U NCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 954-i

House of COMMONS

Oral EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE the

Communities and Local Government Committee

Building Regulations applying to electrical installation and repairs in dwellings

Monday 11 February 2013

RT HON Don Foster MP

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 24

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee

on Monday 11 February 2013

Members present:

Mr Clive Betts (Chair)

Simon Danczuk

James Morris

Mark Pawsey

Andy Sawford

Heather Wheeler

________________

Examination of Witness

Witness: The right hon. Don Foster MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Good afternoon. Welcome to this follow-up evidence session on the inquiry into building regulations applying to electrical and gas installation and repairs in dwellings. Welcome, Minister. I should say "Order, order", just to make sure we are clearly in public session. Before we begin, I draw your attention to the letter dated 7 February, which we have just reported to the House for publication. As you will be aware, two electrical safety registers were established in November 2012. The Committee is concerned that having two rival registers will cause confusion, and on 23 January we met representatives of NAPIT, which set up the ElectricSafe Register, and representatives of the Electrical Contractors’ Association, the Electrical Safety Council and the Ascertiva Group Limited, which set up the Electrical Safety Register.

The primary purpose of the meeting was to explore why the main registration bodies responsible had not been able to agree on a single branded scheme or register for the competent electrical installers. At the meeting on 23 January, the participants agreed to supply the Committee by 11 February-today-with a joint agreed letter of intent to work together to resolve their differences and to produce a single register under one recognisable brand covering all the electrical scheme operators. hat is what we have from them so far. I think the Committee might think it is a step forward, but not perhaps the biggest step forward that we might have been looking for. I think we will want to have another look in three months’ time at the least, but obviously that will be dependent on our further discussions with you today, Minister.

I welcome you, and thank you very much for coming along to discuss this important subject. When we had the previous discussions about Part P, the Government were adamant that they did not want to do anything that would unduly diminish safety; I think that is obviously something that Governments should be interested in. How can that be reconciled with the intention you now announce to amend the application of Part P to minor works in areas that have previously been considered as high risk, particularly gardens or kitchens? Could you clarify that the changes will not apply to bathrooms or shower rooms? Could you be clear about that?

Mr Foster: If we can start with your last point, it is very clear that any electrical work that is done near a bath or a shower will still have to be notified. We have defined in some detail what we mean by "near", but broadly speaking, in layman’s terms, it is if you are standing in the shower, or you are in the bath, and you can reach out and touch it; then it would be notifiable. It is actually defined as 0.6 metres, to be more precise in terms of the definitions. However, more generally, I think the point is that we had a lot of people contacting us who were very keen for us to completely remove Part P. We said we were not prepared to do that. About 20% of those who responded to the consultation wanted us to do that. For the very reason of concern about safety issues, we were determined we were not going to go down that route.

However, we did recognise that making the changes that we have made, for reasons that we can perhaps discuss in detail, could have an impact on safety. We have reviewed that very carefully, and we are confident that as a result of the measures we are putting in place-not least the way we will promote, with your help, the whole importance of electrical safety through the competent person scheme and so on-there will be no diminution in safety. I draw the Committee’s attention to one really important fact: prior to the introduction of Part P, only about 13,000 of the 50,000-odd electricians and organisations were registered. Now over 40,000 are registered and, of course, getting training and demonstrating their skills to be able to do the work.

Q2 Chair: We will come to the details of possible changes in the way the competent person scheme operates in due course, particularly the possibility of third-party certification. Why did you choose to make changes to the way Part P applies to minor works in kitchens, outside and, potentially, in some areas of bathrooms before the other changes were made? Would it not have been better to have brought those other changes in? It seems the changes have been made only because it might cost £240 for someone to get approval for them.

Mr Foster: No, with respect. We will perhaps come on to the other changes in terms of the third-party notification, and so on. However, it is very clear from the consultation-and I am sure members of the Committee have read it-that there is concern about the level of bureaucracy and cost associated with some of the things that were included in Part P until we made the proposed changes on 18 December. It is very clear from the figures that there will be a saving of about £14 million as a result of the moves that we have made, with no diminution in safety.

Q3 Chair: Right. Are you therefore saying categorically to the Committee, Minister, that there is going to be no diminution in safety whatsoever as a result of these changes?

Mr Foster: No politician can ever give you a categorical answer of "No" in the way that you are putting it, but it is quite clear from the consultation, and from the discussions that we have had, that that is what our expectation is. Of course the other problem, and I am sure members of the Committee are well aware of it, is the difficulty of how you would define the issue of whether safety has improved or diminished in some way. This is because of the difficulty of what aspects you measure, and what could lead to a particular incident: whether it is as a result of changes to Part P, or the maintenance of some parts of Part P, and so on. It is very difficult to do, but we are confident, and I am confident, that the measures that we have introduced will not lead, as an overall package, to a diminution in safety.

Q4 Chair: Measuring is difficult-I think that is a summary of what you have just said-but equally, on 18 December you said that you would continue to monitor indicators that can help identify the impact of the changes, and keep this under review. What indicators would they be? What action might you take as a result?

Mr Foster: I am very grateful that you asked the question, because this is one of the things I had hoped to cover at this session, and perhaps I can do it now. As you will recall, when we introduced Part P on the first occasion, we made it very clear that we would report back after two years as to how it had progressed. I make that clear commitment to this Committee today: two years from the introduction of the changes that we are making, we will report back on the progress. However, one of the difficulties that we acknowledge is how you make those judgments, and I would be very grateful if the Committee would agree to assist us in developing criteria against which we can make those judgments. It is very difficult, as I have said. You can look, for example, at issues to do with fire, such as electrical fires having occurred, but of course there can be a range of circumstances that led to that. Another very good example is that Part P changes do not alter some of the other things that are going on. For example, we know, as a result of the English Housing Survey, that a very much larger proportion of properties have now got residual current devices installed in their fuse boxes, which was not the case before.

Q5 Chair: But it is a very small percentage in total, is it not?

Mr Foster: No. We have had the opportunity to look at the latest figures, and we will happily share them with the Committee.

Chair: Yes, that would be helpful. Thanks.

Mr Foster: The English Housing Survey suggests that 60% of properties now have RCDs fitted. What we cannot give you-and I apologise for this, but we simply do not have the information-is what the figure was prior to the introduction of Part P. However, we now know it is 60%. We know that when fuse boxes are changed, as they are in existing properties, they will have an RCD installed, and of course it is a requirement under the British safety standard that they be installed in all new properties. So that is helping to boost it, and that of course will affect the number of incidents, but that is not related to the Part P changes.

Q6 Chair: I will raise two further points, and then pass on to colleagues. In your statement, as well as saying that you were going to look at indicators that help identify the impact of the changes, you also said that there will remain a duty for the non-notifiable works-including those that were previously going to be notifiable but now are not-"to comply with the safety provisions required by the regulations". What are those? What requirements?

Mr Foster: They are rather lengthy, and in a rather large tome, which is the British safety standard with which all electrical works are required to comply. We are saying that there is a requirement that all work be done safely.

Q7 Chair: How are the requirements going to be enforced?

Mr Foster: I am sure members of the Committee are well aware of the difficulty of enforcing a number of activities that take place in building works and any other works. There is the problem, of course, of how you can carry out inspections of every single bit of work that anybody undertakes in any property anywhere in the land, and we acknowledge that. This is why we have a set of clear safety standards, and it is why we work with the industry, which is responsible for the vast majority of work that is done that has any potentially serious activity. It is worth recalling that of the 2.6 million electrical works that are done, DIY-ers do perhaps up to 1 million, but of the ones that are remotely considered to be a safety issue, it is a very small proportion indeed. So the vast majority of work that can potentially have an impact on safety is carried out by qualified electricians, and as I said, a much greater number are registered now and very often part of the competent person scheme. So we have competent persons and registered electricians doing the vast majority of the work that could potentially have any safety issues associated with it, which is a different answer to your question, I accept, than "How can you monitor that?" which is why areas relating to safety issues are still required to be notified. That is why we have not got rid of Part P, as 20% of the respondents wanted us to do.

Q8 Chair: I suppose the argument is whether sockets in the kitchen and outside are potentially more dangerous than those in other parts of the house.

Mr Foster: The assessment we made, in the light of consultation, is that we have got the judgment right. We have the balance right in the sort of activities that could lead to safety issues, which is why a large number of activities still remain, and are now much more clearly defined, as being required to be notified.

Q9 Heather Wheeler: You gather that we are really quite exercised about this, and I am a little bit confused. You made a statement on 18 December; you referred to outcomes of the review, the framework of building regulations, and local housing standards. You sort of pre-announced that back in October as well, and I am wondering whether Part P is part of that new arrangement and whether you are going to ask the panel to look into building regulations. I am a little bit confused. You have already made a decision, but you are asking someone else to look at it again.

Mr Foster: We have two groups, and I think it is important to distinguish between them. We have one group that is very specifically looking at building standards, and then we have a smaller group, which we call the challenge group, which we have basically given free rein to look at absolutely anything that covers both building regulations and building standards. They will actually feed in advice to other work that is going on, particularly in relation to the Lord Taylor review of the things that come out following the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework. The guidance will follow from what Lord Taylor is looking at, and the challenge group will have the opportunity to comment on all those issues. That may be looking at any of the changes we have made to Part P as well as the current proposals that we have.

Q10 Heather Wheeler: Your answer is really clear, so thank you for that. I suppose what I am now getting at is what was the point of the Government going through all this exercise if, having parked it, you are then asking another group to go and do it again.

Mr Foster: I am grateful for the question, but quite clearly we want to be constantly reviewing all the work that is going on; that is why we have the challenge panel. However, in discussions with the challenge panel I am quite clear that Part P of building regulations is not something that they will be devoting a great deal of time to. Their current concern, and the main focus of their attention, is looking at the work being done in terms of building standards. As I say, we have very deliberately given them the remit as a challenge panel to be able to challenge anything we do-I am sure they will be looking very closely at this session today, and the other work the Committee is doing, and they will be very grateful for it-and that may lead them to want to come back and challenge even on some of the changes we are making to Part P. It will not be a key part of their focus at this stage, I imagine, but they are a challenge panel and they can do what they like, so I do not want to imply that they are not going to look at it; they might.

Q11 Heather Wheeler: That leads me to my last question rather nicely. Who is actually in charge of the change of policy on building regulations?

Mr Foster: The Government.

Heather Wheeler: Is it the DCLG, the Treasury, or BIS?

Mr Foster: There is no question about it. Responsibility at ministerial level lies with me; that is within DCLG, but of course we are part of Government, so it goes in that sequence, if you like. However, responsibility for these issues lies within DCLG, and the changes that we are making are ones that we believe are in the best interests of consumers, although of course there are benefits to the industry as well. If the industry benefits, then that can benefit the consumer, but at all times any changes we make will have safety issues as a very high priority.

Q12 Mark Pawsey: Minister, could I ask you about the competent person scheme, which you spoke about in your statement of 18 December? It is an alternative to work done by building regulations. How will the competent person scheme work? What is the timetable for installing it and bringing it forward?

Mr Foster: Well, the competent person scheme is already up and running, and as I said, we estimate that there are about 53,000 people involved in electrical work, and 40,000 of those, the vast majority, are now registered with a competent person scheme. Where work is notifiable under Part P, either before or under the change that we are introducing, it can either be notified to the building control department of the local authority, or it can be self-certified by a member of one of the competent person schemes. There is no change to that arrangement, other than a significant increase in the number of people doing work who are now members of the competent person scheme. In fact, if you look at the number of notifiable activities under the current arrangement, fewer than 10% of those are ones where the notification goes to the local authority building control; the vast majority are done through the competent person self-certification scheme.

Q13 Mark Pawsey: Is it your expectation that this new scheme will be mostly to certify work that has been done by DIY-ers? You told us earlier that about 1 million in 2.6 million installations are carried out by people who do it themselves. Is that not where the area of greatest risk lies?

Mr Foster: The total number of activities that are undertaken by DIY-ers that are currently notifiable is about 48,000, which is a comparatively small number. Under the new notification arrangements, we think that will drop to about 26,000, so again it is a very small proportion of the well over 2.6 million electrical jobs that are carried out. However, as part of the new scheme, which is not the competent person scheme but a new scheme that we are introducing, a third party can check the work that is being done. That will apply to some of those activities almost certainly, although they could be notified to the local authority, or indeed you could have certification from a competent person, but it is a new scheme. It will be a relatively small number, but it adds to the opportunities.

Q14 Mark Pawsey: The clear objective of Government here is to reduce bureaucracy and to reduce cost. What evidence is there that bringing in a third-party inspector is going to cost less than the average £240 that the Part P route entails? What is the level going to be?

Mr Foster: The total amount of money that would be engaged in terms of somebody coming to do the inspection, fill in the form and send it off will almost certainly be significantly less than the average £246 of notification. However, that will be up to the individual who is invited to come and make that judgment. That will be a discussion with the installer.

Q15 Mark Pawsey: You said "significantly less". Where do you expect it to be? Give us a spread.

Mr Foster: I would be more than happy to write to you with official estimates, because I do not have instant ones to hand. If you look at the amount of time, which would be less than an hour, and if you look at the time for filling in the form, which would be less than 15 minutes, it would be a relatively small amount of time for somebody to come in, in comparison with the local authority coming out and doing the work. Often that will take longer.

Q16 Mark Pawsey: Less than £100, would you say?

Mr Foster: I imagine it would be a figure in that order of magnitude, but I am more than happy to write to you with a more precise figure than I am giving you at the moment. Yes, we are hoping it will be cheaper, but of course it will be up to the property owner or resident in the property to make a judgment as to which route he or she wishes to follow.

Q17 Mark Pawsey: Will the property owner be sufficiently well informed about the two alternative routes? Is it not going to be the case that they will always go for the least expensive route?

Mr Foster: I envisage that you may want to ask a little bit more about the details of the timing, so perhaps I can help. We are not anticipating having this scheme up and running probably until the end of this year, because of the various discussions that have to take place, the legal system, setting up registers, and all of those sorts of things. During the course of those discussions, as we work with the industry to develop the schemes, we will get a better idea of the sort of cost, and of the way in which it would be promoted. Again, any views from the Committee would be very welcome. One of the problems is that until we had announced our intention to go down this route, we were not in a position to give confidence to the various bodies that we were determined to do it. Until we had given them the confidence that we were determined to do it, it was difficult for them to enter into any detailed, meaningful conversations about the way in which the registers will be set up. There is a discussion opportunity, and at that point we will also be discussing the issue of promoting it, ensuring people know what choices are available to them, and so on.

Q18 Mark Pawsey: Who is going to draw up the list of certifiers? What steps are you taking to make certain that people on the competent person scheme are actually competent? How can we make certain that there are not some inappropriate people getting on to that list?

Mr Foster: Again, I separate out the current competent person scheme, where there is the opportunity for self-certification. That scheme is run by a number of different organisations; they have a set of standards that are approved by us, and they are responsible for ensuring that their members and people they place on that competent person scheme are up to scratch and meet those standards. In terms of drawing up the register for people who can do the third-party work, that is the debate that I have already referred to, about which we are currently beginning dialogue. I would be very happy to come back to you at a later stage when we have more information and I am better able to answer your question.

Q19 Simon Danczuk: Minister, it is all very complicated, is it not? It is hard for people to follow the whole description of what is going on in this particular sector. I just wondered whether the Government and you, Minister, were supportive of the work that the Committee is doing in terms of trying to bring together and reconcile the differences in terms of the two registers that currently exist-the ElectricSafe Register and the Electrical Safety Register. Are you supportive of the work that the Committee is doing in that regard?

Mr Foster: I am enormously grateful to the Committee for the work that they have done. I am particularly grateful that you brought in both parties to discuss this issue with you, and I certainly share your view that it would be very much easier for the consumer if they had a single branded name that they could look to. Now, that does not mean that you cannot have a range of different competent person organisations with different membership and competition between them. I have no problem with that at all, but I would have hoped it would be possible for them to act under an agreed umbrella name. I think it is progress, and I am grateful to the organisations concerned that some of them have come together and produced one scheme name, with ElectricSafe Register, and another with Electrical Safety Register. I would have preferred to have a single brand name with a number of organisations underneath, and although it is possible for a number of levers to be used to put on more pressure to bring that about, I think I share your Committee’s view that this is best done voluntarily.

The other area of progress that I am very grateful for is that all of the organisations that are party to this are very keen to explore the greater promotion of competent person schemes generally, and as the Committee will be aware, those all appear on the competentperson.co.uk website. In fact it is referred to in the letter that you received from them. Quite clearly one of the things-if not the ideal then a move in the right direction-is to find a way of using that website to make it easier for people who are looking for an electrician to be able to go to that website and find out who they can trust to do the work and who is capable of self-certifying. I am grateful that the organisations are working on that, but it does not alter the fact that my strong preference would be for a single name that they can all work under, whatever it is. Given that they seem to have, as it were, stolen Electrical Safety and ElectricSafe, I have been struggling in my mind to come up with a combination of the two of them to work round it, like Electrical Safe or Electric-whatever. However, I am sure we will find a way forward, and I would be enormously grateful for anything the Committee can do to help with that. Hopefully we can work together on it, because I am fairly confident we have a shared aim in what we want to achieve.

Q20 Simon Danczuk: Assuming these two different warring factions listen to this debate and to this discussion without cursing or swearing, what key message, just briefly, would you send to them from today’s meeting?

Mr Foster: For the sake of the consumer, get your act together. It is as simple as that. While they have made progress, and I am genuinely grateful for the progress that they have made, I still think that they could go further. I would be very loth to use some of the rather draconian measures that one could use through the licensing regime and so on, rather than a voluntary agreement, but I know it is something that the public out there are now very used to understanding in the area of work dealing with gas. They go to Gas Safe; they understand what it means. I accept that there is only one competent person scheme behind that; with electrical work there is a multiplicity of them, but it seems to me that having an overarching umbrella brand name that they can all say they are part of, with appropriate branding and advertising, would be very helpful. I think it is worth remembering, and I am sure members of the Committee are well aware, that one of the responsibilities of any of the competent person schemes is promoting electrical safety, and I think it would be very much easier if they were doing it under a single branding.

Q21 Chair: I think one of the things that quite worried the Committee when we looked at this issue was the lack of public awareness of Part P and how it operates, and that they as homeowners are the responsible people. It is not the person that comes to do the work; the homeowners are responsible. I suppose in that lack of public awareness you could probably have included most members of the Committee before we began our inquiry. It is just not common knowledge. We have talked about what the members of the competent person schemes and the various organisations can do to try to improve their presentation-maybe having one brand name. We as a Committee have talked to the electrical suppliers and the retailers to see whether they can get some common wording on their packaging, on their websites, and on the how-to leaflets they produce as well, so that is something else we are following up. What more can the Government do to try to pull this together-to get a campaign scheme and identification that the public understand?

Mr Foster: I think the first thing is to recognise, again, that my Department is enormously grateful for the work that your Committee is doing in talking to the manufacturers and the retailers about promoting electrical safety. We are also very grateful for the work that is done by the Electrical Safety Council, who are working in those fields as well. I merely say that if there is an opportunity for the Department to assist in those discussions, we would be very willing and very keen to do so. However, at the moment we are not actively engaged in anything specific, because we know you are having those discussions and the Electrical Safety Council are having those discussions, but we are more than willing to participate if it is thought helpful. The one thing I would be clear about, however, is that at the moment we have no plans to introduce any regulatory requirements that would impose something on either the manufacturers or the suppliers.

Q22 Chair: Minister, thank you for your offer to keep us involved in the process; we will obviously think about what more we can do to contribute to what you are doing, and we will keep you informed of progress-hopefully it is progress-with regard to the electrical suppliers and the various competent person schemes hopefully coming together. If that is something we feel we can make a contribution to, we will do that. If I can just come back on one point, I think generally it has been about reassurance and working together today. The thing I still need some reassurance on, and I do not know how other members of the Committee feel, is this issue of electrical sockets in kitchens, outside, and in bathrooms. We as a Committee were quite clear that we were concerned about any change in the regulations in that regard. Could you offer us any clear evidence about what persuaded you to make this change? Last year DIY-ers putting sockets outside or in a kitchen was not considered safe, but it is going to be considered safe this year. What evidence did you have that persuaded you?

Mr Foster: I think the evidence was from the various people we consulted, who were very clear. Somewhere in the region of 70% of the people responding to the consultation concluded that the sorts of changes we were discussing were moves in the right direction. It is worth reporting that the Building Regulations Advisory Committee said in October that the proposal to amend Part P was the preferred option. We know that the ECA, the Electrical Contractors Association, and NICEIC, the electrical people, have both said that they think we are moving in the right direction. They welcome the Government plans to reduce the number of notifiable works, saying it will cut some of the red tape faced by the industry. What they are also saying, which I think is really important, comes back to an earlier question. It is a complex area, and being able to be very much clearer about what electrical work is notifiable and which ones we think potentially have safety issues associated with them will make it easier for the public to understand what they have to do. However, at the same time we reiterate that all electrical work has to be carried out safely.

Q23 Chair: A number of organisations clearly supported that. That is their opinion and that is their view. I am still not clear where the hard evidence is that something is going to be safe this year that was not last year. I am not an electrician, and would not claim to be competent in that and maybe in other things as well, but instinctively my view is that water and electricity do not mix well together. If you have a DIY-er putting sockets in an area where there is water, that has to be more risky than putting them in an area where there is not, does it not? I do not know.

Mr Foster: Although I have a degree in physics, so I could perhaps bore the Committee in some detail about how water and electricity do not mix in certain circumstances, I do not think you want to hear me say it. The crucial thing is that we have identified those areas where, if you like, water and electricity do not mix, and we have made it absolutely clear that those are the areas where notification is still required. In areas where based upon the advice of experts in the field they felt that the notification was no longer necessary, we have followed that advice. Seventy per cent of the people we consulted believe that this is a move in the right direction. The vast majority of people are supportive of these proposals.

They are supportive for a number of reasons: firstly, there has been a change since Part P was first introduced. The biggest change of all has been the number of registered electricians in the country who are now carrying out the work. There are far more people registered as competent electricians, knowing what they are doing, understanding the safety circumstances, and understanding what the requirements are in the British safety standard. That is one thing that has changed. Secondly, far more homes have now got safety devices, as I was describing before; 60% have got them. Thirdly, there have been concerns about the cost, the complexity and the bureaucracy that has been there, and I think we have been able to address that within the changes that we have made.

Q24 Chair: Minister, thank you very much indeed for coming this afternoon.

Mr Foster: Thank you.

Chair: We will be in touch on a number of issues that we have identified.

Mr Foster: Thank you. If I can just reiterate-and this is not ministerial speak-I am genuinely grateful for the work that the Committee is doing. I am very pleased to work with members of the Committee in terms of working for a common branding, and also in relation to the work that you are doing with the retailers and the manufacturers to improve safety as well.

Prepared 15th February 2013