The problem of fraudulent skills is not new to construction
The problem of fraudulent skills cards is, regrettably, not new to construction. When the main construction skills accreditation method, the CSCS card scheme, was introduced, the possibility of obtaining fake cards on the black market swiftly followed. Many of these were obvious forgeries, easy to identify - as long, of course, as contractors chose to look.
Others were more sophisticated and linked to wider rackets over immigration and falsified identification. Ten years ago, for example, six men were arrested after a police raid on an address in Luton, in which almost 100 fake skills cards, including CSCS cards, were found alongside other forged identities.
But the difference between those earlier fraudulent qualifications – which became harder and harder to pass off with the advent of smart card technology - and those making current headlines is the degree of sophistication behind the operations that are leading to unqualified workers reaching sites. One consequence is the alarming depth to which fraud has permeated the scheme which the whole industry relies on to vet the workforces building its projects.
The CITB, one of the accreditation bodies for CSCS cards, confirmed this week that it would revoke more than 4,500 cards after an extensive inquiry prompted by a BBC Newsnight investigation. It did so having uncovered fraudulent activity in centres where candidates were taking health and safety tests accredited by the CITB and British Safety Council, which are necessary to be awarded the cards.
In requiring workers to retake the test, and revoking the cards of those who did not, the CITB has, to give it its due, acted responsibly on the evidence it found. But the really concerning aspect of the saga is that this type of fraud could not be spotted by managers on site: the cards were awarded through the proper, official channels, bearing all the hallmarks of official accreditation. Their issue was down to the awarding bodies to police; and yet, since it took a BBC investigation to reveal them as fraudulent, they clearly did not have adequate systems in place to do so.
The fact that the fraud centres on the health and safety test is an apt reminder of the biggest danger of allowing unqualified workers on site. For all its improvements in safety over recent years, construction remains an industry fraught with potential danger. Workers not trained in site safety risk their own lives and those of hundreds of others.
Firms that cannot vouch for the competence of their workforces will find it difficult
But the episode also highlights another problem for the sector, and that is in its goal of moving away from outdated working practices, and evolving from the inefficient industry it is so often perceived to be. Because the CSCS saga emphasises the persisting gulf in progress towards that goal, between what is traditionally regarded as the “professional” end of the industry spectrum - architects, consultants – and the contracting side that is so critical for the modernisation drive to actually work.
This week James Wates follows former chief construction adviser Paul Morrell in attacking what is often the elephant on the building site, pointing out that in contracting, professionalism, which has at its heart a clear standard of conduct, is often more an aspiration than a reality.
Overcoming this, and raising contracting’s standing among the supply chain in the process, is key to creating an industry that works in an integrated way to deliver for clients.
The CSCS saga, while it affects workers far beneath the emerging “professional class” of contractor management, will nonetheless severely undermine their efforts unless it is decisively overcome.
Firms that cannot vouch for the competence of their workforces will find it difficult, if not impossible, to convince clients or policy makers that they should be at the top table when it comes to improving the competence of the industry as a whole.
The CSCS scheme provides an established vehicle to do this which, crucially, is supported by the industry. But its oversight needs to dramatically improve before that trust is lost. With the CITB’s role in construction training under threat from the government’s introduction of a national levy system, this is one area in which it could quickly go a long way towards proving its worth.
Sarah Richardson, editor