Richard Evans is the Chairman of the CIPHE’s Education and Training Group. In this issue of ETM he looks at attitudes concerning licencing of plumbers.

Why No Licence to Practise – An Historical Perspective

I would like to focus on three inter-related issues, namely the existence of rogue traders and training providers and the reluctance of this country to introduce a licence to work for a number of occupations. These issues have sadly created an unfair and negative view of a number of professional trades including plumbing and the majority of practitioners employed within them.

These issues continue to be highlighted by the media and press, but in spite of some recent high profile cases little is done to tackle, let alone resolve the problems. Interestingly, very little is ever discussed in any vocational context about the concept of a licence to work. A number of long-standing historical practices have con- tributed to this unsatisfactory state of affairs. There is a British culture of laissez-faire and reluctance to introduce effective mandatory regulation, robust inspection regimes and long-term national strategies. This is coupled with the espousal of voluntarism regarding accountability and standardisation, which is engrained/ endemic and largely responsible for a wide range of historical and current weaknesses in many aspects of British society and employment practices.

A culture of amateurism and continued neglect of science and technology cou- pled with an indifference to entrepreneurialism and innovation also weakened the development of an effective technical education and training system. This latter point contributed to a perception that technical subjects were inferior to the so-called academic ones and that people working in the practically orientated occupations/ trades did not require a licence to work, as had been introduced in other countries. Throughout the 19th, 20th century and even today this culture of voluntarism has continued, in spite of evidence internationally showing that we lack effective national systems for technical education and training and employment legislation in a number of practical and technical professions. Legislation if it exists is too often lax, inconsistent and ambiguous and open to abuse.

This unsatisfactory situation has allowed unscrupulous employers, some individuals and training organisations to exploit situations and find loopholes around existing legislation and thus create the so-called rogue culture. Practising professionals who provide a quality and ethical service are sadly often identified with this negative and damaging image. Legitimate operators who conform to professional practices and existing legislation have been penalised financially by being inundated with bureaucratic systems and submerged in paperwork whilst attempting to run honest businesses. The operation of the free market, particularly since the 1980s, has also allowed other unscrupulous people to establish training organisations that offer high cost, but totally inadequate training, with promises of an accelerated entry into work. Gimmicky incentives are often offered, including free tool kits and ridiculously short training programmes with very little work-based learning, further producing unqualified people apparently entitled to enter the labour market. Recent evidence, some shown in the media, highlights a number of these outfits operating almost with impunity because of the lack of any really effective inspection regime and which allows them to exploit the lax legislation. Even when identified they close down and reappear under other company names and in some cases with different managers.

In order to begin to tackle these rogue cultures, a licence to work needs to be introduced as quickly as possible into this country and practitioners should be required to undertake continuing professional development programmes (CPD). This is important as apprenticeship programmes become prominent in providing practitioners. Training providers must also be subjected to more rigorous inspection regimes and be named and shamed if they attempt to circumvent the law. Plumbing, like many practically orientated occupations, deserves to be recognised as a strategically important profession carrying high status and engendering confidence in the eyes of society. Legitimate practitioners need to be recognised as such and the areas in which they work valued and not denigrated by a few rogue operators.

Like the other utilities in power/energy, water and the technologies and expertise associated with its supply and use in people’s homes and businesses, is vital to a civilised society and should be valued and respected accordingly.

CIPHE has a long and credible history of promoting a positive image of plumbing and will continue to play a major part in addressing the issues around the rogue culture. Membership of the Institute and its commitment to CPD will contribute to its campaign. Other key developments from the Institute that will add value to the profession include the Master Plumber Certificate Award, created by Geoff Marsh, and the CIPHE involvement in shaping the apprenticeship frameworks will greatly assist in recognising and kite marking good practice and practitioners in the plumbing profession.

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