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Building Regulation

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,

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

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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 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:

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

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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.

Building Regulation

Mr. Baldry accordingly presented a Bill to regulate the building industry; and to provide for adjudication in disputes involving domestic building contracts: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 5 November, and to be printed [Bill 155].

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Parliamentary Privilege

[Relevant document: The Report from the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, Session 1998-99 (HC 214-I, II and III).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

3.40 pm

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): We are taking this opportunity to debate the work of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. That Committee was established by both Houses, and the proposal to set it up was sufficiently uncontroversial that it was agreed to, without debate, in July 1997.

The purpose of the Committee was to identify--separately from the continuing work of the Select Committee on Modernisation, but, in the context of privilege--the rights and duties that we need as a modern Parliament. The Joint Committee reported on 30 March this year. Today, the Government thought it right that the House should have the opportunity to give its views on the report.

First, I thank the members of the Joint Committee for all their endeavours. The Chairman, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, is a distinguished Law Lord, who devoted considerable time and effort to producing a most thorough report. Most of the Lords who were members of the Committee are respected and experienced former Members of this House--although we do not recognise them so readily from their new titles. They included two former Law Officers, one from each side of the House: Lord Archer of Sandwell and Lord Mayhew of Twysden. There were two former Home Secretaries: Lord Merlyn Rees and Lord Waddington, one from each side of the House. Furthermore, Lord Wigoder played an important part; he is a lawyer of great distinction, and helped to chair the Committee.

Distinguished Members of the House of Commons served on the Committee: my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), my hon. Friends the hon. Members for Bootle (Mr. Benton) and for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie), and the hon. Members for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who apologises for being unable to attend the debate this afternoon, was a member of the Committee in her then capacity as Leader of the House.

That collection of experience and wisdom produced the most extensive survey of parliamentary privilege in more than 30 years. The Committee distilled evidence from lawyers and parliamentarians from throughout the Commonwealth. The report is thorough; it was pursued diligently and is well produced. Apart from our focus on the report, it is also receiving much attention in Commonwealth Parliaments--especially in those of the southern hemisphere.

One of the problems that the Committee was unable to resolve related to the term "privilege" itself. The word has connotations of benefit or advantage which are not related to public need or duty. In 1967, when that subject was previously examined, it was recommended that the term be changed to "rights and immunities"--a term which

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is currently more familiar. However, although the recommendation was made in 1967, it was not pursued and the Joint Committee advises us--correctly--that to use a different term, rather than one that has been used for such a long time, would have little benefit and might cause more confusion. It would seem as though we were making a fundamental change, whereas in fact we are not. However, if anyone feels moved by the spirit of imagination to come up with a different phrase, they can use this opportunity to do so.

The Committee tried to examine what legal protection a modern Parliament really needs. The bottom line of the approach that is needed in these Houses of Parliament is freedom of speech. The great merit of the report is that it focuses attention on that key requirement, and clarifies what it ought to be, but gets rid of much unnecessary extra baggage.

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