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First anniversary of GMB strike action against Carillion

Today is the anniversary of the first of 22 days of strike action by GMB members at the Great Western Hospital (GWH) in Swindon, one of the earliest Private Finance Initiative (PFI) build and operate hospitals, and only the second opened by Carillion. This long running industrial dispute between the union and Carillion, over the failure of the company to recognise GMB, the unfair holiday system, and the culture of management bullying, which included years of covering up a system of shakedowns and extortion by supervisors, who terrorised the mainly South Asian women workforce into giving gold, money and other valuables in exchange for shift changes, overtime or holiday approvals. This extortion had been reported to Carillion in at least 2007, and the company was aware of the accusations at director level in at least 2009.

The dispute raised the question of how inappropriate it is for profit driven companpanis like Carillion, with a weak culture of corporate governance, to be operating public services. In January the Observer reported the scandalous failure of care at the Surgicare centre in Hertfordshire, also run by the services group Carillion, which mades somber reading. Three deaths of patients who had been admitted for routine treatment prompted an independent report before Christmas, as the Observer recounts:

the report also contained the admission that nurses dealing with the case at the privately run centre had needed a ventilator at 8.30am the day before the patient died, but “no machine was available”. That admission, along with the report’s further revelation that clinical medical records are missing and that the resident medical officer at the Surgicentre did not ask for a more senior doctor to attend to Ms Mansi as her health deteriorated, has provoked her brother, Michael, to demand the closure of the centre, which has been at the centre of a series of scandals over the past year.

The Carillion run unit had already been investigated over potential failings in the cases of six patients who suffered irreversible sight loss after treatment. There have been 21 serious clinical and patient information incidents since the clinic opened in September 2011. The clinic also lost the records of 8,500 ophthalmology outpatients last year, prompting local MP Stephen McPartland to back calls for Carillion to lose its licence.

Carillion is a giant company, with annual revenue of around £5 billion, employing about 45000 people around the globe. Significantly, it earns millions of pounds from offering facilities management services within the UK public sector.

Carillion, was responsible not only for the design, construction and commissioning of the Swindon GWH, but also for on-going operation and maintenance of the £135 million project. Eric Shaw, in his persuasive book, Losing Labour’s Soul?: New Labour and the Blair Government 1997-2007, discusses how the NHS was taken to the cleaners when negotiating these PFI contracts. Not only did the NHS lack the commercial expertise, and were therefore required to outsource the project negotiations and management at enormous cost; but the contracts for operating the hospitals were developed on a deeply flawed risk model, paying the private companies a premium for assuming risk that was in fact still retained by the NHS as the operator of last resort.

There has to be a suspicion that the subsequent sale of the GWH by Carillion was designed to leverage this advantage, having secured what was probably an excessive original price for the 26 year operational contract, they were able to sell their stake once the real, lower, operational risk was known.

In December 2007, Carillion sold its equity in this project to Land Securities Trillium (LST) along with the Harplands Hospital in North Staffordshire and Glasgow’s Southern General Hospita; being paid £21.5m for the three hospitals. The musical chairs didn’t stop there, as Land Securities then sold Trillium to Telereal in 2009 for £750m to form Telereal Trillium and the 10% stake it had in Trillium PPP Investment Partners fund was then again sold to existing investors in the fund and Semperian PPP Investment Partners was created.

So now it is Semperian who owns the premises and the facilities contract for the Great Western Hospital, but it employs Carillion as a sub-contractor.

Carillion itself was formed by a de-merger from the Tarmac group in 1999, and the corporate rebranding obscured the fact that a construction giant had entered the services market in the public sector. It brought with it the hard-nosed, rapacious and money-grubbing ethos of the construction industry.

There is certainly a compelling similarity between the way Carillion has ignored, belittled and denied the reports of supervisor corruption at the Swindon hospital with the record of Carillion’s construction arm of victimising andblacklisting Health and Safety reps on its building sites. Earlier in 2012, Dave Smith, a former UCATT safety rep gained admissions in Employment Tribunal of the involvement of Liz Keates, HR Director for Carillion, with the blacklist; and it was Liz Keates who advised GMB representatives in February 2012 that Carillion would not be upholding any part of anyone’s grievance at the GWH, after 109 staff had given strong evidence of supervisor racism and bullying, and a number of staff had given testimony of extortion and shake downs by white supervisors and managers from their non-white staff. Ms Keates said that “there was no evidence”: disregarding the testimony of Carillion’s own staff.

The common denominator is a seeming presumption to dismiss staff complaints as nuisance or of no value, even where serious matters of site safety or systematic racism and extortion are involved. Although the Blacklist Support Group had been doing sterling work in exposing the activites of the Construction companies, and UCATT had previously raised the issue with MPs, the blacklisting issue acheived lift-off when GMB joined the dots between Carillion’s malpractice at the Swindon hospital, and the history of unlawful blacklisting by the same company in the construction industry.

It is clear from the evidence being produced to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee investigation that Carillion was involved with the blacklisting Consulting Association from the beginning, and has been one of the most prolific users. However, it is not necessarily the worst company; Sir Robert MacAlpine put up the inital money for the Consulting Association, and at first their director, Callum MacAlpine chaired the meetings . The Chief Officer of the Consulting Association last week gave evidence that it was Balfour Beatty who the most hardline approach to blacklisting.

However, what makes Carillion different, and which is of particular concern, is that it is a very major player in providing public services, running schools, hospitals, and council services paid for out of the public purse. Carillion are a multi-billion pound business, for example its recent bid to run education services in Stafford would have been worth at least £700 million, and could have been worth £5bn over the project life.

If Carillion fails to conduct itself in a manner consistent with the expected ethical standards of the public sector, then it should not be considered for public services contracts.

This post first appeared fat Socialist Unity.

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