[Note: Oxebridge’s internal reporting guidelines require any article tagged as “News” to be supported by at least two credible sources, or one source with verifiable documentary evidence. For this article, Oxebridge only has one source. Readers must take that into consideration. If additional sources come forward, this article will be updated.]

A credible source close to the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) has reported to Oxebridge that the renowned accreditation body is mulling breaking from the International Accreditation Forum (IAF).

The IAF has managed the world’s accreditation bodies within the ISO certification scheme since the late 1990s, when it stepped in to take over that role from ISO itself. Accreditation bodies join the IAF as signatory members, promising to recognize each other’s accreditations throughout the world, and agreeing to undergo “peer assessments” to ensure their own compliance with ISO 17011. Since then, the IAF has made arrangements with world governments to ensure that the accreditations of its members are recognized as valid.

Official IAF rules claim that any AB that fails a peer assessment would then be ejected from IAF but in reality, the IAF does not enforce its rules. Instead, ABs pay the IAF and its regional accreditation groups (RAGs) for membership, and then face little in the way of actual oversight. When complaints are filed, the IAF and RAGs works to protect the ABs from stakeholders, rather than ensuring ISO 17011 is enforced.

This “protection arrangement” has suited the ABs well, as it simultaneously projects international acceptance of their accreditations, while granting them cover when they are found to be linked to disasters, scandals, or international humanitarian abuses.

But recently, the IAF has faced increasing scrutiny due to a number of simultaneous factors: the reporting of its activities by Oxebridge, the inability of IAF to react to world events like the COVID-19 pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the increase in the unaccredited “certificate mill” market which has raised questions on accreditation as a whole.

Managed on a day-to-day basis by a single Canadian consultant, Elva Nilsen, the IAF has been unable to chart a path through these crises, and instead has continued to operate as if the world has not changed. For decades, the IAF refused to make participation in a single registry of ISO certificates a mandatory part of membership, leading to the proliferation of counterfeit, “certificate mill” certificates, largely from India, China, and the Middle East. During the COVID pandemic, the IAF was unable to develop new rules for remote auditing, and relied on old policies that were written a decade before the pandemic, which proved inflexible under the shifting restrictions of its various nations.

Problems worsened for the IAF as international sanctions grew against Russia, for its invasion of Crimea and Ukraine. IAF Chair Emanuele Riva, of the Italian accreditation body ACCREDIA, put out increasingly bizarre and legally contentious statements, claiming that the IAF’s internal policies somehow trumped international laws. IAF then continued serving Russia while ignoring sanctions which grew by the week. Eventually, world pressure forced the IAF members to reject Riva’s position, and announce that it was withdrawing all IAF membership privileges in Russia.

The move weakened Riva, who was already seen as an ineffective and unqualified Chair, and highlighted his conflicts of interest. ACCREDIA has certificates in Russia, and was not willing to yield to sanctions lest it lose that business. This led to internal squabbles which froze IAF decision-making for weeks, as the Russian invasion wore on.

The Russian debacle accidentally revealed that the IAF has never had any legal authority to enforce its multilateral agreements in the first place. After finally yielding to sanctions against Russia, the IAF has found itself legally incapable of enforcing its decision. The Russian certification body. Russian Register, continues to market its services with IAF logos on certificates, and major US and European certification bodies reported they had not even been told of the IAF decision to withdraw certificates in that country. The IAF has no legal resources in Russia to enforce its decisions or prevent the illegal use of its trademark. This has further weakened the IAF brand, causing members to reconsider their decades-long membership.

The laboratory accreditation oversight body ILAC, which is preparing to merge with IAF next year, has simply ignored the IAF’s decision on Russia. Instead, ILAC continues to support Russia, creating additional schisms and making IAF appear that much weaker. “IAF cannot even control ILAC,” the Oxebridge source said, “and IAF considers itself the dominant party in that merger.”

The final blow appears to be the IAF’s recent decision to finally make participation in its “CertSearch” database a mandatory part of IAF membership and, thus, accreditation. Oxebridge proposed a mandatory database in 2002, but the idea was rejected outright by IAF, under pressure to do so by the certification body BSI. BSI claimed that a central database would provide opportunities for competitors to “poach” their clients.

Eventually, IAF began the CertSearch project, but refused to make it a mandatory part of accreditation, again yielding to BSI and other bodies. Because CertSearch has largely failed, IAF is now polling large industry organizations like Airbus, asking for their support to pressure ISO to make CertSearch mandatory. The IAF website has begun publishing letters of support for a mandatory CertSearch, in an attempt to push back on BSI and the other bodies.

That move has been met with anger by some certification scheme organizations. The UK accreditation body, UKAS, recently announced it was going its own way, with a UKAS-only “CertCheck” database, applicable only to UKAS accredited bodies. UKAS then enlisted the help of CQI CEO Vincent Desmond to market CertCheck, with Desmond taking veiled swipes at the IAF’s CertSearch.

The source now tells Oxebridge that this is part of a longer plan to split UKAS entirely from the IAF. The source says that UKAS does not feel that IAF membership brings any benefit to UKAS. Allegedly, executives at UKAS feel that its own mark is valuable enough, and that tying it to the IAF logo only brings additional disrepute, costs, and scandal.

Under the leadership of CEO Matt Gantley, UKAS has leaned heavily into a more aggressive, no-holds-barred expansion method. UKAS and Gantley have not only refused to stop providing services to companies that were found to be engaged in human trafficking, labor rights abuses, and issuance of deadly defective products. Gantley has been aggressive in pursuing the support of members of Parliament in the UK, including Ben SpencerĀ of Runnymede and Weybridge, in order to protect it from government oversight.

According to the source:

UKAS intends to replace the IAF as the world’s go-to “brand” for accreditation. They think they can accredit anyone, and that the IAF serves no real purpose anymore. They are also angry about how the Forum has squandered its influence and can’t seem to manage even simple problems, nevermind the big ones the world keeps throwing at it.

The source also reports that UKAS “wants to cut costs“:

Participating in EA [the UAF’s European regional body] costs money. If they aren’t getting anything but headaches for participation, then there’s no sound business reason to keep paying. UKAS doesn’t feel it needs the IAF to give UKAS validity, it has it on its own.

There have been rumors of major ABs breaking from IAF for years, but this comes as a growing movement emerges to push ISO to restore its original accreditation oversight plan, called “QSAR.” In the 1990s, ISO was forced to testify before the World Trade Organization, and promised the WTO that QSAR would prevent ISO certifications from becoming a barrier to free trade. But ISO bungled the QSAR plan, and IAF stepped in to fill the vacuum.

The result has been decades of corruption and scandal, and an overall reduction in the trust in ISO certifications.

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Why we report on these topics

Since 2000, Oxebridge has worked to improve ISO and related certification schemes by identifying problems and then proposing solutions. We report on issues affecting standards users because so few other news outlets do. Our belief is that in order to fix the problems in these schemes, we must first understand the nature and breadth of those problems. Our reporting aims to do just that. Elsewhere on the Oxebridge site you will find White Papers and other articles proposing ideas to correct these problems.

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