Cause for concern

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The announcement of a trial over the tragic electrocution of a young woman from the Midlands prompted an anonymous call to Electrical Review correspondent, John Houston. What the mystery caller revealed is huge cause for concern. I urge you to read the editorial below and would be very pleased to hear your comments and feedback.

Elinore Mackay

P plays no part in quality assurance

If a car mechanic deliberately shortcut a service that subsequently resulted in the death of the driver, they would almost certainly be jailed. Yet, until a few weeks ago, the negligent practice of two electricians that directly resulted in the death of a young Midland mother, looked like it may go unpunished.

Some readers may recall that I commented on the case some time ago. Emma Shaw, 22, was tragically electrocuted while mopping up water from a leaky boiler, and died on 14 December, 2007.

At an inquest into Miss Shaw's death, the jury heard how the tragedy resulted from a plasterboard fixing screw being driven into a concealed cable when the flat was being built the previous year, causing the metallic frame of the partition to become 'live' when the electrical installation was energised.

Christopher Tomkins, aged 51, and 52-year-old Neil Hoult have now been charged with offences under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The damage to the cable had not been detected because insulation resistance tests had not been carried out properly on the wiring. The inquest was told the initial testing of the electrical installation in the flat by the installing contractor, Anchor Electrical and Building Services of Staffordshire, was "not carried out to a professional standard, if at all".

The announcement of the trial on 13 May prompted someone to call me. The caller would not reveal his name, but said he worked in a very senior advisory capacity within the electrical industry. He reeled off his experience and qualifications and was clearly far too knowledgeable to be a hoax caller. I do know he tweets as PartPnemesis, which gives an immediate clue as to his primary concern.

Our telephone call lasted about an hour and what he said was at times revealing and sometimes shocking. As a journalist I would love to publish much of what he told me, but I have no way of validating his claims. He reported, for example, that one eminent committee when asked how to avoid another Emma Shaw case, replied that it was not for open discussion!

His overriding concern is that Part P certification is seen as a quality standard. It plainly is not. Compliance with a Building Regulation is not a measure of the design or quality of an installation. My whistleblower pointed out, for example, that most quality systems do not have an installation qualification. He explained that when Part P was introduced, because individuals can’t have a quality system, the requirement for the existing BS2391 inspection/testing qualification (which many failed anyway) was scrapped.

The fact that anyone, for a fee, can attain Part P certification in just five days, should hardly inspire confidence. For my mystery caller it does not.

My caller’s concern is he is extremely highly qualified (he told me he has sat of some of the very industry committees he is critical of), yet there is no clearly acknowledged statement of what a qualified electrician is. Part P cannot be interpreted as an indication of quality.

On a personal basis I am convinced of the need for regulations and Part P in particular. However, it is clear that perceptions are likely to affix greater assurance (and culpability) to installers that carry out work in compliance with Part P.

Various spokespersons for the industry have pronounced the merits of Part P, most notable among these is Phil Buckle of the Electrical Safety Council, who has been quoted in this column in the past. However, Phil, while being a strong advocate of the efficacy of Part P cannot in fairness, cite accurate figures. In the past he has speculated there has been a drop of 17.5%in house fires as a result of mains faults. But he is faced with having to extract and interpret figures from national statistics, which make no provision for pre- or post-Part P installations.

I would recommend, as my mystery caller did to me, that readers visit http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=10293 and listen to the live Select Committee debate on the regulations. It might be an eye opener.