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March 6, 2009

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Secret database held personal information on construction workers

Some of the biggest construction contractors in the UK have been revealed as subscribers to a covert database containing sensitive personal information on thousands of building workers.

Amec, Balfour Beatty, Costain, and Laing O’Rourke are among the 45 construction employers listed by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which uncovered the database during a raid on Droitwich, West Midlands-based firm, The Consulting Association. Owner Ian Kerr charged an annual fee of £3000 to subscribe to the 15-year old system, to which the companies could add information on “troublesome” workers to alert other employers to potential problems. To access details on individuals they paid £2.20 a time — invoices to construction firms for up to £7500 were seized during the ICO raid.

The ICO has served an enforcement notice on Ian Kerr to stop using the system and cease trading. He now faces prosecution by the ICO for breaching the Data Protection Act. The Commissioner is also considering what regulatory action to take against construction firms that have been using the system.

Because the investigation is ongoing, and the amount of data to be sifted through is so substantial, the Office was unable to confirm to SHP how much, if any, of it related to the health and safety activities of the individuals involved. However, a list of sample comments seen by SHP suggests that such issues are likely to figure in the employers’ “concerns”. One comment noted that the worker concerned was “one of 17 scaffolders and asbestos removers involved in urging fellow workers to walk off site — issue centred on H&S”.

Union membership also figures in many of the comments — “UCATT very bad news”, and “Ex shop steward, definite problems”. UCATT has demanded immediate Government action to outlaw blacklisting, which, it said, has “huge implications” for construction safety. Added general secretary, Alan Ritchie: “UCATT members know from bitter experience of being refused work that blacklisting exists in construction. However, the extent of the practice and the fact that most of the major companies in construction are involved in it is truly shocking. It is outrageous that construction workers have been barred from jobs simply for being trade unionists.”

The UK Contractors Group — formed by the merger of the Major Contractors Group and the National Contractors Federation earlier this year, and which represents many of the construction employers named on the ICO list — stressed that the Information Commissioner “is not alleging that any contractors have broken the law”. In a short statement, the UKCG added: “Our members take the allegations made by the Information Commissioner’s Office very seriously and will cooperate with the investigation in any way possible.”

Said deputy information commissioner, David Smith: “This is a serious breach of the Act. Not only was personal information held on individuals without their knowledge or consent, but the very existence of the database was repeatedly denied. The covert system enabled Mr Kerr to unlawfully trade personal information on workers for many years, helping the construction industry vet prospective employees.”

In a warning to construction firms, Mr Smith added: “Business leaders must take their obligations under the Data Protection Act seriously. Trading people’s personal details in this way is unlawful, and we are determined to stamp out this type of activity.”

From 16 March, the ICO will operate a dedicated helpline for people who believe information about them may be held on the database. For the number, and to find out more, visit

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