The blacklisting story, which emerged into the public eye in a slow trickle, is starting to turn into a torrent, with coverage in the last 24 hours on the Today programme, Channel 4 and The Times.
And this afternoon there was a decent turnout in the Commons as MPs debated the issue – and whether there is cause for a public investigation.
We wrote back in October that the UK building industry could face compensation claims running to hundreds of millions after a legal battle was launched by workers who say they were in effect barred from construction sites by a blacklist.
The list allegedly stretched to more than 3,000 named individuals with personal information gathered over more than 15 years.
At the centre of the legal action is building group Sir Robert McAlpine, which is accused of
having been embroiled in an unlawful conspiracy against workers who it appears may have been targeted as a result of trade union activities or membership. The company intends to defend the claim.
The existence of the blacklist was uncovered by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2009 when it raided the Droitwich offices of an unincorporated trade group calling itself the Consulting Association.
At the Scottish Affairs select committee on Monday, I watched as a senior director at Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd confirmed that he was the chairman of the Consulting Association (TCA).
Cullum McAlpine, who has been a director of the company since 1970, said in a written statement to the Scottish Affairs select committee on Tuesday that he was appointed as chairman of TCA by its “founding members” drawn from across the construction industry.
His role to make sure it was set up on a “secure and viable commercial and financial basis”, he said, confirming he carried out that role from 1993 to 1996.
He also confirmed his company had paid £20,000 in loans to cover the start-up activities of the group, which was designed to protect companies from “disruptive and unlawful behaviour on construction sites”.
Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd also made payments to Ian Kerr, who ran TCA, after the group was closed down after a raid by the Information Commissioner in 2009. These covered a £5,000 fine and the winding-down costs of the company.
The testimony confirms the evidence given in November by Mr Kerr to the Scottish Affairs select committee just weeks before his death.
But Mr McAlpine told the committee on Tuesday that he had not discussed the records kept on individual construction workers. He was advised not to answer a string of questions by his lawyer because of an ongoing legal action by alleged victims of the blacklist.
In the Commons today, Chuka Umunna, shadow business secretary, said that TCA invoices showed that just between 2006 and 2009 various companies involved paid just under half a million pounds for blacklist checks and information.
“It is inconceivable – given the amounts involved – that these companies’ use and membership of the Association would not have been known about and sanctioned at a senior level,” he said. “Yet, so far, not one of the companies mentioned has apologised for its membership and use of the Consulting Association. This is an utter disgrace given all that has come to light.”
Mr Umunna said that it was impossible to know whether the practices were still continuing. He also called on the construction companies involved to consider setting up a fund to start paying compensation for the workers who were blacklisted.
“Given what I have just set out and what we now know, I do believe there is sufficient evidence to justify Government carrying out a full investigation into the extent blacklisting took place – and may still be taking place – at the very least on public sector projects,” he said.
Other MPs to make notable contributions included David Hamilton, a former miner, who said that not only had he been unable to get work for over two years but said his wife was also effectively blacklisted – until she changed her address.
Natascha Engel, another Labour MP, cited “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthrophist” as she argued that blacklisting undermined all the hard-earned trade union rights built up over a century. “It is not only illegal but also completely anti-democratic”.
Tessa Jowell meanwhile compared the situation to that of phone hacking, where for years the defence was maintained that it had only been “one rogue reporter”.
Some Tory MPs shared the concerns, with Chris Heaton-Harries saying that what had happened was “pretty horrible”.
But the debate did not stay above party political lines: after all, David Cameron said during PMQs at midday that he did not condone blacklisting – but pointed out that it happened under the Labour government. This was a point reinforced later by some of his backbench MPs.
Present throughout the opposition day motion was Vince Cable, business secretary, who has the power to mount an investigation into the issue.
But Cable made clear that he would only start an inquiry if unions or workers presented him with concrete proof that blacklisting was still going on three years after it was banned by the last government in March 2010.
All the evidence in the public domain at the moment points to activities before that point, as the business secretary himself repeatedly said.
“If these practices are continuing that is an extremely serious matter, it needs investigating and may well need legislative changes.”
But there was no point int mounting an inquiry if blacklisting was all “historic”, he said – ignoring the point that most major inquiries (Bloody Sunday, Jimmy Saville, Hillsborough) are studies of the past.