Nazir Ali recently joined the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham as a Principal Trading Standards Officer and Chief Inspector of Weights and Measures. He was previously Senior Trading Standards Officer at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, where he was involved in a series of projects to build stronger links with the local community and tackle the illicit sale of tobacco .
He spoke with the Journal of Trading Standards about how he plans to enhance similar community-focused initiatives in his new role, the specific challenges of enforcement in a rapidly changing part of London, and the perennial need to attract new sources of funding to a service that is already severely stretched.
Tower Hamlets has a larger trading standards team than Barking and Dagenham, with approximately twice as many officers on active duty. In itself, that creates challenges, as Ali explains. “Two senior officers left recently so we’re picking up the pieces and filling this gap,” he says.
“My role is to go through the service plan and create a plan for the year. On my second day in the new job, I went out with the enforcement team to get a feel for the needs of the area compared with Tower Hamlets. That gave some good insights.”
Barking and Dagenham is a diverse outer London borough with a population of more than 200,000. So what problems are a particular focus for the local trading standards service?
“Barking and Dagenham has similar issues to Tower Hamlets, such as antisocial behaviour among young people in the town centre,” Ali says. “Under-age sales is something we want to focus on and I’m working to enhance the under-age sales programme for the borough. Product safety is always an issue because we have lots of importers of toys, electrical goods and cosmetics. And lettings and estate agency-related work is always a priority with lots of people wanting to live here. That’s an area we need to concentrate on.
“A lot of businesses are moving east and exciting major developments are happening,” he adds. “Billingsgate fish market, New Spitalfields and Smithfield Meat market are all moving to Dagenham, for example, and the largest film studio in London is opening here.”
That influx of new workers and residents will also attract a variety of new businesses, all of which trading standards will need to engage with. In Tower Hamlets, Ali was involved in projects to inform local businesses of their responsibilities towards consumers booking places on the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Likewise, in Barking and Dagenham, he says, “education of business is a priority, so we’re working with small businesses to upskill them and bring them into compliance.
“During the pandemic many businesses have suffered heavily, and we don’t want to take a heavy-handed approach. We want to work with existing businesses, try and bring in more businesses to the area, and to remove antisocial behaviour from the town centre to make it more attractive for small businesses to come here and families to enjoy the amenities.
“The work is similar to Tower Hamlets – the needs are similar.” But because of the smaller team though, he adds, “We just have to be doubly efficient.”
The challenges Barking and Dagenham faces would be tough even during pre-pandemic times. But how has enforcement in the borough changed over the past year – and are things starting to return to normal?
“I’m trying to implement new ways of working, as well as coming out of the COVID work and concentrating more on bread-and-butter trading standards work that’s probably been put on the back burner,” Ali says. “Over the past year we were forced to drop most of our routine trading standards work and concentrate on the COVID-related crisis. We had to carry out hospitality visits and to ensure businesses were following COVID rules and regulations. We’re at the tail end of that now.”
The pandemic, with its dramatic impact on people’s spending habits, has also given birth to fresh challenges.
“There are issues around fair trading, scams and doorstep crime. There is lots of building work happening, with people extending their homes, so you get rogue traders trying to dupe people,” Ali explains. “I think because a lot of people are doing ‘staycations’ or not going on holiday, they’re spending some of the money on their homes, doing extension or renovation work. So rogue traders are a big issue in this area.
“We want to focus on working with the police, having a high visibility in residents’ association meetings and doing door-knocking and leaflet drops. I’ve got a couple of colleagues who enjoy that sort of work and will be going around on bicycles giving out leaflets informing people on how to stay alert and scam-aware. A lot of this stuff gets under-reported; scammers target vulnerable people that they know they can take advantage of.”
Making the case
All of these issues can only be dealt with effectively if trading standards receives adequate funding though. What are Ali’s thoughts on attracting new funding, and making the case for the service’s essential role in safeguarding the local community?
“I’ve spoken with my managers to say we need to attract funding; my immediate priority is to make this team more visible internally and do more internal partnership work with Public Health, Licensing and Health and Safety,” he says.
“Externally, we want to attract funding work with LTS [London Trading Standards], NTS [National Trading Standards] and OPSS [Office for Product Safety and Standards] projects. Wherever there’s a bit of funding that we can tap into, we need to be there at the forefront and be more visible.”
The dangers of poorly funded trading standards services are obvious to anyone with any experience of the profession. But when it comes to convincing those on the outside about trading standards’ importance, what should be the strategy? Ali thinks it starts with the general public. “We provide a vital service to our residents and businesses,” he says. “Councillors want to win the hearts and minds of residents, so highly visible services like waste collection and other areas always have priority over trading standards. But the danger of that is it just gets reduced to a more skeletal service where the needs of the residents are not being met. Scams go unreported, unsafe products can lead to deaths.
“Trading standards is a very important service and over the years, it’s been neglected on a national scale. We need to sell ourselves better to our members, and to residents, so they will start to fight for the needs of the service to their Councillors and MPs.
“It is important that we are visible in what we are doing. Everyone’s struggling; every service is struggling, there is uncertainty post-COVID; the Government pumped in a lot of money to keep the country afloat. And now they will look into ways to get the money back. And residents and communities will suffer if we are not careful and not pre-empting the needs of services.”
Ali cites national initiatives, such as an ongoing anti-illicit tobacco project, as a crucial piece of the funding jigsaw. “Operation CeCe is an HMRC-funded project that’s administered by LTS. It’s a small amount of funding but it allows us to carry on doing vital work,” he says.
In closing, Ali says that he was attracted to his new role because it combines traditional trading standards work with the possibility to embrace fresh and creative ways of thinking. “We still value weights and measures work here,” he says. “We have partnership that delivers a lot of weights and measures work; I oversee that area, as well as dealing with weights and measures complaints.”
“Barking and Dagenham is providing me with the challenges that I need to continue in this profession. That’s my reason for coming here; I want to be able to implement the ideas I have for service improvement and the best practice I’ve developed in other places. And I want to be part of the ambitious plans Barking and Dagenham have to make residents’ lives better.”