27th December 2018

Austerity’s impacts will outlive it

The ideology of austerity has had a critical and possibly irreversible impact on trading standards

By Craig McClue
Head of Policy, Chartered Trading Standards Institute
This drastic decline of local service budgets was perhaps made easier by the anti-regulation and ‘burden on business’ agenda, one that seems so hollow after recent tragic regulatory failures.

“A decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off.”
I imagine that particular part of the Prime Minister’s 2018 Tory Conference speech echoing around empty trading standards offices across the country. Maybe it caught the ear of one of the few remaining officers who then peered disbelievingly around at 10 years’ worth of former colleagues’ empty desks.

The government’s austerity policy was never intended to cut trading standards by over a half – that’s just what happened. This drastic decline of local service budgets was perhaps made easier by the anti-regulation and ‘burden on business’ agenda, one that seems so hollow after recent tragic regulatory failures.

A decade ago, as we watched over-leveraged American bankers carrying boxes from the collapsed Lehman Brothers in 2008, who could have predicted a ‘butterfly effect’ where UK trading standards would partly pay the 10-year austerity price of their follies?

Consumer protection crisis
But does it really matter? Well, with UK fraud at record and epidemic proportions, tumble dryers causing house fires, elderly and vulnerable consumers being targeted by scammers – not least the horrific sight of a high-rise building ablaze – it’s hard not to conclude that, yes, regulation and consumer protection might just matter.

This crisis is not going unnoticed outside dwindling trading standards circles. CTSI has no political colour, but the recent ‘health-check’ by Andrew Gwynne (Shadow Labour Communities and Local Government Minister) found services are now a ‘husk’ of what they once were – paving the way for rogue traders to peddle fake goods, scams and unsafe products with ease.

Warnings too from organisations such as Age UK, whose report into tackling scams and fraud against elderly citizens found more than two-fifths (43%) of older people – almost 5 million people aged 65 and over – believe they have been targeted by scammers. Their assessment was frank, “If the Government wants to make tackling fraud a real priority it must ensure trading standards services have the resources they need”.

I abhor the pithy phrase ‘do more with less’ continually levelled as some kind of solution for services facing this situation. It implies that efficient means of service delivery were not being sought until they were financially forced. While many services are on their financial knees and struggling to carry out core functions – they are often then kicked again by different organisations for not fully carrying out the masses of enforcement duties that come from central government.

No recovery without reinvestment
But let’s not paint a completely dystopian picture. The Office of Product Safety and Standards is an important first step in the right direction. It’s having an early positive impact through enhanced training and greater support for local services from the centre. Good news too as the National Trading Standards Consumer Harm Report revealed that NTS prevented more than £182 million of losses to consumers and business in 2017/18, a rise of more than a third compared to the previous year.

The question remains though, have local services been cut too deep to ever return to full effectiveness? And, without drastic change, where might another 10 years of retiring staff and underinvestment leave the fitness of local trading standards services? With Brexit likely to add significant new challenges and the Local Government Association predicting a funding gap shortfall for local government services of £8bn by 2025 – it’s hard to remain positive.

While this goes on, the ‘new law tap’ for trading standards still flows unabated (and rightly so!) From the Home Office there are vital policies to tackle knife crime and acid attacks. From DEFRA there are important plans to tackle plastic pollution – curbing their needless use in microbeads or straws and stirrers. The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government too wishes the help of trading standards to prevent the sale of explosive precursors (the chemicals that can be put together to make bombs).

We can never try to argue that such initiatives are not vital for UK consumers and citizens, but the ‘do more with less’ mantra has its limits. If the government is serious about new duties it needs to (across Whitehall) better understand trading standards’ plight and find ways to fund crucial enforcement initiatives.

Post-Brexit standards
Is austerity really over for trading standards? Well, while political commentators disagree over the broader issues, the forecasts for local government budgets remain bleak. The big question is likely to remain for many years yet, ‘how can stretched and cut trading standards services find a way to fund existing and new responsibilities placed upon them?’

Over the winter the consumer green paper presents a big opportunity for change. Proposals to strengthen the national and local enforcement framework need to have a ‘whole system’ approach that takes the pressure off local services. It is important too that local and national enforcement bodies have the clout to really hold multi-million-pound businesses to account when required.

Finally, if things remain as they are, when the UK seeks new trade deals after March of 2019 there is likely to be stock-take of our capacity to maintain high standards of regulatory compliance and consumer protection. Might Brexit be the time when the loss of trading standards’ critical mass is mourned, too long after the masses of critical voices against the cuts have been heard.

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