Chris Mason, director of Motor Codes and the man behind the new UK Motor Industry Codes of Practice, discusses how to regulate the service and repair industry and how to make sure motorists get a fair deal.

It was, said Mason, something of a leap into the dark. The harsh truth is that no one really knows how many garages there are here in the UK so trying to regulate them is not a task for the faint-hearted.

The number of MOT testing stations comes to around 19,000 “and I can’t see there being more than 30,000 garages,” he said, although some estimates put it as high as 75,000.

What Mason and his team at Motor Codes do know is that there are 30m cars on the UK’s roads that need looking after and until recently there was no established code of practice to reassure motorists that they were getting properly looked after and a fair deal.

The code works in much the same way as CORGI works for plumbers and gas appliance installers and ABTA for travel agents and, although in its infancy, it has already expelled one member.

The code is the culmination of three years’ work following the threat of what is known as a ‘super complaint’ about the garage business from the National Consumer Council [recently re-branded as Consumer Focus] to the government’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

“The industry was at a crossroads in 2005,” said Mason. “The OFT gave us one last chance to regulate ourselves so we did.”

Mason, a Jaguar-trained apprentice who went on to work for Toyota before running his own garage for several years in the 1990s, joined the SMMT and was instrumental in setting up the New Car Code of Practice in 2004.

The experience and expertise gained during this process enabled him to help develop the Motor Industry Code of Practice for Service and Repair. When presented to industry and government in 2007, the go-ahead was given to continue development and introduction of the code.

In the first few months since the code was launched in 2008, some 5,000 garages have paid the GBP75 annual subscription to join – and one has been expelled for refusing to enter into conciliation after a valid complaint was made by a customer.

An independent panel meets quarterly to rule on such misdemeanours.

Consumer Direct, the government-funded advice service, reported that in 2008 there were about 20,000 complaints about servicing and repairs. Motor Codes is aiming to become the focus for these complaints, initially advising consumers on their rights and then supporting them through an independent conciliation and arbitration process where appropriate. In the final quarter of last year, the Motor Industry Code took 1,200 calls of which 45 led to further action.

Mason believes the Code will help raise standards within the service and repair sector and hopes that garages will recognise the GBP75 subscription is a very cost-effective marketing and advertising tool. Once signed up, garages are inspected every two years by the RAC.

The code covers advertising, booking in work, completing work, billing and staff issues.

The key areas of complaint are overcharging, doing unnecessary work, charging for work not done, poor levels of workmanship and completing work without authorisation.

The main principle behind the code is that customers shouldn’t have any surprises when they collect their car, said Mason.

The code is supported by the Retail Motor Industry Federation, the Independent Garage Association, the National Franchised Dealers’ Association, the Institute of the Motor Industry and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.