Taskforce to recommend introduction of plain English agreements for work valued at less than £5000.
A standard form of contract for building work worth less than £5000 is to be a key recommendation of a government taskforce tackling cowboy builders.

Tony Merricks, the head of Balfour Beatty's specialist contracting businesses who is heading the taskforce, said the contract could be used by 500 000 small clients every year.

The proposal is to be finalised at a meeting next week, after which the interim findings will be sent to construction minister Nick Raynsford. These will then go out for consultation before the government acts this summer.

The key to the taskforce's plans will still be a "quality mark" that will be awarded to contractors that consumers can trust. Even though this is likely to be adopted by the government, the taskforce feels that extra safeguards, such as the standard form, are needed.

The taskforce believes that too many consumers commission builders on the basis of vaguely worded letters and that the form will give them firmer legal rights. The form will set out in clear English what price has been agreed, what the price allows for, when work must start and when work is due to finish.

Merricks said: "The form would be completely unsuitable for works worth more than £5000, but would give real rights to the consumer. If a builder fails to meet the terms in the letter, a warranty provision for compensation would kick in." Merricks said the form could be displayed at building control offices or on the counters of builders merchants, to encourage widespread use.

It may also feature in a publicity campaign the taskforce wants the DETR to fund later this year, in which local authorities and consumer bodies back the quality mark. The campaign would include press and television advertising.

Organisations such as Help the Aged would be targeted for the quality mark promotion, as they represent likely victims of cowboys.

Merricks said the taskforce will reaffirm its position that the government should lower the threshold at which VAT is levied on building work and lower the rate. He will be making these points in a letter to Raynsford. It also believes that the government needs to clarify whether there could be statutory backing for the quality mark system.

One industry leader repeated fears that reputable builders will be penalised while cowboys continue to prosper as a result of some ideas the taskforce is expected to promote. This is because the quality mark system may be expensive to administer.