HC Deb 27 October 1999 vol 336 cc1016-9
Madam Speaker

Would hon. Members please leave the Chamber quietly and quickly so that we can get on with the business? Please hurry along, as a Member is waiting to move his Bill.

3.30 pm

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the building industry; and to provide for adjudication in disputes involving domestic building contracts. The Register of Members' Interests shows that I have a number of interests relating to the construction industry and that I undertake construction law at the Bar. The Bill, however, is not for the benefit of lawyers or the construction industry, as it would benefit consumers. The Bill is intended to tackle cowboy builders and to give statutory strength to measures to outlaw them.

The latest annual figures from the Office of Fair Trading, compiled from the case loads of trading standards officers, show that complaints relating to home repair and maintenance have become the fastest growing source of consumer complaint. All hon. Members could give instances from their surgeries or postbags of people who have been ripped off by cowboy builders. Sadly, those people are often among the most vulnerable in the community who can least afford to be cheated.

Some time ago, the Government established a working group to consider the problem of cowboy builders. The group recommended the establishment of a nationwide register of quality marked builders, backed by a mandatory warranty to cover all building work. The Government accepted the recommendation on the quality mark scheme for construction. But the major drawback to the initiative is that the scheme will be voluntary.

Voluntary schemes, not backed by the force of law, present several difficulties. Consumers will have to come to terms with yet another identification mark, of which a plethora already exist in the construction industry. It will take some time before a voluntary quality mark achieves the sort of recognition necessary among consumers to ensure that those who have become sufficiently competent to acquire it are seen as such by consumers.

When people take a package holiday or book airline tickets, they almost certainly do so through agents that have an air travel organisers' licence, which is a legal requirement. Every gas installer is obliged by law to be registered by CORGI—the Confederation of Registered Gas Installers. The Health and Safety Executive is responsible for maintaining a register of approved and qualified gas installers. What logic can underlie giving consumers legal protection against travel agents or statutory protection against a gas fitter but offering no protection when they get involved with builders or repairs on their homes?

In survey after survey, consumers have made it clear that they want a Government-sponsored approach to cowboy builders. The Bill seeks to build on the Government's existing proposals, combating cowboy builders through statutory regulation. It would use the Building Act 1984 to extend the building regulations and establish a new category of minor works. That would provide a framework for the regulation of builders and would be linked to membership of a professional body or trade association and third party inspection.

The approach is amazingly simple and straightforward. Work currently controlled in the construction of new buildings would also be controlled when carried out for repair, maintenance or improvement to existing homes. There would be no need or requirement for work carried out by quality mark registered builders to be notified. There would likewise be no requirement for notification of work carried out by the owner of the house, so those involved in DIY would not be caught out. However, work carried out by anyone who did not have a quality mark would require notification under the building regulations, and would be subject to building control either by the local authority or by approved inspectors.

That approach gives clear statutory underpinning to any quality mark scheme and provides a clear incentive to those within the construction industry to achieve quality mark status. It also places the onus on local authorities to police the activities of unqualified builders more effectively. It sends the clearest possible signal to the consumer as to who are and who are not quality mark registered builders and will ensure that any building repairs undertaken by those who have not obtained quality mark status are checked by the local authority or another party.

The final report of the working group on combating cowboy builders recommended: that DETR continue to consider how amendments to the building regulations including their extension to the repair and maintenance sector could be effected to reflect and complement the objectives of the quality mark. It is understood that following the earlier consultation on a proposed new system of Competent Persons in 1997, DETR now expects to consult further on the proposals to develop classes of competent enterprises and individuals authorised to certify that work of defined types carried out by them comprise of relevant parts of the Building Regulations. That is what the Bill seeks to do: it takes forward precisely that recommendation.

The Government published this month a consultation paper on the Building Act 1984, which acknowledges that central to the effort to tackle cowboy builders should be the development of a quality mark scheme identifying competent building firms. The DETR's new consultation document acknowledges that there are parallels with the competent enterprise proposals presented in relation to the building regulations and that, where possible, the construction quality mark and the building regulations should complement each other. That is exactly what my Bill seeks to do, and the DETR's latest consultation paper states: by having such powers at its disposal, the department may be able to introduce new regulations in response to changing national requirements without these becoming an onerous burden either on business, the householder or third party building control. In other words, the DETR readily acknowledges that it would be possible to give statutory underpinning to a quality mark scheme for construction to protect consumers without that statutory underpinning placing any particular burden on the construction business, the consumer or local authorities. Moreover, the consultation document that was published this month—after I had served notice of my intention to introduce this Bill—makes clear the exact statutory provisions under which there could be legal underpinning of a quality mark scheme: the Department could use the powers given to it in paragraph 4(a) of schedule 1 to the Building Act 1984.

It may be that this Bill, which enjoys all-party support, is pushing at an open door. I note that the editor of Building magazine, when commenting on the Labour party conference, said that the Government are considering changes to the building regulations in order to give reputable builders an edge over the cowboys. The Minister for Housing and Planning disclosed last week that he is examining proposals to relax the regulations, to allow registered contractors to self-certify when they carry out home improvements. Those without a quality mark will need local authority approval—which is exactly what the Bill seeks to introduce. I hope that the Government will support the Bill and that, if their voluntary scheme does not succeed, they will take up this simple statutory proposal.

The second part of the Bill deals with adjudication. By seeking to extend the statutory right to adjudication as provided for by the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996, the Bill will include the domestic sector. That would offer consumers a quicker and less expensive method of resolving disputes than having to go to the county court. If the Government's voluntary scheme for beating cowboy builders does not work, I hope that they will feel able to pick up this simple statutory measure—not least because it is on all fours with existing Government policy.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tony Baldry, Mr. Gerald Bermingham, Mrs. Helen Brinton, Mr. John Butterfill, Sir Sydney Chapman, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. Bill O'Brien and Mr. Bill Olner