Second opinion - The government seems to be very proud of its anti-cowboy quality mark scheme. Why?
during questions about the protection of homebuyers in the House of Commons, something rather interesting was said. Kim Howells, the minister for competition and consumer affairs, stated: "My colleagues at the DETR have developed a quality mark scheme to help consumers find reliable builders and workers in allied trades such as plumbing and roofing. The scheme ensures that quality mark builders are technically competent, possess relevant qualifications and display financial probity." This was doubtless the "line to take", given to the minister's private office by officials in the DETR. As far as it goes, it is an accurate answer. There is nothing in it that is untrue. What the minister failed to tell the house is that the quality mark scheme has been a lamentable failure.

So far, the two pilot schemes in Somerset and Birmingham have had a pathetic response. In Birmingham, a derisory two companies have signed up. The scheme was meant to be operational by the end of last year. It has now been postponed until at least Easter, and nobody knows if or when it will get up and running in the two pilot areas, let alone the whole country.

Stories of cowboy builders damage the image of the entire industry. If consumers believe that those in the building industry are capable of ripping them off on small jobs, how much more are they being ripped off on large jobs?, a website that seeks to provide an electronic directory of reputable local builders and contractors, has found that more than one in five of the firms it vets had either county court judgments lodged against them or bad credit ratings.

A survey of customers found that more than one in three homeowners have either had to call workmen back after work was supposedly completed, or bring in a new contractor to finish the project.

A constituent of mine who was ripped off over the Christmas period explained to me that he had gone to that particular contractor simply because it had a full-page advertisement in the Yellow Pages. He took the view that if the firm could afford a full-page advertisement in Yellow Pages, it could probably do a worthwhile job. How much longer will this level of consumer confusion be allowed to continue, and the cowboys left to flourish? Because ministers did not want to bid for parliamentary time for primary legislation, DETR officials throughout this parliament have been trying to improvise the introduction of a voluntary scheme. However, as the evidence from Birmingham and Somerset has demonstrated, there is no appetite in the industry for such a scheme.

Reputable builders know that consumers are already confused by the plethora of logos, qualifications and trade associations that already exist in the marketplace. It is going to take a considerable time and an enormous amount of money – all of it from the industry – before a voluntary "quality mark" has any chance of gaining widespread recognition among consumers.

The longer that ministers pussyfoot around, the more consumers are going to get ripped off

Disreputable builders will not join and will be saved the costs of joining, so this is yet another burden on responsible competent builders.

It is time to bring this sorry saga to an end. It is time to acknowledge that the so-called quality mark devised by the DETR has not succeeded, is not succeeding, and is unlikely ever to succeed as a voluntary scheme. It gives the impression that something is being done by government to protect consumers when in fact nothing is being done. What is needed is a scheme that has statutory backing.

Such a scheme works perfectly well with CORGI installers in the gas industry. Why is the government reluctant to introduce a similar scheme for the rest of the building trades, particularly when every responsible voice in construction has argued for it? The longer that ministers and officials pussyfoot around this problem, the more consumers are going to get ripped off, and more people are going to become more convinced that the word "cowboy" sits naturally alongside the word "builder".

Most people in construction do a worthwhile, competitive, professional job, often in extremely difficult market conditions. It is time that this majority was given some support and, in the run-up to the general election, perhaps every construction body, professional group, trade association and contractor should make sure that their MP has a clear idea of the industry's wishes for the future.