It might surprise some people, but while you need to be trained and qualified to work on gas appliances or undertake electrical work, there’s nothing to stop you working with water without having to present any evidence of your skills and know how.
Despite the risk to public health, you don’t even need to have borrowed a book on plumbing from the local library before you can start advertising your services.
The debate about introducing a statutory licensing scheme for plumbers is almost as old as the industry itself. While such schemes seem to operate quite happily in other countries such as the United States, Germany and Australia, the UK Government has always resisted calls to introduce any restrictions to trade.
Sadly a disaster is probably the only way mandatory licensing is going to gain any momentum
Voluntary or mandatory
There’s no denying that opinions within the plumbing community are divided.
Many fully trained and qualified professional plumbers are quite content to maintain the status quo, perhaps fearing another costly layer of bureaucracy and interference, but there are others who would welcome the opportunity to differentiate themselves from their under-qualified, cost-cutting competition.
It could be argued that some sort of voluntary licensing scheme would provide the middle ground.
Those who want to can promote their plumbing credentials by being a member of an optional scheme, such as that operated by the Association of Plumbing & Heating Contractors (APHC) which offers Licensed Membership to businesses who have the appropriate levels of insurance and pledge to only employ workers with a certain level of qualifications or work experience.
But the problem with such schemes is that they inevitably compete for attention with many other groups and badges that bid to reassure consumers they’re not about to employ an incompetent cowboy.
How is the public meant to know the difference between licensed operatives, CIPHE members, Which? Trusted Traders, the Government supported Trustmark scheme or the multiple online listings of ‘trusted tradespeople’?
A widely recognised mandatory scheme, such as that operated by the Gas Safe Register, would appear to be the only way of avoiding any confusion, but there’s no getting away from the cost implications of running a mandatory licensing scheme.
For it to carry any credibility, licensed companies would be required to undergo a programme of continuous professional development and regular assessment, all of which would ultimately need to be funded by the registrants.
And then there is the challenge of finding some consensus on what other standards should be required of those who aspire to become a licensed plumber.
Should the scheme primarily concern itself with public safety or should it be more about raising standards and running a credible business?
What about those plumbers who have learned their craft through many years of work experience but have no formal qualifications?
Then there is the thorny question of who should be tasked with operating the scheme itself.
With so many stumbling blocks to overcome, perhaps it is not surprising that there’s more talk than action when it comes to getting a scheme off the ground.
Monday 11th March marks World Plumbing Day each year, an opportunity to acknowledge the vital role that plumbers play in maintaining good sanitation and the safety and welfare of the public.
Such days may go largely unnoticed by the wider media, but a major case of Legionnaires disease, hot water scalding or water pollution – perhaps involving a minor celebrity or public figure – would quickly generate some headlines.
Sadly, that’s probably going to be the only way for mandatory licensing to gain any momentum.