§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]1.58 am
§ Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)
It is of great concern that, with the advent of the single European market, the United Kingdom electrical contracting industry will be at a serious disadvantage compared with its counterparts in most of the other Community countries. That arises from the fact that on the continent the industry is regulated in the sense that operatives can carry out electrical installation work only if they are suitably qualified. In addition, the work has to adhere to mandatory safety standards. Furthermore, work generally has to be inspected to ensure that those standards are met.
In the United Kingdom, the electrical contracting industry works within a self-regulated framework. One consequence of that is that anybody who wishes to call himself or herself an electrician can do such work and is not bound even by the safety standards of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. That system leads to shoddiness, with the effect that sub-standard electrical wiring resulted in 3,500 accidental fires in dwellings and 2,800 accidental fires in other occupied buildings in the United Kingdom in 1987. That is according to the Home Office document entitled "Fire Statistics United Kingdom 1987". Mr. Gresty, the county trading standards officer of North Yorkshire county council, was kind enough to send me examples of extremely bad wiring practice. It is vital to take action to eliminate it.
The feeling in the industry is that the existing system of self-regulation will not enable it to compete fairly with unscrupulous continental operatives who will be able to work in the United Kingdom outside the influence of our system of self-regulation. The irony is that they will be able to do that without any qualifications and without having to concern themselves with safety standards in the United Kingdom, although they would be prevented from doing such work in their own countries by the various regulatory systems that exist there. Clearly, they would be able to cut corners and complete work more cheaply, but the safety consequences would be disastrous. Our industry is not asking for regulations on a basis comparable with those in the other EEC countries, but it is asking to be able to compete fairly with its EEC couterparts. I am sure that the Minister will find that a reasonable argument.
A key step towards addressing the problem is that the Electrical Contractors Association—with, I am glad to say, help from the Government—carried out detailed research and has just produced a report entitled, "Access for the British Electrical Contracting Industry to the European Single Market". That study investigated the issue of regulation in the electrical contracting industry in EEC countries and its possible impact on fair trade.
The main conclusions that I draw from the study are that the systems of regulation are variable in the EEC countries and there is no possibility of our self-regulated approach being adopted by the EEC for 1992. Therefore, we have to react to what exists on the continent in order to ensure fair competition and we need to do so as expeditiously as possible.
It is important to note that, if we fail to respond to the needs of the industry, our existing self-regulated system will not be able to monitor and establish the extent to 1136 which unscrupulous operators were coming to the United Kingdom and what work was being done. Clearly, the consequences of that would be serious when one is dealing with the potentially hazardous issue of electricity supply.
The industry is not asking for a system of regulation along the lines that exist on the continent. It is asking for a voluntary system of self-certification of work which will be based on an assessment of contracting companies in terms of their skills and the application of mandatory technical standards. If a company wishes not to take part in the voluntary system, it would be free to do as it does now, but it would not be qualified to certify its own work. A third party would have to inspect the work and approve it.
Continental contracting companies would be free, like British companies, to decide which of those options to pursue. The key point is that all companies, whether British or continental, would be treated exactly the same. The other main element in all this is the need for reciprocal recognition arrangements to be put in place so that British contracting companies can compete fairly on the continent.
As our existing system of self-regulation would generally be unacceptable on the continent, it would result in an almost total barrier to trade and for the electrical contracting industry 1992 and all that would be a complete farce. An urgent solution is needed.
I want to say a little more about the structure of the self-certification process proposed by the ECA and the two conditions that have to be satisfied for that to happen. As I have already said, if a contractor wishes voluntarily to be able to self-certify its work, it must meet certain qualifying criteria regarding the company and its staff. Some of the criteria that I should like to see are that the company must be commercially competent, its staff must be qualified electricians and there must be a minimum level of experience of, say, three years. The criteria would need to be assessed by an independent Government-approved body similar to the one that already exists for the gas industry—the Confederation for the Registration of Gas Installers.
The second main condition which must be met for self-certification is that work must adhere to existing IEE wiring regulations. That adherence must now become mandatory. The ECA—proposed structure suggests that those wiring regulations should become part of the normal building regulations which must be adhered to as part of the normal local authority planning permission procedures relating to construction work. Just as the local authority inspects construction projects to ensure that they meet agreed planning permission and building regulation guidelines, under these arrangements inspection of wiring could be carried out by the contracting company itself if it was qualified to self-certify or by a third party if the company had decided that it did not wish to be able to self-certify. The inspection work could be carried out by the local authority or by the National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting—both of which will have to adapt themselves to some extent to be able to carry out that work.
The upshot of all this is that continental electrical contractors would be able to work in the United Kingdom, but within the necessary IEE technical regulations that would ensure safety and fair competition. It must be stressed that 1992 must not result in the deterioration of electrical standards. On the contrary, the number of 1137 electrically caused fires, fatalities and serious accidents in the United Kingdom causes concern and unquestionably justifies raising the standards of our electrical installations.
The other vital condition is that the reciprocal recognition arrangements which aim to allow British contractors to have fair access to continental markets must work effectively. I understand that there is agreement in principle on an industry basis between the ECA and the international trade association—the Association Internationale d'Entreprises Electriques.
Although the groundwork on reciprocal recognition is being done by the industry, I nevertheless believe that the time has come for Government to start playing a more active role in this matter. I am especially anxious that the Minister should press the EEC Commission to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the system of reciprocal recognition works in the interests of British industry. The Government can obviously do that far better than industry and I hope that the Minister will move quickly on this.
What are the possible legislative consequences? I believe that the Government have all the powers that they need. Does the Minister agree that the function of the approved body, to which I have referred and which would allow contractors to self-certify their work, could be dealt with under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974? I refer specifically to schedule 3, clauses 4, 5, 6 and 7. Does the Minister also agree that incorporating electrical wiring into building regulations could be dealt with administratively and would not require legislation? I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that.
The Consumers Association has written to me about incorporating electrical wiring into building regulations. It states:The fact that anyone can set up a business in this field of work without qualifications or experience is highly unsatisfactory…We think that the Wiring Regulations drawn up by the IEE should have the force of law…We would, therefore, welcome any changes in the Building Regulations which would make it mandatory to meet the lEE standards.I hope that the Minister will accept the proposal that I have put before the House, which is based on the views of the ECA, the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunication and Plumbing Union and others. Not to accept the proposal would pose a serious risk to our electrical contracting industry in terms of loss of trade and jobs. It would also have serious consequences for consumers because of the threats to safety that could arise from a deterioration in standards.
Will the Minister accept in principle the ECA structure that I have put before the House on the question of self-certification, third-party inspection and reciprocal recognition? If the Minister will not accept that structure in principle, will he tell the House exactly what he intends to put in its place and the timescale for producing alternative proposals, bearing in mind the urgent need for our industry to start preparing for 1992? I gave the Minister notice of that question, so I hope that he can give a reply.
I am sure that the Minister recognises that the industry is not advocating anything other than that the industry should be able to operate in a free market while recognising the different ways in which the continental industry is regulated and is likely to be regulated in the foreseeable future. I am sure that the Minister also recognises that much of what I have advocated for the 1138 electrical contracting industry already exists for gas installations. Will the Minister confirm that he accepts the idea of having an approved body which would assess contractors to see if they satisfied the qualifying criteria for self-certification? I understand that the requirements for the approved body have already been defined by the ECA. Those requirements are comparable with what would be needed for Europe.
Will the Minister also confirm that he will give support to the electrical contracting industry by encouraging the EC Commission to establish a system of reciprocal recognition that will ensure that United Kingdom contractors are able to compete fairly at home and on the continent?
§ Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)
I wish to intervene briefly to congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) on his good fortune in securing an Adjournment debate on such an interesting and important subject.
I declare an interest as one who has built up an electrical contracting business which is listed among the 10 largest in the industry. I have also represented the Electrical Contractors Association for some time in the House.
The Minister will be aware that our industry is in a unique position. It is in a healthy state, but it needs help from the Government to be able to compete vigorously in Europe. For many years in this country any Tom, Dick or Harry could set up here, and now any Fritz, Pierre or Sebastian will be able to do the same. At the same time, however, even the most qualified electrician here will have considerable difficulty in setting up and competing in Europe. That is why it is most important that the Government should establish reciprocal trading arrangements so that members of the ECA can go abroad to compete and to demonstrate that healthy state of our electrical contracting industry, which will then stand it in good stead when competing in Europe.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
Do I take it that the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) had the permission of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) to make a speech?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
So that it can be recorded in the Official Report, I should tell the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West that it is a courtesy to inform the Chair when it is agreed that other hon. Members are to take part in the Adjournment debate.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) for raising this interesting issue this morning He brings considerable expertise—no doubt based on his own background in electrical engineering—to it. I was interested to hear the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), who is also an expert on this matter.
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West that electrical installation 1139 engineers should be competent and properly qualified. But electrical contracting is one area where considerable regulation already exists or is being developed: first, self-regulation on the part of the industry and, secondly, regulation through the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the control of supply and the building regulations.
First, I shall turn to voluntary self-regulation. The Electrical Contractors Association examines all the companies that apply to it for membership for technical skills, competence in contracting, sound business practices and the qualifications of their staff and operatives. Once admitted to the ECA, registered contractors are required to conform with the association's rules and standards. The ECA has for 40 years offered guarantees to customers, in support of their registered contractors. These guarantees cover not only the work undertaken by the contractor but also completion of the project if the original contractor experiences difficulties.
The National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting, a consumer safety organisation, has about 9,500 contractors on its register. By its own estimate, the NICEIC believes that about 75 per cent. of electrical contracting work in all sectors—domestic, commercial and industrial—is undertaken by contractors registered with it. Contractors are registered only after undergoing a full day's inspection by an NICEIC inspector and annual inspections take place thereafter.
I applaud the work of both these organisations and I am confident that the schemes run by the ECA and NICEIC—which are by no means mutually exclusive—offer the consumer excellent standards of safety and quality of service. It is primarily through the increasingly effective promotion of these schemes that the industry will be able to put its own house in order, since, as contractors realise that they will be unable to compete for trade without the backing of a recognised body, they will quickly be forced to seek recognised status or suffer in the market place.
Turning to health and safety, the Electricity at Work Regulations 1989—made under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974—will come into force on 1 April 1990. The purpose of the regulations is to require precautions to be taken against the risk of death or personal injury from electricity in workplace activities.
On the control of supply, the Department of Energy has issued regulations for the safe and secure supply of electricity. Regulation 27 enables an electricity board to take into account compliance with the IEE wiring regulations in assessing whether an installation should be connected.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West has referred to the suggestions from parts of the electrical industry that electrical installation work should be brought within the scope of the building regulations, as indeed is already the position in Scotland. We believe that the existing arrangements to ensure that such work is carried out in a safe manner are working well. Nevertheless, we are considering whether, particularly in the light of developments at the European level, it might be desirable to reinforce them with a general legal requirement in the regulations.
If we should decide to go down this path, there are a number of practical difficulties that would first need to be 1140 resolved. In particular, we would have to find ways of ensuring that we were not simply adding an unnecessary and burdensome layer of bureaucratic control to the industry's own voluntary arrangements. We are discussing these issues with representatives from the industry, and, in accordance with our normal practice, we would consult widely on detailed proposals before deciding whether or not to introduce a requirement of this nature.
If electrical installation work were to be brought within the scope of the building regulations, an additional regulation made under section 1 of the Building Act 1984 would be necessary, and an approved document would be issued setting out how compliance with that regulation would be achieved.
I have already referred to developments at the European level. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that these are of prime importance.
The Electrical Contractors Association's report on the way in which the electrical installation industry is controlled in all the member states of the European Community is a most useful document. I am pleased to say that the Government made a large contribution to the funding of that research.
The report concludes that, on the whole, the industry is more highly regulated in other member states than in the United Kingdom and that this, in effect, creates barriers to entry for United Kingdom contractors. That is a serious allegation, and we shall wish to examine equally seriously whether barriers are, in practice, significant and, if so, how they should be tackled on a Community basis.
I do not, however, believe, for the reasons which I have already set out, that the right answer would be the introduction of statutory registration, either under schedule 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, or by other legislative means.
To achieve equality of market access in Europe, the ECA has advocated a system of reciprocal recognition. Appropriate reciprocal arrangements would, in the ECA's view, require some sort of formalisation of the current structure of self-regulation, based on recognition of contractors qualified to self-certify that their work complies with technical standards, while the work of other contractors would be subject to third-party inspection. An independent means, both of accrediting suitably qualified contractors and of providing inspection of other contractors, might be necessary.
These are, I think, suggestions which certainly deserve further exploration. The arguments were further developed by the hon. Gentleman. A key element would be the creation of an independent industry-wide approval and inspection body, perhaps modelled on CORGI, or perhaps on the NICEIC in a rather different and more broadly based form. To such a body, the Government would accord recognition but not, as I have said, statutory backing.
It is for the industry to carry these proposals forward. I gather that the ECA is currently consulting its continental European counterparts through the pan-European association, the AIE, and that the hope is that the AIE will arrive at an agreed approach to reciprocal recognition before the end of the year. In countries with statutory registration arrangements, the agreed approach will need to be brokered with Government and dealt with on a Communitywide basis. In the United Kingdom I shall be taking a close interest in any formalisation of the United Kingdom arrangements which may be necessary, 1141 not least in the light of our current examination of whether the building regulations might be widened to include electrical installation.
§ Mr. Randall
Bearing in mind the agreement in principle in Britain between the ECA and the AIE on reciprocal recognition, does the Minister agree that the Government have an important role to play in pushing the matter forward through the EEC Commission?
§ Mr. Chope
The Government are certainly considering the appropriate steps to take in the light of these developments. I have nothing to report to the hon. Gentleman this evening, but I assure him that submissions are on their way: my Department is considering the matter.
Whatever the outcome, we must ensure that our electrical installation contractors are not disadvantaged in the single market. That the other member states have more statutory regulation of their electrical installation industries than we have may not matter in itself. Indeed, it does not necessarily mean that their standards of workmanship are higher. It would be fair to say that we have high standards in this country. That is not to say that we cannot improve them, but it would be wrong to suggest that our standards are lower than those of other countries.
The hon. Gentleman quoted Home Office statistics. They do not break down to wiring faults in the manner that he suggested. The best statistics that I have were produced by the Department of Energy and deal with domestic fatalities. Although one is too many, I am pleased to say that in 1987 there was only one death as a result of domestic wiring faults.
§ Mr. Randall
May I refer the Minister to table 49(a) in the report to which I referred? Under the heading "Dwellings", the report says that there were 3,549 accidental fires resulting from electrical wiring. Under the 1142 second heading of "Other occupied buildings" the report says that there were 2,875 electrical wiring fires. These are Home Office statistics.
§ Mr. Randall
I do not want to use the Minister's time, because I know that he wishes to answer the questions that I put to him, but the document breaks down the causes of fires and one of those specified is electrical wiring. Other electrical causes are mentioned and one could increase the number of accidents by including those caused by electrical appliances. I have specifically mentioned wiring which is the matter that would be covered by EC regulations and which we wish to see in legislation.
§ Mr. Chope
I shall not disagree with the information in the documents to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I shall seek further information on the basis of what he has said.
If regulation leads to unfair barriers to trade for the United Kingdom's reputable installation contractors and thus to restrictions on European competition, we shall wish to consider carefully how those barriers might be removed. For the time being the ECA's proposals for reciprocal recognition in conjunction with technical control through the building regulations offers a possible way forward. I cannot say that the Government accept that as the solution, but, as I say, it certainly offers a possible way forward and we are considering it sympathetically.
I think that I have answered all the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. If not, I shall be happy to clear up any that remain in correspondence.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Two o'clock.