Tories reluctant to act
Following the disclosure of new evidence at the Scottish Affairs Committee’s ongoing inquiry into blacklisting, the opposition submitted a motion calling on the government to “immediately begin an investigation into the extent to which blacklisting took place and may be taking place, including on public sector projects, and to ensure that appropriate and effective sanctions are in place to tackle and prevent blacklisting”.
During the debate, many passionate speeches were heard from Labour MPs, some of whom have themselves been the victims of blacklisting, and many of whom know of constituents who have had their livelihoods snatched away from them by the practice.
However, Conservatives in the house were reticent to act on the issue, calling for hard evidence that blacklisting continues today, and insinuating the immoral behaviours of construction companies are no longer an issue.
Business Secretary Vince Cable said:
“My responsibilities lie, as part of this Government, in dealing with things that might have happened over the past two and a half years.”
He urged anyone with evidence that blacklisting is ongoing to bring it to him.
Similarly, Jo Swinson, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, stated that the evidence that had been presented so far was from before 2009, so do not “constitute evidence of current breaches of the blacklisting regulations”.
The weakness of this argument was made clear by Michael Meacher, Labour MP for Oldham west and Royton, who stated: “It is disingenuous to ask for evidence in an industry where there is a tight curtain of secrecy. If we really want the evidence, we actually have to look for it. The only way of getting this evidence is by setting up an inquiry, either a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills inquiry or a judicial inquiry, and put the relevant companies on oath to tell the truth. That is what the House is demanding of the Government today.”
With evidence coming to light through the Scottish Affairs Committee’s Inquiry that the police and the Security Service colluded with the activities of blacklisters in the construction industry, and that blacklisting practices have been rife in public works, including the construction of the Olympic Park, it was also argued that a Leveson-style inquiry must go ahead.
New evidence on the blacklisting scandal
Shady practices by Sir Robert McAlpine
Jim McGovern, Labour MP for Dundee West, who is a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, highlighted early on in the debate that he and his colleagues on the Committee had recently been provided with vital evidence by Ian Kerr’s widow.
She told them that David Cochrane, head of human resources at Sir McAlpine and the last chairman of the Consulting Association, had instructed Mr Kerr that the money given to him by Sir Robert McAlpine to pay his £5,000 fine for breaking data protection laws (which he was served following the raid of Consulting Association in 2009) should be kept in his daughter’s bank accounts so it would remain hidden.
Indeed, as Chuka Umunna, Shadow Business Secretary, shared with the house, Mr Kerr told the Scottish Affairs Committee in November that “I had put myself at the front and took the flak … so that they [Sir Robert McAlpine] wouldn’t be drawn into all of this. They would remain hidden”.
Watch the debate
Please note the video must be fast-forwarded to the start of the relevant debate, which begins at 13:24.
Accounts of blacklisting victims
Labour MPs provided several accounts from blacklisting victims, including stories from their own lives, their family’s lives and the lives of their constituents:
Mr David Hamilton, Labour MP from MidLothian: “[After I was blacklisted] my wife could not get a job until she took my mother’s address. I was unemployed for two and a half years.”
Jim McGovern, Labour MP for Dundee West: “It was not only construction workers—in fact, not only workers—who found themselves on the blacklist. Mr Syd Scroggie from Dundee—a disabled war veteran who lost a leg and the sight in both eyes while serving this country—found himself on the blacklist. Why? Because he sent a letter to the local press commending them for awarding Nelson Mandela the freedom of the city.”
Steve Rotheram, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton: “I know from personal experience that those who found themselves on blacklists were the kind of workers who fought for a safer work environment for themselves and their colleagues. They were the kind of workers who did not turn a blind eye when the company tried to dock apprentices’ wages, or failed to pay the work force on time. What kind of Parliament would we be if we failed to stand up for responsible workers who have been punished by irresponsible companies for many years?”
John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw: “I went for an interview and was given the job. It was confirmed … but a week later I get a phone call. A very embarrassed human resources person … [who] says, ‘I’m very sorry, but you’re on a blacklist … You can’t have the job. The offer is withdrawn.’
“I was almost certainly on the blacklist because—I have read up on this—I was involved organising the national anti-apartheid demonstrations. I organised a number of the students who went and was part of the team who pulled together the national demonstrations with Oliver Tambo and Jesse Jackson. Lots of hon. Members from different parties were no doubt there, but if they look back, they will see that anyone involved in the anti-apartheid movement somehow managed to get on the Economic League blacklist.”
Recent and ongoing blacklisting evidence
Mr Kerr also provided evidence to the Committee that Consulting Association’s blacklist was used when recruiting for public projects including the Olympic Sites, the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall and Portcullis House on the parliamentary estate.
Indeed, Balfour Beatty admitted in a letter to the Olympic Delivery Authority in 2008 that it had checked the blacklist before employing 12 candidates for jobs on Olympic projects.
Even Cullum McAlpine, Director of Sir Robert McAlpine, confessed this week that the Consulting Association’s services were used in the delivery of the Olympics and the Jubilee line.
There is also suspicion that blacklisting practices may have been used when recruiting workers for the Crossrail project, as human resources manager named Ron Barron was employed on this project and he is known to have used the blacklist more than 900 times in 2007 alone when he was working at CB and I.
John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, also highlighted a case that suggests blacklisting is an ongoing problem.
“I have been on the cleaners’ picket line across the city—at Schroders, John Lewis and elsewhere. People employed as cleaners join a trade union and become the trade union representative. They are then victimised—and yes, in some instances, physically assaulted; we have evidence of that. Eventually, they are sacked or have to leave. All of a sudden, coincidentally, they cannot find employment anywhere else,” he said.
Mr McDonnell also noted that some blacklisting occurs internally within organisation, including in the civil service. He highlighted the case of Finola Kelly, who was disallowed from returning to her post at the Equality and Human Rights Commission after taking on a short-term post elsewhere, because she was a member of the Public and Commercial Services Union. This was proven in court and she was awarded £25,000 in compensation.
The law as it stands
Several Tories stated that blacklisting is already outlawed, through the however this is not strictly true.
Section 137 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 made it unlawful for employment to be denied either due to their trade union membership or non-trade union membership. It does not make blacklisting illegal.
The Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists)Regulations 2010 make it unlawful to develop, provide, use or purchase a “prohibited list”. A list is only deemed prohibited if people have been blacklisted for trade union activities or membership. However, as President of the IER Professor Keith Ewing pointed out in 2009, it does not cover those who are blacklisted due to “trade union related activities”, leaving what is considered to be official and unofficial trade union activity up to the discretion of the courts. Furthermore, the regulations cannot be used by those who were targeted before they were brought into law.
Blacklisting has never been made illegal
Mr Umunna suggested that the fact claims can only be brought through an employment tribunal or county court – and most prefer to use an employment tribunal – can also cause problems. This is because claims can only be brought to tribunal within three months of the offence, and many people are not aware they have been blacklisted for years.
Moreover, the Shadow Business Secretary pointed to the problem of bogus self-employment in the construction industry, which often leads to employees losing their working rights or struggling to be compensated for wrongdoing.
“The upshot of all this is that often the only legal remedy for a significant number of victims of blacklisting is through a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in respect of a breach of their convention rights – article 8 on privacy and article 11 on freedom of information,” Mr Umunna added.