Four hundred and seventy-three days and nine hours; that’s the countdown to our departure from the EU – at the time of writing, at least – if the planned amendments to stamp the Withdrawal Bill with the exact moment we leave the EU are approved. The issues of the divorce bill and EU Citizens’ rights are apparently settled, and the word ‘alignment’ in relation to regulating the Northern Irish border seems to propose a Brexit on the softer side.
However, early noises suggest the trade deal will be the tricky part – and with the UK’s wish for a transitional period not yet agreed, our future regulatory world remains unclear. Amid the fast-approaching deadline of 29 March 2019 (11pm), the call for clarity for consumers and businesses rises daily. If you’ll pardon the pun, that is our countdown conundrum.
Despite the time pressures, noises from government are positive and reassuring; strong consumer rights and high standards are core threads of discussions around the EU Withdrawal Bill and embedded in the text of the Industrial Strategy – which, incidentally, was published on the day Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle was officially announced.
However, two sides are needed for negotiations and – as our Brexit Think Tank initially concluded – ‘reciprocity’ will be key to retaining the EU crossborder networks that offer protections. This theme, of ‘mutual interconnections’ potentially being lost, also became clear when Consumer Minister Margot James gave evidence to the EU Justice subcommittee: we can’t just go back to splendid isolation.
TSO count down
Another hugely worrying ‘countdown’ is that of the skilled officers and resources available to local trading standards services. As CTSI continues to monitor this situation through our workforce surveys, the early indications are that the erosion of capacity hasn’t yet reached its nadir. The downward trend has seen more than 50 per cent gone in less than a decade, with no obvious end to the recruitment problems.
Serious questions now exist as to whether local trading standards can continue to meet the market surveillance requirements and burgeoning statutory obligations placed upon them. Chancellor Philip Hammond’s November Budget did at least offer funding for Brexit contingency planning.
We must remain hopeful that some of this will find its way to help train and prepare – perhaps even recruit – our consumer protection frontline officers for the new regulatory future we face. The review of trading standards services in Scotland finally got somewhere, with Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) leaders agreeing a set of recommendations – including, crucially, proposals to stop the haemorrhaging of the workforce.
While the recommendations fell short of the regional reorganisation wished for by many, it did advocate alignment with other regional economic models. It also committed Cosla to working with the Scottish and UK governments to produce a resourced ‘Brexit ready’ consumer protection system.
Life beyond Brexit
Meanwhile, rumours that Whitehall is ‘Brexit obsessed’, to the exclusion of all else, are apparently unfounded. For example, a Home Office consultation targeting online knife sales and the selling of powerful acids acknowledges, and strengthens, trading standards’ supply-side role in curbing violent crimes.
The ability of scammers to target pension pots has also been curbed, with the announcement by the Department for Work and Pensions that cold calling for pension transfers is to be banned. There are also plans to severely restrict people’s ability to set up fraudulent pension schemes.
Next year, our proud system of animal welfare will be strengthened further by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ announcement that CCTV will be mandatory in all slaughterhouses in England – a move strongly supported by CTSI experts in this area. We also remain very hopeful of a positive consumer green paper from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the coming months.
So, government hasn’t quite ground to a halt to fret over the ticking Brexit clock. However, while we’re in counting mode, there is no doubt the Department for Exiting the European Union has the toughest task ahead with the EU Withdrawal Bill. At the last count, there were 378 amendments and 75 new clauses proposed, as the bill’s correcting powers and apparent retention of policy on devolved matters gets closely scrutinised by MPs.
Some argue the bill represents a naked ‘power grab’ by Westminster of devolved powers. This is countered by claims that the correcting powers are necessary to fix the statute book and that there should be no re-creation of barriers to trade by differing UK policies for repatriated EU laws.
We, in trading standards, need to keep a close eye on the bill’s progress to ensure the ‘correction’ of EU laws doesn’t become a diminution of hard-won protections. For all the soundbites and predictions around Brexit, perhaps the last words should be the prescient lyrics of a Swedish rock band – called Europe – from 1986: ‘We’re leaving together. But still it’s farewell. And maybe we’ll come back to Earth, who can tell? I guess there is no-one to blame. We’re leaving ground. Will things ever be the same again? It’s the final countdown.’