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Will Howie Pride and prejudice

Consultations on Engineering Council proposals for a voluntary licensing scheme for the profession are proceeding at a stately pace. Hopes that the Government might be interested in such a move, which had been fuelled by its decision a year or so ago to stick to the registration of the title of architect, must have been dashed by its strange antics on the recent Competition Act.

Readers will remember (NCE 12 March) that the Government persisted in a description of engineering which is as near to farcical as Whitehall could manage.

The intention was to exclude certain professions from some of the Act's strictures, provided that their members were subject to their own rules and regulations. That is to say: that they fulfilled the conditions which are generally believed to define a profession as opposed to a business.

There are two things wrong with the description in the Act. The description ignored such stalwarts as structural and chemical engineers (although they were perhaps covered by a catch-all reference to 'any other form of engineering').

Secondly, since the description is drawn with the broadest of brushes, it seems to cover practitioners who are members of no institutions at all and are, therefore, free from institutional rules and regulations.

A further blow was struck at engineering when its description was held to include those involved in 'agronomy, forestry, livestock breeding or ecology'. As a last minute sop, Whitehall conceded a mild point and altered the description to 'engineering and technology'. Of course, engineering and technology are quite separate, but distinctions of that sort are beyond the comprehension of civil servants and tame ministers.

The Finniston Committee addressed the question of licensing engineers nearly 20 years ago. It was more interested in manufacturing than in construction, probably because that is where most professional engineers are to be found. The committee's observations ought to have given the institutions food for thought.

The report stated that employers 'almost unanimously expressed their indifference to the benefits of institution membership for the engineers they employ and were openly sceptical of the ability or the authority of the institutions to regulate the practice of engineering'.

That is pretty stiff and there is little doubt that the institutions did not like it. Having seen that evidence, Sir Monty Finniston concluded that some form of registration or licensing was needed.

Now, the civils are a special case, particularly the consultants. For the most part, and indeed almost always, civil engineering employers demand Institution membership as a necessary qualification. ICE, quite understandably, shies away from any form of licensing which might diminish its authority, except in a small number of instances such as the design of dams and nuclear power installations.

Oddly enough, having swallowed licensing there, it is hard to see why the institutions should not go the whole hog and plump for licensing for the design of all public works.

The ICE will argue that its own rules cover all that already and no further shackles are needed. But it has always insisted on its pre-eminence in the profession as a whole.

Although others may quibble at such claims, they have considerable weight. That being so, would it not be sensible for ICE to throw its weight behind the Engineering Council, with the intention of changing the situation which Sir Monty's committee found and which is deplorable?

ICE has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership this time and instead of merely asserting it should seize it. The Government's dismissal of the engineers' arguments in the Competition Act show that the profession is not yet strong enough to count.

If it wants to count, it has to look at the big picture and act as if it really were one profession.

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