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Letters special: Your thoughts on our wiring inspection revelations

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The August 2022 issue of E&T presented the results of an investigation into allegations that a flawed regulatory system in England has led to inadequate electrical safety inspections, increasing the risk of fires in buildings. Many readers wrote describing their own experiences. E&T investigative reporter Conor McGlone sums up their responses.

During the course of my research for ‘Exposed: The National Wiring Scandal Putting Lives at Risk’, I spoke to electricians and industry experts who described how some contractors carrying out safety inspections are incorrectly passing unsafe properties and mis-selling unnecessary upgrades. I also heard about so-called ‘drive-by inspections’, where contractors fill out paperwork without entering the properties at all, undercutting legitimate businesses.

Many readers wrote in to say they had experienced similarly poor practices.

Mal Ronan, a retired principal electrical inspector for the Health and Safety Executive, told us he had come across “a surprisingly high proportion of unacceptably poor inspection and test reports”.

In most cases these were either incorrectly completed or incomplete, but he recalled one case where the test results were fraudulent. “Incompetence, a too hurried approach to the work, and perhaps even some false sense of unaccountability may have been involved,” he said.

Ronan made the point that our cover story centred on the fire risks associated with inadequate inspection and testing of fixed electrical installations, but the very closely associated increased risks of a serious or fatal electric shock, albeit of far less probability than fire, should have also been highlighted.

Jonathan Cope, an NICEIC-approved contractor, said it was “high time” the article was published and that it “confirmed to me what I’ve known for years. Peanuts, monkeys, not worth the paper it’s written on, ticking boxes on the fly.”

Cope added that: “I am laughed out of the room when I quote prices of upwards of £650 for an EICR [an Electrical Installation Condition Report, also known as an Electrical Safety Certificate]. But it’s a full day’s work for me. I need calibrated instruments to do the job, a reasonably smart van to travel in to get to the site, plus diesel in the tank.”

Jordan Farley, managing director of Artisan Electrics, told us the introduction of regulations for the private rented sector last year led to a flood of landlords who needed to have EICR inspections carried out. He said landlords were shopping around and “getting offered ridiculously cheap prices by certain companies”.

Roger Clay, a retired design engineer, wrote in to say that “many inspectors are professional in their approach, and this is not mentioned”.

I agree that there are many professionals in the sector who carry out solid work, but many have been caught up in the price war. When interviewing experts, I heard repeatedly that other businesses were prioritising profit margins over safety. I heard numerous reports of legitimate businesses being undercut by less scrupulous contractors who are offering tests for less than £100.

Matthew Gilmore, who has worked in electrical compliance for the commercial and industrial sector for 15 years, said the issue was the same at that level. “Over many years I have noticed that industry has tried to reduce annual spend on compliance at all costs,” he said.

“The main issue arises when the costs [of carrying out an EICR] are passed on to the procurement department. Electrical safety decisions are being made by accountants that are looking at the cost for the service provided, not the cost for the potential issues that will surface in the event of an EICR not being conducted to the required standard.”

According to Gilmore, one multinational company questioned why he was charging twice the price for an EICR compared to the previous electrician.

Gilmore highlighted many issues with the previous reports including missed potentially dangerous ‘Code C2’ observations regarding overrated protective devices, incorrect circuit designations and “amazingly, no presence of any protective bonding conductors”.

At no point over the five-year programme had the dutyholder been made aware of any listed observations, according to Gilmore, who made the point that the business was not compliant and was therefore exposed in the event of an incident.

“Dutyholders are responsible for employing professionals to complete any compliance work. They simply cannot say ‘we went with the cheapest quote due to the procurement team request’,” he said.

Retired electronics engineer Bob Richardson wrote in to say that Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of the Building Regulations and fire safety, which was commissioned by the government, “rings very true”.

The Hackitt review found that “a lack of legal accountability within the current system is exacerbated by industry fragmentation and multiple layers of sub-contracting”.

Richardson also pointed out, as did several other readers, that the Grenfell Tower fire, which was mentioned in the article, is believed to have been caused by the failure of a domestic fridge-freezer and not faulty wiring.

My intention had been to ask why fire safety more generally around electrics was not being taken more seriously in the wake of the tragedy.

Landlord Pete Culman said he was “disappointed” that the article seemed to imply all landlords and letting agents are unscrupulous and driven only by money.

He believes the real issue is that there is a lack of testers to check the work of the testers. “It was the same with Part P several years ago,” he said. “The number of independent or regulatory checks of completed work is minuscule compared with the actual number of jobs done. It is this that needs to be addressed.”

I agree with this and, as is the case with electricians, believe it is a minority of landlords that are driven by profit at the expense of their tenants’ safety.

Culman added: “Any decent landlord (or agent) will go out of their way to ensure that the property they are offering for rent is safe. Let’s face it, the landlord will expect to get the property back at the end of the tenancy. If it’s seriously damaged or destroyed by fire due to failures by the landlord, would an insurance company pay out?”

Government spokespeople told me that for the Building Safety Act, which came into force in April this year, “the industry itself must lead the change, take responsibility for raising competence and set standards within their sectors based on the national framework”.

Jonathan Cope added that it was “right that the industry must take more responsibility for increasing competence in the sector, but we all need to take more collective responsibility”.

He added: “The six million dollar question is how? If the solutions were simple then we’d have had them years ago.”

Roger Clay said the situation “is not the fault of a voluntary system, but of unprofessional ethics” and that “yet another competent persons scheme run by the big private organisations ... is not the answer”.

He believes a simpler approach could be for local councils to hold a register of competent persons who would pay a small annual fee and provide evidence of their qualifications that would be readily available to landlords.

IET member Peter Brooks wrote from Palm Bay, Florida, suggesting the UK could mirror the US approach to inspections.

“It appears that the cost of having an inspection of a house or rental property is the ‘root cause’ of the problem,” he said. If the inspection fee was “effectively zero then the problem would disappear”.

Brooks explained that his house has recently gone through a complete audit covering water heaters, heat pumps, main power panels, lighting, fire alarms and roof condition, all at zero cost to him.

The inspector was an independent contractor hired by the company that currently insures his house and personal property. Failure to meet their inspection criteria automatically means that the insurance company will not renew insurance after the annual contract expires.

Since my investigation was published, I have discovered that the number of fires caused by electrical distribution faults has increased overall over the last 30 years across the UK, despite the implementation of various regulations.

The current system is not working – that much is clear. The government has signalled it wants to distance itself from the inspection regime, but private competition needs effective regulation, particularly where the safety of the public is concerned.

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