Communities and Local Government CommitteeWritten submission from Unite the Union

Introduction

Please find here the submission of Unite the Union to the Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry into the operation of the Building Regulations applying to electrical and gas installation and repairs in dwellings.

Unite the Union argues that more effective regulations are necessary to safeguard homeowners from cowboys and shoddy workmanship.

The Committee asks the questions:

Are the Building Regulations adequate in safeguarding health and safety in domestic dwellings?

What are the costs of complying with the Regulations?

How could the Regulations be revised to be streamlined and made more effective?

What would be the consequence of the removal or significant reduction of the scope of the Building Regulations so far as they apply to electrical and gas installation and repairs in dwellings?

Unite the Union believe that the questions are inextricably linked, this submission therefore endeavours to convey the position in two sections, section A regarding electrical installations in dwellings, and section B regarding gas installations in dwellings.

Executive Summary

Section A: Electrical Installations and Repairs in Dwellings

Section A of this submission comments on Part P of the Building Regulations in England and Wales in regard to electrical installations and repairs in dwellings.

Unite the Union has serious concerns regarding the requirements within Part P of Building Regulations on what actually constitutes “competency” in electrical installation.

Examples are given of best practice established by the industry under the ECS (Electrotechnical Certification Scheme) and best practice under Scottish Building Standards.

This submission in its conclusion calls for compulsory and qualitative registration of Electrical Contractors and Operatives, via an industry led system of Licence to Practice.

Section B: Gas Installations and Repairs in Dwellings

Section B gives Unite’s opinion on Gas Safe and its Governance.

Unite the Union believes that statutory registration at both company and individual level in regard to ensuring safe installations in dwellings and structures is an essential part of UK Building Regulation. The fact that gas systems, appliances and installations should be correctly installed, commissioned and maintained is a given.

Unite the Union believe the Gas Safe register must enshrine its not for profit roots when CORGI was formed in 1968, and that its Governance should include the most representative stakeholders from the industry, being the relevant Trade Associations, Trade Unions, Technical experts and Consumer interests for the steering of long term success of the scheme.

Section A: Electrical Installations and Repairs in Dwellings—(Part P of the Building Regulations in England and Wales)

1. Unite the Union believes that Part P in its current form fails to tackle rogue traders, safety measures implemented with the introduction of Part P of the Building Regulations, designed to stamp out shoddy electrical work in the home, have in fact effectively alienated large numbers of highly qualified electricians, and worryingly have lent a misleading air of credibility to the unqualified.

2. Unite the Union believe that requirements for electrical installations (ie BS7671) should fundamentally be required under the Building Regulations. However, this submission argues that review of Part P and its competency requirements are needed with substantial amendments for best standards and best practice, rather than simple abolition of the document, we do not advocate that DCLG “throw out the baby with the bathwater”.

3. On 1 January 2005, Part P of the Building Regulations for England and Wales came into force, seeking to establish safer electrical installations for homeowners.

4. Previously, the industry had regulated itself, but an ever growing number of unqualified DIY enthusiasts, coupled with media attention focused on rogue traders, meant that government intervention was long overdue.

5. According to statistics from the NICEIC and ODPM at that time, faulty electrics had resulted in over 2,000 fires, caused 19 deaths, 750 serious injuries and over 2,000 non-fatal electric shock accidents each year.

6. Before Part P, electrical installations in the home were not subject to statutory Building Regulations, so employing bona fide competent electricians and electrical contractors to carry out electrical installation work was down to the common sense of the homeowner.

7. However, now since the introduction of Part P, homeowners are faced with further confusion. To comply with Part P, a number of “competent person” self-certification schemes have been established, a “competent person” confusingly meaning a firm (as in the “person” being the legal entity of a company) and not an individual. Of course, a company can be a single person entity, as in a sole trader, but it is not for example an Employee.

8. The Schemes are commercially motivated, which Unite the Union believes sadly detracts from raising the bar to the best standards in the field, instead the set up encourages the pursuit of more companies to sign up to the schemes, to the detriment of bona fide highly skilled Contractors and Operatives, who find the “level playing field” based on highest standards in the domestic market eroded by those who are less scrupulous and less committed to the very best in quality, competence, customer services and workmanship within the trade.

9. Under some of these schemes, a part trained, under qualified Part P listed kitchen fitter, or someone pertaining to be an “electrician” with minimal training and experience for instance, has the right to self-certify electrical work, thus circumventing the notification process that an ordinary fully qualified electrician has to go through.

10. Of course, it makes sense for bona fide electrical firms and sole traders whom undertake a lot of domestic work to join such schemes to cut down on paperwork and Local Authority inspections, whilst still proving compliance with the Building Regulations. However, originally in the 2005 document, no recognition was given to properly qualified electrician, who was for instance, an employee, and occasionally undertook in-scope work in their spare time (particularly on their own property or for family etc).

11. At that time, Unite’s predecessor Union, Amicus the Union, argued that such an individual simply needs to notify the in-scope work to their Local Authority Building Control department and have relevant insurance in place. For such an electrician to join one of the self-certification schemes was costly and completely unnecessary.

12. The Union then welcomed the amendment to Part P introduced in April 2006, under Certification of notifiable work (b), which gave an air of recognition and flexibility to the bona fide competent installation electrician. However, the document failed to remedy the Unions concerns regarding under or non-qualified individuals and firms operating in the electrical installation market place of domestic dwellings.

13. Unite the Union are not arguing against notification, it is a fundamental principle of the regulations; however, Unite members have pointed to high building control fees, which vary between Local Authorities (a nonsensical situation where fees can be higher than if they got someone in to do the work for them that they are trained and qualified to undertake in the first place), therefore Unite believe that this scenario penalises qualified practitioners whilst giving inaccurate kudos to non-electricians. Understandably, irritated electricians rightly feel that they have not been given the credit they deserve.

14. The Union viewed the introduction of Part P with trepidation as, in Unite’s view, it is not stringent enough. In 1977, the ECA (Electrical Contractors Association) and the union (then EETPU) developed “The case for compulsory qualitative registration of electrical contractors and operative”, which would have seen a system of licensing introduced for both electrical contractors at the company level, and electricians at the individual level in the UK, going way beyond the requirements of Part P today.

15. This stalled in 1980 due to the change of Government. With this in mind, the JIB (Joint Industry Board for the Electrical Contracting Industry) carried on with its own voluntary register. This evolved into the UK Register of Electricians, which then incorporated open access JIB grading to form the Electrotechnical Certification Scheme.

16. The JIB is all about standards, Employers and Employees working together for the improvement and progress of the industry in the public interest.

17. Establishing and developing the level of skill and proficiency of individual electricians is of primary importance to the Board. Over 9,000 apprentice electricians are currently registered and undertaking the progression based JIB apprenticeship scheme throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland (plus the SJIB in Scotland). These apprenticeship schemes take an average of four years to complete.

18. In contrast, and very worryingly, since the introduction of Part P, five day “Part P” courses have been offered to all and sundry to deem themselves “competent” to meet the bare bones requirements laid down in section 1 of the Approved Document. Knowledge based update courses in the Wiring Regulations, developed for qualified practicing electricians to keep up to speed with changes, have been booked up with non electricians, those individuals then meeting the “minimum level competencies” in Part P to join a “Competent Person Scheme”, but with no fundamental experience, assessment or NVQ3 to industry recognised standards.

19. Unite argues that this scenario is illogical, dangerous and undermines our industry apprentice framework. Furthermore, such courses have been pedalled and mis-sold in the current economic climate to people made redundant and looking for a change in career direction, with unscrupulous providers offering “fast track” routes to becoming an “electrician”.

20. A lot of time, investment and energy is expended by Government, industry, the Sector Skills Council and others in developing bona fide frameworks to the competency level of a bona fide industry recognised electrician, including via the provision of apprenticeship frameworks, apprenticeships, development and maintenance of National Occupational Standards (NOS) and the like, and not least Employers investing time, mentoring and wages into young apprentices to give them a career for life.

21. Despite this, in England and Wales there is still no statutory definition of what actually constitutes an “Electrician”, and in the current environment, an individual can simply set themselves up and call themselves an “Electrician”, and as described, enrol for some courses to obtain basic underpinning knowledge in BS7671 for example, but having achieved little or no experience, which again Unite reiterate can only come through proper learning, mentoring and work based learning, leading to recognised qualified competency within the industry and Sector Skills Council. The current state of affairs is nonsensical when considering the time and effort expended, Tax Payers, Employers, and Learners time and money in developing bona fide industry recognised routes to competence and quality craftsmanship.

22. The aforementioned JIB register evolved into the ECS (Electrotechnical Certification Scheme), which now has a membership of 130,000 cardholders.

23. The product of nearly 40 years of industry development, the ECS is not for profit, and administered by the JIB for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and SJIB for Scotland.

24. The scheme records and establishes an electrician’s exact level of qualifications and training, recording everything from details of their apprenticeship through to inspection and testing, and more specialist bolt-on qualifications.

25. In Scotland, it is a requirement under Scottish Building Standards that only an Approved Electrician under the ECS and SJIB can undertake the role of an Approved Certifier of Construction (ACC), this ensures the competency of the individual, furthermore the standards demand the trustworthiness of the company by demonstrating membership of a suitable approved body where the consumer or client is offered the peace of mind the relevant insurances and warranties are in place should something go wrong. This is in effect a de facto Licence to Practice system. Such Licence to Practice structures for Electrical Installations, requiring competence at both individual and company level are in place in most other advanced western economies.

26. For added security and convenience, ECS data is further incorporated into one smartcard with a passport photograph and, in addition, shows continued monitoring of awareness in the required Health & Safety, and is affiliated to the Government backed CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) card scheme.

27. The ECS scheme and card shows one or more of an operative’s exact occupational disciplines (eg Installation Electrician, Maintenance Electrician), and the criteria on how they got there, for instance via a completed apprenticeship, or industry assessment against the NVQ Level 3 (Now QCF Level 3 NVQ Diploma), or the relevant industry recognised pathway prior to the introduction of NVQs. Furthermore, underpinning knowledge via the requisite Technical Certificates, and the industry’s final “capstone” assessment being the AM2 (Achievement Measurement 2) trade test (In Scotland the FICA—Final Integrated Competence Assessment), the unit now being mandatory in the apprenticeship framework is required, which is independently assessed away from colleges and training providers who may have a conflict of interest in a successful completion, to prove competence as an Electrician.

28. The card clearly defines and covers all disciplines from a general labourer through to electricians and technicians, through objective and independent registration, grading and adjudication.

29. In regard to “Limited Scope” work, such as simple connections made by Plumbers and Heating Fitters, the UK-PHMES (United Kingdom Plumbing Heating and Mechanical Engineering Services) CSCS affiliated card scheme endorses the competency of individuals through to Advanced Craft and Technician levels.

30. With electricity like its gas counterpart being a “silent killer” via electrocution or serious injury via electric shock, as well as a source of potential fire hazards, Unite draw the Committees attention to one of the most important elements of the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989 which is Regulation 16 on competence. It is an absolute condition that individual operatives should be assessed for competence in terms of knowledge, training and experience, to ensure that they are suitably qualified to carry out the tasks at hand. Electrical safety like gas safety is a matter of life or death.

31. Unite believe that the creation of a Licence to Practice, utilising the ECS and its longstanding pedigree, so that individuals are verified to the requisite level of competence as defined by the Joint Industry Boards, underpinned by the National Occupational Standards and requirements as laid down by SummitSkills, the Sector Skills Council for the Building Services Engineering sector is the way forward. Such a scheme would see a bona fide electrician, under the industry recognised structures being defined as “a member of a class of persons”, and therefore competent and qualified to carry out the work. This would be governed by the industry, with representation from Contractors and Operatives as is currently the case, and representation from both the technical and electrical safety experts in the industry and importantly consumers.

32. This approach combined with the effective delivery of standards like BS7671 17th Edition IEE Wiring Regulations ensures safe working, competence and quality of installations by properly qualified individuals, leading to safe and quality installations for consumers in their dwellings.

33. Such a requirement for qualitative registration of both Contractors through appropriate bodies, and Operatives through the ECS, under a common umbrella standard would therefore be similar in nature to Gas Safe (of which we refer to later in section B), and could initially be a voluntary Licence to Practice model, with the intention of moving towards a mandatory system. However, importantly Governance should lay in the hands of the industry, with the aforementioned technical and safety standards and consumer interests integral to that.

34. Unfortunately, we believe that Part P in its current form does not adequately address whether or not people are suitably qualified for the task, and that the new regulations will not stop the cowboys and incompetents from carrying out sub-standard electrical work in people’s homes. As it stands, rogue traders will continue operating within an ambiguous framework that does not guarantee genuine competency to the consumer.

35. In stark contrast, Unite’s electrician members are fully qualified. Their level of competence is by far over and above the standards required by Part P. They undertake work in the total Electrotechnical process, working on everything from house rewires to commissioning a power station.

36. Furthermore, the current format of Part P does not produce a situation where a register of competent individuals is required. It is an individual (and as described, one who is not necessarily adequately qualified) who is linked with a company that does not necessarily have a track record of electrical installation.

37. What is needed is a register of a class of competent electrical persons, and the ECS precisely fits such a scenario and would go a long way to settle down the issues that Part P has created, and will ultimately contribute to building regulations for electrical safety becoming a success.

38. It is Unite’s view and concern that, if the issues described here are not addressed, qualified individuals will seek to circumvent Part P (and are already doing so), therefore meaning that both the “grey market” and “black market” will continue in electrical work, and therefore the Regulations will not have the maximum impact intended on improving electrical safety in the home. We believe that, if Unite’s members’ views are taken on-board, a marked increase in real compliance will be forthcoming.

39. However, despite all of the above, whilst DIY enthusiasts can buy electrical accessories off-the-shelf with no checks and balances in place, any hopes and expectations that Part P will bring order to the DIY market is, in Unite’s view, over optimistic to say the least.

40. The above outlines Unite would want to see the Building Regulations progress for increased electrical safety in dwellings, with successful and popular regulation, so that the cowboys are driven out once and for all.

Conclusion

Unite the Union call upon the Communities and Local Government Committee to explore with the industry the case for establishing compulsory and qualitative registration of Electrical Contractors and Operatives under an industry led Licence to Practice, being not for profit and underpinned by ECS and SummitSkills competency requirements for electricians, complimented with necessary warranties and insurances in place to protect Consumers moving forward through the relevant trade bodies.

Useful Electrical Industry, Safety and Competency Accreditation Links

www.ecscard.org.uk (ECS—Electrotechnical Certification Scheme)

www.jib.org.uk. (JIB—Joint Industry Board for the Electrical Contracting Industry)

www.sjib.org.uk (SJIB—Scottish Joint Industry Board for the Electrical Contracting Industry)

www.eca.co.uk (ECA—Electrical Contractors Association)

www.select.org.uk (SELECT—The Electrical Contractors Association of Scotland)

www.unitetheunion.org (Unite the Union)

www.clescotland.co.uk (CLE—Construction Licensing Executive Scotland)

www.esc.org.uk (Electrical Safety Council)

www.theiet.org/resources/wiring-regulations (IET Wiring Regulations BS 7671:2008(2011))

Section B: Gas Installations and Repairs in Dwellings—(Gas Safe Register)

1. Unite the Union believes that statutory registration at both company and individual level in regard to ensuring safe gas installations and repairs in dwellings and structures is an essential part of UK regulation. The fact that gas systems, appliances and installations should be correctly installed, commissioned and maintained is a given fact.

2. The lessons learnt from tragedies of the past mean that a robust system must remain in place for the protection of consumers and society as a whole, not least because of the dangers of creating explosions due to bad workmanship or insufficient maintenance, but also to protect people from the silent killer of carbon monoxide poisoning.

3. With the establishment of CORGI, evolving from the voluntary “Confederation for the Registration of Gas Installers” established in 1968, to the “Council for Registered Gas Installers” when registration became statutory in 1991 via the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and changes to legislation in Great Britain relating to gas work; introducing the requirement that anyone working on gas must be “a member of a class of persons”, gas safety and registration is something that the general public are very aware of.

4. The delivery of registration then passed from CORGI to the Gas Safe Register. Leading up to this, criticisms of CORGI were made by the CORGI Interest Group, established by and comprising of the leading Trade Associations in the field, some of these criticisms were in regard to the a perception of the organisation losing its way, having started as a voluntary organisation following the tragedy at Ronan Point, and at the end of its tenure of the Register, they argued that its voluntary not for profit roots were arguably overshadowed by the pursuit of more commercial interests.

5. Unite believe that the Gas Safe Register must not succumb to previous criticisms of the operation of the Register.

6. Unite the Union believe the Gas Safe register must enshrine its not for profit roots and safety orientated when CORGI was formed in 1968, and that its Governance should include the most representative stakeholders from the industry, being the relevant HSE, Trade Associations, Trade Unions, Technical experts and Consumer interests for the steering of the direction of the Register and long term success of the scheme.

January 2012

Prepared 29th March 2012