Domestic Building Works (Consumer Protection) Bill
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) on bringing forward the Bill. I very much join him in his opening tribute to the building trades, which are not always as much valued or appreciated as they should be. Particularly now, after two years of pandemic times, our homes are very important to us. We have spent a lot of time looking at our walls and imagining how we can improve them. Unfortunately, however, people have often been put off by rogue traders, for the reasons the hon. Member laid out.
Currently, anyone can call themselves a builder. They are not required to provide any evidence of training, qualifications or experience. This makes it really difficult for homeowners to know which traders are legitimate, and it allows cowboy builders to undercut legitimate builders. The only legal protection for consumers is contract law, but that is not a viable option for many, for the reasons the hon. Member set out, meaning that cowboy builders can largely get away with shoddy work.
This Bill sets out to provide greater protection for homeowners by requiring builders to get licensed and by outlawing cowboy builders, who would face fines. It also makes provision for consumers to get compensation, as well as for a licensing service to oversee the scheme and an ombudsman service to resolve disputes between traders and consumers. We very much welcome the intention behind the Bill, and we will not be opposing it.
Although there are some schemes to help consumers find legitimate and reputable builders, such as TrustMark, they are voluntary and therefore cannot fully tackle this issue. It is an issue that must be familiar to MPs up and down the country, and indeed to many homeowners. Earlier this year a constituent of mine applied for heating work to be carried out under the Government’s
green homes scheme, but the builder left her home in a completely unacceptable state. She was unable to use her living room for five months, and mice—which featured in a debate earlier today—started coming in because the floorboards had not been replaced properly.
Consumers like my constituent are unable to find appropriate redress. They are also faced with scam ads and fake reviews online, which makes the task of finding a reputable builder even harder. I commend the campaign launched by Which? earlier this year, calling on the Government to introduce laws that would force tech giants to protect consumers online. According to research conducted by Which?, consumers are more than twice as likely to choose poor-quality products after being exposed to fake reviews. The Federation of Master Builders has been warning consumers about customer review sites promoting rogue traders since 2015. This cannot be allowed to continue. In 2018, the FMB found that 32% of homeowners were discouraged from arranging home improvements requiring a builder because they feared hiring a rogue builder, and it estimated that this was causing the economy to lose £10 billion of construction activity a year. That figure was also quoted by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest. This is not only about protecting homeowners; it is also an economic issue for our country.
We welcome the intention behind the Bill, but the Government should have acted sooner. It should not be the job of a Conservative Back Bencher, however well respected, to rectify the mistakes of his own Government. Bodies such as the FMB and Which? have been calling on the Government to act on this issue. The chief executive of the FMB, Brian Berry, has said:
“Licenses for the building trade are long overdue and have widespread support in the industry. They will protect consumers, enhance the reputation of the industry, and provide a significant boost to the economy.”
Which? says that the enforcement of rogue traders falls to local authority trading standards services, but as we have heard, they are not always able to inspect buildings as they would like to, because their budgets are not ring-fenced, and their funding has been cut for several years.
The Chartered Trading Standards Institute estimates that local trading standards services have lost 56% of their full-time equivalent staff since 2009, and 20 services have had their funding reduced by more than 60% since 2011. That has left 44% of local authorities lacking the expertise needed to enforce legislation, because staff are having to perform other duties. We would like to ensure that those services have the resources and funds that they need in order to carry out their duty to protect consumers from rogue traders. Not only have the Government failed to support local authorities in this respect, but their funding cuts have made it harder for those who do have the powers to enforce existing legislation.
The Bill is not perfect, and there are questions that I shall want to pursue if it makes further progress, but I think it is up to the Minister and the Government to set out what they are doing to address the critical issue raised by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest—an issue that is spoiling the lives of so many of my constituents and, I am sure, constituents of Members in all parts of the House. What are the Government going to do to address this issue if they are not going to support the hon. Member’s Bill?