Prescott's extraordinary assault on the Construction Industry Training Board has incensed the industry and triggered a flood of letters to Building. We hear what you're saying
"It's a damn disgrace the construction industry hasn't produced the skills it needs," said the deputy prime minster John Prescott at a housing conference last month. Just in case anybody was in any doubt about the identity of the guilty party, he went on to add that construction was "one of the few industries with a levy-based training scheme – and one that to my mind doesn't work well". So, enter Sir John Egan, the government's technocratic enforcer, to carry out a review of skills shortages, while the Construction Industry Training Board was sent to stand in the corner wearing a pointy hat.

The emotion behind that extraordinary public assault, which took place at the New Agenda for Housing conference last month, was frustration. The official CITB figures say the industry needs to recruit 380,000 workers over the next five years just to meet the present level of demand. Prescott could not see how any industry could fail so spectacularly to secure the labour supply it needed to grow. And he was furious that that incompetence was threatening the government's ability to regenerate the public realm.

That was not how the industry saw it, of course. Prescott's outspoken comments sparked outrage among industry leaders, and in the past two weeks, they have leaped to the CITB's defence. Building has been inundated with letters of support for the board from companies and associations throughout the industry that feel that they benefit from its work.

Sir Michael Latham, the chairman of the CITB, strongly defends his corner. He points to the turnaround in the CITB's training record over the past five years under his predecessor Hugh Try.

Latham is also keen to stress that the CITB faces much greater public pressure and scrutiny than most other industry training bodies because of its unique levy system. "The CITB is under intense parliamentary scrutiny," he says. "Every five years parliament debates whether we should carry on at all, and every 12 months both houses debate and then vote on the approval of our levy scheme."

Latham has written to Prescott to ask him for a meeting so that he can spell out the good work the CITB is carrying out. The letter outlined some of the board's achievements. It was, said Latham, the largest single provider of health and safety training to the industry, and it was furthering the debate about recruiting ethnic minorities and women.

John Gains, the president of the Construction Confederation, has also leapt to the CITB's defence, again in a letter to Prescott. He told the deputy prime minister that most contractors felt the CITB was doing a good job and pointed the finger of blame back in Prescott's direction, at the government's education policy. Gains feels that rather than blaming the CITB, the government should be stressing the merits of vocational training. This, he says, will do far more to help the industry than increasing the number of students going to university.

Other industry leaders have written to Building to express their concerns about Prescott's comments. Suzannah Nichol, chief executive of the National Specialist Contractors Council, says her members strongly support the CITB, and in particular its work on specialist training. "The projected skills shortage only increases the need for the invaluable service offered by the CITB," she writes. She adds that now is the time for the industry to play its part in offering the workplace, conditions and career that young and experienced workers expect today.

Ian Davis, director-general of the Federation of Master Builders, agrees. He comments that Prescott's "apparently throwaway remarks" were not helpful.

The fact that we don’t all get what we want doesn’t mean that the CITB is not doing a good job

Ian Davis, Federation of Master Builders

"The CITB is an easy target for cheap jibes, yet the reality is that if it didn't exist, then training by small and medium-sized firms would probably collapse – unless the government was prepared to step in with financial support," he says. Davis adds that there is pressure on the CITB to fund competing areas of the sector, but thinks the board faces a tough job in allocating resources to competing factions. "The fact that we don't all get what we want doesn't mean that the CITB is not doing a good job," he says.

Leading and regional contractors were also shocked at Prescott's criticisms. HBG chief executive Brian May says the CITB is broadly doing a good job, and thinks Prescott's "colourful" language was unwarranted. "The criticism is unfair, and if the CITB was not here, what would be the alternatives?" he asks. "The industry is too diverse to train itself," he adds.

George Parker, director of Parker Plant Hire, is confident the CITB plays a vital role in the industry. He says the CITB assists in identifying benchmarking standards for the industry, and provides training development for all staff levels. He adds that the CITB also helps firms by providing specialist training and support for independent training associations, which enable firms to employ permanent training officers.

But not all sectors of the industry rush to the CITB's defence. Richard Lambert, director of the British Woodworking Federation, says the blunt answer to the question of whether the CITB is a disgrace is "yes".

He says the CITB appears to be unable to recognise the difference between site and shop joinery, and that consequently BWF members resent paying a levy for which they perceive they receive almost nothing in return. Lambert claims it is almost impossible to obtain training grants from the CITB for woodwork training, and to cap it all, the carpentry and joinery NVQ is generally considered to be biased towards carpentry and site joinery. He says one member has suggested that a session is organised at its next conference so that the CITB can tell us "why they are making a total cock-up of training".

Lambert says that despite doing a good job for contractors and the mainstream construction industry, the CITB is losing the goodwill and support of many of his members.