Blacklisting

13th October 2013
Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have helped, with 20 colleagues across the House, to secure today’s debate, and to have been involved with trade unions, including my own, Unite, with Tony Tinley helping out; the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, with Cheryl Pidgeon researching this debate; and the union that I used to work for before coming to this place, the GMB. If the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) is not yet in a trade union, I could put a number of offers to him to put that right. He should be careful; being anti-badger culling and pro-exposing blacklisting, he could be highly sought after, in these days of coalition, after the next general election.

It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson). I hope to be a supporting actor in what we have to do today. Blacklisting is, as my hon. Friend said, a disease. It is pernicious, and it spreads without people even knowing that it is there. It is vital, from the point of view of any civil or human rights stance that any party wishes to have, that we ensure that its days are definitely numbered.

What is blacklisting? It is the termination of workers’ employment for issues not related to performance. Such issues can, and have, included raising legitimate health and safety concerns; being a member of a trade union; and belonging to a political party whose ideals employers do not share. For those subject to the practice, as we have heard, the consequences can be incredibly devastating —discrimination, unemployment, poverty, family breakdown, mental breakdown and, in some extreme cases, even suicide.

The phenomenon is not new; it is not something of the past 20 or 30 years, or something, as my hon. Friend said, that concerns only the construction industry. It goes back a long way—way back to the beginning of the old Economic League in 1919. The league created a list of people whom it—not the courts of law or Parliament — regarded as subversive. Many individuals were listed and blighted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who has had to leave the Chamber, said in his speech to the House on 23 January 2013 that the Economic League’s blacklist was used to create difficulties—he gave his own example—in getting work once someone was on that list. Another colleague of ours in this House who has had first-hand experience of blacklisting is my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton). He has already gone on record about his experiences of being blacklisted. I am sure that he will not mind me saying that, in a conversation this morning, he told me that the only way his wife ever got a job—not him, but his wife—was to use her maiden name; the blacklisting spread past the individual to influence the family.

Steve Rotheram: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. The current blacklist from the 1990s is a slightly separate issue from blacklisting in general. Blacklisting has gone on for many decades, certainly in the construction industry. He will be aware of another person who was put on the blacklist—a member of the Shrewsbury 24—Ricky Tomlinson, who is now fighting a campaign to clear his name. He was denied the opportunity to make a livelihood for many years.

I do not think that many people fully understand the individual impact of being blacklisted. Those 3,200 people —not just the ones who know—have struggled for many years not only to clear their names but to earn a living. Does he agree that is the main reason why we are pushing the issue with the Government?

Mr Allen: I know that not everyone wants to make a speech: some colleagues may wish to make interventions instead. I will gladly take those interventions so that people can get their views on the record. My hon. Friend’s view is one that I strongly agree with.

Another colleague of ours, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern), mentioned the story of a disabled war veteran who had one leg and one eye. He 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.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 337.]

The problem with this intelligence-based stuff is that it is not verifiable or in the public domain. Things can be said about someone, often trivially, that get them on the list, resulting in all sorts of consequences that they cannot challenge.

The Economic League gave way to the Consulting Association, which purchased the list from the league. It sounds a little bit like one of those building companies that go bust and then suddenly rise again the next day with a different name. That is the blacklist that we have mainly been talking about today—the 3,200 individuals—which has been used by 40 contractors. It is not the street-corner jobbing company that uses the list, but some of the biggest companies, whose names my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) put on the record, and many others too. Looking out of the window at the construction going on around us, we will see their names.

The revelations also highlighted the inadequacy of legal protections. Since 1999, legislation has given UK Governments the power to pass regulations against blacklisting, but all of us have singularly failed to push the Government to do what they should have. Only a year before the blacklisting was uncovered, UCATT, as we heard earlier, began lobbying the Government to pass acceptable regulations, only to be told, “There is no need for them. It is all under control. There isn’t really a serious problem.”

In 1992, the TUC complained to the United Nations International Labour Organisation. What a shaming thing that is for our country: that we were reported alongside sweatshops in the far east to the ILO for having no effective protection for workers in our country against being put on a blacklist, which blights the lives of workers and their families. The ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association upheld the complaint, saying that UK law fell short of article 98 of the ILO convention. Again, Governments failed to act.

To bring the issue right up to date, in March 2012, The Observer published an article claiming that the police and/or security services had supplied information to the blacklist to be used by the nation’s major construction firms, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton said. That was reinforced when the Information Commissioner’s Office revealed that the records could have come only from the police or MI5— not from a Member of the House or from someone making a political point. A vast database on more than 3,000 victims, whom somebody else deemed troublesome, was being fed by the security services. David Clancy, investigations officer at the Information Commissioner’s Office, stated in The Observer:

“the information was so specific and it contained in effect operational information that wouldn’t have formed anything other than a police record.”

We have to do something about this: the job is not done.

As hon. Friends have said, some protection against blacklisting was introduced in the Employment Relations Act 1999, although unions warned at the time that it was wholly inadequate. However, the raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office triggered a new regulation, which led to Ian Kerr, the chief executive of the Consulting Association, being fined £5,000—not exactly a king’s ransom—for breaking data protection laws. That is the price we put on the destruction of the lives of individuals and their families, for causes unknown to them, by this individual and his pals at the Consulting Association. However, Ian Kerr could not be punished for blacklisting employees, because it was not illegal to do so.

As many colleagues have made clear, there is still no positive right not to be blacklisted. Additionally, the burden of proof is placed on workers who suspect they have fallen foul of this odious practice. It is unreasonable to expect workers to prove in law what is, by its very nature, a covert practice. How on earth do they know it is going on? How, then, can they prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is happening? That is unreasonable.

The Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry into blacklisting pointed out that blacklisters do apologise and do seem to be sorry, but only when they are caught, and only when it is revealed, in the light of the public gaze, that they have transgressed. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) has pointed out that claims against blacklisting can be brought only through an employment tribunal or a county court, which can cause problems. For example, claims can be presented at a tribunal only within three months of the offence taking place, but it is often difficult, even years later, to find proof that an offence has taken place.

The professor of public law at King’s college, Keith Ewing, has been in touch with my office. He noted that there is still a tremendous gap in the new legislation that was put in place after the raid on the Consulting Association.

John Cryer: My hon. Friend mentions Keith Ewing, and it is his report “Ruined Lives”, which was commissioned by UCATT, that has been responsible for much of the attention, including the press coverage, that has been given to blacklisting over the past three or four years.

Mr Allen: My hon. Friend has been assiduous in investigating this issue, and I bow to his knowledge of it. He is absolutely right about Professor Ewing’s work.

Professor Ewing has written that there is no automatic compensation for being blacklisted and there are no criminal penalties for blacklisting. Protection from blacklisting applies only to trade union activities, which we might think is reasonable. However, given the way the law works, that protection does not apply to trade union-related activities—work that one out. That means the courts will decide whether unofficial action is caught.

On 30 October 2012, UCATT exposed the activities of two leading blacklisting firms—Sir Robert McAlpine and Skanska—while giving evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee. Both companies were undertaking high-profile projects, including motorway construction and work at the Olympics, while they were blacklisting workers. Giving evidence, UCATT’s general secretary, Steve Murphy, revealed how, in the Consulting Association’s final year of operation, Skanska had paid more than £28,000 for blacklisting checks, while Sir Robert McAlpine had paid £26,000. Skanska admitted it was using the Consulting Association to vet workers and supplying information to the list, yet it escaped without penalty or sanction.

The steps taken in Wales show how we can do something on this issue. The Assembly and the First Minister have made great efforts to move it forward. New procurement guidance issued to all Welsh public bodies has outlined the steps that can be taken through procurement to help end blacklisting and encourage redress and compensation for victims. It makes it clear that companies proved to be involved in blacklisting can be excluded from bidding for contracts. It also sets out the steps companies need to take to avoid being excluded, such as offering proper redress for victims and introducing personnel and organisational measures to ensure that blacklisting no longer takes place.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend makes some very salient points. Does he accept, as many unions have said, that the argument that procurement contracts cannot take account of blacklisting activities is a fallacy? In fact, there is a risk of litigation should we choose not to take account of blacklisting and award contracts to companies involved in it. That is why I think the Welsh Government are showing the way forward.

Mr Allen: The Assembly in Wales is less dominated by the Executive than we are in this place, but, even so, we should draw comfort from the fact that legislators can make a difference and take these things forward. If Wales can set an example, I very much hope that England can follow suit.

I ask the Minister and her shadow to make it clear that there should be a positive right not to be blacklisted and that workers who find themselves on blacklists should have an automatic right to compensation, without the burden of proof being placed on them. The retroactive compensation scheme that has been mentioned should also be established to compensate blacklisted workers. Furthermore, protection should be extended clearly to include trade union-related activities, as well as just trade union activities. Above all, blacklisting should be a criminal offence, and companies that use blacklists should be open to persecution.

I will skip over the issues you warned us about, Sir Alan; perhaps we will come back to them on another occasion. Suffice it to say that the scheme the industry is creating involves only eight of the 44 major construction firms that have been implicated in blacklisting. That is not good enough, and I hope the Minister will take up the suggestion that all those who have been on a blacklist should be written to and that all those who have blacklisted others should be written to and clearly asked to join the scheme. I doubt this will be the last debate on blacklisting, but the day grows closer when those who have blacklisted others and those who have been on blacklists will get the justice they deserve.