Even the talking’s stopped

The CFA will put fair payment and retentions at the top of its agenda but the more voices that can be heard raising the issue in the industry, the better, says David Hibbert

THERE’s a well-known Elvis song that people often like to quote a line from when they think there’s a lot of hot air being spouted and not really anything being done. ‘A little less conversation, a little more action please’. You’ll be familiar with it - it was used in the film, Ocean’s Eleven, as well as a backing track to popular TV adverts.

For many years that sentiment was directed towards the construction industry and government and their combined ‘desire’ to tackle unfair payment terms being suffered by sub-contractors and the issue of retentions.

Then the whole fair payment movement started to get a bit of momentum. At one stage, it almost seemed as if something tangible was going to happen to remedy the situation. Certainly the ‘conversation;’ got louder and noisier.

Championed by our own National Specialist Contractors Council (NSCC) and other representative bodies, we were all encouraged to stand up and speak out; even to wear coat badges as part of a national campaign. The NSCC were confident they would sort it out and the problem of long overdue invoices and retentions would be no more.

The NSCC made a big thing of its fight for sub-contractors to be treated fairly.

The National Specialist Contractors Council has now merged with the UK Contractors’ Group (UKCG) to become Build UK.

And with it, it seems that even the talking has now stopped.

Build UK’s website still lists fair payment as one of the key issues it wants to address and presents a laudable ‘Construction Supply Chain Payment Charter’ that companies are ‘encouraged’ to sign up to.

This states that:

‘Our ambition for 2025 is that the construction industry’s standard payment terms are 30 days and that retentions are no longer withheld:

30 days / 30 days ZERO retentions.’
But that really seems to be where the fight starts and ends. The rhetoric that once was has become silent. It seems almost as if people don’t care anymore.

Any sub-contractor asking Build UK for help or advice on how to tackle the issue of retentions being imposed by a main contractor is likely to get the response: ‘Tell them you won’t accept retentions.’ Really?

The reality, as we all know, is that retentions are still very much the bane of many a sub-contractor’s life. Sub-contractors are still being billed for retentions and, in many instances, not getting the money back from main contractors.

Payment terms are getting dragged out longer and longer and, commonly, sub-contractors are only getting paid when the main contractor has been paid.

And, if this wasn’t bad enough, sub-contractors are being further screwed over by main contractors who go in for jobs with ‘suicide bids’, knowing full well that they are going to have to claw back costs in any way they can before the project can be completed. No prizes for guessing what this means for the sub-contractors.

The problem is still there. It hasn’t gone away.

But the people who can do something about it: the representative bodies that are supposed to lobby on our behalf, the government ministers who are supposed to stand up for fair trade – where are they?

The CFA, itself, is a member of Build UK, which represents over 11,500 contractors throughout the UK, across all sectors of the construction industry. By being part of a bigger ‘force’, this is supposed to give us a louder voice in lobbying the industry and the government of the day.

Unfortunately, it’s not happening. For whatever reason, the people who can speak up for their members, the people who can impose their influence in making change happen have decided this issue isn’t important enough to continue making waves. Or maybe they think the situation is OK, maybe they’ve been persuaded not to ‘rock the boat’. Who knows?

All we can judge is what’s happening. Nothing. Not even conversation.

That, at least, must change. Fair payment needs to be put back at the top of the agenda. Government and other parties are proud of their efforts to establish a decent living wage amongst ordinary workers.

What about sub-contractors, most of whom are small businesses or, often, sole traders? What are they supposed to live off while their invoices are stuck in the system or they don’t get all of what they are owed due to retentions?

When I was elected president of the CFA for the first time, back in the year 2000, the issue of late payment and retentions was a major concern within the industry and certainly among those who are most affected by it; the small sub-contractors. Seventeen years later nothing has changed, despite the promises, the campaigns and the ‘we really mean it this time’ rhetoric.

Well it’s not good enough and it’s an issue that needs raising again and again until things do change. The CFA will certainly be putting fair payment and retentions at the top of its agenda when meeting with Build UK and when it can lobby Government ministers. But the more voices that can be heard raising the issue in the industry, the better.

If the talking and feeling behind it is loud enough and strong enough, maybe we can get it back to the top of the industry agenda nationally, start seeing big companies being shamed for their stance and, finally, see some concrete action taking place.
David Hibbert is president of the CFA