One story of how frequent Government changes have negatively impacted the UK conformity assessment industry.
The original EU-UK withdrawal agreement proposed the introduction of the UKCA mark from as early as 29 March 2019.
The European Commission had always been clear that UK CABs would cease to be Notified Bodies on the date of withdrawal and have never wavered from that position.
Like other UK CABs, our immediate priority was to shift our EU Notified Body operations so that they were located within an EU Member State, in order to maintain EU Notified Body service provision for our clients. This carried significant costs in terms of people, accreditation, etc. We also had to transfer many client contracts and certifications from our UK Notified Body to our new EU Notified Body. This was something we felt could not be charged to our clients, so we bore the cost of this.
The process of creating a new EU Notified Body has been complex and challenging, with the Commission raising detailed objections at every turn, which took ages to resolve. We feel that this is because they perceive us to be a UK company, as the objections raised had never happened before. To date, we have still not managed to fully replicate our Notified Body scope in our EU legal entity.
The 29 March 2019 deadline never appeared in reality, and much of 2019 was spent trying to plan for the future, with all UK guidance being based on “whether the UK left with a deal” or not. A very confusing time, with every strategy having to consider both possibilities.
Things seemed to become clearer in early 2020 after the UK and the EU agreed on a transition period for exiting the EU on 31 January 2020. The position was now clear, with the CE mark being accepted for the interim period, but UKCA being mandatory for most products from 1 January 2021 (and, of course, the EU position did not shift at all).
Our CAB undertook a number of investments based around this new date:
- A global programme of webinars and marketing activities to inform clients of this new UKCA deadline and the need to act.
- Additional certification resources employed to handle the predicted increase in demand for the UKCA Approved Body services we were offering.
- Developing new Approved Body services, along with recruitment and accreditation, where we perceived there were opportunities due to the limited number of UK Approved Bodies in some areas.
We invested in resources, spent significant time educating as many clients as we could and issued many UKCA certificates for clients that wanted to meet the deadline because we were concerned that we would not be able to cope with demand if clients left this to the last minute. It was, therefore, disappointing when the deadline was changed (without even the courtesy of notice or forewarning given to UK Approved Bodies) and the deadline for UKCA marked products was extended again by a further year to 1 January 2022.
During 2020, we also started to plan more detailed and financially significant investments – especially around developing new laboratory test facilities that were needed to support the required testing for products falling under module AVCP 3 within the Construction Products Regulations. AVCP 3 presented a challenge, as the UK simply did not have sufficient test capacity for many of the construction products being placed on the market. The arbitrary extension of CE Marking acceptance by another year resulted in virtually all of these plans being shelved. The UK government was actively encouraging UK CABs to expand their services and capacity but could give no guarantee that the system would actually be launched or remain in place. They were also actively encouraging overseas CABs to enter the market, while the industry was actively lobbying for further extension or relaxation of the rules.
For a commercial CAB, the UK framework was simply not investable.
The 2022 deadline for the introduction of mandatory UKCA marking seemed firmer now. However, it was clear that many clients were no longer committing to gaining UKCA certification (where Approved Body activity was required) and many were choosing to lobby government for further extensions, based on a lack of CAB capacity.
Our CAB continued to invest in the UKCA regime:
- Continuing to expand our Approved Body services, along with recruitment and accreditation, where we perceived there were opportunities due to the limited number of UK Approved Bodies in some areas.
- Marketing activities to inform clients of the new UKCA deadlines and the need to act.
In 2021, other anomalies started to come to light. For example, the UK Pressure Equipment Regulations created during Brexit, specifically require that Approved Bodies ensure “the technical documentation and other records… relating to the conformity assessment procedures are prepared in or translated into English”. After some challenging conversations with clients, where it became clear that other bodies were interpreting this differently, the requirement was quietly and unofficially relaxed.
Once again, having spent significant time educating as many clients as we could and issuing many UKCA certificates for clients that wanted to meet the latest deadline, it was disappointing when the deadline for UKCA-marked products was quietly extended again to 1 January 2023. We learned of this change when the UKCA web pages operated by BEIS were updated on 24 August, following several months of rumour to this effect.
We have continued to try and educate clients about the UKCA mark and update certification ahead of the 2023 deadline. Demand is now a fraction of what it had been in 2019-20, as the market clearly no longer believes the UK government will implement the UKCA changes.
We have halted all expansion of Approved Body services and put more energy into expanding our EU Notified Body activities, which continue to be challenging.
We have undertaken modest marketing activities associated with UKCA, as we found it difficult to push a government message that appears to be unlikely to be implemented.
Outside of CPR, the relaxations announced in June 2022 are ambiguous and have caused much confusion among our clients, who expect their CAB to be able to advise them. We are unable to advise clients, as the policy position does not seem to be clear, the regulation needed to understand the changes does not yet exist, and our questions via “stakeholder” groups remain unanswered…