§ Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]2.34 pm
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
Before I begin, I welcome in particular the presence here of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martyn Smyth), who, like me, is a prominent member of the all-party plumbing registration group, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne), who is here to support what I have to say, and also my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims). In particular, I welcome the fact that the Under-Secretary of State is here. I look forward to his response to several of the points that I intend to make. I hope that at the end of the debate the country at large will be much better informed about the state of plumbing in the United Kingdom.
Ten years have elapsed since I drew the attention of the House to the standard of plumbing in the United Kingdom. Hansard of 10 April 1981 detailed my concerns at the time and the Government's response. I have initiated this debate as the chairman of the all-party plumbing registration group, since members of the group —and many others—continue to be concerned about standards and the inadequacy of controls in order to maintain health and safety.
Immediately following the 1981 debate, at the Government's invitation, discussions and corespondence took place about the three issues that I raised at the time—first, the lack of training in the plumbing industry; secondly, the ineffectiveness of the regulations and byelaws covering plumbing work; and, thirdly, the lack of regulation of those undertaking plumbing work.
I do not intend to dwell on the first issue—the lack of training—save to say that there is no evidence to suggest that more training is being undertaken today than 10 years ago. While competent and responsible plumbers face intense and unfair competition from so-called cowboys, there is little incentive to train. I earnestly hope that the changes to plumbing training currently in hand, which will be linked to national vocational qualifications, will lead to an improvement. I certainly welcome the new tax relief on the fees paid by individuals training towards such qualifications which was announced in the recent Budget statement. As a nation, we need to create an adequate pool of craftspeople with both practical and theoretical skills in plumbing, using the well-established vocational training facilities available.
The main concern that I share with colleagues in the plumbing registration group is the lack of enforcement of statutory regulations and byelaws covering plumbing. Correspondence with Ministers and the debate on the Water Bill in the other place on 8 May 1989 reveal that the Government consider that health and safety standards for plumbing are adequately dealt with through building regulations and water byelaws. My colleagues and I dispute that. The technical requirements are meaningless without proper enforcement.
Building regulations covering sanitary plumbing, unvented hot water systems and drainage are enforced by local authority building control officers. Contraventions undoubtedly take place which are not detected because building control officers do not know what work is going 744 on and where. Although new buildings may be subject to inspection, work on existing properties goes largely unreported and unseen.
The effects of faulty sanitary plumbing are not only unpleasant but can adversely affect health. I am sure that most of us have heard the familiar gurgles emanating from the waste plumbing systems when staying overnight in hotels, or even in our own homes. These are usually due to water in the U-bends of the trap seals being sucked out. That causes soil pipe gases to enter buildings. The problem is faulty workmanship. The results are headaches, nausea and general poor health. A visit to the doctor may result in the diagnosis of a bug going round and the prescription of unnecessary, ineffective and expensive drugs. One old age pensioner in London's east end felt so unwell that her doctor prescribed antibiotics. When a registered plumber inspected the sanitary plumbing he found no trap seal at all. She had been breathing in foul air. When the plumbing was rectified the old lady made an instant recovery. Many others have suffered in the same way. The Building Research Establishment is certainly aware of the effects of faulty sanitary plumbing, but I understand that the Government currently have no statistical evidence of its overall impact on the nation's health.
Incorrectly installed hot water systems can also pose considerable safety hazards, including risks of explosion and scalding. Again, I understand that the Building Research Establishment has accumulated evidence of incidents at home and abroad in recent years showing the catastrophic effects of such explosions, which are akin to the results of a missile attack. The safety of hot water systems could be better dealt with in regulations made under the Water Act 1989. I should welcome a reaction from my hon. Friend the Minister to that suggestion because inspection of such systems is currently divided between water byelaw inspectors and building control officers. Water contamination and explosions could result through confusion about enforcement.
I believe that the Department of the Environment is proposing to introduce amendments to the building regulations which would require unvented hot water systems to be installed only by competent persons, who would be required to give notice to building control officers but not to water byelaw inspectors. I warn the Minister now that notification will be very limited. I am informed that less than 10 per cent. of systems installed to date have been notified to local authorities, so it will be reassuring if the Minister will not only publicise the statutory requirement to give notice but encourage local authorities to prosecute cases coming to light in which installers have failed to give such notice. Unless building regulations are properly enforced, there is little point in having them.
That also applies to water byelaws made under section 17 of the Water Act 1945 by water undertakers in England and Wales. Those undertakers have a duty to enforce their byelaws. Inspection on most new property may be carried out because the work comes to the attention of the water undertakers, but there continues to be a gap in the enforcement of byelaws in existing buildings. I first raised that issue in 1981 and the Government acknowledged the difficulties. Since then, new water byelaws have been introduced following widespread consultation. Similar provisions also apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Water byelaws are intended to assist water undertakers to 745 maintain adequate supplies of wholesome water, and failure to do so may be a criminal offence under the 1989 Water Act.
I understand that the water industry is reviewing the future of water byelaws, including their enforcement. That is timely, because it is as well to remind the House what water plumbing may do. It may pose risks to health as a consequence of contamination from backflow or back siphonage of foul or dirty water, the contamination of drinking water systems, and the use of inferior material in plumbing systems. Plumbing may also waste water through the installation of substandard or inefficient appliances and fittings.
Water byelaws dealing with those matters pose considerable responsibilities for the water industry, with potentially serious implications for the health of their consumers if the requirements are not adequately enforced. The United Kingdom water industry now has the added responsibility of conforming to the European Community construction products directive and drinking water quality directive and the subsequent regulations. Water byelaw enforcement is therefore of even more significance.
I understand that the last known formal study into byelaw enforcement was commissioned by the Department of the Environment in the late 1960s. The results published in 1971 were appalling. They revealed that 61 per cent. of the 1,300 installations surveyed contravened the water byelaw requirements specifically relating to back siphonage. Professional plumbers are cynically aware that the situation has not improved. Indeed, it is likely that matters have worsened, for infringements are seen every day.
We now have further evidence. The South Staffordshire water company decided six years ago to intensify its programme of industrial and commercial inspections. The company has so far inspected about 90 per cent. of all industrial and commercial properties within its area at least once. Those inspections have revealed a staggering 48,000 byelaw infringements, of which 25 to 30 per cent. involve potentially serious water contamination risks. They included direct contact between mains water supplies and cyanide, arsenic, chemicals, acids, canal water, mortuary post-mortem rooms and sewers. In one case, snails and legionnaire's disease bacteria were found in cold water storage systems supplying the operating theatre of a hospital. In another instance, the mains water supplies of a funeral parlour was insufficiently protected against backflow contamination which could occur while chemicals were being used during the embalming process. In a third case, 99 byelaw infringements were found in one industrial plant; 24 of them were submerged mains water inlets connected to vats of phosphoric acid. The fourth and final example involved a junior and infants schools where inadequately covered cold water storage systems supplied wash basins in the toilet area where childen obtained water for drinking.
If time allowed, I could give many more examples. Almost every imaginable risk has been discovered at some time. Fortunately, due to that water company's diligence all but the very minor infringements found have now been 746 rectified and a rolling programme of re-inspection is being carried out. In one case, it cost £100,000 to put the plumbing installation in good order.
Such monstrosities cannot be exclusive to the South Staffordshire water company. The number of infringements unearthed could well show the extent of the problem in other parts of the country. If so, that disposes of the belief that plumbing standards are adequately dealt with by water byelaws alone. Who installed such potentially lethal plumbing systems? Obviously it was incompetent, so-called plumbers who neither knew nor cared about correct installation or compliance with water byelaws.
It would be helpful if the Minister could reassure the House and the parliamentary plumbing registration group to the contrary. With that in mind, perhaps he will inform the House of the annual average number of water byelaw inspections carried out by water undertakers on new domestic and non-domestic supplies and on extensions and alterations to such supplies and of estimates for the value of such work. In addition, is he aware of a system for the reporting and publication of information on either backflow contamination incidents or the health problems associated with water quality inside buildings? In that context, it would also be helpful to know the number of prosecutions brought by each water undertaker for infringements of water byelaws during the past 10 years and the number of convictions obtained.
The information, that I hope that the Minister may be able to provide will help the House to appreciate the extent of water byelaw enforcement. If, by chance, the Minister is unable to supply some of those details, I strongly suggest that the Government promote another in-depth investigation. The House and the public need reassurance that health and safety standards are not being compromised by inadequate enforcement or even by the commercial priorities of the water industry.
The final issue with which I wish to deal is the regulation of those who undertake plumbing work for gain. I make no excuse for raising it again because a successful resolution of the issue would raise standards and be of considerable benefit to the public as well as to those who are responsible for the enforcement of statutory requirements.
Unlike the position in many other countries—including some member states of the European Community—anyone in the United Kingdom can undertake plumbing work for gain, call himself a plumber or set up in business as a plumbing contractor and advertise as such. Successive Governments have believed that voluntary self-regulation was the best means of improving standards. The 105-year-old register of plumbers maintained by the Institute of Plumbing—which is based in my constituency—is cited by Ministers as the most effective way of achieving public recognition of a reputable plumber.
As an honorary fellow of the institute, I know that public acknowledgement of its work is appreciated. However, voluntary self-regulation applies only to plumbers registered with the institute. They need not be registered and, indeed, some currently plying their trade have been removed from the institute's register for failure to meet the conditions of voluntary registration. It is also difficult for registered plumbers to continue to maintain standards by, for example, conforming to water byelaws when they face unfair competition from incompetent and irresponsible cowboy operators who are either ignorant of
747 or indifferent to water byelaw requirements. Self-regulation is effective only when it carries some meaningful sanction.
The Dutch and German practice where, by law, licensed plumbers are required to use approved water fittings installed in accordance with approved codes of practice is a good example. Eventually, our full integration into the European Community will result in European standards for the most common plumbing fittings and a European code of practice for installations. I am confident that our Dutch and German colleagues will wish to retain their superior practice which, unless the Government modify their stance, will place the British plumbing industry, its manufacturers and its installers at a considerable disadvantage.
There is no room for complacency. Plumbing needs to be put on a similar footing to gas installation work. I speak 20 days after the introduction of the statutory registration of gas installation businesses. Members of the parliamentary plumbing registration group applaud the Government's stance on the regulation of those who undertake gas work for gain. Gas is a hazardous substance and should be adequately controlled to protect lives and property. Official statistics of deaths and injuries from faulty gas works have proved the need for statutory regulation. The effects of faulty plumbing work are not so obvious, but that is no excuse for inaction. There are 23 million buildings connected to mains water, supplying 60 million inhabitants and protection from sub-standard plumbing work is no less important. Compulsory registration, perhaps based on protection of title, would be of great assistance to the regulatory authorities, would be enthusiastically received by competent and responsible plumbers and is vital to the health of the general public.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) on his perseverance. As he said, it is 10 years since he first raised the subject in the House. My hon. Friend, who is an expert on housing issues, feels strongly about regulation of the plumbing industry. I am glad that he has been supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) and by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth).
I agree that this subject deserves serious consideration by the House. It is much to the credit of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch that his unstinting efforts on behalf of the Institute of Plumbing have kept this issue alive in parliamentary circles over the past 10 years. My hon. Friend again spoke eloquently today in support of his arguments for improved standards and tighter regulation.
Standards of plumbing are a subject close to the heart of any civilised person. I am sure that we have all complained from time to time, perhaps particularly when travelling abroad, when there are not only gurgles but perhaps smells which show a lower standard of plumbing than we would regard as satisfactory at home.
We in the United Kingdom rightly demand a high standard. One of the few things that might be guaranteed to gain immediate cross-party agreement would be a failure in the plumbing in the Palace of Westminster. I am sure that all hon. Members would take much comfort from the presence among us, in the form of my hon. Friend the
748 Member for Hornchurch, of a fellow of the Institute of Plumbing. I have no doubt that he would rush to our assistance. We rely on the plumber. Rather like the dentist, we would prefer not to have to see him too often, but we are pleased that he is there when we need him.
As the plumber occupies such a position, it is distressing when the so-called cowboys of the industry try to exploit it. Not only does the consumer lose out in poor quality work, but the vast majority of reputable plumbers suffer from the backlash of public opinion based on the performance of a disreputable minority.
In recent years, we have confronted the problem of the cowboy builder. The House will recall that, at the Government's instigation, a working party was set up in 1987 to look into the problems associated with the activities of unqualified and unprofessional building contractors. The chief executive of the Institute of Plumbing was a member of the working party. Significantly, although the working party recommended that further consideration should be given to the statutory registration of building trades, it did not go so far as to endorse or recommend such schemes.
In welcoming the report of the working party, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside made it clear that the Government were looking to the building trade and consumer groups to develop an assessment and approval mechanism for builders' guarantee schemes, which would promote the reputable builder. As a result, the Office of Fair Trading provided a forum for the industry and consumer groups to develop that approach. That work is being carried forward in close consultation with the industry and I understand that it is being consulted on the second draft of the fair deal contract.
I must, however, emphasise that the Government's view on regulation of the industry, including the compulsory registration of trades, has not changed. We believe that any form of statutory registration places an unnecessary burden on industry which will tend to hit hardest those least able to cope—small businesses—and may be bureaucratic and create a barrier to competition.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
I appreciate the tribute that the Minister paid to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) about his honourary membership of the Institute of Plumbing. If something went wrong with the plumbing in the Palace of Westminster, would the Minister turn to the hon. Member for Hornchurch or to my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe), who is a master plumber?
§ Mr. Yeo
Armed with that additional information, I have no doubt that it will relieve my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch if I give an unqualified assurance that, should the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) be available, we shall look to him.
Those responsible for maintaining the Palace of Westminster—I hope that I am not making a claim that cannot be sustained—take great care to select reputable, qualified and well-trained plumbers to undertake any necessary work.
The circumstances in which the Government believe that statutory registration is justified are when health and safety considerations are of overwhelming importance. The Gas Safety (Installation and Use) (Amendment) Regulations, which came into effect last month, provide 749 for a statutory registration scheme for gas installers. In that case, the Government considered that exceptional reasons justified the introduction of such a scheme.
Clearly, the installation of gas is potentially extremely dangerous. Evidence shows that a disproportionate number of gas accidents were attributable to the work of gas installers who were not registered with the voluntary scheme run by the Confederation for the Registration of Gas Installers. No such equivalent evidence is available for the plumbing industry.
We believe that health and safety standards are adequately controlled through the building regulations and water byelaws. My Department recently consulted on proposals to amend the regulations relating to unvented hot water systems. One proposal would require such systems to be installed by competent persons who have undergone appropriate training. The proposal was considered necessary because of the potential for explosions if the systems, in particular the safety devices, are installed incorrectly. Those systems are still relatively new to the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch made a specific point on the notification of unvented hot water systems under the water byelaws. The legislation does not require their installation to be notified and, therefore, it would not be appropriate to include guidance on this matter under the building regulations.
My hon. Friend is correct that, in the past, the number of unvented system notifications made under the building regulations has been disappointing. My Department is considering ways of promoting a greater awareness of the need to notify the building control authorities of installation of those systems. We shall shortly publish a free booklet on the building control system in England and Wales drawing attention to that. The manufacturers of these systems also have a role to play and we shall encourage them to include information on notification in their packaging.
For many years, the Building Research Establishment has carried out research into improving the performance of plumbing systems. Its research has provided a major input into both the development of the building regulations and British standards.
Protection of public health has long been ensured by the water byelaws which control the fittings and installations on customers' premises up to the point where water is drawn off. All water companies have made new byelaws based on a model prepared by my Department in 1986. The latest byelaws incorporated further measures to safeguard public health and safety. They took into account recommendations in the report of the Committee on Backsiphonage in Water Installations. Those were intended to prevent the contamination of water and to protect water from backflow and backsiphonage in mains and all types of connected water services. They also included more stringent requirements for cold water storage cisterns and WC flushing apparatus.
Generally, plumbing work in new premises and major extensions is carried out by building contractors or specialist plumbing firms. For the most part, such work is done by competent plumbers, many of whom may be registered with the Institute of Plumbing, which produces work that conforms with the byelaws. Indeed, many water 750 companies recognise the competence of certain installers and accept certificates as evidence of compliance with byelaws.
I accept, however, that the large amount of renovation, alteration and maintenance of domestic water supply installations can create problems, because much of this work is carried out by householders themselves or by non-specialist people with little or no knowledge of the byelaws.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch quoted the large number of byelaw infringements discovered through a comprehensive survey of properties in the area of the South Staffordshire water company. He suggests that it is representative of the problem in other parts of the country. Water companies are under a duty to provide an adequate and wholesome supply of water. If a company fails to meet the statutory requirements, the drinking water inspectorate may take enforcement action. The serious infringements in the South Staffordshire area occurred mainly in industrial and commercial premises. The risk of water contamination and backsiphonage, particularly from industrial processes, is clearly higher in those premises, and water companies should therefore be particularly vigilant about carrying out inspections of those premises.
One matter of special concern to my hon. Friend is training.
§ Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)
We seem to be concentrating on the supply of water to premises, but plumbers also deal with the disposal of water after it has been used. The largest park in my constituency, Valentine's park contains Valentine's mansion, from which a cutting was given to Hampton court for its vine. The park has a large, impressive lake. When I was a child I used to be able to paddle in the stream that fed that lake. That stream has now been cut off from the public and fenced round because too many false connections have been made to the surface water drainage system, which now takes foul water into the lake. That is totally unacceptable. Is my hon. Friend the Minister certain that the Government attach enough importance to ensuring that only qualified people have the right to connect up to both the water supply and water disposal systems?
§ Mr. Yeo
My hon. Friend raises an important matter, but I hope that the general thrust of my remarks will assure him that the Government attach sufficient importance to the need for well-qualified and well-trained plumbers to carry out those important tasks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch will be interested to know that over the past three years some 1,500 water industry employees have undergone one-week training courses; 150 plumbing teachers from technical colleges have also been given training on water byelaws and 1,000 employees from the public and private sector have attended overview courses.
My hon. Friend asked about the number of byelaw inspections, the incidence of backflow contamination, health problems associated with water quality in buildings and byelaw enforcement. I am sorry to say that such information is not available centrally and cannot be provided in a form that relates solely to water byelaws. He also mentioned that the water industry is reviewing the future of water byelaws. My Department provides an observer to the committee that has been established for
751 that purpose. The Government will be interested in the committee's findings and conclusions. However, until they are available, it would be inappropriate for the Government to promote an investigation.
My hon. Friend mentioned the implications of European Community legislation. The Water Act 1989 made provision for water byelaws to be replaced in due course by national regulations. Those arrangements are having to be reviewed in the light of developments in the EC. One vital function of the present United Kingdom water byelaws is to prevent waste and undue consumption of water. The importance of conserving our supplies has been emphasised by our recent experiences of successive years of drought. I hope that that matter will be given its proper weight in Community legislation. The European committee for standardisation covers not only the European Community but the European Free Trade Area as well. The successful harmonisation of product standards across 18 diverse states is difficult.
It has been contended that the lack of a statutory registration scheme in this country places United Kingdom plumbers at a disadvantage when seeking work in other European Community countries. I do not agree. I am in favour of measures to bring down the bureaucratic barriers to the movement of labour throughout the European Community. It would be inappropriate for the United Kingdom to erect barriers of our own.
Of course, I would not argue with my hon. Friend that plumbing work should be carried out by competent plumbers with the necessary qualifications and that the 752 public should be able to identify those plumbers easily. As I mentioned, the Office of Fair Trading is working closely with the industry to improve such recognition.
Self-regulation by the industry is the key. The Institute of Plumbing has maintained a voluntary register of plumbers since 1886, which I commend. The 11,000 plumbers on the register today must be appropriately qualified and undertake, at all times, to uphold the dignity and reputation of the craft of plumbing and safeguard the public interest in matters of health and safety.
I believe that the best route to higher standards is through the marketplace. I want a consumer-driven process, under which well-informed customers demand well-qualified plumbers to carry out good-quality work for everyone's benefit, so that the customer has a choice. If the consumer is not prepared to pay a little extra for some assurance of quality and standards, no amount of regulation imposed by the Government will force him or her to do so. Additional regulation measures would face some of the enforcement problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch referred. I am convinced that the industry would not gain further freedom of movement in the EC by introducing statutory registration in the United Kingdom. The Government and the water industry are ensuring the continued protection of public health and safety through the water byelaws and building regulations. It is far better that we should do so in a free and open market.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Three o'clock.