8th July 2024

Opinion: The self-starter

Ever since Valerie Simpson began her career in Trading Standards 30 years ago, she has been determined to make the most of every opportunity that comes her way

By Valerie Simpson
Assistant Director of Environmental Health & Regulatory Services, Hammersmith & Fulham Council

Like many people who have made Trading Standards their career, when I started out I knew very little about what the job involved. It was the mid-1990s and I was studying law at evening classes when I saw an advert in the local paper for a job at Croydon Trading Standards which got my attention. Having some legal knowledge and working as a Parking Control Officer, I was able to demonstrate transferrable skills in the use of PACE notebooks, evidence-taking and interpretation of the law. I quickly completed the Diploma in Consumer Affairs to get the qualification under my belt, and to familiarise myself with the wide-ranging aspects of being a Trading Standards Officer.

I knew quite early on that I wanted to become a manager. Back then, there was more of an emphasis on having the weights and measures qualification for managers — and to be honest, that’s something I didn’t feel much of an affinity for. There were, however, many aspects of the job that I absolutely loved. There are so many opportunities to learn and develop on the job. As well as the technical knowledge that you gain regarding specific laws, you can develop other management, IT, professional and interpersonal skills; like customer care, presentations, training skills, time management, conflict management, auditing as well as managing people, budgets and organisational change.

There were also opportunities to move quite seamlessly between authorities, especially in London. Doing that can give you a perspective into other cultures, experiences, and different ways of doing things. One of the things that really appealed to me was the fact that you have a high level of autonomy in managing your own day — and with the support of your manager and your team you can discuss ideas to get second opinions (we are not backwards in coming forwards with opinions in Trading Standards!). It’s good to hear as many voices as possible to get a balanced and considered view.

I got my first team leader management role a few months after being weights and measures qualified and I didn’t practice much metrology after that! It was worth getting the Diploma in Trading Standards (although I will never forget that ‘dreaded’ oral exam at Teddington), and I think the qualification gives you that extra edge.

Changing with the times
One of the key changes I’ve noticed during my time in Trading Standards is that we are responsible for a lot more areas of enforcement, and we have less time to engage with the public. I was reminiscing with some colleagues recently at the REACH Conference that we used to do a lot more community engagement; we’d get out in the community at least once a month and speak to residents about what we do.

A lot of that has stopped now and to a large extent we work behind closed doors at arm’s length from the public, particularly now there is no direct point of contact with consumers making complaints. I think that is a real shame, and hopefully community engagement is something we can start focusing on again — CTSI’s manifesto (see page 5) includes a call for the introduction of consumer education lessons in schools, and things like the REACH Conference and the Young Consumer Influencer of the Year award are a fantastic opportunity to rebuild those links.

Collaboration is key
When I was starting out, there was almost a competitive rivalry between Trading Standards and Environmental Health, and the two professions were almost seen as ‘us’ and ‘them’. But over the years I’ve seen greater alignment and more similarities than differences, and there are a lot of opportunities for the two disciplines to work collaboratively.

The National Trading Standards Estate and Lettings Agency Team (NTSELAT) is a great example of bringing these two disciplines together for a common aim. Trading Standards has a role to play in making sure that tenants aren’t being short-changed and Environmental Health tackles disrepair and health and safety issues in private sector housing. My authority is participating in a regional London-wide project which is encouraging people to report through a single route, no matter what their housing issue is.

Similarly, Licensing has been a great driver in bringing Trading Standards and Environmental Health professionals together. It’s really important to be able to pool our resources to tackle key issues, like safeguarding the vulnerable from financial abuse, tackling food fraud and energy-efficiency. Adopting a multi-pronged, ‘one council’ approach can help us to be more effective and impactful.

Dedication and diversity
Like many of us, I’ve always had a high work ethic and I’m a keen advocate of continuous professional personal development. That being said, it would be remiss of me not to mention any personal challenges or barriers.

Experiencing explicit discrimination is rare these days, but speaking to colleagues it is clear that there are subtle ways to hold people back from their full potential. Similar to myself they have not always had the support, mentorship and encouragement that perhaps some of their peers may have had.

I’ve always tried to grasp opportunities as they come. As a senior manager, it’s become more apparent that there aren’t many visible people at senior levels who look like me. Having only a few Black female senior managers with responsibility for Trading Standards and Environmental Health teams has stimulated me to help promote equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), in all forms, across both professions. I have done this as Chair of our London Strategic Regulatory Network, by facilitating training and networking, surveying businesses and sharing best practice. But London is very diverse and I am pleased that ACTSO has signed up to the Race at Work Charter and their EDI Working Group is active on the topic of inclusion too.

Over the years I’ve seen a big shift and there are definitely a lot more women now in the Trading Standards profession, and a lot more female managers. However, there is still a need for continued efforts to make the profession as diverse as possible in terms of age, race and other protected characteristics — doing that can only strengthen us and enable us to stay relevant and better serve our local communities.

Qualifications are useful to evidence knowledge and technical ability, but I think experience counts for more. You can’t go on a course to learn some of the things that you might need to know in this job, such as managing budgets, relationships with Councillors and embracing change — you can only pick them up through practical experience. I encourage my managers to grab opportunities that provide them with a chance to try something new and I support them to gain as many transferrable skills as they can.

I was encouraged to get experience of other disciplines beyond Trading Standards, which has helped with my personal development and networking. Going to events like Conference and volunteering to sit on working groups provides opportunities to meet new people. I’m really pleased that CTSI and CIEH are joining forces for Conference this year.

My advice to anyone starting out in Trading Standards would be to stay focused, set some development goals early on, and stick to the journey towards that. Get qualified, get experienced, keep up to date with legal changes — and learn all the countless acronyms!

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