UKAS: 'We let EMS standards slide'

The UK's governing body for the certification of environmental management systems has fired a shot across practitioners' bows for letting standards slip. The UK Accreditation Service accepts some blame for the loss of credibility in certification, and is pledging to do what it takes to meet stakeholders' expectations.

UKAS' remarkable announcement came at the EMS national forum in Runcorn in December. The meeting, organised by the Environment Agency and the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, launched a debate to address growing concerns about inconsistent standards in EMS certification.

In advance of the forum, ENDS and IEMA cooperated on a survey which revealed a significant lack of confidence in the value of some EMSs and, in particular, in the competence and consistency of some certification bodies' work (see pp 19-21 ).

Concerns highlighted by the survey were echoed by forum participants. Nigel Marsh, head of environmental management at Rolls-Royce, pointed to his company's experience in obtaining ISO14001 certificates across the group. He said that ISO14001 had in general proved to be a good tool for bringing about environmental improvement. But performance was "extremely varied" across companies, countries and assessors.

Rolls-Royce employed several certification bodies, including LRQA, DNV and BVQI, and found that the quality of their assessments differed greatly. The company decided to compile a league table of assessors.

To ensure that audited sites gain value from the process, Rolls-Royce has now decided to send corporate staff to shadow third party auditors to confirm that they are thorough and issue non-conformity reports where necessary.

Last July, several of UKAS' own advisors, including the Environment Agency, went public with concerns that the organisation itself was becoming part of the problem due to its refusal to countenance that EMS certification is not meeting stakeholders' expectations (ENDS Report 342, pp 20-23 ).

UKAS external affairs director Roger Brockway now acknowledges that such pressure has forced the organisation to sit up and take notice.

In Runcorn, Mr Brockway conceded that he had foreseen the potential for such problems seven years ago when ISO14001 and EMAS were introduced. He said that UKAS and others had taken quality management system certification as a model for EMSs, but without ensuring the necessary focus on crucial features such as demonstrating environmental performance improvement and legal compliance to external stakeholders.

"Have we over-identified the whole process of certification of EMSs with that of quality management certification? I think the certification industry has to stand up and say 'guilty.'"

"UKAS also has to stand up and say 'guilty'. We have let the accreditation of ISO14001 become too aligned with ISO9001, and not enough attention is therefore paid to the real things that you have to extract from the standard in order to achieve value for the environment."

"We have let things slide and I think certification bodies have let things slide, and we have to take some responsibility for that."

One delegate in Runcorn described UKAS as having "done a Marks & Spencer" for making a brave admission in order to retrieve its credibility as quickly as possible.

However, several delegates said they remain to be convinced and will be looking carefully at UKAS' plans. The organisation has announced a project to review its accreditation process for EMS certification bodies. It intends to convene stakeholders from government, regulators, industry and NGOs to find out about their expectations. It then expects to "redefine the service to meet these expectations."

UKAS has also pledged to beef up its pool of competent assessors who police the work of certification bodies. At present it has just one full-time in-house assessor and two part-time external people to police 40 certification bodies, a quarter of which are based overseas. Mr Brockway said that more competent assessors would undoubtedly be necessary as part of a more effective regime.

It is not yet clear where the extra resources will come from to pay for the work, but Mr Brockway levelled a warning at the industry to expect to have to pay more for UKAS' accreditation services - even if this means that some certification bodies can no longer compete.

ENDS understands that UKAS is under pressure from its own technical advisory committee not to allow the resource issue to cause delay. According to a committee representative, "EMSTAC members feel an acute sense of urgency on this issue. We have impressed upon UKAS management the need to move faster than perhaps they were thinking of doing."

Rather than looking to others to provide resources, he said, UKAS should raise a modest levy on its accreditation fees to provide more thorough assessments.

Another EMSTAC member, Chris Howes of the Environment Agency, said: "We are broadly supportive of what UKAS is trying to do and the principles behind what they are trying to achieve."

"But we are concerned about them acting to find sufficient resources quickly. This cannot be allowed to drag on."

The Agency has been one of the most outspoken critics of the certification industry but also an ardent proponent of EMSs if applied effectively. In a talk entitled "Is it time to tell the Emperor?", Mr Howes outlined several studies in Europe and the US which had found that certified EMSs were not delivering the expected standards of performance improvement and legal compliance.

The Agency would work with UKAS, Mr Howes said, but it is also pursuing other options to enhance the value of EMSs for regulators. These include the revision of EMAS; cooperation with other EU regulatory bodies through the "Remas" project; and discussions with EU and US policy-makers.

The Agency also intends to participate in the stakeholder process begun at Runcorn. And it is looking at offering greater regulatory recognition where EMS certificates are deemed to be sufficiently robust, as with the MCERTS scheme for environmental monitoring certification.

The Agency plans to work with IEMA on a project to develop guidance for certification bodies and companies on checking legal compliance under ISO14001 and EMAS. A speaker at the forum representing the Dutch SCCM reported that similar guidance in the Netherlands drawn up by stakeholders had served to prevent the crisis of confidence in certified EMSs which is manifest in the UK (ENDS Report 327, pp 31-33 ).

A notable feature of the forum was the small number of certification bodies in attendance. The half a dozen that were present seemed divided on whether they had a problem to answer for. The industry is faced with the difficulty of having no unifying organisation to pull it together. In November, the Association of British Certification Bodies, which represents a third of the industry, held a preliminary conference to discuss whether ISO14001 and EMAS certification is delivering. Several non-member certifiers also attended.

In December, the ABCB's chief executive Tim Inman said: "My association is concerned over many of the issues raised by the ENDS survey and is establishing a forum in which these will be analysed and addressed by EMS certifiers. This is seen as an essential step prior to continuing the debate within the broad environmental management community.

"The UKAS view that EMS certification has become too similar to the QMS variety is one of the issues which will be on the agenda of the planned ABCB forum."

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