16th July 2019

Playing policy whack-a-mole

Just like the classic fairground game, trading standards often faces the problem of trying to deal with one problem when several others unexpectedy raise their heads…

By Craig McClue
Head of Policy, Chartered Trading Standards Institute
Our breadth can be our strength. It can also, occasionally, be something of an Achilles’ heel

If I have bit of a moan about policy work, please be clear it’s not to elicit sympathy for CTSI policy staff. Let me get that out of the way; we have a lot going for us.

First, there’s our brand. CTSI carries a lot of weight and admiration as an institution. It’s a reputation built on decades of trust and integrity. We are respected and get meetings with Ministers precisely because of our history of positive engagement and because we are viewed as your representatives – a profession where values such as fairness, just enterprise and supporting the vulnerable in our society is the actual job.

Second, there’s the expertise. CTSI has access to members and a lead officer network of experts that can, almost instantly, give accurate interpretations and practical solutions to complex legal issues. They fight for us strongly in parliamentary committees, are excellent in the media, and remain the envy of most other consumer policy organisations. (I know this because I am often asked for access to them).

With all that behind us, policy success is a doddle, surely? Get the right things said to the right people and the right things happen?

Well, no. Sadly, not always. One problem is the sheer breadth of what we do. Everything from underage sales to legal metrology, animal health to product safety, intellectual property to food crime – or tackling rogue traders, doorstep crime, dodgy landlords or dishonest car dealers. As we know the list goes on.

Our breadth can be our strength. It can also, occasionally, be something of an Achilles’ heel.

TS policy engagement can be likened to a (serious) Government department version of ‘whack-a-mole’. We keep our eyes focused on BEIS, maybe DEFRA too, and then – bam! – the Home Office want trading standards to help tackle violent knife crime and horrible acid attacks. We get on top of debates such as the consumer Green Paper, the ban on letting agent fees, or the expansion of the FSA’s National Food Crime Unit – when suddenly up pop new questions. Can you guys tackle microbeads in cosmetic products? Can you arrange visits for explosive precursors? How about our proposals for banning plastic straws? What are your views on the creation of Consumer Scotland?

We make contact with new senior civil servants and great progress in their understanding of the complex world of trading standards, when suddenly – sadly – they announce they are moving on to another department, leaving the relationships (and the case for trading standards) to be built all over again. It can sometimes seem as if civil service staff rotate quicker than the dishes on a Yo! Sushi conveyor belt. (Other food chains are available, but none that perhaps evoke the point so well).

Brexit blues

Nothing captured this more than our (much-envied!) work on Brexit. CTSI’s Brexit Think Tank met several times to unpick the in-depth complex legal conundrums posed by leaving the EU. Across the many very technical areas, it highlighted the risks and opportunities for trading standards. We had the engagement of senior civil servants at BEIS, DEFRA, OPSS and the newly formed DeXEU – as well as external partners such as the LGA, NAO, Which? and Citizens Advice.

We had a major launch of our findings in the Houses of Parliament. When it came to Brexit, as far as anyone could be, we were on it.

Suddenly out of the corner of our CTS ‘eye’ we catch sight of an MCHLG (Ministry for Communities, Housing and Local Government) seminar in London for training ‘trading standards officers’ in case of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Regrettably, there had been absolutely no engagement with us, the professional body that could maybe offer the expertise (and networks) to get the messages across. With head-in-hands, contact was made with the senior MCHLG civil servant involved. We explained our body of work on Brexit and offered to tie-up to ensure that TSOs across the whole country (maybe even Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?) get the right information – consistently, and from one source.

Mercifully, this was a positive conversation and the messages were well received. It went so well we invited him to our next CTSI Brexit Think Tank meeting. This was an invitation for which he expressed real gratitude, but also, sadly, regret that he couldn’t make it as he was “moving on from his MCHLG Brexit role in a couple of weeks”.

But again, don’t feel sorry for CTSI policy. It is a huge privilege to represent the interests of trading standards professionals. Having been at the TS frontline of sorts for more than a couple of decades I consider it an immense professional privilege.

The challenges and frustrations of engagement aside, we are very well placed with expert and passionate lead officers battling in Government committees and influential MPs asking searching questions on your behalf in the highest corridors. Not least, we also have a passionate Chief Executive who dominates the debate in most rooms, chairs the strategy of the Consumer Protection Partnership – and fights for the interests of trading standards professionals every day.

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