Dave Smith, Blacklisting Support Group – Opening Statement (17/11/20)

Dave Smith accused undercover police of acting as agents provocateurs, of being in bed with blacklisters, and of contributing to worker deaths.

23 Nov 2020| News

Dave Smith, Secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, gave evidence to the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) on the morning of 17 November 2020.

His remarks are summarised below, were livestreamed on the day (and can be viewed on the video below), and can be read in full here.

A long history of oppression

Dave Smith opened with a brief history of worker oppression by the State, beginning in the industrial revolution. He traced anti-union sentiment back to the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, through which organising in a trade union was made illegal. He stated that the “colonial mindset” that drove such policy is, in his view, responsible not only for anti-union sentiment but also institutional racism and sexism, and has become “ingrained in the establishment mindset within the UK”.

Blacklisting also has a long history, he noted, with building workers being forced to sign a document swearing not to be a member of a trade union before they could find a job as far back as 1834, when the process was invented by a group of employers in Ludgate Hill, London.

This practice was formalised and extended across a wide range of sectors by the Economic League, established in 1919 by a powerful group of industrialists and politicians to protect the interests of free enterprise by suppressing left-wing activism, including through blacklisting. Smith reminded the inquiry that from its inception, the Economic League had both formal and informal links with the police and security services.

In 1993, part of the Economic League blacklist was purchased by construction giant, Sir Robert McAlpine, and used to launch The Consulting Assocation, which was proven to blacklist thousands of construction workers when it was raided by the Information Commissioners’ Office (ICO) in 2009.

Despite this long history of oppression, surveillance and espionage, Smith said it took many years for he and his colleagues to be believed when they experienced blacklisting first hand.

“When we first talked about blacklisting as trade unionists, the authorities dismissed us as conspiracy theorists. Repeatedly, we were told that this doesn’t happen in the UK. But blacklisting isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s conspiracy fact, and it’s a conspiracy in which not just multinational companies but the political policing units that are part of this inquiry are colluded.”

The Consulting Association (TCA)

The Consulting Association (TCA) was operated and funded by 44 major construction firms, including household names such as Sir Robert McAlpine, Balfour Beatty, Laing O’Rourke, Costains and Skanska. It was run from the beginning by Ian Kerr, who was a former Economic League employee.

Smith told the inquiry that the ICO raid of 2009 found files on thousands of workers listing information such as their name, address, National Insurance number, telephone number, car registration number, medical records, photographs, family information, trade union activities and any concerns raised about health and safety.

Employers “vetted” new recruits through the blacklist and this was no small operation. Each name cost £2.20 to check and Sir Robert McAlpine alone spent £28,000 on their last invoice.

Normally, blacklist information was passed up through the ranks of the participating companies, with managers reporting trade union activities and safety concerns to their directors, who fed it to Ian Kerr. The TCA did not have its own spies to gather the personal information on workers’ files, he said, which must have come from somewhere else.

Police involvement

Smith quoted from the Metropolitan Police Service’s internal inquiry into the special branch, which concluded that “police, including special branch and the security services, supplied information to the blacklist funded by the country’s major construction firms, The Consulting Association”.

The Special Demonstration Squad

He noted that in some documents already disclosed to the inquiry, it is revealed that Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) officers spied on trade unionists at the 1972 builders’ and miners’ strikes. SDS intelligence, he said, was placed on special branch registry files from where it became available to anyone within special branch, including MI5 and the security service. Registry files were created for employees, but also for specific industrial disputes.

Smith also pointed to the creation of the Special Branch Industrial Unit (SPIU) in 1970, whose purpose was to monitor “trade unionists from teaching to the docks” through a “network of well-placed contacts” that included the directors of multinational companies and general secretaries of TUC-affiliated trade unions. He reported that all SDS intelligence was made available to the SPIU, who themselves had an official liason officer with the Economic League. Smith highlighted evidence of a “significant overlap” between SDS and SPIU, with SDS officers going on to work with SPIU or for blacklisters. Bert Lawrenson – the former head of the SDS – left the police to work for the Economic League (this fact – Smith points out – was not mentioned in the police’s own report).

National Domestic Extremism Database

The National Domestic Extremism Database represents another central database through which Dave Smith believes the special branch are spying on lawful trade unions. The database was originally set up by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) – the successor to the SDS – but is also fed by the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU). Smith reported that thousands of law-abiding British citizens are named on the database, pointing to the confession of NETCU Head Superintendent, Steve Pearl, to the Daily Telegraph that NETCU was established to take over from MI5 in surveilling left-wing campaign groups, trade unionists and left-wing journalists.

NETCU, too, can be linked to The Consulting Association. In October 2008, Detective Inspector Gordon Mills of NETCU gave a Powerpoint presentation to a TCA meeting, Dave Smith reported.

While NETCU has now been disbanded, Smith believes industrial espionage has not been discontinued, with this work absorbed into the new SO15 counter-terrorism unit. He named politcal policing group Operation Fairway and the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit Industrial Liaison Section as contributors to this cause.

Instances of espionage

In giving specific examples of spies infiltrating trade unions, Dave Smith focused on three undercover officers – Mark Jenner, Peter Francis and “Carlo Neri” (a pseudonym given after an injunction prevented his real name being used in the inquiry, although Smith did point out that Neri’s real name is a matter of public record).

Mark Jenner

Mark Jenner is perhaps most famous for his infiltration of environmental activism groups, the unveiling of which sparked the Spy Cops scandal ten years ago. But Smith named him as a key officer in the infiltration of trade unions, too.

Known as Mark Cassidy when undercover, Jenner claimed to be a joiner and joined the Hackney branch of construction union UCATT, for which special branch paid his subs. Smith said Jenner’s girlfriend at the time (who was not aware of his real identity) would bring notes home from union meetings, which he would immediately type up. Jenner also chaired trade union meetings and is remembered to have been “very disruptive” at events, which Smith perceived to be an attempt to cause division in the union.

One of Jenner’s targets was trade unionist Steve Hedley, who is now Assistant General Secretary at RMT. To get closer to him, Jenner stayed at his family home in Northern Ireland during a trade union delegation there as part of the peace process.

We accuse Mark Jenner, and through Mark Jenner the British State, of deliberately interfering with the internal democratic processes of an independent trade union.

Carlo Neri

Carlo Neri replaced Mark Jenner when the latter’s deployment came to an end. Smith claims that, on more than one occassion, he attempted to incite trade unionists to commit violent, criminal acts. In particular, Smith referred to an incident in which Neri encouraged trade unionists Frank Smith, Dan Gilman and Joe Batty to firebomb a charity shop he claimed was run by an Italian fascist. The activists refused to have anything to do with the plot.

Neri also had a long-term relationship with female activist Donna McClean and Smith believes he used the end of his relationship with McClean as an excuse to achieve closer contact with Steve Hedley. Claiming to be homeless after the split, Neri moved in with Hedley.

We accuse Carlo Neri of being an agent provocateur.

Peter Francis

Peter Francis is another name famously linked to the Spy Cops scandal after he several times spoke publicly about his part in the espionage the State undertook of left-wing organisations. Smith noted that Francis has already admitted to spying on trade unionist Frank Smith and his then-girlfriend Lisa Teuscher, who was a leading figure in the campaign group Youth Against Racism in Europe and a migrant. Dave Smith linked Francis’ surveillance to the Home Office’s actions in removing Teuscher’s indefinite leave to remain. He noted that Teuscher, who has never worked in construction, had a blacklist file with TCA. He also pointed out that Frank Smith’s blacklist file “practically mirrors” the Special Branch file that Francis wrote.

The Cenotaph protest

in 1999, trade unionists Steve Hedley, Frank Smith and Dan Gilman attended a counter-demonstration at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday to protest the laying of a wreath by the National Front. The police has admitted to filing special branch files on the three men after their appearance at this event, Smith says, noting that this information appears on TCA’s blacklist “within days”, reported to have come from Costain, the main contacts for which Smith claimed had a relationship with special branch.

Endangering workers’ health as well as their livelihoods

The financial implications of the blacklisting and SpyCopys scandals have been well documented. Stories abound of workers unable to clothe their families and wives taken on multiple jobs. Dave Smith added to this evidence with reports that in at least one case a family decided not to have a second child on the basis of the blacklisted father not being able to find employment.

But blacklisting does not just endanger livelihoods, it endangers lives too. A significant proportion of those named on the blacklist had been reported to TCA for having raised concerns about the safety of building sites. This practice, Dave Smith said, sent a message to other workers that when they see health and safety breaches they should not raise their voices, thereby creating an industry with the highest fatality rate in the UK.

“If you’ve got a sector where safety reps, who are supposed to be protected by law, are repeatedly dismissed and actively sought out by the employers and dismissed because of their role in highlighting asbestos or unsafe electrical works then that sends out a message to every other worker on that building site – if the safety rep can be sacked then everybody else, if you want to complain about health and safety, you’d better keep your head down because you might lose your job as well.

Blacklisting of safety reps is a contributing factor to the appalling death rate and fatality rate in the construction industry, which is historically the worst in any sector in the UK.”

Acts of an ideology that continues today

“If the purpose of spying on us, which has been dressed up all the way through this, is to stop public disorder and serious criminality then we’ve had three undercover police officers spying on us for over ten years – why were none of us arrested? … It’s not about stopping public disorder, it’s about spying on people that the British State consider to be inconvenient to them and that means left-wing trade unionists.”

Smith argued that “the ideological mindset” betwee blacklisters and political policing is “absolutely identical”. He disagreed with police lawyers that the force is “neutral”, going further to say the State itself is not “neutral” when it comes to disputes between major companies and workers.

He warned that it is unlikely all evidence of blacklisting has been uncovered, pointing specifically to the Not Required Back system for North Sea oil workers, an MI5 presence at the BBC alongside a “staff transfer register” for left-wing members of the workforce, the Subversion in Public Life blacklist set up during Thatcher’s leadership, and the National Staff Dismissal register in the retail sector (which he claimed was part-funded by the Home Office).

Smith also questioned whether blacklisting may continue in a privatised form, noting that senior undercover officers have gone on to work for the Economic League, Laing O’Rourke, and provide security companies Agenda Security, Threat Response International and Control Risks.

Criticism of the inquiry

“The public inquiry was set up to get to the truth and uncover what was going on, but inside the inquiry I’m not allowed to mention it [Carl Neri’s real name].”

Dave Smith said he was skeptical about the usefulness of the inquiry, noting that every leap forward in uncovering the blacklisting scandal has been made by the victims, while the police have – in his view – tried to prevent the truth from emerging. In particular, he pointed to the fact that the Metropolitan Police refused to accept a complaint from the Blacklist Support Group in 2012, and he has been told that all NETCU files have been destroyed despite it operating for seven years.

Operation Herne – an internal police investigation into improper conduct by special branch – used vague language such as “alleged victimisation” and “supposed blacklisting” even after the companies involved in TCA had publicly confessed and the Blacklisting Act had been passed.

Finally, he pointed to the restrictions on the inquiry itself, with some evidence being deliberatley hidden from public view.

“Our experience of the British legal system does not give us optimism,” he concluded. “We do not expect this public inquiry to provide justice.”