Jim Duffy comment: Ageing nation needs protection from profiteers

Is it okay to ask for a discount when the tradesman hits you with a big estimate?

Many of us use tradesmen and women to help with one-off projects and even daily chores, from re-roofing the house or installing a new heating system to cleaning the bathroom and doing the ironing. As we become more reliant on tradespeople to do the stuff we do not want to, or cannot, do, is it time to call time on profiteering and exorbitant pricing?

Scotland is no different from other parts of the UK in that it has an ageing population. Scottish Government statistics show the number of people aged 75 and over is projected to increase significantly by 27 per cent over the next ten years, and by 79 per cent over the next 25 years. As we age we are not as agile as we used to be, making odd jobs and more complex projects the realm of the “white van man” and commercial contractors. But this need to outsource work to others comes at a cost.

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There was a time when self-employed people were exactly that. They decided for whatever reason to work for themselves and create their own wealth. For this, the government offered better terms in paying national insurance and, if they created a limited company, then part of their compensation could be taken in the form of dividends. Tax breaks were offered when buying “white vans”, where the cost of the van was written off each year in depreciation. Thus presenting a bonus in annual accounts to HMRC.

A canny self-employed person could save receipts, record mileage and get equipment charged to the bottom line in the business. But, just as successive governments have tinkered about with these benefits, the contractors themselves have also changed how they think and charge.

It used to be the case that a school leaver could only reach the creme de la creme salary point in certain professions. Attending university and entering medicine or dentistry guaranteed a nice salary after all the flummery of the training periods. A good consultant should be earning £150,000 with all the private work thrown in, ramping up their pensions. These days the reality is the white van man can also generate these salaries and much more. But, at significant cost to us, the consumer.

Recently, Charlie Mullins, the self-made millionaire who founded and operates Pimlico Plumbers, found himself in court after one of his contractors challenged his self-employed status. Mullins created Pimlico Plumbers to be transparent at a time when traders were infamous for ripping people off. I recall watching aconsumer affairs programme when they hid a CCTV camera in bathrooms and kitchens. In essence, each job needed only a new flushing mechanism at £15, or a new tap seal at £10. But a succession of “tradesmen” were caught creating phantom problems and estimating these jobs at over £125. This is exactly what Mullins wanted to stop, and it worked.

The firm created self-employed plumbers who, when busy, were grossing £150,000 per annum. Their customers were happy as they felt they got value for money and a good job to boot. But, alas while Pimlico has pioneered professional self-employment that does not rip off customers, we now have a new generation of self-employed folks who believe they are entitled. Entitled to a lot more than the work they are doing. I recently had some heating work quoted where the fair estimate was £4,100, but one contractor hit me with £5,770 for exactly the same work and materials. And this is where the ageing population requires some protection.

With many of us edging towards our 50s, 60s and 70s, we will rely on self-employed staff more and more as jumping up a ladder can result in a broken hip, or much worse. But with self-employed people now demanding employee rights, holiday pay and, of course, top money for the jobs they charge, who is looking after the ageing consumer to ensure their rights and fair play?

Jim Duffy MBE, Create Special