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Will Howie New Labour old problem

There was thought to be a great political upheaval last May when John Majors government was ejected and that of Tony Blair swept in. It is still early days, but it is not absurd to wonder what has changed. I am not, of course, looking only at that smaller canvas which concerns the construction industry.

Two recent parliamentary episodes convince me that, whatever has changed on the surface, it is still much of a muchness underneath. For instance, last Friday the Lords considered several orders arising from the Housing Grants, Construction & Regeneration Act 1996. Part II of that Act was supposed to implement some, but not all, of Sir Michael Lathams report of a few years ago. The orders referred to the scheme which was to be used where construction contracts were not in accordance with the provisions of the Act.

Fair enough, you may think, but there is a snag. During the passage of the Act, it was repeatedly pointed out to the then ministers that the Act, and the scheme which was then in draft form, confused adjudication with arbitration. It still does. Adjudication was, in Lathams words supposed to provide quick fix/rough justice solutions to disputes. But these were meant to be interim and binding only to the end of the contract when the disputes would become open to arbitration which, of course, would be final.

The orders, however, permit any adjudication decisions to be final and conclusive in certain situations. In other words, adjudication can become arbitration. That will surely lead to bother which we could well do without. Seemingly, the new government has merely taken the draft orders out of the previous governments pigeon-hole and dusted them down.

The other Parliamentary item would actually be quite funny did it not yet again show Whitehalls disdain for the engineering professions. In the Competition Bill, now going through the Lords, certain professions are excluded from the harsher strictures of the Bill provided they are subject to appropriate rules and regulations of their own making. Unhappily, engineering is defined in schedule 4 in the following risible terms:

The services of persons practising or employed as consultants in the field of

a) civil engineering;

b )mechanical, aeronautical, marine, electrical or electronic engineering;

c) mining, quarrying, soil analysis or other forms of mineralogy or geology;

d) agronomy, forestry, livestock rearing or ecology;

e) metallurgy, chemistry, biochemistry or physics; or

f) any other form of engineering or technology analogous to those mentioned in sub-paragraphs (a) to (e).

It is hard to take this list seriously but, believe me, our new ministers do. An attempt made to define engineers as chartered or incorporated engineers and engineering technicians was swatted out of the chamber like dandruff, much to the annoyance of the noble Lord who moved it.

Who, outside of Whitehall, could imagine that chemists and biochemists were engineers or, soaring into the higher lunacy, agronomists, foresters, livestock rearers or ecologists? And structural engineers might feel slighted at being left out.

It seems likely to me that what has happened is that a schedule has been snipped out of some existing law and spatchcocked into the Bill because of what Whitehall imagines to be consistency but which is, in fact, mere handiness. Efforts will be made to knock some sense into this but I hope readers will not hold their breath until they are successful.

After the construction debates last year, a minister told me that I had been right but that he could not convince the civil servants. Since then, the election has brought forward new faces. But who rules?: New Labour, no; old Sir Humphrey, yes.

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