Notes on a Scandal
This afternoon I went to watch the Scottish Affairs Committee hear evidence on blacklisting from Mike Peasland, the CEO of the construction section of Balfour Beatty.
I am sure you all know the background. A shady outfit called the Consulting Association were selling information on trade unionists, activists, and safety reps to construction companies who then refused to employ anyone one the list meaning that many of them were out of work for years. Four years ago the Information Commissioner raided the company and shut it down.
Balfour Beatty was one of the biggest players. The Information Commissioner issued enforcement notices to 14 companies of which six were Balfour Beatty companies. The Director of the Consulting Association, Ian Kerr, in his evidence to the Committee last year had said that “The Balfour Beatty companies were particularly hard-nosed”. In fact the Balfour Beatty companies paid the Consulting Association over £50,000 and made over 15,000 searches in the four years before it was closed down.
I went along because I was intrigued to find out what they had to say for themselves. After all they had been caught red-handed illegally giving and receiving information that they used to keep people out of work.
Basically their evidence can be summed up like this. “We are very sorry for what we did and the damage it did and we can assure you that it is historical and procedures are in place to stop it happening again. However we only did it to stop disruption caused by civil disobedience, harassment or bullying. We never blacklisted anyone for just being a trade unionist or raising a safety concern.”
Listening to what he was saying I was not sure what he was sorry about after all he seemed to be saying he had not done anything wrong. The committee seemed to have the same doubts. As the chair said “I am unclear are you saying you are sorry for what you did or sorry you got caught?”
The Committee asked for examples of what this disruption and civil disobedience was that had prevented the company working. Unfortunately Mr Peasland did not have any. How many people did you blacklist? “I don’t know”. How much information on people did you feed back to the Consulting Association? “I don’t know”. Who in Balfour Beatty decided to use the Consulting Association? “ I don’t know”. Who decided to feed information to the Consulting Association?” I don’t know”……..You may be beginning to detect a pattern here.
In fact the main theme for the afternoon seemed to be what Mr Peasland did not know. For instance he was not aware of any meetings involving the police or security services and when the chair said that the committee knew there were as they had seen the evidence, Mr Peasland replied that he had no record of it. He also was not aware of any information being kept on environmental activists although this had been revealed at the last evidence session and had been in most newspapers.
Sometimes Mr Peasland would say he could not give information because it was legally privileged or the documents were “put beyond use” (whatever that means).
When pressed on whether they discriminated against safety representatives Mr Peasland seemed quite indigant. No-one would ever be victimised for “genuine” safety concerns, only if they were “hiding behind health and safety”. He stressed time and time that safety was a top priority and they had an exemplary safety record. When I got home I looked up their exemplary record on the prosecutions database and found that over the period since 1999 the Balfour Beatty group of companies had 16 prosecutions, 9 prohibition notices and 7 improvement notices served on them.
Despite all the evasions and “don’t know”s, at times the true picture did begin to creep through. The star of the afternoon was the Conservative MP Simon Revell. He tried time and time to find out who knew what and why Balfour Beatty had no information about a service they used for well over a decade. It finally became clear that, far from having any moral objections around the principle of blacklisting, Balfour Beattie only gave it up when ordered to do so. Mr Peasland even admitted that they got a service from the Consulting Association that they were happy with, and his concern was over the methodology, not the principle.
The apology to those they had blacklisted also looked a bit less sincere when Mr Peasland was asked why they were strongly defending all the compensation cases that had been brought against the company if they were sorry for what they did. However according to Mr Peasland that is apparently a matter for the courts, not Balfour Beatty (whose moral credibility was, by now, beginning to look as though it had crawled off into the nearby River Thames).
The last round of questions were about why had no-one pointed out at the time that they were clearly breaking the law? Why had no directors, lawyers or senior managers been sacked? Finally in exasperation the chair asked “How can workers have confidence that things have changed when the same managers are still working for the company and no-one has been sacked or disciplined.” Mr Peasland prevaricated a bit more until the chair butted in and asked if his defence was that they were “only obeying orders”. Without a hint of irony the answer came back “Yes”!
Looking back at previous sessions of the Committee what comes across is that Balfour Beatty are no worse and no better than any of the other companies that have given evidence. There is a collective failure to accept responsibility or to be fully open. I am sure that Mr Peasland genuinely did not know the answers to the questions he was asked, but that is possibly because he did not ask his managers and lawyers for the information in advance. That way he can honestly say he did not know.
You will be able to read the full three hours transcript online on the Scottish Affairs Committee website in the next couple of days (or even watch the recording). I have to say that the Committee have done a fantastic job at pursing this issue at a time when the Government has collectively had its head in the sand but given the national scandal that has been uncovered this needs a Leveson type Inquiry to force all the information out from the perpetrators of this injustice.