Illicit vapes, online marketplaces, net zero, artificial intelligence and – inevitably – local authority resourcing were among the themes of Day 1 of CTSI’s 2023 conference in Birmingham, which kicked off with a whistle-stop tour of the Trading Standards landscape during its opening plenary session.
CTSI Chair Tendy Lindsay commenced proceedings with a heartfelt speech about how Trading Standards is at its best when it reflects the communities it serves, taking inspiration from Nelson Mandela to explain why she believes love and respect for one another should be at the heart of Trading Standards’ mission.
CTSI Chief Executive John Herriman echoed those sentiments in his opening remarks, in which he reiterated the importance of the profession coming together to share insights, ideas and expertise.
Herriman also discussed the challenging backdrop against which Trading Standards operates, remarking that he is ‘constantly bemused’ by a lack of Government support – something felt particularly acutely in light of the cost-of-living crisis, the now almost-300 pieces of legislation which Trading Standards is responsible for enforcing, and dramatic – and potentially lethal – cuts to local Trading Standards services.
On the latter note, the situation in Enfield, where there is currently no functioning Trading Standards service due to funding decisions by local councillors, was a recurring topic throughout the day – as was national press coverage of the scandal, which has attracted attention from beyond the Trading Standards world. Many of the other plenary speakers also spoke of the need for adequate resourcing for local services; as Herriman put it, “the national does not work without the local”.
Herriman also brought up CTSI’s ongoing campaign work which, as well as addressing funding shortfalls, over the past year has focused on illicit and underage vape sales by “irresponsible” businesses; the “reckless” sunset clause of the Retained EU Law Bill; online marketplaces, the food supply chain and product safety. As Herriman put it, “When the public and the media pay attention, so does the Government.”
The net zero agenda – and the significant potential for consumer harm that could stem from the £1tn push to make every home in the UK energy-efficient by 2050 – was another key theme of Herriman’s address, in which he spoke about the dangers of ‘greenwashing’ in the home improvement sector and the “potential massive surge in doorstep crime” that it will entail.
Next up, consumer Minister Kevin Hollinrake delivered a video address in which he read from notes about the Government’s intention to “end the illicit vape trade for good” and why the “forthcoming” (and long-delayed) Product Safety Review will be important in giving enforcers additional tools to combat illegal vapes and a host of other product safety threats.
Meet the Regulators
In the following Meet the Regulators plenary, ably chaired by broadcaster and journalist Brigid Nzekwu, senior figures from the world of consumer protection took to the stage to update attendees on their work – and to find common areas of focus.
Competition and Markets (CMA) Chief Executive Sarah Cardell discussed how aspects of the regulator’s current work resonate with Trading Standards issues, including addressing cost-of-living threats such as unfair commercial practices around housing, food, travel, pricing and misleading green claims. Cardell reiterated the importance of getting net zero right, highlighting regulators’ need to have the “right toolkit” to deal with issues looming on the horizon.
Graham Russell, Chief Executive of the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), also spoke about the need for innovation in regulation, with machine learning and artificial intelligence as powerful tools in the fight against consumer detriment. Russell also discussed the importance of making regulation more mindful of consumer vulnerability, as well as making products more inclusive. He mentioned stab-vests designed exclusively for men, and sensors on hand sanitiser dispensers unable to recognise non-white skin tones, as examples of products that have recently failed to address the needs of all consumers.
Animal health, food, IP
David Holdsworth, Chief Executive of the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) was next to take to the podium, where he discussed the essential role played by Trading Standards in tackling avian influenza and the spread of other zoonotic diseases. Holdsworth also addressed the importance of building trust in the regulatory and enforcement system, as well as pointing to post-Brexit opportunities to deploy a better use of technology at the UK’s borders.
Katie Pettifer, Director of Strategy and Regulatory Compliance at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), spoke next. She described the FSA as the ‘third line of defence’ – after businesses and Trading Standards – in protecting the public against food threats, among which are disruptions to the food supply chain caused by Brexit, the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Pettifer also raised concerns about how climate change increases the prospect of food disruption and echoed other speakers’ calls for improvements to legislation to keep up with a rapidly evolving food industry.
Last to take to the podium was Chris Mills, Director of Rights Policy and Enforcement at the Intellectual Property Office (IPO). To combat IP crime – globally the second-biggest form of crime after the illegal drugs trade – Mills explained the need to disrupt supply lines before counterfeit goods reach consumers. He also spoke about the need to raise the profile of IP crime within the police and political circles and to “make data flow” between businesses, regulators and enforcers. In closing, he highlighted the example of one major online retailer who had expressed their willingness to share information about non-compliant sellers operating on their platform – a trend that, according to Mills, should be replicated across the board if online retailers are to take their responsibilities to consumers seriously.
Resourcing of Trading Standards services – or lack thereof – dominated the question-and-answer session that closed out the plenary, with Trading Standards stalwart Robert Grice leading the charge in highlighting that many of the issues under discussion during the session can be linked back to underfunding of essential local Trading Standards services. Grice expressed the urgent need for those on the panel to push for more adequate funding, and to hold Government accountable to its responsibilities to constituents.
And there’s more…
On offer throughout the remainder of Day 1 were sessions on topics as diverse as illegal tobacco prosecutions; building inclusive Trading Standards services; product safety and the cost-of-living crisis; and fake goods on social media.
Meanwhile in the exhibition hall, exhibitors including the Anti-Counterfeiting Group, Citizens Advice, the CMA, TrustMark and the Natural Diamond Council were on hand to share their experiences and insights with attendees – all made possible by the Conference sponsors: Status International, Business Companion, trueCall, Wagtail and UKAS.
The Conference continues tomorrow (21 June) with highlights including an opening plenary session on Online Marketplaces and keynote speeches from CTSI President Lord Jamie Lindsay and Shadow Minister for Consumers, Seema Malhotra MP.