The report of the taskforce on busting cowboy builders is, by and large, filled with common sense. It’s a good mixture of the carrot and the stick, produced by the industry itself and designed to rectify the practice of cowboy builders ripping off their customers. Many people in the construction industry see this report as being at least as important as Sir John Egan’s Rethinking Construction. The truth is, this report is likely to affect the lives of many more people.
What is more, this report is likely to enjoy far more success than Egan’s. In the first place, a quality mark is the only way that ordinary people can tell the difference between honest builders and rogues. After all, in the pub, they both look the same – in fact, the rogues often appear more attractive and what they offer certainly seems cheaper. The award of a quality mark to trustworthy builders chosen by experts will be a sound guide for customers.
A national advertising campaign may or may not help, but it certainly cannot do any harm. Lord knows, construction’s reputation is low enough, largely as a result of talking itself down in a proliferation of reports. Any attempt to improve that reputation must surely be welcome.
I hope, perhaps in vain, that whoever designs this advertising campaign concentrates on the twin aims of attracting youth to the industry and persuading would-be clients that if they are offered a bargain by unregistered builders, it is likely to be a swindle. The testing of staff for competence is a move in the direction of a revival of apprenticeships.
This report will also foster an increased interest in training. It will no longer be too expensive to train a workforce; only impossible to trade without a properly trained workforce. This can only be good. It might also help builders to get an outside opinion on the performance of their employees.
The most exciting aspect of this report, however, is that it is about construction putting its own house in order. In all professions – medicine, law, architecture, surveying – you find the great, the good, the indifferent and the totally useless. But the fact that they are members of a profession ensures that they are unlikely, however competent or incompetent, to be crooks. And if any of these professionals do turn out to be crooks, there are insurance schemes to compensate the victim and measures to stop these people trading in future.
In the end, whether or not a customer buys from a certified builder or a cowboy is a balance between prudence and greed
Self-regulation is the best regulation and that is what the construction industry is offering. In return, however, it is asking for a reduction in the rate of VAT on repairs and maintenance – the area where most abuse occurs. The greedy person will always try to avoid VAT and not consider such evasion a crime. The fly-by-night builder will offer an avoidance of VAT as an advantage when touting for work. Lowering the rate of VAT on repairs and maintenance is seen, I suppose, as the carrot to encourage the industry to behave in a responsible manner. It is, however, a carrot that the industry will never receive. Keen as Nick Raynsford may be to help the industry for which he is responsible, the Treasury will say no, and when the Treasury says no, it means no.
Its take on this matter will not, however, be provoked by the possible loss in revenue, but rather by the fact that Britain is busy realigning every activity of government with its counterparts in Europe. This realignment embraces our legal system, our voting system and, in time, our monetary and tax systems.
It most certainly includes the levelling of VAT rates across the European Union. Items that now enjoy freedom from VAT are more likely to be included than reductions or exemptions.
The linchpin of this report, however, is not the reduction of VAT, but rather the need to compensate those people cheated by members of the quality mark scheme. Its system for adjudicating on complaints and the speed with which it expels members that break the rules will be crucial to its success. Only its efficiency in this area will give the quality mark credibility, and without that credibility the whole operation will fail.
In the end, whether or not a customer buys from a certified builder or a cowboy is a balance between prudence and greed.
Lord McAlpine is a writer and former treasurer of the Conservative Party.