Blacklisting, the Catt case and ongoing collusion in corporate and police spying

Peter Salmon / Undercover Research Group
21 March 2015

blacklisted pic
Blacklisting can be a life-destroying tactic. Names of trade union and political activists are added to a secretive list which is then used to ensure those named have difficulty ever working again. Though such activities are illegal, blacklisting is still alive and not just confined to corporations.

The most famous blacklist is that formerly run by the Consultancy Association, itself an offshoot of an older blacklisting organisation called the Economic League. It is the subject of an important book by Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain, Blacklisted, which has exposed how Special Branch undercovers collaborated in providing information on trade union activists to the Consultancy Association, who then sold it on to construction companies. David Clancy, head of investigations for the Information Commissioner’s Office stated:

…there is information on the Consulting Association files that I believe could only be supplied by the police or the security services …was so specific and it contained in effect operational information that wouldn’t have formed -anything other than a police record.

Additionally, former undercover officer Peter Francis – in a statement issued through his lawyers – stated that he spied on trade unions activists campaigning on health and safety issues, and opened files on them. And he was not the only undercover working for the secretive Special Branch Special Demonstration Squad, doing that.

Mark Jenner, then known as Mark Cassidy, like Francis, spied on family justice campaigns anti-fascists and trade unionists. He was chair of the Brian Higgins Defence Campaign and was well known in the mid-1990s for taking people to pickets and attending meetings of UCATT and the Building Workers Group. Material supplied by him also appears to have ended up in the Consultancy Association files.

As has been known for some time, Special Branch have spied on people and acted as an extension of the Secret Service. Thus, we read with interest in the Official History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, a book as notable for its omissions as anything else, that from its foundation in the early 20th century that MI5 was involved with blacklisting organisations such as the Economic League, formed by right-wing businessmen. Indeed, MI5’s famous registry was as much about left-wing activists of all stripes, not just those deemed a threat to national security. One of the functions of MI5 is the vetting of government employees to weed out those with a left-wing political background.

More recently, it was the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU), another Special Branch off-shoot that initially focused on animal rights activism. Though now taken down, its website used to advertise its working relationship with companies targeted by protestors. It even listed and supported industry front groups and propaganda units such as Victims of Animal Rights Extremism. Indeed, one of NETCU’s specific jobs was to work closely with corporations, and for many years its head, Supt. Stephen Pearl regularly provided witness statements for civil injunctions designed to kill off protest. In one injunction hearing in 2005, Pearl volunteered – without a court order – handing over the criminal conviction files of 52 activists requested by company lawyer Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden.

Interestingly, NETCU was part of a raft of UK Government measures that followed pressure from multinational pharmaceutical giants such as GSK and Novartis at the highest level of Government.
Though as part of the private company Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), it could claim immunity from freedom of information requests.

In 2008, Detective Chief Inspector Gordon Mills, then of NETCU, is known to have met with the Consultancy Association to facilitate the exchange of information. The following year the Association was raided and shut down by the Information Commissioner as an illegal operation. Court cases have now been taken to seek justice for the hundreds whose careers were deliberately sabotaged by being blacklisted.

The story however has not stopped there. NETCU has gone, but a number of its officers have moved on to interesting jobs in the private sector, including ‘risk control’ for Novartis. Pearl himself is now a non-executive director Agenda Resource Management, which carries out vetting of applicants for jobs in animal laboratories. Former overall head Anton Setchell is now head of global security for Laing O’Rourke – born from two companies that regularly accessed the Consultancy Association’s blacklist.

They are not the only ones. Rod Leeming, the head Special Branch’s Animal Rights National Index which kept tabs on animal rights activists, went on to found security firm Global Open where he advised multinational pharmaceuticals. His company would play a role in Paul Mercer’s infiltration of Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and later hired notorious undercover Mark Kennedy.

The people involved are all still the same, at different places, but still using the old networks.

And that is not all.

Buried in a report published by the Institute of Community Cohesion, we found this most telling quote :

“Some senior university and college staff are security cleared and have access to local Special Branch briefings, and security managers who are former police officers can often obtain information or informal briefings because they have pre-existing trusted relationships. But this is not necessarily true for those from other backgrounds.


The Office of the National Coordinator Special Branches (NCSB) has urged police forces and counter -terrorism units to be more proactive in declassifying local threat assessments, and we saw evidence of this happening in some areas, but progress must be monitored. ACPO is also conducting a review into how local counter-terrorism threat assessments are compiled and shared, which provides an opportunity to shape a new approach.


NCSB and DBIS must be ready to apply further pressure if roll out is not consistent across all police forces, and DBIS should work with ACPO to ensure that the needs of universities and colleges are factored into its review process.”

It is hard to read this as anything but a statement of ongoing collusion.

This appeared in a 2010 report ‘Promoting community cohesion and preventing violent extremism in higher and further education’, written by Rachel Briggs and Harris Beider. Rachel Brigg is better known from her days at the right-wing think tank Demos, and for publishing papers that thanked one Bob Lambert for his help. APCO ran the domestic extremism units who employed Mark Kennedy as well as the NCSB.

More worrying, however, is the involvement of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Department commissioned the Institute of Community Cohesion to conduct a review of “campus relations”, community cohesion and the prevention of violent extremism (the Prevent agenda) within further and higher education sectors. This report is the result of that investigation.

It is worth having a quick look at PREVENT – a key part of the strand of the Governments counter-terrorism strategy CONTEST. We now know that the ‘National Co-ordinator PREVENT’ is the same role once called National Co-ordinator for Special Branch, and both are answerable to ACPO’s Terrorism and Allied Matters Committee. They sat alongside the Domestic Extremism units which were seeking to build links with the Consultancy Association.

Under the National Coordinator for Special Branch was the National Co-ordinator Ports Policing (now National Co-ordinator PROTECT). Ports and domestic extremism (formerly counter-subversion) are two long standing aspects of Special Branch work, and both involving the building up of blacklists.

Special Branch activities are alive and well under the guise of CONTEST. And one of their activities is student protest. Though those involved in CONTEST and PREVENT are mainly interested in banning certain speakers, afraid of radicalisation, it is clear that this is a ‘blacklist’ of a form. Elsewhere, under the name ‘protective security’ and ‘vetting’ we see efforts to stop individuals entering government agencies and private firms. Risk management firms, packed with former police officers with Special Branch connections, are getting in on this lucrative act as well. But with CONTEST, the companies and universities no longer have to go to the police for the information; it seems the police are increasingly willing to come to them.

So, while they will all say that something as illegal as blacklisting would never take place, it is interesting that all the structures are still very much in place and being strengthened even. The lessons have been learned so to speak and it is unlikely it is now as unsophisticated as a set of files.

Companies employ former officers with the knowledge, connections and the necessary security clearances. The police themselves are being urged to make material more accessible and in particular the building up of personal relationships between the police and other aspects of society – industry, educational system, etc. – is of deep concern. The links with private investigation firms also brings the concern of a two way flow of information; it is already known that corporate spies provide intelligence to the police. It also adds a layer of plausible deniability – if the private investigators collect personal details it is their responsibility, not the problem of the companies who hired them and get to keep their hands clean.

One does not need to look as closely at the police as we have to understand how ‘mission creep’ constantly sets in. With the structures already in place, it is a short step from vague warnings to more specific ones, from concerns over radicalisation to identifying individuals on all parts of the political spectrum that are critical of institutions.

Now, we cannot point to anything happening right now, but that is the nature of this particular beast. But what we will bet, is that it has not gone away and in a number of years’ time we will be reading about this issue once more.

On a final note, the Supreme Court recently passed down judgement in the case taken by John Catt. He had argued that he was a peaceful protester and there was no reason why the police should have retained a file on him. The judges ruled against him in a decision devastating for civil liberties. Effectively, it gives the police wide ranging powers to place all protesters under surveillance, regardless of their activities, and record their details in an unrestrained fashion. In justifying this decision, the judges argued that the material stored on the database – the National Special Branch Intelligence System, no less – was for use by the police only. And not passed on to third parties. It is a deeply ironic moment of timing that as this ruling was handed down Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain were getting ready to launch their book on blacklisting, demonstrating that this was precisely what was happening.