The CTSI London Branch has marked Black History Month with a day of thought-provoking sessions dedicated to examining the ‘hidden history’ of contributions by the Black community to British life, and how Trading Standards can better promote fairness and inclusion in its daily activities.
Following a presentation by CTSI Chief Executive John Herriman on the morning of 18 October, in which he set out the Institute’s vision to promote equality in the Trading Standards profession, attendees listened to a lecture by historian and author Tony Warner, a member of the Black History Walks initiative.
As Kiran Seyan, Team Leader at Ealing Trading Standards and the Immediate Past Chair of the London Branch explains, “Tony spoke about the ‘hidden history’ of Black people within the UK. I think a lot of people have the assumption that Black people are only here as a result of the slave trade, but he explained the fact that they were here long before that.
“He also talked about the evolution of race legislation through the years, since the Race Relations Act 1965. It’s been updated quite a few times since – most recently in 2000, in the wake of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.
“The talk helped us to appreciate, as the London Branch, the history of Black culture within the UK, and how concerns about race relations have allowed for improvements in interactions with the Black community.”
Karen Tillett, Team Leader at the London Borough of Barnet Trading Standards and Vice-Chair of the CTSI London Branch Race & Equalities Working Group, was also at the session. “The purpose of the talk was to illustrate to members how much the Black community has contributed to London in general,” she says. “Tony concentrated very much on the City of London, where our meeting was held, and explained connections with pre-slavery days. It was entertaining and informative.”
As well as focusing on the past, the day also provoked ideas about how Trading Standards can recognise opportunities to better engage with the communities and businesses it serves.
“I started my career in an area where I was one of two ethnic minority persons in Trading Standards,” says Seyan. “Ealing is a very different environment. Because I’m bilingual and I’ve got an understanding of different languages, when I go into a situation sometimes I can assess that the person I’m dealing with doesn’t understand what I’m saying.
“I think when it comes to advising my officers and going out and doing inspections, or seizing stuff, it’s one thing to identify that a business is non-compliant, it’s another thing to actually take the time to make it clear to that person why that’s wrong – especially if there’s a language barrier, or a cultural barrier.
“I think as we move forward, especially from a Trading Standards perspective, when we interact with the Black community or any ethnic community, we need to better appreciate people’s cultural backgrounds and understanding.”
According to Tillett, “Our aim is to reflect the communities we’re serving. Particularly in London, those communities are very, very diverse. We have to make sure that we’re in tune with cultural differences. Businesses in general can be quite suspicious of enforcers but for the vast majority of the time, we’re looking to get businesses to become compliant, rather than looking to punish them.
“Understanding their culture and their cultural needs is going to help with that, and helps to demystify the whole enforcement thing. If traders see people that look similar to them doing the enforcement, that breaks down barriers and promotes understanding.”
“For us as an Institute, this has two levels,” says Herriman. “One is recognising the contribution that everybody has made to the profession itself, especially those from diverse backgrounds. Part of that means recognising the challenge that we have to increase the levels of ethnic diversity amongst our membership and those working in the profession.
“That is very closely connected to the other very important dimension here, which is making sure that we are representative of the communities we serve. Because if we’re not representative of those communities, we don’t necessarily always understand their needs. That is particularly important at the moment as we’re in the cost-of-living crisis, where we’re seeing more and more vulnerable consumers. We know, sadly, that those who are the most disadvantaged are probably more likely to come from ethnically diverse backgrounds.”
Cuts and cost-of-living
The Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, recently published a report into the disproportionate impact of the cost-of-living crisis on Black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. Data gathered for the report shows that BAME people are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty in the UK than their White counterparts, and are particularly vulnerable to changes to the tax and social security system. They are also more likely to experience fuel poverty this winter than their White counterparts.
Trading Standards needs to be particularly aware of the dangers inherent in the current situation, Tillett says. “In these hard times, rogue traders will be trying to take advantage as much as they can. Also people will be desperately trying to make their money go further, and becoming more vulnerable to unscrupulous traders.
“It’s important to make people aware of the possible pitfalls. It’s also important to ensure fair trading so that people are getting what they pay for. It touches on so many different parts of our work, from online scams to making sure consumers know their rights when it comes to getting refunds or exchanges.”
When it comes to encouraging people from BAME communities to come forward with problems they encounter, says Tillett, “There might be a language or communication difficulty for some communities. Perhaps it’s a fear of the unknown. Our aim is for people to feel comfortable to come to us if they have a complaint, so we can look into it.”
Seyan says that sometimes cultural differences can be a barrier to the reporting of problems. “I think sometimes it can be a case of personal pride – depending on different cultures, sometimes people don’t want to be seen seeking assistance,” she says. “We have the same issue when it comes to some people when they get scammed – there’s an embarrassment factor, or a personal pride factor that comes into play.”
According to Herriman, “We need to tailor services through local governments to ensure that the most vulnerable are getting the same level of protection as everybody else. The concern at the moment is that we know it’s not the case everywhere. So we need to work harder with colleagues in local government and elsewhere to make sure that that is addressed.”
As well as being an opportunity to think about relations between Trading Standards and the communities it serves, Black History Month also presents an opportunity to address issues of marginalisation within a wider context. It also serves as a reminder of the benefits of establishing a Race & Equality Working Group, no matter where you are in the UK.
“Regionally, everywhere’s demographics are different, but I think it’s important to be able to have these conversations,” says Seyan. “When the London Branch Race & Equalities Working Group started, we did a survey and we’re doing another one this year.”
The results of that latest survey are still being gathered, but some of its findings are revealing. “We’ve had people report issues they’ve encountered as women in Trading Standards, and issues around being a minority or having a disability, or being from the LGBT community. There are a lot of things that people may experience as an officer, that they’ve not been able to express or there’s not been a safe space to talk about.”
As Herriman points out, “This is fundamental to who we are as a profession, because we represent fairness in everything we do. Fairness is not just about the laws that we enforce, it’s about the communities that we protect. And we don’t know if we’re not protecting certain groups and communities if we’re unaware of their needs. Setting up working groups or EDI networks within branches helps us to understand where people are not getting the right level of protection.
“They encourage openness and transparency, and acknowledging that we have work to do in this area is a good thing to do.”
“Just because in your region you may not think you have race issues, you might have other equalities issues,” says Seyan. “This is a key thing to remember when it comes to the nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, of which one is race. Another one is age, and we have an aging profession. Gender identity is an issue as well. You may need to address issues that you may not even be aware of until you create a safe space for people to be able to talk openly.
“If we want to go out in the community and be able to support people who have any of those protected characteristics – whether it be race, whether it be disability, whether it be gender identity, whatever it is – if we can’t have an honest conversation in-house among ourselves, how can we then enforce fairness and honesty in the outside world?”