PROPERTY / An owner's guide to logo-land: A federation badge may not guarantee that a builder does good work - or is even a member. Caroline McGhie on trade associations

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The Independent Culture
WHAT faith we place in those small badges that shine out of Yellow Pages like little oases of respectability in a desert roamed by cowboys. How often do our fingers walk right past the builders and plumbers who have no membership of a trade association, to alight trustingly on one who does?

But what kind of protection does that badge of membership provide? Is it safe to assume that because something reminiscent of a miniature coat of arms is on the headed notepaper, the builder or roofer in question will do a superb job? Our investigations reveal that there is only so much that a trade association can assure you of; and that proof of the membership itself has to be sought before anything else.

Few people even think to question whether a membership is genuine or not. It is often hard to track down the whereabouts of an association in order to check the membership lists, although local libraries and the Office of Fair Trading can provide the information. No nationwide survey has been undertaken to see how often builders claim false membership. But the problem could be surprisingly widespread if a spot check recently undertaken by trading standards officers in Bolton is anything to go by.

During the week before Christmas, checks were made on 26 traders who claimed they belonged to the Federation of Master Builders and the Guild of Master Craftsmen. Only 14 of them proved to be members, meaning that nearly 50 per cent of these claims were fraudulent. 'It took us by surprise,' said Richard Lindley, principal trading standards officer. Prosecutions are to follow. For the hapless home-owner, trying to fix the leaks, correct the leaning chimney, check the faulty wiring, get the burst pipe mended, these findings sound a grim warning.

Most people find out the hard way that a claim to membership of a trade association may be just that - a claim. One such is Fiona Mellanby. She contacted a slater who claimed he belonged to the National Register of Builders' Association when her house in Aberdeen developed a leak in the roof. Once he had done the work he submitted a bill for pounds 1,500 which the Mellanbys paid. But the leak continued. 'We discovered that he hadn't replaced the old lead valley as he was meant to, and that he didn't belong to the NRBA any more but continued to use its logo on his notepaper,' Mrs Mellanby said. 'He hasn't responded to any of our letters and we are taking advice on what to do next. I just don't think people like that should be in business, especially when lots of honest people are out of work. If I saw his van outside somebody's house, I would go in and tell them what has happened to me . . . I wish I could find his van.'

Brian Hall, principal trading standards officer at Newcastle upon Tyne, says that it is not unusual for past members of associations to neglect to change their headed notepaper or entry in Yellow Pages. 'It is a passive mistake but a deliberate one all the same,' he said. Others turn out to have had only a very distant brush with real membership. One recent case in Newcastle involved a man who claimed membership of the Federation of Master Builders, but had merely bought a van from a man who had once been a member. He drove it happily for three years with the former owner's federation logo on the outside.

Often the problem comes to light when a consumer contacts a local trading standards office to complain of shoddy workmanship. Only then does he or she find out that the firm that did the work didn't belong to a trade association as it had claimed. 'It is usually small one- or two-man firms which attract the complaints - very rarely the larger companies,' Brian Hall said.

A steady trickle of cases comes through his office every year. One recent successful prosecution was mounted against a local one-man builder who claimed membership of two associations. He belonged to neither and was fined pounds 250 on both counts. The fines are never large, so offenders frequently go out and offend again. One plumber who had been convicted of claiming a bogus membership immediately went back into business and, according to the Institute of Plumbing, carried out work in every London borough. All the complaints are having to be co- ordinated in Havering.

'We have to take action against people like this,' Hall said, 'because individuals have hired them on the strength of their belonging to a trade association, and in the belief that they adhere to a code of practice, and will take part in an arbitration scheme if necessary.' But courts often take a lenient attitude towards offending builders. In a recent case, one was simply asked to pay the membership fees of the trade association to which he claimed to belong. And offenders sometimes sidestep trading standards officers by quickly signing up as members of the trade associations in question.

BUT EVEN when the membership is genuine, there arises the question of whether the consumer is in fact well served by trade associations. Do they police their industry effectively and take due care with consumers' complaints? Or do they concern themselves more with promoting the industry and giving it a respectability it doesn't deserve?

I have to confess that when I took a complaint to the Federation of Master Builders, I found them slow to respond and unsympathetic to my case. After weeks of correspondence about leaking windows which continued to seep water after expensive maintenance work, the federation eventually persuaded the builder to come back, and he grudgingly made good some of the work. The windows still leak. But I'd rather that than embark on another exchange of correspondence with the FMB.

Brian Hall believes that, on balance, trade associations achieve their aims. 'Clearly there is an element of trade protection about it, but at the end of the day that is better than nothing at all - though some associations are better than others.' He refused, however, to reveal his own personal league table.

Associations perform a function but it is limited. 'It is no good forming a code of conduct that will bankrupt a small man the moment he runs into problems. The big companies can afford to be generous. But it is no good setting targets which will be far too high for the small firm to meet.' Many ordinary householders, however, have much higher expectations of a trade association.

Mike Sharpe, senior trading standards officer in St Helens on Merseyside, takes a rather harsher view of their efficacy. 'People believe that they may get a better service but they should really get evidence of the rule book held by the association before they trust in it. They need to make sure it isn't just a form of advertising logo, or one of the short-lived groups that is simply a ring of companies trying to increase its business revenue.'

Keith Richards, senior lawyer at the Consumers' Association, is even more dubious about the real usefulness to the consumer of most trade associations. 'You have to remember that they are there to represent their members, who may be the very people you go to them to complain about. The fact that a company belongs to a trade association simply guarantees that it is a member of that association. It doesn't guarantee anything more than that.'

Associations can, however, play a diplomatic role in settling disagreements between their members and dissatisfied consumers. 'If you are trying to make your complaint and the company involved won't even respond, then sometimes the trade association can make them respond. Companies don't usually want to lose their membership because they may lose business,' Richards added.

Some also offer arbitration schemes which are run by the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, so disputes can be settled in a truly independent way. The drawback with this method of settling a disagreement is that it is a document- only process which does not allow the aggrieved party to present his or her case in person. And the outcome is binding, which means that you cannot then sue the company at a later date. Richards believes that, for claims under pounds 1,000, the Small Claims Court is a much more satisfactory way to proceed because you can make your own case in person there. (Leaflets on how to do this are available from any county court.)

One of the most valuable services that an association can offer when the economy is in a deep recession, as now, is to pick up guarantees left behind when a company stops trading. Sometimes the guarantees may run for 20 years or so, and a small building firm could well go under in that time.

But some trade associations, hit by the recession themselves, have stopped running such insurance schemes. One that has survived and attracted many of the big names in the industry is the Building Guarantee Scheme Ltd, endorsed by the Building Employers Confederation. Builders registered with it can offer guarantees on work worth pounds 500 to pounds 1,000 at 1 per cent of the contract price, provided the contract is also registered. The 600 to 700 registered builders are vetted before they can join. But small traders, especially those at one remove from the general builder, often inhabit a twilight world where rules and regulations are bent at random. One local council on Humberside recently decided to see how double-glazing salesmen went about their work, by renting a between-the-wars terrace house and arranging for two trading standards officers to pose as a couple wanting double-glazing. Fourteen companies came to sell their wares, many of them claiming to sell windows which had been approved by the British Board of Agrement or the British Standards Institute.

Investigations into these claims are still continuing and the council does not, therefore, wish to be identified. But it has discovered that every single one of the 14 double-glazing companies made false claims of one kind or another. Some, for instance, offered credit when they were not licensed to do so.

Others did something much more bizarre: 'It is a funny old business. Some of the companies use materials that have the approval of the BBA or the BSI, but have then chopped them up to make windows which are not approved by them. It gets very complicated, trying to trace the materials back to source to find out at what point they had some kind of official approval, and at what point they were turned into another product that did not have approval,' said a spokesman for the council. It seems that there is no end to the dodges the ordinary householder has to watch out for.

MAJOR TRADE ASSOCIATIONS

Federation of Master Builders, 14 Great James Street, London WC1

Members are interviewed before they can join, have to be recommended by other members and have to show previous work. There is a warranty scheme which covers work in progress, guarantees structural performance for five years, workmanship and materials for two years. On projects worth up to pounds 50,000, it costs 1 per cent of the contract price but is usually contained within the quote given for the work. More than 2,000 builders belong to this scheme. Complaints which relate to the warranty scheme can be put to the in-house conciliation service, which will try to mediate between both parties. Otherwise it is possible to use the arbitration scheme, whereby a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators will make a judgement. Costs may come to anything between pounds 1,000 and pounds 3,000.

Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association, 34 Palace Court, London W2

Bank, trade and customer references are taken before companies can become members. Members are bound to comply with all British Standards on domestic installations. There is a free double guarantee scheme which insures new installations and new boilers for one year. A conciliation service is run by the in- house legal department. Consumers can also go to arbitration through a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators. Customers should check that there is a clause agreeing to arbitration in the contract at the outset.

British Plastics Federation, 6 Bath Place, Rivington Street, London EC2

There is no vetting procedure to join. Member companies have to be active within the industry. If a complaint arises, the member will be talked to. There is an indemnity scheme which will cover the client if a member goes out of business during the course of work being carried out, and another to provide cover if a member goes out of business during the period of guarantee.

Glass and Glazing Federation, 44-48 Borough High Street, London SE1

Before companies can join they have to prove they have been in business for two years with at least three staff on PAYE. Their finances and premises are inspected. Customers' deposits are backed by a deposit indemnity scheme which provides cover to the value of the lost deposit up to 25 per cent of the contract price or pounds 2,500 (whichever is the lower), should the company go out of business. It also insists that members allow a seven-day cooling off period between signing a contract and the contract becoming legal. There is a free in-house conciliation service for those customers with complaints; of 257 complaints received in 1991, all except 28 were resolved at this stage. The federation also undertakes to pay the costs, regardless of the outcome, if the consumer decides to go to arbitration.

Institute of Plumbing, 64 Station Lane, Hornchurch, Essex RM12 6NB

Strictly speaking this is a charity, not a trade association. It was set up in 1886 by the Worshipful Company of Plumbers to provide a register of plumbers with proper qualifications. Members therefore have to show proof of their training, they must have been in plumbing for two years, and must agree to conform to the water by-laws and building regulations. Complaints, about poor workmanship only (you have to sort out disputes over fees yourself), are dealt with in-house by the 60 branches round the country. There is no insurance scheme.

The Electrical Contractors' Association, 34 Palace Court, London W2

Anyone can set up as an electrician, with or without qualifications. Those who belong to the ECA must prove they have been operating for at least three years, must allow previous work to be inspected and their businesses to be assessed. There is an in-house conciliation service and an independent inspection offered to settle disputes, at a cost of pounds 250. There are no arrangements for arbitration. All members offer consumers a five-year guarantee that their work will comply with the Institution of Electrical Engineers Wiring Regulations and relevant British Standards. And there is a guarantee to complete work in progress, should an electrician become insolvent while in the middle of a job.

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