21st June 2023

CTSI Conference 2023: Day 2

Day 2 highlights included a speech from Seema Malhotra MP and a timely plenary session on how online marketplaces can improve their consumer protection credentials.

By JTS Staff
Journal of Trading Standards' in-house team
The foundation of a well-functioning economy and market is the principle that consumers should trust what they buy

Looking to the future was one of the key themes on Day 2 of CTSI’s 2023 Conference, with a keynote speech from Shadow Consumer Minister Seema Malhotra giving a glimpse of what consumer protection in the UK might look like under a Labour government, and CTSI President Lord Jamie Lindsay praising Trading Standards’ ongoing efforts to safeguard the next generation against illicit vapes and a host of other consumer threats.

In his opening remarks, Lord Lindsay hailed the Conference as “a unique and unrivalled event for those working in Trading Standards and the wider field of consumer protection”. 

“Conference is a great opportunity for networking, inspiration, professional development and a host of other reasons,” he added.

Lord Lindsay went on to introduce Malhotra, who described Trading Standards Officers as “going into the fight with one hand tied behind your back” and bemoaned what she called a “broken system of consumer protection in the UK”.

Seema Malhotra MP at the CTSI Conference 2023

Malhotra commenced her address by thanking consumer protection professionals for their “hard work in protecting people in tough times”.

“The breadth and volume of work that you undertake day in, day out, is vital for protecting consumers, enforcing close to 300 laws covering everything from product safety to food standards and underage vaping, as well as educating consumers and businesses,” she said.

“The foundation of a well-functioning economy and market is the principle that consumers should trust what they buy. We should be in no doubt that consumer protection measures have genuine real-life impact on people across the country.

“Catastrophes such as foot and mouth and the horse meat scandal show why these issues matter; recently, we’ve heard of vaping products on the UK market, all too often used by children under 18, that are unsafe and dangerously overfilled with nicotine. We are regularly warned about products sold online that don’t comply with safety standards, causing fires or putting children at risk.

“Last week marked six years since the Grenfell Tower fire – a reminder to all of us about the huge risk posed by systemic failings in consumer protection. The truth is that at the moment we have a broken system of consumer protection in the UK and it’s getting worse.

“The demands on Trading Standards are increasing at a time of decreasing resources – a formula for a system under pressure and consumers being failed. The fault does not lie with Trading Standards, it belongs with Government ministers,” she added.

“The Government has been distracted by its own internal warring factions putting their own interests above the country’s. Good policy and long-term planning have been jettisoned in favour of short-term gains and sticking-plaster policies.” 

Malhotra added that “a revolving door of ministers – a dozen or so since 2010” has also hampered effective consumer protection strategies. “We need stability and certainty with a long-term plan for our economy, and for growth and investment in our public services.

“I believe that Trading Standards should be a valued and vital part of an active state.”

Malhotra harked back to the Labour Party’s 1950 manifesto, which called for a national independent Consumer Advice Centre. “Indeed, you could look back to the foundations of the modern cooperative movement in the 1840s to see how the Rochdale Pioneers provided food which was unadulterated, sold at the correct weight and measurement, and at a fair price,” she said. 

Three-pronged approach
Malhotra went on to present a brief overview of her vision for what a future administration should do to “reverse the weakening of Trading Standards”. First, she said, there is a need for a “renewed focus on professional recruitment and retention of the Trading Standards workforce”.

“Second, there needs to be an underlying strategy for Trading Standards, especially in light of opportunities brought about through Brexit; and third, there is a need to address the challenge of unsafe products being sold in the UK.

“Our solution cannot be piecemeal interventions and no plan for sustainability,” she added. “The profession needs an active partner in Government.” 

According to Malhotra, a Labour Government would “work to make Brexit work, tearing down unnecessary trade barriers and backing our domestic industries while ensuring that we never compromise on standards”. 

“My starting point is always optimism about what Britain can become – but we need a plan to fix the problems that we still face. Our relationship with the EU and the Conservatives’ handling of Brexit is burdening businesses, endangering consumers and slowing our economic recovery as well as deepening the cost-of-living crisis. 

“For seamless trade between the UK and other nations, we need to ensure that there is alignment where possible between the UK and international standards. We need to do what we can to tackle the increasing number of unsafe products being sold.”

The increasingly digital nature of commerce, Malhotra said, “brings complex challenges to the way we must regulate our markets. The publication of the Product Safety Review, which was supposedly to set out the necessary reforms, was promised over a year ago. But it is still not published and we are no closer to hearing what the Government’s plans are.”

Malhotra also addressed the recently published Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer (DMCC) Bill, which introduces provisions to better protect UK consumers in a digital economy. “We support the Bill, but we are surprised at what the Government has chosen to leave out,” Malhotra said. 

“The Labour Party will be seeking to amend the Bill as it progresses through Parliament to go further in protecting consumers – for example, through tackling the widespread use of fake reviews and unfair practices like drip-pricing and misleading product descriptions. As one example of a policy that we have announced, we plan to crack down on rip-off subscription traps that trick people into paying subscriptions that they no longer want. If the Government doesn’t pass our amendments, Labour will legislate to ensure that consumers must opt in rather than opt out of subscriptions that automatically renew.”

In closing, Malhotra told the assembled audience of consumer protection professionals, “I will continue to work with CTSI on the issues you all face… and I look forward to working with you more.”

Day 2 highlights
Malhotra’s speech was followed by a Plenary session on online marketplaces, in which Yvonne Fovargue MP, Chair of the APPG on Consumer Protection; Mike Andrews, National Co-ordinator of National Trading Standards; Wolfgang Weber, Global Head of Regulation at eBay; and Sue Davis, Head of Consumer Rights and Food Policy at Which?, discussed how consumer protection could benefit from greater cooperation between businesses, lawmakers and enforcers. 

Among the topics under discussion were the need for regulation of online fulfilment houses, consumer misconceptions about the safety of goods bought from third-party online sellers, and the need for the sharing of information between regulators internationally.

Throughout the rest of Day 2, delegates were presented with a series of thought-provoking seminars and sessions which encompassed a Gough Square Chambers masterclass on prosecuting misleading environmental claims, a presentation from TrustMark on home energy-efficiency, an OPSS expert panel on age restrictions and a Natural Diamond Council presentation on the distinctions between synthetic and natural diamonds.

Day 2 closed, as always, with the highlight of the Trading Standards calendar: the CTSI and Status International Awards Dinner, followed by the well-deserved after-party. 

Conference concludes tomorrow (22 June) with the launch of the new Young Consumer Influencer of the Year initiative, a speech from NTS Chair Lord Michael Bichard, and a masterclass on food standards.

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