Construction union UCATT's suggestion is more regulation and harassment of smaller companies by the Inland Revenue. This is on top of the damage done to the industry by the restrictions on trade imposed by the Revenue's disastrous CIS regime, which forced many tax-paying subcontractors into the unregulated economy.
UCATT general secretary George Brumwell's scariest shock-horror story is that 25% of the workers on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link are bogus self-employed. So what? They represent a tiny minority of our total labour force and probably the only group of people in the UK prepared to tolerate the itinerant life of the civil engineering manual worker, living out of caravans. Does it really matter if a few of them bought their CIS card in the local hostelry?
We are all being mesmerised by the hysteria whipped up against the self-employed by the self-interested. The unions, trade associations, major contractors and specialists, not forgetting the Inland Revenue, want to stop self-employment, bogus or legitimate, for their own reasons.
Unions and trade associations want to stifle the independence, resourcefulness and efficiency of the self-employed because, by definition, they don't require their services.
The largest contractors and specialists vainly hope that by forcing the self-employed to become PAYE drones it will take away the competitive edge they give to the smaller contractors and they will come flocking to their government contracts through layers of subcontractors. But these super-productive self-employed don't want to be part of an overregulated nanny state that is a front for anti-competitive closed shops.
The Inland Revenue seems to have two motives: the desire to get an electronic tag on everyone still breathing in the UK and to transfer the cost of collecting tax from the self-employed (last estimate £25-30m a year) to employers through PAYE.
These super-productive self-employed don’t want to be part of an overregulated nanny state
One would have expected a robust defence from the trade associations of the smaller contractors and their self-employed partners. But no, quite the opposite. The Construction Confederation, dominated as it is by major contractors, is having informal talks with UCATT about lobbying the Treasury, presumably to put the boot into independent smaller contractor and anyone who dares to work for themselves.
Repressive regulation of employment policy, driven by a handful of the largest construction companies, on top of the excessive regulation we already endure, will result in the total political regulation of the construction industry. The past four years of total political regulation has ruined the NHS, brought education to its knees and destroyed all hope of an integrated transport system. The imminent total political regulation of construction will have the same effect – just when we were modernising.
Total political regulation of Australian construction has forced the government to set up an inquiry to "clean up an industry seen as rife with intimidation and entrenched illegal practices" (The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 2001). The allegations are of violence and organised crime in the construction unions, coercion on "no ticket, no start" sites, corruption and misuse of funds.
We don't want to see those activities in the UK, but we could easily if we don't establish in law the right to be self-employed without harassment. A strong self-employed sector will ensure that the smaller contractors keep the majors on their toes, guaranteeing value for money from the whole industry.
The problem is, who is going to champion the survival of the legitimate self-employed and the independent smaller construction companies?
Colin Harding is chairman of Bournemouth-based contractor George & Harding.