The CITB is rather like the BBC television licence detector folk. The rumour is that it has a Black Maria topped with weird twirling antennae. It detects the telltale electromagnetic radiation given off by companies that haven't paid the levy. Actually, I think a stubby thumb and the Yellow Pages do the detecting, and the gotcha tactic is simply to send a levy demand invoice and threaten to sue.
The CITB and its stablemate, the Engineering Industry Training Board, are the two surviving statutory training boards. Thirty-one or so were born in 1964 but were culled by that great demolition contractor, Margaret Thatcher & Co. The system is loved by some, despised by others. The idea is to take money from my pocket and gladden you with money for trainees and apprentices. The idea is okay, but the practice is irksome. Rotten PR for the CITB.
A chap called Tom Escott was irked. He is owner and governor of Scalegold Joinery. One day, a demand from the CITB plopped onto his mat. It doesn't take long to be told that refusal to pay up is a criminal offence. Rotten PR. But Escott still said no.
So the court game starts. Mr Escott got hold of the Industrial Training Act 1982, and the year-by-year statutory instruments and the gobblydegook amendments by parliamentary lawyers in lawyerspeak, and did a bit of reading. CITB stuff is handled first in an employment tribunal. They deal with a CITB levy case once in a blue moon, which is awkward for tricky stuff like this. Anyway, after Scalegold presented its case, the tribunal accepted that a joinery works was not subject to levy. Miffed, the CITB took Mr Escott to the High Court. Again, it lost.
The CITB has a Black Maria topped with twirling antennae. It detects the telltale electromagnetic radiation given off by companies that haven’t paid the levy
The change in the rules that gave Scalegold its escape route was agreed 12 years ago and nobody had spotted it before. The rules say that those that make doors, window frames and stairs mainly or wholly of wood pay the levy. But the rules list exceptions, one of which says you are exempted if you "manufacture or fabricate building products from timber-based materials where the activity is automated and carried out away from the site of any building work or civil engineering works".
I asked Mr Escott what his firm made. He will make timber windows for my house, a timber porch door for my church and a west African mahogany conservatory for your house. He is that joiner around the corner making bespoke joinery in an industrial unit with a decent bunch of chaps. He even trains them himself; takes on a youngster or two, as well. He doesn't want the CITB nosing into his private affairs.
He explained to the court the difference between carpenters, joiners, cabinet makers and wood machinists. True, a lot of his chaps are wood machinists, and it is their skills in assembling the product of computer-controlled fancy machines that gave the quality he thought right. Nevertheless, the joinery business is largely automated. How many roofs do you see being pitched on site these days? He began to get home here. The key feature is that an automated process was not really the business of CITB training. The board argued that "automated" meant bunging in trees at one end and unloading beautiful stuff at the other. But it could not accept that it would lose levy if the initial cutting was done on a machine and skilled men then carried out assembly and finishing.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator. You can email him on email@example.com.