Speak with one voice

As the Conservative MSP for Highlands and Islands, Jamie Halcro Johnston is at the heart of the campaign for regulation of the electrical industry. Here, he outlines why safety is important for everyone – and how he sees the future of construction shaping up

Hello Jamie. Why is regulation of our industry so important?

The lack of regulation in the electrical sector is a bit of an anomaly. There are so many professions that have some degree of protection, it seems strange that electrical work doesn’t already have it in place. This was an issue that I was aware of before becoming an MSP, but I was slightly surprised at just how many other MSPs didn’t know that there was no protection. It is important that people are safe in their home and consumers are confident that when they’re choosing to bring in someone to carry out electrical work, that person is qualified to do so.

What are the dangers of unregulated work?

One of the most pressing issues is the risks people face from a dangerous installation. Electrical shock can range from a small jolt to serious injury or, in the most extreme example, death.

I know there has been a lot of evidence put forward about the dangers and SELECT themselves have helped educate people. As well as direct personal injury, we know that lots of fires happen every year because of faulty installation. Although a minority of these result in injury or death, it remains an area of concern. You only have to look at the situation where a block of flats or terraced houses is affected and you can see that poorly executed electrical work can have a potentially devastating impact on much more than one home. Plus, there is the financial cost of unregulated work. People spend hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds carrying out remedies when work has been badly done. That can be a real problem. Most people don’t budget to fix work that should be done properly first time around.

Do you think it should be an offence to install electrical work when not qualified to do so?

There are lots of ways of achieving the outcome of a more regulated and safer industry. It’s key that representative bodies, government and other groups work together to come up with a solution that discourages people from undertaking unqualified electrical work. There has been a lot of hard work done already, but there is lots more to do.

My focus is on bringing people together for discussion and trying to build a consensus around the best way to proceed. I would not want to close down any possible avenues on how we regulate. Instead, I’d want to be flexible in our approach and ensure we can make real progress. There have to be consequences for undertaking work that you are simply not qualified to do if we are to achieve protection and regulation. At the moment, a number of trade bodies and organisations recognise the need for regulation but the trick is how we make that regulation come together and working out where an offence for carrying out unqualified electrical work could sit in the wider legal context.

How can we assure people in Scotland that the electrician who comes into their home is properly qualified?

The issue is not just a concern for the industry but for government and consumers. There is a role for raising awareness and providing people with the tools to identify the qualification levels of those undertaking electrical work, and for those who provide the training for others to work in specialised areas.

Even in a regulated profession, there will be people who break the law and carry out work that they are not qualified to do. The important thing is to make the public aware of that and we need clear prohibitions against presenting yourself as a qualified electrician when you are not. The public want to see a simple mark or accreditation which gives them confidence that the person undertaking work is qualified. The system has to be as simple as possible. No matter the area – whether it’s an electrical or building project – success will be depend on getting the public to do some research into any organisation they invite to take on work. Making that research as simple as possible is a good thing.

You raised a motion in the Scottish Parliament in support of regulation of electricians in October. What kind of reception did it get?

A very good one – I was very pleased with the amount of support we received. Eventually we got support from across the political parties and I now know there are lots of people in my own party, as well as the Scottish Labour party and the Greens, who will back us as we go forward. Although there was some support from within the SNP it was pretty clear that they were following the Scottish Government who are a little hesitant to move forward at this time. That said, we had support from all five parties and the debate was very well attended.

Have any other MSPs expressed support for regulation?

There are many MSPs who have taken an interest in the subject and are well acquainted with the arguments. A few have previously had contact with organisations like SELECT or have spoken to trade unions. However, there are a lot for whom this is an entirely new issue and those in that position often share the reaction of the general public – they are surprised that the electrical trade isn’t regulated already.

What potential barriers do you think there are to regulation?

I’d like to see the Scottish Government make more progress on this issue. One of the barriers we have faced is forcing the topic up the political agenda. We know it’s not a new idea – it’s been on ministers’ desks for a few years now. It has been raised through a working group where there has been considerable discussion.

My belief is that we need to start building a solution that is widely acceptable and have those organisations who are pressing for regulation speak with one voice. If they come together and are agreed it would make it easier to take forward to the government and harder for the government to delay. That’s something I’ll be looking to facilitate along with other MSPs who have intimated they would be willing to support this. Also, I believe the government were not sure how legislation would land with the opposition, but I think it’s clear that it would command the necessary support. There is strong emphasis on moving forward, and that was a very important aspect of the motion and debate.

The government has announced a Call for Evidence on regulation. What should happen next?

It’s important that as many of the interested organisations as possible are involved in the Call for Evidence and promote it among other interested parties. In essence, the larger the body of evidence that’s built up, the stronger the case we have for regulation.

We are past the point of arguing the merits – the case has been well made and I’ve yet to hear any arguments that regulation would be detrimental or unnecessary. The government should use its influence to get the relevant people around the table and talking about detail, without being wedded to previous proposals.

What do you think is the current state of the construction industry?

I’m my party’s Shadow Minister for Skills and Training and the construction industry is a big area of interest for me.

I also sit on the Scottish Government’s Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee and we have just launched an enquiry into the construction sector. We all depend on an effective and skilled construction industry and all the parties have set out high ambitions for house building and so on. Progress can only be made by having a successful and sustainable sector. There has to be a real focus on the skills pipeline. We know a lot of people in the construction industry are looking to retire in the next few years and that will have a real effect.

We want to see businesses working with government to show there is training available and people are being encouraged into the sector – that will also depend on it being attractive and sustainable. If you go into schools and colleges and encourage people to get involved in the sector, even though things are difficult just now and the opportunities won’t be there on a sustainable basis, who will choose it?

A number of major projects, such as the Queensferry Crossing, have come to an end and even some smaller projects like schools and hospitals are finishing too. We need to see where new jobs are coming from. One major challenge will be making sure skills are not lost and the government must do what it can to support the industry by providing the contracts that are so important.

Are you confident for the future?

There have been some really interesting developments in the last few years and the industry has shown how innovative it can be. I’ve spoken with people about topics like pre-fabrication and how buildings are constructed in the future. That could have real implications for cost and build time, and lead to even more work. I am also pleased to see the increasing number of women entering the sector. It is important that we break down traditional barriers. If women are discouraged from entering the sector we lose out on a huge pool of talented people. Looking to the future, I think it is going to be a sector that becomes increasingly specialised – we have to prepare for that and make sure it gets the investment required. I am always very impressed by the commitment, will and forward thinking of the industry and of trade bodies such as SELECT. I think it’s a sector that’s well represented and one that has a bright future.

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