Today the Labour Party demonstrated our solidarity with the construction industry as we held a half day debate on the floor of the House of Commons to discussing the national scandal that is blacklisting.
After decades in which successive parliaments have failed to rectify this national injustice, I am positive that we would never have had the chance to debate this issue if it wasn’t for the dignity and determination of the rank and file construction workers whose spirit and tenacity in the face of adversity and hardship, has been truly inspirational.
I would also like to praise UCATT – a Union that I first joined as a teenager in 1979 - and who have led the fight on behalf of construction workers for many decades.
Some people wrongly question the Trade Unions relevance in today’s political arena. I believe that as Direct Action once again becomes more commonplace in politics – with the use of e-petitions and social media campaigns, Trade Unions will the ability to affect even more influence and bring issues such as Blacklisting to the attention of those in authority whose job it is to correct and prevent injustices on this size and scale.
My commitment to this cause has been well known for a number of years. In October last year, I tabled EDM 609 in parliament which was entitled Blacklisted Workers, which urged colleagues to support the call for ‘justice’ for those placed on lists that prevented them from gaining, or retaining jobs.
To date, the EDM has received the support of 68 members from six political parties. It should be pointed out, however, that not a single Conservative MP - and only 1 Liberal Democrat - bothered to sign it.
In today’s debate, MPs had the chance to clearly put on the record whether we are on the side of immoral business practices or the side of ordinary hardworking people.
Before coming to parliament, I spent the best part of three decades working in the Construction sector, in one guise or another - and saw firsthand the effect that blacklisting had.
I knew then what has been proven now; that blacklisting was a national scandal and recent revelations have demonstrated that the regulations introduced in the last decades did not go far enough. The Prime Minister’s response to Ian Lavery’s question today simply wasn’t good enough.
Let me be clear about the three parts of the Blacklisting scandal that I am campaigning for:
- First, I absolutely want to see all forms of blacklisting made illegal;
- Secondly, I want to see criminal sanctions brought to bear against any individual - or organisation - that supplied, solicited or used blacklisting material;
- And finally, I want to see the introduction, (through primary legislation), of a blacklisted worker’s right to compensation.
For years blacklisting was whispered about. Construction workers on Britain’s building sites always suspected a conspiracy, but it was kept very much under the radar by their bosses in the hope that the issue would quietly fade away.
Even today, Blacklisting was seen as a problem that – conceivably - happened in days gone by, but which has no relevance in today’s workplace.
As the country has learned in recent weeks, this isn’t the case.
Whilst Britain was slow to wake up to the enormity of this problem, it was suspected on Merseyside and much farther afield, that blacklisting was commonplace.
March 2009 proved to be a landmark moment for the Construction Industry. The Information Commissioner’s Office uncovered evidence against 44 companies – 44 of some of the biggest companies in the industry who were quite clearly corrupt to the very core – and who had purchased blacklists and used them to deny construction workers their legitimate right of employment.
What made these revelations all the more devastating was that the companies, who used blacklists, were the same companies profiting from millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money, through public sector contracts.
So how do we begin to end this scandal? It has to start by making blacklisting illegal. Looking specifically at the legislation that governs the rights of Trade Union members, we can clearly see that it does not offer adequate protection.
Section 137 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 makes it unlawful for an employer to refuse to employ someone because of his or her membership, or non membership, of a Trade Union.
The Act does not make blacklisting illegal.
Secondly, the Data Protection Act 1998 (The Act which was eventually used to prosecute Ian Kerr – the man who ran the Consulting Association).
It is unclear with this Act whether or not a person’s Trade Union activity qualifies as data, in the same way that details of a person’s Trade Union membership number alone qualifies as data.
In other words, it is ambiguous as to whether this law sufficiently deals with the difference between a blacklist file, which offers information on the activities that a person has been involved in, so for example, “Joe Bloggs was seen at a Local Labour Party constituency meeting and on a Union march”, and one which contains numerical information such as, “Joe Bloggs is a member of UCATT the Union, his membership number is X and his medical number is Y”.
In the views of the judiciary, the former doesn’t breach the Act, the latter does.
The gap in this legislation needs to be addressed because until we amend the law to explicitly state that blacklisting is illegal, this Act does not offer adequate protection for workers.
Then comes the third piece of legislation; the Employment Relations Act 1999 which empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations prohibiting the use, or sale, of blacklists.
The last Labour Government did many, many things well - and we improved the Health and safety of construction workers and their employment rights more than any other Government in history. But in my opinion, we missed the chance to end this scandal once and for all.
From what Vince Cable said today, he looks set to make exactly the same mistake. His ignorance to the depth of discontent on this issue was alarmingly obvious today.
Perhaps one of the biggest and most scandalous gaps in the current legislation is how it simply allows the corrupt companies who utilize Blacklists, to evade any form of financial and/or criminal sanction for their moral wrongdoing.
Of the 44 construction companies found to be using blacklists, only 14 were handed enforcement notices. These notices would only lead to criminal proceedings if the enforcement notice was repeatedly ignored. In other words, they offered little deterrent to the companies engaged in his sort of behaviour.
Add to this the fact that of the 14 given enforcement notices, the biggest offenders – the companies who were reported to have registered inquiries about over 10,000 potential employees in a year – were not even included.
Even if these enforcement notices were worth the paper they were written on, which they patently aren’t, there is zero clarity or consistency in the application of the notices to the offending companies.
In essence, because of decisions by Governments past and present not to criminalise blacklisting - and to not introduce criminal sanctions on the companies that use blacklists - two things have happened:
Firstly we have condemned the workers on blacklists to a lonely battle against some of the biggest and richest organisations in Britain.
We have seen examples in recent weeks and months of individuals and families who have suffered horrendous abuse - and intrusions of personal privacy - from multinational companies.
What is more, we have discovered that actually, this abuse of power from the powerful is not extraordinary, but depressingly familiar.
It cannot be right when we have seen the kinds of exploitation of authority against individuals, the like of which we have seen in this blacklisting scandal, for Parliament to wash our hands of responsibility and to leave victims out to dry.
Secondly, we do not know every person or public authority that has been complicit with blacklisting since this practice began (but we need to find out) However what we do know is that the practice of Blacklisting actually defies international law.
Article 8 of the European Convention of human Rights stipulates that “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”.
Additionally, Article 11, section 1 also states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form (and join) trade unions for the protection of his interests”.
Article 20, section 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
Defying international law is not something we should tolerate. It diminishes our ability to be a world leader and an affective global influence. How can we honestly debate Human Rights abuses in China and any other nation states, when, here at home, we allow blacklisters, probably in conjunction with individuals from public office, to consistently hound the private lives and activities of over 3,000 individuals, and counting, in our country?
The question for us as a country and as a parliament, to answer is; on what grounds do we believe that multimillion pound companies such as Balfour Beatty and McAlpine should continue to have immunity from criminal law?
If, like me, my fellow MPs do not believe that companies should escape criminal sanctions any longer, - then we must make blacklisting a criminal offence and, crucially, make the compiling, soliciting and the use of a blacklist, illegal also.
The final part of my campaign is about compensating those workers who have been blacklisted. I believe that consideration should be given to;
- Those, whose privacy has been breached,
- Those who were blacklisted before the Employment Act 1990 or the Data Protection Act 1998 were enacted,
- And to those able to prove that they were refused employment because of the use of a blacklist.
In 2009, Professor Keith Ewing produced a model in association with UCATT which suggested that, any worker able to provide evidence that they applied for a job with a company found to be using blacklists, should qualify for one of more of the following three levels of financial compensation:
Flat Rate – Which applies to anyone on a blacklist in violation of their right to privacy
Compensatory Rate – Which is a reasonable estimate of projected loss of earnings based on evidence which proves a worker applied for specific vacancies during the period in question
Aggregated Rate – Which is an amount for injury to feelings for those whose file is judged to be particularly offensive. For example, if it contains abusive or defamatory comments, information about medical conditions or information about political views.
I do not believe that it is right for taxpayers to foot the bill. The primary legislation I want to see introduced would impose a levy on those companies which made use of blacklists, which would in turn be used to compensate the workers according to the framework set out.
By adopting this approach, we would go some small way to rectify the injustice that has been done to the construction industry and its workforce.
The Deputy Information Commissioner claimed in October that the ICO did not miss a thing when they raided the Consulting Association’s offices in 2009.
But - shortly after, representatives from the ICO suggested to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee that they are only in possession of around 10% of documents. Both statements can’t be right.
Additionally, I would like to see parliament empower the courts to forfeiture of any blacklist which a company is known to have used. This list would then be handed over directly to the ICO where people whose names appeared on the list are notified. That may mean the Government needs to provide additional resource to the ICO.
The ICO cannot remain as complacent as Christopher Graham appeared to be when interviewed on Radio 4 this morning.
Finally, I know from my own personal experience that those individuals that have found themselves on a blacklist, were the kind of workers that fought for a safer work environment for themselves and their colleagues. They were the kind of workers who didn’t turn a blind eye when the company tried to dock the apprentices’ wages, or when they failed to pay the workforce on time.
What kind of parliament would we be if we failed to stand up for responsible workers who have, for many years, been punished by irresponsible companies?
We should each remember that blacklisting was not the act of blissful ignorance. It was the act of blatant immorality. And it should never be allowed to happen again.