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The Government has said it will not carry out a full investigation into the blacklisting scandal unless it receives new evidence that the now-illegal practice is ongoing, adding that current legislation and penalties in this area are sufficiently robust.
Responding in yesterday’s (23 January) Opposition Debate in the House of Commons on the subject of blacklisting, Business Secretary Vince Cable (pictured) described the practice as “thoroughly objectionable and indefensible”. However, he said, the issue now is whether or not it continues to happen today, following the discovery in 2009 of the clandestine construction-industry blacklist compiled and managed by the Consulting Association, and the subsequent action taken.
This included a £5000 fine for the database’s manager, Ian Kerr, and the introduction of the Blacklisting of Trade Unionists Regulations 2010, which made blacklisting of workers on the basis of trade-union membership or activities illegal.
Said Dr Cable: “Are we talking about ‘was’ or ‘is’? Are we being asked to reopen an investigation that has already been undertaken and redo legislation that has already been done, or are we talking about something that is still going on? If it’s the latter, then of course we must act, but we need the evidence first. If it is there, I will investigate. My responsibility is to deal with things that have happened over the last two-and-a-half years.”
Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, who led the debate, highlighted that the whole point of blacklisting is that it is done in secret, and most people who are on such lists don’t know that they are, or why they are. Labour MP Natascha Engel agreed, saying: “The reason why blacklisting is so bad is because it is clandestine and secret, so we need to carry out an investigation to root it out.”
Mr Umunna and others also pointed out that the Government has launched investigations into many other things that had happened in the past, and drew parallels between the blacklisting case and the phone-hacking scandal, which was the subject of the high-profile Leveson inquiry last year.
Labour’s Ian Lavery MP described the suggestion that blacklisting is no longer happening as “poppycock” and called for a public inquiry on a par with Leveson. He was backed up by several speakers, who suggested the practice is still going on not only in construction but also manufacturing, and the prison service.
Speaking about the latter, Labour MP for Bassetlaw John Mann said: “If the Secretary of State wants evidence he can have some. If senior management doesn’t like you they say you are a ‘security risk’. If a person is a security risk, they are not allowed a tribunal, by definition. They are drummed out on false pretences.
“A whole stack of prison officers have their names on the list, which means they will not work in any prison anywhere in the country. A lot of those who get stuck on the blacklists suspect they are on there but can never prove it. This has been the case until now, and there will be other lists. That is why the law needs to be improved.”
John McDonnell MP raised the issue of involvement by the Police and security forces in blacklisting, saying that there is “a qualitative difference now that we have the information from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee” on this issue. To which Dr Cable replied: “Have you, 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?”
Veteran Labour MP Michael Meacher expressed his disappointment with the Secretary of State’s response, saying it was “disingenuous of him to ask for evidence in an industry with such a tight curtain of secrecy. The only way to get evidence is to investigate and put people on oath to tell the truth [but] there seems a distinct reluctance on the part of the authorities to deal with this huge and pervasive malpractice.”
He added that if it is confirmed that there was collusion between the Police, security services and some of the UK’s biggest building companies, “this would make it comparable to the phone-hacking scandal”.
Ian Murray, Labour MP for Edinburgh South, suggested that the Secretary of State had “got the mood of the House completely wrong in his responses” and summed up the debate into four points for Dr Cable, and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at BIS Jo Swinson: “First, there is an urgent need for investigation into blacklisting on public-sector projects. Secondly, there is a desperate need for a more proactive approach by the Information Commissioner’s Office. Thirdly, we need a review of current legal protections.
“And 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.”
Ms Swinson, while acknowledging that there is “no way in which we can make light of the impact of blacklisting on individuals and their families”, said the action that was taken when the Consulting Association database came to light was all that could be done “under the regime that was being operated at the time”.
Regarding the possibility of criminal sanctions, she said: “Those practices did not constitute a criminal offence at the time and we cannot make them a crime retrospectively.”
She concluded by saying that the Government will look carefully into the report of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee when it is produced and repeated Dr Cable’s call for more evidence of current blacklisting practices.