Every builder, and almost every specialist contractor in the land is obliged in law to pay a tax for each bricklayer, or chippy or plasterer or hole-digger he employs on his works. It is a special 0.5% levy on gross wages that goes into a central training fund. Then the levy collector hands out these funds when the builder or specialist contractor sends someone to be trained as a bricky or chippy or whatever.
Well now, all that sounds mighty fair to me. And the training that the tax collector does is pretty damn good. So where's the beef? Easy, really; the tax collector is being used as a weapon to coax builders not to engage those nasty people who prefer to be self-employed bricklayers and chippies and plasterers. The great snag with trying to tell builders what to do, and the great snag of trying to use a tax weapon to make them do it, is that they get upset or depressed. The idea is to make the builder that has the impudence to engage self-employed workers pay three times the training levy; that is, 1.5% the gross amount paid in wages. Not many years ago, it was eight times the amount. And when this was challenged in the High Court 18 months ago, this tax differential was said to be soon to disappear. But as it stands, it is a lawful differential.
The body that collects the tax, the Construction Industry Training Board, told the court that it recommended such a differential because builders that use self-employed people "do not provide a fair share of training and make a levy differential on account of that". I didn't believe that the levy differential would go then, I don't believe it now, and rumour has it that you naughty builders who engage self-employed bricklayers will continue to be penalised for years to come – unless Sir Michael sees the harm it does. Sees, too, the rot in the argument that builders that engage labour-only people are builders who don't train. That's as daft as it is offensive.
The tax collector is being used to coax builders not to engage those nasty people who prefer to be self-employed bricklayers, chippies and plasterers
And why do all these rows do harm? That's easy too: the compulsory levy and especially the penal levy differential demoralises significant sections of the industry and leads to disaffection. It wouldn't matter if the Angel Gabriel himself was the chief trainer of plasterers – he would see two fingers waving from afar. The political line, which the CITB falls for, is that these nasty builders who use self-employed labour poach people from the nice builders. Actually, the truth is that an awful lot of tradesmen learn their trade at the side of uncles, dads, even granddads, and their mates. But it would be ever so useful to polish these newcomers by a stint of formal training in workshops, through the CITB. But they won't do it, so how on earth are these people to get trained?
There's more. Did you know that some specialist trades and firms pay the levy but the CITB provides no training in return? The tax collector simply argues that the levy is meant for the general good of the industry and demands the cash. Then there is another huge unfairness. An employer paying out less than £61,000 per year for labour is exempt from the levy, according to law. Don't you believe it! The little fella finds himself having the penal rate deducted by the client he is working for. Then the CITB refuses to pay back the little fella because it uses the rule of exemption to stop any refund.
Now then, at this rate I reckon the little people are brassed off with the CITB. On top of that, all the builders that engage self-employed folk are brassed off with the CITB, and all those that pay the levy and cannot get training from the CITB are brassed off with the CITB. Not finished yet; I dare say the 18 CITB "levy return advisers" get brassed off when they knock on the door of a builder or subcontractor and politely explain how they are entitled to search the books of the firm, only to have the builder let slip that he thinks the visitor is a bloody snooper.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator specialising in construction. You can write to him at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple, London EC4 7EY, or email him on firstname.lastname@example.org.