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Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I, too, am glad to hear that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is recovering from his illness. I hope he has not had to worry about whether it was a structural or a process plant defect, and whether it was demolition or construction! Whatever it was, I hope that he has been paid and that his subcontractors have been paid. We certainly wish him well.
This has been a most interesting experience for me. I am grateful for the understanding of the House to a new Member. For me Part II of the Bill is important. That is the Government's response to the demands of the construction industry for a simple, effective, cheap and, most importantly of all, non-legalistic procedure for the resolution of disputes.
The Bill tries to give the industry what it wants. Today I happened to see a story in the Daily Star which sums it up. A small contractor put down a new car park for his local Burger King in Northamptonshire and the article absolutely had to be headed "Burger Sting". After he had put it down, his client went into liquidation, so he was not paid. The client had a separate company which was the concessionaire for the operation, so the small contractor felt that his client was still around even though he had not been paid. He took the law into his own hands and dug up the car park. I do not say whether that is right or wrong but I hope that the Bill will provide such a contractor with comfort and enable him to be paid for what he did, presumably after he has put the beastly car park down again.
At the start we had a post-Latham feel-good factor, with the support of the whole construction industry, including lawyers. That was important, and when they said it would cost them too much money, we should have been careful. Somehow, in the process, during the first few weeks something succeeded in turning an almost universal feel-good factor into a universal feel-bad factor. As I mentioned at Report stage, there was universal condemnation from the industry, possibly excluding the process industry, I do not know what the Government did, but it was quite an achievement. Possibly it was connected with the scheme and, as we mentioned earlier, the difference between arbitration and adjudication.
I have been heartened by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, today and at previous stages about the Bill's objectives. They are to speed up the resolution and reduce the costs of the dispute, as well as to speed up payment. I am sure that the Bill will be improved in another place and I wish it well. The industry needs the measure desperately but the Government must listen to the industry before the Bill becomes law. They must sort out the problem of how many schemes we have for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
It is equally important that the industry make its individual and collective voices known to the Government again and again. Both sides must stay with it. I sincerely hope that they do; if so, the construction industry will be the better for it.
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, I wish to say how much I appreciate the way in which my noble friend Lord Lucas has dealt with the anxieties that I have about the Bill. He has listened to them, discussed some of them with me between stages and copied correspondence to me that he has had with other Members of the House. Thus I and other noble Lords knew exactly where we were with the Government's thinking at any time.
As regards its effect on disabled people, the Bill has been improved as it has gone through the House. However, I am still concerned about the 12-month delay which may take place in the payment of mandatory disabled facilities grants. I hope the matter will be re-examined as the Bill goes through the other place.
I am pleased that my noble friend took on board what I said about the definition of the disabled person at Committee stage and came back with his own amendment on Report. There may need to be some further tinkering with it in the other place. I am sure that my noble friend, his officials and the Minister who will take the Bill through the other place will give it their consideration.
I am also grateful for my noble friend's offer to discuss Part M of the building regulations; I used the Bill as a vehicle once again to raise the matter in the House. I am grateful and look forward to the meeting we shall have in the not-too-distant future when I hope we can make progress.
I have one other point. If amendments are requested in the other place which are not necessarily to the Government's liking because they do not like the way in which they are drafted and their thinking is not yet finalised, I hope that the Government will accept those amendments. If they are not accepted in the other place, it will not give the Government or this House the opportunity of discussing them and throwing even greater light on them when the Bill returns here. I sometimes have the feeling that the Government resist amendments when they are not sure and neglect the opportunity to discuss them when Bills are returned to the House of origin. Further discussion could usefully be employed on this Bill because it is complicated.
I also thank the Minister for the modification-- I choose the word carefully--of the prior qualification period for home improvement grants. As the Bill proceeds to the next stages, I hope that the Government will go even further and take out any reference to prior qualification periods. When the other place considers Part I, I hope that it will recognise that the imperatives of that provision are to help poor people to modernise run-down homes and provide disabled facilities, as well as to encourage the investment of private funds in the housing market and the modernisation of housing units.
One of the difficulties with which we are faced in Part II is how the parliamentary draftsman responds to a technical subject. I offer that as an excuse for the Government not getting it quite right and not even getting it right at this stage. In its consideration of Part II, I hope that the other place will recognise the essence of the Bill. It is to seek to redress the imbalance of power which operates in the construction industry. The Bill should provide a fall-back position to protect the contractual relationship between a small power beset by a larger power. The relationship between a more powerful and a less powerful individual or company is not always the root of the problem in disputes on construction contracts. However, the problems and unfairness that can arise from the imbalance of power spills over into other areas where there may be a balance of power. I hope that the Government and the other place will recognise that and take the advice that this House offers freely that Part II should seek to provide a fall-back position to prevent the abuse of power.
During consideration of Part III, I was glad to support the architectural profession. That was not made easy for me, and I suspect for other Members of your Lordships' House on this side of the Chamber, by the knowledge that the leadership of that profession is currently engaged in an industrial dispute with its staff about recognition of their union rights. It puts one in a difficult situation. One seeks to defend the rights of a profession to have some protection in law. Yet the leadership of that profession does not appear to recognise the rights of ordinary members of their staff to belong to a recognised trade union and to have negotiating rights. I hope that when the leaders of the architectural profession read these debates, they will recognise that they do themselves an injustice by their relationship with their workers.
I do not normally speak at this stage of a Bill. However, my reason for speaking is that I remember that we are summoned to Parliament to provide our advice. We are an advisory Chamber. I sincerely hope that the other place will read the debates in this
Lord Ackner: My Lords, mine was essentially a walking-on part in the circumstances described when we reached Report stage. The noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, was generous enough to welcome my intervention and to go so far as to say--perhaps he went too far--that he wished that he had been able to put the issue,
What was clearly envisaged by the Government's scheme was a fast-track arbitration, using the provisions of the new Arbitration Act which would result in a decision binding for all time and arrived at with totally unrealistic speed. Under the provisions of the new Act, there would be limited rights to apply to the court and the applications would be made by those who realised that if they allowed the decision to go against them it would be final. The net result would be that instead of having a quick and cost-effective dispute, the opposite would be the case.
I ask your Lordships to bear this factor in mind, because a lawyer comes in constantly for a sneer with regard to his so-called absorption with costs. I was approached, and addressed your Lordships' House, at the instance of the specialist Bars, of the Bar and the solicitors, who stood to gain a great deal by the more protracted and hostile proceedings of an arbitration than they would from the quick adjudication process.
I conclude my walking-off part by saying that I am grateful to the Minister for accepting the views which I and others expressed, and for undertaking to consult widely, and, if the consultation bore out the propositions that I and others submitted to him, to accept them.
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