BAM HR head ‘never questioned’ secrecy surrounding blacklisters TCA

Appearing in front of the Scottish Affairs Committee, which is running an inquiry into blacklisting in the construction industry, former Head of HR at BAM Nuttall Patrick Swift insisted that although he knew his involvement with The Consulting Association (TCA) should be kept secret, he never questioned whether this could be a sign that the organisation was involved in wrongdoing.

23 Jan 2014| News

This article is based on an uncorrected transcript of Patrick Swift’s oral evidence, which he has not had the opportunity to check

TCA was raided by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) in 2009, where condemning evidence was found of its blacklisting operations.

Between 2004 and 2009, Mr Swift was the main contact for TCA in BAM Nuttall. Prior to this, his predecessor Graham Medcroft was in charge of “general referencing” – as Mr Swift called it – through the blacklister.

Watch Patrick Swift’s evidence

Despite admitting that he was aware there was secrecy surrounding TCA’s service and stating that he did not speak about the service with his superiors, Mr Swift insisted he was unaware there was any wrongdoing going on and that he did not know the organisation was running a blacklist.

He also denied that BAM Nuttall had refused anyone employment as a result of their name appearing on TCA’s list during his time as Head of HR, or that the company had provided the names of workers to TCA to be added to the list.

“I was aware that it was a general referencing service and I was aware that its status was, if you like, secret,” Mr Swift stated. “However, it threw up no anomalies or queries to me, and it just carried on.”

The Committee barely masked its cynicism of Mr Swift’s apparent naivety on such matters, as well as questioning his motives for continuing to pay for TCA’s services if during the five years he was their main contact he never once received a phone call telling him that one of the thousands of names and national insurance numbers his team submitted had been red flagged.

“Did you never at any time question whether you were getting value for money?” panel member Alan Reid asked.

“If everything that was being sent through was coming back as all clear, it does not seem that you were getting much benefit from this?” he continued.

Mr Swift left BAM Nuttall to work on the Crossrail Project for BFK in 2012. It was noted by the Committee that in three instances while he was in this position, trade unionists had been moved to different locations after raising health and safety concerns. It was proposed to Mr Swift that this looked suspicious, but he stated that all three personnel had been relocated after breaking site rules, and also because their skills were needed elsewhere.

In one particular case, foreman Mr Gargett was suspended on full pay after taking a photograph of a health and safety hazard onsite.

Mr Swift defended this decision, explaining that Crossrail had made it clear no photographs were to be taken onsite and also that the pictures in question were taken on a mobile phone, which he said were banned to prevent health and safety risks. Mr Gargett was suspended while the case was investigated, he stated, but before that investigation could be completed, the subcontractor employing the foreman – EIS – had completed its contract.

Panel member Pamela Nash picked up on the fact that Mr Swift used an analogy with the Palace of Westminster on its banning of photography and highlighted that if such a situation had occurred at the Palace, it is unlikely the photographer would have been suspended.

“There are clear reasons concerning security and art work why photographs are not allowed in here, but all of us around this table would be very angry if someone took a photograph of a health and safety problem and then was reprimanded for that. That is not why the rules are in place. I would be concerned,” she stated.

In another, well-reported instance, electrician and Shop Steward Frank Morris – who was also with EIS – was moved from his location after raising concerns that there were too many people working in a tunnel and that it was a health and safety risk.

Mr Swift stated that Mr Morris broke safety rules himself to discover this information and that he was surprised EIS boss Ron Turner had been unaware of Mr Morris’ employment history, in which he had demonstrated against blacklisting while working on an Olympics site.

Despite repeated probing by the panel members, it remained unclear whether Mr Swift meant he was surprised Mr Turner was unaware of Mr Morris’ trade union activities or whether Mr Turner was unaware of Mr Morris’ employment on an Olympics site. However, at two separate points Mr Swift described the completely lawful and peaceful Olympics demonstrations as having “caused trouble” and a “disruption”.

Although Mr Turner had been under the impression that EIS’ contract was not renewed because he ‘failed to take the hint’ from Mr Swift to sack Mr Morris, Mr Swift denied having ever asked for the electrician to be fired.

Perhaps unsurprising, Committee member Jim McGovern stated during the inquiry: “You are probably one of the most evasive witnesses I have ever come across.”

Indeed, Mr Swift’s evasiveness may be down to the fact that, although he is now retired, BAM Nuttall agreed to foot his legal bills for his appearance in front of the panel. This prompted questioning from the Committee, who wondered what the company expected in return for their generosity. However, true to form, Mr Swift was not able to provide any insight into the matter.

Finally, the panel highlighted that BAM Nuttall had never apologised for its dealings with TCA and Mr Swift himself used the word “regrettable” many times while giving oral evidence, but never said “sorry”. They questioned him on his actions following the ICO raid of TCA in 2009 and the subsequent investigation into the construction companies involved. Chair of the panel Ian Davidson professed himself to be “astounded” at the news that Mr Swift did not make much effort to investigate the actions of his predecessor in the role of Head of HR when conducting a review of the firm’s practices.

“It could have been your predecessor, but you did not think of – it just seems so lazy. It seems to me that you did not take this at all seriously. You did not pursue it vigorously, and we are therefore entitled to say that this is evidence that the company does not actually particularly regret its involvement in blacklisting. Its only possible regret, which is not entirely clear yet, is being caught,” he said.