30th June 2021

Opinion: Feeling puzzled?

The many complex and interlocking challenges facing trading standards at the moment make it important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

By Sarah Caughey
Head of Policy at CTSI
Recent times have witnessed a wide range of changes and challenges… this means there is a real puzzle to solve

I don’t know about you, but over the past year I have tried various ways to keep entertained during the pandemic. I have cracked open books from that neglected “must read” pile and revisited old hobbies (my husband is still waiting for that pair of mittens I promised to knit him for Christmas). I was not alone in also rediscovering that rainy-day staple the jigsaw puzzle, which provides hours of distraction and frustration.

The Guardian has reported a bonanza on jigsaws, stating that UK sales reached £100m in 2020,  which is up 38% on the previous year.

Confronted with all the individual pieces (500, 1000… up to 51,300), how do you begin the  endeavour of assembling the jigsaw into the picture displayed on the front of the box? You start with the corner pieces, then move on the edges.

From here, it takes time and patience to complete the picture, but the corners and edges provide the frame for it all to come together, piece by piece.

Making sense of it all

In considering the landscape and context in which trading standards operates now, and for the future, the jigsaw seems to be an appropriate analogy. Recent times have witnessed a wide range of changes and challenges: from dealing with the pandemic, to exiting the EU, to the rapid growth and development of online markets. This, combined with matters that have been in the pipeline, means that there is a real puzzle to solve.

Christmas Eve 2020 brought the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) which set the  parameters for the future economic partnership. The provisions may be implemented into UK law and the consent of the European Parliament granted; however, EU Exit is by no means done and dusted. Indeed, the Institute for Government posits that it is “…too early to fully understand the long-term impact of the new barriers to trade with the EU erected by the Trade and Cooperation

Agreement, or to disentangle the Brexit effect from the impact of the pandemic.”¹ Alongside the TCA is the Northern Ireland Protocol – which came into force on January 1, 2021 and is designed to allow the free movement of goods from the EU into NI, and prevent the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland. Since coming into force, challenges around the operational implications of the Protocol arrangement have been emerging, and even precipitated the initiation of formal legal proceedings by the EU against the UK.

It is clear that the implications and practical out-workings of these provisions and arrangements as implementation unfolds and “business as usual” resumes, together with the wider impacts of exiting the EU need to be considered, examined and monitored. As EU law continues to evolve and develop,  there will be important questions regarding potential for divergence and the post-Brexit regulatory landscape.

The UK Product Safety framework is currently under review by the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS). In the Call for Evidence, OPSS is seeking views on the longer-term approach to product safety and ensuring that the framework is fi t for the future. The Call for Evidence explores the impacts of the rapid escalation of online shopping, the changes to and complexity of supply chains, and the ever-evolving nature of technological advances, and how to ensure that the framework protects everyone.

Seeking clarity

The ‘Modernising consumer markets: green paper’ was published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in April 2018. The response in the form of a command paper is still in the works. The progress has no doubt been hampered by ministerial changes and the pandemic.

It is hoped that the path is now clear for BEIS to elucidate their proposals. With present and future challenges to be tackled, the pending paper will surely pose pivotal questions for the profession, the enforcement system and the wider consumer protection landscape. There are important cross-cutting issues to consider. For example, the opportunities and challenges of the unrelenting growth and development of online marketplaces should not be underestimated as they will have considerable impacts for consumers and business, and therefore trading standards.

There are also specific issues to fit into the puzzle. In January 2021, the establishment of a new regulator for construction products operating within the OPSS was announced. It will have the power to remove any product from the market that presents a significant safety risk and prosecute any companies who flout the rules on product safety.

The press release stated that the regulator will “work with the Building Safety Regulator and Trading Standards to encourage and enforce compliance”.

We await further details and will be looking for opportunities to engage on this matter. And no  doubt there will be further pieces to fit into the puzzle. It may even feel like the UK is trying to complete a jigsaw without the picture on the front of the box! However, it is clear that trading standards responsibilities and expertise in areas such as metrology, animal health, fair trading, product safety and much more are fundamental, foundational pieces of the puzzle. Simply put, the UK needs trading standards. Strong, sustainable trading standards services are crucial to making that big picture an “on the ground” reality across the UK. Therefore, securing the future sustainability of the profession must not be the missing piece of the puzzle.

Investing in the profession ensures the expertise to support businesses in recovery from the  pandemic and navigating new trading contexts. It ensures the knowledge and commitment to protect consumers, whether from unsafe products in their homes or when engaging with online markets. We also need to look to the future, to ensure that the profession is ready for what is on, and over, the horizon.

In order to complete the UK’s desired picture of ensuring consumers are protected and confident, and that businesses are equipped to recover, grow and thrive, a strong, vibrant and sustainable trading standards profession is crucial. Without it, the UK will be left puzzled.

¹ The end of the Brexit transition period – Was the UK prepared? Joe Marshall, Maddy Thimont Jack and Nick Jones, Institute for Government (March 2021)


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