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RIBA rubbishes Office of Fair Trading 'fee setting' charge

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The RIBA has hit back at speculation last week that the architectural profession is about to be rocked by an Office of Fair Trading (OFT) crackdown on the way it operates.

Director of practices Keith Snook, who conducted interviews on the issue with the OFT when the RIBA was between chief executives, said the press reports, which singled out architects, lawyers and accountants as showing anti-competitive behaviour and evidence of fee setting, were 'factually inaccurate' in claiming that the institute set fee scales. He added that so few architects get their work from competitive situations that it was not applicable anyway. A new institute survey of 1,112 small practices, set to be revealed at February's council session during the lunchtime break, will show that less than 10 per cent of small practices' workload comes from 'competitive' situations.

But, if anything, that is likely to support the OFT's case that the profession is not based on competitive activities.

Snook said that 'misunderstandings' on the part of the OFT or journalists involved must have arisen from the institute's now abolished system of mandatory fee scales, which were brought to an end in the mid '80s. He said the fee guides in operation now were contained in a booklet about engaging an architect to enable clients to set aside a rough budget for what the architect might cost.

The OFT report is also expected to question qualification requirements, which has been interpreted as criticism from the BIAT over the use of title.

The OFT inquiry into 'economically significant professions' was ordered by chancellor Gordon Brown after the last budget, and the RIBA and other bodies responded to a consultation document, A Review of Competition Restrictions in the Professions, in May. Consultant LECG was appointed by the OFT in June to analyse the results and delivered findings focusing just on architects, lawyers and accountants.

The OFT told the AJ that the press reports were 'speculative' and that it had not yet reached decisions or advised ministers. OFT director general John Vickers will consider the report and make his own report to the Department of Trade and Industry and Treasury ministers later this month.

But the RIBA's government liaison officer, Jonathan Labrey, said that action on fair trading in the professions could be included in Labour's general election manifesto. 'This is all about Labour appealing to the consumers in the heartlands, ' he said.

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