“I would never let my children work in Trading Standards.” That was what an experienced Trading Standards Officer told me during my first week in the profession back in 2008. I was attending a South London product safety meeting and the officer mistook me for someone on work experience, and they hadn’t clocked on that I was actually a new Trading Standards Officer.
Having worked in consumer advice at the Government’s short-lived but generally well-received consumer advice service, Consumer Direct, in 2008 I was finally able to get out and about enforcing consumer protection legislation, rather than just advising consumers about it all the time.
In 2008 the profession was facing a very difficult time. Due to central Government austerity measures, local government budgets were slashed, and Trading Standards in particular felt the worst of the cuts. Almost overnight, large well-funded services of 20 or so team members went down to just a handful of officers.
All the added extras of Trading Standards – consumer advice, routine inspections, school visits – seemed to stop. We went from being an essential service with boots on the ground to trying the new practice of ‘desktop enforcement’. No longer were there boots on the ground, gathering intelligence from retailers and consumers. It was disheartening to see big backlogs of complaints on yellow sheets of paper (we were still very much paper-based then).
Due to job-sharing and part-time contracts, one particular London Borough ended up with just half a Trading Standards Officer. Local government budget holders found out that a local council just has to have a ‘weights and measures inspector’, which sadly meant that the red pen of cuts went through the Trading Standards budget lines.
In 2015 I managed to land my first management role in Trading Standards, when I became responsible for a team of Trading Standards and Food Safety Officers. Things hadn’t got much better in that time and the average training budget I had per officer was £100 for the whole year. This wasn’t enough to cover the fare and accommodation for Conference.
It sounded all doom and gloom, but Trading Standards Officers are very resilient and able to cope with crises well. Training providers started putting on free or heavily discounted training courses, and Trading Standards services were very open and helpful with each other. For example at the London Borough of Redbridge we were plagued with doorstep callers, as we were a large, affluent borough. Our inner-city neighbouring boroughs didn’t get the volume of doorstep crime complaints we received, but had the odd complaint. We were able to mentor and coach them through investigations, and in return they shared their expertise around cosmetics enforcements.
In 2021 I joined the British Retail Consortium (BRC) as a Policy Advisor for retail products. In this role I help household name retailers sell safe and compliant non-food products. The younger me may have been cynical about this role, but I can honestly say that retailers do want to get things right.
Non-compliance and enforcement challenges from Trading Standards cost businesses significant time and resources. This comes in addition to the many obstacles that retailers are facing at the moment.
In the last few years retailers have had to deal with COVID recovery; like every part of life, the retail sector had to almost shut down overnight. Communities depend on retail for food, products, jobs and taxes, meaning that retail closures would have had a significant impact on communities. The BRC lobbied hard to keep supermarkets and other retailers within the ‘essential’ classification in order to remain open.
Due to COVID shutdowns in the Far East and other manufacturing bases, retailers experienced supply chain problems and a shortage of products. Particularly affected were garden and gardening equipment, camping and outdoor equipment and anything containing microchips.
Retailers have also beenhit hard by the energy cost crisis; they often have large stores, warehouses and distribution centres, all of which require heating, lighting etc. The same costs that we’ve all experienced on our own energy bills have also affected retailers.
Likewise, retailers have had to increase their costs due to increased prices of raw materials and distribution during the cost-of-living crisis.
And as a result of Brexit, there continues to be a lack of clarity around compliance for products that are supplied in both the EU and UK. For example, for products for sale in Northern Ireland and the UK, can retailers use EU or UK labelling?
Retailers view Trading Standards very favourably. Most BRC members have a well-established Primary Authority relationship with their local Trading Standards service. I’m pleased to say that I very rarely hear a bad word against Trading Standards!
Like the Trading Standards profession, retailers have substantial concerns about illegal vapes. Although the BRC doesn’t get involved in the health debate around vapes, we are aware that our members sell the majority of vapes in the UK. We know that on occasion, non-compliant devices have entered legitimate retailers’ supply chains, a problem which they are working hard to resolve. And like Trading Standards, retailers see the effects that illegal and illicit products have on the high street. After all, we are after a level playing field for retailers, where those that break the law are dealt with appropriately.
By working alongside one another and sharing information and resources, Trading Standards and legitimate retailers can make the UK a safer, more prosperous place for everybody.