Construction minister Nick Raynsford has launched a wide-ranging consultation on the merits of a Quality Mark to distinguish reputable firms from cowboy builders.

The consultation will seek views on a report drawn up by a working group led by Stent Foundations chairman Tony Merricks, which called for the Quality Mark.

This scheme would probably be introduced for summer 2000, but consumers would still be free to use builders that do not have the Quality Mark.

However, launching the consultation, Raynsford heeded Building’s call for a tougher, statutory scheme by promising to explore this alternative if a voluntary scheme fails.

He said: “I am sure it is right to proceed on a voluntary basis, not only because the working group believes that such a scheme can be made to work effectively, but also because there is no real prospect of legislative time in the near future.

“But I do want to make it clear that if a voluntary scheme fails to deliver the results we anticipate, we would be prepared to look at statutory measures,” he said.

The consultation asks about the merits of an overarching body made up of industry, consumer and regulatory interests setting and enforcing standards for the mark.

It also calls for views on how consumers can be made more aware of what type of builder to select, and for ways to encourage small, reputable firms to try to win Quality Mark status.

It suggests that access to constructors with the mark should be offered through a single unified “approved list”, available nationally through a cheap telephone line. Local authorities would be encouraged to promote the line to consumers.

The working group’s report also suggests a financial protection mechanism, a “fair deal” model contract and a code of practice setting out standards on price and a timetable for firms to match.

A controversial section calling for contractors with Quality Mark status to achieve “competent operative” status remains in the report despite objections from some industry interests.

Merricks insists that, with quality being a key issue in customer satisfaction, it is only reasonable to ensure that the craftsmen working on projects should at least be competent.

Industry leaders welcomed the broad thrust of the report, although they thought it strange to guarantee the alternative of legislation before a voluntary scheme had even been tried.

They were also disappointed that there was no confirmation of a six-month pilot scheme for the Quality Mark, which had been mooted for Birmingham.