British standards must not slip in US trade negotiations

Standards bring opportunities in global trade and should not be up for negotiation, says Scott Steedman, Director of Standards at BSI.

Whilst Parliament is in recess, trade deal negotiating teams are continuing talks that can bring significant benefits for British industry and society. With the latest round of negotiations for a US trade deal having recently started, standards can play an important role in delivering success.

Standards underpin the daily work of British engineers. From technical drawings to quality management, a huge array of standards enable the engineering industry to deliver world class projects safely and efficiently. These standards ensure that the process is as smooth as possible for British companies, allow consumers to know that their safety and security has been prioritised and can support regulation.

British standards

The UK achieves this through the work of the national standards body, BSI. We bring together expert stakeholders - over 13,000 of them - to put forward their views in our specialist committees across all sectors. With all UK stakeholders represented, we create a national body of knowledge in a collection of standards that is coherent and non-conflicting.

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We then go a step further to ensure that the UK’s standards are aligned to international standards, thereby allowing engineering companies from across the country to enjoy fewer barriers to global trade. This provides UK stakeholders, including engineering companies, with the ability to influence the content of standards produced through the international system led by ISO and IEC, working with other countries from around the world to agree common standards that can be used as a ‘passport to trade’ through defining the terms of market access.

The UK, through BSI, is already one of the most influential members of the international standards community. We participate in more ISO committees than any other country. Many of the world’s best known international standards started as British Standards, in areas such as quality management, asset management and building information modelling.

All of this has helped the value of British engineering exports more than double in less than a decade, growing from £4.63bn in 2009 to £9.62bn in 2017, while the value of British engineering imports has also increased by £726m in the same period.

The success of UK engineering companies both globally and at home depends upon a straightforward regulatory framework on the domestic market; this includes the ability of engineering firms to influence the content of voluntary standards used for compliance with UK regulation. It is here where standards related aspects of the ongoing trade negotiations with the US cause us concern.

US standards have no systematic input from British businesses or consumers in areas vital to our engineering industry

BSI works closely with the government to support trade deals that maximise the opportunities from the strategic use of international standards. We encourage the government to make the best use of our expertise and that of our committee members, and have proposed the creation of a cross-cutting advisory group that looks at the risks and opportunities from ‘technical barriers to trade’ issues that may go unnoticed without expert input.

However, if the US pushes for a similar approach to standards that it agreed with Canada and Mexico, the UK government could be required to call up in regulation US standards in place of British Standards. US standards have no systematic input from British businesses or consumers in areas vital to our engineering industry. Recognising US standards in support of regulatory conformity in the UK in place of or as an alternative to British Standards would create complexity and cost for industry and undermine UK influence in international standards-making.

A concession on this point would also severely threaten the UK government’s autonomous control over regulation as US businesses could challenge UK government decisions in the courts. It would fragment the simple, pro-innovation model of standards and regulation that we benefit from today.

BSI has a long and very positive relationship with US standards developing organisations and the US National Standards Body, ANSI. There are great opportunities for future collaboration in a bilateral or multilateral mode with US experts on engineering standards for design, manufacture and operation for existing, new and emerging technologies.

However, to fully grasp the global trading opportunities we see before us, government must retain the UK’s regulatory autonomy supported by a coherent set of national standards. To do otherwise would put UK engineering companies, wider industry and consumers at a severe disadvantage. Let’s accept where we have different systems for using standards with regulation and focus on the future.

Scott Steedman is Director of Standards at BSI