Inadequate inspections on the safety of wiring in buildings across England are increasing the risk of fires, E&T has found. A flawed regulatory system has sparked a race to the bottom, with some businesses profiting at the expense of the public’s safety.
Gareth Bourhill, who has worked in the electrical contracting industry for 40 years, says it is well-known in the industry that the public’s safety is being jeopardised in search of profit. “People know it’s a huge problem but it’s all down to money. That is because your normal householder, or unscrupulous letting agents and landlords, are simply driven by costs,” he says.
A new law first introduced in 2020 means that landlords must have an inspection – known as an Electrical Installation Condition Report (EICR) – carried out on their properties every five years, but E&T has found that many electricians are carrying out inadequate tests. In some cases, contractors are incorrectly passing unsafe properties while others are mis-selling unnecessary upgrades. E&T has also heard evidence of ‘drive-by inspections’, with contractors filling out paperwork without entering the properties at all, undercutting legitimate businesses – and putting lives at risk.
These scams are made possible by a voluntary competency assessment system that gives incompetent or corrupt businesses “a veneer of respectability”, according to one industry insider.
As another puts it: “It all comes down to who’s allowed to call themselves an electrician and the fact that there’s no proper licensing.”
The government has ordered a review of the inspection regime but says the industry must take more responsibility for increasing competence in the sector. Critics from the Labour Party say this amounts to passing the buck and that continued deregulation is putting residents in privately rented properties at risk.
According to a report by the charity Electric Safety First, electricity fires affect 20,000 homes in the UK every year. The 2017 Grenfell Tower fire is a stark reminder of the danger that faulty wiring can pose. It is thought that the blaze, which led to the deaths of 72 people, was caused by faulty electrics in a fridge freezer.
One retired electrician, who wishes to remain anonymous and has carried out hundreds of EICR inspections and testing when registered with an approved competency body, tells E&T he has seen “a number of dubious reports and poor practice including guys sitting in cafes filling in page after page from a pad containing report sheets and certificates”.
“There are more people willing to file it away and tick the boxes to say that it is being done but nobody has grasped that the actual cost of doing a genuine EICR is way, way greater than what the market value is,” says Bourhill. “It’s purely driven by what people are prepared to pay but because they get a certificate and a signed report, they think then that their legal obligations are done with.”
A race to the bottom
The issue was first highlighted during a price war sparked by the introduction of the Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (PRS) regulations, which have been gradually introduced in recent years.
The regulations require that landlords ensure the electrical installations in their rented properties are inspected and tested by a ‘qualified and competent person’ at an interval of at least every five years. The standards that need to be met are set out in the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) 18th Edition of the ‘Wiring Regulations’, which are published as British Standard 7671. From July 2020, all new tenancies required an EICR and then, in April 2021, the requirement was extended to all tenancies – new and existing.
Jordan Farley, managing director of Artisan Electrics, says the change in law last year led to a flood of landlords who needed to have EICRs carried out. He says landlords were shopping around for the EICRs and “getting offered ridiculously cheap prices by certain companies”. He claims that the EICR price war was an issue even before the PRS regulations were introduced. “It was just that the PRS regulations highlighted it more because so many inspections were being carried out.”
The IET received more than one hundred calls to its technical helpline specifically concerning EICRs in the private rental sector. The volume of calls peaked around April 2021, which is when the legislation for the private rental sector came into effect for existing tenancies.
Of the calls, almost half related to concerns over the incorrect usage of certification coding, which determines whether a property is deemed either ‘satisfactory’ or ’unsatisfactory’. Approximately a quarter of calls sought advice on establishing whether inspectors were competent to undertake the work, while other calls included complaints about the mis-selling of unnecessary upgrade work.
Farley thinks “quite a large percentage of EICRs are not being done properly” and that the worryingly low prices being offered suggest corners are being cut. “We’ve had messages from companies that say, ‘we need subcontractors, we have hundreds of EICRs that need doing and we’ll pay you £60 per EICR’.”
According to Bourhill, a thorough EICR can cost on average close to £500, although prices vary depending on the size of the property. “As a landlord, why would I pay £500 when someone says ‘I could do it for £50’?” he says.
Experts have told E&T that to undertake an EICR in line with recognised industry guidance, would probably require a minimum of three hours on site for a small flat, and about four hours on site for a typical three-bedroomed small house. In each case, this would need to be supplemented with about two hours of office time producing the report and covering correspondence.
Taking into account an average hourly rate for a qualified, experienced and competent tradesperson, experts say alarm bells should ring when EICRs are offered for less than £100. These are likely to be “drive-by inspections”, they claim.
But just how is such a climate that rewards taking short cuts at the expense of safety, able to exist post-Grenfell?
New rules on building safety have been introduced since the Grenfell fire but critics say they do not go far enough.
The PRS regulations state that inspections must be carried out by a ‘qualified and competent person’. To this end, the government suggests landlords and other businesses use electricians that are registered on competent body schemes.
The two major schemes are NICEIC and NAPIT, who are paid for each report bearing their logo. These bodies do not assess individuals but instead each contractor has one ‘qualified supervisor’ who is assessed by the competency bodies to a standard known as the Electrotechnical Assessment Specification (EAS). The qualified supervisor is meant to ensure their employees are competent and adequately supervised for the work they undertake.
CertSure, which owns NICEIC, says its assessment regime is designed to “establish, on a regular basis, that the qualified supervisor is currently competent and demonstrating appropriate levels of supervision”. In practice, E&T has learned this does not always happen.
One qualified supervisor, Fabian, who only wants his first name to be used, says that sometimes qualified supervisors countersign 50 EICRs a day. “A qualified supervisor will look at the results and the remarks on the report and if he doesn’t see anything that sticks out like a sore thumb, he will pass it. One qualified supervisor might control 10-15 electricians,” he adds.
Another electrician, who did not want to be named, tells E&T that “the only absolute duty of a qualified supervisor is to review the documents and sign them. This person usually sits in a remote office somewhere. The EAS says they should check on the inspections, but it does not happen. The qualified supervisor doesn’t get time to go out and look at them. Often, the EICRs are digitally signed, and the qualified supervisor doesn’t even see it. The EAS gives them an air of authority and a veneer of respectability.”
He says there are “loads of really dodgy, dishonest, corrupt companies that send anyone out to do inspections. A lot of these companies are management only; they don’t actually employ any technical staff that go to the sites. They are all off-the-book subcontractors.”
He says while some firms might have NICEIC or NAPIT on their sleeves or the side of the van, they are often “totally incompetent”.
The competent person schemes were set up to provide a self-assessment route for those electrical installers working in dwellings in England and Wales in 2005 with the implementation of Part P – Electrical Safety of the Building Regulations. However, they were originally not intended to approve inspection and testing including EICRs.
“The only thing they mean for certain is that they have paid the money. These companies are scamming it,” says our source.
“The real victims,” he adds, “are tenants and people buying houses. The landlords are complicit; they don’t want a proper job. They just want the certificate to say they’ve had it done.”
Currently around a fifth of the UK’s population lives in rented housing.
Labour MP Andy Slaughter, who is campaigning for better building safety standards in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire, says the investigation “confirms what we should all know, which is that the best regulations fail if they are ignored or not enforced”.
“We do need comprehensive and effective legislation to require regular testing of electrical appliances in all at-risk dwellings and I have been pushing for this to be included in the Building Safety Bill. But without competent electricians and adequate systems of inspection the risks will remain. Indeed, residents will be left with a false sense of security.”
Responding to these concerns, a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) spokesperson told E&T that “statistics show accidents and fires caused by fixed electrical installations in homes have reduced but that it would continue to monitor safety statistics and registered electricians to inform future reviews and changes”.
However, according to an E&T analysis of the available data, electrical fires have not reduced as a percentage of all fires, in fact they have increased slightly as a proportion, and are still the second highest cause after cooking.
Responding to the government’s claims, the National Fire Chiefs Council says: “Electricity remains a major cause of accidental fires in UK homes, and NFCC strongly recommends that electrical installations and inspections are undertaken by qualified and competent professionals.”
Electricians that have spoken to E&T say the current system is seriously increasing the risk of fires in the UK. “The EICR wants you to look behind switches and sockets. These guys are saying they are doing more tests than they are actually doing. It is physically impossible to do five tests in a day, let alone eight or nine or ten,” says Fabian.
“Most of these guys will go into the property and just do live tests at the board and sockets and lights, do a plug-in socket tester, get a reading and have a look around to see what the state of the property is like. The visual inspections are not going to tell you about the state of connections behind the sockets, a socket can look nice and lovely on the outside but can have loose connections on the inside.”
Farley from Artisan Electrics worries that if electricians “are just giving out valueless pieces of paper to help landlords be compliant in order for a quick buck, then it doesn’t actually tackle that issue of these properties having unsafe electrics”.
EICRs seen by E&T appear to back up these concerns.
One carried out for a new homeowner on their property in September 2020 is signed off as satisfactory and says no remedial action is required. But after a visit from another electrician, who noticed some of the wiring was not earthed properly, the property owner had another inspection. This time the five ‘C2’ codes were noted, meaning that installations are potentially dangerous and that the EICR should not have been signed off as satisfactory. In addition, the first inspector had estimated the age of the wiring as three years old while the second report estimated the wiring as 40 years old.
Presented with the reports, Martyn Allen, technical director of Electrical Safety First, says it is “hard to believe they are the same installation… they clearly should not be so wildly different, and it disappoints me”. He says a follow up audit or investigation should be carried out.
Of certification sent to the IET by concerned parties, some of the usual inconsistencies included circuit results not having been recorded in all instances, evidence of test values recorded not having been verified by the overseeing qualified supervisor, or inspection work excluded, often hidden in ambiguous small print, or sometimes not even listed.
Farley says he has seen EICRs that have been carried out by other contractors “where they have not picked up on stuff that they should have picked up on”. However, sometimes they go the opposite way and “seem to be ridiculously over the top to try and generate lots of extra work that might not be necessary”.
Fabian alleges that often councils are complicit in this kind of scam. “Lots of council EICRs are done as a loss leader, so they go in knowing they are going to get remedial works. There’s always going to be something that you can highlight. They go in at ridiculously cheap costs,” he says.
Such sharp practice makes it difficult for legitimate electricians to make a living. While it is not compulsory for electricians to be registered with a competency scheme, Fabian says, “for those who are trying to stay on the right side and trying to be part of a competent person scheme, and be inspected, it’s all adding cost”. Another electrician complained that “the competent qualified guys don’t get a look in, or they have to become corrupt to pay the mortgage”.
Responding to E&T, CertSure said: “Like many across the industry, we share the concerns you have raised… where we are made aware of any concerns, we have a robust complaint process to deal with the issues raised. This could result in additional assessment visits, with the ultimate sanction of removing the enterprise from Certsure’s schemes.” The company refused to divulge figures relating to its complaints procedure.
NAPIT, the other competency body, says it operates a ‘registered operative model’ enabling it to assess multiple individuals within its registered electrical businesses.
Mike Andrews, chief executive at NAPIT, says: “This provides us with greater confidence that those undertaking electrical work on site are competent and qualified to do so and that employees who are not assessed are adequately supervised, which is critical for safety.”
Andrews adds that NAPIT has been “proactive in making it easy for landlords to find a qualified and competent business to undertake EICRs”, through its free webinars and expert guidance, the creation of its Electrical Inspector Scheme and working with the wider industry to update the search facility on the Registered Competent Person Electrical website.
“However,” notes Andrews, “there is no legal requirement to use a registered electrical inspector and tester to undertake EICRs which means that many of the concerning practices being reported are not held to account as they would be within a registration scheme”.
The shadow of Grenfell
Following the Grenfell Tower fire, the government commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to review the building regulations and fire safety. 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”.
Mark Coles, head of technical regulations at the IET, says the organisation “is committed to the reforms set out by Dame Judith Hackitt, especially concerning individual accountability and competence for people working in the construction industry”.
The government says the Building Safety Act, which came into force on 28 April this year, will “ensure homes are made safe”. The Bill includes measures to establish a Building Safety Regulator, which will be required to review within three years the cost and benefit of introducing regular inspections of electrical installations and provide recommendations. The House of Lords, which tabled the amendment in the first place, wanted a review to be conducted within two years.
The DLUHC said that “for the bill and legislation to be effective the industry itself must lead the change, take responsibility for raising competence, and set standards within their sectors based on the national framework”.
But experts said while such work was being carried out by industry, stronger enforcement and more prosecutions were needed to avoid future tragedies. One industry insider told E&T that unfortunately since Part P of the Building Regulations was introduced in 2005, the industry has seen very little evidence of high-profile prosecutions.
Labour MP Slaughter says the problem with the new regulator, as described by the government, is “that the responsibility for raising standards is being passed back to the private sector, meaning deregulation continues with the same lack of enforcement that got us into this dangerous situation”.
Bourhill says current regulations are reactive rather than proactive. “Frameworks and schemes, no matter to what standard or quality, only go so far.” If future tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire are to be avoided, he says, “people need to look far closer at the people with the screwdrivers in their hands”.
Source – E&T Engineering and Technology – https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2022/05/exposed-the-national-wiring-scandal-putting-lives-at-risk/
This article was updated on June 7 to include a comment from NAPIT