said the officers and chair of the Consulting Association, as part of major construction firms, would have had some level of dealings with politicians “for all sorts of reasons”.

However, when asked about the information that was found in Consulting Association files relating to Irish nationals and security clearance for work on MoD projects, Kerr requested to be allowed to answer the question “in private”.

He admitted that in the days of the Economic League, he and other personnel would attend meetings and gatherings of “anti-capitalists” and unions to find out what they were up to, and information would be mutually shared with the Police.

Campaigners against the blacklisting of construction workers were pleased that Kerr had finally “spilled the beans in public” and warned the firms involved in his database that they would be next.

Dave Smith, of the Blacklist Support Group, said: “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. I have a message for the supposedly respectable directors of multi-national 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.”

The Blacklist Support Group was nominated for a top human-rights award last week.

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11 years ago

And the stake holder scandles continue.

I have a Pal who was dismissed by one of these companies for having the audacity to agree to a voluntary statement to the HSE after a fatality. He was a SHEQ Advisor.

He was told by the SH to give a section 20 statement with thier legal representation present?

He refused and was dismissed. They claim he was not competent for the post?

He too was previously employed by the HSE.

Would he have made it onto such a list do you think?

11 years ago

Beware Nigel, the squeeky wheel does not always get the oil, sometimes they replace the wheel.

I know this only too well from past experience.

11 years ago

On the 9th August 2011 SHP printed an article about a council boss refusing a hard hat when visiting a building site. Within 3 days there were 97 comments, many vitriolic about the Chief Executive or site manager. The article attracted 210 comments. Here the holder of an illegal blacklist of 3,200 building workers spills the beans about the numerous construction companies who financed, supported and used the illegal database and only me and Bob comment. An idication of companies real priorities?

11 years ago

Bob, quite possible. It is yet another scandalous indictment of the heirarchy in society who believe because of their privilged status they are beyond repoach and the law. I hope they get their comeuppence.

I once went for an interview with a household name in construction. They did not recognise trade unions. However, I was told that they are a fair and just organisation. Really? Fortunately I did not get the role.