11 mins read

A world of confidence

Post-pandemic and post-Brexit, UKAS is looking to the future

Note: This article was first published in The Sentinel magazine, the official publication of the IIRSM

Towards the end of April, as the winter lockdown was finally being lifted, The Sentinel met on Teams with Matt Gantley, Chief Executive of UKAS, the sole National Accreditation Body (NAB) for the UK.

Matt has been working in the conformity assessment sector for more than 20 years. During that time, he has been responsible for providing services that add value, improve performance, reduce risk and deliver market trust, for the benefit of society. Previously, he has held senior director positions in certification, training and consulting enterprises as well being a board member of leading industry groups, including chairing the Association of British Certification Bodies. “This has allowed me to help deliver sustained strategic and commercial development in the conformity assessment sector, alongside specialising in international management in both established and emerging markets,” he said.

In addition to being a regular contributor to CQI [the Chartered Quality Institute], he has also been an active member of SSIP [Safety Schemes in Procurement], IOSH [Institution of Occupational Safety and Health] and IEMA [Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment], all of which are concerned with managing risk in their respective fields. “Outside of the day job,” added Matt, “I am passionate about educating the next generation of industry leaders on corporate and business strategy and have served as a visiting MBA lecturer at Manchester Business School.”

As the only NAB for the UK, UKAS delivers the country’s accreditation service. Accreditation underpins the UK’s global quality infrastructure, helping to minimise risk and deliver a world of confidence in the products and services that government, businesses and the public rely upon. Operating independently of government, UKAS assesses testing, certification, inspection and calibration services against internationally agreed performance standards. Organisations accredited by UKAS have demonstrated their competence, impartiality, integrity and performance capability. Through its work with government, industry and the conformity assessment sector, UKAS accreditation is recognised as demonstrating best practice in more than 100 economies across the world. This reduces both risk for the procurers of accredited services and barriers to trade for UKAS accredited bodies and their customers.

What are the risks of unaccredited certification?

“Accreditation provides a universally accepted way for certification bodies to demonstrate their competence and impartiality,” explained Matt. “This helps generate confidence in the capability of accredited certification bodies and in turn their customers. As a result, an increasing number of organisations, in both the public and private sectors, require their suppliers’ management systems to be certified and will only recognise accredited certification. In addition to becoming the expected industry norm for many sectors in the UK, accredited certificates are recognised throughout the world. Businesses with non-accredited certificates run the risk of being excluded from the tendering process and losing ground in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.”

While remaining independent of Government, UKAS operates under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and has been formally appointed as the UK’s sole NAB through the Accreditation Regulations 2009 (S.I. No 3115/2009). As a consequence, it is Government policy to recommend the use of UKAS accredited conformity assessment services wherever possible, and only accreditation of UK bodies by the UK’s NAB (i.e., UKAS) shall be recognised by Government and public authorities.

“As the UK’s NAB, UKAS supports Government by advising on issues relating to accreditation and conformity assessment, both within the UK and overseas,” said Matt. “This may relate to building public confidence and providing the top level of assurance in national schemes and regulations, or in providing reliability of conformity assessment in international trade deals.”

Through its membership of the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) and International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC), UKAS has an international reputation for technical excellence. This is underpinned through Multilateral Recognition Agreements (MLAs) with other NABs which enable the reports and certificates of UKAS-accredited bodies to be accepted around the world. The value of these MLAs is in enhancing acceptance of products and services across national borders through reducing Technical Barriers to Trade.

What were the main challenges prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and how did you overcome them?

“Like all organisations, the pandemic has had a significant impact on our business,” said Matt. “However, we have been quick to respond to the crisis, and rapid changes have been implemented to protect the accreditation process and ensure our customers can maintain their vital accredited status. A key priority throughout this period has, and continues to be, the safety of UKAS staff and contractors, as well as that of our customers. We continue to listen to and act on Government guidance, and all staff are currently working entirely remotely.

“At the outset of the pandemic, UKAS formed a Crisis Management Team, which continues to meet weekly to review our policies and make necessary changes. A major change for us was the rapid roll-out of remote assessment.  This is an essential element that allowed continuity of the assessment process – including reassessment, Extension to Scope and new grants of accreditation – without compromising either the safety or integrity of our assessments. This was enabled through innovative technology and has received wide praise from our customers.

“Remote assessment has also been a critical enabler in the accreditation of COVID-19 testing laboratories, in both the public and private sectors. All UKAS training courses have been, and continue to be, delivered in a live virtual environment. This has had the added benefit of allowing delegates to receive training from all over the world at a vastly reduced cost. Communication has been key throughout this period. UKAS produced updated guidance and publications for our customers, as well as a popular series of webinars to provide further information about how we are responding to the pandemic and our remote assessment processes. Keeping an entirely remote workforce of over 260 people informed has been equally important and a comprehensive programme of internal communications is ongoing.

“I am proud of the way UKAS has responded to COVID-19. As well as enabling our customers to maintain their accreditation (which is business-critical for many of them), we have been instrumental in the delivery of reliable and accurate testing which has helped the Government navigate this crisis. Our response has proven our agility and ability to innovate in the face of a crisis.  I am also pleased that no UKAS staff have been furloughed and there have been no cases of COVID-19 infections due to work transmission, although sadly some staff have contracted the virus through social transmission, including one tragically fatal case.”

What are some of the legacies for the certification and inspection sector?

“The COVID-19 pandemic expedited UKAS’ use of remote assessment tools,” said Matt. “However, it was already planned to implement a remote element to assessments where appropriate. The pandemic brought this project forward and has proven that this approach can work well. In the future, when the risk of COVID-19 has been significantly reduced, it is likely that a blended approach (a mix of remote and on-site assessment) will become the norm.

“The entire sector has learnt that it can adapt quickly, adopting new technology and new ways of working, giving us great confidence in the changes that are coming from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4.0). The value of science and technology to society has been proven during these difficult times, as has the need for assurance and certification to ensure products and services are valid and fit for purpose. I am optimistic that government and society more broadly will continue to recognise these values in the aftermath of the pandemic.”

How will IR4.0 impact UKAS?

“The new technologies covered by this broad term are already having a major impact on all our lives, both at work and at home. As a result, UKAS has commenced a project to look into the challenges and opportunities presented by IR4.0. As an initial step, we have conducted a survey through social media in recent weeks to understand our stakeholders’ concerns, interests and involvement. We are still analysing the responses, but they are very varied, reflecting the breadth of the topic and the differing degrees of engagement within our stakeholder community. We will use the results of this survey together with other planned engagement activities to work collaboratively with government, regulators and other stakeholders to develop new approaches for accreditation and certification in this extremely important, fast-moving area.”

What impact has Brexit had on UKAS and the certification marketplace?

“Brexit presented UKAS with a number of risks and opportunities, which we have navigated this past year along with the additional challenges presented by COVID-19. On the UK’s exit of the European Union, UKAS accreditation was no longer recognised with respect to the EU regulatory framework. One of the consequences of this was that Notified Bodies – working in support of the EU CE Marking System – were required to be established in an EU member state, and a number of these Notified Bodies subsequently relocated their services from the UK to the EU.

“The voluntary sector remained unaffected, and UKAS accreditation is still recognised both within Europe and internationally through its regional and international MLAs. The new regime for placing products on the GB market – through implementation of the UKCA mark – is underpinned by UKAS accreditation and applications are currently being received from new bodies wishing to service the UK market. The net result is that unless specifically stated within EU or national legislation, UKAS accredited certificates continue to be recognised across Europe.

Can you tell us about the development by UKAS of a new certification verification database for management systems certification?

“This project is expected to launch in early 2022 and will be a simple online tool to allow anyone to verify that a certificate, or a claim of certification under UKAS accreditation is valid. This will be very useful for procurers, supply chain managers and regulators to verify and track the certification of their suppliers. The system will be publicly accessible and free to use and will also provide the option to ‘follow’ suppliers to receive notifications of any changes in their certification status.

“This will be invaluable for organisations with large supply chains that require continuous monitoring. The Certificate Database contains measures to protect the data of our customers, while making it accessible to the people who need to verify certificates. One of the biggest problems the Testing, Inspection and Certification sector has always faced is that of fraudulent or forged certifications. One of the main drivers behind this project is to build-in additional protections against these practices, allowing simple verification of genuine accredited certification.”

In response to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government has commissioned a review of testing and certification for construction products. What would UKAS recommend, to strengthen the quality infrastructure around construction products? “We believe that all the tools already exist to provide assurance for the construction products market.  Unfortunately, in the past the industry – and government – has not always made full use of the tools available. For instance, the industry has been over-reliant on individual test reports. These only provide information on the sample tested – often a single item – at that particular moment in time.

“There is no confirmation that this single item is representative of the products being sold. This could be greatly improved by the wider use of product certification, whereby the test results of the product – with proper sampling and taken on a regular basis – is linked to ‘factory production control’. This ensures that product performance is consistent and there is a verifiable link to the test results. It is also worth noting that the use of the mechanisms to show conformance is often voluntary. UKAS believes that there are a number of measures that could be taken to strengthen construction product assurance and we look forward to working with the MHCLG review team to discuss making this happen.”

How has UKAS supported the Hackitt Inquiry and what are the key areas that are likely to come out of the Building a Safer Future Report that relate to Risk Managers?

“UKAS has played a very active part in supporting the work and the recommendations of the Hackitt review,” said Matt. “In fact, we have been praised by Dame Judith Hackitt for our engagement in this work. One of her strong recommendations is that for certain high-risk roles, there needs to be independent oversight of competence provided by UKAS or, where appropriate, the Engineering Council. In her view it is no longer acceptable to rely on a qualification that was achieved perhaps many years before and that whilst oversight from a professional or trade body is important, there must be a higher level of regular oversight and scrutiny, such as that provided by UKAS accreditation.”1

1Last December UKAS presented a 25th Anniversary Lecture, ‘Lessons from the Grenfell Tower’, delivered by Dame Judith Hackitt DBE, FREng, FIChemE, FCGI. You can watch the lecture here: ww2.ukas.com/ukaslessonsfromtheGrenfelltower

Authored by: Will Peakin