Scotland business

Construction firms blacklist: Scottish Affairs Committee 'appalled'

Construction workers
Image caption The Scottish Affairs Committee said many were blacklisted for raising legitimate concerns over health and safety issues

Major construction firms which set up a "systematic blacklist" of workers appear to be continuing to avoid taking full responsibility for their actions, according to a report by MPs.

The Scottish Affairs Committee said it was "appalled" to discover thousands of workers were put on the list.

It added that in many cases people were included for raising legitimate concerns over health and safety issues.

The list was drawn up by The Consulting Association (TCA).

The organisation was closed down in 2009 after being raided by the Information Commissioner's Office.

Unions are seeking compensation, arguing that those on the blacklist were denied work.

The MPs said some of the biggest names in construction as well as many smaller firms had been involved.

In an interim report, the committee said: "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."

Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, whose director Cullum McAlpine appeared before the committee, responded to the report by denying it had ever operated a blacklist.

'Morally indefensible'

The MPs said 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 MPs found companies set up a structure through TCA which allowed them to submit names and information on workers they deemed to be unsuitable to a central list and to check prospective employees against that 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 MPs said.

The committee, which gained access to the card file database that was maintained by TCA, said notes about individuals who were on the blacklist included: "Subject is a shop steward and member of the TGWU. Is a troublemaker. If she is not a member of the CP (Communist Party) her husband certainly is."

'Organised conspiracy'

Labour MP Ian Davidson, who chairs 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."

He added: "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."

The committee has appealed for further evidence as it enters the next phase of the inquiry before making recommendations to government.

Responding to the report, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd stated: "In his evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, Mr Cullum McAlpine made it clear that neither he nor Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd was solely responsible for establishing or funding The Consulting Association."

It added: "Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd has never operated a 'blacklist'.

"We are, and have always been, wholly committed to maintaining good relationships with our workforce and to responsible trade unionism."

'Genuine regret'

Another firm mentioned in the report, Balfour Beatty, said it had already acknowledged using TCA up until 2009 to carry out reference checks on employees in the construction industry.

A spokesman said: "We have expressed our genuine regret over this. It should not have happened and we have apologised to the workers and families who may have been adversely affected over the years by this."

The spokesman said the firm had undertaken steps to "address the shortcomings" revealed in its data protection practices, including a revised ethical code of conduct which was introduced in 2009.

Skanska said it welcomed the publication of the interim report and remained committed to working with the committee and addressing the issues raised.

In a statement, the firm said: "At the committee hearing, Skanska addressed the areas of concern raised by the committee members and apologised for its past actions, saying it was 'truly sorry for its involvement'.

"The use of blacklists is against the values and behaviours of our company.

"We recognise and support employees' rights to form or join trade unions and we take a proactive approach to building good relationships with the unions."

It added: "We can confirm that Skanska is not engaged in any covert vetting or blacklisting and is not aware of this continuing in the UK construction industry."

'Shifty practices'

Unions welcomed the report.

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny 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."

The Unite union said the committee had "begun to shine a light on the dark side of the construction industry".

General secretary Len McCluskey added: "Unite firmly believes blacklisting continues and the only way to eradicate this morally indefensible practice is to strengthen legislation against blacklisting to give the law real teeth."

Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna MP said the report "underlines the need for a full investigation and for government to look again at sanctions and whether the law can be tightened up to prevent this scandal ever being repeated".

Business Secretary Vince Cable commented: "We will look carefully at the committee's final recommendations when these are published and if there is new evidence that blacklisting is continuing today, I will ask the appropriate authorities to carry out a full and thorough investigation."

A Scottish government spokesman said: "We are totally opposed to blacklisting. We are not aware of any evidence to suggest that blacklisting has been used in connection with any contracts awarded by the Scottish government or its agencies.

"We expect companies that are awarded public contracts to maintain high standards of business and professional conduct."

He added they would consider the report and work with unions on guidance for future procurement processes and public contracts.

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