The truth about the government’s Big Ben contractor and its leading role in the worker blacklisting scandal

Big Ben
Tom Coburg

Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd (SRM) was recently given the contract to refurbish Big Ben. Now, evidence (some of it confidential) seen by The Canary, together with court and inquiry transcripts, suggests SRM’s role in blacklisting was far greater than previously thought. And this poses the question of whether the company should retain this contract – and any other public sector ones.

The blacklisting industry

In 2016, SRM and other construction companies offered an out-of-court settlement of just under £80m to workers who claimed they were blacklisted via The Consulting Association (TCA). Blacklisting is another name for vetting people, to deny them work because of their politics or union activism.

Over a 16-year period, TCA compiled a secret database of workers – here’s a sample file (supplied anonymously):

Blacklistng: sample record

Consequences

In 2009, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raided TCA and manager Ian Kerr was subsequently prosecuted for failing to notify the ICO of his data controller role. He pleaded guilty and was fined £5,000, with additional costs.

According to [pdf] author Phil Chamberlain, the ICO seized the TCA database, which included [pdf p6] details of 3,213 workers. Companies that subscribed to TCA’s service included Carillion, Balfour Beatty, Skanska, Kier, Costain, McAlpine and more than 30 others.

Missing files?

Before he died in December 2012, Kerr agreed to hand over several TCA documents to the Scottish Affairs Committee’s inquiry [pdf] into blacklisting in employment, to which he gave testimony [pdf].

But a handwritten note (anonymously supplied) by Kerr suggests he intended to destroy TCA files (the crucial words are “destroy data” in the fifth line of the second paragraph):

blacklisting: destroy files note

McAlpine interrogation

In January 2013, a Scottish Affairs Committee inquiry into blacklisting called Cullum McAlpine, Director of Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, to give sworn evidence.

During the hearing, McAlpine confirmed that SRM had been a member of TCA’s predecessor, the Economic League. He also confirmed he was the first chairman of TCA and retained that post for three years, from 1993 until 1996.

But the chair of the inquiry queried these dates:

The dates quoted by the chair match those referred to in the 2013-15 High Court hearing [pdf p7] between construction workers and companies. The hearing also confirmed [pdf p7] that TCA “Executive meetings generally took place at McAlpines’ [sic] offices”.

Funding and finances

At another point in that hearing, Cullum McAlpine was asked about how SRM funded the blacklisting operations:

But confidential TCA documents show [pdf] the precise amount in fees paid from 1997 to 2009 by members. For SRM, these came to over £200,000.

And when TCA was wound up in 2009, there was a shortfall of about £20,000 [pdf p17] that was met by SRM.

The inquiry further interrogated McAlpine about the money paid on SRM’s behalf by its HR Manager, Dave Cochrane, to Mary Kerr, to cover her husband’s fines and legal fees. McAlpine’s answers on this were equivocal. But the precise sums can be found in a copy of an email [pdf] to Mrs Kerr from Cochrane.

Further damning evidence

The 2013-15 High Court document stated [pdf p19]:

In 2007 and early 2008, under the chairmanship of Mr Cochrane, discussions took place regarding the future of the Consulting Association. During those discussions it was suggested that the Consulting Association could adopt a legitimate front whilst keeping its blacklisting function clandestine.

And that [pdf p19]:

Mr Cochrane said that if Mr McAlpine’s name was mentioned McAlpines might encounter serious difficulty in obtaining major construction contracts.

Central blacklisting role

Indeed, as stated in the 2013 High Court document, SRM played [pdf p18] a “central role in the establishment and operation of the Consulting Association”.

And in the sworn testimony of Mary Kerr in 2016, she stated [pdf p20]:

David Cochrane had by far the most contact with Ian during this period and he always made clear that it was in the best interests of the member companies for Ian to be in the frame’, otherwise the publicity would badly hit the companies, including Sir Robert McAlpine.

She added [pdf p22]:

I felt that David Cochrane placed pressure on Ian throughout to keep the companies’ names and Cullum McAlpine’s name out of the limelight as much as possible.

SRM and Big Ben

Given SRM’s role in the blacklisting operations of TCA, unions are now calling for the £29m Big Ben contract to be rescinded. And Labour MPs Jack Dromey and Chuka Umunna agree.

GMB General Secretary Tim Roache said:

This is a company that hid from its victims, the justice system and from parliamentary scrutiny for years. To see it being rewarded with a public contract to refurbish Big Ben adds insult to injury for GMB members who have seen themselves and their families suffer as a result of the disgraceful practice of blacklisting.

Indeed, a ban should be extended to all companies practising blacklisting. And there is still the not-so-small matter of the thousands of workers blacklisted by the Economic League.

Conservative Business Minister Margot James said:

The government takes this issue extremely seriously and hopes [blacklisting] will become a thing of the past. We are not complacent. Blacklisting of trade union members and activists is completely unacceptable and has absolutely no part to play in modern employment relations.

The Canary contacted SRM about its precise role in the blacklisting operations, but received no reply by the time of publication.

Get Involved!

– Read more on blacklisting at The Canary.

– And read Spies at Work (a history of the Economic League) by Mike Hughes and Blacklisted by Phil Chamberlain

Featured image via Flickr Creative Commons

We need your help ...

The coronavirus pandemic is changing our world, fast. And we will do all we can to keep bringing you news and analysis throughout. But we are worried about maintaining enough income to pay our staff and minimal overheads.

Now, more than ever, we need a vibrant, independent media that holds the government to account and calls it out when it puts vested economic interests above human lives. We need a media that shows solidarity with the people most affected by the crisis – and one that can help to build a world based on collaboration and compassion.

We have been fighting against an establishment that is trying to shut us down. And like most independent media, we don’t have the deep pockets of investors to call on to bail us out.

Can you help by chipping in a few pounds each month?

The Canary Support us

Comments are closed