Architects could face fines or even jail for anticompetitive practices if the government presses ahead with tough new laws.
If the proposals, announced this week in a statement entitled Enterprise for All - the Challenge for the Next Parliament, reach the statute books then architects' long-established exemption from competition laws will end. But the RIBA called the move naive and attacked the decision to allow as little as two months for industry consultation.
The Architects' Registration Board also expressed concern at the brief consultation window, but chief executive Robin Vaughan believes it will be 'bearable'.Vaughan added: 'It's an interesting question as to whether architects should be exempt from competition laws. The ARB board has not considered this matter. It needs careful thought.'
Under the proposals, to be fleshed out in a Green Paper in July, the government aims to stamp out price rigging and enhance service quality across all professions by making cartels illegal and granting bodies such as the Office of Fair Trading greater independence and more legal muscle.
RIBA director of practice Keith Snook is angered by the plan, especially as it comes hot on the heels of an OFT report accusing architects of restrictive operating practices (AJ 31.5.01).
'Buying professional services is not like buying a kettle. To treat architects like this will do the industry, clients and the public a disservice, ' said Snook. 'There is naivete among those behind this proposal. It would be better if they learned something about the profession before legislating.'
The Department of Trade and Industry, which drew up the proposal with the Treasury, said that architects had nothing to fear from competition law.
'There have been obstacles within all professions to establishing true competition. No profession should be excluded from new laws, which protect the public's interest, ' said a DTI spokesman.