The Consulting Association (TCA) was a controversial UK business (described by its key figure as "a non-profit making, unincorporated trade association"), based in Droitwich, which, from 1993 to 2009, maintained a database of British construction workers and became implicated in a "blacklisting" scandal, which is ongoing. It resulted in the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010 and a series of cases being brought to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Consulting Association was established in 1993 as a successor to the Economic League, which had held the construction industry's blacklist but which had been wound up in 1993 after a parliamentary enquiry and bad press.
Construction company Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd invested a total of £20,000 in founding TCA, buying the previous blacklist database from the Economic League and hiring one of its former employees, Ian Kerr, as manager. In press releases and written testimony submitted to the Scottish Affairs Committee by its director Callum McAlpine, the company claimed that "at least 14" major construction and civil engineering companies colluded in forming The Consulting Association. This was corroborated by Kerr's written statement.
The database, often referred to as a "list" in the press and by one of its founders, operated as a blacklist against workers who were active trade union members or otherwise vocal on matters such as health and safety violations by their employers. Many of the workers were on the list having been accused by previous employers of being "troublemakers" or "militant"; other notes in the database referred to subjects' personal and family relationships, and those who had pursued an employment tribunal.
Workers who were on the list allege they were deprived of their livelihoods as a result of their inclusion, with supporters claiming their human rights have been breached. Following initial newspaper reports in 2008, arising out of an investigation into worker dismissals during construction of Manchester Royal Infirmary, and Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) action in early 2009, it emerged that the Consulting Association held files on about 3,213 construction workers, including political activists, environmentalists, shop stewards and health and safety representatives (it was later alleged that the 3,213 was only a tiny proportion, and that up to 95 per cent of TCA files were left untouched, leading to speculation, denied by the ICO, that 60,000 workers could have been blacklisted). The list included some 240 women, many associated with environmental campaigns, including activist Helen Steel, involved in the 'McLibel case'.
The files included phrases such as “will cause trouble, strong TU trade union”, “ex-shop steward, definite problems”, and “wears anti-Nazi League badges and insignia”, with union membership often the main criterion for inclusion.
- AMEC (Amec Building Ltd, Amec Construction Ltd, Amec Facilities Ltd, Amec Ind Div, Amec Process & Energy Ltd)
- Amey Construction
- B Sunley & Sons
- Balfour Beatty
- Balfour Kilpatrick
- Ballast (Wiltshire) PLC
- BAM Construction (HBG Construction)
- BAM Nuttall (Edmund Nuttall Ltd)
- Chicago Bridge & Iron Company (CB&I)
- Cleveland Bridge UK Ltd
- Costain UK Ltd
- Crown House Technologies (Carillion/Tarmac Construction)
- Diamond M & E Services
- Dudley Bower & Co Ltd
- Emcor (Drake & Scull) - ‘Ex Ref’, Emcor Rail
- G Wimpey Ltd
- Haden Young (Balfour Beatty)
- Kier Ltd
- John Mowlem Ltd
- Laing O'Rourke (Laing Ltd)
- Lovell Construction (UK) Ltd
- Miller Construction Limited
- Morgan Ashurst, Morgan Est
- Morrison Construction Group
- N G Bailey
- Shepherd Engineering Services
- SIAS Building Services
- Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd
- Skanska (Kværner/Trafalgar House Plc)
- SPIE (Matthew Hall)
- Tarmac Group
- Taylor Woodrow Construction Ltd
- Turriff Construction Ltd
- Tysons Contractors
- Walter Llewellyn & Sons Ltd
- Whessoe Oil & Gas
- Willmott Dixon
- Vinci SA (Norwest Holst Group)
Trade union collusion
Ian Kerr described "A particular relationship between an HR manager in a particular area and the regional officer of the union"
An employment tribunal revealed that Liz Keates of Carillion had a meeting with various other employers, and Amicus official, Roger Furmedge, to discuss denying access to work for members of another union, TGWU/EPIU on the Manchester Piccadilly site.
Extract from an individual workers' blacklist file held by The Consulting Association:
- “Further note via 3293 M.C. BMcA states “He's alright, a good electrician. Ex rugby league player – gave up due to serious injury. Could be a handful if he wants to be.” Assumption from this is that BMcA would have indicated if above was sided either with D Simpson or EPIU faction. However, view was “He'll be in the know and be demanding of everything that's due and possibly more". (3292 main contract (I.C.))
- BMcA = Bernard McAuley, current UNITE national officer for construction. Resigned from Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians prior to the completion of the Hand Report into corruption and immediately took up a position in the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union.
- 3292 = Emcor Rail
- 3293 = Diamond M&E Services
- M.C. = Main Contractors
- I.C. = Ian Coates, previously labour manager for Haden Young and served on the national council for the Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association (today the Building Engineering Services Association)
- D Simpson = Derek Simpson
- EPIU = Electrical Plumbing Industrial Union
Stephan Quant claimed to have brought several trade union officials to his club, the Naval and Military, for a meal. He further claimed that "I had close relationships with UCATT, particularly a bloke called Jeremy Swain in London. I first met Swain in 1991, when he was just a regional officer, so I've known him for 20 years."
In 2013 UCATT executive council announced that, from 2014, industrial relations managers would no longer be invited to conference.
Revelations also pointed to police collusion. In Autumn 2012, the Blacklist Support Group appointed Christian Khan solicitors to submit a complaint over detailed surveillance documented within certain consulting association files to the Directorate of Professional Standards. The Directorate initially dismissed the accusations until the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) stepped in to conduct its own investigation in February 2013. In October 2013, the IPCC confirmed that the police had colluded in the blacklist, saying it was "likely that all special branches were involved in providing information" to the list.
In March 2015, Theresa May announced that Christopher Pitchford would lead an inquiry into undercover policing. Setting out the inquiry’s terms of reference in July, Pitchford said it would ‘not examine undercover or covert operations conducted by any body other than an English or Welsh police force’. The Blacklist Support Group, which along with Ucatt has been given core participant status, has raised concerns that it will be difficult for Pitchford to deliver truth and justice within his stated remit, given that so many allegations refer to dealings between the police and private companies.
Information Commissioner's Office action
On 23 February 2009, the company's office was raided by the Information Commissioner's Office, which served an enforcement notice against TCA under the terms of the Data Protection Act. Only 5% to 10% of the material that was available in the office was seized. Files on members of the RMT as well as on around 200 environmental and animal rights activists were among the material that was not seized. The ICO said its action followed a 28 June 2008 article by journalist Phil Chamberlain, published in The Guardian.
The ICO set up a telephone enquiry service for people who suspected they might be listed on The Consulting Association's database, receiving by November 2013 over 4,000 calls. It also wrote to 103 people identified by their address, and received over 1,200 written requests, from which 467 individuals were provided with copies of their information.
An independent Blacklist Support Group, formed in the spring of 2009, has campaigned for justice for victims of the database. After mixed results within the tribunal system due to the tight time constraints and employee status placed within legislation, the group took up civil claims which received attention before the High Court of Justice in February 2013. The human rights solicitors Guney, Clark and Ryan have been entrusted in delivering these multiple cases against the biggest subscriber to the database, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd; Construction News reported McAlpine was facing a £17 million High Court claim from blacklisted workers.
Ian Kerr was prosecuted for failing to register as a data controller. He pleaded guilty and was fined £5000 in July 2009; he died in 2012. Enforcement notices were issued against 14 construction businesses:
- Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering Limited
- Balfour Beatty Construction Northern Ireland
- Balfour Beatty Construction Scottish & Southern Limited
- Balfour Beatty Engineering Services (HY) Limited
- Balfour Beatty Engineering Services Limited
- Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Services Limited
- CB&I UK Limited
- Emcor Engineering Services Limited
- Emcor Rail Limited
- Kier Limited
- N G Bailey Limited
- Shepherd Engineering Services Limited
- SIAS Building Services Limited
- Whessoe Oil & Gas Limited
The pressure group Liberty wrote to the UK Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, accusing him of inaction over a privacy scandal that it compared to the News International phone hacking scandal. In August 2012, Liberty threatened to take the UK government to court to force an investigation into the case. The legal officer for Liberty, Corinna Ferguson, told the The Independent: "We can't believe the inaction of the Information Commissioner on a human-rights violation of such wide public interest."
Scottish Affairs Select Committee inquiry
The Scottish Affairs Select Committee convened an inquiry.
Key witnesses including the late Ian Kerr and Cullum McAlpine gave evidence relating to the Consulting Association. McAlpine was the founding chair at its inception in 1993 and remained as chair for four years, having been invited, he said, by Percy Trentham who wanted a major civil engineering contractor to front TCA. McAlpine also stated that his company paid the £5,000 fine handed down to Ian Kerr in 2009 upon being found guilty of failing to register TCA under data protection laws. McAlpine also admitted in his evidence that names of potential employees were checked against the database of names for work on the multi-million pound 2012 Summer Olympics up until as late as the Autumn of 2008.
McAlpine projects where workers were vetted by TCA included: Colchester Garrison, shopping centres in Bristol and Leicester, an MoD project on Salisbury Plain, the M74 link road, the Quarter Mile project in Edinburgh, the Marie Curie Centre in Glasgow, and groundworks for the Olympic Stadium.
An interim report from the Committee was published in March 2013, stating the committee intended to continue examining what happened in the past and to launch consultations on further topics including: whether blacklisting continues, compensation issues, penalties for blacklisting, and potential legislative changes.
The Committee published its final report in March 2015. While acknowledging that some positive steps had been taken, it said "many questions in relation to the practice of blacklisting remain unanswered", and recommended a full public inquiry as a matter of priority in the new Parliament.
In 2012 the multi-billion pound London Crossrail project faced accusations and evidence that blacklisting was still being practised, on the biggest construction contract in Western Europe. Crossrail's industrial relations manager Ron Barron, employed by Bechtel, had routinely cross-checked job applicants against the Consulting Association database. An employment tribunal in 2010 had heard that he introduced the use of the blacklist at his former employer, the construction firm Chicago Bridge & Iron Company (CB&I), and referred to it more than 900 times in 2007 alone. He was found to have unlawfully refused employment to a Philip Willis, with aggravated damages awarded because Barron had added information about Willis to the blacklist.
In addition to the court proceedings against Ian Kerr and the enforcement actions taken by ICO, on 10 October 2013, eight construction firms which had been involved in the blacklist apologised for their actions, and agreed to pay compensation to affected workers; the Construction Workers Compensation Scheme was established in July 2014. The eight firms were Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O'Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, Skanska UK and Vinci. However, affected workers said their legal action for compensation would continue; the eight firms backing the compensation scheme were joined in the court action by AMEC and BAM. The GMB union declared the compensation scheme a "PR stunt", while the final report of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee described the scheme's launch as "a deliberate attempt to mislead" and "an act of bad faith".
More than six years after the 2009 ICO raid, nearly half the 3,213 people with Consulting Association records had yet to be traced. Further employment tribunals were scheduled during 2015, claims to the European Court of Human Rights were waiting to be heard, and a High Court case was scheduled to be heard in May 2016.
In October 2015, during preliminary stages of the High Court case, the eight firms were reported to have admitted liability and to have apologised, but the case was set to continue as the companies did not accept the loss of earnings that the victims of blacklisting had suffered. In January 2016, it was reported that the companies had increased compensation offers to victims of blacklisting as the High Court action loomed; the Blacklist Support Group said "Many blacklisted workers have point blankly rejected the insulting offers and are determined to carry on to full trial."
On 22 January 2016 the High Court ordered 30 construction firms to disclose all emails and correspondence relating to blacklisting by 12 February 2016 after it emerged that managers at Balfour Beatty referred to blacklisted workers as ‘sheep’.
- Carillion's inclusion in the list was presumably mainly due to its previous ownership of Crown House (acquired by Laing O'Rourke in 2004). Carillion made two voluntary submissions to the House of Commons' Scottish Affairs Committee, one in September 2012, and another in March 2013 relating to its involvement with TCA.
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