Penalise individuals not firms - Controlling business cowboys

TODAY’S report that a primary school firetrap was passed as fit for purpose by Department of Education officials in 2008 is shocking but unsurprising.

It joins a lengthening list of developments identified as unacceptable fire risks when their safety status has been reviewed.

Coming as it does after the Priory Hall and Longboat Quay scandals the report suggests these are not isolated incidents and that deceit and dangerous, life-threatening dishonesty were far more widespread in the construction sector than was imagined — or acknowledged by the sector’s vocal and demanding lobbyists. This trend must set alarm bells ringing for new homeowners and for major infrastructure projects.

The risk uncovered at the 200-pupil Rush and Lusk Educate Together school in Dublin has cost taxpayers €800,000 to resolve, a figure that almost pales into insignificance compared to the near €30m bill facing Dublin City Council over Priory Hall and the estimated bill of something approaching €5m for the Longboat Quay homeowners. These funds, mostly public, are required to clean up after cowboy builders and those who approved their work. There must be some recourse.

Tragically, that recourse cannot be achieved through regulations introduced by former Environment Minister Phil Hogan who has moved to Brussels. He had an opportunity to end disastrous light-touch regulation but he, despite warnings from industry professionals, introduced a scheme where newly completed buildings can be certified as compliant by an architect, structural engineer or other “assigned certifier” rather than a neutral and powerful public official. At the time Mr Hogan, as is his wont, dismissed with disdain suggestions that his regime would not protect consumers. One of the assurances he offered was that home buyers would be able to identify who was responsible for a problem and then pursue them. That, as the Longboat Quay residents discovered to their great cost, is immaterial if that company is in receivership and cannot be held to account or sanctioned.

These are recurring themes and in nearly every instance individuals — citizens of this Republic, the best little country in the world to do business — carried the can. We paid through taxes, greatly reduced services and pillaged pension pots for banking scandals. Any fines paid by banks will be collected from customers under one heading or another. When we pay car insurance we pay a levy to cover the Quinn gambling. It is certain too that the billions set aside by Volkswagen to compensate for rigging 11 million cars with cheating technology will, one way or another, end up on customers’ bills. It seems far too many businesses regard any sanction that might be imposed for sub-standard behaviour as just one of the costs of doing business. Unless this structure changes there will be more Priory Halls, more Longboat Quays, more Rush National Schools. More banking and more VW scandals. And more pathetic gestures like Phil Hogan’s intervention. The benefits enjoyed by this behaviour accrue to individuals and it’s time to impose sanctions on individuals rather than corporate entities - public or private. That would be a game changer but don’t hold your breath.


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