Campaigners have renewed their criticism of Croydon Council over the decision to outsource the borough’s libraries, after the company running them was sold to another business which is at the centre of a blacklisting scandal.
Carillion, the construction company now running the 13 libraries, is currently implicated in compensation claim cases lodged at the High Court.
These claims involve over 70 former employees and applicants who were excluded or rejected from work because of their trade union membership or health and safety activism.
Carillion had taken over the management of Croydon libraries from John Laing only weeks after the start of their eight-year contract. Laing, another construction company, said they sold their Integrated Services arm, the part which ran the borough’s libraries, because ‘’support services no longer fitted in with their core strategy.’’
However, Elizabeth Ash, secretary of The Library Campaign, a charity supporting publicly funded libraries said: “Carillion has an extremely poor record on rights for its workers, in this sense it’s very concerning.”
Ash added: “John Laing must have known well before taking over Croydon libraries that they were going to give up the contract just three weeks into it. They must have known in advance that this was the case. At least John Laing had some experience of running libraries. Carillion is a construction company with no experience of running libraries.”
Alan Wylie, blogger at Stop the Privatisation of Public Libraries, said that the first time the staff at Croydon’s libraries heard about the takeover was only after receiving emails from the new employer. He added: “The other sad thing is that users haven’t had a say in this. The Council must have been in discussions with both parties but often when ‘commercial sensitivity’ is claimed transparency and accountability go out the window.”
Crown House Engineering, a subsidiary of Carillion, became embroiled in the blacklisting scandal along with another 44 construction companies in 2009. Before hiring any employees, the businesses used a database provided by The Consulting Association that detailed the profiles of 3,212 people.
A spokesman for Carillion said: “Carillion has been open with MPs and the public in talking about its historic involvement with the Consulting Association, which we proactively stopped in 2004. Our chief executive, Richard Howson, has expressed regret for the past involvement of a former subsidiary, but it is important to understand that Carillion has never been involved with activity that was illegal.”
Since the scandal surfaced, the trade union GMB has launched a campaign to find out all the names of people who have been blacklisted. The union is also financing a legal suit against Carillion which will take place next year. Justin Bowden, GMB national officer, said: “Carillion are without doubt the worst employers I’ve ever dealt with in more than 24 years of my career.”
Croydon Council said they found out about John Laing’s decision to sell four days before the operation, and they had limited authority in the decision to choose the new library contracter.
They said: “There is a clause in the contract that allows us to look at the company that has taken over after the sale, and decide if it is appropriate, if it is detrimental or if there has been a unauthorised change in contract. We asked the questions that we had to ask”.
The Council also said: “Library services will be unaffected by this sale as the overall company structure remains unchanged. The contract terms continue to be binding regardless of the ownership of the company delivering the service, and staff will continue to enjoy protection under the terms of their employment contracts.”
The controversy comes in the wake of the public outcry over the Council’s initial decision to outsource libraries. Six libraries were at risk of being closed so the Council decided to outsource all of the borough’s 13 libraries.
Conservative Councillor Tim Pollard, Cabinet Member for Children, Families and Learning said in a press release at the time: “Signing this contract means Croydon’s libraries are now safe for the foreseeable future. At a time when all council services are coming under financial scrutiny, it’s great to have negotiated an arrangement that not only keeps all our branches open, but will also see modernisation through the investment that is now planned.”
Ash, however, claimed the entire privatisation process was flawed because it puts emphasis on keeping libraries open without taking into consideration the quality of the service provided: “Croydon council have run down the library service over the years, reducing opening hours. Then, staff numbers were cut drastically, impacting on the service terribly. This all paved the way for privatisation. During the consultation about the future of just six libraries, nobody said that the answer was outsourcing. The council decided to ignore the suggestions advanced by a public response of 20,000 people and outsource all 13 libraries.”