Row threatens to blow up into revolt as contractors demand withdrawal of "competent" workers plan.
A damaging split opened up this week in the government taskforce investigating ways to outlaw cowboy builders.

Chairman Tony Merricks is at loggerheads with a substantial number of taskforce members over a key recommendation. If no compromise is reached, it could jeopardise industry backing for the interim report, which is due to be sent to construction minister Nick Raynsford this week.

The dispute centres on a proposal to recommend the creation of a system in which all firms gaining a government seal of approval would have workers certified as "competent".

Contractors' and specialist contractors' leaders in the taskforce are opposed to this proposal, known as the Competent Operatives scheme.

Merricks, head of Balfour Beatty's specialist contracting business, said he would enclose a personal letter to Raynsford with the interim report explaining that some interests were opposed to elements of it, but emphasising that the split was not serious.

But industry leaders say the division of opinion cannot be dealt with in this way because it is too serious. One said Merricks should have withdrawn the Competent Operatives plan from the report and merely recommended it in his letter.

The industry leader said: "It would be astounding, wholly wrong, and would give a false impression of agreement to the minister if this idea remains in the interim report. I cannot think of anything more nonsensical.

If Raynsford had any idea of the dissension there is between Merricks and the industry, he couldn’t endorse the report

Industry leader

"If Raynsford had any idea of the dissension there is between Merricks and the rest of the industry, he could not put his weight behind the recommendations of the report.

"This disagreement could throw the whole cowboy builders initiative off course." Working group members are surprised by Merricks' insistence on the plan because it was rejected by a taskforce subgroup.

This subgroup said operatives at firms gaining the seal of approval should demonstrate competence through National Vocational Qualifications. It did not say they should be registered in a separate scheme, as Merricks wishes.

Merricks has suggested that the Construction Skills Certification Scheme, which he chairs, would be the best system under which to register such operatives as competent.

Raynsford is expected to decide within a fortnight whether the report should go out for consultation in its current form.

It is possible that the government will reject the Competent Operatives plan when it finally decides what action to take against cowboy builders this summer.