Certifiers in argument over accreditation

Certification bodies that award an environmental management standard are disputing that UK Accreditation Service should be the only body to accredit them

A row has broken out between certification bodies approved by the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS) to issue environmental management standard ISO 14001 and independent certifiers accredited by other bodies.

Earlier this year, the Association of British Certification Bodies (ABCB), which represents UKAS-accredited certifiers, wrote to the business department (BIS) to allege that some independent certification bodies were illegally accredited.

Trevor Nash, ABCB chief executive and author of the letter, said that while certification bodies were not legally required to be accredited, those that are must be accredited by government-appointed UKAS. ABCB said this requirement is set out in European law under article 7 of EC regulation 765/2008 on accreditation and market surveillance.

ABCB’s letter to BIS, seen by ENDS, includes the names of a number of certification bodies accredited by bodies other than UKAS. ABCB alleges that these certification bodies are “acting contrary to article 7 of regulation EC765” by claiming to be accredited by a body other than UKAS.

In its reply BIS said any organisation “suggesting it is accredited in the sense of the regulation when they are not is likely to be guilty of an offence under the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations (SI 2008/1276)”.

BIS's letter suggested ABCB or its members should refer non-UKAS accredited certification bodies to the Office of Fair Trading or local council trading standards officers.

Alternative accreditation

Although the certification bodies named by ABCB do not claim to be UKAS accredited, they do claim to be accredited by an alternative body.

The role of certification bodies is to check that companies which decide to implement a formal management system such as environmental standard ISO 14001 comply with it before issuing the certificate. ISO 14001 requires companies to commit to continuous performance improvements, have an environmental policy approved by the company board, identify legal requirements, and measure and reduce impacts. By 2009, about 11,000 organisations had ISO 14001 in the UK.

UKAS's role is to ensure certification bodies do the job properly. It does this by accrediting them under ISO 17021, which sets out the principles by which certifiers should operate such as impartiality, competence and openness. One of ISO 17021's requirements is that certifiers should not offer both consultancy services on implementing a formal management system and certification of that system to ISO standards.

UKAS is subject to oversight through its membership of the International Accreditation Forum. The UK's Accreditation Regulations 2009 appoint UKAS as the national accreditation body. A memorandum of understanding with the government sets out its responsibilities.

ENDS reviewed information published by several of the certification bodies named by ABCB in its letter to BIS and contacted them for comment.

QMS International, based in Norwich, is accredited by the International Accreditation Council based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A brochure from QMS on obtaining ISO 14001 says it has developed a “one stop shop” for certification by “effectively eliminating the need for you to employ a consultant”. Its method “combines the task of preparing the manual [for the management system] and undertaking the assessment at the same time”.

Peter Gamble, QMS managing director, confirmed his company offers both consultancy and certification services to the same clients. But he denied it was a breach of ISO 17021, under which he said the firm is accredited. “You’re right, 17021 does require a separation… how that separation is achieved is in our view down to interpretation,” he said.

Mr Gamble said safeguards at QMS include having certification assessments reviewed by two staff members so they could challenge each other. He alleged that other certifiers covertly offer both consultancy and certification through apparently separate companies, while QMS was “open and upfront” about it. He said he did not believe QMS was acting illegally.

The International Accreditation Council did not respond to ENDS’ enquiries.

ABCB also names Sheffield-based ISO Certification Agency (ICA). ICA’s website describes it as a not-for-profit organisation offering subsidised certification to small and medium-sized companies. It is accredited by the International Accreditation Agency, which has a website but does not disclose where it is based.

ICA is grant-funded by its accreditation body. This appears to create a potential conflict of interest between the two organisations contrary to ISO 17021. ICA also appears to offer both consultancy and certification services, and guarantees all companies will achieve certification.

But despite what it says on its own website, ICA told ENDS it was not funded by its accreditation body and did not provide consultancy services. It declined to comment on the legality of being accredited by a body other than UKAS. The International Accreditation Agency did not reply to ENDS.

The Audit People, based in Eastbourne, is accredited by the Accreditation Service for Certifying Bodies (Europe). Steve Hanaghan, The Audit People director, said his firm had been assessed by ASCB(E) to ISO 17021 and that it operates to that standard by carrying out full and proper audits, using trained and registered staff, raising issues of non-conformity with clients and not offering consultancy.

“We have always made it clear that our accreditation is ASCB(E) and not UKAS and have never misled anyone,” he told ENDS. The Audit People is currently undergoing UKAS accreditation, he said.

ITCC International, based in Kelmarsh, Northamptonshire, denied it was breaking the law. Dave Marsden, managing director, said: "My reading of it is that it's up to you to decide who accredits you." He said the company has been accredited to ISO 17021 by ASCB(E) and operates to that standard.

ENDS also contacted Certified Quality Systems, based in Malvern, accredited by the Bristol-based International Accreditation Board, and Quay Audit UK in Shrewsbury and Verification International of Worksop, both accredited by ASCB(E), but the firms failed to respond.

"Unacceptable monopoly"

Stephen Feltham, chief executive of Bournemouth-based accreditation body ASCB(E), said he had always taken care not to present his firm as a government-approved body such as UKAS. ASCB(E) provides a list of certifiers it has accredited.

He said it is unacceptable that UKAS has a monopoly over accreditation in the UK and certifiers should have a choice over which body accredits them. ASCB(E) was in effect barred from joining the International Accreditation Forum, which oversees UKAS, because the forum only allows one member from each country. He said ASCB(E) accredits certifiers to ISO 17021.

UKAS told ENDS that EC regulation 765/2008 required member states to appoint a single national accreditation body and that UKAS provides confidence that certifiers operate in an impartial, competent and transparent way.

Mr Nash said ABCB members were unlikely to follow BIS's advice to complain to Trading Standards or the Office of Fair Trading because, at this stage, the legislation has not been tested in a court. Mr Nash said some ABCB members thought BIS should be doing more to enforce the law.

BIS told ENDS it is working to identify the extent of the issue's impact on UKAS-accredited certification bodies. It is also working with the industry on a "longer term approach to raise awareness of the advantages of accredited certification as well as the benefits it can bring to businesses and the wider economy".