19th April 2024

Opinion: Navigating uncharted waters

With Trading Standards resources stretched more than ever, Vincent Searle looks at some of the high risk areas of consumer protection where vigilance, innovation and collaboration are key to protecting the public.


By Vincent Searle
Trading Standards Officer, London Borough of Newham
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As regulatory oversight weakens, consumers may face increased risks of fraud, substandard products and compromised safety
Misleading price indications and deceptive special offers can significantly impact consumers' independent transactional decisions
In facing this perfect storm, the risks associated with inaction loom large. We cannot afford to be mere spectators on the sidelines

In recent years, local authority Trading Standards and Regulatory Service departments have faced a substantial reduction in central government funding, casting a shadow over their ability to fulfil crucial statutory obligations. This has not only jeopardised the enforcement of regulations but has also given rise to concerning trends such as the proliferation of non-compliant and unsafe vapes and nicotine inhaling products.

As we delve deeper into the intricacies of consumer safety, it becomes evident that the challenges extend beyond traditional areas, encompassing new sectors like electric vehicles and associated issues such as counterfeit batteries and components in the used car market.

Local authorities shoulder numerous statutory obligations within the consumer protection framework. The dwindling financial support has strained these departments, compromising their efficacy in upholding their vital obligations. This brings potentially severe repercussions for public safety, exacerbated by a surge in unscrupulous practices facilitated by new technologies including artificial intelligence (AI).

As regulatory oversight weakens, consumers may face increased risks of fraud, substandard products and compromised safety. The pivotal role of Trading Standards in maintaining a fair and secure marketplace cannot be understated.

The rise of AI adds another layer of complexity, contributing to scams, fraud, and doorstep crime, necessitating innovative approaches to counteract evolving threats. Here, diversity within the workforce becomes a strategic advantage, encouraging multi-dimensional insight into community issues and tailoring responses to the diverse needs of residents and businesses.



Non-compliant vapes

The surge in non-compliant and unsafe vapes and nicotine inhaling products presents a critical public health concern — hence the introduction of new legislation to curb the marketing of vapes to young people. However, insufficient resources hinder the ability of Trading Standards to rigorously monitor and regulate these products, leaving consumers vulnerable.

Urgent attention and increased funding are imperative to address this issue and safeguard public wellbeing.

Electric vehicles
As the automotive industry pivots towards electric vehicles, Trading Standards faces new challenges. The used car market in particular becomes a potential breeding ground for issues related to electric cars, such as counterfeit batteries or component parts. This poses a significant risk to consumers, as the reliability and safety of these components are paramount.

Trading Standards must remain vigilant in the detection and prevention of counterfeit products in the electric vehicle market to ensure consumer safety and promote the growth of this emerging sector.

Legal metrology and misleading pricing

Expanding our lens to legal metrology, Trading Standards is crucial in ensuring fair practices in measurement and pricing. Misleading price indications and deceptive special offers can significantly impact consumers’ independent transactional decisions. The average consumer test becomes paramount in identifying deceptive practices that could harm vulnerable consumers. The strain on resources makes it challenging for Trading Standards to combat these issues effectively, emphasising the need for increased support.



Property and housing
The property sector faces pressing challenges demanding urgent attention from enforcers. A critical issue exacerbating the situation is the data gap. While the National Trading Standards Estate & Letting Agency Team (NTSELAT) receives data and intelligence from redress schemes, there is a void in this crucial information flow. Initiatives are in motion to address this gap, recognising that data and intelligence are the lifeblood of informed decision-making and effective regulation.

Estate and letting agents wield substantial influence in consumers’ everyday lives. Tackling the challenges posed by their practices is about more than enforcing standards; it’s about ensuring a society that is fair, transparent and accountable. In an era when housing concerns touch the lives of a vast part of the population, the work of Trading Standards takes on heightened significance.

The delicate balance between regulatory frameworks, consumer protection and industry practices is essential in shaping a property sector that adheres to compliance and evolves in response to the needs of its stakeholders.

Having a place to live is a fundamental aspect of life, shaping not only personal comfort but also influencing broader community dynamics. However, the property sector is not immune to the infiltration of organised crime, contributing to issues like drug-related crimes and money laundering. In the face of such challenges, collaborative efforts become imperative.

This collaboration extends beyond local jurisdictions. Working closely with Environmental Health (EH) colleagues and seeking guidance and support from NTSELAT becomes essential.

Intelligence

Among the ever-evolving challenges faced by local authority Trading Standards and Regulatory Service departments, continued investment in the intelligence infrastructure is paramount. With limited resources at their disposal, these departments must strategically allocate funds to bolster their intelligence capabilities.

Investing in advanced technologies and analytical tools not only enhances the efficiency of information processing but also enables targeted interventions. A robust intelligence infrastructure empowers Trading Standards to sift through vast datasets, identify patterns, and extract actionable insights. This, in turn, facilitates better decision-making processes, allowing for a more precise allocation of resources to areas of highest impact.

In an environment where adaptability is key, an intelligently designed infrastructure not only ensures compliance with existing regulations but also positions these departments to proactively address emerging threats and challenges. Continued investment in intelligence not only serves as a force multiplier for limited resources but is a strategic necessity.

Enhancing diversity

The importance of diversity within Trading Standards’ ranks cannot be overstated. A diverse team brings varied perspectives, experiences and cultural insights to the table, enriching the understanding of community needs and issues. This diversity fosters creativity and innovation, allowing Trading Standards to develop holistic solutions that resonate with the diverse populations they serve.

The commitment to diversity within the profession is exemplified by CTSI’s signing of the Race at Work Charter. This commitment ensures that the Trading Standards profession is open to all, irrespective of race or background. By embracing diversity, CTSI and its members aim to create an inclusive environment that reflects the richness of the communities they serve, further strengthening their ability to address complex challenges.

The award-winning Race & Equalities Working Group at CTSI has introduced the ground-breaking Ubuntu programme, conceived through the visionary efforts of Giles Speid. This innovative initiative collectively addresses diversity challenges, fostering a culture of understanding and support. Ubuntu navigates the complexities of diversity issues with Giles at its helm, ensuring a comprehensive and inclusive approach to drive tangible change.

Net zero and economic sustainability

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, new challenges are evident. The implications of the net zero agenda, environmental impact, and the retrofitting of commercial buildings demands attention. Trading Standards is pivotal in ensuring that businesses meet new requirements, but the financial pressures faced by many post-pandemic businesses add a layer of complexity.

 Striking a balance is crucial to ensuring the sustainability of the economy for consumers and businesses, and the growth of the UK’s infrastructure.

The challenges posed by the net zero agenda must be met with innovative, inclusive solutions that consider the economic realities of businesses not positioned to cope with the associated financial pressures.

The imperative of collective action
In facing this perfect storm, the risks associated with inaction loom large. We cannot afford to be mere spectators on the sidelines. Now is the time for a collective voice, a resounding call to action to protect the UK from the myriad threats posed by a diminishing Trading Standards workforce.

A seat at the table on these issues is imperative, and the collective voice must be loud, stirring, and impactful to ensure purposeful legislation and enhanced tools to tackle the numerous issues faced by Trading Standards services enforcing almost 300 pieces of legislation.

Conclusion
Ensuring public safety, upholding regulatory compliance and promoting diversity and inclusion are not luxuries but imperative components for a thriving and resilient society.

The time to invest in the future of Trading Standards is now, ensuring the service remains a guardian of consumer rights and public welfare amidst the complexities of the 21st-century trading environment, with a diverse and inclusive workforce at its core.

Thanks to Emma Cooke, Policy & Information Manager, NTSELAT, for insights and contributions to the property sector discussions.

One response to “Opinion: Navigating uncharted waters”

  1. Robert Sidebottom says:

    Non-compliant vape products will significantly increase post the ban on disposable vapes and I agree with Vincent wholeheartedly. Additional resources in excess to the £30 million per year are needed now, not only to address this issue but to correct the imbalance of years of funding cuts to TS nationwide.

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