This week’s debate was a stark reminder that practices such as blacklisting which should have no place in a modern society, continue to scar our national decency. As the Information Commissioner’s Office put it ‘the blacklist remains a black spot on the history of employment in this country.’
Blacklisting – the word itself is such a malicious term – to deny, to ostracise, to dismiss. Sadly, it stretches back into the annals of working life here in the UK and, over the past decade, we know that this has continued to be used by powerful construction firms. From the Economic League in 1919 to the Consulting Association since the 1990s, clandestine organisations have sought to conspire to gather information on individuals whom they deem to be a ‘problem’.
While the closing down of the Consulting Association is long completed, the work to help those whose lives were blighted by these blacklists must continue and that was the driving force behind the shadow BIS team’s opposition day debate.
We know that more than 3,000 individuals were on the blacklist that was seized by the Information Commissioner in 2009. That list was compiled and held by the Consulting Association – a shady organisation which was set up and funded by the country’s most prominent construction companies. More than 40 firms were vetting people from the blacklists and providing information to the lists. And this is only what we know about. The majority of those blacklisted had no idea they were included on the secret lists and still do not know. They have had their lives ruined by this – marriages and families broken, ill health and stress brought on and livelihoods destroyed.
In the last week Balfour Beatty has admitted to carrying out blacklisting checks on the Olympic construction sites with allegations that projects, including within the MoD and on Crossrail, may also have vetted workers via these lists. The number of public projects is plentiful and one firm, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, confirmed that they may have used blacklists in building contracts across the UK, again at the Olympic site, Crossrail, in addition to developments in Scotland. That is why I have written to the first minister in Scotland to ask him to investigate the use of blacklisting in relation to public construction works in Scotland. It is critical that the UK and Scottish gvernments immediately instigate an investigation into the extent that blacklisting took place and is, perhaps, still taking place.
Labour is therefore asking for four things:
First, there is an urgent need for investigation of blacklisting, including on public sector projects.
Second, there is a desperate need for a more proactive approach by the Information Commissioner’s Office. It is vital that the ICO immediately puts in place an effective process for informing individual victims of blacklisting so that they can seek redress.
Third, we need a review of legal protections against blacklisting. Following the ICO raid in 2009, Labour tightened regulations to prevent blacklisting and enable victims to seek redress. But following new revelations which have come to light since then, we are calling on the government to examine whether further changes are needed to ensure that appropriate, effective sanctions are in place to tackle and prevent blacklisting. The government must ensure that no one is excluded from seeking redress because there is no direct employment relationship between the worker and the company who used blacklisting. Ministers must also look at how those who have suffered detriment but are unable to claim under the existing regulations, because the existing regulations do not apply retrospectively, can be properly compensated.
Finally, we are calling for a compensation fund to be set up by the construction companies to allow those workers who have been blacklisted to seek redress and justice through this fund.
The largely consensual tone which was struck during the majority of yesterday’s debate is hugely encouraging and the fact that the government did not oppose our commons motion – which called for the action outlined above – will give some succour to those who have been affected by this scandal. However, progress must now be made.
As Chuka Umunna, the shadow secretary of state for business said during the debate, blacklisting is a secretive, insidious and shady practice that has brought shame on our construction industry. Those who were responsible for it have yet to be properly held to account for their actions and elected representatives – regardless of political hue – must act now. The most depressing aspect of this debate is that we cannot say for sure that these blacklisting practices have ended. That is why this issue is so important.
Ian Murray is MP for Edinburgh South and shadow minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs
Photo: Josh Self
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