What is it with this industry? Just when you think we’ve left the Dark Ages well behind something comes along to remind us what a short step we are from dodgy and outdated working practices

A few months ago it was cover pricing and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) inquiry. Now it’s the information commissioner telling us about a widespread and well-orchestrated blacklisting “service”.

The practice has long been rumoured to be prevalent in the industry, but the evidence has been anecdotal and nobody really thought it was on the scale that it now appears to be. It was possible to feel some sympathy for firms caught offering cover prices: many did it to save themselves from being dropped from future public sector tender lists. And in that sense, you might argue that, although illegal, the tendering of spoof bids wasn’t entirely unfair. Similarly, in support of the blacklist, contractors may argue that their margins are so paper-thin that a couple of problem sites is the difference between making a profit and a loss, and that that leaves them with little choice but to resort to the illegal vetting of their workforce. What’s more, if construction still harbours management techniques drawn from The Sweeney, then that’s because it has to deal with seventies-style hooligans and agitators. What happened during the construction of the Jubilee Line Extension in the late nineties certainly doesn’t sound pretty, as Andrew Gay vividly recalls. They may also argue that as industrial relations have never been as bad since, it shows blacklisting works.

But whatever benefits might possibly be put forward to defend such a list, one cannot escape the fact it is, in fact, indefensible. It is unlawful. It is totally unfair. It is construction firms operating as furtive vigilantes, denying workers a livelihood on the basis of hearsay evidence. How can the likes of Balfour Beatty, Sir Robert McAlpine and other world-class firms presently under investigation say they are doing everything they can to further the course of health and safety, and then subscribe to a list where workers can be punished for speaking out about unsafe practices? By propagating this system, the 40 firms that subscribed to it (more than 20 of which seem to have been using it when it was busted) have not only denied thousands of people the right to earn a living – but have also done themselves and the reputation of the industry a monstrous disservice.

Whatever benefits might be put forward to defend blacklisting, one cannot escape the fact it is, in fact, indefensible. It is unlawful. It is totally unfair

Oh my god, it’s finally going to happen!

Is the unthinkable finally about to occur? A ruling from the EU has paved the way for VAT on maintenance and refurbishment to be cut to 5% for private dwellings. All sides of the industry have been calling for VAT on refurb to be brought down to a reasonable level since Methusalah was in short trousers. The Treasury has never been a fan of such a cut – its argument being that it would be a subsidy to rich landlords in Mayfair – but has always been able to blame Brussels for not doing anything. Well, now it has changed its mind and is considering inserting a reduction in the next Budget. (In an ideal world the EU would have made it possible for VAT to be reduced across all types of refurbishment – but, well, small steps …) Slashing VAT would make it cheaper for social housing providers to bring empty homes back into use at a time when 4.5 million people are stuck on council waiting lists, and it would encourage homeowners, housing associations and local authorities to make their buildings more energy efficient at a time when construction costs are falling. And it would offer a huge boost to the industry at a time when it’s most needed. Come on Alistair and Gordon – it’s a no-brainer.

Denise Chevin, editor