Unions slam UK’s 1980s civil service blacklist

By on 29/07/2018 | Updated on 24/09/2020
“Subversive” civil servants were blacklisted under former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher (Image courtesy: UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata/Flickr).

Trade unionists are to write to the UK Cabinet Office to ask whether it continues to keep a blacklist of civil servants, following revelations about a covert 1980s exercise which they’ve slammed as “an appalling form of state surveillance”.

The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) made the statement following news that internal  security service MI5 identified 1,420 civil servants to be kept under observation and away from certain roles, such as revenue collection, during Margaret Thatcher’s period as prime minister.

The existence of the blacklist was revealed in papers released by the National Archives and reported by national newspaper the Guardian. More than 700 of those listed were identified as Trotskyists, and a further 607 as communists. Forty-five were said to be fascists, and 35 Welsh or Scottish nationalists, “black or Asian racial extremists” or anarchists.

The papers reveal that the government also tried to compile a similar list of workers in the National Health Service, but could not because central government did not employ them directly. However, it carried out surveillance of teachers by arranging for school inspectors to report directly to MI5.

Destabilisation fears

The blacklist was drawn up in 1985, after a seven-month strike the previous year at the Department of Health and Social Service disrupted pension and child benefit payments to millions of people. The miners’ strike was also underway at the time, and ministers and officials were fearful that the unrest could destabilise the government, according to the Guardian.

The body set up to operate the list and monitor the civil servants was called the Inter-Departmental Group on Subversion in Public Life (SPL). It defined subversion as “activities which threaten the wellbeing of the state and are intended to undermine or overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means”.

It was most concerned about staff who were members of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency movement, who it believed to be responsible for the strike at the health department. The largest number of staff from any one department to be blacklisted (360) were from this department.

Most of the blacklisted civil servants had junior positions. The SPL suggested that “it might sometimes be possible to covertly move individuals to posts where they would have less potential for disruption,” according to the papers. Departments should also consult MI5 before moving anyone on the list to a new role.

Answers demanded

PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said: “We will be urgently writing to the Cabinet Office to seek information on whether a blacklist continues to operate. We will take up the cases of any of our members that are caught up in this appalling form of state surveillance.”

Jon Trickett, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said both former and current civil servants deserved to know how long the blacklist was maintained, and whether one exists today.

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “The Inter-departmental Group on Subversion in Public Life (SPL) is no longer in operation and there is no other unit conducting similar work.”

Civil servants are expected to be politically impartial in the exercise of their duties and rules governing their involvement in political activity are set out in the Civil Service Code, she added.

About Catherine Early

Catherine is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has held permanent roles at the Environmentalist (now known as Transform), the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and has also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue. She was a finalist in the Guardian’s International Development Journalism competition 2009, and was part of the team that won PPA Business Magazine of the Year 2011 for Windpower Monthly. She also won an outstanding content award at Haymarket Media Group’s employee awards for data-led stories in Planning magazine. She holds a 2:1 honours degree in English language and literature from Birmingham University.

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