HL Deb 08 March 2004 vol 658 cc973-4

2.48 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I offer my apologies to the House—I have already done so to the Minister—for not having been in my place when this Question arose previously.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose to introduce a compulsory registration scheme for builders.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, there are no plans to introduce a compulsory registration scheme for builders. A statutory scheme would present considerable enforcement difficulties; it would also be costly and bureaucratic, given the size of the industry. We are currently working with representative trade bodies and others to implement the Quality Mark scheme for the domestic repair, maintenance and improvement sector on a voluntary basis. We plan to launch nationally to consumers later in the year.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that whereas the voluntary quality scheme helps educated middle-class customers, it does nothing to protect the more vulnerable customers who need a compulsory scheme to make cowboy builders illegal?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

Obviously, my Lords, people who can make use of a Quality Mark system have an advantage. However, there are serious reasons why we believe that a registration system is not the right step to take, as I hope to indicate. It would be very costly; above all, it would be difficult to enforce, as this is an industry in which it is difficult to enforce things; and it would also lead to a lower baseline standard to ensure effective introduction.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that there is a serious problem of aggressive door-step cold-calling of vulnerable people— particularly elderly people—by those who claim to be, but probably are not, competent builders? Will the Minister indicate Her Majesty's Government's attitude to the Private Member's Bill that has been introduced in another place, which intends to ban cold-calling of property repairs, maintenance and improvements?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the remarks of the noble Lord have their origin in a report published by the Trading Standards Institute last year, under the title Door to Door Cold Calling of Property Repairs, Maintenance & Improvements—Long Overdue for Statutory Control. The Office of Fair Trading is due shortly to publish its conclusions and recommendations on the whole area of door-step selling. This is the moment to wait for its conclusions.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, in welcoming the Government's Quality Mark scheme, does the Minister agree that part of the scheme assesses the workmanship skills of' the building firms that are trying to join it, and that one problem is that many builders do not have any formal qualifications—apart, perhaps, from the plumbers and electricians? The Minister or I could set up a building firm, if we desired to do so, without any formal qualification. Does the Minister have figures for how many in the building trade have formal qualifications, and what the Goverment propose to do about the problem?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I cannot give a figure, but I believe that it is not a good one as far as training is concerned. I shall write to the noble Baroness and give her the figures that we have. It is an essential part of the Quality Mark scheme that it has both inspections and a complaints system attached to it. One idea is to drive up standards, which means having to drive up the standards of the firms doing the work. The sector skills councils, which we are setting up, are one way to get the industry to put its house in order.

Lord Elton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one principal factor that enables cowboy builders to flourish at the expense of reputable builders is that reputable builders pay the insurance premiums, which are now pretty exorbitant, for their staff and customers, while cowboy builders do not, thus exposing their staff and customers to unacceptable risk? A scheme such as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, suggested would stop that happening.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the issue is the great difficulty, which the noble Lord's question reflects, of getting anything enforced in the industry, particularly VAT and all the other issues. It is that very consideration that makes us reluctant to embark on a registration scheme for the whole industry. There are some very basic things that we need to enforce first of all.