A Landmark Change? – Proposed reform of the occupational regulation of engineers

Engineers engage in building work that is critical to public safety. Despite this, few restrictions are placed on who can carry out and supervise complex and specialised projects that require high levels of professional judgement, skill and technical competence.

As part of its building reform programme to improve the quality of building work, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is leading efforts to reform the occupational regulation of engineers.

The status quo

New Zealand currently has no mandatory regulatory regime for engineers.  While the profession has several credentialing bodies, you are not required to be an accredited member of any of these to hold yourself out as an engineer.

The leading internationally recognised credential is the Chartered Professional Engineer (CPEng), a statutory title intended to provide recognition of an engineer’s general competence.  In New Zealand, CPEng credentialling is administered by Engineering New Zealand with oversight from the Chartered Professional Engineers Council.  A CPEng found to have been negligent can be fined and have their registration suspended or cancelled.  However, because there is no statutory requirement for engineers to hold a CPEng in the first place, there is nothing to prevent an engineer whose registration has been cancelled from continuing to practice in their field of engineering.  Furthermore, because accreditation is voluntary and maintaining CPEng registration can be quite onerous in terms of time and effort, many competent practicing engineers choose not to obtain the CPEng credential in the first place.

Engineering New Zealand also maintains a self-regulatory system of which an engineer can become a chartered member.  Again, however, membership is voluntary and Engineering New Zealand can do nothing to prevent non-members from practicing as engineers.

Calls for reform

The push for reform can be traced back to the CTV building collapse, in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, in which 115 people lost their lives.  The design engineer was found to be insufficiently experienced and inadequately supervised by his senior engineer.  A complaint against the senior engineer to Engineering New Zealand (then known as IPENZ) was dropped in 2014 when the engineer resigned his membership.  The Government sought a judicial review of IPENZ’s decision to halt its investigation and, following a decision of the Court of Appeal, Engineering New Zealand has re-opened the matter.  The senior engineer still practices. 

Further incidents, both at home and abroad, have added to calls for reform.  The ongoing “leaky homes crisis”, the Havelock North water contamination in 2016, the Harington Street carpark building in Tauranga, the building at 230 High Street in Christchurch are all instances where poor engineering has contributed to structural failures.  Overseas, the Lacrosse apartment fire in Melbourne in 2014 and the Grenfell tower fire in London in 2017 – in which 72 people died – both occurred in large part because the buildings’ exteriors did not comply with fire-safety requirements.

MBIE’s proposals

MBIE intends its reforms to deliver “safe and durable buildings, a high performing building sector and an efficient regulatory system.”  Its initial reforms, addressing building products, methods and certification processes, were enacted into law in the Building (Building Products and Methods, Modular Components and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2021.   Now turning to occupational regulation, MBIE proposes to strengthen the Licensed Building Practitioner scheme and to establish a mandatory regulatory regime for engineers.   

Following a 2021 public consultation on its proposed changes to the occupational regulation of engineers, MBIE received 250 submissions, mainly from within the engineering profession.  MBIE reports that 81% of submitters agreed that all engineers should be subject to occupational regulation.  In March 2022, Cabinet agreed to proposals to develop a bill to introduce a new 2-tiered regulatory regime for engineers, and to establish a new regulator to oversee the regime. 

The regime will move from voluntary certification to a requirement for registration for all engineers.  Sitting on top of that will be a licensing regime for high-risk and safety-critical work.  This will regulate who can carry out or supervise engineering work in specified practice fields that have a higher risk to health and safety of members of the public.  These fields will be set by regulation and will likely include (among other fields) structural, recreational safety and fire engineering.   

Second, MBIE proposes establishing an Engineers Registration Board to oversee the regime, supported by a registrar, complaints officer and disciplinary committee. This body will set the minimum standards of competency that must be met for registration and licensing classes. It will also establish a code of ethics and CPD requirements.  Most importantly, this body will be empowered to receive and investigate complaints and disciplinary matters and hand down penalties accordingly – which are proposed to include (among other things) cancellation of registration and the suspension or revocation of licences.

A “landmark change”?

Actual change is still some time off.  A bill will be drafted and introduced to Parliament later in 2022 or early 2023.  It is likely to take until 2024 to enact any legislation, after which MBIE expects the new regime will take up to six years to be fully implemented.

However, on the face of it, the proposed reform holds promise for genuine change.

The mandatory registration and licencing regime will protect the public by ensuring engineers carry out and supervise only the work they have the necessary technical competence to undertake.  This will assist consumers in being able to identify appropriately qualified engineers and will help to ensure that engineering services are performed with necessary competence, care and skill, with restrictions proportionate to the risk posed to the public.

In addition to this, an independent and empowered regulatory body will provide oversight and wield the powers necessary to regulate the profession and hold engineers accountable for deficient work. The fact that breaches of discipline will be subject to a range of enforceable penalties, including the cancelation of registration or licensing, buttresses the confidence provided by mandatory registration and licencing, and is something lacking in the current regime.

There are many highly professional, experienced, and extremely competent engineers.  However, the current lack of mandatory occupational regulation of the profession means it can be difficult to identify those whose skills are deficient, let alone prevent them from practising.  The proposed reforms are intended to address deficient practice and establish an industry body with real oversight and disciplinary authority.  These reforms are a step in the right direction and promise to recognise the vast majority of competent engineers and make engineering work safer for everyone.

If you have any questions about the proposed reform to the occupational regulation of engineers, please get in touch with our construction team or your usual contact at Hesketh Henry.

Disclaimer:  The information contained in this article is current at the date of publishing and is of a general nature.  It should be used as a guide only and not as a substitute for obtaining legal advice.  Specific legal advice should be sought where required.

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Media contact - Kerry Browne
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