It’s time the industry faced up to its mistakes over blacklisting

Joey Gardiner

An industry out of control, indifferent to the damage it did to individuals in its pursuit of profits: that is the damning picture of the press in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal. The inquiry at the High Court launched to investigate this and other allegations of media misconduct has, with the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report this week, started to have far-reaching effects on how the press can operate.

This is an example the construction industry would do well to consider. For, half a mile from the Leveson proceedings, serious questions are being raised by the Scottish Affairs Committee about the conduct of the sector.

The practice of blacklisting - the denial of employment to construction workers on the basis of secret information held about them - has been public knowledge for more than three years, since the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raided the premises of the Consulting Association. This organisation had been compiling a blacklist of more than 3,000 names on behalf of 45 contractors for as long as 15 years. Now the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry, looking at construction fatalities north of the border, has put it firmly back on the agenda.

This week the committee called Ian Kerr, the man who ran the Consulting Association, to tell his story, and he revealed for the first time the extent of the complicity of major contractors in the practice (see pages 10-11). One contractor, Sir Robert McAlpine, not only loaned the Consulting Association its up-front set-up costs and paid Kerr’s legal costs, but one of its directors, Cullum McAlpine, was the founding chair of the organisation. And McAlpine was by no means the only firm implicated by Kerr’s evidence.

Considering the hugely disruptive labour disputes on construction sites in the 1990s and early 2000s, it’s not hard to see why construction companies were tempted to go down this route. It also seems likely that there was a small minority of workers who were far more interested in agitating for trouble and political agendas than actually getting their jobs done - which explains why contractors, and even at times unions, are alleged to have been complicit in adding information to the blacklist.

Kerr said Sir Robert McAlpine paid the Consulting Association’s set-up costs and his ultimate fine, and that one of its directors was the founding chair of the organisation

But while this context may make blacklisting understandable, it does not justify it. Taking someone’s livelihood away from them on the basis of secret information is unacceptable - and, in current court challenges, may well be found to be illegal. With politicians raising questions about whether public bodies should investigate contractors involved in blacklisting, it could be about to get serious for big firms.

And unlike with the cover pricing scandal of 2009, when the industry quickly took steps to clean up its act, blacklisting has so far been an issue contractors have been unwilling to discuss. This isn’t sustainable. Richard Howson, chief executive of Carillion - one of the firms being targeted by unions for its behaviour - is one of the few that have addressed the issue head on, and should be recognised for that. But it’s time the rest of the industry took a serious look at what happened, admitted its failures and worked out how to stop it happening again. Otherwise, the construction industry - like the press - might find the resolution taken out of its hands.

Joey Gardiner, assistant editor