Detecting something fishy in the water

The government-owned National Laboratory Service has a strategy to make itself more business-like, and is anticipating MCerts accreditation. Natasha Wiseman met commercial director Ian Rippin at IWEX

The Environment Agency's dedicated laboratory service is now opening up to the commercial market to maximise its capacity, the National Laboratory Service (NLS)'s commercial director Ian Rippin revealed.

"As we emerge from being the Environment Agency's dedicated labs, there's an opportunity for us to sell spare capacity and learn from the commercial market. This is around earning commercial revenues to offset the budget, so that's good news for the taxpayer and for the Agency in terms of what it costs to run the labs, but there are some softer benefits around service delivery."

Rippin explained that three years ago the Agency expected samples to be turned around in 56 days, as its brief was really one of number crunching for EU regulation. Now, he said, the EA has a culture of investigation and locating the sources of pollution: "Today we compete with the best, so that's seven days, five days standard, so the Agency gets a much better service."

Rippin is confident that the service will remain government-owned for the foreseeable future and believes the board can make a success of the venture without the help of the private sector. A big investment has been made in seeking MCERTS accreditation.

"We believe we will have the most comprehensive MCERTS schedule for waters anywhere," he said. "Now the awards happen in June, we've had three or four UKAS visits, all very positive, so we're on track."

MCERTS for labs is not only about testing, it covers people, equipment and laboratory processes. It is more exacting than existing UKAS schemes, insisting on consistent reporting levels. However, Rippin expresses concern that despite MCERTS being very demanding, there is no proper plan to police it and to ensure that the water companies see its value.

This means that an MCERTS test may not actually cost more than non-certificated testing. "Hopefully, we'll be ahead of the competition," he said. "But if it isn't going to be regulated, then why should you do it?"

On a more positive note, Rippon concluded, "I think we will have the most comprehensive schedule, and so we should, given that we serve the regulator. I'd love to say that means we're going to get loads of commercial advantage out of it, because I don't believe other labs are anywhere near where we are."


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