The evidence given to the Scottish Affairs Select Commitee by Ian Kerr, former Chief Officer of the Consulting Association, about the unlawful blacklisting activities of major construction firms has revealed on the dirty underside of bullying bosses, prepared to ruin the lives of thousands of workers.
A total of 44 building firms paid an annual fee initially of £3,500 to check information on his database, plus a fee of up to £2.20 per name they run through The Consulting Association.
As Labour’s Jim McGovern put it, the result of that check would decide whether a worker “would be able to put a meal on the table that week.”
The “information” passed on to possible employers ranged from who a possible employee lived with, one was recorded as “obnoxious hard case”, while another file read “wrote letter to Crawley Observer”.
That prompted committee chairman Ian Davidson to ask: “It does not seem suitable to have somebody’s employment threatened for having written to the Crawley Observer, no matter what it was they wrote about”.
Kerr: “I’m sure that would have been in addition to certain other things.”
Labour’s Pamela Nash said many workers were on the blacklist for raising legitimate workplace issues.
“Did you ever worry that people were becoming aware that there was a blacklist and it was putting people off reporting health and safety problems?” she asked.
Kerr said that he upheld the right of workers to report health and safety matters but added: “Some of these people are very persistent and may have other agendas.”
Kerr spilled the beans on how the system worked. The Consulting Assocation was set up as a Pheonix operation out of the ashes of the discredited Economic League in 1993. According to the wriiten evidence that Kerr gave to to the Committee
1. The Consulting Association (TCA) was started out of the Services Group (SG), operated by and within the Economic League (EL). A Steering Committee of key people in construction companies of the SG drafted a constitution. Key operating features of TCA were decided by representatives of the major construction companies, who were the original members.
I was asked to become its salaried Chief Officer and I signed a Contract of Employment to this effect. I was employed from its inception in April 1993 until closure by the ICO in February 2009, to oversee the services its member companies wanted. I was not the owner of TCA and I never sold information.
2. TCA was originally funded by a £10,000 loan from Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd in 1993, later repaid out of TCA income.
The organisation functioned in secret, with a senior HR representative of each of the 44 building firms acting as the key contact. These contacts provided the information to Ian Kerr which was used to build a database of information about thousands of workers in the industry. The same contacts also contacted the Consulting Association when they were seeking to hire, at which point they faxed through a list of names, which Kerr would check against the database, and then he would phone through to the contact and read out the information on the cards. In an average year there would be between 38,000 and 40,000 names referred by member companies.
The fax would then be shredded. This by-passed the normal HR processes, and left no trace. The companies then paid an invoice with a fee of just over £2 for every name checked.
Kerr was evasive when he gave evidence about the possible involvement of trade union officials, but he stressed that part of the function of the senior HR contacts was to liaise with senior union officials, and although he sought to bluster he was forced to admit that some of the cards contained the note “EETPU says no”. No evidence was provided by Kerr to the committee of any currenty serving union officers involved with the blacklist; however the union movement has nothing to fear: we the ones who have brought this sordid business into the sunlight.
The Scottish Affairs Select Committee will be calling the named contact points from the building firms to give evidence, people like Liz Keates of Carillion. It will be very interesting to learn more about how the companies operated, from whom they got their information, and how high up in the companies there was knowledge of these unlawful activities.