Regulation of electricians in Scotland: research report

Research conducted by Pye Tait to independently assess the evidence and build a business case to determine if regulation is required.

1. Introduction

1.1 Background

The electrotechnical sector in Scotland takes daily responsibility for tens of thousands of installations which have extremely important implications for life and property. In common with the gas sector, faulty work has the capacity to destroy homes, injure people, and take lives. The organisations which work hard to protect the public by setting standards of work and governing the quality of the companies engaged in electrotechnical operations are, therefore, deeply concerned about any and all instances of faulty installation. This is particularly the case where the faulty installation has been conducted by incompetent and/or unqualified people because, in theory, this is a range of error which can be addressed and ought to be avoided.

The exact nature and degree of incompetence is extremely difficult to pin down, but its consequences are felt in loss of time, additional costs, and sometimes safety implications. Incompetence arises from many different causes and, to an extent, we all experience it. On occasion everyone, even the most highly skilled and qualified person, can deliver sub-standard work. We can be distracted, worried, tired, or just plain out-of-sorts, but the result is usually work that is less than our best.

Sub-optimal work can, therefore, be delivered by almost anyone from time to time and, for most occupations, the result is usually a simple reprimand from the boss and a request to put it right. The risk from poor customer service or forgetting to follow the correct procedure in an office environment is generally measured in small amounts of time and money.

Certain occupations, however, carry far higher risks. Incompetence in an airline pilot or a nuclear engineer – whatever the cause – is considered totally unacceptable (although it still happens). Similarly, an incompetently installed electrical project involves risks that go beyond straightforward concerns about time and cash. They can mean large amounts of property damage and even risk to human safety. The most common routes we take to minimise such risks are legislation, qualification, and – sometimes – CPD and re-licensing.

This study was designed to investigate the risks and solutions surrounding incompetent electrotechnical work in the domestic context in Scotland.

Throughout the UK, at present, regulations do not require those working on electrical systems to have undergone or complete any formal qualification or competency training before conducting electrical work. In theory, anyone can undertake electrical work in commercial, industrial and domestic settings in the same way as electricians who have undergone and completed a full apprenticeship and training. In this report we recognise that the current situation suggests there a number of possible types of person undertaking electrical work:

  • "Apprenticeship-Qualified" – having undergone a full three Stage apprenticeship and passed the final assessment of competence;
  • "Qualified" – having passed a specific electrical qualification – usually after one to two years of college study; and,
  • "Unqualified" – meaning that the person possesses no electrical qualification. This however does not necessarily mean that they have not acquired knowledge and skill in other ways.

However, these categories ignore the element of "currency of competence". For example, an airline pilot undergoes six-monthly base checks and annual assessments to ensure that their competence is complete and up-to-date. Most, if not all, healthcare professionals whose title is protected – e.g. dentists, nurses, opticians, etc., are required to undertake continuous professional development (CPD) as part of their annual re-registration.

Electricians – even qualified ones – are not required to undertake similar processes of regular onsite assessment of competence – thus potentially putting consumers and the public at risk. Altogether, this means that there are an additional two categories of person who 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,
  • "Unqualified"

The extent to which electrical work is undertaken by unqualified people is impossible to quantify. This is because the absence of overall regulations means that 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 the commercial and industrial spheres there appears to be minimal concern surrounding the regulation of electricians. Public and commercial organisations which use electricians are generally well versed in the requirements necessary to assure competence. They are also more aware of the value in competence terms of commissioning trade association members, certification body customers, and registration body registrants, to prevent those without proven competence working on their electrical installations.

In domestic settings this is not always the case. The ability among householders to assess the technical quality and safety of work is often far lower than in a commercial setting and, in many cases, could be said to be non-existent. With no expertise in the area, consumers expect, besides value for money, reassurance of the safety of what is installed, maintained or repaired. More often than not they depend totally on the tradesperson to deliver a fully-competent piece of work without any knowledge or skill being required on their own part. However, attempting to get the best financial deal, and a lack of technical understanding, can sometimes lead to householders taking on tradespeople who are not qualified or up-to-date, or who compromise on quality and safety for other reasons. Regardless of the level of qualification and up-to-date-ness tradespeople may also fall into categories such as "honest but incompetent" and "dishonest rogue traders AND incompetent".

The recent tragedy at Grenfell Towers in London and the wall collapse at an Edinburgh school have tended to bring the construction and building standards system into a degree of disrepute. These tragedies led to the Government-commissioned independent review lead by Dame Judith Hackitt[2].

Whilst it is important to remember that the Grenfell fire was caused by a faulty electrical appliance and the fire spread due to faulty building material, Hackitt's report in 2018 provides a comprehensive evaluation of the current system in the UK including competent person schemes. There is also the point (in part 2 of the report) 'It is important that the competence of those undertaking electrical installation works – where this may impact on building safety – is assured and verified'. This is also integral to the theme in the Federation of Master Builders 2018 report 'Pathway towards Licensing UK Construction'[3] which sets out evidence in support of such a change.

In the same light, others are concerned at what they perceive as the lack of public understanding of what constitutes a "qualified person" and the risks of using unqualified electrical tradespersons[4],[5]. When considering the risk posed by unqualified electricians there are a number of interested parties some of whom have competing interests: the consumer/customer, the tradesperson or company, the Scottish Government, trade associations such as SELECT, certification bodies like NAPIT and NICEIC, registration bodies like the Scottish Joint Industry Board (SJIB), and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) to name but a few.

In December 2016, the issue of regulation gained increased media attention with the release of a survey report by the trade association SELECT. The report "Electrician as a Profession – The Case for Regulation" claimed that members of the general public are vulnerable to risk of poor quality electrical work, particularly due to a lack of experience in commissioning work and poor understanding of the background and qualifications of electricians and the latest Wiring Regulations. Some 89% of survey respondents to this study confirmed that they had no idea how to check the qualifications of electricians.

As mentioned above, the term "qualified electrician" includes anyone with an electrical qualification and this covers a reasonably wide swathe of people from fully trained and qualified, four-year apprentices, to those who have undertaken a one or two-year college-based qualification from an awarding body (for example, City & Guilds). And, again, as discussed above, a qualified electrician – even if qualified through a full apprenticeship – does not (unlike a gas fitter) have to re-accredit and update themselves unless they take personal action to do so.

The fact that workers without formal training in electrical and electrotechnical work may carry out related tasks could be argued to increase the risks to public health and fire safety as well as possible economic costs for insurance companies or the NHS. This is alluded-to in the SELECT report by several testimonials from electricians who said they have witnessed poor electric work having been carried out by unqualified workers. In this context, the SELECT report equates a set of qualifications with a sufficient set of competences. Therefore, it argues, the title of "Electrician" should be protected, so that only workers who are qualified to UK National Occupational Standards (SVQ in Scotland) may carry that title. The report argues that protection of title will thus reduce the risks of defective work and thereby reduce risks to public safety[6]. Others, such as NICEIC, have suggested that regular onsite assessment of competence - not just qualifications - should be at the heart of any changes.

The public debate on the issue of electrical safety gained further momentum on October 25, 2018, when the Scottish Parliament debated the issue of electrical safety and regulation of electricians. Tabling a related motion, a Member of Scottish Parliament called for the protection of the title of "Electrician" and argued that electricians should be added to the list of the 102 regulated professions in the UK. The SELECT report was quoted to support the argument for protection of title[7]. At the time of writing this report, no related legislation has been put forward.

In 2017, the Electricians Working Group (EWG) was convened to explore the challenge of ensuring the safety of electrical installations whilst protecting consumers and scrupulous traders.

The EWG members are:

  • Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS)
  • Electrical Safety First (ESF)
  • NICEIC Scotland
  • Scottish Electrical Charitable Training Trust
  • Scottish Government
  • Scottish Joint Industry Board
  • SELECT Registration Board
  • Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland (SCOTSS)
  • Unite the Union

A number of possible avenues have been discussed and considered by the EWG for improving the situation including:

  • an emphasis on increasing consumer awareness and making it easier to identify qualified professionals,
  • a voluntary regulation scheme,
  • providing title protection for electricians, and
  • a mandatory scheme of regulation and/or licensing.

Although occupational licensing is not, yet, a major proposal, it has been subject to studies in England and Wales, and views on it were requested in our call for evidence (see section 2 - methodology) in order to ensure a rounded view.

This research report focuses on the evidence and possible need for changes to the situation regarding electricians as described above.

In December 2018, the Scottish Government commissioned Pye Tait Consulting to conduct secondary and primary research to develop, if possible, a clear evidence base to inform future strategies and interventions. The Scottish Government required that any solution must be proportionate and have a demonstrable ability to achieve the stated outcomes. These criteria will underpin any subsequent Scottish Government action, if it is deemed necessary.

The other interest in this context is that of the tradesperson, whether operating competently or incompetently, who may see the introduction of new or additional systems as unfounded, expensive, bureaucratic, and difficult to implement. Some had already also pointed to what they see as a lack of supporting evidence that substandard electrical work is being carried out across Scotland. These views are supplemented by the newly-formed Electricians Working Group's[8] own desire to acquire more data on evidence levels.

This study is vital, therefore, to the objective of attaining a better understanding of the extent of work carried out by unqualified or incompetent electricians[9], and an assessment of the risk they may pose to consumers.

One further consideration which we have borne in mind throughout this research, therefore, is the question of the extent to which unqualified electricians may carry out competent work, and the contrasting extent of incompetent work being presented by qualified electricians. Neither question was a research target of this study but the unknown answers to both have critical implications for the actions which might be most desirable.

1.2 Aims and Objectives

The overall aim of the research has been to acquire and critically examine the evidence surrounding poor or dangerous electrical work, and provide the EWG, where feasible, with a strategy to reduce any risks posed by such work. This translates into the following objectives:

  • Evaluate existing evidence and methodologies being used to identify unqualified electricians in Scotland.
  • Identify where additional research is required and undertake that research to:
    • provide a profile of the number of electricians belonging to recognised trade bodies or holding recognised qualifications or registration;
    • quantify the number of tradesmen operating without demonstrable proof of competence;
    • provide evidence of any dangerous installations carried out by unqualified electricians; and
    • provide evidence of any harm caused by dangerous installations;
  • Undertake a risk assessment based on the evidence identified.
  • Develop a business case examining options for changes and the feasibility of the options.

These aims and objectives will be re-addressed at the end of this report (see section 5.3 Summary).



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