I beg to move,
That this House
notes that in 2009 the Information Commissioner’s Office raided the Consultation Association which revealed a blacklist and files on more than 3,000 individuals which had been used by more than 40 construction companies to vet individuals and deny people employment for reasons including being a member of a trade union or having raised health and safety concerns and that extensive personal information on individuals and their families was held;
recognises that the majority of individuals have still not been informed that they were on the blacklist nor given the opportunity to seek redress, despite recent confirmation that blacklisting checks took place on Olympic construction sites and allegations that the practice took place on public projects including Ministry of Defence sites, Portcullis House and Crossrail;
further notes that at recent Scottish Affairs Select Committee hearings on blacklisting the Information Commissioner Investigations Manager raised concerns that there may have been collusion by police officers and security services in the compilation of blacklists;
and in addition that it was also alleged at the hearings that a blacklist of environmental activists was compiled;
and calls on the Government to immediately begin an investigation into the extent to which blacklisting took place and may be taking place, including on public sector projects, and to ensure that appropriate and effective sanctions are in place to tackle and prevent blacklisting.
The motion relates to a secretive, insidious and shady practice that has brought shame on our construction industry. Those who were responsible for it have yet to be properly held to account for their actions, which is why we have brought this matter to the House today. After seeing huge construction projects successfully delivered safely, on budget and on time by our construction sector—such projects include the Olympic park venues and Heathrow terminal 5—it gives me no pleasure to raise this matter, but debate this matter we must. It would be a dereliction of duty for us not to do so, given what has come to pass. I heard the comments that the Prime Minister made earlier in response to a question about blacklisting that was put to him in Prime Minister’s questions, and I should say that the manner in which he approached the issue is entirely inappropriate. That is because this is not a party political issue, which is why I provided the Secretary of State with an advance copy of my speech in an effort to build consensus; it is an issue of justice.
Our simple goal with this motion is to help right the wrongs done to people who, dating back to the British industrial revolution, have built and continue to build Britain. They build the airports, the roads and the railways we all use. They build the offices and factories we work in. They build the houses that we live in. Given the hazards of their trade, many of them have lost their lives in so doing over the years. They are our nation’s construction workers. Construction work may be hazardous and not terribly well paid relative to other occupations, but it provides an income to those who do it. It puts food on the plate; it provides a livelihood. But for a long time many of our construction workers have suspected that they were being systematically denied work—work that they were more than qualified to do. As a result, lives have been ruined, families have been torn apart and many have been forced out of the industry. Why? How? How on earth did this end up happening?
It is the usual practice for employers or employment agencies to seek references on potential employees or to otherwise vet them before hiring. Such vetting practices should be, and are on the whole, open, transparent, fair and carried out in compliance with the data protection regime. In the majority of cases such practices would not raise any eyebrows. However, carrying out a blacklist check is quite another matter, and that is what was happening on a grand scale in the construction sector.
Blacklisting involves checking to see whether a worker is on a blacklist and then discriminating against the individual if they appear on it. It involves systematically compiling information on workers which is then used by employers, or people making recruitment decisions, to discriminate against workers, not because of their ability to do the job, but for other, more sinister, reasons. In this case, the reason was simply that they raised health and safety issues and/or that they were an active trade union member.
The extent of blacklisting activity in the construction sector was exposed for all to see following a raid in 2009 by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The raid was carried out by the ICO on the offices of a shadowy and secretive organisation called the Consulting Association following a tip-off. Though the raid occurred in 2009, new details on the activities of the Consulting Association are only just coming to light, thanks to the excellent work of, and the ongoing inquiry into blacklisting by, the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, which has been taking evidence from most of the key protagonists.
Trade unions, including the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians—UCATT—Unite and the GMB have also unearthed much evidence, as has the Blacklist Support Group. I am a proud member of the GMB and Unite unions, and I am proud to have UCATT headquartered in my constituency.
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said, and I am a proud member of UCATT. Does he agree that the work it has done on behalf on its members—construction workers up and down the country—led to what we saw in 2009 and that if it had not been for the arduous work it has carried out for many decades, we would not be in the situation we are in now? However, we still have a long way to go.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments.
The Consulting Association was born out of the old Economic League, which had been established in 1919 to promote free enterprise and to fight what its supporters saw as collectivism, socialism and communism—left-wing thinking to which they objected. The league was notorious for blacklisting more than 10,000 people, including Members of this House, trade unionists and journalists. In 1991, it was heavily criticised by the old Select Committee on Employment for dishing out clandestine and inaccurate information suggesting that individuals were unsuitable, leading to many being denied employment.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that this should not become a party political point-scoring debate. However, Labour consulted in 2003 on introducing regulations against blacklisting but announced that they would not be doing so because evidence suggested that it had been eradicated in the early 1990s. Can he explain that to me?
It is fair to say that until 2009 hard evidence on the scale we saw unveiled by the Information Commissioner had not come to light. I accept that different Governments of different hues should perhaps have done more since the Consulting Association was set up in 1993, but I am not really interested in attributing blame. I am interested in ensuring that we right the wrongs and that should be our focus.
I thank my hon. Friend on behalf of my constituents who have raised the issue with me. Some were on the blacklist held by the Consulting Association and others fear they might have been or are concerned for other people. Mick Chalmers raised the issue with me because of his concern for others, for example. Does my hon. Friend think that the investigation needs to go further than the 3,000 people named on the blacklist? Many other people have suggested that that is just the tip of the iceberg.
My hon. Friend is right not to seek to apportion blame. I know that there were other distractions this morning, so I do not know whether he heard the interview with the Information Commissioner and the astonishing complacency with which he failed to address the fact that progress has been so slow in identifying even the 3,000, let alone others who might have been subject to blacklisting.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Overall, although the Information Commissioner has done good work in this area his office needs to be far more proactive in its approach to the overall issue.
The Economic League was wound up in 1993 and its construction company members wanted to continue its activities in their sector, so the Consulting Association was set up. It spun off out of the league in 1993 and a former regional organiser of the league, Mr Ian Kerr, became its chief officer until it was wound up in 2009. Mr Kerr, through the association, ran a large-scale secret operation on behalf of the construction companies, which were all leading companies in the sector. Many of the construction companies have since sought to distance themselves from the association’s activities by claiming, for example, that its services were used by subsidiaries they did not own at the time. Some have simply maintained that none of their managers knew the practice was going on, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Let me be clear: these well-known construction companies were involved in some way, shape or form with the association and therefore with its practices and no amount of carefully worded legal statements, denials or excuses can hide that fact.
Blacklisting is by its nature a hidden and clandestine practice and the hon. Gentleman is making very important points about the construction sector. Does he think that there are other sectors in which the practices are as widespread?
I was involved 22 years ago in the exposure of the activities of the Economic League, including working with The Guardian. When the Economic League was wound up, assurances were given by the construction employers that they would never again engage in blacklisting, yet we know that that scandalous practice continued. Thousands of building workers who wanted a job, were qualified for a job and who were desperate for a job could not get a job and spent years out of work. Is it not time that the construction companies were put in the dock for their shameful continuation of the shameful practice of blacklisting?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend.
Mr Kerr, who has since passed away, gave extensive evidence to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs last November. In his evidence, he could not have been clearer about the involvement of the companies my hon. Friend mentioned.
It is not just the construction industry. In the manufacturing industry, we used to come across such cases. When I was a shop steward, some years ago now, an organisation called Aims of Industry was very active. I am glad we are having this debate, because it was shameful that a lot of people were condemned not to work again. We talk about equality and everything that goes with that, so surely that should be utterly condemned.
I completely agree. Such practices are totally shameful.
Mr Kerr disclosed that after he was prosecuted and fined £5,000 for breach of the data protection regime in respect of the activities of the Consulting Association, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd paid the fine. Why did it do this? Not because David Cochrane, its head of human resources, was the chairman of the Consulting Association when it was shut down, although he was. No, the fine was paid by Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd because, as Mr Kerr told the Select Committee in November,
“I had put myself at the front and took the flak…so that they wouldn’t be drawn into all of this. They would remain hidden”.
Those involved cannot hide from the House today.
I am a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee and we took evidence yesterday from Cullum McAlpine, of Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd. Mr Kerr’s widow put it to us that there was an instruction from David Cochrane that the money paid to Mr Kerr should be put into his daughter’s bank accounts so that it could be hidden.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and all the other members of the Committee for the fantastic work they have done on this issue. I was going to come to that exact point, as the fine that was paid was essentially, in some respects, hush money. That is how I would describe it. According to the Information Commissioner, 44 construction companies made up the hall of shame that was the membership of the Consulting Association at the time of the 2009 raid I mentioned, including: five companies in the AMEC group; Amey Construction Ltd; six Balfour Beatty companies; BAM Construction Ltd; Carillion plc; Kier Ltd; Laing O’Rourke Services Ltd; Morgan Est and Morgan Ashurst, which are now known as Morgan Sindall; Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, which I have already mentioned; Skanska UK plc; Taylor Woodrow Construction; and Vinci plc. Those are just a few of the companies listed. In fact, half of the 20 largest construction companies today and/or their subsidiaries were involved with the Consulting Association in 2009. They were charged a £3,000 annual fee for membership and then had to pay £2.20 for each blacklist check on a construction worker, which would be a drop in the ocean for them but would have severe consequences for the workers affected.
The companies my hon. Friend named are some of the biggest in the workplace today. Is it not a disgrace that the people they were blacklisting were often those who were drawing attention to problems and health and safety issues in the workplace? That should have benefited those companies, but instead they wiped away the concerns and said that there was not a problem. The problem is not just blacklisting but what they were trying to hide in their places of employment.
Absolutely. What I find so reprehensible about this is that a person could be blacklisted simply for raising a rational, legitimate health and safety concern.
This is an absolutely appalling situation, and the cover-up has been going on for a long time. The companies concerned must know what has been happening. The 22 companies to which my hon. Friend referred operate in constituencies all around the UK. Is it not important that they come clean, and show how they have been covering up attempts by trade unionists to ensure health and safety at work, so as to avoid accidents? It is just appalling.
My hon. Friend is quite right. There has been a culture of denial; people are sticking their head in the sand, but the public and people working in the industry deserve some honesty.
I say this to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have enjoyed debating since we both joined the House two and a half years ago: I have already stated that different Governments perhaps should have done more about the issue. I cannot say fairer than that. If people want to make political points about what the last Labour Government did, fine, but I am not sure where that will get us.
I think I was the one who raised the question in 2003. Many of us who were extremely frustrated and angry spoke on the Floor of the House about the regulations not being enacted, though they were brought forward and consulted on. The problem was this: the TUC sent a circular to every union, and it circulated in branches, too, but it was almost as though there was a rule of omertà within the industry; there was absolute silence and cover-up, right the way across that period. It was extremely difficult to get the evidence. Only when the Information Commissioner carried out the raid was hard evidence available.
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I have read the Hansard report of his exchanges with the Labour Minister at the time.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we are talking about not just those whose names appeared on the blacklist, but the many tens of thousands of people to whom it was made clear that if they raised issues such as health and safety, they might well appear on these lists? That was used to make sure that a lot of people did not raise perfectly reasonable issues.
That is right. Certainly, the anecdotal evidence that I have received absolutely confirms what my hon. Friend says. One of the problems is that there is what happens on the site and what happens in the boardroom. I have not come across a board director of any of the construction companies who would publicly or privately condone these practices, but these practices have been going on. One either acknowledges that and seeks to deal with them, or puts one’s head in the sand. It is the head-in-the-sand attitude that has been so unhelpful thus far.
As I said, I think we all agree that blacklisting is unacceptable, and was wrong. He mentions that the Information Commissioner took action in 2009. The regulations came into effect in 2010. The question, to my mind, is what can we as lawmakers do further, practically, in terms of the legal structure, sanctions and penalties?
I will come to that exact point in a bit. I shall explain how the association worked, for the record.
Mr Kerr maintained a list and files on at least 3,200 construction workers. Association members would feed him the names of workers, and information relating to them, to keep on file. It would be remiss of me not to mention that, regrettably—my hon. Friend John McDonnell may just have alluded to this—there are allegations that there were some cases of trade union officials assisting in this process. The material included personal information, including on workers’ private relationships, whether they had raised health and safety issues, and their trade union activities. The copies of the files that I have seen give details of people’s specific movements on particular times and dates.
Before they recruited workers, association members would check with Mr Kerr whether the said worker was on the list, and if they were, they would be taken against, and were, more often than not, denied employment.
As my hon. Friend Jim McGovern said at the Select Committee’s cross examination of Mr Kerr, for £2.20, the association could dictate whether a worker got a job and so whether they could
“put a meal on the table that week.”
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this subject to the House, and congratulate the Scottish Affairs Committee on progressing a scheme relating to blacklisting. I hope that we take up the argument that it is not just individuals such as me who were blacklisted; it was also the families. My wife could not get a job until she took my mother’s address. I was unemployed for two and a half years. It is not just the individuals who were blacklisted, but their families.
I am listening to the shock and horror being expressed by the Opposition, and some individual and personal cases have been described, so why did Labour not enact the regulations until March 2010? Given that all this intelligence was known, why did it leave it until the last 60 days of a 13-year Government to enact them?
The hon. Gentleman totally misjudges the tone of the debate. If he had listened to what I said, he would have heard that the Consulting Association started its work in 1993, so two Governments could have, and perhaps should have, done more on the issue; I have said that three or four times. He does not add much with his intervention.
I am listening to political points being scored. I have to remind everybody that there are people and families at the heart of this. Those families deserve justice. They have been caught up in a terrible injustice that they have not been able to deal with. A constituent of mine was involved in the construction industry in the 1970s and ’80s. He was heavily involved in the union, and did not work for four years. His family suffered. We need to know how far and deep this disgraceful practice went. It deprived people of their livelihoods, and deprived their families incredibly. They suffered; should we now just score political points and walk away? I do not think so.
I hope that Kris Hopkins will reflect on those comments.
Let me give an example. An ex-scaffolder and father of four from Wigan on whom the association held information was, like my hon. Friend Mr Hamilton, unable to get work for several years. He said:
“this nearly ruined my marriage and it meant that my children were on free meals at school.”
Hon. Members who mentioned the impact on families were absolutely correct to do so.
Consulting Association invoices show that between 2006 and 2009, the construction companies involved paid just under £500,000 for blacklist checks and information. Given the amounts involved, it is inconceivable that the companies’ use and membership of the association would not have been known about and sanctioned at a senior level, yet so far, not one of the companies mentioned has apologised for its membership and use of the Consulting Association. That is an utter disgrace, given all that has come to light. The workers involved deserve an apology, and the companies involved should stop prevaricating and issue an apology now.
For the record, I should mention that when Mr Kerr gave evidence to the Committee, he confirmed the existence—this responds to the point made by Dr Whiteford—of a separate blacklist containing records on as many as 200 environmental activists, raising the possibility that there existed further, as yet unknown, blacklists relating to other sectors or groups that were being monitored.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—he has been very generous in taking interventions. It was not only construction workers—in fact, not only workers—who found themselves on the blacklist. Mr Syd Scroggie from Dundee—a disabled war veteran who lost a leg and the sight in both eyes while serving this country—found himself on the blacklist. Why? Because he sent a letter to the local press commending them for awarding Nelson Mandela the freedom of the city.
That is deeply shocking, and quite extraordinary. I thank my hon. Friend for adding that to the debate.
Unfortunately, in the past few months we have learned that blacklisting checks were carried out on workers who were to be engaged on publicly funded projects. In November, Mr Kerr submitted evidence to the Select Committee in which he stated that member companies used the association’s services to check potential employees applying to work on major public sector contracts. He said that the projects ranged from airport runways to buildings such as Portcullis House on the parliamentary estate, the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, GCHQ, the Jubilee line, the millennium dome, private finance initiative projects, hospitals, schools, Olympic sites, roads, rail contracts and so on. That is corroborated by an admission last month by Balfour Beatty in a letter to the Olympic Delivery Authority. Without the knowledge of the ODA, Balfour Beatty admitted that it had used the services of the association in 2008 to check 12 prospective Olympic workers who, thankfully, went on to be employed. It was also corroborated yesterday by Cullum McAlpine, who is a director of Sir Robert McAlpine Enterprises Ltd, and was the chair of the association from 1993 to 1996, and confirmed to the Select Committee that Consulting Association services were used on a large number of public projects, again including the Olympics and the Jubilee line.
Given the scale and scope of this disgraceful practice, does that not underline the urgent need to get to the bottom of this and take action to tackle it? We are going to invest in huge national infrastructure projects, whether in the energy sector or more widely, and we must never let this happen again.
I completely agree.
There has been concern that blacklisting may have taken place on Crossrail after it was revealed that a former senior human resources manager employed by a contractor on that project, Ron Barron, was a regular user and contributor to the association’s services in a previous job. An employment tribunal found that he introduced the use of the blacklist at his former employer, the construction firm, CB and I, and checked names with the association more than 900 times in 2007 alone. He was engaged as a consultant before the decision of the employment tribunal case against his previous employer was published, and the contractor says that it was not aware of the case.
In addition, the Select Committee has heard that there was information on association files regarding the monitoring of workers by the authorities because they were Irish nationals, and it has been suggested that they were barred from working on Ministry of Defence sites for that reason. I have tabled parliamentary questions to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Transport, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on all those topics. The answers that I have received indicate that there has been no recent discussion, correspondence or investigation of blacklists being used by construction companies engaged on public sector projects. That may have changed since I received those answers. I do not believe any of the Ministers answering my questions were seeking to be unhelpful in providing those answers, but given what I have just set out and what we now know, there is sufficient evidence to justify the Government carrying out a full investigation into the extent of blacklisting that took place, and which may still be taking place, at the very least on public sector projects.
After carrying out an investigation, the Government should set out what practical steps may be needed to stop blacklisting, and to prevent blacklisting checks on public projects in future. No doubt, they will want to consider and reflect on whatever findings the Select Committee makes when it reports. We can have a discussion as to what form that investigation will take, but we need to learn the full truth of what went on. Beyond blacklist checks being made on workers on public sector projects, David Clancy, the Information Commissioner’s investigations manager, who carried out the raid in 2009 on the association, has made very, very serious allegations in relation to the police and security services. Giving evidence to the Select Committee, Mr Clancy, a former police officer, said he believed that some of the information held by the association would have come from the police or security services, based on the nature of the information held. For example, an in-depth analysis of an individual’s home circumstances and what his neighbours thought about him featured on one file.
Mr Kerr denied that the association had any involvement with the police or authorities. However, he confirmed that the Economic League, some of whose records formed the bank of information held by the association, had met and exchanged information with the police. At the very least, it is likely that some of the information given to the league by the police made its way on to the files held by the association. Having seen examples of some of the records myself, it is clear that they contained information based on the surveillance of individuals, including periods away from construction sites. It seems improbable that such information came exclusively from construction firms themselves. That further underlines the need for a full Government investigation into blacklisting, which should consider the role of the police and other such authorities.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case. On his last point, even if the Government do not agree with anything else that has been said today, we have heard so much in the past few weeks about the role of the police over the past four decades—and the real worry is that faith in the police has been undermined by what took place two or three decades ago—that they must agree to investigate the cases raised today.
I absolutely agree. This is particularly serious and shocking, and if the police are to command the confidence of people in this country, the questions that hang over them in respect of their involvement with blacklisting must be properly investigated.
What about legal protections for construction workers and the system of redress for victims? Although it was and remains the case that it is unlawful to refuse employment on the grounds of trade union membership alone, at the time of the Information Commissioner’s raid on the Consultancy Association in 2009, there was no specific general prohibition on blacklisting. It was therefore left to the commissioner to prosecute Mr Kerr for failing to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998. As I said, he was fined just £5,000 as a result, which seems a shockingly small amount, given the devastation caused over the years. We have heard the evidence in the House this afternoon. Following the raid and the emergence of the blacklist, the Labour Government consulted on the issue of increasing the maximum monetary fine that could be imposed for serious breaches of data protection principles from £5,000 to £500,000. The increase came too late for the Kerr case.
Perhaps more shocking still is the fact that those firms that set up the association and became members—which supplied information to and accessed the blacklist—were neither charged with any offence like Mr Kerr nor ordered to pay compensation to the workers involved under that or any other law. To date, as I said, not one director of those companies has been brought to book for what happened. We also introduced the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010 a few months after the raid. They provide for victims of blacklists to seek redress from employment tribunals and civil courts only. They do not contain criminal sanctions, but they make it unlawful to compile, supply, sell or use a “prohibited list”'. To be prohibited, the list must contain details of current or former trade union members, or details of people who are taking part, or who have in the past taken part, in trade union activities. Non-trade union members on a list that includes trade union members qualify for protection too. The list must be compiled with a view to its being used by employers or employment agencies for the purpose of discriminating when recruiting or during employment.
As cases have progressed through the courts it has become apparent that the regulations need to be strengthened. I am coming on to the point that Caroline Dinenage made. First, the regulations are not retrospective in effect. While they act as a strong deterrent to those considering using blacklists, many of the victims of the blacklisting in the past, whom I have described—and some hon. Members have been victims—are unable to make use of them to secure compensation. Given that this is the case, what more can be done to ensure that those who have been wronged have some form of redress or compensation?
Secondly, it is unclear to what extent those who are not employed, in the strict sense of that word, but are self-employed, may bring claims under these regulations where they have been refused work. We know that false self-employment in the construction sector is rampant, so this is an important point that needs to be cleared up.
Thirdly, claims can be brought in the employment tribunal or the county court. Though the cap on compensation in the tribunal is £72,300 and there is no cap in the county court, people often prefer—I know this from my previous practice as an employment lawyer—to claim in the employment tribunal because it can be less laborious for claimants and the cost consequences of losing a case are less severe. However, claims brought in the tribunal must be brought within three months of the alleged unlawful act. Claims brought after that time can be allowed only at the discretion of the tribunal. Again, that needs to be looked at, because so many of the people affected are not even aware that these unlawful acts took place.
The upshot of all this is that often the only legal remedy for a significant number of victims of blacklisting is through a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in respect of a breach of their convention rights—article 8 on privacy and article 11 on freedom of information. That, of course, can take a long time and a great deal of resource. There are a number of cases going through the courts at present, which I will not refer to now as I do not wish to prejudice those trials, but we must be realistic about asking individual workers, many of whom have lost their livelihoods and so do not have huge resources, to enforce their rights against those very well resourced companies.
For these reasons I ask the Secretary of State, who I am pleased is here today, to carry out a review of the law in this area to see how it might be tightened up and protections and sanctions strengthened, and for him to report back to the House on his findings. I have deliberately not set out detail in respect of legal changes that may be needed to address these technical issues. That is something on which we can work together to achieve consensus. However, just as we correctly argue for robust legislation to protect whistleblowers, we must ensure that a climate of fear is not allowed to continue around the issue of blacklisting.
No worker on any building site or at other workplaces throughout the land should hesitate before reporting an unsafe site or a dangerous working practice. That means that they must have confidence that the law is with them—is firmly on their side—and that there will be no question of that report being noted down somewhere in a file for troublemakers, allowing firms such as the construction companies to get away with what they have been doing.
Finally, I turn to the work of the Information Commissioner.
I shall make progress, as I am aware that many colleagues want to get in.
Although I welcome the fact that the Information Commissioner has taken steps to work alongside trade unions by sending a list of names and dates of birth of blacklisted workers to four trade unions to check the names against their membership lists and to help alert their members that they have been affected, it is crucial that the ICO puts in place a proactive process, as I said earlier, so that those who have been blacklisted can be informed and can seek redress. This is particularly the case in respect of those affected who are not members of any trade union.
The ICO still has questions to answer on its approach to blacklisting and the way in which the 2009 raid was conducted. Why, for example, were just 5% to 10% of documents on the site recovered? Why was the raid not followed up by searches, with the necessary warrants, of the construction firms that supplied the bulk of Mr Kerr’s information? For the sake of the victims of blacklisting, I hope the ICO will be able to resolve these concerns.
In conclusion, what happened is nothing short of a national scandal. The sadness is that we cannot say with confidence that these practices are not still continuing. That is why action is needed. This action may take some weeks or months, but the time for denials and hiding their heads in the sand by the construction companies involved is over, not least because unless they apologise and accept responsibility, the reputation of the entire industry will be tarnished. That is not at all fair to those companies in the sector who have not engaged in those practices.
With that in mind, I end by asking the construction companies involved to consider setting up a fund into which they could all pay and which could immediately begin to compensate those workers who were blacklisted for the immense loss they have suffered. That, in addition to a full apology, would be a good place to start in righting the wrongs which have been done to our construction workers over the years. I commend the motion to the House.
In trying to reflect the spirit in which Mr Umunna introduced the debate, let me begin by saying that we would all agree that blacklisting is a thoroughly objectionable and indefensible practice. He is right to focus attention in particular on the construction industry. We all know that that industry is not only important but dangerous, and the health and safety issues in that sector are extremely important.
The reason that the hon. Gentleman has brought the debate is to seek an investigation—an inquiry. I have been listening very carefully and I shall try to be constructive. What I am not clear about, even after listening to him for half an hour, is whether we are talking about the word “was” or the word “is”. He spoke about “may be”. That is rather an important distinction.
Are we being asked to reopen an investigation that has already been held and legislation that has already been passed under the previous Government? I am not trying to be partisan; it happened. Are we being asked to revisit history—frankly, I am sceptical about the value of that—or are we talking about something that is actually going on? If it is actually going on, it is a serious matter and it needs investigation. I, of course, will want to see it properly investigated, but we want some evidence.
The hon. Gentleman made a speech today and there has been a battery of articles in the newspapers—a big page in The Times this morning—alleging that these things are happening. Well, bring it here. I will investigate it if there is any evidence that we can investigate. Let us be clear. Are we talking about now, or are we talking about an investigation into history?
I believe that what happened in the past needs to be investigated because we know and we have the evidence only now that it happened in the past. I have just explained and taken the Secretary of State in detail through the latest evidence, in particular that given to the Scottish Affairs Committee. Given that this practice happened in the past, it is right that we investigate how it came to happen. Why did Government Departments not know that it was going on? What questions were being asked? What do we need to learn from that?
In respect of the here and now, allegations have been made—I was very careful about the language that I used—to suggest that that is still ongoing. That also needs to be investigated.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that those are quite different things. If we are reopening the past, that is a different kind of inquiry conducted by different people in a different time frame. I need to be clear about what we are being asked to do.
On the point that the Secretary of State just made, would it not be fantastic if everybody accused of wrongdoing did the police’s job and brought the evidence to the likes of the Secretary of State? The right hon. Gentleman is the Secretary of State. He can order the inquiry and he should do so.
As I just said, if I can see any evidence that, under our Government—I have responsibility in this area—wrongdoing is taking place, or even evidence that suggests that it is taking place, I am very happy to investigate it. Nobody has yet come forward. As regards the past, one of the features that was not referred to earlier is the fact that the previous Government made it absolutely clear that the penalties and redress were not retrospective. That is what the previous Government determined. They could have applied fines retrospectively; they did not. They drew a line under history in 2010. That was their decision and that is what I inherited.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. In relation to what has happened and whether he should investigate matters that occurred in the past under previous Governments, his Government have announced the results of inquiries and set up inquiries across a range of Departments into what happened under previous Governments. That should not preclude an investigation now in respect of things that happened in the past.
On what is happening now, oral evidence has been given to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee outlining things that have happened. I am not talking about scurrilous press reports; I am talking about hard evidence—witness evidence—that has been given to the Select Committee.
Let me just try to draw a line under this part of the argument. I am trying to be helpful; I do not see any particular value in having a party political barney over this. If there is evidence forthcoming about current practice, of course we want to have it investigated, and I will investigate it. For that reason, I am not going to recommend to my colleagues that they vote against the motion. It might well be true that there are issues here, and I do not want to close the door on the matter if there is evidence out there that needs investigating.
That is one set of issues, but there is a completely different perspective as far as the past is concerned. I will go over what happened in the past in a moment, but that is a different question. My responsibilities lie, as part of this Government, in dealing with things that might have happened over the past two and a half years. If things are happening, of course we must get to the bottom of it.
The question that forms in my mind is: have there been further cases of blacklisting since the regulations came into force? We have parliamentary privilege that we can use in the Chamber, and it is important that we should hear examples of blacklisting that have occurred since the regulations came into force, rather than simply holding an inquiry for the sake of holding an inquiry.
Let me just answer this point.
I do not see the value of a fishing expedition. We need evidence that something is happening in order to investigate it.
Let me just proceed a little more.
I should like to move on from that point and to ask, out of genuine curiosity, about the way in which this issue has surfaced in the form of an Opposition day debate. The Prime Minister was totally right to point out as a matter of fact that these things had happened before 2010, and I do not quite understand why that has caused such offence. Many of the issues that have been raised here relate to the conduct and behaviour of the Information Commissioner. As the hon. Member for Streatham and his colleagues know, those in the Information Commissioner’s Office are not Government officials responsible to Ministers; they are responsible to the House. The Information Commissioner is a different kind of animal from a Government Department. Many of the allegations relate to the courts, and to civil and criminal practice, for which we cannot take responsibility.
May I just finish this argument?
I am genuinely baffled by the way in which the hon. Member for Streatham and his colleagues have approached this matter. He could have come and talked to me about this subject at any time. He knows perfectly well that I hold regular meetings in my office with his own colleagues on a Monday evening, and if they have individual cases that they are worried about, particularly confidential cases that they do not want to discuss elsewhere, we can discuss them. I am very happy to discuss them. Nobody has come to me on this issue in the past two and a half years, however.
I regularly meet the general secretary of the TUC. He—now she—is a valued stakeholder, and I talk to her on the same basis that I talk to the CBI. We have regular meetings, and at no stage in those meetings has anybody ever asked to discuss the issue of blacklisting. I meet national officers of the GMB, of Unite and of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, and occasionally their general secretaries, and none of them has ever raised the issue of blacklisting. So why has the subject suddenly surfaced in an Opposition day debate? It is difficult to get my head round what is going on here.
I want justice to come out of this debate. The right hon. Gentleman will know—he can look at the Hansard record—that I have been raising this issue for more than a decade. On the point about past issues, things changed when the evidence exposed the potential of police or security services involvement. I raised that with the Prime Minister on
I have read in the paper—and John McDonnell has now said—that there is an issue affecting the police force and the security services, but has he, or the Opposition spokesman or anyone else, referred the matter to the Independent Police Complaints Commission? Has it been referred to the security services Investigatory Powers Tribunal? It might be that such referrals did not lead anywhere and that we need to look at doing something else, but were they made in the first place?
I am genuinely flabbergasted by the Secretary of State’s response. He asks why we have raised these issues now, in an Opposition day debate. It is because of all the evidence that has come out of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee. I can tell him that we have seen other evidence as well, from outside the Select Committee, including the exchange of letters between the Olympic Delivery Authority and Balfour Beatty, not to mention some of the stuff relating to Crossrail. That is why we are having the debate now.
In respect of the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the courts and the tribunals, I am not asking him to impose his view of what the judgment should be in a particular case. We know, however, that one problem with the regulations is that employment tribunals have failed because, if someone was employed as a contractor on a project, without a direct employee-employer relationship, and they have been blacklisted, the regulations are no use to them. That is why I am saying that we need to review the law and to strengthen it.
I should like to move on, but I shall just make the point that if those practices are continuing, it would be an extremely serious matter. It would need investigating and we might well need legislative change because the previous regulations were not strong enough. That might well be the case. I am just asking Opposition Members, particularly those on the Front Bench, to co-operate with me, because I am very happy to take this matter forward if there is an issue to investigate.
As far as the past is concerned, I will certainly look at all the evidence that has come out of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, and we will see whether it needs to be dealt with in a different way, because it is a matter of history. I am primarily concerned, however, with the implication that this is still going on. Of course, if it is still going on, it needs to be investigated and stopped. That is the essence of the problem.
Order. A lot of Members want to speak, and the more time that is taken up with interventions, the less time will be available for their speeches. I do not mind which happens, but Members must choose. The Secretary of State has said that he will not give way for a while, and I know that some Members who want to catch my eye are getting frustrated.
I should like to go through the issues that have been raised step by step. Most of them relate to the past. I want to start by describing factually the matters covered by the 2008-09 Information Commissioner’s investigation. He used his powers under the Data Protection Act 1998 to launch an investigation, based on a story in The Guardian newspaper that an intelligence system had been used to vet workers for employment in the UK construction industry. As a result of that, a search warrant was issued in 2008, leading to a search of the premises of the Consulting Association in February 2009. The investigation resulted in the successful prosecution of the Consulting Association for breaching data protection law and it was closed down. The owner, Mr Kerr—now, I think, deceased—was fined £5,000, which was the maximum fine at the time. The levels of fines have now been radically changed. Fifteen enforcement notices were issued against the Consulting Association and some of its user construction companies to stop them collecting and using personal data for vetting purposes.
The investigation looked further, but came to the conclusion that there was no evidence that blacklisting existed in other industries, or that the number of construction workers blacklisted went beyond those in the files secured by the Information Commissioner. In other words, it addressed the question that Members are now trying to raise in their interventions. It is important to reflect that that wholly independent body asked the questions that are now being asked, and that it came to that very clear conclusion.
I realise that the Secretary of State is attempting to be fair—[Interruption.] I will not divide the House on that, but it seems that way to me—I treat former Labour councillors from Glasgow with the utmost respect. My point is that evidence of blacklisting from that time has only recently come out. People did not know about it or hear about it, so what reaction can they give? I understand that during one of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s hearings a witness revealed that my name was on the list and that I had been described as a communist—me, a former altar boy! How will the Secretary of State deal with information that only emerges today but relates to the past?
I, too, have been called a communist, including since this Government came into office, but I am not demanding an official investigation.
Then there is the question of the ICO’s handling of blacklisted individuals. As I understand it, the ICO—it is a fully independent body, not a Government agency—is trying to contact the individuals on the Consulting Association’s blacklist and help them with the long-term consequences. I repeat—this point seemed to get a little lost earlier—the ICO is a fully independent regulatory body, so we cannot pursue individual cases. I understand that there are some genuine practical problems. For example, some of the names cannot be deciphered and addresses are not available in some cases. However, my understanding is that the ICO is doing its best to trace every individual concerned and to assist them.
No doubt I was on the list because I was a communist at the time—[Interruption.] Those were the good old days. The Secretary of State indicated that he will not push this motion to a vote and that he was not for an inquiry. May I make the observation? All of us in the Chamber realised that phone hacking was taking place, but none of us could prove it, and we could not prove it until an investigation was initiated. That is the heart of the problem. Will he give an assurance that he will investigate and follow the investigation, even if it does go back a way, because I am sure that when he starts investigating what happens, there will be a history that goes right back? Will he take that investigation all the way back?
The difference with the phone hacking scandal, of course, is that it has only just come to attention and been demonstrated, and there has now been an investigation into it. The ICO inquiry was an investigation into the things about which we are now complaining, and as far as I can establish it was a thorough and comprehensive inquiry.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way on that specific point. It is important that the debate in this House sends the clearest possible message of support to the Information Commissioner in the further enquiries he intends to make on this. The analogy my hon. Friend Mr Hamilton makes with phone hacking is absolutely right. For months—years, in fact—the defence that phone hacking was the action of one rogue reporter kept proper investigation at bay. I hope that the Secretary of State recognises that the evidence that has been provided, even in the short time so far, is sufficient to justify further investigation, even if only to send the clearest possible signal to the construction industry that blacklisting was, is and will be wholly and utterly unacceptable.
Order. We will have to have very short interventions if Members also wish to catch my eye.
Of course blacklisting is wholly and utterly unacceptable, and of course the industry needs to understand that—I think that was the first remark I made. If it is about sending signals, we have already done so, and of course we will have a close look at what the Scottish Affairs Committee has said and whether it has found any new evidence. I do not think that this debate has brought forward anything new, but perhaps the Select Committee has. Obviously, if there is fundamental new information, logically we will look at that, but we have not yet seen it.
Then there is the question of the existing legislative framework, to which the hon. Member for Streatham drew attention. Let me just go over the legislative framework. The Data Protection Act 1998 was the basis on which the investigation took place, and the Information Commissioner used the maximum legal powers available at the time, which have since been increased, hence the ability to use civil penalties of £500,000. There is also the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which makes it unlawful to employ a person because they are a member—or, indeed, not a member—of a trade union or because they refuse to join or leave a trade union. It is equally unlawful for an agency to refuse employment services on those grounds. As we have heard, an individual can bring an employment tribunal complaint within three months of an offence taking place, or longer if it was not reasonably practical to bring the claim in time. That is what many workers have done in this case. Finally, there is the legislation that the previous Government introduced, the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010, under which it became unlawful to use, compile, sell or supply blacklists of trade union members or activities for discriminatory purposes such as employment vetting.
There was a decade of review of the 1999 Act and its implications. Several Members, including Caroline Dinenage, have asked why action was not taken more quickly. Let me go through the history of that decade. The Employment Relations Act 1999 introduced the power for the Secretary of State to make regulations to outlaw the creation, use, sale or supply of blacklists, but no regulations were introduced in 1999. Four years later, in 2003, the Government carried out a public review of the effect of the Act and concluded that there was no evidence of blacklisting, but they did publish draft blacklisting regulations and said that they would introduce them swiftly if the need arose. The ICO then investigated the Consulting Association, after which the Government introduced the regulations that had been published in draft.
Therefore, there was a very long process of consultation. Preparatory legislation was produced in case there was evidence that something had taken place, and indeed there was and the Government acted. My approach is exactly the same. If companies have found a way around the regulations and abuses are still taking place, we of course need to look at taking fresh steps, but I am waiting to hear that evidence.
Will the Secretary of State address the point I raised with my hon. Friend Mr Umunna about the involvement of the police and security services? The ICO’s investigations manager has stated in evidence:
“I believe some of the information would have come from those types of sources.”
Surely there is a public interest, and an interest in this House, in what public servants of Crown were doing in feeding information to private companies.
That is an allegation and, as I said a few moments ago, if there is serious substance to it and a good basis for investigation, it should first have gone to the Police Complaints Authority and to the body that looks at the security services. There is a process. It might be tedious to go through it, but that is what we have to do. If those avenues have been exhausted, perhaps we can take it to the next stage, but I have no evidence that they have even been tried.
The next question was whether we should now be investigating construction companies working on public contracts. That is the issue for today. As I have said many times, I am open to new evidence if it is available, because it is very clear that any company working on a public contract must comply with the law. Of course companies should not break data protection law, trade union law or the blacklist regulations.
I am coming to the Balfour Beatty point, which I think related to events four or five years ago; I am happy to be corrected, but that is my understanding. Let me say what I think happened in that case. We knew that Balfour Beatty wrote to the Olympic Delivery Authority admitting that one company in its group made checks on 12 potential employees prior to February 2009. That was in response to a letter from the ODA, one of a number sent to high-profile contractors. The firm insists that all 12 people were given jobs and that there was no wider or further use of pre-employment checks. The ODA has taken a very clear and unambiguous stand condemning blacklisting in the operation of the Olympics. There is no question but that the practice was taking place well back during the last Government.
I have already responded to allegations of collusion by the police and security services. There is then the question of remedies; people have clearly been damaged, and evidence has been advanced. Let us review the redress. Those excluded from employment can seek redress in the county courts or the Court of Session in Scotland and other rights under the regulations can be enforced in employment tribunals.
I repeat the point I made in response to an intervention: the last Government took the view that legislation should not apply retrospectively and prior to 2010. I suspect that a lot of the frustration and anger of people who have been hurt by what happened relates to the decision not to apply the measures retrospectively.
The Secretary of State is being generous in taking interventions. Does he think in retrospect that it was a mistake not to make the legislation retrospective, given the evidence that we have heard, particularly from the Opposition, about the real human impact? Thousands of families have potentially been impacted and prevented from claiming compensation retrospectively.
From a human point of view, drawing a line at that point clearly caused damage. However, on a wide variety of measures the House has always taken the view that retrospective legislation is dangerous and creates all kinds of problems.
A number of individuals believe that they have been affected by the blacklisting and they have taken action through the courts. As I understand it at the moment, last year 86 workers who believed that they were blacklisted launched a High Court claim against Sir Robert McAlpine for conspiring with other firms to keep them out of work. Legal proceedings on that action are still under way, so I cannot usefully discuss the matter. However, a major legal action is taking place and it will, of course, affect the issue of redress.
In conclusion, I repeat the points I made a moment ago. My primary concern, in the job that I now have, is what is happening under the Government in respect of my responsibilities in this field. I am concerned to read that abuse is, or even may be, taking place. My door is open at any time to any Opposition or Government Member who has evidence of abuse, because we want to stop it and we will certainly investigate it if it is happening. I will look carefully at the report of the Scottish Affairs Committee to see whether fundamentally new questions have emerged from its inquiry.
We will deal with the other issues in the summary session. If Opposition Members or trade unions have evidence, I really want them to bring it forward. Innuendo is not helpful; we need evidence.
I am going to introduce an eight-minute limit; hopefully, we will try to shave a little off the speeches here and there. We will see what we can do.
I welcome this debate and the “open door” tone of the Secretary of State’s approach, and I hope that we can build on that and reach a practical conclusion. The debate gives the House the opportunity to unite in condemning blacklisting as an assault on the legitimate rights of trade unionists. My second reason for welcoming the debate is that I want to underline the extent to which excellent partnership between trade unions and contractors is essential to achieving the progress in big infrastructure projects, particularly when building on the success of the construction programme in the Olympic park.
I will dwell only briefly on the analogy with phone hacking. It appears that in certain parts of the industry, phone hacking became insidious, endemic and culturally tolerated. The question that the Opposition are testing is the extent to which a similar acquiescence prevails in the construction industry today, even in the context of the very best intentions.
I should like to focus specifically on the construction of the Olympic park. To provide context, I should say that the work of the trade unions was the hallmark of the success of the Olympic park development. In that context, the allegations revealed by the widely praised and thorough investigation by the Scottish Affairs Committee come as a surprise and cause great alarm. Had it not been for the persistence and determination of the Committee, we would not be having this debate.
As we embarked on the construction of the Olympic park, there was a determination by the then Government that every public pound should work harder for a social purpose. A number of months were spent negotiating principles of co-operation with the trade unions. The signatories to those principles were the Government, the Olympic Delivery Authority, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, and the Mayor of London. The essence of the principles is captured in their pledge:
“The procurement processes will require contractors to uphold employment law and encourage them to promote effective industrial relations dialogue between employers and recognised unions, apply industry agreements, and to encourage a positive role for recognised unions in the workplace.”
I argue that those commitments set a blueprint for good industrial practice. They reaped great benefits for the country and for the regeneration of the Olympic park.
However, so insidious is the practice of blacklisting that, as has been mentioned, one of the contractors, Balfour Beatty, felt that it was okay and acceptable to check the database of the consulting association in relation to 12 employees. The fact that all 12 went on to get employment is not the point; the point is that Balfour Beatty felt that it was okay to use the practice of blacklisting to check the people out. That is completely antipathetic to the whole ethos of the development, in partnership with the trade unions, of the Olympic park.
I understand what the right hon. Lady said about the negotiations beforehand that took so long to get to this point and yet still blacklisting happened. Knowing what she does now, and having been involved in those negotiations in the past, what does she believe to be the lessons we can learn so that what happened cannot happen in future?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I refer again to the Secretary of State’s reaction to this debate, which is to say, “Give me the evidence”, and that is perfectly fair. However, right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Benches, and no doubt Members in all parts of the House, sense that this reprehensible practice has not been squeezed out of the construction industry altogether. This is an opportunity for the House to come together and set the scale of its resolve to end this practice and, in so doing, create a sense of liberation for many trade unionists who feel that it is always a threat sitting on their shoulder. That is why we are asking for this action. Specifically, we are looking at all the legal obstacles and impediments to bringing forward the necessary action and sanctions when construction firms fall short and resort to this practice, in whatever way.
The Olympic Delivery Authority had a senior trade unionist on its board as a way of facilitating easy access to the trade unions in voicing their concerns. I thank Barry Camfield, who was a senior official of the then Transport and General Workers Union, for the service that he gave. Many other progressive initiatives supported the central objective of partnership in the development of the Olympic park, including the establishment of a community and trade union learning centre that had a permanent presence in the park and gave hundreds of learners who were working there the opportunity to improve their English and maths skills and to master basic IT, and the promotion of opportunities for women and disabled people to find a place in the construction industry. The bigger mission was to change the face of the construction industry from being predominantly older and male to something much more diverse and much more open to the range of available skills, and there were huge achievements.
There was an emphasis on health and safety at the Olympic park. As we have heard, sometimes the fact that a trade unionist was very vigilant about reporting health and safety matters could be cause for discrimination against them. At the Olympic park, health and safety was given pre-eminence to such a level of achievement that the ODA was awarded a Diamond Jubilee award by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. It is unprecedented for a construction project of that size, scale and complexity to be completed without a single serious reported accident or a single death. That is what we get through partnership with the trade unions.
I am happy to explain that. It goes back to a point made by the Secretary of State. I used the word “may” because there have been a lot of allegations about what may be happening right now, but we need people to come forward with the evidence. I believe that that evidence will be forthcoming to the Secretary of State fairly quickly after this debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that.
I have no great knowledge of blacklisting, so when I decided to look into it for the purposes of this debate I read through the papers from the Scottish Affairs Committee, and it became fairly obvious that something pretty horrible had been happening over a long period. The right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood
(Dame Tessa Jowell) detailed her achievements in the delivery of the Olympic park. It is fascinating that even with such detailed negotiations involving the Olympic Delivery Authority, Government and trade unions, this practice could still take place. I would therefore ask her how, even with such detailed negotiations beforehand and probably a very beady eye being cast over all the proceedings, we can stop this practice happening. There is a lesson to be learned in relation to contracts and how we procure in future.
I have been contacted by trade unions in my constituency that are very concerned that some of my constituents might have been on the blacklist. Obviously, this will all come out in due course as the investigation gains pace. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the case is made for a change in the law, that could involve a very simple amendment to the relevant legislation, and the Government should act with great haste to make sure that this is sorted out?
I very much hope that that is the case and thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
The shadow Secretary of State talked about how different Governments had tried to act on this but found it difficult. I completely understand that, having gone through the history of blacklisting as best I could with the information provided to me. In 2003, as he detailed, the former Labour Government consulted on introducing regulations against blacklisting but announced that they would not bring any into force because the evidence suggested that blacklisting had been eradicated in the 1990s. Six years later, in 2009, they announced that they had plans to implement regulations to outlaw the blacklisting of trade unionists. I was quite surprised to find that Labour chose not to make compensation or penalties retrospective. If the weight of evidence that would be required was not available back in 2009 when the shadow Secretary of State’s party was making those choices and decisions, why is it so relevant to secure it now? As the Secretary of State said, and as the shadow Secretary of State will know, retrospective action has lots of unforeseen consequences and is therefore rarely taken by any Government of any political ilk.
In 2008, when the Information Commissioner’s Office closed down the blacklisting of construction workers by the Consulting Association, it did its job in a reasonable way, if slightly slowly, as the hon. Member for Streatham said. It went about trying to establish a fast-track service and a helpline to assist those who suspected that they had been on the list, but many significant entries on that list were incomplete and very dated. I therefore suspect that the gathering of the information slowed down the ICO’s investigation.
The law does now protect employees from blacklisting. When I read through the history in the articles I had assembled, I thought—this has not been mentioned by anyone else—that the problem is not so much the existence of a blacklist but people knowing of its existence and having to worry about whether their employment chances are affected by its being in effect. The pure knowledge of the existence of the list has a huge detrimental effect on people.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should look into the suggestion that there has been a separate blacklist of people who have been involved in environmental activism? As he rightly says, the fact that people are aware that a blacklist exists means that they will also want to know how to get information about whether their names have been included and how it has affected them.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I would hope that the current legislation would help to eliminate those issues and tidy them up. I could make a few political points, but I am trying to reflect the feeling of the debate so far. Employees in the UK are already protected against blacklisting by the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010. The regulations allow them to bring a case to a civil court or employment tribunal, as detailed by the Secretary of State, if they suspect that they have been denied employment, suffered detriment or been unfairly dismissed as a result of an illegal blacklist.
The Information Commissioner’s Office is working to help people who are concerned that they have been affected in such a way and is, supposedly,
“committed to investigating any intelligence databases being operated in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.”
The ICO continues to help people who are suspected of being on a list and is doing more, supposedly, proactively to contact others who do not know that their names are on a list in the first place.
We have to wonder whether the ICO has the capability to do the job that we are asking it to do, or the job that it has been doing, in its given time frame. It has so many names with only basic entries—some with no addresses and others without much detail at all—and finding and contacting them will take a huge amount of time. I am not arguing for more resources for the ICO; I am just making the point that this is a fairly big job on a fairly lax database, and that needs to be investigated.
I think I heard the Secretary of State say that there is no evidence that the practice of blacklisting trade union members is a widespread problem. I am comfortable, to a certain point, with the questions he asked of the Opposition, because the tiny bit of the motion that says that the practice “may be” happening now opens a new kettle of fish. It should not be going on now, because it is illegal under the 1999 Act.
The ICO undertook an investigation in 2008-09 and the Labour Government subsequently introduced blacklisting regulations. Given that the Scottish Affairs Committee has been given seemingly new evidence by those involved at the time, will the Secretary of State confirm whether there are grounds to go over the ICO’s original investigation?
I have tried to be non-partisan up to a point. I have some interesting experiences of trade unions. I used to run a business that operated with the help or hindrance of the Transport and General Workers Union. I ran the business during the last closed shop. It was not a great experience and it did not endear me to unions. However, I have a close relative who is a teacher and who was accused of doing something ridiculous. His teaching union—yes, one of those teaching unions that we on the Conservative Benches do not particularly like—was magnificent in the way in which it protected, helped and supported him. It provided a superb service.
I am not as wary of unions as some of the others on the Conservative Benches and I perhaps have more knowledge of them. I am, however, wary of the way this debate came to take place. The hon. Member for Streatham should be very wary of the potential for allegations to be made with regard to union paymasters and so on. [Interruption.] That is absolutely the case. We need only look at the Register of Members’ Financial Interests to see that there might be a link between debates on the Floor of the House and where they came from.
I am surprised that Chris Heaton-Harris made that final connection, because I did not think that such a comment would be made during the debate.
The Secretary of State asked: why have this debate now? My response is: at last. We as trade unionists—I am a member of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and the GMB, and a former trade union organiser—have been campaigning on this issue, which we know has been going on, mainly in the construction industry, but possibly in many other industries too, for many years.
It is also important to note that it is almost exactly 100 years since Robert Tressell wrote “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, which was based on poverty wages, people’s terror of losing their job, and conditions at work that were almost impossible to bear. It has descriptions of people literally dying at work in the construction industry because conditions were so bad. It is only as the result of the introduction of the trade union movement, which led to decent health and safety laws, that the kinds of conditions described in the book have, thankfully, stopped.
If we look at the effect of blacklisting—I want to widen the debate a little—we will see that it undermines every single one of those hard-fought trade union rights that we have won. It also undermines decent, good, honest people who go to work.
Does my hon. Friend agree that anyone who is blacklisted because they have raised health and safety issues is actually being blacklisted for carrying out a legal duty? Every employee who has a concern about a health and safety issue has a legal responsibility under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 to report it. These people are not just being sacked, they are being refused access to work, so the problem is compounded by what employers are doing.
The one point that I want to make in my short speech is exactly that: not only are people raising legitimate issues; it is their legal duty to do so. Blacklisting is illegal, and it is illegal for a very good reason. Trade union organised workplaces are safer places to work, and for that reason, they are also more productive places to work. Blacklisting undermines every single one of those issues.
We need to remind ourselves of what the construction industry really is and what it means to be a construction worker. These are not office jobs; they are dangerous, risky jobs. People often work at great heights or with gas, electricity or asbestos, and they often have to travel miles away from home. It is insecure work, dependent on insecure contracts. As my hon. Friend Mr Umunna, the shadow Secretary of State, has said, people move away from their homes to get to these jobs and, once they are there, they do not know when they will get their next job. People are not paid much money for these jobs. Some are directly employed, but there is a system of bogus self-employment—of indirect employment through sub-contracting—which makes this a dangerous industry in which to work, and blacklisting only adds to that danger.
I want to build on what my right hon. Friend Dame Tessa Jowell said about the Olympic village and the Olympic park. UCATT has proof that a different set of rules was applied to the Olympic park and the Olympic village. As has been said, in the main the park directly employed people on what were complicated construction jobs, and the number of accidents and injuries was far lower than that on the site of the Olympic village, which was arguably a far more straightforward site because it involved building housing. Sixty-six per cent. less people on the Olympic park suffered accident or injury than on the Olympic village, which had a system of sub-contracting and lots of casual labour. That statistic in itself demonstrates the importance of direct employment in the construction industry, and the importance of trade unions.
The Department of Trade and Industry, as it was in the good old days when Labour were in government in 2007, produced a report about health and safety representatives—this goes back to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson—stating that safety reps save the economy between £181 million and £578 million per annum. Even given the standards used by the Government and the comments of the hon. Member for Daventry, those are staggering savings for our economy. Trade union health and safety reps prevent between 8,000 and 13,000 workplace accidents. For trade unions to be present in the workplace is positive.
A number of my constituents have contacted me about blacklisting, which unfortunately they have suffered from historically. There has been much debate about proof, and there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that blacklisting is still going on with Crossrail. Unfortunately, however, unless there is an investigation, we will not be able to prove that as a fact. Will the Secretary of State please confirm that he will make a clear statement about High Speed 2, and ensure that no blacklisting is allowed?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has promoted me to Secretary for State for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and in that brief capacity I will confirm what she asks. This is a very important point. Blacklisting is terrible because it is clandestine and secret, and unless we have an investigation and inquiry into the practice, we cannot know how widespread it is. It must be rooted out, and my hon. Friend makes a very fair point.
A TUC report from 2011 looks at the productivity gains of trade union membership—I want to emphasise the positives of trade unions to the economy. The productivity gain to the UK economy as a result of trade union reps in the workplace was estimated at between £4 billion and £12 billion—absolutely staggering figures—and savings of between £82 million and £143 million in legal and recruitment costs. When looking at blacklisting we need to focus on the bad side of attacking the perfectly legal and important activity of someone being in a trade union and ensuring that people feel confident enough to report any health and safety risks at work, especially in a dangerous industry such as construction.
I will conclude by saying that blacklisting totally undermines the good work done in good faith by trade unions at work. Freedom of affiliation is a mark of our democracy. Blacklisting is not just illegal, it is completely anti-democratic. A construction worker’s life is hard enough already, and we must ensure that blacklisting stops once and for all, so that a hard life is not made unnecessarily harder still.
I will not delay the House long, because the Secretary of State has commented on most of the things that I was going to say. However, I agree with the rest of the House: we should obviously outlaw blacklisting in this country.
In January 2010 the Labour Government passed the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010, which made it unlawful to compile, sell or use a “prohibited list”, or blacklist. Those regulations also include information on what a prohibited list would include. Therefore, as I understand it, the law is in place and does not allow retrospective claims. I would be pleased to be corrected, but I understand that that law has been in place since January 2010, and the Secretary of State is right to say that if blacklisting is continuing, we need to know and amend the law already in place.
On that point and the existing legal redress, as I said in my speech, false self-employment is totally rampant in the construction sector, and part of the problem with the existing law is that it does not cover a situation where someone is working as a contractor, because for them to get redress from those responsible for engaging in such activities is currently very difficult.
I am happy with that intervention, which basically confirms what I have just said. If the law at the moment is not suitable, it needs to be changed. If there is proof of blacklisting from 2010 onwards when the law was introduced, an investigation should be initiated. If we find that the law is still being contravened and is not suitable to resolve the problem, that law needs to be looked at. I think the Secretary of State implied that in his contribution.
I come from the engineering industry, which is equally as dangerous as the construction industry, although I think engineering receives far more visits from the Health and Safety Executive than the construction and mining industries. Perhaps we could get some information from the Health and Safety Executive on why it feels that blacklisting is creating a lot of health and safety issues.
It could perhaps confirm that, in the construction industry, health and safety issues are not being taken seriously—perhaps I can put it like that—and then report back to the Secretary of State as part of his investigation.
In September 2012 the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Jo Swinson stated:
“Employees in the UK are protected against blacklisting by the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010. The Regulations allow them to bring a case to a civil court or an employment tribunal if they suspect that they have been denied employment, suffered detriment or been unfairly dismissed as a result of the use of an illegal blacklist.
As there is no evidence that the practice of blacklisting of trade union members is a widespread problem—” since 2010—
“the Government do not believe that there is a need for further steps at this time.”—[Hansard, 10 September 2010; Vol. 550, c. 109W.]
The shadow Secretary of State says that there is new evidence, and if he is able to show the Secretary of State evidence that the law since 2010 has not been working, perhaps it would be a good idea for him to do that and for the Business Secretary to accept it and instigate what is asked for in the motion.
No, because a lot of other Members want to speak. The Secretary of State has already indicated that he does not intend to press this to a vote and that is he prepared to listen to new evidence and hold cross-party talks with Members and with trade unions. If there is evidence that the law is not strong enough or that it has been broken, and that people who claim to have been blacklisted are not being listened to, he has said he is prepared to take that forward and look at a possible change in the law. I agree: I do not think we should have a vote tonight, as most sensible people would agree that we need to look at the issue again, and if it is proven that things have changed since 2010, we need to change the law. I support what the Secretary of State said earlier.-
Blacklisting is not a new problem. We can go back to 1906, before “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists”, when my great-grandfather was called to Monksbridge ironworks by his Liberal employer and told, “You can be a trade unionist, but if you join the Labour party,”—the new Leeds Labour party had been formed—“you will not work again.” For quite some time he did not, which created huge poverty.
In 1924, the Zinoviev letter was part-leaked by the new Economic League, which was formed by a Tory MP using parliamentary facilities. The Economic League continued—I came across it by accident in the 1980s when I applied for a job at Ciba-Geigy in Manchester. I went for an interview and was given the job. It was confirmed, and I was pleased because I wanted to move back north and it was good money, but a week later I get a phone call. A very embarrassed human resources person—I believe that is what they called them in those days—rings me up and says, “I’m very sorry, but you’re on a blacklist.” I said, “What do you mean I’m on a blacklist?” She said, “You’re on an economic blacklist and it’s our policy. There’s nothing I can do.” She was very embarrassed about it, but said, “You can’t have the job. The offer is withdrawn.”
That was the Economic League blacklist. Who put me on and for what reason I do not know. I was regarded by some as a pillar of the establishment at the time. I was described in one book as a veteran anti-Trotskyist fighter against the Militant Tendency and others, but somehow, I ended up on that blacklist. It could well have happened because my in-laws were members of that dreaded organisation the Communist party—they were well to the right of me and anyone in the Labour party. My mother-in-law was the president of the Sussex Communist party, and must therefore have been a known agitator—as a midwife. Alternatively and more seriously, I was almost certainly on the blacklist because—I have read up on this—I was involved organising the national anti-apartheid demonstrations. I organised a number of the students who went and was part of the team who pulled together the national demonstrations with Oliver Tambo and Jesse Jackson. Lots of hon. Members from different parties were no doubt there, but if they look back, they will see that anyone involved in the anti-apartheid movement somehow managed to get on the Economic League blacklist.
I already had a job, so being blacklisted did not affect me like it affected my hon. Friend Mr Hamilton. Not surprisingly, being a communist agitator and strike leader, he ended up on the same blacklist and could not find work. Luckily, I already had a job, so it did not cost me economically. However, I knew I was on the blacklist only because of the honesty of the embarrassed woman at Ciba-Geigy who told me.
If hon. Members look, they will see that there were not just a few thousand people on the blacklists but vast numbers. The companies funding the new body are the same construction companies. When one is exposed, they roll it into another. The perception is that some people are a threat to the employer, but that is total nonsense. The big fact and the big problem is that the vast majority on the blacklists do not know they are on them to this day. Those of us who are politically active might find out we are on the list—we can guess or work it out—but the vast majority simply would not know. Those people are going about their everyday business, and some nerd in an office sticks them on a list.
Let me tell the House about the nerds—I exposed one of them. This is an interesting story. When I was an official for the engineering union, we had a researcher. He was a strange lad because he came to see me every day with Trotskyist newspapers. I thought I knew about Trotskyist newspapers but he had ones I had never heard of. Hon. Members know that Trotskyists were like those in “The Life of Brian”—there were many factions and groupings and every one had to have a newspaper. Obviously, people were publishing their own newspapers. No one had ever heard of them but the lad had copies and would say, “Do you know this or that person?” I just thought he was a bit of a loony. He was. We caught him dealing Nazi memorabilia at Waterloo train station, which is odd for a researcher in a union. We challenged him and he left the next week, but there was a problem with his pension and we had to ring him about it two months later. We rang his number, which was a strange number, and a bloke answers it and says, “Economic League blacklist.” The lad had been using his position to infiltrate the union. He was sticking all sorts of random names on the list—no doubt there was payment by results. He was building up a list of people who would then not get work as a result.
That is the problem, and it exists not just in construction. I shall reveal another example from the Prison Service and Ranby prison—the Secretary of State wants information; he can have some. If the senior prison management do not like a person, they say they are a security risk. If a person is a security risk, they are not allowed a tribunal by definition. Rebecca Knighton, for example, was a lecturer at Ranby prison. She was drummed out on false premises that were without question made up, as confirmed by my own investigation, because her face did not fit. She cannot work throughout the Prison Service again because she is on a list as being a security threat.
A whole stack of prison officers, who have slightly more rights—I will not name them because we are currently fighting some of their cases—have their names on the list, which means they will not work in any prison anywhere in the country. A similar type of blacklist is created. It is invidious, unfair and anti-democratic. It is quite clear that Ms Knighton and the other prison officers at Ranby whom I have dealt with in my constituency have done nothing wrong—not even on the margins. They have done nothing, but have been stitched up for totally arbitrary reasons by individuals with access to management. I have privately called for a full investigation, but the example shows how blacklisting can work.
I was at the rally of the independent construction workers in Newark to argue about local jobs at the various power stations in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere in the country. A lot of those who get stuck on the blacklists, including my constituents, suspect they are on the lists but can never prove it. That has been the case until now. There will be other lists.
That is why the law needs to be improved. The Secretary of State was correct to say that the previous did Government did not get the law right, but that is not an excuse for this Parliament not putting it right. People should not unfairly and unknowingly lose their employment prospects because of prejudice or bias, or because of an argument they have had. In reality, that is how people get their names on the list. They are not political activists, and normally they are not trade union activists. The vast majority are on the list because they have had some fall-out with one of the gaffers. That is how they get on the list—entirely arbitrarily—and they do not have a clue why they cannot get jobs. That is why something needs to be done.
It is a pleasure to follow John Mann, who made a passionate speech. I have been contacted by several constituents regarding the practice of blacklisting and welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I condemn those companies and individuals who have carried out such practices and note that the law now protects employees from blacklisting. Individuals can bring civil cases and take their case to employment tribunals if they suspect that they have been denied employment or that they have been unfairly dismissed as a result of illegal blacklisting.
I also note that, since the Information Commissioner’s investigation and the introduction of the blacklisting regulations in 2010, no evidence has been brought forward. Hon. Members have commented on cases today, and I look forward to hearing the evidence—the Secretary of State has said that he, too, looks forward to receiving it. I must therefore ask myself why we are having this debate. As a working-class bloke who has worked on building sites, I look to my bourgeois new Labour friends in the Opposition and conclude that the debate must be some form of guilt trip, because in 13 years of government, they introduced a regulation only 60 days before they left—it was in place for longer than the 50p tax hike that Labour introduced and claimed was a saving for the nation. The Labour Government let down a lot of people. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said, that is not an excuse for this Parliament not to address the problem, but the Labour Government failed.
Why are we having this debate today? I believe the trade unions have put an enormous amount of pressure on the Labour party—they are the Labour party’s paymasters. The Opposition have been obliged to introduce the debate. It is not so much a “Cash for debate” debate as a “Repent for Cash” debate. As we have heard, Labour Members are appalled, shocked and ashamed, but—I am sorry—they need to look in the mirror, because that is where a lot of the drama is as far as the blacklisting problem is concerned.
For the record, I think the comments the hon. Gentleman has just made are totally and utterly disgraceful, and not in keeping with the tone of this debate. I invite him to reflect on what his constituents are thinking as they watch him make this speech. The suggestion that somehow some undue influence has been put on us to secure this debate, or that somehow there has been any money involved whatsoever, is disgraceful and should be withdrawn.
I absolutely stick with those words. For 13 years the Labour Government failed to address this issue, and then 60 days before the election they pop up and introduce a piece of legislation that somehow justifies their failure to look after working-class people. It is important that we have confidence in the Information Commissioner’s Office, that it has the laws available to pursue individuals and companies who are breaking the law, that there is a constant appraisal of the intelligence offered by different parties and that it acts on any relevant information, and that any victims of such acts have a clear route to redress. I am also pleased that we have a maximum penalty of £500,000, which is an important deterrent to individuals who may carry out such practices.
All through my time in employment I have been a great supporter of sensible trade unions, and all through my political career I have continued to build a strong relationship with them. It is extremely important that they have that responsibility. They have an important role to play in the workplace. If this was a Government debate on an issue promoted by a Tory donor, the Opposition would be outraged. While 81% of the Labour party’s funding comes from trade unions, including an £11,000 bung for the shadow Business Secretary, then although I think this issue is extremely serious—
Order. Can I just suggest that I do not believe any money is paid to Members themselves—the office maybe, but I suggest that a Member is not directly in receipt of that money? We have to be very careful about how we use this language. I do not want the debate to deteriorate. It has been a good debate and both sides have been very honest, but we have to be very careful—we are on the line.
Thank you for that clarification, Mr Deputy Speaker. Of course I will take that back, if that is appropriate.
This is an extremely serious issue. I applaud the excellent work of the ICO, and it should continue. I feel that this House is not used to its maximum when we have such a debate, which is motivated by such reasons. I am sorry that Labour has had to use an Opposition debate to recognise its own failures. I am absolutely sure that the Secretary of State, as he said earlier on, will take up these issues. It is a shame that the Opposition do not have confidence in the regulations that they brought forward.
The debate has been well received, apart from the contribution by Kris Hopkins, who made some disparaging remarks about a whole number of people which were totally and utterly outrageous. It is good to see that he is completely isolated. Hopefully, that will remain the case. I, for one, will not be rising to the bait. I am very proud to be a member of a number of trade unions, and to represent trade unions both in Parliament and in my constituency.
I welcome the debate initiated by my hon. Friend Mr Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary. I share his desire to end the obscene scandal of blacklisting. At Prime Minister’s questions, an issue was raised about the secrecy of the secret services and the police being involved in trade unions, blacklisting and other things. I was in a meeting this morning with representatives of the Shrewsbury pickets, who were on strike in 1972. Some were jailed and some died as a consequence, and they are still looking for justice. They have just received a letter from a Minister saying that even though it happened nearly 40 years ago, the papers relating to the case will not be released because it is a matter of national security. The individual concerned was Jim Royle—Mr Tomlinson—whose reaction to that was, “My arse!” That is a quotation from him, not from me—it is the way he is.
I merely highlight the point that there are interventions and happenings by the security services and the police with ordinary working people every day of the year. For the Secretary of State to suggest that we do not have any evidence, or that it might not be happening at this point in time, is pure poppycock. Of course it is happening. The reason why people are not rushing forward with evidence is because the evidence is not at hand. There might be people here who have been, and are still are, on a blacklist, but they are not sure, so how can they come forward? The difference now is that recently, in the Scottish Affairs inquiry, a whole number of people have given evidence agreeing that not only have they been involved in blacklisting, but they have been operating blacklisting for a cost, to the detriment of thousands and thousands of people.
My hon. Friend John Mann said that blacklisting goes back to the beginning of the 20th( )century. A little bit of research showed that, according to the “Henry Holt Encyclopaedia of Word and Phrase Origins”, the word “blacklist” originated with a list that England’s King Charles II made of 58 judges and court officers who sentenced his father to death. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, some 13 of those executioners were put to death and 25 sentenced to life imprisonment. The others escaped. Times have changed, of course, which is not to say that some Government Members, perhaps the hon. Member for Keighley, agree that people on blacklists might be beheaded in the future. I am not suggesting that that is the case, however, and I will move on.
Some 400 years have passed since we had the 17th-century monarch taking away individuals lives; now we have 21st-century employers destroying people’s lives by denying them the opportunity to earn a living.
Does my hon. Friend have any thoughts about what the punishment should be for individual directors who, through their companies, fund the organisation of blacklists? Would he suggest that they be struck off as directors and barred from holding such office?
That is a very important question indeed, which I will come on to, if I get that far in my speech.
The blacklisting of trade unionists is an unfair and insidious practice that involves the systematic compilation of information about individual trade unionists by their employers and recruiters in order to discriminate against them, although not just because they are members of trade unions. There are people on blacklists who are not members of trade unions, but who have merely been to their employer and exercised their rights under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, as my hon. Friend Mr Anderson said. If there is something wrong in the workplace, there is a duty under that Act to report it. As far as we are aware, people have suffered the consequences of doing that.
We are all very much aware of the information being discussed by the Scottish Affairs Committee. To be honest, I think it has been invaluable, because it has brought the issue to the forefront. For many years it has been hidden, but for the first time we now have real evidence. I believe that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham said, information will come forward after this debate for the Secretary of State to make some decisions on an inquiry. Some 3,600 files were seized by the Information Commissioner’s Office—files on politicians, academics, journalists, trade unionists and people who might just say, “Boo!” to their employers, who might not like it. There are many, many files. The Consulting Association’s blacklist, however, contained around 3,213 individuals and was used by more than 40 contractors, including most major UK construction firms, which vet individuals for employment.
A mass of information was left behind because it was not covered by any warrant. The information seized revealed that 40 of the biggest construction companies in Britain were drawn to paying money to find out who they should not employ. They included household names such as Taylor Woodrow, McAlpine, Balfour Beatty, Skandia and Carillion. To pick up the point my hon. Friend Ian Mearns made, on its own admission, Carillion has had £2.5 billion per annum from public contracts, at the same time as placing ordinary citizens on blacklists and stopping them working. It cannot be allowed and it must be stopped as soon as practicably possible. From July to September 2008, McAlpine spent £12,839 making 5,836 blacklist checks—a total of 63 a day. That corresponded with McAlpine’s building of the Olympic stadium. How disgraceful can you get? A major company such as McAlpine penalising people for whatever, at the same time as having multi-million-pound Government contracts, is, as many people have said, absolutely insidious.
I believe we should perhaps go a little further than we have discussed today. I am obviously willing for more debate and discussion; indeed, if the Secretary of State is furnished with enough information, we should have a public inquiry into blacklisting on a par with Leveson. We need to call for those guilty of blacklisting not to be given any more public contracts until they apologise and compensate people and their families for blacklisting them. We definitely need a change in the law to make blacklisting a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment and unlimited fines. That would be a deterrent for blacklisting—that is something that we should be looking at and it should be in legislation. Carillion has been named. It is important that other organisations come clean, come to the fore, step up to the plate, erase the past, look to the future and stop blacklisting people, causing mayhem and financial distress to many, many people.
My heart gans out to them people who might be listening to this debate and thinking, “I’ve not had a job for many years; I wonder if I’m on the list,” and they cannot find out whether they are. Let us deliver a real result from this debate for those people, hopefully, as has been suggested—the Secretary of State says he has an open door—with the information we can bring forward. Let us hope that this is the first of many important debates to ensure that justice is seen to be done for those on blacklists and to prevent blacklisting in the future.
Order. I am keen to get the last four speakers in, so please do not take it personally, Mr Rotheram, but we are dropping the time limit to six minutes.
I congratulate the shadow Business Secretary, my hon. Friend Mr Umunna, on demonstrating Labour’s solidarity with the construction industry by tabling the motion for today’s important debate. I also congratulate all Members who have spoken—with the obvious exception of Kris Hopkins, who could not even be bothered to follow parliamentary convention and stay in the Chamber for two debates after he had spoken.
After decades in which successive Parliaments have failed to rectify a national disgrace, we would not be here today without the solidarity, 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 like to place on record my gratitude to the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, which I first joined as a teenage apprentice bricklayer in 1979—[Interruption.] No, it was not child labour. UCATT has led the fight on behalf of construction workers for many decades.
In October last year, I tabled early-day motion 609, 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 early-day motion has received the support of 68 Members from six political parties. It should be pointed out, however, that not a single Conservative and only one Liberal Democrat bothered to sign it. Perhaps that will change after today’s debate, which has given us the chance to put clearly on the record whether we are on the side of insidious and immoral business practices or on the side of ordinary hard-working people.
Let me also declare an interest. Before coming to this place, I spent the best part of three decades working in the construction sector in one guise or another and saw first hand the effect that blacklisting had. Blacklisting is a national scandal, and recent revelations have demonstrated that the regulations introduced in the last decades did not go far enough.
I want to use my contribution to outline three things that I believe must now happen. 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.
March 2009 proved to be a landmark moment for the construction industry. As we have heard, the ICO uncovered evidence against 44 companies—44 of some of the biggest companies in the industry—clearly showing that they were corrupt to the very core. They 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 that used blacklists were the same companies profiteering from millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money through public sector contracts.
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. First, 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, there is the Data Protection Act 1998—the Act 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 as details of a person’s trade union membership number qualifies as data. The gap in legislation needs to be addressed, because until we amend the law explicitly to state that blacklisting is illegal, the Act will not adequately protect workers.
The third piece of legislation is 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 things well—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. I hope that the Secretary of State will learn from previous mistakes.
I shall have to leave out the next bit of my speech, because the time limit is down to six minutes, and after taking out four pages—I think I am finally there—
I wonder whether, in the last couple of moments available to him, my hon. Friend has time to suggest what should happen to those who are guilty of using blacklists as part of their employment practice.
I thank my hon. Friend for saving me.
I know from personal experience that those who found themselves on blacklists were the kind of workers who fought for a safer work environment for themselves and their colleagues. They were the kind of workers who did not turn a blind eye when the company tried to dock apprentices’ wages, or failed to pay the work force on time. What kind of Parliament would we be if we failed to stand up for responsible workers who have been punished by irresponsible companies for many years?
We should all remember that blacklisting was not an act of blissful ignorance, but an act of blatant immorality. It should never be allowed to happen again.
Let me first put on record for the benefit of Kris Hopkins, who is no longer in the Chamber, that all the legislation that controls donations to trade unions was passed by his party when it was in government. Let me also put it on record that none of the people who donate money to the Labour party are languishing in jail, unlike people who have funded the two coalition parties, namely Michael Brown and Asil Nadir.
The motion ought not to divide the House, but I want to hear from the Minister whether she agrees with the last three lines of it, because that is the “doing” part. Will she commit herself to
“begin an investigation into the extent to which blacklisting took place and may be taking place”?
If, like the Secretary of State, she is going to try to dance on the head of a pin and, basically, say “It is everyone’s responsibility except mine”, she may as well divide the House. If she does not intend to do anything serious about this, we may as well forget about it.
This debate is about fairness, it is about justice, and it is about what most of us mean by being British. What do we mean by that? We mean that we, as a people, have an innate sense of fair play: we believe that everyone is innocent until proved guilty, and we accept that anyone who is accused of wrongdoing should at least have the right to clear their name. Blacklisting denies people those basic tenets in which we all believe as a nation and which are among the things that bind us together, and it has got to stop.
Let me tell the House about my history in relation to blacklisting. The most important person I know of who was blacklisted was someone whom I never met: my own grandfather. My grandfather was a local official in the Durham Miners Association during the 1926 strike. At the end of the strike, after he had been out of work for six months, he was told—like my good friend Mr Hamilton—“You are not coming back to work.” He was told by the manager, when he went to his house, “Gus, I want you back at work, but if I took you back, the owners would send me down the road.” The owners just happened to be the Bowes Lyon family, who, as we knew, ran this country and ruled this country for many years. That was the attitude that they took nearly a century ago.
Eight years of poverty followed. My grandfather died in abject poverty, which meant that my 14-year-old father became the family breadwinner. He was sent down the mines—against his wishes and the wishes of his mother, but there was no alternative.
In recent history, there were disputes in the mines in the 1970s and 1980s. There was clearly state intervention in all three of those disputes, but that was particularly the case in 1984-85. Nobody seriously doubts that within that dispute there was infiltration of the National Union of Mineworkers at the highest level; there was infiltration by MI5 in the general secretary’s office, and there were agent provocateurs on the ground. State employees were directing people in the back to work movement, and we saw the use of the military on the picket line and the very clear politicisation of the police. It is good news that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is now investigating the possibility that evidence was tampered with at Orgreave—we may at last get the truth from that.
Despite that history—despite the fact that 11,000 people were arrested during the miners’ strike, hundreds were jailed and more than 1,000 people were sacked—there is a qualitative difference between that dispute and what we are dealing with today. At least in that dispute most people had an inkling of what they were being accused of. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian might not have liked the fact that he was accused of doing certain things, but at least he knew that that was happening to him. He lost his job because of what was said about him, but people do not have a clue that this blacklisting is happening to them—that is the really invidious thing. It is simply unfair for people to be facing that. The people facing the blacklisting are on that list without knowing it, without the chance to make their case and without there being any trace of natural justice.
These people may have been placed on that list with the collusion of the police and the Security Service—those are not my words, but the words of the investigation manager of the ICO. If the Secretary of State does nothing else as a result of this debate, he should surely invite that gentleman to come in and have a word with him. I know that it is an independent organisation, but it acts on behalf of this House and of the people we represent. If the people we pay to uphold the law of the land are perverting the course of justice in what they do by undermining people who are trying to carry out their legal duty to ensure that their health and safety and that of their colleagues is paramount, there is something seriously wrong. The fact that this might have happened before 2009, with the collusion of elements of the state, should in no way let them off the hook.
My hon. Friend refers to things that happened during the miners’ strike, when there were indeed great injustices, but this blacklisting was happening only last year, during the construction for the Olympics, so it is very recent. It is current, and it is a disgrace that people who are legitimately raising concerns about health and safety are finding themselves placed on blacklists and denied employment.
It is an absolute disgrace, and I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. As I say, the people being blacklisted are doing something that they are compelled to do by laws that we in his House passed 40 years ago. They are doing the right thing, but by doing so they are losing their employment at present and their potential for future employment.
This morning, we heard the Shrewsbury pickets give a moving description of what happened to them. The really desperate thing behind what happened to them is the fact that the state was involved. Even today, 40 years later, the state is refusing to put documentation into the public domain for reasons of “national security”. I do not accept that. I think that what is being done in the name of “national security” is clear: people are hiding behind “national security” to protect the guilty, to protect the men and women in the shadows—the Security Service, the police and, going back to 1972, the politicians. They were clearly directing what was going on, in order to undermine the people involved and make sure that they faced a charge of conspiracy, which could have led to them doing life imprisonment. That is not something that is going to happen to the building organisations, who were using force against these people; there is no criminal sanction for them. We have the chance to do something seriously good here today, and I hope that the Minister will give us some hope that she is actually going to do something about this.
I have great respect for the Secretary of State, but I found his speech today very disappointing. He kept demanding recent evidence, but recent evidence is available if only one looks for it. Such evidence relates not only to Crossrail but to some Ministry of Defence sites and to the Olympic venue, other than in respect of Balfour Beatty. The real point is this: it is disingenuous to ask for evidence in an industry where there is a tight curtain of secrecy. If we really want the evidence, we actually have to look for it. The only way of getting this evidence is by setting up an inquiry, either a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills inquiry or a judicial inquiry, and put the relevant companies on oath to tell the truth. That is what the House is demanding of the Government today.
Blacklisting, as many hon. Members have said, is arguably the worst human rights abuse against workers in the UK since the war. It is worse than imprisonment in that it is usually imposed on the victim without his being given any opportunity to defend himself and it lasts for an indefinite period—often decades.
There are several issues surrounding the raid on the Consulting Association’s Droitwich offices in 2009, on which this whole debate hangs. Since it was widely suspected that blacklisting continued after the Economic League was wound up in 1993, why did it take 16 years for the authorities to act? Why was Ian Kerr, the retired special branch officer running the Consulting Association, given only a paltry £5,000 fine despite running an illegal database over 15 years that wrecked the lives of thousands of workers? Above all, why did the companies that sustained his business, and in some cases supplied the data, get off scot-free. Why did the ICO fail to take the full and necessary action that it could and should have taken?
Under the Data Protection Act 1998, the ICO may only issue an enforcement notice, which effectively says, “Stop doing that, and only if you don’t will it be a criminal offence.” In that case, why were enforcement notices issued against only 14 of the 44 companies involved? Not only is that a small part of the total, but the list does not include some of the heaviest users—McAlpine and Skanska—for reasons that have not been revealed, despite each of those companies making some 12,000 to 13,000 inquiries in a single year. That all suggests a distinct reluctance, to put it mildly, on the part of the authorities to deal with this huge and pervasive malpractice, involving at least 3,200 workers and probably many more, with the vigour and determination it clearly demands.
The implications go further still. First, as was stated earlier, representatives from the ICO stated at the employment tribunal hearing that some of the information held by the covert Consulting Association
“could only have been supplied by the police or security services.”
If that is confirmed, it reveals a conspiracy between the police, MI5 and many of the biggest building companies in the UK that is comparable to the phone hacking scandal.
I wrote to the Home Office last year to demand a public inquiry and a full investigation to get to the bottom of the scandal, but the Minister replied, with apparently unconscious irony, that the matter should merely be referred to the police. There were shades of what happened in 2009, when the phone hacking scandal was referred to the police and perfunctorily dismissed.
Secondly, David Clancy, the investigations manager at the ICO, told the Scottish Affairs Committee that the construction worker database accounted for, as he said, between “5% and 10%” of the material seen during the 2009 raid on the Consulting Association offices. On
“There was other material in the Consulting Association’s office, but we did not need to search this to secure the evidence we were looking for, and we did not do so”.
Why not, since it was obviously likely that other material held on the site would be equally unlawful? Anyway, how did the ICO officers identify what material related to the building industry without checking all the other material to find out whether it related to construction?
Lastly, there is the question of the adequacy of the existing legal framework. It is currently a criminal offence to compile and maintain a blacklist but not to supply information to a blacklister, to solicit information from the controller of a blacklist or to use one. It is also unlawful to be excluded or dismissed from employment because of trade union membership, but there is no right not to be blacklisted unless that leads to adverse employment consequences. These are two yawning gaps in the law, and as a result of this debate the Government must take steps to fill both those gaps if this awful malpractice is finally to be stopped.
We would not have had this debate in any form—as an Opposition day debate or a Government debate—if it had not been for the rank-and-file campaign that has been waged over the years. We should salute those rank-and-file trade unionists and the Blacklist Support Group, who brought about this debate.
There are many lessons to be learned from this, both for the Government and for Opposition Members as we go into government. I welcomed the Employment Relations Act 1999, which was the first stage in trying to outlaw blacklisting, but in 2003 I and other Members were asking: “Where are the regulations? Why aren’t we enacting them?” We were told that there was no evidence, and that was because there was almost a vow of silence in the industry. That went for employers and, I have to say, as we have seen in the ICO information, some renegade trade unionists we need to hold to account.
The breakthrough came with the ICO raid. Members have criticised the ICO, and I have done so publicly, too, but I met the officers who carried out the raid and thanked them, at least for the breakthrough. In 2009, Mick Clapham, then Member for Barnsley West and Penistone, held a debate in the House at which a number of Members were present. I intervened, as did other hon. Members. The Government then brought forward the regulations. I convened a meeting in the House of the Blacklist Support Group, and we came together. To be frank, we thought that the regulations were too weak. The lesson we learned is that when we bring forward legislation, we need to ensure that it is effective.
We listened to the people who would be affected by the legislation. We listened to those on the shop floor who know how employers can get round regulations and avoid legislation. I pay tribute to all of them. Let me mention a few names. I pay tribute to the Institute of Employment Rights, John Hendy, QC, Professor Keith Ewing, and Carolyn Jones, because they have advised us all the way along. More important, I thank Dave Smith—I have his file here, if anyone wants to have a look at it. It contains detailed information on virtually his every activity. I notice that he was in a few organisations, and selling the same newspapers, as I was at one point. I also thank Steve Acheson, Mick Holder, Roy Bentham, Tony O’Brien, Steve Kelly, Steve Hedley, Tony Jones and Frank Morris and many more. Let us thank them for exposing what has gone on, because it was a disgrace.
I thank my hon. Friend Mr Davidson and the Scottish Affairs Committee, because if it were not for them, we would not have known about the involvement of the police and security services. I was angry and upset by the Prime Minister’s reaction when I raised the issue over a year ago, when the Leveson inquiry was set up. This is more important than any knockabout. The allegation that the police and intelligence services were involved means that we have to investigate. As my right hon. Friend Mr Meacher said, the fact that we got the answer, both from the Prime Minister and in correspondence, that the issue would be referred back to the police means that it was not being taken seriously.
I want the inquiry to look at what has happened. I want full exposure of everything that went on, because when that happens, other industries will come forward. Other trade unionists will say, “It happened to us.” I want to know the consequences, too. Like many Members here, I have met some of these people, and what happened ruined their lives—it destroyed them. They could not afford to keep a roof over their heads. Families split up. They were the consequences. I want the inquiry to look at how the law should be strengthened.
Let us not say that the issue is historical. This is happening at the moment. I have been on the cleaners’ picket line across the city—at Schroders, John Lewis and elsewhere. People employed as cleaners join a trade union and become the trade union representative. They are then victimised—and yes, in some instances, physically assaulted; we have evidence of that. Eventually, they are sacked or have to leave. All of a sudden, coincidentally, they cannot find employment anywhere else. There are cleaners who have had to change their name to get another job; then the employer brings in the UK Border Agency, and some of them have been arrested as a result. Let us consider the Alberto Durango case: a cleaner became a trade union rep, was victimised and is now blacklisted throughout the sector. This does go on.
There are also internal forms of blacklisting, whereby companies refuse to promote people or give them the jobs that they deserve. It happens in the civil service. I ask Members to look at the case of Finola Kelly, a member of the Public and Commercial Services Union who worked for the Equality and Human Rights Commission. She took a post on a short-term basis, and then wanted to return to her existing post, but her request was refused because of her trade union activities. We know that because the court has just ruled, and she has been awarded £25,000 in compensation. This goes on today just because someone is a trade unionist or because they stand up on health and safety issues, or simply because they want to ensure justice and fairness at work.
I want the inquiry to examine all those things from the past, but I also want it to open the doors and invite people to come forward with evidence. If necessary, for protective purposes, it should sit in camera with witnesses so that they can be truthful and honest without making themselves vulnerable to victimisation. As other Members have said, I want blacklisting to be a criminal offence. I want people to go down for what they have done to working-class people in this country. I want legislation to be retrospective, and I want the burden of investigation to be placed not on the blacklisted worker but on an independent investigator so that we can make sure that these crimes are exposed. My hon. Friends have mentioned the Shrewsbury pickets, and there was a press conference this morning. Forty years on, they have not had justice. I tell you now, we will not rest on this side until we secure justice and proper legislation and we protect workers once again.
What we have seen today is a stark reminder that workplace practices that should have no place in modern society continue to scar national decency.
I have to begin by responding to the Secretary of State. I thought that he got the mood of the House completely wrong in his response to my hon. Friend Mr Umunna. This debate is not supposed to be political, and when Government Members read some of the views that they expressed in Hansard they may find them somewhat regrettable.
The word “blacklisting” is a malicious term that means to deny, ostracise or dismiss. We have heard the history from Charles II, cited by my hon. Friend Ian Lavery, to the early 20th century, discussed by my hon. Friend John Mann; from the Economic League in 1919 to the Consulting Association, which began operating in the 1990s. Clandestine organisations have sought to conspire to gather information on individuals whom they deem to be a problem. It has to be stated that it is only through the tireless efforts, as my hon. Friend John McDonnell said, of those individuals who suspected that something was afoot that blacklisting has been exposed. Great credit must go not only to those individuals but to the union, UCATT, and particularly Professor Keith Ewing for his report on blacklisting.
While the Consulting Association has long since been closed down, work to help those whose lives were blighted by the blacklists must continue, and that is the driving force of the debate and the motion. This is not a minor issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham has provided in-depth analysis of the issue, but it is worth reflecting on a few key facts. More than 3,000 individuals were on the blacklist that was seized by the Information Commissioner. More than 40 construction companies were not only vetting people but supplying information for those lists. Critically, the Information Commissioner’s investigations manager gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee in which he raised concerns that some of the information in individual files could only have come from the police and security services—I repeat: the police and security services. Perhaps Chris Heaton-Harris will wish to reflect on that following his comments about this being just a union wheeze.
Mr Ian Kerr, who ran the Consulting Association and sadly passed away late last year, told the Scottish Affairs Committee that some of the information that he had obtained looked as if it had come from formal authorities. He said that in response to the Chair reading from a blacklist file that contained information on a worker’s van, the registration plate, and who it was formerly registered with, as well as the owner’s name, address and details. There are entries in unredacted files—my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned a file that he had—and I should like to read two that I have seen, and perhaps the House will reflect on whether or not this is just about trade unions:
“for safety course.”
Those are entries in unredacted blacklist files.
Only last week, we heard an admission from Balfour Beatty that it carried out blacklisting checks on Olympic construction sites, with allegations that in projects including those for the Ministry of Defence and Crossrail, there may have been vetting of workers. My right hon. Friend Dame Tessa Jowell is absolutely right: the fact that employees obtained jobs is irrelevant—it is the fact that they were checked on a blacklist in the first place, which is something that Government Members have not mentioned.
The public projects are plentiful. The Scottish Affairs Committee heard yesterday from Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd that it may have used blacklists on Scottish building contracts such as the M74, the Quartermile development in Edinburgh and the Marie Curie cancer care centre in Glasgow. Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd said that it had not been established that anyone was denied employment as a result of those blacklisting checks, but that misses the point.
I have written to the First Minister in Scotland to ask him to investigate the use of blacklists in relation to public construction works in Scotland. Just this morning I received information following a written question from Neil Findlay, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, asking if the Scottish Government have awarded contracts to any of the companies mentioned on the Information Commissioner’s list. The reply came back naming 14 companies, including companies involved in the new Forth crossing. I quote from the written reply from Ms Nicola Sturgeon MSP, the Deputy Leader of the Scottish Parliament, who states:
“We are not aware of any evidence to suggest that blacklisting has been used in connection with the performance of any of these contracts.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report,
That is precisely why we need a full investigation by both Governments to get to the bottom of what is happening and to determine whether any blacklisting still exists.
It is clear, again from evidence given by Ian Kerr to the Scottish Affairs Committee, that it is not just construction workers who were blacklisted, but environmentalists, as we have heard, journalists, academics and Members of this House, past and present. My right hon. Friend Mr Clarke has been blacklisted, as have my noble Friend Lord McAvoy, my right hon. Friend Mr Hain and the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Brown.
Most shockingly—I direct this to Kris Hopkins—this is not just about the trade unions. The most shocking example of an unredacted file that I have come across is a blacklist file for Professor Charles Woolfson, who wrote the report on the health and safety analysis of the Piper Alpha tragedy. I shall read part of the file. It is from December 1995, so it was during the period of the Consulting Association. It states:
“Author of contradictory findings on Health and Safety after Piper Alpha tragedy. Saying standards laid down since, are not being adhered to.”
It goes on to say:
“His activities are now being felt . . . Funding from oil industry to Glasgow University may be cut if the above activities continue”.
That is a non-construction industry health and safety blacklist file on a very senior academic at Glasgow university who analysed one of the biggest tragedies that ever befell the oil and gas industry in this country.
The majority of those blacklisted had no idea they were included on the secret lists and still do not know to this day. They have had their lives ruined by that, but one of the consequences that cannot be assessed is how many workers have been put off representing their colleagues on health and safety issues. My hon. Friend Natascha Engel mentioned that blacklisting has harmed health and safety representation.
It may be worth looking at two other files that I came across among the Consulting Association files. One stated:
“Migratory habits watched with interest Keeps extremely interesting company. Brought in H&S issues. Would not recommend for employment” because of those health and safety issues.
The second file stated:
“Dark haired, stocky Liverpudlian with a strong accent. Close friend of Mr Smith. Both recently seen at a Left Wing meeting. . . Girlfriend is Miss L who has been involved in several marriages of convenience.”
These are from blacklist files that have been given to me unredacted. It is very clear what has been going on in the industry.
Let me summarise the debate and ask three things, which I hope the Minister will respond to more positively than the Secretary of State did earlier. First, there is an urgent need for investigation into blacklisting on public sector projects. The Secretary of State challenges this, but the Scottish Affairs Committee has presented powerful new evidence that merits an investigation into the past which, if done properly, will, I think, produce evidence for the present and the future. Secondly, there is a desperate need for a more proactive approach by the Information Commissioner’s Office. It is vital that the ICO puts in place immediately an effective process for trying to inform individual victims of blacklisting so that they can seek redress. If the blacklisting files for hon. Members are available, they should be produced. There is no excuse for the Information Commissioner to say that they cannot be identified or the ICO does not know where they are. Thirdly, we need a review of current legal protections, of which there are many, and hon. Members have mentioned them.
Finally, we are calling for a compensation fund to be set up by the construction companies to allow those workers who have been blacklisted to seek redress and justice through the fund. Blacklisting, as my hon. Friend the shadow Business Secretary said, is a national scandal. The House and Ministers need to do all they can to ensure that justice is sought and make sure that this never happens again.
My final point is that, if the Secretary of State is going to support the motion, and not divide the House, he will be supporting a motion that asks for an immediate investigation into the issues that we have been discussing today. If he declines to hold such an investigation, he will be going against the will of the House. I commend the motion to the House.
We have had a good debate today on an absolutely appalling practice. There have been light-hearted moments when hon. Members have mused on their own blacklisting history, but there is no way in which we can make light of the impact of the practice on individuals and their families. Many hon. Members have powerfully and eloquently expressed, through stories from their constituents, how it has wrecked careers, families and lives, made it impossible for people to get a job, and created huge financial problems, health problems and emotional stress.
We have talked about the past, and I enjoyed the history lessons from Ian Lavery, who talked about etymology, going back to the 1600s, and from John Mann, who talked about his grandfather’s experience. He also told the House the horrendous story of the rather dodgy guy posing as an employee on behalf of the Economic League. That showed the extent to which some people were prepared to go to get information.
More recently, persistent suspicions and concerns were raised in the 1990s, which resulted in, among other things, the Employment Relations Act 1999. Regulations were drafted in 2003 and implemented in 2010, after the scandal of the 2009 Information Commissioner’s Office investigation. I want to dwell briefly on that investigation. It was launched after information was passed to the Information Commissioner suggesting that there had been serious breaches of data protection legislation. That demonstrates that the ICO is willing to investigate and to take action when it is provided with information and evidence, including anecdotal evidence.
I absolutely understand the feelings that have been expressed in the House today, however. The £5,000 fine imposed on the gentleman who had been running the Consulting Association was described by the right hon.
Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) as “paltry”. Steve Rotheram said that he wanted to see criminal sanctions imposed on those involved in the activities. Frustration was expressed by hon. Members that no one had been brought to book for what had been happening.
I absolutely share that frustration and that sense of injustice, but that was the regime that was being operated at the time. The £5,000 fine seems paltry, given the impact of the activities on so many thousands of people, but it was the maximum that could be imposed at the time. Calls have been made for criminal action to be taken, but those practices did not constitute a criminal offence at the time and we cannot make them a crime retrospectively. That is a convention that the House follows, with good reason, and we must abide by that principle.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is fair to say that Members have also expressed concern about the level of the fine, however, and it is right that the legislation now in place allows for a fine of up to £500,000. That is far more appropriate for such a serious offence.
I appreciate that there has been a generally good tone to the debate today, and that it has not been overly partisan, but it is simply factual to point out that if the 2003 regulations had been implemented in 2003, the victims uncovered by the investigation in 2009 could have received compensation of £5,000 or more each, and a fine of up to £500,000 could have been levied—£5,000 might not seem very much to a big construction company, but £500,000 certainly does.
It is also worth looking at the list of 3,213 people who the Information Commission uncovered were on the Consulting Association’s blacklist. One point that has not been made today—I want to put it clearly on the record because there are people who are interested in this issue and will be following proceedings—is that anyone concerned that they might have been on the blacklist can either go to the ICO’s website, at ico.gov.uk, or call the fast-track helpline on 0303 123 1113, to find out whether they were on it.
I have two points. First, this is not just an issue of data protection; it is an issue of human rights and employment law. Secondly, since we brought in the anti-blacklisting regulations a number of claimants have sought to bring claims but have been unable to do so successfully because they do not have employee-employer relationship. Will the Minister address my earlier point on the need to look at the law and how it applies to the self-employed, given the sheer scale of false self-employment in the construction industry?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and will come to the points he raised. With regard to the people on the blacklist, 2,633 have got in touch with the ICO and 218 matches have been found so far. I hope that the publicity surrounding this debate will mean that the number will rise as more people get in touch and find out.
Concerns have been raised about how proactive the Information Commissioner has been. I think that it is fair to say that, of all the people who will be concerned about data protection when sending out sensitive personal details, the Information Commissioner is likely to be the most careful in doing so. Sending out letters willy-nilly when people might have moved and when using an old card file is not easy. However, I understand that positive and constructive work is going on with the unions, including GMB and others, to try to ensure that people can get some firm identification and that there is some proactive contact of the people on the list. That is important and I very much encourage it to continue, but I know that it is something that is already happening.
I was pleased to hear the contribution from Dame Tessa Jowell, particularly on the Olympics, which of course were such a source of national pride. She outlined the positive impact the construction projects have had, and indeed the excellent record on safety. She was absolutely right to highlight that it was totally and utterly morally wrong for the construction companies to think that it would be in any way acceptable to check whether employees were on a blacklist. Balfour Beatty has admitted that behaviour, which I think speaks for itself. It might not have been a crime at the time, but there is no moral justification for it whatever. It is absolutely aware that such behaviour is unacceptable and now illegal. Natascha Engel eloquently set out why blacklisting is also counter-productive and dangerous, particularly with regard to health and safety issues, especially in the construction industry.
Time is short, so I will move on to the key issues about the evidence we need to look at. The Scottish Affairs Committee is taking evidence on that at the moment, and we will look carefully at the report it produces. Other elements have been mentioned, such as the Balfour Beatty and ODA issue, but the letters relate to pre-2009, so I do not think that they constitute evidence of current breaches of the blacklisting regulations. Indeed, the same is true for Crossrail, because the first contracts for tunnelling and stations were not let until December 2010. However, Sarah Champion mentioned in an intervention that she might have anecdotal evidence of that, so I would encourage her to come forward with it.
I welcome the shadow Secretary of State’s earlier comment that he thinks that evidence will flow pretty quickly after this debate. I repeat that the Government are keen to see any evidence that comes forward and encourage any individuals who have evidence to bring it to us and to the ICO. I give a personal commitment that when the Select Committee reaches its conclusions I will give them my attention and ensure that any evidence that illegal blacklisting is continuing is properly investigated.
I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has worked on this issue consistently for many years.
If the Government are not willing to accept an inquiry at the moment, I suggest that, because these matters are much broader than the role of the Information Commissioner’s Office, they consider the appointment of someone independent of them and employers to whom people can go to provide evidence.
The ICO is independent of Government and employers, and it is fair to say that hon. Members would also take the view that the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee is also fairly independent—of most people. It is important to ensure that people bring forward the evidence. If anything new arises, we will be happy to make sure that it is fully investigated.
The shadow Secretary of State mentioned the legislation. Clearly, significant protections are now in place, but there is the matter of false self-employment in the construction industry; there was a debate in Westminster Hall about that recently. That is a problem, although there are differences of view about its extent. Issues of employment law may need to be changed as a result of the evidence that many hon. Members now expect to come forward, and we are keeping all employment law under review during this Parliament. We will be happy to consider that.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, we will not oppose the motion. Blacklisting is an appalling practice, which is unacceptable and illegal. Robust penalties are in place; the law provides for unlimited fines, in particular for the breach of an enforcement notice that the Information Commissioner has put in place. I look forward to seeing any evidence that requires investigation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes that in 2009 the Information Commissioner’s Office raided the Consultation Association which revealed a blacklist and files on more than 3,000 individuals which had been used by more than 40 construction companies to vet individuals and deny people employment for reasons including being a member of a trade union or having raised health and safety concerns and that extensive personal information on individuals and their families was held; recognises that the majority of individuals have still not been informed that they were on the blacklist nor given the opportunity to seek redress, despite recent confirmation that blacklisting checks took place on Olympic construction sites and allegations that the practice took place on public projects including Ministry of Defence sites, Portcullis House and Crossrail; further notes that at recent Scottish Affairs Select Committee hearings on blacklisting the Information Commissioner Investigations Manager raised concerns that there may have been collusion by police officers and security services in the compilation of blacklists; and in addition that it was also alleged at the hearings that a blacklist of environmental activists was compiled; and calls on the Government to immediately begin an investigation into the extent to which blacklisting took place and may be taking place, including on public sector projects, and to ensure that appropriate and effective sanctions are in place to tackle and prevent blacklisting.