TV review

Panorama: Blacklist Britain

Neil Cafferky
Cullum McAlpine of McAlpine Ltd giving evidence to a Commons Select Committee investigating the illegal activity of blacklisting, photo BBC Panorama still

Cullum McAlpine of McAlpine Ltd giving evidence to a Commons Select Committee investigating the illegal activity of blacklisting, photo BBC Panorama still   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

“Unfortunately there are people in this life who do cause trouble. I can’t say whether people on that list caused genuine trouble but certainly I know some of them would have.”

This was the view of Anne Kerr who ran the day to day activities of the Consulting Association alongside her husband Ian. She seemed largely unrepentant about her activities.

The blacklisting operation of construction workers was run by the Consulting Association. This organisation, which succeeded the Economic League, was run at the behest of major firms in the industry like Skanska, Balfour Beatty and Sir Robert McAlpine.

The real impact of the blacklist was highlighted in the testimonies of workers such as Howard Nolan, an electrician and Roy Bentham, a joiner. Both men have had their employment prospects torpedoed as a result of their names appearing on the blacklist. Both have been out of work for over a decade.

The direct involvement of top construction companies is undeniable. The Consulting Association was financed directly by them. To be a member a company had to be invited by a company that was already a member of the association.

Once a member, the company paid annual dues plus £2.50 per name checked. McAlpine spent £250,000 checking the background of workers on the Millennium Dome project. Paul Cochrane, head of Human Resources at McAlpine, was chair of the Consulting Association.

Despite this mountain of evidence not one construction firm or manager has been prosecuted for running this illegal blacklist that has blighted the lives of thousands of workers for years.

It was clear from the interview with the regulator, the Information Commissioner, that the penalties and enforcement procedures are inadequate to protect workers.

Although the Consulting Association is now defunct the case of union rep Frank Morris (sacked from the Olympic site and then from the London Crossrail project) underlines the fact that blacklisting is still very much a reality in the industry.

The chief function of the blacklist was to prevent union organisation on site that would lead to proper enforcement of health and safety.

Of course workers should demand the strongest legal protection against blacklisting but the employers are correct to fear trade union organisation. Even more than legal protection, be that against blacklisting or to enforce health and safety, strong union organisation is the best protection of workers’ rights.

A complicating factor in an effective union-led fightback is evidence that there was collusion between some union officials and blacklisters.

Unite is in the process of taking action to rectify this as well as mounting a high profile campaign of support for Frank Morris and other blacklisted workers. This is to be welcomed but it underlines the need for rank and file control of union officials.