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Part P — five years old and still broken

lightswitch This year it is five years since the introduction of Part P of the Building Regulations. Or, as I like to think of it, five years since the Government thoroughly botched an opportunity to do something to improve electrical safety in people's houses. We could have had a full, independent skills-based assessment of competence that everybody could have relied on — as we have, for example, for driving cars or flying aeroplanes. Instead the Government abrogated responsibility for accreditation to a consortium of trade bodies whose main interest was (as it should be) the financial well-being of its membership. This was a bad decision with onerous consequences and, I will argue, one that would not, and did not, improve public safety. In this article I will consider what evidence there is that Part P has increased electrical safety, whether the local authorities are meeting their obligations regarding inspection, and whether the trades bodies are competent to regulate their members. For those who don't want to read the rest of the article, the answers are 'none', 'no', and 'no', respectively.

Background

Part P has two main requirements:

1. That electrical work in people's houses conforms to a particular standard (BS7671 in this case) — this is arguably a good thing, and
2. Only members of particular trade associations are deemed competent to state that their work conforms to BS7671. This is a very bad thing.

The latter point is a bad thing in the same way that giving responsibility for for conducting MOT (vehiclular roadworthiness) tests to car manufacturers would be a bad thing. The trade bodies have been allowed to set up so-called 'competent person' schemes, under which their members are not required to submit to Local Authority inspection of their work.

Five years ago I posted a vitriolic piece on my web site about Part P (original text is here) which generated an enormous response. I've had hundreds of e-mails and letters, and many people supported the petition I raised to the Government, calling for a review of the effectiveness of Part P — a petition that was, unsurprisingly, ignored.

So why should a highly technical, low-profile piece of legislation cause such an upset? The implication for the householder is that becomes unlawful to carry out modest electrical repairs or improvements in his or her own home. Many people are perfectly capable of doing such work safely, and in the UK an entire industry is based on providing householders with the tools and equipment they need to do it. The implication for small businessess is that they will have to incurr significant expenses complying with the new legislation, that in many cases are a substantial part of their turnover. Many of the letters I had were from sole traders who feared they would be driven out of business. In some cases, sadly, those fears well well-grounded.

The Government's response to the plight of small contractors was, and remains, that such people always have the option of have the Local Authority appoint an inspector to certify that the work complies with Part P (as a householder does). In practice, this route is prohibitively expensive and, even now, Local Authorities don't have the staff or the resource to meet their obligations in this area (more on this point below).

Has Part P improved electrical safety?

Of course, we all accept the burden of restriction and regulation in the interests of health and safety. In the case of Part P, there is no evidence whatsover that the increased regulation has had, or will have, any impact on safety. In a Commons debate on March 16th 2005, Michael Fabricant, MP for Lichfield, and a Fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, suggested that
...part P is not necessary and [...] houses would not burn down if it were repealed tomorrow.
Phil Hope, the Minister in charge of the implementation of Part P, gave the standard response that Part P would "save lives" but, setting the standard that the Government would follow thereafter, gave no evidence or justification for this.

So, five years on, has Mr Fabricant's prediction come true? Or has the Government been vindicated? It turns out that in the year after Part P was introducted, fatalities resulting from electrical accidents increased considerably (see Hansard 6 Nov 2006 : Column 863W). This will seems strange to many people, I imagine. But I can think of reasons for this result, by examining the parallel cases of Australia and New Zealand.

Until 1992, Australia and New Zealand both restricted electrical work to members of trade bodies. But in 1992 this restriction was removed in New Zealand, whilst Australia retained it. Since 1992, the number of electrical accidents occuring in the home has, in fact, fallen slightly in New Zealand, and remained approximately constant in Australia. Why might it be the case that allowing people to do electrical work in their own homes, as in New Zealand, improves electrical safety?

First, in an environment where DIY electrical work is commonplace, there will be a higher level of knowledge of electrical safety issues among the general population, than in an environment where only businesses are allowed to undertake such work. You may not know, for example, what benefit you will obtain from, say, buying an in-line RCD unit to plug your lawnmowever into, but I'll bet you know someone who does. The rapid uptake of new electrical safety technology into the home has come about because of the high level of knowledge of such matters in the community, not because of Government safety initiatives. Many people only realize that the electrical wiring in their houses is dangerous because they have knowledgeable friends and relatives to point this out.

Second, because people in Australia aren't allowed to undertake electrical work, there is an over-abundance of power adapters and extension leads, with the risks this entails. Fuses and RCDs are designed to protect cables against transient over-current situations (short-circuits, in particular), not long-term overheating caused by sub-threshold overcurrent situations. To protect against damage by long-term overheating, it is necessary to give some thought to the number and distribution of socket outlets. It requires some knowledge of electrical theory to do this, and that knowledge needs to be accessible in the community to be useful. To be fair, we don't have very extensive figures for domestic electrical accidents in the UK, and it's not clear that electrical safety has fallen in a statistically significant way since Part P was introduced. But it's equally clear that it hasn't measurably improved in the last five years, either.

Are Local Authorities meeting their obligations?

What has come to light in the last five years, however, is that local authorities still lack the funds and expertise to enforce Part P properly. The report commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government (Monitoring of Electrical Safety Competent Person Self-Certification Schemes, BD2612, May 2008) has this to say:
"Building control bodies now appear to be getting to grips with implementation of Part P after some initial teething problems. However, there are still issues around their ability to inspect, test and provide certification for work conducted outside of the competent person schemes and recover the associated costs."
What this paragraph is alluding to is that Local Authorities are consistently trying to pass on the costs of inspection to the installer, where the installer is a sole trader or a DIY'er and can't afford to join one of the fabulously expensive 'Competent Person' schemes. This failure is pernicious because the Deputy Prime Minister's Office (as it then was) issued a circular telling LAs to "destist immediately" from this practice as long ago as 2006. After all, the rules on inspection could hardly be clearer: in Approved Document P, para. 1.26 says:
"Building control bodies will carry out the necessary inspection and testing at their expense, not at the householders' expense."
At the time of writing, a number of local authorities still say on their Web sites that DIY installers and unregistered tradesmen must commission an inspection from somebody registered under a Competent Person scheme. Not only is this incorrect, a local authority which accepted such an inspection as conclusive would most likely be breaking the law.

Are the trade bodies providing adequate regulation?

That some local authorities still haven't understood their obligations under Part P is nothing short of a scandal. But, to be fair, it's not a Government scandal, as the Government has been adamant about the duties of the local authority right from the start. Where the Government has failed is in providing a real test of competence for electrical installers, and a way to enforce it. Even now, some of the trade bodies responsible for the 'Competent Person' schemes are accrediting business where work is done by unqualified people. This is a particularly startingly comment from report BD2612:
"However, some scheme operators (NAPIT and OFTEC) disagree with the definition of the level of competence required to undertake electrical installation work in dwellings and insist that all installers (not just supervisors) should demonstrate minimum levels of competence."
Since NAPIT and OFTEC between represent fewer than 15% of electrical contractors, it follows that 85% of contractors are certified by organizations which think even 'minimum levels of competence' are required only by supervisors.

Yes, amazingly, you did read that correctly: most electrical work being carried out under the 'Competent Person' scheme — and which is therefore exempt from local authority inspection — is being done by people who are not required to demonstrate even minimum standards of competence. Of course, most likely these people are either reasonably competent, are being supervised by somebody who is, but the schemes provide absolutely no confidence to the consumer that this is the case.

So the 'Competent Person' schemes could be failing the householder — but are they also failing the tradesman? The prohibitive cost of entering such a scheme is the usual reason that small businesses and sole traders cite for not joining. According to the report BD2612, the average cost to the business varies between £485.17 and (gulp) £1,168.63. Whether these sums — which would be staggering to a small trader — represent good value is far from clear. From BD2612, again:

''The remaining scheme operators [i.e., those who provided any evidence at all] generally provided reasonably high-level accounts statements (of variable quality and detail) that often were not supported by any explanatory notes. The nature of these statements rendered any further analysis extremely difficult, although it was clear to see that they had been derived by a rudimentary allocation and apportionment of income and expenditure from the main accounting system of a parent organisation.''
This is a polite way of saying: "The scheme operators are not able to explain in any kind of detail how and where they spend their members' money".

The Government makes a big deal of how many contractors have now signed up to 'competent person' schemes — about 50%. But that's 50% of contractors whose main line of business is electrical work, and such businesses account for a relatively small proportion of the electrical work carried out in the UK. A great deal is done by DIYers and by traders for whom electrical work is an adjunct — kitchen fitters, plumbers, gasfitters, etc. And from the Government's own figures, fewer that 5% of these businesses have registered.

So where are we, five years on?

Well...
  • Most small businesses and sole traders are still not members of 'Competent Person' schemes. We have no idea how these people are demonstrating that their work complies with the Regulations, if it does
  • We have no idea whether the substantial fee charged by scheme operators is proportionate to their running costs
  • The overwhelming majority of scheme operators do not certify individual electricians, only a business as a whole. There is still no assessment of individual competence
  • There is still no certification procedure for people who want to work only on their own homes — DIYers, retired electricians, etc.
  • Some local authorities are still overcharging for inspection and misrepresenting their obligations under Part P
Let's hope we're all well stocked with candles.
Copyright © 1994-2013 Kevin Boone. Updated May 14 2010