Blacklisting could do real damage to the industry’s reputation if those under scrutiny do not make the right moves next

Sarah Richardson, editor of Building

For the past year, any mention of construction and the Olympics in the same breath by a public official would have been a cause for industry professionals to enjoy a moment’s satisfaction. MPs’ praise of the delivery of the 2012 venues has been a frequent mood-lifter for the sector and has enabled it to raise its profile among decision makers.

This makes it all the more worrying to hear Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna this week using the term “national scandal” in relation to the blacklist checks against workers made by contractors on public projects including the Olympics. Blacklisting - how often it occurred, who was involved, and whether it still goes on - has been a subject of frequent debate within construction for the past four years. But the practice’s explosion into public consciousness this week means that the damage it could do to the sector’s reputation is suddenly very real.

Blacklisting’s explosion into public consciousness this week means the damage it could do to the sector’s reputation is suddenly very real

Many of those contractors that were found to have used the blacklist of workers held by The Consulting Association when it was raided in 2009 have since made statements saying that they no longer employ such practices. Some have also made a point of condemning blacklisting.

Of course, such words are not going to be enough for the hundreds of workers with a sense of grievance - as the pending court action from many of them shows - but as a wider damage limitation exercise, assurance of changed ways is clearly a start. It may go some way towards mitigating any punishment that is meted out, partly by reducing pressure from MPs. However, if this assurance that the industry has cleaned up its act is to be worth anything at all in the eyes of politicians - and thereby, of course, also governmental clients - the sector in general needs to be much clearer in its contrition.

Sir Robert McAlpine director Cullum McAlpine admitted to MPs this week that the firm “did check workers who came onto the [Olympic] site, although none were denied employment”. This comes two months after another company director wrote to the Olympic Delivery Authority saying “Sir Robert McAlpine was not involved in any blacklisting (by which I mean discrimination against individuals which would prevent them gaining employment) on the Olympic stadium”. The firm would say, based on its definition of blacklisting, this is not a contradiction. But the impression it leaves - that the industry may not be being fully open about its practices - will only make condemnation of the sector worse.

The blacklisting issue has parallels with the 2008 Office of Fair Trading inquiry into cover pricing. But whereas then there was a convincing case made by firms involved that some aspects of that practice were victimless, the same just cannot be said of blacklisting. With that in mind, contractors under scrutiny would do well to make a clear statement about the extent of their involvement, express remorse, take the media flak, then hope they are allowed to move on. Otherwise, Umunna’s warning this week that unless contractors “apologise and accept responsibility the reputation of the entire industry will be tarnished”, hyperbolic though it may seem, could become a sobering reality.

Sarah Richardson, editor