Having been away from the profession for over three years working in energy regulation, it is an inspiring time to be back to see the important and diverse work of trading standards being showcased. This is especially evident during such a challenging time, as trading standards services work to deal with the fallout from COVID-19, which has significant and potentially dire effects on both business and the consumer.
Despite facing drastic cuts over the past ten years, with all authorities in the latest Workforce Survey reporting a reduction in resources and a fall in staffing levels of between 30% and 50%, trading standards services continue to adapt to new challenges, this time in the form of a pandemic.
When speaking with trading standards officers over the past two months a few examples have stuck in my mind, such as those who have been redeployed to coroner duties, or who have been delivering food to the vulnerable or self-isolating. In the latter, the food delivery was done in shift work with long hours, but these officers were still carrying out Primary Authority duties for one of the largest and busiest retailers at this time. It just reinforces the commitment of the profession as a whole to protecting those who need it most.
Adapting and responding
A lot of what local authority trading standards services have been tasked with is novel. Enforcing the new regulations for business closures/restrictions, or finding ways to deal with the newly emerging practice of price gouging, new scams and door step crimes are a few examples. Cancellations of contracts in the travel and accommodation sector have led to consideration of how we advise consumers whilst balancing that with the need to support the UK economy as a whole, which would ultimately benefit consumers and business. Food safety and product safety have become areas of even greater risk, as suppliers rush to get products onto shelves to meet demand, and unscrupulous opportunists seek to take advantage of the shortfall in basic food, toiletries and personal protection equipment.
This just goes to show the agility of the profession as trading standards services continue to adapt and respond, protecting the public and reputable business, despite facing considerable operational challenges. Much of our legislation was not designed with the current circumstances in mind, meaning enforcement and the provision of clear consumer and business advice can be more difficult. This is combined with insufficient resources, a lack of personal protection equipment and adaptation to home working along with self-isolation and/or care for dependants.
Lead Officers have been responding to the uncertainty around our legislative toolkit at speed. This is helping to bring clarity to such a hotbed of queries and has fed into important discussions on longer-term solutions at government level. CTSI has been working to add to that clarity, obtaining legal advice and working with our consumer protection partners on consistent messaging on relevant issues.
We have also produced a COVID-19 Information Hub on the CTSI website which aims to provide the latest updates on each sector. I would caveat that by saying that on some days the picture changes so vastly in multiple areas, that it takes us a wee while to catch up!
Right now, a lot of our officers are designated Key Workers, and as we know, historically trading standards officers have been at the forefront of national emergencies, be that on the ground such as in the foot and mouth outbreak, or behind the scenes dealing with product safety issues in the Whirlpool dryer scandal.
Society looks back on such periods in history to judge how they were dealt with and to take lessons on how we can do better in future. A question people often ask is, who was in charge of regulating this at the time?
A lot of what trading standards officers do is invisible, enforcing what may be perceived as “red tape” which is vital to keep people safe and make trading fair. We enforce an ever-growing list of over 250 pieces of legislation. During the pandemic, we have visibility, which makes it important that we now capture and use the examples of our work to inform government and decision makers.
A case can be made now so more than ever for the importance of sustaining the profession and making sure it is property equipped to deal with not only the day-to-day challenges, but also events of a large-scale emergency nature. From conversations with stakeholders, trading standards officers are being reflected in a positive light, acting with measure and diligence in carrying out their duties, some of which are brand new.
Taking the temperature
As I write this, CTSI is just about to launch a survey aimed at Heads of Service, which hopes to get a snapshot of what it looks like on the ground in local authority trading standards services during the pandemic.
The survey will gather information on new COVID-19 related issues as they arise. The results will add to the findings from the ACTSO Value of Trading Standards Report 2019 and the most recent Workforce Survey. In conjunction, this data can be used as evidence to support the argument that the funding deficit the profession faces needs to be resolved, urgently.
Going forward, the trading standards profession needs to be involved in the joined-up emergency and contingency response for future emergencies. To do that effectively would require the appropriate resources. I doubt there is anyone within the profession who doesn’t wish we could do more to help, if only we had deeper pockets and better tools at our disposal.