10th July 2024

Time to speak out on harassment

How should the profession respond to the rising level of anger, intimidation and physical aggression directed towards frontline Trading Standards Officers going about their duties?

By Helen Nugent
Freelance writer for JTS
In the last 12 months, I’ve had Officers who’ve been threatened with shotguns

No one should have to endure harassment at work. But for many Trading Standards professionals, this has long been part of the job. It’s not right and it’s not acceptable, but it happens. In a recent online poll carried out by CTSI, every single respondent said they had experienced some kind of harassment while going about their duties.

Furthermore, Officers believe that intimidation towards the profession has risen in recent years for a number of reasons, including a widespread, and growing, lack of respect for people in positions of authority. Katherine Hart is CTSI Lead Officer for Doorstep Crime, Scams and Consumer Vulnerability. During the course of her career, she
has been sworn at, spat at, pushed, and told “I hope your baby dies” when she was pregnant.

“It’s such a changing world out there,” she says. “Now we deal with serious and organised crime groups. There is knife crime. The time of just tackling a local rogue trader or someone who hasn’t done a good job has gone. We are now looking at a much more serious element to the criminals that we are seeing.”

Hart believes that new requirements on Trading Standards to tackle different issues have created new challenges. “I feel that people don’t respect the local authority in the same way any more. We are not seen in the same light as some other enforcement authorities, and I feel that we are now being put at risk, with criminals who are on a different scale than they ever were before. As a result, because of this lack of understanding and a lack of respect about what local authority enforcers do, I feel that we are in a situation where it makes us more vulnerable.”

Marsha Bell, CTSI Lead Officer for Vaping and Regulatory Services Lead Practitioner, Trading Standards & Licensing at Salford City Council, agrees that the landscape has changed, leading to more intimidation and harassment of Officers. “I’ve been in Trading Standards for over 18 years now, and I feel like it’s escalating,” she says. “I’ve always had issues in certain areas. I’ve spent a lot of time seizing counterfeit goods and illicit tobacco. You’d find that you get a little bit of hostility because you’re taking people’s goods and, in essence, you’re taking the money from them. But I feel like, more recently, you’re getting hostility for just going into a business because some businesses automatically think that you’re there to punish them. You find that you’ve already got the business’s back up just by your presence.”

She adds: “I think it’s definitely got worse. Looking at the experiences of my colleagues, we’ve got Officers doing food standards visits and getting hostility on a level that we’ve not come across in the past.

“Speaking to peers and colleagues, it feels like it’s escalating across the board, not just in Trading Standards. You speak to Environmental Health colleagues, and they’re experiencing more hostility within their profession as well.”

Steph Young, CTSI Lead Officer for Animal Health and Welfare and Trading Standards Team Leader for Food, Feed & Animal Health at Staffordshire County Council, agrees that harassment is a real problem. “I’ve seen it rise over the last couple of years and I think it has got worse. If you look at the health and safety reporting that I keep, you can see the majority of the reports relate to fear of aggression towards Officers. In the last 12 months, I’ve had Officers who’ve been threatened with shotguns and we’ve reported it to the police. Even though we’ve got it on bodycam footage, the police have taken little action.

“We’ve had Officers who have been threatened to be shot and put into a wheelchair. One of my colleagues in Wales has got video footage of one of her Officers being headbutted.”

Don’t suffer in silence
While the provisions in place to protect Officers vary across the country, Trading Standards professionals are advised to perform dynamic risk assessments when visiting premises, to report any incidents of abuse to managers and, if necessary, to the police. Logs of incidents should also be recorded by departments so that problem traders can be identified ahead of visits.

Young says that it’s vital that local authorities embrace the health and safety needs of their Officers, including having policies in place relating to remote working. “For our complaint-driven work, you’re always going to be sending in more than one Officer. You could not send one Officer in now to deal with the complaints whereas, years ago, we’d have thought nothing of it.”

Hart believes that it’s crucial to ensure there’s an adequate risk assessment and that the relevant tools are available: “I’ve worked with local authorities who have taken time to do really good risk assessments and provide the right PPE and the right training, which is paramount. However, I’ve also seen certain local authorities that don’t see it as the same priority. They feel that personal safety can be dealt with by an online training video, or they think that just installing something like an app on a phone will suffice.”

She adds: “The most important thing is that you’ve got to speak out about it, because how can your bosses know that there’s an incident, whether it be a serious incident, a near miss, or just the fact that you felt uncomfortable? People don’t talk about it because sometimes they feel as though they will be viewed as being weak or vulnerable, and that is not the case at all.

“We always ask victims of crime to speak out. We’re urging people to speak out all the time. But our own Officers also need to speak out”.

Meanwhile, Bell says that harassment should not be the norm. “It shouldn’t be something that we just deal with. People are becoming more open to being verbally and physically abusive while Officers are undertaking what, a lot of the time, is statutory work. We have a duty to enforce different pieces of legislation. We shouldn’t be abused for enforcing the rules and regulations.”

CTSI Chief Executive, John Herriman, says: “Accounts of aggression and physical violence directed at Trading Standards Officers are a real cause for concern to the Institute, and to anybody who values common decency and the rule of law. It is upsetting and disturbing that our colleagues are facing such anger and obstruction when going about their duties.

“Trading Standards teams go above and beyond to keep the public safe, and they deserve to feel safe while doing so. We will be raising this issue with government and local authorities, and pushing for more resources and training to protect Trading Standards professionals while they carry out their vital work.”

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