Budget cuts, an ageing workforce, an increased workload caused by Brexit and an anti-regulation political agenda are among the factors that have undermined food standards enforcement capacity, according to Trading Standards experts.
CTSI Lead Officers have welcomed the publication of the Food Standards Agency’s new Our Food 2022 report, which paints a stark picture of the challenges facing public protection bodies such as Trading Standards, with staff recruitment and retention proving major hurdles to maintaining a robust system of enforcement.
The report, which includes data from the FSA’s ‘Local Authority Capacity and Capability’ research, gathered views from current and former Local Authority enforcement officers working in Trading Standards, Environmental Health and Port Health, as well as education providers and professional bodies. It found that not enough people are completing relevant qualifications that would enable them to enforce official food and feed controls within Local Authorities.
The FSA identified a widespread lack of awareness of Trading Standards and Environmental Health careers, with insufficient resources available to attract new recruits, particularly among school leavers.
It also found that the complexity of the qualification system is difficult for prospective students and Local Authorities to navigate, in addition to creating challenges around the practicalities of study, including financial and time constraints.
In response to the report Corinne Lowe, CTSI Lead Officer for Food Standards, said: “Local Authority budget cuts over the past several years have led to a severe reduction in the resources to train up new Officers. These budget cuts have also led to the loss of many qualified and experienced Officers, and an increased workload for the remaining Officers.”
CTSI Lead Officer for Education, Alexandra Connell, agreed with Lowe’s assessment. “There are significant issues around recruitment and retention, and this is exacerbated by an increasingly ageing demograph within Trading Standards,” she said. “There is currently a huge amount of knowledge and experience among our older members, without which it will be even harder to train new people within the profession whenever we do manage to recruit.”
Apprenticeships could prove an effective means of bringing new blood into the Trading Standards profession, believes David Pickering, also a CTSI Lead Officer for Food Standards. “The apprenticeship scheme may help get more officers into the service,” he said. “However, doing this will need support and for smaller services that may be difficult. A national strategy would be a positive way to address the issue.”
One of the knock-on effects of decreasing budgets has been fewer opportunities to sell the Trading Standards profession to a wider audience — including potential new recruits. According to Connell, “Reduced resources have meant that Trading Standards have had to pull back from carrying out educational talks in schools and universities. Thus our profile demonstrating what a great career can be had in Trading Standards has diminished.”
Pickering suggests that a negative view of regulation in certain political circles has only made things worse. “It would help if the government stopped portraying regulatory roles as a hindrance rather than part of a well-functioning marketplace,” he said. “They need to stop being negative about the roles because it just makes it less attractive to potential recruits.”
“A reduction in funding for Local Authority regulatory teams has contributed to increased workloads and a reduction or complete stop to promoting the profession externally,” added Lowe.
Inevitably, a shortage of new recruits has placed a strain on the existing workforce, creating added pressures that make staff retention a real challenge. That increased workload — caused in part by Brexit, and in part by the COVID pandemic, according to the report — has pushed many experienced staff towards early retirement.
“As we shrink as a workforce, we have to become involved in more tasks that were previously done by colleagues,” said Pickering. “We aren’t good at saying we can’t do things because we no longer have the capacity!”
“This will be compounded year on year until we are recruiting more into the profession than are retiring,” said Connell.
According to Lowe, “Brexit has led to an increased workload for officers. Businesses who import and export food and animal feed to and from Europe now have to comply with additional requirements, which has led to an increase in requests for business compliance advice, and more work for officers having to check for legal compliance of imported and exported food and animal feed.
Connell added: “The pandemic has seen a large rise in the amount of new small businesses operating from homes, all of which require business advice and guidance. There is also a large disparity between Local Authorities as to how business guidance can be offered; whether it is free, or paid for, or just signposting towards information. This can impact the level of compliance through lack of knowledge or understanding.”
“Wilfully turning a blind eye to the realities and impact of leaving the EU by the government means that very real issues aren’t being acknowledge or addressed,” said Pickering. “The portrayal of ‘red tape’ in a negative light also has an impact on Officers who generally do their best to support businesses to become compliant.”
Providing that support benefits businesses, and thereby the broader economy, “but this isn’t being recognised by central government, especially when it comes to supportive funding,” Pickering added.
To address these challenges, the report suggests more efforts to promote regulatory and enforcement careers, and greater collaboration between bodies with regulatory responsibilities and education providers. It also raises the possibility of simplifying qualification requirements. On the latter point, Connell urges caution: “We need to be careful that simplification of qualification does not lead to dilution of the standard of the qualification,” she says.
The FSA’s report notes that most Local Authority enforcement staff saw their roles as important and felt proud of their contribution to public safety and wider society. It is a view with which Pickering concurs: “Trading Standards is still a really interesting and varied role, and to some extent this is recognised within most Local Authorities. But although the government occasionally say how valuable we are, they don’t seem to appreciate we are in decline in terms of resources allocated to deliver services.”
“We need to raise awareness of what we do, to attract people to work in Trading Standards, especially the subject areas of food standards and animal feed,” said Lowe. “But we also need to have the resources to be able to promote the work we do, and the resources to do the job.”
Andrew Stephenson, also CTSI Lead Officer for Education, commented: “Raising awareness of Trading Standards within the wider context of enforcement is vitally important so that we are seen as the go-to agency for food and feed activities.”
Crucially, Connell believes, that means promoting the value of Trading Standards within government and Local Authorities themselves: “We need to raise the profile not only externally to aid recruitment, but also internally to raise awareness of the importance of the work we do and how it relates to every aspect of daily life.”