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Surveillance State: Blacklisting and the Secret Habit Employers Can’t Seem to Kick

While we’ve seen other reports of this type of state agency behaviour before, this one is still particularly disturbing, as it reveals a state security apparatus which acts as a law unto itself, very clearly in the service of an unelected oligarchy.


By
TruePublica

This article is part of a series we are publishing from the ‘State of Surveillance’ report written by BigBrotherWatch, the civil liberties organisation. Much of the mainstream media have completely ignored its findings. Regular readers of TruePublica know we have published many reports and articles over the last four years relating to state surveillance (database) as we regard it to be a crucial battleground of our civil liberty. Today, it is a very serious worry that our entire mechanism of democracy is being undermined by excessive and uncontrolled state surveillance. This disproportionate obsession by the government and its agencies inhibits the fundamental ability of democratic rights to be exercised and amply demonstrates the thin ground Britain’s democracy stands on.

Phil Chamberlain is the Head of Department of Film & Journalism at the University of the West of England where he is responsible for more than a dozen undergraduate and postgraduate programmes as well as the Digital Cultures Research Centre. He teaches investigative journalism and his research interests cover surveillance, corporate discourses and court reporting. Phil has 20 years’ experience as a freelance journalist with working for newspapers, magazines and NGOs providing investigative news and feature stories. He co-authored Blacklisted: the secret battle between big business and union activists and is the author of Drones and Journalism: how the media is making use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Here is his report on state surveillance, employer blacklisting and the consequences of a state often out of control.

In 1987, Conservative MP Ken Warren wrote to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attaching a list of 270 names of alleged members of the left-wing organisation Militant. He demanded the security services investigate to ensure that none of those on the list were placed in sensitive positions in the civil service. Warren’s McCarthyite intervention piqued the interest of a secret Whitehall committee called Subversion in Public Life (SPL).

Made up of senior civil servants from different departments along with MI5 and Special Branch representatives, SPL analysed the supposedly subversive threat to the machinery of government. While Warren may have worried about 270 alleged Militant members, the committee noted that his list “added little to our present knowledge; indeed it contains a number of known inaccuracies.” A report from the committee the previous year had estimated there were 50,000 potential subversives in the country and identified 1,420 who worked in the civil service.

The majority of these were members of left-wing organisations but far-right supporters were also listed along with members of anarchist groups and “black and Asian racial extremists”. The Department of Health and Social Security recorded the biggest number of subversives within its ranks with 360 (including six fascists). The perceived infiltration of civil service unions by these groups was a constant source of concern.

Margaret Thatcher asked that the SPL also look into local government, education and the NHS which proved more problematic because of the devolved nature of those organisations. One solution was that education inspectors were asked to supply MI5 with details on teachers. The SPL was not merely a bureaucratic exercise but a blacklist. Departments were encouraged to not only record these individuals but ensure they were not put in sensitive roles or moved to posts where they could be isolated. There is no indication the individuals were ever informed about their status; indeed the chairman of the SPL warned of the intense embarrassment if its activities became public knowledge.

In 1985, the same year the SPL began its work, it had been revealed that theBBC was running a secret political vetting operation with MI5. Meanwhile, the Economic League, again with close links to the security services, was at the height of its powers even if its veil of secrecy was slipping. It was paid by corporations to keep files on hundreds of thousands of people deemed subversives and to ensure they could not get employment.

In 1985, the same year the SPL began its work, it had been revealed that the BBC was running a secret political vetting operation with MI5. Meanwhile, the Economic League, again with close links to the security services, was at the height of its powers even if its veil of secrecy was slipping. It was paid by corporations to keep files on hundreds of thousands of people deemed subversives and to ensure they could not get employment.

The SPL was apparently wound up in 1988 and the Cabinet Office has refused to comment further other than to say that it is an historical matter. But blacklisting is the employment habit the UK cannot seem to kick. Building firm boss Cullum McAlpine was keen not to let blacklisting resources go to waste. He paid £10,000 to the Economic League for several thousand personal files covering the construction sector and set up one of the league’s investigators and an admin assistant in a discrete office in the West Midlands.

Until it was exposed in 2009, his organisation the Consulting Association was taking thousands of pounds in fees from the country’s biggest building firms to run a secret blacklisting operation.

Engineer Dave Smith was one of the workers on the firm’s files and his experience is typical. What initiated his file was taking part in action to recover unpaid wages and becoming a safety representative – in other words, legitimate trade union activity. The file details what car he drove, his family members, as well as jobs he applied for. The result was immediate and catastrophic; work dried up and Dave was eventually forced to leave the industry. He never knew his file existed until the Information Commissioner raided the Consulting Association, seized some of its material and then made it available to the subjects. Dave’s story is repeated many times over but often with worse results. Marriages broke up under the strain of financial insecurity, people were forced to move abroad and their health was affected.

It appears that one feature of such operations is their tendency to expand. Just as the SPL was asked to look into local government and schools, the Economic League had considered keeping lists of football hooligans and people with HIV. The Consulting Association was not limited to the construction sector but had files on people working in local politics, academia, journalism, the railways and the offshore oil industry. The latter sector had a notorious policy called ‘Not Required Back’ which was stamped on the files of many a trade union member who had spoken out.

The Consulting Association also had files on several hundred environmental activists and here the overlap between the private sector and the state was most explicit. Along with anti-fascist activists, environmental activists were of particular interest to the security services. An officer in one of the police’s surveillance units even gave a presentation on its work targeting animal rights groups to the Association. The files, along with evidence from police whistleblower Peter Francis, have revealed that undercover police officers infiltrated trade unions, black justice campaigns and environmental groups among others.

Francis was a member of the Special Branch’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) set up in 1968 and which only folded after being exposed in 2008. Some SDS officers had sexual relations with activists and even children in the course of intruding on and manipulating activists’ lives. After reviewing evidence from the files and other sources, the Blacklist Support Group complained to the Metropolitan Police in 2012 with six specific allegations about collusion between the state and the private sector.

In 2018 the Metropolitan Police finally admitted, “Sections of the policing community throughout the UK had both overt and covert contact with external organisations, including the Economic League, for reasons stemming from crime reporting and the maintenance of public order and the prevention of terrorism.” This statement only acknowledged what had become incontestable. However, the Metropolitan Police rejected other complaints and specifically exonerated the Special Demonstration Squad from colluding with blacklisters.

The police’s statement deployed a well-worn defence for blacklisting operations – that they are about crime or terrorism.

The Cabinet Office files on the Subversion in Public Life committee explicitly separated out actions to counter terrorism from its remit and made no claim to tackle illegal behaviour. An analysis of the Consulting Association files shows that time and again, the first activity to trigger monitoring was an individual raising health and safety concerns. It was legitimate union activity that resulted in people being surveilled – criminal activity was mentioned in only a handful of the more than 3,000 files it held.  It is worth noting that the activities of the SDS, the Consulting Association and the Economic League only ended after public exposure. There is little sense of a culture that sees such operations as wrong; only in getting caught. It took seven years for blacklisted construction workers to win a financial settlement and only one person was ever punished by the courts for their role in the scandal.

The SDS’ activities are currently the subject of a judge-led inquiry which is into its third year but yet to even begin taking evidence. Without an effective inquiry that the people affected can trust, there is little chance of change or indeed justice. Meanwhile, the monitoring of workers, unionists and especially whistleblowers continues.

The SDS’ activities are currently the subject of a judge-led inquiry which is into its third year but yet to even begin taking evidence. Without an effective inquiry that the people affected can trust, there is little chance of change or indeed justice. Meanwhile, the monitoring of workers, unionists and especially whistleblowers continues.

In 2015, Sir Robert Francis QC produced “Freedom To Speak Up”, a report into whistleblowing in the NHS. Francis reported that many people spoke of fears that whistleblowing would have a detrimental effect on their career and that there was evidence of “vindictive treatment” of people who raised concerns.

Dr Minh Alexander worked for 14 years as a consultant psychiatrist and had raised concerns over certain medical practices. She was made redundant in 2013 and reached a settlement with her employer. Alexander is one of many NHS staff who fear their careers have been ended because their decision to raise concerns has been recorded and shared. “The suppression of staff who speak up is a very old problem and will not go away until decision-makers truly accept that it is better to run a service in which staff and patients have a voice,” Alexander said.

Similarly, Eileen Chubb was forced to quit her job as a care assistant after raising concerns about patient safety. She now runs Compassion in Care which campaigns for better care for the elderly.

Official figures for 2017/18 showed that more than 350 whistleblowers in the NHS experienced repercussions after coming forward, including negative effects on their careers. Meanwhile, the Care Quality Commission, which helps regulate the sector, has been accused of revealing the details of dozens of whistleblowers to employers – a claim it denies.

Far from an historic concern and one limited to particular trades, the monitoring and blacklisting of workers remains the dirty secret of UK labour relations.

In one of the final acts of the Brown government, blacklisting was made illegal in 2010. As with pretty much every other state attempt to deal with the issue, it was a failure. Employment expert Professor Keith Ewing from King’s College London set out at length why the regulations are full of holes.

A key flaw is that it is a civil rather than criminal offence with the onus on the victim to prove their case; and since the victim is often up against a corporation, the balance of power is firmly against them. Blacklisting is a stark reminder of that imbalance of power but also that there is often no line between state and private, corporate and civil. The undercover police officers manipulating female activists into relationships were often seeking to protect corporate interests rather than prevent criminal wrongdoing. Indeed, in some cases, it is alleged they acted as agent provocateurs to incite wrongdoing.

The undercover police officers manipulating female activists into relationships were often seeking to protect corporate interests rather than prevent criminal wrongdoing. Indeed, in some cases, it is alleged they acted as agent provocateurs to incite wrongdoing.

There are three areas that desperately need improvement in order to tackle this scandal. Firstly, we need a properly funded public inquiry that can tease apart the links between the various people involved in blacklisting. Too much of the information has had to be pieced together by a few journalists, lawyers, MPs and many campaigners. Theresa May launched the judge-led Undercover Policing inquiry following revelations about the Special Demonstration Squad broken first by The Guardian. It has been little more than a disaster with no evidence heard in its first three years and participants boycotting the process because of a lack of trust. It is not expected to report until 2023.

Secondly, organisations charged with protecting personal information need better resourcing. Without the Information Commissioner’s Office, the secret blacklist files would not have been made public. The ICO needs the toughest tools if it is going to take on the biggest state and corporate interests and their digital archives. Thirdly, we need to see the delivery of justice.

It is worth pointing out that only one person was ever convicted for their part in the scandal. The company directors, human resources managers, police officers, civil servants and regulators who authorised, ignored or participated received no sanction. A survey by Building magazine found that 78% of human resources officials named as complicit in blacklisting were still employed four years after their role was revealed. There is a culture of acceptance that secret political surveillance and the sharing of information has always been with us and always will. Changing that culture will require a change in how power is distributed in society. It sounds too ambitious an objective. However, in 2009 a few dozen people affected by the blacklist gathered in a room by Parliament and decided that they wanted to do something about it. Seven years later they forced a multi-million-pound settlement from transnational construction firms. Where do we want to be in the next seven years?

Read the full ‘State of Surveillance’ report HERE (pdf)

SOURCE: truepublica.org.uk

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