The government’s decision to award the contract to refurbish Big Ben to a company forced to pay out for blacklisting workers is “a scandal”, MPs say.
Sir Robert McAlpine won the lucrative pre-construction contract, worth £29 million, despite the fact it was one of seven major firms who settled out-of-court after targeting hundreds of construction workers who took part in trade union activities.
The project saw scaffolding put in place around the Elizabeth Tower to prepare it for essential works before the iconic bongs of Big Ben were paused for four years.
But in a Westminster Hall debate on blacklisting on Tuesday, brought by Labour’s Chuka Umunna, several MPs said the company’s history meant it should never have been awarded the work.
Calling for the practise of blacklisting to be made illegal, Erdington MP and former trade union activist Jack Dromey said: “There has to be consequences for blacklisting. McAlpine - one of the first blacklisting offenders - it is a scandal that the Big Ben contract has gone to that company.
“I suspect here we don’t give a damn about the Big Ben bong, but what we do give a damn about is that this firm that blacklisted workers, that treated them shamefully, has an iconic contract just yards from where we are sitting today.”
Other MPs, including the SNP’s Chris Stephens - also a former trade unionist - backed calls for a public inquiry.
More than 3,000 construction workers who were either trade union members or took part in union activity were monitored through an organisation known as the Consulting Association, which was eventually raided by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
The companies implicated – including McAlpine and Balfour Beatty - agreed to pay sums ranging from £25,000 to £200,000 to 771 people under out-of-court settlements to avoid a trial, while accepting that “their secret vetting operation should never have happened”.
Hundreds lost their jobs as a result of being blacklisted and branded “troublemakers” and many struggled to find other work.
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.
“Never mind whether the bell tolls, blacklisting was and still is an affront to democracy. To have those implicated standing to benefit from public procurement contract at the heart of the UK Parliament is an absolute scandal.
“Government must never forget this sordid episode - this contract should never have been awarded and should now be cancelled.”
Dromey added: “What we need now is effective action. Those companies who are involved in blacklisting should not get public contracts. The time has come to blacklist the blacklisters.”
Pledging to investigate the matter further, business minister Margot James said Dromey had made “a very reasonable point” and that there was “nothing to disagree with” in his statement.
She added: “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.”
She said regulations introduced in 2010 made it unlawful to compile, sell or make use of a blacklist of trade union members or those who have taken part in trade union activities and urged anyone with information about organisations “acting in a disreputable or illegal manner” to come forward.