First person All domestic clients want is a quality mark, a simple domestic contract and 5% VAT on repair and maintenance.
Poachers and gamekeepers are wandering around my house at the moment. Metaphorical ones, that is. After 15 years of representing contractors of various types – specialist, general and major – I have finally become a client. Not a client in a safe, remote businesslike capacity, but as a private individual. This is my house, my second mortgage and my irate husband.

After 10 years in a very pretty but woefully modernised coach house, irate husband and I did a deal – either we moved, or I got a new kitchen and two new bathrooms. Kitchen and bathrooms won, but now we get to the poachers and gamekeepers, because I need a decent builder.

You might think that that would be easy for someone running a contractors’ organisation, and I certainly do know plenty of builders. If I’d wanted to build a bridge or a shopping centre, I’d have had no trouble at all. I also know some brilliant smaller companies and if I happened to live in Coventry, Hereford or Preston, I’d know just the person to ask. As I’m in Surrey, it’s not a lot of help.

And I am one of the lucky ones, because I know what to do next. Get a list of reputable local firms from the National Federation of Builders, ask neighbours and other tradesmen for recommendations and, once I’ve found two or three, ask for references and follow them up.

What I’d really like, of course, is a list of quality-marked builders to choose from. Then, I could be confident that someone else had done all the work and that the firms on the list would be responsible, solvent and competent. The DETR got it right when it decided that helping people to choose the right builder in the first place is key to defeating rogue traders.

However, it is not the only thing we need – and that’s we, the industry, and we, the clients. I also want a nice, simple domestic contract. I’m uncomfortable about relying on a simple letter from the builder, and although there was a time when I could recite JCT80 backwards, that’s no good for my minor domestic project. At least here, help is already at hand, in the form of the recently launched JCT consumer contract.

This is quite unlike any other building contract I’ve ever read. It’s not only in plain English, it’s in clear and accurate English – it’s so good, in fact, that it has been awarded a crystal mark by the Plain English Campaign. It’s four pages long, and tells me everything I want to know: when the work will be done, how much I have to pay and – essential for this client – what to do if I want to change my mind.

I wouldn’t take a 17.5% discount of course, but it would be inhuman not to be tempted

There’s just one other problem: the price. I knew kitchens were expensive, but this one is lining up to rival the national debt of a small South American country. So, what would I do if someone offered me a 17.5% discount? I wouldn’t take it of course, but it would be inhuman not to be tempted. When it’s your own money, and the “discount” offered for cash equals the cost of your annual holiday, or your children’s Christmas presents for the next two years, exhortations not to support the black economy ring a little hollow.

And that’s what responsible traders in the domestic market have to contend with every day, particularly those who sit just above the VAT threshold. However high quality their work, however charming and reliable their tradesmen, if they are constantly at a price disadvantage approaching 20% – thousands of pounds on most domestic building projects – they will lose out on many jobs. Even worse, if the builder that will do it for cash messes it up, that’s another disenchanted consumer, and another pin in the industry’s image.

Which is why, if the government is serious about tackling rip-off Britain, if it really wants to squeeze out the rogues, the chancellor must introduce a 5% rate of VAT on repair and maintenance work. This will allow registered traders to claim back the VAT on their materials at 17.5%, but charge the client VAT at 5% of the total price, so they should be able to undercut the rogues – the biter would be bitten at last.

I understand the chancellor’s concerns about loss of revenue, but independent research shows that these are unjustified, as compliance with the tax regime would increase, and demand for this type of work would also rise. I know special rates of VAT look messy, and of course there is Europe to contend with, but these hurdles are surmountable. The Construction Confederation has set out exactly how in its budget submission.

Most important, if the VAT rate isn’t reduced, the chances are that a lot of hard work by a lot of people in government and the industry will be wasted, because the rogues will continue to flourish. In my capacity as chief executive of the Construction Confederation, I think that would be a great shame. In my capacity as a client,