Powers needed to keep engineers in line

ANDREW CLELAND: Chief executive of the Institution of Professional Engineers.
ANDREW CLELAND: Chief executive of the Institution of Professional Engineers.

The Institution of Professional Engineers is reviewing its codes of ethics and recommends the Government consider mandatory licensing, writes Andrew Cleland.

The current discipline and regulation of engineers has been described by Minister for Building and Construction Maurice Williamson as a wet bus ticket. He is quite right.

There are no legal requirements for practising engineers to be members of the professional body, the Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand (Ipenz) or to be registered, having demonstrated their competence, unlike teachers or doctors.

Some councils may require a building design to be completed by a chartered professional engineer (under the voluntary registration system for engineers), before a building consent is granted, but that is not a mandatory criterion in New Zealand.

Ipenz has some authority to discipline some engineers, but it is limited under current law.

It can only discipline an engineer who is a member of Ipenz or if they are a chartered professional engineer.

It has this power under the Chartered Professional Engineers of New Zealand Act 2002, or under its own code of ethics applying to members.

If found deficient, the engineer faces a maximum penalty of $5000 plus costs. The decision can be published and made publicly available and the engineer can be suspended or removed from the register and/or be expelled from membership.

Disciplining someone as an Ipenz member can be unsuccessful if the engineer resigns from membership before the complaint has been heard. Another issue is that the act came into force only in 2002, so if a chartered professional engineer undertook the work in question before becoming registered, then the engineer cannot be disciplined under the legislated powers.

There is no doubt that some of the available sanctions could involve a loss of credibility to the engineer, but, more importantly, it doesn't stop them from practising.

Unless there is a law change, Ipenz is powerless to do anything further.

In the wake of two engineering-related royal commission inquiries, changes are needed.

Ipenz will be providing greater information to the public about the fields of practice of chartered professional engineers.

It is also reviewing its codes of ethics and has recommended to the Government that the mandatory licensing of engineers be investigated.

Ipenz has also suggested to the Government that specific engineering work with a health and safety risk might be restricted to be undertaken only by a chartered professional engineer.

Meanwhile, Ipenz is currently pursuing 42 complaints against engineers who are chartered professional engineers or members.

Specific details cannot be released until the full process culminating in the expiry of the appeal period on the disciplinary committee's findings is complete.

At that time, the committee can release decisions publicly at its discretion.

Ipenz is encouraging the Government to consider liability protection for engineers acting as whistleblowers against unsafe work.

Under the Protected Disclosures Act, employees can disclose information about serious wrongdoing by their employer, but there is uncertainty among the profession and legal fraternity as to whether that act would allow engineers to raise safety issues with a local authority about work done by others.

That lack of clarity needs to be addressed before anyone can be reasonably be expected to risk their personal and professional liability or reputation.

A strength of New Zealand engineers is their qualifications and competence. The public can be reassured of that, as the New Zealand standards meet international best practice.

Ipenz maintains unconditional membership of several multi- lateral agreements that set global benchmark standards.

However, the biggest weakness around current regulation and discipline of the profession remains. It is not with the basic experience and training of engineers, but rather the lack of legal powers for Ipenz to keep them in line when necessary.

Coupled with the inability for engineers to put up their hand and report unsafe work without risking personal and professional loss, the environment we have at present is not serving the public interest.

Andrew Cleland is chief executive of the Institution of Professional Engineers.

The Press