DWI encourages self-regulation by water companies

A cautious move towards fewer inspections of water companies which have quality management systems is to be made by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI). Its quiet policy shift is the furthest any regulator has moved towards relying on self-regulation by business.

The move was announced in the DWI's response to a review of its practices in checking water companies' performance in supplying wholesome drinking water and complying with statutory controls. The review was commissioned by the Department of the Environment and carried out by the late Professor Peter Stott (ENDS Report 222, pp 8-9 ).

The DWI's checks are carried out mainly by means of annual technical audits, and the Stott report broadly endorsed its practices in this regard. However, it went on to recommend that where water companies have externally certified quality management systems, the DWI should reduce the frequency of its own audits.

Such a radical recommendation in favour of self-regulation has not been made in respect of any other regulatory authority, and the DWI has responded guardedly.

The area in which it is prepared to commit itself immediately to reducing its own audits is drinking water testing. Where a laboratory is accredited to a new testing specification by the National Measurement Accreditation Service, "it will not be necessary for the Inspectorate to inspect the laboratory, unless there are any specific causes for concern," its response says. The DWI will "establish a level of audit which takes into account the accreditation achieved."

But extending this approach to water treatment works would be more difficult, the DWI believes. The quality standard BS5750 "is often followed blindly whereas it needs to be tailored to the task and the organisation," it says. "In many cases it will be insufficient to simply apply BS5750 to existing water treatment operations as it could result in perpetuation of poor practices. It could give a feeling of false security in an unreliable process."

The DWI says that it will therefore move "cautiously" in accepting quality systems in place of direct inspection. Water companies looking to benefit from reduced inspection will have to show that their quality systems have clear objectives, have full commitment from operators, set out detailed training requirements, incorporate clear and systematic procedures accompanied by detailed work instructions, and contain rigorous audit and review procedures.

Despite this cautious tone, the DWI says it would welcome approaches from water companies which want to take advantage of this new approach.

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