Well, up to a point.
Cowboys do cause havoc for some small builders. By employing unskilled labour and not paying VAT, they can undercut reputable rivals. But, as Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council, points out, it is unfair for the government to ask the industry to eradicate cowboy builders on its own, not least because no one knows who many of them are. "It's a bit like asking football to sort out hooliganism," says Watts. "The only way to control the cowboys is to make them part of the industry. To do that, we need legislation."
That is also the view from Down Under. Michael Kefford, chairman of Victoria's Plumbing Industry Board, flew to London in November 1998 to explain to the Merricks taskforce how draconian measures in his state had cut the failure rate of new installations by 80% in the previous year. In Victoria, any homeowner or commercial client with a plumbing job worth more than A$500 (£180) must collect a certificate of compliance from a licenced plumber on completion. The system works, but industry leaders in Australia say it would not without legislation. "You can't self-regulate on a wholly voluntary basis," argues Ray Herbert, executive director of the Master Plumbers and Mechanical Services Association of Australia. "You need legislation. If a government isn't prepared to legislate, it isn't meeting its responsibilities."
The word from Whitehall, however, is that Raynsford is unwilling to make the registration of builders mandatory for several years at least, even if he can find the parliamentary time. Nor does the Merricks report discuss the compulsory registration of companies, although it does suggest that, in the long term, only "competent persons" should be licensed to carry out work.
This focus on individuals, rather than companies, is opposed by contractors and specialists. "It's companies that should be registered," says Construction Confederation chairman Alan Crane. "They have the contract with consumers, and it's for them to ensure they have the right calibre of people."
As Building revealed last week, the disagreement between Merricks and other industry leaders may knock the wheels off the whole anti-cowboy bandwagon. Merricks was planning to enclose a personal letter with his report explaining the divisions within the taskforce, although pointing out that he does not think them serious.
Serious or not, the spat has overshadowed some sensible proposals in the report. It says the quality mark should certify that a builder has the requisite training and technical competence, financial probity and liability insurance, and complies with health and safety laws. To succeed, the report goes on, the mark must become a consumer brand, like ABTA. Firms will be accredited either through trade bodies, or by companies (the Building Research Establishment, perhaps) that set up a special service. The report suggests that the United Kingdom Accreditation Service could check the accreditors.
Merricks also wants the quality mark to be backed by warranties, with a minimum level of £100. That will cover homeowners against the failure of major repair work or extensions.
Finally, the report calls for fair trading legislation to be strengthened, and for both the level of VAT on repair and maintenance to be cut and the threshold lowered. Whitehall sources say there is a growing lobby to persuade the Treasury to cut VAT on R&M to 5%, which will help reduce the crippling price differential between bona fide firms and the tax-evading cowboys.
All these measures will promote the businesses of reputable firms, and help to ostracise cowboys. But the Merricks package will not wipe out the black market. If Raynsford really wants to protect consumers from the charlatans – and from their own weakness for a cheap deal – he must also legislate. It must be illegal to dupe homeowners into buying services that you are not qualified for or capable of performing.