Balfour Beatty made heavy use of blacklisting firm The Consulting Association because it feared “civil disobedience” on its sites, construction services UK chief executive officer Mike Peasland has told MPs.
This followed a raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office on The Consulting Association in 2009, a body financed by the industry to carry records on workers judged to be potentially disruptive.
Mr Peasland said all six of Balfour Beatty’s UK operating companies at the time used TCA as a matter of course, and would check every applicant for direct employment on every project large or small.
He said that he became aware of the company using the TCA in 1989, and “at the time we were suffering huge amounts of disruption from unlawful acts on our sites, which led to major issues of delays to customers and we felt [using the TCA] was a way to help prevent that”.
Sites suffered, Mr Peasland said, from “unofficial action by workers and things like harassment and bullying”.
Examples were “people being coerced into going off site, coerced into working slower and also other acts like sabotage,” he said. “I could not say for certain it was organised but it did occur. Here was a programme of disruption and we believed it was civil disobedience.”
Mr Peasland said this sort of disruption was then widespread in the industry, though he did not know whether it was organised, and that using the TCA helped Balfour Beatty to avoid employing people with a record of such involvement.
Disruption had been particularly intense around the time of the millennium when many projects had to be completed in time for the new century and workers could demand higher pay if they threatened to cause delays, he said.
“In my experience around the millennium the ability to disrupt and not complete on time was a big issue for companies, creating additional payments as an issue, so people were holding things up so they were benefitting,” he said.
“Disruption costs us and costs clients and clients do not want disruption. This was industry-wide at the time, and we regret the use of TCA, but if we had not used it we would have been subject to more disruption than others, facing both our own costs and the cost of liquidated damages.”
Mr Peasland said he had been satisfied with the TCA’s services and that using it had left Balfour Beatty less vulnerable to disruption than competitors who did not.
He said the company did not discriminate against anyone who raised “genuine legitimate health and safety grievances”, but later added in lengthy exchanges with Conservative MP Simon Reevell that it would be left to site managers to decide what constituted ‘genuine’, and that those deemed to raise ‘ungenuine’ concerns could have faced blacklisting.
The committee’s Labour chair Ian Donaldson said evidence from the TCA’s director, the late Ian Kerr, had shown that Balfour Beatty was “hardnosed” in its use of the TCA.
Mr Peasland admitted Balfour Beatty had been a heavy user of the TCA. “I didn’t understand what he meant by hardnosed,” he said. “If he meant we checked every person on [a] project I agree we were a heavy user.”
Mr Donaldson said Mr Kerr had said some companies took a more lenient position but that Balfour Beatty would exclude anyone whose name appeared on TCA records for any reason.
Opening up a potential source of embarrassment for Balfour Beatty, Mr Donaldson demanded to see its records relating to TCA.
“I have been allowed by the ICO to see its files on a confidential basis and I want to see yours under the same conditions and clarify what it is you have got,” he said.
“It is clear to me that you, unlike other firms, seem to still be retaining files on employees.”
He added that the company appeared to regret getting caught by the ICO rather than regret using the TCA.
But Mr Peasland said things had now changed. “We do regret the use of TCA. It should not have happened and we do apologise to all workers and families ffected,” he said. “We do not do any checks of that sort now.”