06 March 2013
Evidence given to the Scottish Affairs Parliamentary Committee by Skanska HR Director Harvey Francis has revealed that blacklist provider the Consulting Association (CA) was used by the construction company to check up on 66,000 people between 2005 and 2009, making it one of the largest users of the organisation.
Information on employees or subcontracted staff was both submitted to the CA by Skanska and withdrawn, Mr Francis admitted, including on significant public sector works such as the Jubilee Line Extension, Ministry of Defence contracts, hospitals and schools.
Watch Francis Harvey’s evidence
However, Mr Francis – despite now being the most senior HR director in the company – denied having any knowledge of Skanska’s blacklisting operations. He said the use of the CA was authorised by former Skanska HR Director in charge of Industrial Relations Stephen Quant, who he once worked alongside and later above. Other people who knew about the use of the CA besides Mr Quant were the 12 HR Managers of Skanska’s separate business units and Mr Quant’s consultant John Dickenson.
According to Mr Francis, the process of vetting potential staff members began by asking candidates to fill in a pre-induction questionnaire, the information from which was then collated on to a template and sent by fax to the CA from whichever business unit was considering employing the person. If the details provided to the CA raised any red flags, a phone call would come through to someone in the senior HR team and Mr Quant would then decide whether the workers should be employed by Skanska or not.
Mr Francis stated that the vast majority of checks were carried out on workers who would be employed through subcontractors, rather than directly by Skanska. Although he said he was not sure what explanation would be given to these subcontractors when they received a phone call from the firm demanding that an individual employee was not allowed onsite, he admitted that such events could potentially have led to subcontractors sacking certain individuals who were being blacklisted.
While Mr Quant took early retirement towards the end of 2009 (the same year the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) raided the CA), many of those involved in blacklisting were still employed by Skanska. Mr Francis stated that the company has not doled out any punishment for these staff, explaining that he believes most employees were not aware their actions were illegal or immoral.
“Everybody that we spoke to said ‘we didn’t believe we were acting unlawfully'”, he stated, adding that they were advised to use the CA by Mr Quant rather than having done so of their own volition.
Mr Francis began working at Skanska in a directorial position in October 2007, but claimed he knew nothing about the firm’s involvement with the CA until the Guardian ran a story on the subject. Following the raid of CA’s offices by the ICO, Mr Francis met with representatives of construction union UCATT and told them he had recently become aware that the company had withdrawn information from CA, but it had not submitted any details on its own employees to the blacklist. He told the Committee he believed he was telling the truth at the time, but later discovered that Skanska had indeed provided information to the CA. The evidence for this became apparent, he said, when he refused to pay the last invoice sent to the organisation by the CA and subsequently received a reprimanding phone call from his counterpart at Sir McAlpine. According to Mr Francis, the contact at Sir McAlpine reminded him of his duties towards the CA (Skanska being one of its members) and then provided him with evidence that Skanska had submitted information to the blacklist as well as withdrawn it.
Indeed, the Committee revealed that every single electrician involved with an industrial dispute on the Jubilee Line Extension in 1997 had been blacklisted by Skanska – even if they were not actively involved. The names of those who happened to work on the site at the time of the dispute were also included in the CA’s files and had remained there for over a decade after the event, potentially causing them difficulty in finding employment. Mr Francis claimed to be surprised to hear that Skanska had reported those involved with trade union activity to the CA, as he attempted to uphold the company as a fair and reputable employer, reeling off lists of actions he said the organisation takes to ensure the safety and welfare of its employees.
Indeed, Mr Francis insisted that the use of the CA by Skanska – which dates back to 1993 and cost the firm £118,000 between 2005 and 2009 alone – was simply to vet potential employees for drug and alcohol abuse, a past of health and safety breaches, or acting outside of collective agreements. But the Committee did not seem convinced by these claims, highlighting that of the thousands of names listed by the CA, the vast majority had been reported for trade union activity and for raising concerns about health and safety onsite and only a handful for the kinds of misdemeanours Mr Francis suggested.
Mr Francis had also stated the CA was used for major, high-profile sites and the justification for doing so was to avoid the financial penalties that could be incurred by a health and safety breach. However, it was put to him that instead of avoiding breaches by weeding out staff known for dangerous behaviour, Skanska was instead preventing the entry of employees who had a habit of pointing it out.
Not only has Skanska failed to punish those involved in blacklisting within its own workforce, it has also not sought to provide compensation to those harmed by its activities. Mr Francis stated that if anybody wished to take the company to tribunal to claim financial losses, the firm would be happy to deal with them on a case-by-case basis. However, it was highlighted by the Committee that sometimes those who are blacklisted suffer emotional rather than financial loss.
Meanwhile, the fact that Mr Francis admitted most of Skanska’s staff were subcontracted and the majority of blacklist checks were made on subcontracted individuals, meant that these workers would not be able to take Skanska to an employment tribunal anyway. The only way they could seek justice would be through Class Action, which many have already begun to do. Mr Francis, however, is preparing to resist their attempts to gain compensation through the courts and this contradiction in the worker-friendly stance he was attempting to portray to the Committee was highlighted during the session.
While Mr Francis was sure to point out that blacklisting is “immoral” and stated that if the same actions were taking under current UK law they would certainly be illegal, there was a certain amount of scepticism among Committee members that he was telling the truth when he said he really did not know about the use of the CA’s services until after the scandal had been revealed.
Such apparent ignorance has been displayed before when the Olympic Delivery Authority questioned Skanska about its use of blacklists before hiring it to complete work for the Games. The company insisted that it would never be party to such immoral behaviour, but it is now clear that at the time this statement was made, Skanska was the largest user of the CA in the UK.
Furthermore, Mr Quant was in fact Chairman of the CA, but Mr Francis denied having any knowledge of this and said that he had no reason to believe Skanska was a “driving force” behind the blacklisting operation.