I thank the joint committee for allowing me to make this presentation.
The Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland, RIAI,is the representative body for professionally qualified architects. It has 2,600 members and 550 practices, and employees in the public or private sector account for 62% of our members, with the remainder made up of principals in private practice.
The provisions of the Building Control Bill, important reforming legislation which is welcomed by the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland, extend much wider than professional registration of architects. At the heart of the Bill is the question of consumer protection. The fundamental principle underpinning the registration of architects is that legal standards and recognised qualifications protect the consumer and secure quality and safety in the built environment. How significant is the problem? Last year, independent research carried out by TNS-MRBI on behalf of the RIAI found that 77% of those surveyed believed the use of the title "architect" indicated that a person had obtained qualifications. Interestingly, when it was pointed out that this was not the case, 89% of respondents indicated that the possession of qualifications was personally important to them.
Members may have seen an RTE "Prime Time" programme last year which highlighted the problems one unqualified architect caused to members of the public. While the programme focused on a single case, an RIAI survey found that it received 141 complaints about unqualified architects in 2004.
What kind of problems arise? We have encountered cases of misrepresentation, the forging of planning permission and fire certificates and architects disappearing when things start to go wrong, leaving members of the public without redress because most people do not have sufficient funds to take a case before the courts. Typically in such cases, a large amount of money has been paid out in advance and the work is not done properly. We have encountered people who were in tears and in a state of nervous collapse but, unfortunately, the institute is unable to do anything for them. This is a real problem for the consumer and one which lies at the heart of the Bill.
It is important that no changes are made to the well-worded section of the Bill which addresses the title of "architect". It would be a matter of concern to the RIAI if there was any implication or possibility of ambiguity in this regard.
The Bill has been presented as introducing a form of self-regulation when it proposes the establishment of a system of co-regulation, whereby the State and a major professional body work together to ensure registration of all appropriately qualified professionals. This process has been recognised by the European Parliament as one in which a government delegates a function to a non-governmental or private organisation, while applying appropriate legislative safeguards and continuing to make an input following enactment of the relevant legislation to ensure independence and transparency. It is not, therefore, a matter of merely establishing a framework but one of monitoring it afterwards. Co-regulation is the prevailing model for regulating architects in the European Union.
This Bill is complex and far-reaching. It makes important changes to the building regulations, including in the area of disability access and new arrangements for fire safety certificates, energy performance and alternative energy plans. The RIAI has five areas of concern, namely, professional conduct, admissions, board membership, technical assessment and the role of a registrar. An effective, robust and responsive professional conduct system is the cornerstone of any registration process. If this system does not work, the entire process will fail. The institute proposes a number of detailed, technical amendments to address the issue but I do not propose to address them now.
Two fundamental problems need to be addressed by way of amendment. Unfortunately, the way in which the Bill defines the term "professional conduct" means it will only be possible to deal with cases of gross professional negligence. The definition does not cover issues of major concern to consumers, namely, poor performance, inadequate communications, general incompetence and poor standards of service. For this reason, the institute seeks changes in this area. The Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005 provides an excellent model for addressing this matter. If the current provisions stand, members of the public will only be able to take a complaint in limited circumstances.
The second area in need of amendment relates to the longstanding issue of ensuring the investigation and hearing of a case are separate, reflecting the process by which the Garda investigates and the courts decide. The RIAI is also concerned if the code of conduct were to become the responsibility of a professional conduct committee, rather than a registration body. The same principle applies — that law-making is different from enforcement. Registration bodies carry out this function and do not delegate it to another committee.
With regard to admissions and prescription of courses for registration, architects from all over the world are coming here to work. The membership list of the RIAI features people from countries beginning with every letter of the alphabet. As the Bill is not sufficiently flexible to accommodate all of them, it needs to be amended.
We also have concerns about the provision that the Minister will prescribe courses for registration. The Department of Education and Science, NQAI, HEA, HETAC and other bodies should be involved in this matter. The RIAI will propose amendments to ensure the system is sufficiently flexible to accommodate all architects who wish to come here.
While the RIAI fully supports the provision to have a lay majority on the admissions, professional conduct and appeals boards, the relevant section includes no reference to competence or skills. We seek to have the Bill include a definition of different skills and competences, similar to that provided by the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children in the Health and Social Care Professionals Act 2005. The architect members of the boards must have the requisite range of competence and should be nominated rather than elected. As an example of the shortcomings of elections, members of the architects registration board in the United Kingdom recently elected a majority of members on a specific ticket of reducing or eliminating the powers of the body.
The RIAI recognises that technical assessment is a complex area which will create the greatest difficulties. Established procedures must be followed, rather than invented by the registration body. HETAC and FETAC, for example, already apply procedures under a practice known as "recognition of prior learning", which involves giving appropriate weight to practical experience. The RIAI has engaged in dialogue with the Group of Independent Architects of Ireland, GIAI, on this issue and initiated discussions with HETAC on the matter. The institute will consult all relevant parties to ensure the system is fair.
To make a small point connected to an issue raised by the representatives of the GIAI, 500, 1,000 or 2,000 people could apply for technical assessment. To be able to deal with unexpected numbers of applicants, the assessment board needs the power to expand by way of regulation or as described in the Bill.
The final point is relevant from the point of view of independence. The admissions board to the register is independent and has a lay majority. One can understand the reason that all admissions should be processed by the board given that architects may wish to exclude people, keep numbers in the profession down and raise the bar too high. All applicants should be assessed on a qualitative basis. If an architect has a qualification listed in the relevant EU directive, he or she must produce nine specific documents prior to registration. This is an administrative matter which does not involve qualitative decisions and, as such, the process cannot be influenced. The registrar should have the power to act in this area. The services directive has strengthened the concept that registration formalities should be completed on-line, at a distance and on a one-stop shop basis. One lists one's qualifications on-line, provides transcripts and other information after which one can be registered immediately. It is impossible, therefore, for a registration body to influence this process.
As I stated, this is important reforming legislation which will provide significant consumer protection. It could be enacted now with the resources, funding and expertise of the RIAI. Nevertheless, changes are required in the areas of professional conduct, admissions, prescription of courses, technical assessment and the role of registrar. The appendices to our submission contain papers on registration, co-regulation and independence and architectural education generally.