HVP Editor Joe Dart reports from the frontline of the debate on whether the industry should introduce a licensing system for plumbers.

The debate surrounding whether there should be a compulsory license for plumbers has raged on for ages. It actually goes back at least as far as 1896, according to records held by the Association of Heating & Plumbing Contractors (APHC). 

Although licensing has never taken root in the UK, it is a legal requirement in some form many other countries, including Germany, Australia, and the USA. 

There is a compelling argument in favour of requiring plumbers to have a license to operate in the UK. If the plumbing installed in a building is to a poor standard, it can have serious repercussions for the end-user. Scalding, water contamination, and legionella can cause illness, and even death in severe cases. 

The UK government has already recognised that poor gas work can kill, which is why the Gas Safe Register was set up, to ensure engineer competency. If poor plumbing can be as dangerous as faulty gas work, is it really possible to argue that it should be exempt from being held to the same standards as gas? 

To coincide with Quality Plumber Week (1-7 October), the APHC invited plumbing and heating contractors to series of seminars across the country to discuss the rights and wrongs of introducing a compulsory license to operate as a plumbing business. HVP attended a session held at the headquarters of Monument Tools in Hackbridge, Surrey, to find out what installers really thought.

Graeme Dryden, Technical Services Manager at the APHC, kicked off the seminar, stating that the session was all about getting views on whether licensing was a good idea and, if so, what form should it take. 

One of the first hurdles to a licensing scheme was the multitude of different registration bodies that currently exist for plumbers, according to Graeme.

This includes the Water Regulations Approved Contractor Scheme, the Competent Persons Scheme, and Trustmark, to name but a few. This fragmentation of registration bodies has been a source of confusion for both the plumber and the consumer, Graeme said.

Several attendees raised their concerns about many of these registration bodies being “money-driven”, and said that it was a major challenge for their businesses to be able to afford joining many of these.

One installer argued that the burden of registering to all these schemes hit smaller businesses disproportionately: “I’m expected to spend the same amount of money registering on all these different schemes as everybody else. If they’ve got larger turnovers, they can soak up those costs much easier than small companies.”

During the course of the discussion, Graeme proposed the introduction of a licensing scheme which would incorporate all of these disparate registration bodies into one. So, rather than have to prove competence in each individual area, tradespeople would just have to sign up to those areas which were relevant to their job through one easy process when registering. “You could have something similar to the Gas Safe card on the back which has the work areas you’re signed up to do,” Graeme said.

He also presented feedback from installers about their views on licensing schemes in general. He reported that many installers say that they are not prepared to participate in schemes unless the enforcement strategy is improved, or there is a significant uptake in scheme participation.

There were also concerns around a lack of a level playing field between those signed up to schemes and those who aren’t, which several attendees raised as an issue they had experienced as well. One installer commented: “There has to be an element of pain for people who don’t abide by the rules.”

Graeme then moved on to theorise what form a licensing scheme could take. In the APHC’s view, it would likely require an industry-led management board, agreed scheme operation standards and agreed competence standards for all work areas. 

The feedback from the room was that any licensing scheme should be mandatory, and delivered through a single provider, for clarity. One attendee said: “The Gas Safe model is okay, but not the way they run it.” 

Another attendee asked whether plumbers who had many years’ experience would be excluded under a scheme if they didn’t have the correct qualifications. In response, Graeme said: “We really shouldn’t be locking anyone out, as they might not meet the criteria straight away, but it’s about bringing them in and then developing them through [the licensing scheme].”

Concluding the session, Graeme asked: “If there was a way to work out all the questions, is license to practice or operate a positive step forward for the industry?”

The majority were in favour but, over the course of a lively discussion, it became clear that there are still huge issues to overcome if we are to see mandatory licensing any time in the near future.