Firms involved in the blacklisting scandal now have to decide how to manage the far-reaching repercussions

will hurst

The MPs who have been investigating construction industry blacklisting for the past 10 months took a breath this week and gave us an insight into their thinking. The Scottish Affairs select committee’s 40-page report on the subject - its interim findings - makes grim reading for the major contractors at the heart of this scandal.

For all the firms’ protestations that this is an issue that happened in the past and for which they are sorry, it is clear that this has not lessened the committee’s outrage at what it has learned since its examination of safety in construction north of the border morphed into something else entirely because of the reluctance of workers to speak out for fear of being blacklisted. “Appalling”, “real live conspiracy”, “ruined lives” and “morally indefensible” are just some of the choice terms the politicians use, while they have repeatedly questioned the evidence given under oath by the three companies they have heard from so far: Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska and Balfour Beatty.

MPs now say they will make ‘concrete recommendations’ to the government on compensating victims of blacklisting

They also draw attention to some of the entries on the “troublemaking” workers found in the database of The Consulting Association, which remain shocking despite the passing of time: “After taking on, showed signs of militancy over safety,” one reads. Another notes: “girlfriend has been involved in several marriages of convenience”.

So, how serious is this for the companies involved? They will no doubt take comfort from the fact that no firm evidence has emerged that blacklisting has continued since the closure of The Consulting Association in 2009. Moreover, the current government has little appetite to do anything but observe the work of this Labour-dominated select committee unless current blacklisting is proven - a stance reiterated this week by business secretary Vince Cable. And, of course, the major contractors are not as vulnerable to public opprobrium as other big businesses given the general public are not their direct customers.

But what is likely to have shaken the firms that paid The Consulting Association for its services is just how far-reaching the final recommendations of the committee are now likely to be. As committee chairman Ian Davidson puts it: “This was an exercise [that was] run for the financial gain of the companies involved and those who benefited must be held accountable […] We are sure it would still be going on if the Information Commissioner’s Office had not uncovered the practice and raided the offices of The Consulting Association.”

The MPs now say they will make “concrete recommendations” to the government on compensating victims of blacklisting and have mooted recommending to government that firms involved in blacklisting are barred from tendering for public sector contracts in future, especially if they have failed to compensate. The withholding of public sector contracts is already more than just a suggestion - local authorities up and down the country, from Hull to Southampton, are re-examining their tendering processes after passing anti-blacklisting motions in recent months.

For the contractors that find themselves in the eye of this storm, the issue is whether they should now take control of the situation by issuing a wholehearted mea culpa and proposing some convincing system of financial compensation. This approach has its risks but the greater danger, given the way the tide is moving, is that they remain rooted to the spot, Canute-like, as they are engulfed by the waves.

Will Hurst, assistant editor