The CPI has been set up to verify manufacturers’ compliance with the Code for Construction Products Information. Chief executive Amanda Long explains how she intends to scale up its new verification process and why she is not interested in protecting the industry’s reputation
Can firms be trusted to “mark their own homework” when it comes to the veracity of claims made about their products? For long-time consumer rights champion Amanda Long, the answer is a firm “no”.
Long spoke to Housing Today just weeks after being appointed to head up CPI Ltd, the body tasked with verifying product manufacturers’ compliance with the new Code for Construction Products Information (CCPI). Formerly director general of Consumers International, a non-profit body that “campaigns to promote corporate accountability and to protect consumers from deceptive marketing practices,” she is an industry outsider ideally placed to compare construction’s records on consumer protection and product information with those of other industries.
“I don’t think construction does consumer protection well at all, I don’t think it has prioritised it and I don’t think that – until the Grenfell tragedy – it realised the level of responsibility it has,” she says, pulling no punches.
“Construction is starting to wake up to the realisation that it is responsible for the places where we all live, work and play. It’s a backbone of society and that makes major hazard and building safety critical.”
The 2017 disaster at Grenfell Tower, in which 72 people died, shone a spotlight on the importance of safety in building products. The Construction Products Association’s marketing integrity group responded by drawing up the CCPI between 2019 and 2021.
The code was also prompted by Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building safety regulations, which found construction’s product testing, labelling and marketing regime to be “opaque and insufficient”. Allegations of misleading marketing claims were also aired at the Grenfell Inquiry, only strengthening the case for change.
So what is the code? Its ultimate aim is to ensure that product information meets five tests, namely that it is “clear, accurate, up-to-date, accessible and unambiguous”.
The code is made up of 11 clauses (see box below) covering areas such as the control and responsibility for product information, transparency of performance information and competency. The aim is that – eventually – clients, specifiers and users will insist on only working with CCPI-compliant products, as verified through the scheme.
While in her role as chief executive of the non-profit Considerate Constructors Scheme (which seeks to improve standards in the industry), Long helped to develop the CCPI.
So, with the code duly drafted, what is Long’s remit now, and why is the CPI Ltd, another non-profit body set up by the CPA, even needed? Why was Long, who was announced as CPI Ltd chief executive last month, appointed?
She explains: “My message to the CPA was that I am delighted we have a code but, unless it has got independent verification, then actually all you have really got is an industry claiming that it is doing something. From a consumer protection perspective, unless it has independent verification, and is robustly implemented, it is not going to be worth the paper it is written on.”
Long, who set up the Building the Safer Future Charter, was therefore asked by the CPA to develop a verification process and then to come back and oversee its implementation.
Long stresses again and again how the industry cannot be marking its own homework. But isn’t this problematic when CPI Ltd has itself been set up and is owned by the CPA, which represents product manufacturers?
She says she insisted on the non-profit CPI Ltd being independently governed, despite being owned by the CPA. And although it had some initial seed funding by the CPA, it will take fee income to fund itself.
From a consumer protection perspective, unless it has independent verification, and is robustly implemented, it is not going to be worth the paper it’s written on
Another tactic to try and guarantee independence from the CPA was to appoint a chair of CPI Ltd who is not well-known in construction. David Topliffe, who was appointed in March following an interview process overseen by Long, has worked in the oil and gas industry for several decades, including 36 years at Shell and a stint on the board of trade body the Chemical Industries Association.
“We deliberately wanted to find someone outside of the sector not associated with construction products, but who understands major hazard safety, because that really is central to the, the fallout of the Grenfell tragedy, and also someone who understands businesses,” explains Long.
“I am not remotely interested in protecting the reputation of the industry – that is not my job,” she says.
But if that’s the case, why was the code itself drawn up by industry through the CPA?
The 11 clauses of the CCPI
- Have in place a documented sign-off process for creating “product information”.
- Have in place a formal version control process for all “product information”.
- Do not use misleading or ambiguous wording, phrasing or imagery and embrace the use of plain English to ensure accurate representation of “product information” and performance claims.
- Provide valid and demonstrable documentation where claiming compliance to – or achievement of – any certification, classification or industry standard.
- Provide specific documentation when making any product performance claims outside of certification, classification or industry standard tests; which must be made available on request and shared in an appropriate timeframe.
- Make available on your website the descriptive and physical characteristics of the “construction product”.
- Ensure all changes affecting “product information” resulting from changes to the “construction product” are identified and reflecting in revised ”product information”.
- Publish on your website and make easily accessible clear information on handling, installation, operation, maintenance and disposal of “construction products”.
- For any guarantees/warranties used in “product information”, your website must state what is: covered, excluded and required to comply with its terms. The guarantee/warranty should be transparent and in a format recognised by the relevant sector of industry.
- Ensure technical helpline contact details (telephone and/or email) are visible on your website.
- Have in place a robust training programme (for new and existing personnel) to ensure that anyone conveying “product information” is competent to the level of knowledge required for their role.
The fact that the code itself was set up by the industry, while the verification process is overseen by an independently governed body, is for Long a way of getting the best of both worlds. She says: “If you’re there working in the consumer voice [role], as I always was, what happens is you sit there arguing from the consumer perspective. The powers that be will listen to you to some extent but then they will say, ‘you’ve got to have industry engagement’.
I am not remotely interested in protecting the reputation of the industry, that is not my job
“So, for me, seeing a code that has come from what I think was a really substantial consultation process which has significant industry support but at the same time has now been given to an independently governed body means you get the strengths of both sides.”
So how will Long’s independent verification process, which is expected to take around three months for an organisation to complete, work in practice?
Five steps to CCPI verification
Leadership and culture survey
Management systems questionnaire
Product set submission
Product set verification
Long says the first thing she “demanded” for the process was a requirement for a sample of a firm’s employees to complete a “leadership and culture survey”, looking at the ethics and behaviour of the company. Indeed, this is the first thing firms will be required to do, long before product sets are looked at.
“It’s almost like psychometric testing,” explains Long. “Anonymous questions [are sent] to a sample of a company’s employees from the C-suite right the way through to the frontline, [people] who are managing product information or are a part of the creation of product information.” The purpose of this is to probe the overall culture of the organisation.
Seeing a code which has significant industry support but at the same time has now been given to an independently governed body means you get the strengths of both sides
“Before we start looking at the management systems of a company, I’ve got to understand whether this is a company that actually has the right culture and ethics to want to take product information management seriously and understand the responsibility they have.”
The second part of the process involves another survey to assess manufacturers’ product information management systems. This, Long stresses, still takes place before manufacturers “get anywhere near” sharing information about actual products.
“I want to see your product information management systems – what are the processes that you have in place that are documented that show me you can manage product information properly? At the moment these are not things this industry has even thought about.”
Only when a company has completed these first two assessments will CPI verifiers actually look at the firm’s set of products (a “set of products” refers to a grouping of products with a similar function and certification).
Verifiers will, Long says, sample information to check whether the information is there to back up the claims the firm is making about its product, while corroborating previous information on the company culture and information management systems. If CPI verifiers are happy, it will award the company what Long terms a “mark” to show it has achieved verification.
I want to see your product information management systems - what are the processes that you have in place that are documented that show me you can manage product information properly?
But that is not the end of the story. “You’re not using the mark as a company… you can only make the claim about the product information that was presented to us and you can only do it for two years, then you have to come back to us again.”
If a firm’s leadership changes before the end of the two years, they have to complete a new leadership and culture survey, she adds.
Currently, 26 organisations are going through the process in a “first wave” and, by next month, Long says that the first product sets should have been verified.
The CPI is building up its bank of verifiers, which currently numbers 14. These verifiers come from different backgrounds and, while some construction product knowledge is essential, Long says their ability to “manage and rol lout audit processes” is of more interest to the CPI.
|PRICING EXAMPLE||ORGANISATION ASSESSMENT FEE||VERIFICATION FEE|
Small company (£0-5m turnover); 1 set with 25 products; General construction
Medium company (£5m-£50m turnover); 3 sets with 999 products; Safety critical
Large company; (£50m-£100m turnover) 1 product set with 450 products; Safety critical
Very large company (£100m+ turnover); 2 sets with 700 products; General construction
Firms going through the process will have to pay an organisation assessment fee based on the size of their company plus a verification fee which is determined by size and number of product sets verified and whether the products assessed are “safety critical” or not (see illustrative examples above).
With an estimated 28,000 construction product manufacturers in the UK though, the CPI surely faces a formidable task in achieving enough sign-up to make a difference.
Long’s strategy here is to get “sizeable chunks” of firms in different size categories to reach a critical mass. “You don’t just want all the very large and you can’t just focus on the micro,” she says.
She also says the CPI will be going live soon with a version of the code for building merchants and distributors, as it feels that “you’ve still got a duty or responsibility to be part of making sure product information that gets to market is clear, accurate and up to date”.
In addition to the targeting strategy, CPI is in the process of trying to increase take-up by signing up tier one contractors and housebuilders to its “supporters offer”. This would see these clients and tier one contractors pledging over time to ensure they only use suppliers who are CCPI-verified.
Long refuses to give details of how many contractors or housebuilders have signed up to this offer but states that a number have been “helpful and supportive.” She says they won’t be able to ensure suppliers can get verified “by next week” but sternly warns: “I do want to see them getting it done.”
She says tier one contractors are keen to make sure they meet the requirements of the Building Safety Act, under which they will have to provide assurance products meet regulations, and therefore the CCPI could help them.
Long is also aiming to bring government procurement into the process and says she is “in very good conversations” about this, although she does not reveal with which part of government. She points out that she was previously able to get Crown Commercial Services, a branch of the Cabinet Office which manages procurement, to sign up to the Building a Safer Future charter.
Ultimately, by persuading a critical mass of manufacturers of different sizes to sign up, and by putting pressure through clients, including the public sector, and tier one contractors, Long is hopeful of scaling up the CCPI verification process to a significant size very soon.
While we await the government’s response to Paul Morrell’s report into products testing and the outcome of the Grenfell inquiry, the CPA, CPI and others will be hoping that the CCPI work means nobody can accuse the construction industry of failing to do its own bit to ensure manufacturers are taking product information seriously.
But, as Long keeps insisting, we need fast action from the industry. “We want to see progress and we want to see progress with rocket fuel,” she says.
“I’m not interested in some tickbox progress – it needs to be real change.” The extent to which product manufacturers agree and then sign up to the code remains to be seen.