Shrinking Trading Standards Services

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Stonely Training
by Peter Stonely

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute have recently published their Workforce Survey 2018-19 .  This survey makes worrying reading reporting the loss of 100 full time qualified posts last year, showing a public service that does a brilliant job protecting consumers and supporting businesses under tremendous pressure.

But what do Trading Standards actually do?

Many people will be surprised at the range of work that trading standards actually do.  Their work is wide and fits into a number of areas:

  • Quality – this covers food labelling and compositional standards -we trust what is on the label but the horsemeat scandal showed us that things can go very wrong when long supply chains are involved. There are also rules relating to animal feed where composition will be crucial to farmers as they closely manage the diets of their stock.  Many will not realise this, but trading standards in many areas will also deal with animal health: this covers the health and welfare of farm animals as well as dealing with disease outbreaks and enforcing measures to prevent the spread of rabies. Quality is very much about what we eat and the work of trading standards goes from the farm to our forks
  • Quantity – many traders will still see trading standards as the Weights & Measures Service and that is where consumer protection started. Look at the Magna Carta which, in 1215, demanded standard units of measurement for grain, wine, beer and cloth.  Metres and kilograms may not sound as attractive as russets, haberjects, ells, or, dare I say, pounds and ounces, but they are the bedrock of commerce today.  It is the responsibility of trading standards to make sure that our modern scales, petrol pumps & beer glasses deliver us the right quantity, and that we are getting the quantities that we have paid for
  • Safety – there is a wide range of legislation that sets safety standards for products as diverse as electrical equipment, toys, personal protective equipment and furniture. Trading standards staff work at the ports to stop unsafe goods entering the country and then at retail level to make sure only safe goods are sold.  As consumers we see the CE mark, that is displayed on products such as toys and electrical equipment, as our guarantee of safety but sadly some unscrupulous businesses are happy to add the CE mark without meeting the standards required.  Trading standards are there to make sure we can only buy goods that are safe
  • Fair Trading – we should not be misled or subject to aggressive sales practices. Legislation also gives us rights to information and a right to cancel a contract entered into online or agreed in our homes.  Trading standards are the ones who enforce this legislation and it is an area where they can meet some of the  worst criminals who are more than happy to take advantage of and exploit our most vulnerable consumers through postal and email scams and rogue trading on the doorstep.

Trading standards carry out their duties through a wide range of enforcement actions from giving advice to prosecuting.  On the basis that it is best to get it right first time, trading standards will work with local businesses to help them comply with the law.  Sadly, with ever-shrinking budgets in local authorities, some business advice has to be charged for.

What did the Survey find?

Here are some of the main findings:

  • There was a loss of 99.8 posts, this is the equivalent of cutting 10 trading standards services. 50 posts  had been lost the year before, according to the previous Workforce Survey
  • Average trading standards budgets fell by 4%, with spending per head varying from 50p to £4.60
  • 44% of heads of service that responded did not believe that their team had sufficient skills to cover the full range of trading standards services
  • The profile of the trading standards service is that of an ageing population which could be a threat to future capacity
  • On a positive note, there were 50 trainees in post with a further 21 planned. There was a lot of enthusiasm for appointing apprentices
  • Doorstep crime, scams, product safety and fair trading continued to be the top priorities for services.

Does this matter?

Well I think it does.  Every public service would argue that it is important but I truly believe that the trading standards service is crucial to the economy, in terms of supporting businesses and protecting consumers, particularly the most vulnerable.  The Association of Chief Trading Standards Officers highlighted the work of trading standards in 2018/19, they:

  • Recovered £4.9 million in Proceeds of Crime, and prevented £26.5 million getting into the hands of doorstep criminals
  • Provided support to over 11,000 scam victims
  • Visited over 30,000 businesses and responded to 13,615 requests for advice
  • Tested 5,716 business premises for illegally selling alcohol, knives or other illegal products. The average failure rate was 22%
  • Undertook 43,000 investigations.

The trading standards service achieves amazing results, they are also incredibly adaptable and can reflect current threats to consumers – how long will it be before unsafe face masks are offered online to protect us from the Corona virus?

What does the future hold?

Due to our close relationships with trading standards colleagues, we know the pressures that they are under.  They are proud of what they achieve but they face increasing challenges in terms of what they can, or would like to achieve.

As a training organisation, we are having to adapt and come up with new ways of delivering training.  As an old-fashioned trainer I truly believe face to face training is the best way, but that is hard now due to limited resources and we often work with large groups using our skills to train both new staff and provide a refresher at the same time.  Our V-Learning Sessions are proving increasingly popular, providing one-hour webinars using some of the top experts at a very reasonable price.  We will continue to work to find different ways to support our colleagues.

There is no doubt that this year will produce many challenges, these include the increasing growth of sales of unsafe and counterfeit products online and the willingness of professional scammers to exploit vulnerable consumers.  Whatever you think of it, Brexit is highly likely to bring changes to the law and standards that businesses will need to meet.  These changes may be at short notice and trading standards must be able to get up to speed quickly to enable them to advise local businesses who will need their support.

It is easy to criticise local authorities for not supporting their trading standards services properly.  I am sure that most of them would want to do more but they are under immense pressure and funding care for the young and the elderly must take priority.

I don’t think there is an answer to this worrying situation, other than to say that I know trading standards will continue with their ‘can-do’ attitude squeezing even more out of diminishing resources.  My concern is that we are now at a place where some trading standards services are seriously struggling to even deliver the bare minimum which is to the detriment of local consumers and businesses.  Although Government is funding National Trading Standards as a central resource, NTS cannot function without local trading standards services and this lack of proper local funding must be addressed.