It’s a perennial problem. Unsafe and illegal products enter the UK and are disseminated around the country to distributors before being sold online or direct to consumers. It is then up to various agencies, including Trading Standards, to clamp down on counterfeiters and fraudsters and to protect the general public.
It will come as no surprise to Trading Standards Officers that this role has become harder and harder over the years. With services cut to the bone while enforcement becomes ever more challenging, preventing fake and dangerous items from being sold on the open market is an uphill battle.
The statistics are staggering – if you can find them. Let’s consider counterfeit goods. It has been some time since the UK produced national data on counterfeiting crimes. The last report was in 2019 when the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calculated that annual imports of counterfeit and pirated goods to the UK accounted for 3% of all UK imports. Meanwhile, in 2016 the fake trade was found to be worth £13.6bn.
The IPO and the OECD also reported that yearly lost sales for UK wholesalers and retailers due to counterfeit and pirated products, smuggled into the UK, was £9.2bn. They said that at least 86,300 jobs were lost due to counterfeiting and piracy in 2016, with a reduction in UK public revenue equal to almost £4bn.
Looking at the most recent EU data, published towards the end of last year, Phil Lewis, Director General of The Anti-Counterfeiting Group (ACG), estimates that 30% of goods coming in are potentially dangerous to consumers, with 80% of that figure coming from China and Hong Kong. According to Lewis, sea freight remains the main method of arrival of goods, with 65% of counterfeit articles arriving in shipping containers.
These figures are hard to digest. And that’s before COVID is taken into account. Of course, the pandemic had a big impact on the way that people shop, with internet purchases quickly becoming the norm. Counterfeiters were quick to realise this and changed their operating habits, often circumventing legitimate platforms to sell their fraudulent goods.
“The pandemic brought really unexpected challenges and opportunities for this kind of criminality,” says Lewis. “It changed the way we shop; new buyers started to trust the internet and the criminals knew that this was happening. They recognised the increase in internet shopping and they adapted to the new opportunities and the new demands for various products. They copied any emblem and any product and, obviously, they cut corners doing it.
“This is international criminality, and we are trying to deal with it at local and national levels. We simply don’t have the resources. We don’t have the institutions to be able to do this. This is really going to get worse, and it will become more difficult to detect.”
There are also worries around illegal food imports. Earlier this year, CTSI said that it shared the concerns of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) that the UK is at risk of a food scandal as a result of diminished resources for ensuring the safety of the food supply chain. These fears were, in part at least, borne out after it emerged that foreign pork falsely labelled as British appeared to have
been sold by leading supermarkets. The case – which also allegedly involved rotten meat being supplied to UK supermarkets – is now part of a food supply chain fraud investigation being conducted by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Despite the scale of the challenge, there are enforcement success stories. In March, Rochdale Borough Council Trading Standards service announced it had seized millions of pounds worth of fake designer clothing, handbags, shoes, jewellery, perfume and watches over the previous two months. The haul amounted to approximately 60,000 items with a retail value of about £9m.
When it comes to entry points, Trading Standards officials in Kent are at the coalface. Mike Johnson is Imports Compliance Manager at Kent Trading Standards. His team is responsible for product safety at the various (and numerous) ports of entry to the UK within the county. These include Dover and the Channel Tunnel as well as an inland border facility, fast parcel hubs, and multiple warehouses. Other ports of entry are in the planning stage.
“This work is very varied and complex,” says Johnson. “There are some other big players in this arena and Trading Standards is a very small player in terms of the border controls. Obviously, the big ones are HMRC and Border Force. Border Force do a lot of work on behalf of HMRC, and the work that the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) does on firing out referrals of cases for us to go and have a look at is largely dependent on HMRC in terms of access to the system. So that makes it really complex.”
With noticeable political pressure not to create additional delays at ports, inspection and enforcement work isn’t always easy. And that’s not the only concern, as Johnson explains.
“It is quite clear from our dealings at the moment that, with Brexit and despite the fact that things have been put in place to try and help businesses, it’s a bit more difficult because they keep pushing things back and back. That creates an air of confusion and it’s quite clear from our dealings with shipments from Europe that both UK and European suppliers are not aware of the requirements post-Brexit, particularly with product safety.”
So what kind of things are Johnson’s team having to deal with?
“Very frequently we are seeing confusion in the sense that a lot of importers send shipments straight forward to online platforms and very rarely get hands-on with the actual goods. They do not know what they are doing or what they are actually required to do in terms of product safety. Very often they think, ‘Oh, I’ve got an idea and I’ll bring it in’ without even thinking about the implications. And that’s something we see regularly, both in stuff coming in on trucks and via the fast parcels. That’s obviously a big, big issue.”
While there are powers available to Trading Standards teams, they are dealing with a huge range of potential problem products. Johnson says: “We have a lot of issues with handmade stuff which goes on to various online sites. It’s stuff that’s knocked up in the shed or the back yard. For instance, we’ve had baby rockers where the wood is completely rough around the outside, no actual support underneath the cushion, and no fire labelling. Sometimes it’s painted and there’s no indication of what is in the paint. We have a lot of clothing as well, particularly from the Far East, where they adorn their children’s clothing with quite a lot of what I would term as ‘bling’. This can easily be pulled off and sucked.”
No silver bullet
Meanwhile, Trading Standards services in Scotland face similar challenges. Christopher Bell is Product Safety Lead Officer at the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland (SCOTSS). He says that Trading Standards’ market surveillance activities for product safety represent an incredibly complicated landscape in both breadth and depth.
“Undoubtedly the best approach is to prevent unsafe and non-compliant goods entering the market, and this is the aim of Trading Standards teams working at ports throughout the UK,” he says. “This work is invaluable in preventing consumer exposure to unsafe goods.
“This, however, is not a silver bullet. Effective market surveillance requires strategy and resources at all levels within this system to work effectively. Only a proportion of goods will be able to be checked on their journey into the country, based on targeting and risk profiling. This is, however, not something which can be done in every case as the volume of trade means that checks introduce delays, and are inherently limited by the capacity available to perform those checks. For every consignment that is not checked, this means that goods move inland and will require further scrutiny at that level.”
According to Bell, risk profiling depends upon effective intelligence sharing but also on identification and development locally. Importers and manufacturers inland require intervention, and that necessitates significant input from Trading
Standards Officers at a local level with specialist expertise.
Bell says: “This requires a balance to be struck to allow trade to flow and provide an effective level of protection for consumers. This may mean, where capacity is not available, that consignments are passed to local Trading Standards teams inland to consider intervention. Samples may also be taken where goods are released, requiring ongoing engagement at local levels in the event of non-compliance being identified.”
He continues: “Many Trading Standards teams within local authorities will base their product safety strategies upon targeting of importers and manufacturers. This in turn targets those with the greatest level of responsibility, and provides vital intelligence to assist in targeting at ports. The system, however, has been starved of resources and has low resilience at a local level.”
Lewis says that the ACG recognises the persistent problem of resources when it comes to tackling wrongdoers.
“What we need to be thinking about is lessening the burden on Trading Standards. At the moment, their statutory responsibilities are enormous. So, how are we going to protect the public from more dangerous goods coming in unless we have better intelligence resources?
“At ACG, we try to reduce the burden as much as we can. We carry out knowledge-building sessions, we have roadshows so that we can explain how they can more easily identify fakes – the sort of things that fill in the gaps. But you can’t fill a gap when you haven’t got enough resources in the enforcement institutions.”
Other agencies are cognisant of the scale of the task facing Trading Standards regarding unsafe and illegal products entering the country. Adrian Simpson, Retail Products Policy Advisor at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), says that the BRC wants to see more enforcement but accepts that that isn’t always possible.
“Our retailers invest a lot of money into ensuring that only compliant products enter the market. We want to see a level playing field where retailers of all sizes are held accountable to the same rules, the same regulations, and are enforced in the same way. It is frustrating for us in on the retail side of it to see these non-compliant and unsafe products.
“We’re very aware and we’re very sympathetic towards Trading Standards services who have had their budgets slashed throughout the last 20 years.”
Simpson points out that there are a lot of tools that retailers and businesses can use to try and prevent unsafe and illegal products coming into the country, and asserts that a “huge proportion” of businesses want to do the right thing and put resources into placing safe and compliant products in the market, spending huge sums to ensure that their supply chain is compliant.
Nevertheless, he concedes that “there will always be a proportion of the market who can’t be bothered with this, who don’t think it applies to them, who want to rush products out because it’s the latest fad, because it’s the latest thing that consumers want. We’re all aware of the cost-of-living crisis which means that consumers are looking for cheaper products, which is then fueling this situation we’re in where unsafe products are entering the supply chain.”
In terms of the unsafe and illegal products entering the UK, how hopeful is Simpson that this problem can be properly tackled? “Without more funding towards frontline Trading Standards, I’m not optimistic that unsafe and illegal products will be prevented from entering the supply chain. Colleagues in Trading Standards at the ports and on the street, as well as colleagues working in intelligence and focusing on product safety and standards are the key to preventing this.
“I think the public attitude towards these products is indifferent at best. I think consumers are driven by value and cost, and many won’t mind buying products cheaper, even if they are unsafe or illegal. The only way we can prevent this happening is through effective, targeted and robust enforcement using a variety of tools including closure orders and proceeds of crime investigation if that’s appropriate.”
Simpson also believes that making businesses aware of their responsibilities is crucial.
“Educating businesses comes through things like Trading Standards and through trade associations. I see a massive part of our role as a trade association as advising businesses,” he says.
The Journal of Trading Standards approached the Government for a comment on the issue. A Department for Business & Trade spokesperson told us: “Our top priority is to keep people safe, which is why goods sold in the UK must meet some of the strictest safety laws in the world.
“The UK system for product safety enforcement operates at key points in the supply chain and proactively works with businesses to ensure they understand their obligations to supply safe goods.
“OPSS co-ordinates an intelligence-led and targeted approach to interventions, and provides grant funding to local authorities at the key points of entry into the UK so that appropriate checks are carried out.”
Looking to the future, there must be more viable solutions that will make the role of Trading Standards more effective? Johnson thinks that this is the case.
“It’s about doing a lot more promotion of product safety to the trade. I think that is really important, particularly for those who are starting up businesses and looking to import. And it’s trying to actually target the right people to get those early messages out.
“Obviously, additional resources are always going to be beneficial. Locally we’ve taken the initiative where we actually go out to our colleagues in Border Force. We’ve done presentations on product safety for them to be our extra set of eyes because there’s a lot more of them than there are of us.”