17th January 2023

Interview: Lord Michael Bichard

The Chair of National Trading Standards discusses why there is a greater need for consumer protection than ever – and why cuts to Trading Standards resources put lives at risk

By Richard Young
If you don’t fund us what’s going to happen? People are going to suffer, people are going to die, actually
People at the top of organisations think they know everything, whereas most of the knowledge is right on the front line
If the public fully understood what we are doing, I think they would have more respect and understanding

Lord Michael Bichard has held many high-profile roles at local and national level, including running councils, government departments and universities. Now, as Chair of National Trading Standards (NTS), he is fighting to make the profession’s voice heard, and his message is stark: cuts to Trading Standards services could cost lives.

Speaking via Zoom, Bichard begins by describing some of the challenges the profession faces. “This is a pivotal moment for consumers, and Trading Standards has got a really big part to play in dealing with the problems that are coming down the track,” he says. “Think about cost of living – think about energy prices, think about inflation. The public need Trading Standards – they may not realise it – probably more than ever before.”

Bichard began his career as a solicitor in local government, an experience which he believes gave him an insight into the practicalities of enforcement. “I was a fairly aggressive prosecuting solicitor and I think the Trading Standards inspectors quite liked that,” he says. “If you spend a lot of time putting a case together, the last thing you want is to hand it over to some solicitor who’s a bit soft.”

He brings that no-nonsense attitude to the NTS role, and he doesn’t mince his words. “I’m very concerned about how some people are going to get through the winter. Many of them are already in poverty.” In such a climate, Bichard points out, the illusion of a bargain can be very tempting. “Older people in particular can be very vulnerable to someone coming along and saying, ‘I’ll fix that roof for you’ or, ‘I happen to be in the area. I’ve got some tarmac, would you like me to do your drive while I’m here?’

“They can also be vulnerable to special offers on food,” he observes, and highlights a recent case in which a door-to-door trader sold rotten fish to elderly people. The aggressive tactics employed by Brian Pendlington in County Durham caused 28 victims to lose more than £6,000 between them. Many of his victims lived alone and some were suffering from serious health conditions. The subsequent prosecution, brought by NTS, resulted in an eight-month jail sentence.

“In the situation we’re in at the moment, there will be lots of that kind of person, and we’ve got to do our best to stop them,” Bichard says.

New technology and consumer habits also present new challenges, he points out. “Scams now often operate through digital technology; I don’t want to stereotype here, but some older people find it quite difficult to understand all of that. It can be difficult for anyone to spot, for example, some of the sophisticated scams that we’re now seeing. That’s why at this moment in time, we’ve got to step up to the plate.”

Laying it on the line
In part because of its broad remit – and in even larger part because of the drastic cuts to resources over the past decade – the voice of Trading Standards has become somewhat muted, its core message diluted. There is a need to rethink what that message is, and to turn up the volume, Bichard believes. “I’m trying to get Trading Standards talking not so much about the legislation that they enforce, but to be saying through the media, ‘this is what we’re doing to help people not to be ripped off; what we’re doing is saving people from bad services.’

“People are interested in the outcome, that we’re protecting them at a time when they need protecting more than ever before. That’s why the Government should be very careful about cutting the resources available to Trading Standards.

“People sometimes also forget that the other arm of Trading Standards is protecting legitimate businesses, which have been through a hell of a couple of years and a lot of them are on the edge. The last thing they need is some rip-off merchant coming along and taking their business away from them. We’re protecting the consumer, but we’re also protecting business. And that’s why we need to be protected ourselves, and resources need to be fed towards Trading Standards, not taken away.”

Recent economic instability has raised the spectre of further cuts to public services. Bichard, as a cross-bench peer with no particular political agenda, believes Trading Standards must take a pragmatic approach. “If you want to persuade a minister or a government,
you persuade them by showing how it’s going to damage them politically and affect their constituents,” he says. “We haven’t done enough of that. We’ve now got to focus on the outcomes, the people, and the harm that criminals are doing.

“Local authorities have been absolutely brilliant over the last 20 years, and have dealt with massive cuts. They’ve had to reprioritise what they do and they’ve done far more than central government departments, in my view, to deal with the reduction in resources. To be looking for further cuts would be catastrophic.

“But we’ve got to make our case, and it has got to be about people, not about standards and legislation. We have a government after all, which has made it pretty clear that it’s more about deregulation and getting rid of what it sees as bureaucracy than it is about enforcing standards to protect people. We can’t just say, ‘but we’re the people who enforce these standards and these regulations’ – we’ve got to go beyond that and say, ‘if you don’t fund us what’s going to happen? People are going to suffer, people are going to die, actually, if you’re not careful.’”

A problem shared
In 2004, Bichard spearheaded an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the murders of schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham two years previously. One of the key findings of the Bichard Inquiry was that the sharing of intelligence between different agencies could make it more difficult for such a thing to happen again.

Prior to this interview, I had been speaking with Alison Farrar, CTSI Lead Officer for Property and Lettings and Consumer Education, who mentioned that she refers to the Bichard Inquiry during training sessions. “As Local Authority officers, we see things when we visit people’s homes that cause us alarm or make us wonder what’s going on,” she said. “We see locked doors, beds in sheds, violent and coercive behaviour, poor living standards, overcrowding, illegal evictions, harassment of tenants, and a whole list of things that just don’t add up. We need to share this intelligence because someone else might be able to use it as part of their investigation. It might be the missing piece of the jigsaw that helps them pull a case together.”

In light of this, I ask Bichard for his view on how Trading Standards Officers can benefit from intelligence-sharing in their everyday work. “I think she makes a really important point,” he says. “Intelligence is more easily shared now than probably ever before and, if you’re spotting things that worry you – and, the Data Protection Act permitting – you should put that on a database, so it’s there for someone else to pick up.

“One of the things that Soham showed was that it’s a pattern of behaviour in an individual that tells you a great deal about them. Ian Huntley had only ever been convicted of one thing previously, and that was a burglary. But if you had all of his records in front of you, you would have seen a pattern of behaviour, which would lead you to be suspicious about this guy. And that only came out right at the end, at the trial.

“If you’re a chief executive of a large organisation such as a local authority, you’ve got to get people on the front line to share their information and their knowledge. Too often, people at the top of organisations think they know everything, whereas actually, most of the intelligence and the ideas and the knowledge is right on the front line.

“I would encourage Trading Standards services to look around to partners who can support what they’re doing. One of the things the pandemic showed us is that – sadly, from my point of view – people trust charities and voluntary sector organisations more than they do statutory sector agencies. It also shows that those organisations are often quicker and more agile in spotting problems. The statutory sector needs to tap in and work with charities and the voluntary sector better than it has in the past.”

Joining the dots
A variety of senior roles across a diverse range of fields make Bichard well placed to see the connections between what would at first glance appear to be disparate things, but whose relevance to Trading Standards soon becomes clear. For example, he has served as Chair of the Design Council and describes his tenure there, and as Rector of The University of the Arts London, as an opportunity to “meet some amazingly creative people”.

“You talk to fashion designers about rip-offs and fakes, and it cripples them. It’s a shocking thing to do to someone’s intellectual property. In this country, we have a very laissez faire approach to fake goods; there’s a sort of Only Fools and Horses thing, of saying ‘oh, well, these rogues, what fun they are…’ Actually, they’re probably selling you something that’s worth nothing. They may well also be selling you something that’s really dangerous, that hasn’t been tested and could cause a fire in your property, could cause skin damage, or hurt your children.

“People have to understand why fakes and counterfeiting is not on, particularly at the moment. We can’t have people spending hard-earned money on things that are worth nothing at all.”

The ‘lovable rogue’ character of the popular imagination masks a darker reality, Bichard points out. “A lot of storage facilities around the country are being used to store these counterfeit articles. What they’re actually doing is feeding criminal gangs. Organised crime is very quick to spot an opportunity and the money they get, they will use for other purposes.

“I was in Newport recently looking at illegal puppy breeding, which is horrible. Criminals are always quick to spot an opportunity. At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people were buying dogs. Now, because of the cost-of-living crisis, many of those dogs are going to be dumped.

“I also used to run the benefits agency; I know about fraud, and there’s a lot of it. Whenever you have a government grant scheme, people will try and find loopholes. Trading Standards needs to be one step ahead of all of that.

“We are dealing with big crime here, and people need to understand that better as well. It’s another reason why we shouldn’t be having money taken away.

“I don’t much like bureaucracy – I don’t like process unless it’s absolutely necessary. I think it gets in the way of outcomes. But there are basic standards you’ve got to respect and enforce. And that’s really what we’re about; we’re enforcing things that need to be dealt with – rotten foods, scamming pensioners, fraud, killing dogs and puppies. These are not marginal issues.

“If the public fully understood what we are doing, I think they would have more respect and understanding. They’d be more likely to support us if they saw some of the stuff that I saw on the puppy farms in South Wales. They’d be absolutely horrified.”

Bichard also has first-hand experience of how it feels to fall victim to the criminals that Trading Standards is fighting against. “I was scammed about four or five years ago, and I felt incredibly stupid,” he says. “It was quite a sophisticated scam, and it cost me quite a lot of money. I felt demoralised and depressed afterwards. If I’d been older and more frail, I think it would have had quite an impact upon my wellbeing and my mental health.

“That’s what we’ve got to focus on at the moment. People have not got any money. A lot of elderly people live on their own and can be very vulnerable. If something like this happens, they feel not just more vulnerable, they feel scared and they feel depressed. And it’s a downward cycle when you get into that situation. There is research that shows that once that’s happened to you, you’re more likely to die earlier than if it hadn’t.

“So it doesn’t matter whether it’s food, or scams, or product safety, or puppies, or counterfeit clothing or whatever: without Trading Standards, our society would be a lot more vulnerable.”

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