Adaptability and versatility have always been among trading standards’ greatest strengths. But it’s not always easy to play to your strengths when under pressure, particularly when resources are stretched thin and demands on those resources are at an all-time high.
While the breadth of expertise in trading standards has never been in question, recent years have seen swingeing cuts to the profession while, at the same time, elected officials have continued to ask more and more of officers across the country. The issue now is: how can trading standards harness its strengths in order to remain effective?
CTSI Chief Executive, John Herriman, says: “From my experience of seeing trading standards at work, I think it is one of the most versatile and adaptable professions that I’ve ever seen. It has the ability to react and respond both to specific emergency situations and national incidents but also to tune into the needs of local communities and local governments. And all of that is an incredible quality that trading standards possesses.”
He continues: “The challenge, however, is that when you’re adaptable like that, and you’re very responsive to tuning into specific needs which can be very wide-ranging, there is always a risk of losing your professional identity as a result. That’s because the professional boundaries become blurred. I think our challenge is to remain adaptable, agile and responsive whilst being clear about what those professional boundaries are. In some areas we do that very well but in other areas we do that less well. Our challenge is therefore to be very clear about what those professional boundaries are, where we add value, and where we’re absolutely relevant in how we provide those services.”
While the public may not be fully aware of the broad range of work undertaken by trading standards, its mission remains the same – to protect individuals and legitimate businesses. These duties cut across pretty much every area of public life, including the safety of the food chain, product safety, consumer protection from crime, and mass-marketing scams. The holistic nature of trading standards is vital but perhaps the profession itself hasn’t been very good at singing its own praises – or educating people about what it actually does and how well it does it.
“I think the public perception is that consumers are protected in every aspect of what they do, or every purchase that they make,” says Herriman. “And that isn’t necessarily the case because we don’t have the capacity to be able to do all of that. I have a working analogy for trading standards which is that we’re a bit like the security services, working behind the scenes most of the time so the public feel protected. But the security services are also protecting against those major, one-off incidents and the public might not even be aware that something has been avoided.
“Trading standards plays a very similar function in terms of working behind the scenes, so I think there’s a piece of work that we need to do to raise awareness of where the risks do exist. But we’ve got
to do that in a responsible way so it’s not scaremongering.”
Herriman believes that the trading standards profession is driven by an overriding sense of social purpose. This has been especially evident during the past couple of years when officers have gone above and beyond to protect the public during the global pandemic. According to a recent report from the Association of Chief Trading Standards Officers (ACTSO), demand for trading standards services spiralled during COVID-19.
In ACTSO’s third annual review, ‘The Impacts and Outcomes of Local Trading Standards Services in England and Wales’, figures for 2020/21 showed that, despite the temporary suspension of some non-COVID-19 enforcement activity, demand on the service soared by 20%, and the number of supported scam victims rose by 26%. In addition, trading standards helped local authorities by carrying out more than 1.2 million COVID-secure compliance checks.
Responding to change
Steve Ruddy, Chair of ACTSO, says that trading standards services are doing very different things from 20, or 10, or even five years ago.
“As things move on the issues change and the way we need to respond changes. Trading standards has demonstrated that again and again, most recently with changes over trading arrangements related to Brexit and over the last couple of years with COVID-19. There are huge issues of sustainability and capacity leading to huge pressures at a time when the expectations on trading standards have increased but the risks that society face, the legislation that we are expected to deal with and the harms that we’re addressing haven’t decreased.”
He adds: “So there is a huge strain on the system and that does mean that there is a question mark over the long-term sustainability of the system. As trading standards, we do have some benefits in the way that we are able to organise ourselves so that it’s not just up to individual local authorities to respond to threats; there is a collective approach through coordination and regional working.”
Ruddy agrees with Herriman that telling people about the vital work done by trading standards is important.
“If we’re not shouting about the value we are adding, the impact we’re having, the way we’re protecting businesses and individuals, then others aren’t going to be shouting about the value of trading standards. We need to be doing that. I think that, sometimes in the past, we have been too modest and too timid about highlighting the impact that we’re having and the value that we create, and the fact that the work that we do supports a whole range of different government initiatives, government priorities and societal priorities.”
Ruddy says that trading standards services are tackling key issues facing the country and very successful at doing so. They are also doing some things better than was the case in the past, including dealing with doorstep crime and other high-risk issues. But “the breadth and range of activities that we deal with also makes it difficult sometimes to articulate the broad impact and the broad value of trading standards”.
‘Protecting the Public and Supporting Business During the Pandemic’, issued by ACTSO as part of its annual review, revealed that, in 2020/21, local trading standards services prevented more than £588m of detriment against an approximate revenue budget of £104m. During the same period, nearly 43 million unsafe or non-compliant products and PPE were seized or removed from the market following interventions by trading standards.
The report also detailed that trading standards dealt with almost 98,000 complaints about non-COVID-secure business settings or business closure requirements.
Meanwhile, the National Trading Standards (NTS) 2021 Consumer Harm Report stated that, in 2020/21, NTS secured prison sentences totalling 57 years and 10 months, and convicted 30 people of offences.
Furthermore, NTS reported that as criminals have adapted and finessed their activities in recent years, and consumer habits have changed, in particular in relation to online shopping and the frequency of home deliveries, so trading standards teams have adapted their own techniques in order to meet a plethora of new challenges. That work is ongoing, with continuing explorations of ways to disrupt criminals and safeguard consumers.
North of the border, the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland (SCOTSS) is working hard to engage more with affiliated organisations and with elected officials, chief executives and the Scottish Government. Graeme Paton, Chair of SCOTSS, hopes that they will recognise the valuable work being done by trading standards.
He says: “Trading standards has always had to adapt and have a bit of versatility because of the very nature of our job. The regularity with which the regulation we enforce changes means that we have got to adapt to those changes in order to be able to do the work. An example which really took us out of our comfort zone was COVID-19. When the pandemic came along and the regulations came in, the restrictions came in, as did the prohibitions on businesses operating, and we had very little time to adapt to that. I can only speak for Scotland but trading standards was asked, ‘can you bring something to this party?’ And we brought something to that party.”
The work that has been done during COVID-19 included collaborating with colleagues in other organisations, responding to the needs of employers who needed to implement new rules, and visiting businesses to ensure that, where they could trade, they could trade safely. However, Paton says that while it’s all very well being adaptive and versatile, the profession has to make the point to the powers that be that when demands are made, trading standards steps up and delivers. “And it’s only where elected members realise the strength and the capability of what trading standards can bring to the table that we get the recognition for it.”
Of course, all this is against a backdrop of scaled-back investment in trading standards. In 2002, Scottish trading standards employed more than 500 staff across the 32 authorities. Now it employs half that number.
Paton says: “If you look at our demographic, almost 60% of our strength is over 50 and will retire in the next few years. Indeed, since the last SCOTSS survey was carried out in July, three trading standards managers have retired and two more have signalled that they will leave next year. And the problem is that only 4% of our strength is under 30. We have a cliff edge and it means there could be very few left of us in five to 10 years’ time if that demographic plays out.
“But there is always optimism when you’re as professional an outfit as trading standards. We will continue to fight the good fight and do the work as best we can with the resources we have.”
Over in Northern Ireland, the service has also had to adapt and evolve. Damien Doherty, Chief Inspector for the Northern Ireland Trading Standards Service, cites the example of tackling scams.
“When we started looking at scams about 10 years ago we had to adapt our traditional way of working from enforcement and move towards more of a consumer protection and consumer advice, empowerment and advocacy role to ensure consumers knew about the harms of scams and could equip themselves and obtain the tools to avoid being a victim.
“In Northern Ireland, Brexit has impacted us quite a bit. We’ve had to adapt considerably and will continue to have to adapt to changing legislation and the potential for divergence between Northern Ireland and Britain and where that will leave us. There already is divergence in those areas of work covered by the Northern Ireland Protocol such as legal metrology. And because consumer protection is devolved in Northern Ireland, we could also see divergence between ourselves and Britain on everyday consumer protection law.”
Doherty says the service has also had to get to grips with increased workloads, and has had to model all the impacts of EU Exit. Unsurprisingly, this took up a considerable amount of time, and necessitated the establishment of a new team.
A number of other new teams have also been set up to deal with the various implications of EU Exit, and additional staff have been employed to deal with the work, including trainee trading standards officers who must be trained while the service deals with the ongoing demands of COVID-19 and working from home.
While none of this has been easy, in Northern Ireland they have taken the service from 40 to more than 60 staff, and are hoping to take it closer to 70. Recruiting the extra employees has involved drafting a significant business case and putting it in front of senior civil servants in order to make the case that trading standards is having to deal with a larger workload, not least because of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“Any strong, effective economy is always underpinned by effective regulation, something that’s probably not been considered or thought about for quite some time and has been ignored, particularly by certain governments,” says Doherty. “We are an organisation that politicians and Government turn to when things go wrong.”
But does Doherty think that, as it moves forward, trading standards can effectively harness and build on its various existing strengths?
“I am incredibly optimistic and very positive. We’ve managed to overcome our difficulties and our challenges and we’ve done this with hard work. There are additional remits put onto trading standards all the time and we just have to get on with it. We’ve always had a can-do attitude because, fundamentally, it’s been about protecting consumers. We have to ensure that we continue to do that but we also have to protect ourselves as a profession. We have to tell Government and the decision-makers why our role is so important. And certainly CTSI has been taking steps to do that.”
Flying the flag
Lord (Jamie) Lindsay, who was appointed President of CTSI in April 2021, is well placed to assess the strengths – and the future – of the profession. He also serves as Chairman of UKAS, the UK’s National Accreditation Body, and has a number of other senior roles at various leading organisations. A member of the House of Lords, he was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Scotland in John Major’s government.
He says: “Amongst the trading standards profession there is a natural strength when it comes to looking at making the most of the resources that are available to them by being innovative. In many ways, I think that trading standards is an unsung profession. The people out there on the front line are unsung heroes.
“I think we need much greater awareness of just what a critical role they play, and nowhere is that awareness more needed than at central government level, at devolved government level, and at local authority level. With a greater awareness of just what a key role they’re playing, there comes the chance of greater resources and greater support.”
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Lord Lindsay is confident that trading standards will do its utmost to survive.
“On the one hand I do feel optimistic as they play such a critical role but because their role is underappreciated and not sufficiently understood, there is a danger that they are being allowed
to wither on the vine through neglect by third parties.
“But I cannot contemplate a future where they are irrelevant. We have to move on from a situation where trading standards’ critical role is not properly understood to a situation where there is a proper, broad understanding of just what an important part trading standards plays.”