This is a one-hour debate. As colleagues know, there will be five minutes for the two Opposition leads and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the contributions of Back Benchers were to end a little earlier, I would be inclined to allow six minutes to the hon. Members for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), but it may be just five.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered blacklisting.
I should say at the outset that I am pleased that the Minister for corporate responsibility will respond to the debate, because, as she responded to the debate that I held in the previous Parliament earlier this year, she will be familiar with the issues.
For the benefit of the record in this Parliament, I want to recap what we are talking about. Imagine a person who has spent years acquiring the skills to work on construction sites around the country. No one ever complained about the quality of their work or their work ethic. They happen to be an active member of their trade union, keen to ensure that they and their colleagues have a safe and pleasant working environment—nothing out of the ordinary. Then, on one occasion, they raise a serious health and safety concern—no small matter, given that an average of 39 construction workers are killed at work every year in the UK—and ever since they have not been able to get work. That is what happened to thousands of construction workers for decades. They were blacklisted, and no one has ever been brought properly to book for it.
Absolutely—I could not agree more. I will outline some of the things people have done and matters on which they have campaigned for justice. Blacklisting is the shady, underhand practice of sharing information on workers without their knowledge and then systematically denying them employment on the basis of that information. The practice first hit the headlines in 2009, when the Information Commissioner’s Office raided the premises of a disreputable organisation called the Consulting Association. When it raided that association, it found a blacklist of more than 3,000 construction workers. The association was funded and used for years by more than 40 of the country’s biggest construction firms to vet employees.
The association, set up in 1993, was the successor to another disreputable organisation called the Economic League, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) will mention later. The construction companies fed the association detailed information about workers without their knowledge. Whenever the companies made hiring decisions, they checked applicants’ names against the association’s list. If they were on it, they were usually refused work—they were denied the abilityto do their job and provide for their family.
Essentially, the system facilitated systematic victimisation and denial of work simply because workers had raised legitimate health and safety concerns in the past or because they were a member of a trade union or a political party. It was, and still is, an outrage. The nature of some of the information held about people on the list—their religion, national insurance number, car registrations and so on—strongly suggests that the data were collected with the collusion of the police and/or security services. That is why it is entirely fitting that the Blacklist Support Group members, many of whom are here, have been granted core participant status in the Pitchford inquiry into undercover policing.
Those who suffered and are victims now have three principle routes of redress. The Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010 now outlaw blacklisting, but they came into force too late for those who suffered at the hands of the Consulting Association. The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 stops people being discriminated against on the basis of being a member of a union, and the Data Protection Act 1998 can be used against those who abuse and misuse people’s personal data. The late Ian Kerr, who was chief officer of the Consulting Association, was fined a paltry £5,000 after the ICO’s raid because only later were fines levied under that Act substantially increased.
My constituent Sandy Macpherson of Ilkley was one of the plaintiffs in the recent case. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is now a strong case for making blacklisting a criminal offence with strong sanctions, including big fines and possible imprisonment in the worst cases?
I wholeheartedly agree. My hon. Friend talks about litigation, and in July 2014 Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O’Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska UK and VINCI plc, which were all involved in blacklisting and in funding the Consulting Association, established a compensation scheme for individual workers affected by blacklisting and made an apology of sorts for what happened. However, their scheme was established unilaterally without agreement on the terms with the trade unions representing workers. Other firms that were part of the hall of shame involved with the association such as the Amec Group, Amey, BAM Construction, Morgan Sindall and Taylor Woodrow did not sign up to the scheme.
As my hon. Friend knows, this is an important issue to me as I represented blacklisted members of the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians in the High Court. Does he agree that no firm involved in historical blacklisting should be given a public contract until it demonstrates regret for its actions by supporting a public inquiry, offering retraining to victims and demonstrating that its recruitment processes are transparent and fair?
I completely agree, and I commend my hon. Friend and the huge team of people who have worked on all the litigation we have seen in the High Court brought by a number of unions including UCATT— now part of Unite—which I am proud to say is headquartered in my constituency, and the GMB. Those unions deserve huge credit for the efforts they put into uncovering exactly what went on and then getting redress, working with my hon. Friend and others in the courts. Those cases have been settled in the past two years and millions have been paid, but the fact remains that not one director of the firms who funded the Consulting Association has ever been properly brought to book, fined or subjected to any individual court sanction for the misery they visited on construction workers over the decades. No one has been brought to book properly for that.
In fact, we are behaving as if all has been forgiven. Tears were apparently shed last month over the fact that we will not hear Big Ben’s bongs for several years. We should be far more concerned about the fact that Sir Robert McAlpine, a firm implicated in all of this, appears to have bagged a multi-million pound contract for the work that is to be carried out on Big Ben tower to fix those bongs.
Let us be clear about the role that the company Sir Robert McAlpine played. Cullum McAlpine, a director of Sir Robert McAlpine, was chairman of the Consulting Association when it was formed in 1993. Later, David Cochrane, the head of HR at that firm, succeeded him as chair of the association. During a hearing of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry into all of this in 2012, the late Ian Kerr, who died that year, admitted that his £5,000 fine for breaches of the Data Protection Act was met by Sir Robert McAlpine
“on the basis that I had put myself at the front and took the flak, if you like, for it all, so that they wouldn’t be drawn into all of this. They would remain hidden.”
How, in the light of that, can we parliamentarians sit here and say to the victims—many of whom are watching the debate in the Public Gallery—“It is an outrage”, while we stand by as Sir Robert McAlpine is awarded the contract to do the work on the parliamentary estate? There must be consequences when those who bid for public contracts are found to be involved in such practices. Will the Minister explain why on earth, given its disgraceful role in blacklisting, we are giving Sir Robert McAlpine the contract to fix the bongs of Big Ben, which so many parliamentarians have shed tears over?
I took up the blacklisting issue originally as a constituency issue, having been alerted to the scandal by my good friends at Unite; I took an even stronger interest when I was shadow Business Secretary, and I instigated the first full debate on the topic on the Floor of the House in 2013. As I have said, I instigated another debate on it earlier this year, because we must have a proper public inquiry into blacklisting, and the victims are continually denied it.
One of my constituents, Alan Wainwright, is a victim of blacklisting, and was party to exposing it—he was a whistleblower. He has submitted a file of evidence to the Minister’s office on the very point about the public inquiry. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister should examine it seriously and in detail as part of the inquiry?
I completely agree; I have met my right hon. Friend’s constituent. In the end, we need the inquiry because we need to know who knew what was going on. It was happening not just in the private sector but in the public sector. There are allegations that it was going on at the Olympic sites, Portcullis House and Ministry of Defence sites. Who knew it was going on? Did the permanent secretaries or the Ministers at the time know? Were the Departments that commissioned construction projects complicit in it? We do not know. Does the law need to be changed or tightened? To what extent is it still going on?
Each time we have debated the issue here the coalition and subsequent Conservative Governments have specifically refused to set up a public inquiry, saying that there is little evidence that blacklisting still goes on. Today I will present compelling evidence showing that the practice is definitely still going on, and that it is happening on one of the biggest construction sites in Europe—Crossrail, a publicly funded project that I have visited. Let us not forget that a construction worker died after being crushed by falling wet concrete, in March 2014, and that two other men were seriously injured in separate incidents in January 2015, working on Crossrail tunnels around the Fisher Street area in central London. In July this year the contractors concerned, BAM, Ferrovial, Keir— the BFK consortium—pleaded guilty to three offences following an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive, and were fined more than £1 million. The HSE said that had simple measures such as properly implemented exclusion zones in high-hazard areas been taken, all three incidents could have been prevented. That shows why it is so important that construction workers should feel free to raise health and safety issues without fear of retribution.
My hon. Friend outlines the human cost to the blacklisted workers and their families, which is almost the point that I want to make; but is there not also a sinister reason—intimidation of those engaged in legitimate trade union activity, to boost profits, often at the cost of the lives of a company’s own workers?
My hon. Friend makes a good point: to what extent is profit being put before safety? Why is there such paranoia when employees and workers raise such issues? I find that hard to fathom, given the fatalities that occur in the construction sector.
The first case that I want to mention concerns surveillance of workers that took place at a peaceful demonstration at a Crossrail site in 2016. I have seen and read emails that passed and were circulated between contractors and the employee relations department at Crossrail, which detail questionable surveillance practices. The surveillance operations involved named individuals who were implicated in and involved with the activities of the Consulting Association. The evidence that I will supply to the Minister after the debate shows that a number of construction workers were being closely watched there, and that sensitive personal information was being collected in relation to them. It is not clear where those data were subsequently posited or by precisely whom, but those collecting information on the workers had to fill in a form, which was definitely filed somewhere.
Two of the workers who were subject to that surveillance have since sought to obtain further employment on Crossrail through employment agencies advertising positions. In each case they approached the job agency about the vacancy, and had the required skills to fill it. However, as soon as they relayed their names there was a delay; they were subsequently given an excuse as to why the positions had been filled. Unite does not believe that what happened to the two workers is coincidental, and it has already informed the Information Commissioner’s Office of its concerns about the case. Clearly, subcontractors were explicitly discouraged from employing certain known trade union members. One subcontractor has actually told Unite that the consequences of his employing a Unite member would be the refusal of future work. For obvious reasons, the subcontractor does not wish to disclose their identity.
The Information Commissioner’s Office, having been contacted about this, has stated that the evidence
“raises the possibility that surveillance is being undertaken without appropriate checks and balances being in place”
and that the
“collection of this type of data is potentially excessive”
under the law.
The second case that I want to highlight is that of an electrician who has been trying to obtain work in the construction industry since raising a grievance while working on Crossrail. He has since applied for hundreds of job vacancies, almost always being turned down. He never received any criticism about the quality of his work. He is an intelligent young guy, who is conscientious about his work and who takes his health and safety duties to himself and his colleagues particularly seriously. He is not particularly political: he is a construction worker and his focus is his work. He served Crossrail with a subject access request that compelled it to provide him with the information it held on him. I have been passed the documents and had a chance to read them. They reveal that Crossrail and three of its contractors exchanged personal data, and sensitive personal data, concerning the individual’s previous employment and the issues and grievances that he had raised there. On the face of it, the data appear to have been processed for the purpose of determining the individual’s suitability for employment related to his trade union activities. The very strong inference from the documents is that some kind of vetting operation was in operation between Crossrail, its contractors and the agencies involved. Again, I will pass the information and the documents to the Minister after the debate.
Those are just two examples, but clearly they show that blacklisting is still going on. I do not think that it is being carried out in the way that it was before, with a centralised system collectively funded by the construction companies, not least because for those caught under the data protection legislation there is a much bigger fine, and the blacklisting regulations are also in force, of course. However, clearly it is still being done, but in a more covert way, making it a lot harder to identify.
The ICO has said it will put out a call for evidence about ongoing blacklisting next year. It should really get on and put out the call for evidence now, without further delay; but it is no substitute for the public inquiry that we seek. The ultimate way to get to the bottom of what happened and is still happening is a proper investigation of that kind. The law clearly needs to be reviewed, even though the Minister told me earlier in the year that that was not necessary. I would like workers to be given a positive right not to be blacklisted. The suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) that it should be made a criminal offence was well made. I would also like protection against blacklisting to be extended to include trade union-related activities, as opposed to the current definition, “trade union activities”.
That is absolutely right. All Members who have spoken or undertaken any activity on this issue would have found it much harder to do what we have done without the trade unions providing support and information and uncovering what happened.
I have to say to the Minister that I just do not understand why the Government and her Department are so resistant to having a public inquiry. What are they so afraid of? At the end of the 2010-15 Parliament, I made it very clear to her Department, which I was hoping to run after the 2015 general election, that, if Labour won that election, I would be giving instructions for the establishment of such a public inquiry. I was very clear on that to the permanent secretary. It can be done, it needs to be done and, above all, the thousands of people who have suffered need it to be done. At the same time that they need it to be done, those who were ultimately responsible for all of this have got off scot-free.
I have provided the evidence to the Minister orally—I will provide the documents so she can see them in detail —that this is still going on. To her and the Government, who claim to look out for the interests of workers, I say: put your money where your mouth is, deliver on the public inquiry and let us get justice for those who have suffered and those who are still suffering.
I will make one comment on the public inquiry. There could be reasons why the Government are a little reluctant to hold one, because, if we look at history, we will see that there were, of course, previous blacklisting organisations. We know of the unanswered questions—or rather, the unjustly resolved questions—relating to Shrewsbury in 1973, and we know about the Economic League blacklist. I put it to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna), to the House and to the Minister that we should not be scared of taking this on. I believe there were people working inside Parliament who were a part of the creation of the Economic League blacklist. They were working for MPs and using the facilities here. Who is to say that they have not actually continued those activities, because the same companies keep coming up?
Blacklisting happens to all sorts of people. I think there is a view among some of the more naive MPs that this is perhaps something to do with extreme militants battling away. Let me tell hon. Members about one extreme militant who was on the Economic League blacklist and was refused a job because of it: me. I probably do not fit the normal view of an extreme militant. Some would say I am far from it; I will leave colleagues to make their own judgment on that. However, when I was given a job in Manchester by Ciba-Geigy in the 1980s, it was withdrawn, which was a bit of a surprise. I asked them why. I said, “You’ve given me a job and now you’ve taken it away.” They said, “You’re on some list, and we’re afraid”—they were very apologetic —“we can’t give you it.”
Then, by some coincidence, someone got hold of that list, and it was made public. I remember very vividly a meeting at the University of London Union. I think Ricky Gervais was the events officer there at the time. I went in this student room and there were desks there. I thought I would go and see—nosey in; have a look—and I went through and looked under “M” and I found my name there. I have no idea why I was on the Economic League blacklist, and I do not know who put me on it or why. Frankly, it has not affected me, because I was not bothered about the job, unlike some people, whose lives and income and those of their families have been blighted ever since.
I could not have known I was on that list if the person who told me had not apologetically pointed it out to me. They could easily have not said a word, or said, “No, we haven’t got the money. There is no job there. Sorry. No contract has been signed.” I also would not have known if I had not read that the list was being shown—I read it somewhere; I do not know where—and thought that I would stick my nose in and have a look at the list, as you do, curiously. It was a bit of a shock when I found my name on that list. I wondered who it was who put it on there. I can tell hon. Members who it was, because I did some research in some good publications from the time. There were a lot of names of people in the Economic League, and some of those people were working for Tory MPs here, and there were Tory MPs in the middle of it.
Let us have a public inquiry and have everything revealed. Let us go all the way back through the 1970s and 1980s for those who have not gotten justice—I am not bothered about me; I will be all right—such as those in Shrewsbury. Let us have some justice there. There are a lot of people out there who do not even know why they did not get jobs that they went for. That was in construction, but it is not only in construction. I tell hon. Members that, today, it will be parts of the NHS where this kind of informal blacklisting is going on as well, not just construction. It is therefore crucial that we change the law, so let us get on with it and let us have an inquiry.
I did not actually intend to speak in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) mentioned the Shrewsbury case. That alleged conspiracy took place in my constituency, in the Bull and Stirrup. It was a bunch of fellows trying to defend their livelihoods, and that sore continues today, 40 years later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna), who led the debate—I pay tribute to his persistence on this issue—mentioned the attitudes of the Minister and the Government on this, which is that they do not want a public inquiry because blacklisting has stopped. However, whether in the Shrewsbury case from 40 years ago or for workers today, even if blacklisting had stopped, its effects—the poverty, the shame and, frankly, the humiliation—are still there for decent, hard-working, skilled men and women who have been denied that livelihood and have been suffering the economic consequences ever since. The effects, the human consequences and, above all, the sense of injustice are still with us.
We cannot turn our back on that sense of injustice, whether for the families of Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson in my constituency 40 years ago—it was not my constituency then, but I will still lay claim to it—or for the other men and women who have suffered perhaps thousands and thousands of pounds of financial loss and heaven knows what kind of human and psychological damage and who are still living with the consequences of that today. Even if blacklisting is not taking place—I am minded to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham that it is—the consequences are. I believe the Government have a responsibility to address those current consequences.
I will just make a couple of very quick comments. I did not intend to speak in detail, but given that there is time, I will do so. I happen to be the Member of Parliament for six members of the Shrewsbury 24. I know, even today, how they live with the consequences of that blacklisting. One of my constituents has been the Labour mayor of the town I live in, has been a Labour councillor and sat on the police authority. However, even today he cannot travel to the United States because of that conviction and because of the investigation into a whole range of matters to do with health and safety in the workplace and the allegations that were made.
The Government still need to address the information they hold that they could publish about the records of the Shrewsbury 24 at that time. I ask the Minister to look at that issue in general terms, and to revisit what was visited very strongly in this Chamber in the last Parliament: the consequences of the Government not releasing information to do with the Shrewsbury 24, which they promised to release, but which they have failed to release.
The main reason I stand is to say that I was approached in the last few weeks by my constituent, Alan Wainwright, who is a victim of blacklisting and who was part of the whistleblowing in the blacklisting exposure that is taking place. There was a Guardian article last Tuesday that detailed his experiences, and he has also produced a detailed report of his experiences of his dealings with trade unions and with business, which he has submitted to the Minister’s Department for her to examine. He has also submitted it to the general secretary of Unite, Mr Len McCluskey, who has himself ordered an inquiry into this matter within the Unite union. Mr Wainwright asked me to ask the Minister if she will confirm that she has received that report, consider the evidence and look at a possible inquiry into all the allegations he has made, in addition to the points made very ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna).
When I was a young trade unionist, there was a feeling about that those people who were blacklisted or sacked on strike were generally revolutionaries and pretty bad people, in the main. I rather suspect that that view is still harboured in the dark corners of some people’s minds.
Nearly 40 years ago, I was a works convenor in a medium-sized factory, and after a 19-week strike, the employer decided to sack me for being nothing more than the works convenor of the people who had been on strike. People may well have said at that time that I was a pretty aggressive individual and might well have deserved it, but the reality is that my wife and two little children had not done anything wrong. I never really got over the fact as to why I should be victimised in that way.
Earlier this year, Prince Charles, on the instruction of the Queen, knighted me. So I ask the question: in the long term, who was the villain—me, a Member of Parliament, or the employers who decided to victimise me and, much more importantly, my family?
Thank you, Mr Walker. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) on giving a very vivid account of blacklisting in this country.
I have argued since the general election that in this House of minorities, there is potential for this Parliament to be called the justice Parliament. That is by ensuring there are inquiries to deal with the Shrewsbury conspiracy, the wrongful conviction of miners during the miners’ strike and this issue of blacklisting, as well as for those caught up in contaminated blood. While there is now an inquiry into contaminated blood, which I welcome very much, I support the efforts of the hon. Member for Streatham and others to have a public inquiry on blacklisting.
Blacklisting is covered in a fantastic film called “The Happy Lands”, which is based in Fife. The historical context is the general strike there, and in that film blacklisting is revealed. It is difficult to comprehend the extent of blacklisting in this country, thanks to the levels of denial and secrecy surrounding this odious practice, but what is not difficult to understand is the dreadful effect that blacklisting has on people’s lives and the suffering of not just the workers targeted for their trade union activity but their family members as well. Denial of the most basic of human rights—the right to work and provide for your family—by the same companies that have grown rich on lucrative public sector contracts is a shameful act and an abuse of power.
Make no mistake: blacklisting is a deliberate decision taken by company directors and managers who are in the business of maximising profits for shareholders by punishing those who seek to stand up for their rights and the health and safety of their fellow workers. The account given by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) of his personal circumstances is commonplace in the construction industry, where people turn up for work and within a day or two are told that there is no longer a position for them, because companies have been looking at the blacklist.
The Scottish National party is clear that blacklisting in any form is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Despite employment law being a reserved matter—which is unfortunate, given the consensus in Scotland that it should be devolved—the Scottish Government have introduced legislation: the Public Contracts (Scotland) Regulations 2015 and the Procurement (Scotland) Regulations 2016, which came into effect in April last year. Those changes will ensure that any company in Scotland found to be involved in the practice of blacklisting will be excluded from bidding for public sector contracts. The general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Grahame Smith, has welcomed that action and said that any company applying for new public contracts where blacklisting has taken place in the past must make an apology to the affected workers, issue a statement on future conduct and prove compliance with any tribunal ruling made against it in relation to blacklisting.
I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Streatham about the delays to 2018, flagged up by Unite the union. That is more pathetic, Brexit-induced stalling, and yet another kick in the teeth to those who want not just justice for past wrongs but security for present and future workers.
Some of the context for the move towards greater transparency has come through action through the High Court. In an attempt to body-swerve liability, a number of construction companies attempted to almost name and shame themselves, including Laing O’Rourke, Costain, Kier and Sir Robert McAlpine, which I will come on to later. Let us make a mental note of the last company named there. One of its directors, Cullum McAlpine, who has already been mentioned, was interviewed under oath by the Scottish Affairs Committee when it conducted its inquiry into blacklisting. As an important aside, I hope that the Scottish Affairs Committee now goes back to that inquiry, which was chaired by my predecessor, Ian Davidson. The three interim reports all made clear that there is a case for a full public inquiry, which is essential if we are ever to expose the true extent of the practice and take measures to stop it.
I return to Sir Robert McAlpine, which was a founding member of the Consulting Association. Cullum McAlpine refused to answer many of the questions put to him by the Scottish Affairs Committee members and relied heavily on his lawyer for advice throughout the session. Despite that, he was forced to admit that the company had used the blacklist to vet workers on the Olympic stadium. In the light of that, it is most shocking, as the hon. Member for Streatham rightly said, that the company has been awarded a £20 million contract to refurbish Big Ben—one of the most iconic buildings in the country, symbolising the seat of power and London as a global destination.
I am calling today for McAlpine to be stripped of that contract. It is an absolute disgrace and scandal that it was awarded the contract in the first place and that none of the actions taken in Scotland are happening here in Westminster. The Government should look at what the devolved Administrations have done about companies in the public sector that have engaged in blacklisting. It signals bad faith that one of the main perpetrators of this conspiracy—and blacklisting is a conspiracy—is accessing public money to boost its profits.
I support the hon. Member for Streatham in relation to a public inquiry. I hope that the Government will announce a public inquiry into blacklisting, because there are many, many unanswered questions. I congratulate him once again and all those who have spoken so far. They have the support of the SNP for a public inquiry into blacklisting.
Thank you very much, Mr Walker. May I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) on his outstanding advocacy of a noble cause?
Trade unions are a force for good. To be denied work because you are a trade unionist is an affront to democracy. Blacklisting is not history; it is a scandal that has never gone away. Forty years ago, when I came out of the Grunwick strike, I was blacklisted by the Economic League. I was one of the 30,000 subversives, as they defined us at the time. I was out of work for a matter of months and then became an officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, but tens of thousands of others paid a very heavy price, some of them for decades. I then worked with The Guardian to expose the Economic League, leading ultimately to its demise, but it is absolutely scandalous that it was then reincarnated as another organisation, with the same practices.
It is absolutely scandalous that two generations on from the 1970s, we still have an industry—the construction industry—that has not learned the lessons of history and has not recognised that, as Keith Ewing, professor of public law at King’s College London has said, blacklisting is
“the worst human rights abuse in relation to workers”
in Britain in half a century.
Blacklisting has been outlawed, but the law is simply not strong enough. There has been some compensation for some of the victims of blacklisting, but it is not good enough, and that cynical manoeuvre was about companies trying to protect themselves from public scrutiny and escape their crimes being made public. No user company has been punished for blacklisting. No director has ended up in the dock, and that is completely wrong.
The scale of blacklisting over the years is tens of thousands of workers. There is a long history of Government, the police and construction firms acting in collusion and, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, blacklisting is happening right now by major and allegedly reputable companies that enjoy enormous public contracts such as Crossrail and Big Ben. It is important to reflect on the human consequences of continuous blacklisting and we have heard powerful testimony of that today.
Workers take a pride in their work and define themselves through their job. The issue is self-worth and identity. To be out of work for years not quite knowing why and then discovering it was because they did nothing else but ask for a safe workplace is a scandal.
My constituent, Danny Regan was an electrician until he was blacklisted. He is not an electrician anymore and he still cannot work in that field because of the history of blacklisting. In supporting the call today for a public inquiry, does my hon. Friend agree that it should address the legacy of the impact of what happened in the past?
Without hesitation, I agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will come to that.
Over the years, hundreds of individuals have been blacklisted and I will give one example today. Dave Smith, joint secretary of the Blacklist Support Group, became virtually unemployable as a consequence of his file, which was first held by the Economic League and then by the Consulting Association. It was 36 pages long and stretched from 1992 to 2007, from his very first job with Balfour Beatty all the way through successive employment. His sin with Balfour Beatty was to take part in a dispute about unpaid wages. His file included personal information, including address and national insurance number, but also details of his wife and brother. That is an affront to democracy and the rights of working people, and demands further action. Members today were absolutely right when they said we need first and foremost a public inquiry into blacklisting, its use in the past, its current use, steps going forward to eradicate blacklisting, the role of the special demonstration squad, the role of the Consulting Association, and examination of evidence of blacklisting in publicly procured contracts. The truth needs finally to be fully told.
Secondly, we must strengthen legislation to stop the continuing practice of blacklisting and criminalise it. We must also ensure that the law is not limited to employment relationships because, by definition, if a worker is blacklisted he or she does not have an employment relationship. As Unite has argued, we must also tackle patterns of work generally in construction, such as bogus self-employment. The argument is that 10 million workers are in insecure employment where employers can abuse without fear, and blacklisting very often follows.
Thirdly, we need strong rules covering Government contracts awarded to firms complicit in blacklisting. There must be consequences for blacklisting. It is a scandal that the Big Ben contract has gone to McAlpine, one of the first blacklisting offenders. I suspect that we here do not give a damn about the Big Ben bong, but we give a damn that that firm, which blacklisted workers and treated them shamefully, has an iconic contract just yards from where we are.
We need effective action, including at local authority level. I particularly praise Liverpool for its social value charter, which refers to respect for all individuals and does not engage in any form of discrimination or blacklisting practices—in other words, an unmistakeable message must be sent and enforced that a company suspected of blacklisting does not get public contracts.
Fourthly, we must make sure that specific laws banning blacklisting and data protection are retained after we leave the European Union.
In conclusion, as we have heard today, blacklisting is not history. We must learn from the lessons of history and ultimately confine blacklisting to history. That is why we need a public inquiry, strengthening of the law and absolute clarity that companies do not get public contracts if they blacklist. The time has come to blacklist the blacklisters.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) on securing this important debate and on his opening remarks, which I listened to intently.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this debate and I want to make it clear that the Government take blacklisting extremely seriously. We hope and trust that blacklisting has already become and will remain a thing of the past, but we are not complacent, and I am even less complacent, having heard from the hon. Gentleman who introduced the debate about evidence that he wishes to put before me afterwards. I was shocked by what I heard and I share his view and that of other Members that blacklisting of trade union members and activists is completely unacceptable. It has absolutely no part to play in modern employment relations.
As hon. Members have noted, we have in place regulations targeted specifically at trade union blacklists and I believe they are both proportionate and robust enough to prevent abuse from occurring. I accept the point that has been made that the horrendous abuse of the past, which was overt, organised and clearly in breach of the law as it stands today, may have been replaced by a more covert approach. That must be borne in mind, but the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010 made it unlawful for an individual or organisation to compile, sell or make use of a blacklist of trade union members or those who have taken part in trade union activities.
Since the introduction of those regulations, no evidence has been presented to the Government or the Information Commissioner that these practices are recurring. If that is no longer the case, naturally I want to know about it. Any individual or trade union who believes they have been the victim of blacklisting practices has the right to take action. They do not have to wait for an independent investigation. They can enforce their rights under the regulations through an employment tribunal or the county court. Anyone who believes they have been affected has the right to pursue justice through these means and we would encourage them to do so.
The measures in the 2010 blacklisting regulations are reinforced by powers in the Data Protection Act 1998, which protect the use of personal data—that was very much needed in the examples we have heard this afternoon. I emphasise that this includes information on trade union membership and sensitive personal data. The Government take the protection of personal data very seriously.
The Information Commissioner’s Office is the regulatory body and was set up to investigate breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998. It has power to take enforcement action, including searching premises, issuing enforcement notices and imposing fines of up to £500,000 for serious breaches. The Government continue to bear down on those who seek to exploit personal data. We have published a statement of intent in relation to the proposed data protection Bill that was announced in the Queen’s Speech. The Bill will implement the general data protection regulation into UK law and will give us one of the most robust and dynamic sets of data laws in the world. It will give people more control over their data, require a higher standard of consent for its use, and prepare Britain for exiting the European Union.
As a result of the general data protection regulation, the Information Commissioner’s fining powers will increase substantially from 25 May 2018, to 4% of an organisation’s annual global turnover or €20 million, whichever is greater.
It is clear that data collection and data analytics in the workplace are gaining in importance. In the light of that and the strengthened framework that the general data protection regulation will create, the Information Commissioner’s Office intends to open a call for evidence, to which hon. Members have alluded, on the implications of modern employment practices in recruitment and selection, and the obligations of employers. The hon. Member for Streatham says that that should happen sooner rather than later. I agree with him. I believe that the call for evidence is scheduled for next year. I will talk to the Information Commissioner’s Office to see whether it can be brought forward.
The call for evidence is an important step in trying to establish not only the true picture of the level of blacklisting that may or may not take place in practice now, but how growth in digital services has created potential new risks for employees and how those may be addressed.
In my previous capacity on Suffolk County Council, when the council decided to outsource its highways to Kier, we took a motion to council calling for it to ensure that there was no blacklisting in relation to employees of Kier working for Suffolk County Council. That motion was passed unanimously, because Conservative members of Suffolk County Council—like, I am sure, Conservative Members of this Parliament—were vocally opposed to blacklisting. However, nothing was done to find out whether blacklisting was actually taking place. The Minister is talking to us about a search for evidence, but without a public inquiry to find out what has actually taken place, surely there is no way we will get to the bottom of this.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I can reassure him. If people in his borough have any evidence, the best thing they can do at the moment is to take it to the Information Commissioner, who will investigate it. In fact, the Information Commissioner does not need particular examples even. If they are seeing allegations made against a particular employer or within a sector, they will commit to investigating the issues that his constituents have raised.
The hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), who made the previous intervention, mentioned procurement. Will the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking on procurement to ensure that companies that blacklist workers do not get public sector contracts?
I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that matter. We expect high standards of corporate governance for major contracts awarded by the Government. If there is evidence of companies acting in the present day in not only a disreputable but a potentially illegal manner, that will be taken into consideration.
To press the Minister further on that point, we have heard powerful evidence today in relation to both Crossrail and Big Ben. Does she agree that if there is evidence of complicity in blacklisting, the companies concerned should not get public contracts until such time as they have remedied the bad practices of the past and, indeed, the present?
The shadow Minister makes a very reasonable point, which I will consider further. I think there is nothing to disagree with in what he has said.
We want to build on the work already undertaken by the Information Commissioner’s Office looking at profiling and big data analytics. The Information Commissioner’s call for evidence, once complete, will be the most recent and authoritative source of data that we have. I can assure hon. Members that the Government will consider the evidence collected and the report on it very carefully indeed.
I want to acknowledge the request from the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson). I have indeed received correspondence from Mr Alan Wainwright. I have looked at it briefly and will examine it thoroughly. The right hon. Gentleman also asked me to look again at the situation with regard to the Shrewsbury 24, and I will write to him on that subject as well.
The Government will continue to take a very close interest in this matter. If the Information Commissioner finds any evidence of current blacklisting, perpetrators can expect to feel the full force of the law, and I am sure—to go back to the shadow Minister’s intervention—that that would have implications for contracting as well. In the meantime, in the absence of clear, strong and compelling evidence to the effect that blacklisting is widespread, we remain of the view that the blacklisting regulations, alongside the proposed changes to the data protection rules, are appropriate and robust tools— the increased fines and accountability are further disincentives—to counter this abhorrent and illegal practice.
I urge all hon. Members to talk to their constituents who raise these matters with them and to the trade unionists in their constituency who have been affected, and to use the call for evidence as a means of exposing any current practice that might be continuing, so that we can eradicate this appalling abuse of people’s human rights at work once and for all.
I am very grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, and for the powerful testimony that several have given. I will just say three things.
First, I welcome the Minister’s saying that she will press the Information Commissioner to do the call for evidence this year, not next year. I also welcome her saying—if I heard her correctly—that the Government will consider taking into account whether people were or are involved in blacklisting in relation to public procurement decisions going forward. That is most welcome.
Secondly, there are clearly good and bad sides to this industry. I have seen some of the good sides in my constituency during the past couple of weeks while visiting big construction sites, on Streatham High Road and the Clapham Park estate, that will make a positive difference to my community. However, this scandal exposes the ugly underbelly of the sector, which continues to go unaddressed.
I will wrap up by saying this to the Minister. She accepts that this practice is an outrage and has said that the Government take it seriously and are not complacent about it. I still fail to understand why she was not able to come here today and commit to a public inquiry. I do not understand what the Government are so afraid of. If it exposes embarrassing things for people politically that happened in the past, so what? Surely justice is the key here. That is how we prove that this Parliament is relevant. For all the bad press that this place gets, and given how disillusioned people are with the political process, at least with this we can illustrate that we deliver the goods and care about people, so I ask the Minister to please think again about doing a public inquiry. Do not be scared; just announce that you are going to do it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered blacklisting.