Stepping into the world of trading standards since joining CTSI in April has been the most wonderful experience, one where I’ve felt the strong social purpose to protect consumers that drives everyone I’ve met either within or connected with the profession. It’s what drew me to CTSI and it has very quickly become my driving force. There are few professions with a stronger purpose.
What I have also seen, however, is that whilst the role of trading standards has never been more important, it has never been more difficult to carry out that role. It therefore sometimes feels like there is a complete disconnect between what we do and the importance that others place on it.
There are many reasons that could explain this. Changes in legislation from more than a decade ago that spun off responsibilities for consumer protection; changes in the way trading standards is able to operate; and continued budget cuts in local government leading to 50 percent reduction in trading standards capacity, have all been critical factors that have meant the profession’s role has become more constrained. I’m sure some of these changes were brought about by well-intentioned attempts to improve protections for consumers. However, the net result has been – and consecutive surveys prove this – a steady rise in consumer detriment. As trading standards’ ability to protect consumers has declined we have seen a steady increase in this detriment, and whilst we may not have the unequivocal evidence to prove that, I don’t think that is any coincidence at all.
If this is the case the question is therefore: why has the profession not been able to make a better case for the work that it does, both in the day-to-day activities of frontline trading standards as well as when we are asked to support in the event of a national emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic?
Trading standards is absolutely relied on when the proverbial hits the fan. Most people outside the profession I speak to also think far more is happening behind the scenes to protect consumers than they might really like to be aware of. So people think the protections are in place. However, that veneer is definitely starting to wear off as we see more and more news articles about faulty or illegal products, companies seeking to exploit the green agenda or a whole other range of consumer issues.
Finding the balance
Our problem as a profession is not that we are not in demand; everyone calls for us when the need arises, as the recent ACTSO Impacts and Outcomes survey shows. But we must demonstrate our relevance in a rapidly changing context. And in this context, the only two constants appear to be increasing consumer detriment and declining funding for trading standards services. What this also means is that whilst new structures have been created over the past decade, and they are doing a sterling job in many areas, they have not stopped the increase in detriment.
I view this world as an eco-system with multiple different players across the public, not-for-profit and private sectors operating at different levels and layers, from front-line local authority services and national trading standards structures, through to regulators like the CMA and consumer organisations and businesses working to minimise risks to consumers. The problem is that this eco-system is not in balance, as we said in the CTSI response to the long-awaited Command Paper. To find the balance, changes can be made to regulators’ powers but trading standards also needs the capacity to be able to fulfil its function properly – something that even Business Member Groups like the BRC have said in relation to there no longer being a level playing field.
To stay relevant we must highlight the critical gaps in local trading standards services, as well as the gaps in the wider eco-system. We must also link this to the ever-increasing consumer detriment so we can hold Government and others to account. We have lost many of the mechanisms by which this could be measured in near real time but the evidence is out there and it helps us to make our case.
We also need to think more broadly than just protecting consumers. We need to make the explicit link between confident consumers and a vibrant economy, and how without that there will be an opportunity lost to the UK economy if trading standards is not invested in properly. This links the work of trading standards to the Government agenda of levelling up, which will in a large part be dependent on the success of SMEs that we know can benefit from our work. We also need to continue to tune into local agendas in councils, something we are good at as the pandemic once again proved, showing how we can support the delivery of their priorities.
Trading standards as a profession sits at the heart of so many of these issues. We must show how, as a profession, we can help tackle them for what are relatively modest sums, the investment of which would provide a much greater return both in terms of reducing consumer harm as well as supporting local economic recovery. That’s our relevance as a profession.