In England, Scotland and Wales, Trading Standards departments are delivered via local councils. I believe there are around 200 trading standards departments. In Northern Ireland the Trading Standards department is provided by one department.
Do we need a national UK Trading Standards which covers England, Scotland, Wales and NI?
Or maybe one for England, Scotland and Wales?
Or even one for England and Wales and a separate one for Scotland?
In my view, the local council based system we have now is broken and not fit for purpose.
Here are some fundamental problems with the current system,
- Funding has been cut so there are too few officers. The Government says it is up to councils how they spend their money so there is no real monitoring of the overall system because each council cuts by differing amounts and every service differs. Surveys have shown that Trading Standards staff have fallen by over 50% since 2008. We also know that in some areas the Trading Standards have been cut to virtually nothing. In some areas, rogue businesses can operate with freedom.
- There is a post code lottery for consumers and businesses depending on where they live as the service they get can vary depending on which council area they are in. This may mean some laws are not enforced at all in some areas and some services may be chargeable whereas they are free in other areas.
- Trading Standards really are a national service functioning within a local system. So many businesses import from around the world and sell all over the UK. Trade is not restricted to local council areas. Let me give some examples:
- We find an unsafe toy being sold. We find out that it was provided by a distributor in another local council area. If I pass that information on and the local council does nothing, then the system has failed because those unsafe goods will carry on being distributed around the country
- We are asked for advice on food labelling by a manufacturer and we say that in our view the label is not compliant. The manufacturer points out that 3 other competitor businesses are labelling in the same way. If the councils in those other 3 areas refuse to take any action then we end up with inconsistency and businesses that are unfairly disadvantaged.
- Enforcement of the law and the advice we give is patchy. With 200 separate trading standards departments – there is a potential for 200 different interpretations of the law. I recently told a car dealer they could not do something – yet another Trading Standards Officer over the border has told a car dealer in his areas that they can do that exact thing. This is unfair on the business in my area as they have to operate to a different standard as a competitor who is only based a few miles away.
- Trading standards departments need to work together because if some are not functioning properly, then that has an effect on the others.
- Local councillors and senior managers are not really au fait with the work of trading standards – I have met many councillors who have no idea what we do and even some senior managers/directors who directly run our department don’t really know in ins and outs of what we do and why. These people are responsible for setting our budgets and priorities- how can this be acceptable? Many Trading Standards departments are now part of a larger council dept and run by people who have never worked in Trading Standards.
- The system is not set up very well to deal with big companies or emerging trends. Often when there is a new problem or company causing an issue, a lot of time can be wasted trying to work out what to do about it and who will take it on
- Local councils do not have the funds to take on the most complex cases yet at the same time we are being tasked to focus on the most serious cases
Many of these problems have been getting worse over the last few years as budgets have been cut and are quite obvious to see within the system when you are working day to day.
What are the advantages of a local council based system?
- In theory there are officers based all around the UK which means we can quickly get to all areas of the country as needed. If there was a national organisation that had a few central offices, it would restrict access to certain areas.
- Officers have local knowledge of their areas and the businesses within. One downside of going national is that local knowledge could be lost.
- Local councils can focus on local issues. Let us say knife crime is a problem in your area. Your council may wish to spend more money fighting underage sales. So local needs are met.
There are a lot of downsides though – which I have touched upon above. A national organisation could resolve many of these issues.
What are the disadvantages of a national organisation?
- Too much focus on the serious issues which means what may be perceived as less serious is left behind – even though ‘less serious’ can still be important to many consumers/businesses
- Too big and slow to respond – this is a criticism many national regulators already get
- Any move to try and centralise all staff to one or a few buildings (to save money) would be met with resistance. It would also take away one of the advantages that we currently have of having officers throughout the country.
Don’t we already have a National Trading Standards
Just to complicate matters there is already a body called ‘National Trading Standards’ https://www.nationaltradingstandards.uk
The Government give National Trading Standards money. They then fund various people to carry out some types of Trading Standards work. They are not a complete replacement for local Trading Standards (by any stretch). Don’t get me wrong, they do a lot of good work but they only really plug gaps that could be filled by having a proper National Trading Standards organisation.
What about commissioning?
Commissioning is where funding is made available to tack a particular problem or issue.
So for example, the Government gives money to National Trading Standards who currently fund Powys and Bristol Trading Standards to provide an Estate Agent and Letting Agent team. This deals with a particular problem. The National Trading Standards also fund regional investigation teams that deal with complex investigations and so on.
My view is that all of this money should just be given to a new National Trading Standards organisation who can then decide how to spend it and what services to provide. Commissioning just involves a lot of paperwork and delay. For example, if there is a big case we want to investigate, we can ask National Trading Standards for help but there is of course form filling to be done and they won’t necessarily guarantee to cover the cost of the entire case – it is not as easy as saying the money is there and can be used to deal with a complex case- there are lots of potential problems or uncertainties. Whereas if this was all controlled within one organisation, a lot of barriers would be removed.
What is the solution?
My view is that we should have a national organisation that is ‘head office’ which could deal with things like:
- Funding – all funding controlled centrally
- Setting of priorities – so all areas of the countries work to the same priorities. This is not to say certain areas cannot have different priorities if there is a reason (e.g. knife crime in London). Broadly speaking though, one consistent set of priorities is very important
- Interpretation of the law – one place where we can ask legal queries and all officers must follow the opinion given
- Procedures – all our paperwork and procedures are centralised so everyone is working in the same way
- IT/database – shared national database so we all have access to the same information
- HR – recruitment, training and anything else HR related
- Investigation – for very complex investigations, teams of people who can take them on
- Legal – a centralised legal team (the people who take cases to court) – who all operate in the same way.
- Forensics – in house forensics for looking at computers/phones
I would then have say 15-20 ‘regions’ throughout the country – all covering an area of say 2-3m million people. This would be a bit similar to the Ambulance service. This would mean retaining staff in each area. It is also not to say that within each area you could not have more than one office so existing officers can still work in their local area – although I accept that it would be a difficult argument in terms of saving money.
These larger regions could be better placed to deal with the day to day Trading Standards work in their areas and be supported by the ‘head office’ for the more complex issues. Below is a map of how the country could be split. I am not saying this is how it should be done, but it gives an example of the sort of regions we could have.
Will this ever happen? I doubt it. The biggest problem would be funding – it would mean the Government would have to centrally fund the organisation – which could amount to hundreds of millions of pounds.
As of September 2019, we are currently awaiting the government to release a ‘white paper’ to explain how they are going to deal with some of the issues raised in this post.