As the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, Paul Scully is responsible for ensuring that the UK’s consumer protection framework – of which trading standards forms a vital component – is effective, robust and prepared for the future. I spoke with him via Zoom about the long-planned ‘Modernising consumer markets’ white paper, the implications of EU Exit for UK food standards, and the thorny issue of cuts to trading standards funding.
Perhaps inevitably though, the conversation begins on COVID 19 – and the soaring number of scams that have targeted the public during the past year. With more than £2.5bn lost to scammers since lockdown began, what is the Government doing to keep the public safe and bring perpetrators to justice?
“A number of organisations, including trading standards officers across the country, have done really good work on tackling this,” Scully says. “But so much of it is about continuing to raise awareness and making sure we can educate consumers. Events like Scams Awareness Fortnight help promote that.
“Last year, we had more MPs than ever getting involved. It is important to destigmatise victims as well – to allow people to feel confident to come forward, which then prevents there being further victims. The involvement of local trading standards is absolutely crucial in that campaign, as well as enforcement.”
The rise in online scams is part of a wider shift in consumer behaviour and emerging technologies which create potential new sources of consumer detriment. What does Scully think are the most significant emerging threats – and what is his department doing about them?
“Markets are changing really rapidly all the time and there’s an absolutely clear move towards online selling,” he says. “We need to look at consumer rights and what we might need to update to reflect this. We’ve been looking at things like subscription traps, for example, and online transactions in particular.
“We’ll continue to coordinate and work together with local authorities and consumer protection agencies like National Trading Standards (NTS) and the Consumer Protection Partnership to [recognise] the fact that consumer detriment cuts across organisational boundaries in this area. The more you push on with new technologies, the harder it is to actually pin down within one organisation – which is why we need to see how we can extend our collaborative working.”
Long time coming
The Government’s ‘Modernising consumer markets’ white paper has been delayed by more than two years, and while little has been made public about its specific contents, it has the potential to radically shake up the way consumer protection is enforced in the UK. All Scully can say when asked about its likely publication date is: “We’re looking forward to publishing and we’ll do that shortly.
“We know that the economy thrives when strong, competitive markets function and deliver those benefits to consumers, giving them greater choice and lower prices,” he adds. “In our Manifesto, we talked about the fact that we wanted to give the CMA enhanced powers to tackle bad business practices, and we will launch that consultation soon.”
The white paper will, he continues, “concentrate on making sure we’ve got competitive markets, modernising the framework of consumer rights, tackling rip-offs, and making sure that consumers can actually get redress when things go wrong. I’m looking forward to getting that out to people to comment on as soon as possible. And we’ll welcome views from stakeholders, businesses and those within trading standards.”
Down to brass tacks
Raising awareness and engaging with stakeholders is all well and good, but what about the essential resources needed to ensure that trading standards can function effectively? It is no secret that local authority funding has been slashed by £16bn over the past decade, and spending on trading standards services in England has plummeted by more than 50% between 2009 and 2019. How can this possibly be reconciled with the Government’s duty to keep the public safe?
Scully places the responsibility with local councils. “A lot of the funding that we give to local authorities is not ringfenced. Therefore you get a situation where you’ve got to have local priorities. It’s important that we keep that up to local residents who the authorities are accountable to, because they’ve got to make those local choices.
“We’ve kept national funding the same in terms of NTS and Trading Standards Scotland, who have obviously got a role in tackling a lot of these issues. These national organisations have prevented over a billion pounds’ worth of consumer detriment since their creation.
“But at a local level we’ve got to make sure that local authorities realise the importance of trading standards. That does not mean to say that they can’t look at savings and how they might combine efforts or backroom offices. I used to be a Councillor, and I went out with my local trading standards team to see the work they did first-hand, and they do a great job. But it is a local priority for councils to make those decisions.”
Surely though, the diminishing pot of available resources forces local authorities to make almost impossible decisions about whether to prioritise things like social care and waste collection – pushing trading standards to the sidelines as a ‘luxury optional extra’?
“It’s not a luxury option, that’s for sure,” Scully says. “But, of course, everybody knows about their bins at the end of their drive or by their front gate, so that’s always a visible issue for councils. And yes, adult social care is probably the biggest discretionary cost for most councils up and down the country.
“But again, it’s about raising awareness because otherwise, there’s a risk of people only knowing about trading standards and about scams if they are the victim of one. And that’s why sometimes it drops in people’s minds, including Councillors who are taking those decisions. So the more we do about awareness, the more we show how these things hit the most vulnerable in our society, will help pitch it a little bit further up in those priorities at a local level.”
Trading standards has a very broad remit, from animal welfare to building safety – which in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, is at the front of a lot of people’s minds. Is trading standards’ importance recognised within Government though?
“Absolutely,” Scully insists. “There’s so much that has happened just in the last year with COVID. We’ve talked about the fact that scammers have been far more prevalent within this period. We know that price inflation and price-gouging were an issue that was raised right at the beginning of the pandemic. All of those things are really at the forefront of the Government’s mind.
“And then you get into the wider consumer protection issues, about refunds and package travel in particular, but also weddings and other hard-hit sectors. So it’s been something that really has been at the heart of my thinking as Consumer Minister. Every Government Minister is also a constituency MP. We’ve all had our post bags full of letters from people who have been raising consumer protection issues that trading standards officers, the wider Government and organisations like the CMA have leant into.”
In addition to the challenges of COVID-19 and funding cuts, trading standards has also had to deal with the wave of new regulations and requirements on business that have been brought about by EU Exit. This has also removed the UK from cross-border justice mechanisms such as the European Consumer Centre network and has terminated UK enforcers’ access to data sharing initiatives such as the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed. How is this compatible with the Government’s stated aim of maintaining high standards of consumer protection?
“We’ve already got one of the strongest consumer [protection] regimes in the world and we absolutely remain committed to the strong consumer rights and high standards that UK consumers have benefited from for many years,” Scully says.
“We want to make sure that we can continue and enhance global cooperation, and that obviously includes the EU but further afield as well, as we expand our trade deals across the world. We’ve committed to funding the UK International Consumer Centre – previously the UK European Consumer Centre – at least until the end of 2021 to make sure that consumers can resolve any cross-border disputes, making sure that they can feel confident and empowered in cross-border transactions. But we want to see what more we can do, and continue to talk with partners in the EU as well as others around the world.”
CTSI has expressed concerns over the potential of the recently announced trade deal with Australia to bring hormone-injected meat onto the UK market. I ask Scully what he can say to reassure consumers about the introduction of food which has been produced to potentially lower standards?
“We’ve always been really strong in food standards and anything like that will need to come through Parliament to comment on and vote on,” he says. “We’re really keen not to weaken food standards. Having left the EU means that we can actually have stronger food standards; for example with Danish bacon, some of the rules there are weaker than what we’ve got in the UK.
“Before we will go off in any direction, the more controversial things like hormone-injected beef or the mooted chlorinated chicken from any potential American deal will have to be really carefully scrutinised because we do not want to be lowering food standards in this country.”
Finally, I ask Scully whether he has personally encountered any examples of trading standards’ work that have made him appreciate the service’s contribution to society.
“The daughter of one of my colleagues was in hospital, having swallowed some neodymium magnets,” he says. “There’s plenty more that we need to do to raise awareness of strong magnets that children might get hold of, and making sure that we strengthen our consumer protection around those kinds of everyday issues. I’ve got two grown-up kids myself and they’ve safely got through 20-odd years, which is partly down to trading standards officers taking unsafe toys off the market.”
In closing, he adds: “I want to give my thanks to everybody in trading standards around the country, especially because they’ve tackled two huge asks over the last 18 months with the EU Exit transition and of course COVID, which trading standards has been right at the forefront of dealing with.
“We’re very appreciative of everything that they’ve done and I’m looking forward to building on consumer protection rights over the next year or two.