This study was designed to investigate the risks and solutions surrounding incompetent electrotechnical work in the domestic context in Scotland. Its specific aim as specified in the original Invitation to Tender was to "identify evidence of the current extent of unregulated electricians in Scotland, assess the risk they pose to consumers, and develop a business case for justifying any changes to the current position".
In view of the fact that no electricians are currently "regulated" it was agreed that the term should relate to "unqualified" electricians in the context of the existing apprenticeship and end-tests.
The background to the study is that, currently, anyone can call themselves an electrician. There is no statutory need for any qualifications or demonstration of competence.
There is a voluntary self-regulatory system in place which is largely supported by voluntary company memberships and accreditations.
Therefore, in practice, an unqualified person can undertake electrical work in commercial, industrial and domestic settings in the same way as electricians who have undergone a full apprenticeship and training. This applies to the whole of the UK not just to Scotland.
The risk from this situation, is that it can lead to consumers hiring unqualified and incompetent tradespeople and receiving poor workmanship, resulting in faults that can lead to fire or personal injury, such as electric shock.
Compounding this situation, there is also a proven lack of awareness among homeowners of the existence of organisations that work hard to protect the public by setting standards of work and governing the quality of the companies engaged in electrotechnical operations. A YouGov survey (2017) identified that 88% of Scottish homeowners had never heard of SELECT and 87% had never heard of NICEIC.
The research recognised that an unqualified electrician is not necessarily incompetent and that it is possible for qualified electricians to occasionally perform incompetently. However, as a good proxy for competence, qualifications were agreed as the appropriate metric.
The extent to which electrical work is undertaken by unqualified people is impossible to quantify. This is because, in the absence of overall regulations, a wide variety of people can act as "electricians" in a domestic setting, including a variety of occupations such as kitchen and bathroom fitters, plumbers, and handymen, and, of course, householders themselves.
In effect, there are multiple categories of person that could be undertaking electrical work besides the DIYers, bathroom and kitchen fitters. Electricians – even qualified ones – are not required to undertake processes of regular onsite assessment of competence in the same way as, for example, gas fitters registered to Gas Safe. Potentially, these categories of person might undertake electrical work, each of which suffers from the lack of regular onsite competence checks:
- "Apprenticeship-Qualified" and up-to-date
- "Apprenticeship-Qualified" and NOT up-to-date
- "Qualified" – and up-to-date
- "Qualified" – and NOT up-to-date; and,
The study comprised four main phases of work: desk research and a review of the existing evidence base, a call for evidence that was very widely publicised and open to householders, electricians, and other stakeholders. The publicity campaign alerted the public, relevant bodies (such as Citizens' Advice), and electricians to the call. Subsequent interviews gave further information all of which fed into the fourth phase of the development of a series of outputs through analysis and interpretation of the data.
An extensive search of records and data from known sources (e.g. Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Citizens Advice Service, certification and membership bodies as well as Scottish media) revealed that there is no single source or combination of sources that can demonstrate that the cause of incidents and accidents leading to fatalities or injury is due to work conducted by unqualified or any other type of electrician.
The existing evidence directs to broad statistics for occupational groups and fire variables. It does not help very much in understanding how, why and by whom defective installations are conducted.
The most compelling argument, to-date, is from the report produced by SELECT - 'Electricians as a Profession' in 2017. The case is built on bespoke survey findings that show there is a lack of public awareness as to how to check an electrician's qualifications, and that the public associate the title "electrician" with a set of relevant qualifications.
The evidence base also includes that of danger related to defective electrical installations provided by previous research such as that by Electrical Safety First and various case studies (largely based on the Scottish Fire Service records).
The Call for Evidence for this study generated 537 responses from stakeholders (88), the public (38) and electricians (411 or 76.5% of the total responses). It was widely publicised, but the lower numbers from the public could suggest that there has been an insufficient number of causes for complaint or that they saw fit to remedy defects themselves in various ways.
Although lacking in many relevant variables (e.g. the age of the installation, person who installed it, etc.) the fire statistics helped in estimating that there could be 400 plus accidental fires in Scotland caused by faulty electrical supply and lighting which might, assuming each fire occurs in a separate dwelling, involve some 1,000 people and might cause up to four fatalities and 100 injuries a year.
Looking at the number of defects submitted to the Call for Evidence by electricians we were able to scale these up to produce an assessment of the risks. We indicated a very conservative total of around 7,260 remedial operations (the number of times another electrician has to actually fix a defective installation) per year in Scotland. The total annual costs of defective fittings of electrical supply and lighting could, therefore, be estimated at some £15m plus the unquantifiable, non-fatal, non-injury human costs.
A proportion of these fires from defective fittings could be due to older installations and wear and tear due to age but this has been impossible to quantify.
Nevertheless, the research has shown relatively significant costs and consequences from defective installations in Scotland.
Again, acknowledging the research is limited in scope and coverage, this research has also demonstrated a significant belief among members of the public and electricians that there would be considerable benefits from regulation, and possibly the licensing of electricians and their companies. The SELECT research and responses from the public to this study have clearly demonstrated that the public would welcome certainty that the person undertaking their electrical work is fully competent and up-to-date.
The business case presents five options ranging from do nothing, to licensing and individual regulation (occupational licensing), under each of which is noted a series of pros and cons.
In the opinion of the authors and based on what the public and electricians are saying, protection of title, alone, will be insufficient. Given that the industry already possesses a voluntary registration scheme in the form of the SJIB and the relevant cards it seems reasonable to recommend a complete package: protection of title, licensing of firms to undertake electrical installations, plus individual registration (perhaps by mandatory extension of the SJIB scheme).
Such a scheme would pay for itself in a relatively short period and would cover almost all of the pleas from the public and qualified electricians: to provide confidence and safety to the general public by enabling them to check the registration of electricians and their companies, to underpin the safety of those undertaking electrical work, to reduce the annual costs of fires caused by faulty fittings, and to exclude from the industry "rogue traders" and incompetent fitters.