HC Deb 08 July 1996 vol 281 cc108-10
Mr. Vaz

I beg to move amendment No. 136, in page 72, line 8, at end insert— '( 1B) Subject to the provisions of this Act a person who (whether expressly or by implication) takes or uses any name, title, addition or description falsely implying that he is a registered architect in the course of business is guilty of an offence.'. As hon. Members know, part III of the Bill deals with architects and with registration. Judging by the way in which the debate went during the Committee stage and by the speed at which we are going through the Report stage, this would be a model for the registration and the formalisation of other professions should they ever be the subject of a debate in the House.

I have omitted to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman). It is rare to have an architect in the House. He kept the Committee amused and entertained with his knowledge of architecture, even though he has not practised for some time.

The amendment seeks to repair a serious omission in the Architects Registration Act 1938. The defect has had, and continues to have, adverse consumer implications. Clause 1 of the 1938 Act specifically makes it an offence to practise or to carry on the business of an architect under any name, style or title containing the word "architect" unless the person concerned is a registered architect. However, the clause as currently drafted does not cover the frequent practice of people implying that they are an architect, while being careful not to use that title. The courts have held that unless the word "architect" is specifically used, the imposter—the person who claims to be an architect but who is not—can walk free, which violates the spirit and the letter of the 1938 Act.

The consumer of architectural services is at risk and the public is being misled. There is no monopoly of architectural services in Britain and all design work is open to competition—and rightly so—but the title "architect" is protected. However, unless the amendment or something similar to it is tabled, the limited consumer protection offered by the 1938 Act will have no effect. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment. If he cannot accept it, will he at least give hon. Members an assurance that when the matter goes to the other place his colleagues will look at it again and ensure that the spirit of what we want is incorporated?

Sir Sydney Chapman

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) for his kind and generous remarks. I have a great deal of sympathy with amendment No. 136. As the hon. Gentleman said, architects do not have a design monopoly: anyone can call himself a building designer or an architectural designer. That is perfectly legal. In short, anyone can design a building—obviously prudent people will go to a registered or a chartered architect for building design work.

There has been considerable abuse of the system. For example, people can advertise openly as architects but spell the word "arkitects" and nothing can be done about it. I hope that my hon. Friend is minded to accept the amendment. If he is not, I must tell him that I shall not vote on the amendment because, in my humble opinion, it could be viewed as pleading on my own behalf as the measure might benefit me in the future—although I may never go back to the drawing board, as they say. In those circumstances, I think it appropriate not to vote on the matter.

8.30 pm
Mr. Clappison

This has been an interesting but brief debate. I join the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman). I share the sentiment that he expressed that it will be a long time before he is required to go back to the drawing board—if that ever happens.

I join my hon. Friend also in expressing some sympathy with the intention of the amendment. I understand the hon. Gentleman's analysis and the concern that he expressed. He knows—I think it is common ground—that an important aim of the legislation is to protect the public and I understand his desire to increase protection against possible misrepresentation. There will always be unqualified persons who would like to pass themselves off as architects by using similar titles or designations.

The amendment, as drafted, partly duplicates what is already on the face of the existing Architects Registration Act 1938. It is an offence for a person to describe himself as an architect in the course of business if his name does not appear on the register of architects. However, the amendment's intention of expanding the scope of the protection of title to include anyone who implies falsely that he is a registered architect is clear.

At first, that might appear to be a sensible suggestion. However, there are serious drawbacks that we must consider and that lead us to conclude that it would not be right to accept the amendment. It would introduce a grey area concerning what title is being protected and whether it is necessary to prove an intention to mislead. As hon. Members will know, a number of perfectly legitimate designations are currently used by other construction professionals—for example, architectural technicians and technologists. I am sure that Labour Members would not expect them to be covered by the amendment.

Other designations are less clear-cut. What about "architectural consultants", "architectural designers" and those who provide "architectural services"? Some might try to give the false impression that they are registered architects. However—I remind hon. Members that we are talking about designations as the function of an architect is not protected—most will continue to provide perfectly legitimate services in the general field of architecture and no one will be misled as to their status. It is not in the public interest to weaken the distinction between those sorts of designations and the title "architect"; nor would it be fair to prevent persons from using designations that describe accurately the work that they carry out legitimately.

For those reasons, expansion of protection of title was never part of the package of reforms that the Government, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architects Registration Council agreed upon—nor was it the subject of the consultation that the Government conducted subsequently. It would be unreasonable to introduce any change in the scope of protection of title without fully consulting all those who might be affected. I do not believe that such an exercise would ultimately serve the interests of either registered architects or the general public.

It is fundamentally important that the public should be given as precise and clear a definition as possible as to who is registered and who is not. The architects registration Acts achieve that by requiring that any person using the title "architect" in the course of his or her business must be registered. That is a simple and easy-to-understand definition and does not allow any room for confusion or misinterpretation. The Government wish to retain it.

I hope that I have persuaded the hon. Gentleman that any expansion of protection of title is not a straightforward matter and that it could create as many problems as it solves. I understand his concerns and those of my hon. Friend, but I do not believe that it is appropriate for the amendment to become part of the Bill. Therefore, I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Mr. Vaz

I have listened carefully to the Minister's comments—neither he nor I were architects in our previous lives. However, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) was, and the profession is concerned that the legislation does not cover the serious points that he raised. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to consult the Royal Institute of British Architects before the Bill goes to the other place to see whether an acceptable form of words may be inserted. On that basis, I shall not press the amendment to a vote.

Amendment negatived.

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