This morning I saw a copy of Construction News trumpeting the launch of the impressively titled UK Construction Industry Competition Law Code of Conduct. It follows the Office of Fair Trading’s inquiry after 112 construction companies were accused of anti-competitive behaviour last April.
At the time the main industry representative body, the Construction Confederation, claimed ‘not guilty guv, (and if we are it’s not our fault but the clients’)’.
This new code has been put together by the UK Contractors Group and the National Federation of Builders. In summary it is a pledge to obey the law in future.
Hmm, a pledge to obey the law in future?
I find it startling that an industry like ours needs to make a public pledge to obey the law as it suggests that many thousands of firms have, in fact, broken the law. I can imagine that there might well be a backlash to such an implication of mass guilt.
I also notice that the NFB wants adherence to the code to be mandatory for its members. Again, this seems a strange position to take. I would have thought that any activity that was unlawful would be against the rules of membership anyway. Apparently not.
I have to assume there is more behind the code than a pledge to obey the law. But if this is going to be used as a tool to change behaviour it should have been described differently. As it is, the code comes across as an admission of guilt.
The sting is in paragraph 6, which states that each company is on its own to fight its case in future. This is in effect saying that breaking the law is no longer supportable by the trade associations.
The code is more likely part of a plea bargain to obtain a reduced penalty from the OFT for the various members of the bodies.
It is not unreasonable for a trade association to look after its members that way, after all, what are the subscriptions for?
And comments from the OFT seem to support the idea that plea bargaining is in progress. Inflicting heavy penalties on companies struggling through the recession and putting them out of business will not seem a smart thing to do. So it needs a way out, to go easy without looking soft.
But will truth and justice be the ultimate victims of this deal?
Chris Blythe is chief executive of the CIOB