HC Deb 10 April 1981 vol 2 cc1279-88

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Thompson.]

2.32 pm
Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

Plumbing has its origin in antiquity as an honourable and respected craft. The responsibility of the plumber to the public was recognised as early at 1365, when the Worshipful Company of Plumbers was granted ordinances stipulating that a plumber should submit himself to examination so that the trade might not be scandalised or the commonality damaged or deceived by folk who do not know their trade. Today the standing of plumbing in Great Britain, particularly in the realms of repair and maintenance, is open to abuse by those who do not know their trade. Good plumbing, now a highly technical operation involving many different skills, is essential for the health and wellbeing of the community, covering water supplies, sanitation and drainage.

The maintenance of adequate supplies of safe water and reliable sanitation services is essential to a civilised community. Moreover, a recent survey showed that one in three households requires a plumber at some time during the year.

Another survey recently valued the annual work load of small, less sophisticated plumbing work at £300 million at 1980 prices. All plumbing collectively represents about one-third of the total annual value of construction output.

Unfortunately, three aspects of the plumbing scene give rise to public concern. The first is the erosion of skills and pride in craftsmanship. The second is the inability of responsible authorities to enforce the necessary controls over plumbing. The third is the ease with which any person without training or experience can practise as a plumber and the dire result of that.

Plumbing today is far more than joining pipes together. It requires an understanding of complex installation design and procedures, knowledge of the nature of various materials and, most important, the intent and ability to conform to statutory building regulations and water byelaws as they affect plumbing.

Because of the nature of the specialist skills that he now has to possess, a qualified plumber is in such demand that there is a serious shortage of competent craftsmen.

Traditionally, most plumbers received their basic training through apprenticeship in the private sector. The increased cost of training and the new responsibilities created by recent employment legislation have produced a reluctance to engage apprentices. Furthermore, there are today fewer master craftsmen available to impart their skills and sense of craftsmanship to apprentices. The expansion of the Government's skill training centres, which provide only basic practical skills and limited theoretical knowledge, has further undermined the apprenticeship principle.

For these and other reasons there is a shortage of qualified craftsmen, and two undesirable trends dominate the scene. We find, on the one hand, a group of well-trained and dedicated plumbers, who have too much work to do in repair and maintenance, and, on the other hand, filling the gap we find a growing band of unscrupulous and incompetent men who call themselves plumbers and advertise for work as such, while flouting the law, carrying no insurance and paying no tax. These charlatans, or "cowboys" as they are called by many, have been responsible for much adverse publicity about plumbing, which has left many people convinced that plumbers in general are disreputable.

The situation, apart from raising questions of public confidence, has serious implications for health and safety. Skills are being eroded and there is a dwindling pride in craftsmanship. Indeed, the extent of sub-standard plumbing is such that many users are now unaware of what good plumbing is.

This leads me to my second point concerning controls over plumbing. Byelaws and regulations covering plumbing work have existed for many years. Designed in the interests of public safety, they are meant to avoid, for instance, the danger of contamination of public water supplies. Today, enforcement of these byelaws has become almost impossible. Non-compliance is commonplace. Enforcement by inspection is costly—hundreds of thousands of pounds annually—and inefficient, because most work in occupied premises is not notified to the authorities, so there is little chance of its being inspected.

Contraventions are found continually in commercial premises, and these are usually more serious than those in domestic premises, particularly with regard to contamination by back siphonage. For instance, recently there was a horrible case where water from a lavatory cistern was fed back into a coffee-making machine.

While byelaws and regulations specify the standard of pipes and fittings to be used in a plumbing system and lay down design criteria, they do not specify the standard of craftsmanship of those undertaking the installation. Moreover, plumbing products made by manufacturers after thorough development and testing by manufacturers who help to define British Standard specifications and codes of practice are often abused by the cowboys who ignore the codes and whose activities are making nonsense of our plumbing standards.

Last Wednesday evening the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) reminded the House that non-standard copper cylinders use 25 per cent. more energy than the appropriate equivalent, at a cost for each household using them of £13 per annum and a cost to the country collectively of between £20 million and £26 million per annum. That staggering cost arises solely from using sub-standard fittings.

The situation whereby contaminated water can return to public mains and spread risk is growing. New model water byelaws are currently being drafted. Their introduction in the mid-1980s will herald new plumbing systems that will have important consequences for the water industry, manufacturers and installers. But there is the problem of the enforcement of byelaws, made more acute with constraints on manpower resources within the water industry.

My third point is the ease with which any person can become a plumber. This is the crux of the situation, because the solution of this problem would essentially resolve the other two problems. It is an astonishing and disturbing fact that anyone without training, skill or knowledge may practise as a plumber. He needs no qualifications and no understanding of byelaws or regulations designed to protect the public. He need ask no one whether he can call himself a plumber and advertise and practise as such. In fact, countless men do just that and, through their ignorance or deliberate abuse, cause misery, danger and great expense to their victims. The evidence is found daily in every part of the country by water authority inspectors and genuine plumbers called in to sort out the mess.

I provide but four instances, but there are many more. A new house in the Birmingham area has been found to be so badly damaged by work by an incompetent plumber that it may have to be demolished. He made 5-in. grooves in 8-in. floor joists. In another case, a young family were found to have been drinking central heating water due to incorrect pipe connections. In Ware, Hertfordshire, a local bus driver-turned-plumber wedged wooden tank supports into a chimney stack. Surprise, surprise, they caught fire, the tank collapsed and the house was flooded. The official verdict was that the entire terrace was fortunate not to have gone up in flames. Finally, in what I admit is a short list, a London woman whose water pressure was low—her stopcock merely needed adjustment—was told that she had blocked pipes, necessitating the removal of her bath, and was charged, and paid, the princely sum of £400 for that extravagance.

Typical of general misdeeds are false statements that the entire plumbing system in an older property is unsafe and should be replaced urgently to prevent a disastrous flood. Plumbing is deliberately damaged to obtain extra work in repairing it. One can instance the removal from the premises of vital parts of a central heating boiler on the pretext that they need repair, and subsequent refusal to restore the parts unless what amounts to ransom money is paid.

The more honest but untrained people effect installations that are inefficient or dangerous. Houses and flats have been rendered unsafe for occupancy after explosions of incorrectly installed central heating boilers. Much of the work stems from emergency calls after a burst pipe or other failures. Some people unscrupulously advertise a 24-hour emergency service and in many cases create the self-same emergency. They commonly use several addresses and different names, which they change as soon as one becomes too "hot". That makes it difficult for a victim subsequently to obtain redress. Sometimes inspectors can catch up with them. One self-styled plumber in the West Midlands used 15 cover names and addresses. He was recently served with 13 summonses relating to water byelaw offences in a single installation.

The media give prominence to the reporting of bad cases, which often go wider than the failure of plumbing installations to embrace exorbitant charges, fraud and even physical assault when righteous protest is made. The two aspects of cowboy plumber operations—bad work and exorbitant charges—are commonly combined and the victims are often the elderly or those least able to protect themselves.

It is known that large numbers of these people are operating outside the control of the legitimate plumbing trade. No one has effective control over their workmanship or conduct. That is damaging to the community, the national economy and reputable plumbers. The position has become serious, and unless remedial action is taken soon it will become critical.

The problems of the plumbing industry have been drawn to my attention by the Institute of Plumbing, a registered charity with its headquarters in my constituency. The institute is convinced that the only effective solution is statutory registration, which would not only protect the people of the country but would stimulate recruitment to the legitimate plumbing industry and improve the training of apprentices, with tremendous gain to the nation in the years to come. It would identify qualified plumbers and, most importantly, it would give the authorities responsible for enforcement greater confidence that the work was being installed in accordance with the byelaws and regulations, without the need to employ a costly army of inspectors which would otherwise become essential yet would remain ineffective in some respects.

The benefits of statutory registration have been recognised in many parts of the Commonwealth and elsewhere for many years. Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland are the only two members of the EEC without such legislation. Moreover, New South Wales in Australia has recently further tightened its rules on the registration of plumbers. Registration in this country has been extended to the benefit of the equine species through the Farriers (Registration) Act 1975—a measure designed to prevent cruelty to horses in the shoeing of horses by unskilled persons. I submit that the health, safety and wellbeing of man should at least be equal to that of the noble horse.

While I am a firm believer in the philosophy of free enterprise, I feel that there are certain types of behaviour in business that can have an effect so damaging that they must be controlled by law. They damage not only the unsuspecting customer but the honest practitioner. To control or disallow such behaviour is, therefore, in the interests of both.

In any case, it would not restrict free enterprise and competition, because anyone wishing to work as a plumber would be able to do so, but he or she would first have to study, learn, become qualified and subsequently abide by the law.

As I have endeavoured to explain, the situation in the plumbing industry is such that action has been necessary for a long time. It has, therefore, come as a disappointment to the institute that successive Governments have believed that plumbers' registration is an area where the industry should act on its own initiative and without statutory intervention.

The plumbers have been acting on their own initiative for 95 years. They have been doing so through a system of voluntary registration initiated by the Worshipful Company of Plumbers in 1886. The register is now managed by the Institute of Plumbing, and about 13,000 plumbers are currently registered.

That is better than nothing, and while the institute welcomes the Minister's recent recognition of the benefits offered to consumers and industry by its voluntary register it knows better than anyone that it is ineffective in controlling the many charlatans who operate as plumbers and who are either unwilling or unable, through lack of training, experience or qualification, to become registered and to accept the disciplines of registration. That can be corrected only by legislation.

Short of State licensing of the practice of plumbing, the institute would meanwhile welcome a scheme of self-regulation operated and financed by the plumbing industry, but backed by adequate legal sanctions, which would be essential for any such scheme to be effective. The institute would therefore welcome legislation that restricted the title "plumber" and related descriptions to those enrolled on an official register. There are precedents elsewhere, the most recent being the Insurance Brokers (Registration) Act 1977. Registration would remain voluntary, but the public would have much increased protection, knowing that if they employed someone who proclaimed himself to be a plumber or a plumbing contractor he would, by law, have to be qualified and on the register.

The Institute of Plumbing believes that legislative backing of that type would, in time, weed out the unscrupulous and incompetent and assist the authorities responsible for the implementation of byelaws and regulations relating to plumbing. To me, that represents a sensible and realistic compromise between the Minister's concern about interference with the free operation of the industry and the introduction of standards necessary in the public interest.

It would not involve the spending of Government money, and it need not mean another quango. The institute already has a registration council, and a statutory body could be based on that. It would have the wholehearted support of the public and everyone who lives honestly and diligently by plumbing work. Above all, only registration can give back to the general public the confidence that they used to have and must long for on every occasion when they use plumbers.

2.47 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on his choice of the plumbing industry as the subject for debate on the Adjournment. I fear, however, that I shall be giving him a dry rather than a wet answer.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, he has raised a subject of considerable importance for every one of us. I also congratulate the Institute of Plumbing on its good fortune in having a Member who has displayed such interest and enthusiasm on its behalf. Having read my hon. Friend's speech in last night's papers and heard it today, I feel that I know it by heart. Perhaps we should have swapped speeches beforehand so that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, could have gone home early.

Good plumbing is something which we are all inclined to take for granted. We scarcely give a thought to the quality of plumbing which enables us to perform the familiar everyday action of turning on a tap to obtain running water. There is no glamorous new technology involved, and so we pay it little attention. We overlook the centuries-old development of the craft of plumbing which enables us to enjoy that privilege.

In fact, we usually think about plumbing only when it goes wrong—when the taps do not run or the drains become blocked. Our immediate reaction is quite likely to be one of alarm, first because it is always alarming when things that we take for granted go wrong and, secondly, because we are, frankly, worried by all the horror stories we have read and heard about inadequate and incompetent plumbing.

There is no way in which we can avoid the sad truth that the plumbing industry has had a bad press. Bad news travels fast, however untypical it may be. Good news is relegated to the odd column inch on an inside page, seldom on page 2 of certain newspapers.

Mr. Squire

Page 3.

Mr. Finsberg

No. Page 2—opposite page 3.

It is right, therefore, that I should take this opportunity to try to restore perspective and to remind the House of the immense contribution that the plumbing industry makes to the quality of our lives. It is also right that when the industry's problems are drawn to our notice, as they have been by my hon. Friend this afternoon, we should pay due attention.

My hon. Friend mentioned some areas in particular that give rise to public concern. First among those was the erosion of skills and pride of craftsmanship. As the Master of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers said in a recent letter to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, The main theme of public discontent can only be ascribed to the shortage of properly educated, properly trained and fully competent artisan plumbers. The Worshipful Company of Plumbers is one of the livery companies of the City of London. Like many of the other companies, it has retained a real interest in its original craft and mystery, and it is highly regarded throughout the water and plumbing industries. In this, as in so much else, we are indebted to the City of London and its institutions.

Alas, the decline in craft skills is not confined to plumbing, nor even to the other construction crafts. Past experience shows that through each cycle of the economy, when the upturn comes skill shortages reappear in many industries, plumbing not the least among them. It is not difficult to find explanations. The traditional relationship between master and apprentice is declining. Young people are, perhaps, more impatient, and three or four-year apprenticeships seem less attractive now than they used to be. Employers find that the cost of taking on an apprentice is an increasingly heavy burden, particularly at a time of recession, and they may also fear that the man whom they have trained, at a considerable cost in time and effort, may be enticed away by another employer, or by the prospect of setting up in business on his own, or even by some other industry where the skills that he has learnt can be put to good use.

It is not so easy to suggest remedies. Training in the plumbing industry is at present co-ordinated by the Construction Industry Training Board, which raises a levy from the industry and then pays grants to employers in respect of apprentices on approved training courses. In addition, the taxpayer provides substantial financial support each year to the board to support its training programmes. This year, there are more than 1,100 plumbing apprentices on the new entrants training scheme approved by the board.

At the Government's request, the Manpower Services Commission is currently reviewing the system of industrial training boards. I do not want to anticipate the outcome of that review, but the Government attach great importance to a training system which makes the best possible use of available resources and at the same time produces a sufficient number of trained men to meet the needs of industry. In the longer term, it may be that a more radical reappraisal of our approach to training is needed. To this end, the MSC will shortly be putting proposals to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. We hope that those proposals will form the basis for a consultative document which will stimulate further discussion and—where necessary—change.

My hon. Friend referred to the problem of the unscrupulous so-called cowboys who have seized the opportunity offered to them by the shortage of skilled men and whose activities have, unhappily, tarnished the good name of the plumbing industry as a whole. I shall have more to say about the cowboys in a few moments.

My hon. Friend mentioned the byelaws and regulations which deal with plumbing work. The byelaws are made under the Water Act, and their enforcement is the responsibility of the water authorities and the statutory water companies, which employ a staff of inspectors for the purpose. I accept that the enforcement of these byelaws gives rise to problems. New installations in new property are invariably inspected, but the water authorities and the companies have no statutory right to enter premises to inspect existing plumbing installations unless they have a warrant from a magistrate. Otherwise, they can enter only by invitation, which is not always forthcoming. This makes it difficult for the authorities to check that fittings and appliances continue to meet the requirements of the byelaws, and so unscrupulous plumbers have more or less a free hand to purchase and install cheap, sub-standard replacement fittings, which are often imported.

There is, undeniably, a problem here. My hon. Friend has stressed that clearly. Problems of enforcement are affecting the interests of the water authorities and of the British manufacturers, whose goods, which generally meet the legal requirements, are being undercut by cheap imports of dubious quality.

The Government have accordingly asked the standing technical committee on water regulations, whose members are drawn from the manufacturers, contractors, designers, the water industry, research bodies, the British Standards Institution and Government Departments, as well as, of course, the Institute of Plumbing and the Worshipful Company of Plumbers, to look at the problem of enforcement.

My hon. Friend referred to the possibility of new regulations relating to the water supply in buildings. I must emphasise that there is no question of any such regulations being introduced overnight. The standing committee has been preparing a set of new model byelaws, and when these are complete there will be full consultation on them before any possible legislation is considered.

The Government are very conscious of the potential significance of this sort of change for United Kingdom manufacturers, and we shall bear their interests very much in mind. We shall also be studying the manpower and cost implications most carefully before making any changes in this field.

It may be appropriate to refer to the question of good practice. The scope of byelaws and regulations is limited by statute, and there are in any case practical limitations on what can be included in legislation. Guidance on good practice is, however, provided by British Standard code of practice 310 on the water supply to buildings. This code has been under review by a committee of the British Standards Institution under the chairmanship of my Department. I hope that this will assist and encourage the further development of good practice in the plumbing industry.

My hon. Friend's third point was that anyone may set up in business as a plumber, regardless of whether he has any training, knowledge or experience in the craft of plumbing. I accept that this is an area of particular public concern. I spoke earlier of the damage which cowboy operators do to the plumbing industry as a whole, and I recognise the anxiety which reputable plumbers feel al the way in which the cowboys have damaged their good name.

At the same time, I think that we have to be very careful about any suggestion that the Government should intervene. It has been argued that Government intervention would be justified by reference to the contribution which plumbing makes to our health and quality of life. On the other hand, this could equally be said of many other activities which we would not dream of making subject to Government regulation. The Government must not be expected to take responsibility for an ever-increasing range of problems. We believe that there are areas in which statutory intervention is inappropriate, and schemes for regulation or registration in the construction industry are, in our judgment, one such area.

That does not mean that nothing can be done. My hon. Friend mentioned the voluntary register which is run by the Institute of Plumbers. Voluntary registration schemes are a useful tool for any industry which wishes to protect itself and its customers against the activities of unscrupulous fringe operators, and the institute's scheme makes an important contribution in this way. We must also consider the practical implications. Plumbing is a very large, very diffuse industry. My Department's latest estimates show that there are 8,300 plumbing firms in Great Britain, three-quarters of which employ three people or fewer, including working proprietors. There are rather more than 40,000 plumbers in the private sector, divided into 9,000 working proprietors—including partners—and 33,000 employees. Of the latter, 20,000 work for plumbing firms; the remainder work for general builders.

I believe that these figures show the scale of the task which formal regulation of the industry would involve. We have to remember that the object of regulation would be to exclude the unscrupulous minority without interfering with the legitimate majority. To do this successfully in such a diverse industry would require a substantial permanent commitment of manpower on inspection duties. Since men's livelihoods would be at stake, we would have to take particular precautions to ensure that the system was fair. A fully fledged independent registration body would probably be needed, and there would certainly have to be formal procedures for hearings, appeals and so on. In other words, whatever my hon. Friend might wish, a large-scale bureaucratic apparatus would have to be created. All that would cost money—either the money of taxpayers or the money of the registered plumbers, thus putting up their costs, which in the end the customer would have to pay.

Mr. Squire

Does my hon. Friend agree that there have been many instances where voluntary control of an industry or profession has proved inadequate and the Government of the day have stepped in to provide the necessary control?

Mr. Finsberg

My hon. Friend is making a fair point. However, I do not believe that we have reached anywhere near that stage with plumbing.

We should also remember that the consequence of schemes of the kind that my hon. Friend has been seeking would inevitably be to discriminate against small firms and the self-employed. They are the least able to cope with the additional costs and administration involved.

I mentioned earlier that plumbing is an industry in which it is possible for the more adventurous craftsman to set up in business on his own. I welcome the opportunities that plumbing offers for the creation of new small businesses, and I believe that we should think very carefully before taking any action that would interfere with those opportunities.

Finally, we should not forget why, despite all the adverse publicity, people are still prepared to employ cowboy firms. The reason, quite simply, is money. The cowboys offer cheap prices, in return for which they use inferior materials and produce a dubious standard of workmanship. The customer has a clear choice. He may go to a reputable plumber—perhaps one registered with the Institute of Plumbing—who will charge him a fair price for the work done, or he may prefer to take the risk of employing a cowboy, whose work may be substandard. If he takes that risk he may regret such a decision, which, for the sake of a few pounds, may rebound on him later.

It is only right, therefore, that I should conclude by emphasising our good fortune in having a capable, efficient plumbing industry, which makes a notable contribution to the quality of our lives. I hope that I have shown my hon. Friend that the Government understand the problem and that we have the industry's interests very much at heart. We shall certainly be willing to receive any representations that he and the livery or the institute may wish to make. We would clearly want those to be backed up with careful facts and figures. We would want to see exactly how they would propose that we might tackle this matter, if we were disposed to tackle it.

I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that the debate that we have had has proved useful, more than anything, perhaps, to those who use the services of plumbers—the ordinary consumers.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o' clock.