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Construction union calls on the government to introduce stiffer prison sentences for rogue builders

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UCATT general secretary George Brumwell is pushing the government for a 'hang 'em high' policy over the length of prison sentences handed out to cowboy builders.

The move is part of Ucatt's attempt to drive cowboys out of the construction industry. 'We are pushing for a hard crackdown on cowboys, not only when they are ripping people off but for doing unsafe work,' said Mr Brumwell.

'When cowboy builders are exploiting and defrauding elderly and vulnerable people, the courts should deal with them severely. Sentencing has to be a lot stiffer and harsher. There can't be a place for cowboys in construction.'

A government working party is trying to tighten the legislation on conviction and sentencing of cowboy builders. Its leader, Tony Merricks, who is also chairman of specialist holdings at Balfour Beatty, said: 'The thrust of the working party is: 'If you intend to defraud and do that wilfully, you will feel the full force of the law.' I can't possibly disagree with that.'

Trading standards officers are responsible for prosecuting builders and the Institute of Trading Standards (ITS) also wants longer prison sentences to be imposed.

ITS spokesman Tony Northcott said: 'Long sentences are a good deterrent and show cowboys what they can expect if they get caught..'

The ITS is also pressing for more convictions as the number of complaints against cowboy builders continues to spiral.

In the year to September 1999, 69,869 people complained to trading standards offices about home maintenance, repairs and improvement (HMRI) work - a rise of 6.5 per cent on the previous year.

Mark Kram, spokesman for the Office of Fair Trading, said: 'The general trend is up and this is just the tip of the iceberg. We have no idea of the number of people who are ripped off but don't complain.'

Compared with the number of complaints, there are relatively few prosecutions of cowboys builders in the UK courts. Last year, a mere 14 prosecutions for false description of HMRI work reached court, securing £8,000 in fines and compensation of £1,697.

Over the same period, three cases were brought against builders for faulty HMRI work under the Consumer Protection Act. These resulted in fines of just £2,700.

Mr Northcott said: 'The main difficulty is getting sufficient evidence and finding the culprit. They [cowboy builders] are not the easiest people to get hold of.'

Although some cases are settled in the small claims courts, the OFT acknowledges that many cowboy builders regularly get away with shoddy or falsely described work. Even if trading standards officers do bring a case to a magistrates' court, the maximum penalty is a six-month imprisonment or a fine of up to £20,000.

If charges are serious enough, magistrates can refer cases to a crown court but guidelines are not laid out for judges on the length of sentences. A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Office, which represents judges in England and Wales, said: 'The sentencing relates to the individual offence that has taken place and the evidence there is.'