Construction industry blacklist ‘ruined lives’! – says Scottish Affairs MPs Committee

Balfour Beatty electricians early morning rally outside a site in Farringdon in their campaign against wage cuts and blacklisting
Balfour Beatty electricians early morning rally outside a site in Farringdon in their campaign against wage cuts and blacklisting

The major construction firms that established and funded a systematic blacklist of construction industry workers appear to be continuing to avoid taking full responsibility for their actions, says the Scottish Affairs Committee in an interim report released on Tuesday.

The Committee says that while the blacklist was not initially illegal, it was always morally indefensible, and the companies involved continued to use it after it had become illegal.

The organisation set up to create, maintain and operate the blacklist – the Consulting Association (TCA) – appears to have been largely established by Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, which also provided TCA’s Chairmen for eight of its 16 years of operation.

Other major subscribers included Skanska and Balfour Beatty: the Committee has so far taken evidence from these three firms and intends to call more of those involved.

Through the TCA the companies set up a structure which allowed them to submit names and information on workers they deemed to be unsuitable to a central list and to check prospective employees, or the employees of subcontractors on their sites, against this list.

The emphasis throughout was on secrecy, with telephone access to sensitive information restricted to only a few, with the lists of names submitted destroyed at the end of each working day and no acknowledgement that such a system existed.

The Committee has had access to the card file database that was maintained by TCA.

Some direct quotes about different individuals on the database include:

• ‘After taking on showed signs of militancy over safety.’

• ‘Subject is a shop steward and member of the TGWU. Is a troublemaker. If she is not a member of the CP her husband certainly is.’

• ‘Involved in a dispute to try to enforce the main contractor to take responsibility for the non-payment of several weeks wages.’

• ‘While at xx, drew H&S issues to the attention of site manager been moved with two others (to avoid suspicion).’

• ‘EETPU says no’

• ‘Girlfriend has been involved in several marriages of convenience.’

• ‘Described self as a freemason.’

• ‘xx could perhaps be a son of xx’

• ‘Police helped by assuring men were able to get on to site without problems.’

• ‘Advice to xx thought possibly coming from lecturers at xx University.’

• ‘Above described as one of Glasgow’s “murphia”.’

The Committee’s inquiry so far has raised a series of complex questions, particularly about compensation, which the Committee will consider in the next phase of the inquiry before making its final recommendations to Government:

The committee is therefore appealing for evidence under the following four headings:

• Is blacklisting still taking place, both within the construction industry and more widely, and especially in Scotland?

• Should compensation be paid, and to whom? Anyone whose name appeared on a blacklist? Those who can prove they were adversely affected by blacklisting? Who should provide the compensation?

• What penalties are appropriate for those firms and individuals who engaged in blacklisting and who benefited financially from the process, and is it appropriate to introduce a degree of retrospection?

In addition, should firms which have been involved in blacklisting be prevented from tendering for public sector contracts in future?

Or should they only be allowed to tender if they pay compensation to those who have been blacklisted?

• Is the existing legislation against blacklisting sufficient, if properly enforced, or do we need changes to the law to eradicate the practice?

The Committee says the Information Commissioner’s Office, which raided TCA in 2009 and ultimately caused it to be closed down, should do more and work with the trade unions to locate and notify people that were on the blacklist, as they cannot begin to seek redress without this information.

The Committee should be updated on progress on this front. It also believes more should be done by the ICO to establish if blacklisting is still going on, both in the construction industry and more widely.

Ian Davidson MP, Chair of the Committee, said: ‘We are appalled by what we have discovered during our committee hearings.

‘The Consulting Association was an organised conspiracy by big construction firms, to discriminate against workers who raised legitimate grievances over health and safety and other industrial issues.

‘This was an exercise run for the financial gain of the companies involved and those who benefited must be held accountable.

‘We were neither convinced nor impressed by the attitude of the people involved in funding, operating and using this blacklist. The suggestion that this was somehow not a blacklist at all because people were not automatically refused employment if their name was on the list is ludicrous.

‘Thousands of workers and their family members, had intrusive, private information filed away about them so that they could be systematically discriminated against.

‘Workers were denied employment without explanation, financial hardship was caused, lives were disrupted or ruined.

‘There was no right of appeal or challenge to the information held or the decisions made. If a very small number who were treated in this way were not always denied employment, that hardly changes the nature or purpose of the operation.

‘Further, the suggestions that people were “only obeying orders”, or that there were just a few in an organisation who were responsible and no one else knew are just alibis and evasion.

‘Even if this egregious practice was not illegal when it began, it was certainly immoral, and it carried on after it had become illegal.

‘We are sure it would still be going on if the ICO had not uncovered the practice and raided the offices of the Consulting Association.

‘The companies involved set up the blacklist for their own financial benefit, to avoid the risk of legitimate industrial relations or health and safety disputes on site resulting in delays to contracts, penalty clauses being invoked and financial loss.

‘While some of the companies have expressed regret and taken steps to establish how this could have been allowed to go on, we are unclear whether they genuinely regret the practice, or more the fact that they got caught.

‘Some of the actual entries on the blacklist beggar belief: snippets of malicious gossip about workers and their family members masquerading as “information”, or simple statements of legitimate union membership expressed as if it was a personal failing.

‘This is an interim report; our inquiry so far has posed a series of key questions rather than answering them, particularly in regard to whether compensation should be offered to the people who suffered invasion of their privacy and loss of earnings as a result of this blacklist.

‘We are now inviting further submissions on the four key question areas raised in this report, and we will be taking evidence from more of the firms involved.’

Unite and the GMB welcomed the Scottish affairs committee’s interim report.

Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey said: ‘Unite firmly believes blacklisting continues,’ adding that ‘punishment for the blacklisters who have ruined lives and left families destitute should be severe.’

Paul Kenny, GMB General Secretary, said: ‘What we see here in the plain light of day are major construction companies involved in shifty, unethical, dishonest practices for which they seem totally unable to apologise and take responsibility.’