“I bet everyone says this, but if I could have picked a Ministerial job then this would be it.”
It’s just a few months since Andrew Griffiths was appointed the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Burton MP’s enthusiasm shows no sign of waning.
“I am quite a practical kind of politician, I like to get things done and I think these are areas where you can really make a difference. It’s been busy and we have seen some significant steps already, including launching the new Office for Product Safety and Standards and the Modernising Consumer Markets Green Paper.”
Griffiths’ role covers a wide remit, from the smallest of small businesses through to the corporate governance rules for Britain’s biggest companies, as well as ensuring that consumers can buy from all of these businesses secure in the knowledge that there is an effective system of protections in place. It’s a lot to take in for a new minister but Griffiths says that his business background means that he understands the contribution that trading standards and effective enforcement make to our economy.
“You simply cannot have a level playing field without effectively enforced rules, and those rules need to be clear and fair. But you also learn a lot as an MP – representing businesses and consumers in your constituency, you come across a lot of cases involving regulation and enforcement, and the valuable work that trading standards officers do.”
A call for input
Before becoming an MP in 2010, Griffiths worked for his family’s engineering business in the West Midlands prior to joining Leeds Permanent Building Society, now Halifax. Later roles included Chief of Staff to Theresa May and Eric Pickles, as well as time spent as an adviser on farming in the European Parliament for the Conservatives.
Today, he believes that the UK has significant economic strengths on which it can build “but we also need to do more to increase our productivity and make the most of our untapped potential”.
He adds: “That is why we are seeking views from across the country on how we can help businesses raise their productivity and how we can stamp out unfair payment practices, which is an important issue for small businesses. I would encourage the trading standards profession to provide their insights through the two Calls for Evidence.
“Another priority of mine is ensuring consumers are getting the best deals and are protected when things go wrong. Recently, we launched the Modernising Consumer Markets Green Paper, which set out proposals to modernise the approach taken by regulators, ensuring data works for consumers and ensuring consumers have access to redress for when things go wrong. This also includes exploring how to improve accountability for the enforcement of consumer law and strengthen our system of consumer protection while maintaining strong links to local authorities.”
What, then, are his ambitions for this green paper?
“It is about building a business environment fit for the future, one in which new technologies help, not hinder, the competitive markets that consumers rely on to provide quality goods and services at low prices. That is why the green paper includes proposals to ensure new technology and data are used to benefit consumers, to strengthen national enforcement of consumer rights, to improve consumers’ access to alternative dispute resolution services and to establish a set of principles underpinning how vulnerable consumers can expect to be treated. We would like to hear from consumer groups, consumers themselves, and would encourage local trading standards teams to work with us to ensure we have a robust consumer protection regime that can provide a robust response to both local and national threats. The consultation closes on 4 July and again I would encourage trading standards teams to contribute their perspective to it.”
Support for public safety
While it is encouraging to hear the Minister’s comments on contributions by trading standards to future legislation, there’s no getting away from the fact that, according to CTSI evidence, there has been a fall of at least 50% in trading standards officers in the past seven years. Does Griffiths think that these cuts are putting the public at risk?
“Public safety is the Government’s number one priority,” he says. “Which is why we are providing consumers with the highest ever level of protection by investing an extra £12 million each year in the new Office for Product Safety and Standards. It is the responsibility of local authorities to decide on funding decisions for local trading standards based on local need.”
As for the impact of the Office on local trading standards, Griffiths says: “The new Office for Product Safety and Standards is there to augment and support the work of local trading standards teams by bringing together technical and scientific expertise to assist them and make their work more effective, as well as coordinating rapid and effective action when national product safety issues arise.
“The Office also works with businesses to help them understand their responsibilities – the first big achievement of the new Office was the publication in March of the first ever government-backed code of practice for product recalls, which the Office produced with the British Standards Institution.”
The future of enforcement
Meanwhile, in the consumer green paper, the Government highlighted competition as crucial to markets. How does the trading standards profession, which is naturally an enforcer, fit into this?
“As well as protecting consumers, trading standards helps law-abiding businesses by preventing them being undercut by firms that claim to be offering good value but are actually competing unfairly. One example highlighted by the consumer green paper was the Competition and Markets Authority’s work with trading standards to ensure businesses are not using unfair terms in their dealings with consumers.”
Looking more closely at trading standards, Griffiths believes that there are a number of different priorities for officers in their work protecting businesses and consumers.
“Most trading standards officers see doorstep crime, consumer safety and rogue trading as their biggest priorities,” he says. “Dealing with these issues will remain vitally important. There are also areas that are likely to grow in importance over time, such as e-crime, given the increasing amounts of money being spent online, and protecting vulnerable consumers, such as those with dementia.
“The UK’s population is ageing – as it is across the industrialised world – and dealing with all the challenges and opportunities presented by this is one of the ‘Grand Challenges’ identified in our Industrial Strategy.
“We have an obligation to help our older citizens lead independent, fulfilled lives, continuing to contribute to society. If we succeed, we will create an economy which works for everyone, regardless of age.”
Griffiths is attending the CTSI Symposium in Nottingham this year. One final question for him: if you were speaking to the profession in 12 months’ time in summer 2019, what would you hope to have achieved?
“Hopefully my speech this year will be well received and CTSI will invite me back for 2019. I would turn the question around and ask the trading standards profession what kind of enforcement landscape they would like to see in 12 months’ time.
The Government has further strengthened our product safety regime and we are now considering options to strengthen enforcement in relation to the likes of scams, unfair trading and e-crime. The consumer green paper consultation runs until 4 July so do respond to it and help shape the future of enforcement.”