New building law will fail to protect consumers, committee told

Construction industry needs an effective building control system, says expert

Proposed legislation requiring mandatory registration of builders is not sufficiently robust, lacks independence and has inadequate protection for consumers, the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government has been told.

A sustainable construction industry "needs an effective building control system; an efficient construction sector, a flexible labour market, and a 'fighting fund' for remedying defects", said assistant professor of architecture at UCD Orla Hegarty – but these were largely absent in the Construction Industry Register Ireland (CIRI) Bill.

With a recent legacy of defective and dangerous buildings, targeted and robust regulation was required in specific areas of high risk, Ms Hegarty added. In addition, “to rebuild trust in the construction industry, systems must be fully independent, transparent and subject to oversight”.

The committee is undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, which will put the current voluntary registration system, on a statutory footing. It is run by a board including representatives of the construction industry, notably the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) – the main representative body for builders in Ireland.

The Bill has inadequate consumer protections, particularly for home buyers, and no mechanism for consumer redress, Ms Hegarty said. “For the home-buyer, the priority is a system that fixes the problem first and sorts out the claims later. CIRI does not provide any mechanism of redress to fund the repair of defects.”

In addition, there was “inherent conflicts of interest, CIRI is not independent”, she added.

Consumer protection

The lack of consumer protection was also criticised by barrister Deirdre Ní Fhloinn, who specialises in planning law. Proposed changes “do not address the most significant issues facing consumers”, she said. These included poor legal remedies, no cost-effective access to dispute resolution procedures, and no mandatory defects insurance to cover the legal liability of insolvent builders, “which could at least provide an ‘after the event’ pathway to a remedy for the home owner”.

The scheme would result in “a private system to regulate builders”, and a separate public system to regulate what they build. “It’s a missed opportunity to further develop the national building control management infrastructure as a central regulatory tool for regulation of both building and builders,” she added.

These norms of regulatory governance were not reflected in the Bill, Ms Ní Fhloinn said. Instead, the private entity would be able to determine “who can work, and what work they can do”.

Registration process

CIF director general Tom Parlon rejected suggestions that CIRI lacked independence and transparency. CIF had been a strong advocate for statutory regulation. It had invested heavily in the registration process with more than 800 builders and specialist contractors now on a register. It was very much about protecting the reputation of good builders who were “sullied by those often referred to as cowboys”, he said.

The CIRI board had shown absolute independence in relation to registration and compliance. A new ball game was in force on compliance, requiring every building to be certified with insurance. From a consumer perspective, all boxes were now ticked, while the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government had major input and oversight, Mr Parlon added.

Deputy Mick Barry (Solidarity-People Before Profit) said he had reservations about the level of control being given to the industry, which he believed amounted to letting it regulate itself. This had to be put in the context of past failures on building regulations and "bogus self-employment is rife within the industry" – with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions estimating that 30,000 people were in this category.

This had resulted in rushed work, deficient buildings and compromises on health and safety, he claimed.

Mr Parlon rejected any suggestion that CIF had compromised on health and safety issues. CIF required the hiring of professional sub contractors and did not condone bogus self employed people operating in the industry. “If anything, CIRI [as proposed] will weed that out,” he added.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times