15 February 2024

The Trading Standards Crisis

The Trading Standards Crisis image
Image: MXK MEDIA / Shutterstock.com.

John Herriman, chief executive at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, discusses the impact of the local government funding crisis on Trading Standards.

The crisis in local authority finances is forcing councils to make tough decisions. Budgets have been squeezed year on year for more than a decade, and in many places services are becoming unsustainable. That leaves local communities vulnerable.

Trading Standards is one of the many public services hit by those budgetary pressures. Despite councils having a statutory duty to operate a Trading Standards service, many departments have been pared back to the point of being barely operational.

Trading Standards isn’t protected in budget allocations in the same way as Adult Social Care or Children’s Services, which in some local authorities account for about 80% of the budget. If there is only 20% of the budget left from which greater efficiencies can be squeezed, then unprotected services have to take all of the cuts.

For many people, the response to that might be a shrug of indifference; after all, Trading Standards isn’t as visible as, say, playgrounds, parks, libraries, or many of the other vital components of a functioning, civilised society which also have experienced devastating cuts of their own.

Trading Standards also occupies a rather curious place in the British mindset, the popular conception perhaps being that Trading Standards Officers are pedantic ‘spoilsports’ out to penalise lovable Del Boy-like rogues when they bend the rules or forget to fill out a form. The reality of the work of trading standards is that it is far more serious than that, sitting right at the heart of protecting communities, especially the most vulnerable.

Consider the aspects of everyday life in which Trading Standards has a stake: food safety, product safety, animal welfare, underage sales, fair trading, scams, legal metrology, illicit tobacco, automotive safety, doorstep crime, illegal moneylending…the list goes on and on.

The reality is that those on the front line of Trading Standards enforcement are dedicated, diligent and highly trained professionals tackling life-threatening hazards, investigating complex fraud cases, and going after serious organised criminal networks. Passionate about protecting consumers, their actions prevent us all from being exploited, achieve justice for victims of crime and, to put it bluntly, save lives. They help ensure local communities are protected from often invisible threats.

Trading Standards is also critical in underpinning consumer confidence in law-abiding businesses at a time when they are needed more than ever to foster economic growth. They ensure they are not undercut by unfair and illegal commercial practices by rogue competitors and create the level playing field upon which local and national economies rely.

Despite thinking creatively and innovatively, both hallmarks of the profession, the morale among Trading Standards Officers has been understandably impacted. More than a decade of cuts have left departments overstretched, with some local authorities scraping by on one employee working a few days a week, facing an ever-rising tide of consumer complaints and an ever-growing list of enforcement responsibilities. They can see a system that should protect consumers that is no longer working effectively.

This has been accompanied by a political and media agenda which has heaped scorn on the idea of ‘smarter regulation’ and ‘red tape’, undermining the value of enforcement and those responsible for it. (On a perhaps not unrelated note, frontline Trading Standards Officers have reported a recent rise in threats, abuse and physical intimidation when performing their duties.)

Ironically though, away from the posturing, the reality is that over the past few years the ‘regulatory burden’ on businesses has increased, due in no small part to Brexit. The number of laws Trading Standards is responsible for enforcing and advising on has increased from around 250 a few years ago to almost 300 today.

Those laws, which are implemented at a national level, are only as good as the paper they are written on if they can be enforced effectively at a local level — whether that means surveillance of goods entering the country at ports and borders, or inspections of allergen labelling in your local takeaway.

In a recent letter to local authority chiefs, Emily Miles, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), expressed concerns about the pressures facing local enforcement, noting that there are approximately 14% fewer food safety posts being funded across England, Wales and Northern Ireland compared to a decade ago – and even where these posts do exist, more than 13% are vacant. For food standards, over the same period, a drop of 45.1% of allocated posts has been reported.

New products and increasingly complex global supply chains have also created new avenues for consumer harm and new responsibilities for Trading Standards; for example, devices such as electric bikes and scooters, purchased online from companies based thousands of miles away, have caused horrific house fires and deaths here in the UK. Social media selling and online marketplaces have upended traditional business models, making traceability and accountability ever more difficult when things go wrong. Meanwhile the cost-of-living crisis has left society’s most vulnerable at the mercy of dangerous ‘bargain’ products, loan sharks and domestic energy scams.

Simply put, local authority Trading Standards services are being forced to do more with less — and, at some point, something has to give. One of the consequences of diminished funding for local authority Trading Standards services is that certain illegal practices end up being essentially decriminalised, enabling the dishonest and unscrupulous to exploit the public, safe in the knowledge that the resources simply aren’t there to bring them to book. Needless to say, this sets a dangerous precedent which undermines fundamental values we all take for granted.

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) will shortly be publishing its Manifesto, in which it will highlight the importance of Trading Standards to help build back safer and stronger communities with place-based enforcement and, among other things, a call for additional central government funding to equip local Trading Standards services with the tools — and staff — they need to keep the public safe.

There are so many examples of what happens when regulation fails. The foot and mouth outbreak and the horsemeat scandal, for example, cost the UK economy billions. Even more tragically the Grenfell Tower fire is a stark illustration of what happens when unsafe products find their way into people’s homes and the system of market surveillance breaks down.

It is therefore no understatement to say that investing in Trading Standards protects the public and benefits the economy by enabling effective, robust, and sustainable place-based enforcement, which in turn prevents similar failures and tragedies occurring again, because when those events happen, the cost of an underfunded Trading Standards service can be counted in human lives and livelihoods, not just pounds and pence.

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