Director of contractors’ body Stephen Ratcliffe told by MPs that this evidence to the committee ‘reflects badly on the industry’

Stephen Ratcliffe committee

The director of the UK Contractors’ Group Stephen Ratcliffe has been told by a parliamentary committee investigating blacklisting that his evidence “reflected badly… on the industry”.

In an hour and a half long session, Ratcliffe was grilled by MPs about his knowledge of blacklisting and the UKCG’s reaction to the scandal as part of the committee’s ongoing inquiry into the blacklisting of construction workers.

Two MPs on the Scottish Affairs Committee accused Ratcliffe of being “evasive” during the session, while Simon Reevell MP, a former lawyer, said: “You are the most evasive and potentially dishonest witness I’ve encountered at this committee and frankly in 20 years of practicing at the bar.”

Chair Ian Davidson MP said he had spoken to the committee clerk to see what powers it had for potentially reprimanding Ratcliffe “in the event that we find any of the answers we’ve been given are less than the whole truth”.

Davidson said in his summing up: “This has been a session that has reflected very badly on you, on your organisation and indeed on the industry”.

Ratcliffe opened his evidence by reading a statement saying that blacklisting has “damaged the reputation of the entire UK construction sector”.

He said most of the firms UKCG represents were not involved in blacklisting but said some were.

He added: “These companies have accepted that these actions were morally wrong and have apologised.”

He said blacklisting had also damaged positive relations between UKCG and the unions.

Chairman Ian Davidson asked Ratcliffe when he learned about blacklisting and Ratcliffe replied when the press first reported it in 2009.

He later said 2009 was also the first time he’d heard of The Consulting Association (TCA), which compiled the blacklist.

Davidson reminded him he was under oath, adding: “Can you understand why I find that difficult to believe?”

Ratcliffe said he wasn’t trying to mislead the committee, saying: “It’s not easy to be one against a number of people [the committee]”.

Ratcliffe was challenged on his initial claim that companies involved in the TCA had “apologised”.

When pressed, he said his basis for saying this was the committee hearings and evidence he’d seen from UKCG members, who’d given evidence, coupled with the fact he’d emailed his statement to all members in advance of the hearing and none had raised any concerns with it.

Ratcliffe then admitted that only “five or six” of his 32 members had replied, prompting chair Davidson to question Ratcliffe’s intial apology on behalf of UKCG members, adding “I think this is an attempt to deliberately mislead us.”

Davidson accused Ratcliffe of “negligence” over blacklisting for doing “virtually nothing in four years [since TCA came to light in 2009]”.

Ratcliffe said blacklisting “hasn’t been on the agenda” of the UKCG in the four years since the TCA blacklist was uncovered.

But when pressed by MPs he revealed the UKCG had had some dialogue with members about blacklisting outside of formal meetings.

He said UKCG had been contacted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), which covers the human resources profession, about setting up a “code of practice that might have some teeth” for construction HR professionals, with a potential focus on conduct for firms working on public sector contracts.

He said any potential code of practice would be run “by a third party”, like the CIPD, and could have the powers to “properly vet staff”.

He said he had contacted UKCG members about the proposal by email.

He said he’d be “happy” to take the proposal of a no fault compensation plan to UKCG members.

Asked if unions ever raised blacklisting with him, such as Unite’s former boss George Brumwell, Ratcliffe said: “I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen […] If it did I have no recollection of it.”

Ratcliffe said “a lot” of firms had been spending “a lot of money putting in compliance practices into businesses” in response to the blacklisting allegations, to ensure the practice did not happen again.

When questioned as to how he knew this, Ratcliffe initially said he had read this in Building magazine, but when questioned further said he was basing this on conversations he’d had with the chief executives of Kier, Bam, Balfour Beatty and Sir Robert McAlpine.

Ratcliffe said health and safety had been “the most important issue” for chief executives of its member organisations “for the best part of a decade”.

But he said evidence uncovered in the past four years suggesting workers raising health and safety concerns had been blacklisted had never come up in meetings.

He said the leadership role in UKCG lay with members rather than him and best practice was derived from members.

He rejected suggestions from MPs that UKCG should monitor or reprimand its members activities, saying “I’m not a regulator or a policeman of the industry”.

He said the issue of disciplining a member for contravention of UKCG best practice – on any issue – had “never been discussed in meetings”.

Asked to justify his £120,000 salary, Ratcliffe said: “You’ll have to ask my members that”.

Ratcliffe disputed that firms were motivated by profit and said he personally “wouldn’t get out of bed to work in construction… for 2-3% margins”.

When asked to clarify the remark, he said: “The point I’m trying to make is it’s not a massively profitable industry.”

Asked if he was “doing a PR job on behalf of members”, he said “yes”.