In my last post I highlighted the areas of work Trading Standards are involved in but in this post I am going to discuss what the purpose of a Trading Standards department is.
This is an important issue for two reasons
1) With budgets being cut all over the place, Trading Standards departments need to identify how they are going to spend their limited budgets and identify their priorities.
2) If you know the answer to this question then you can gain a better understanding why a particular department may be operating in a particular way.
I think the easiest way to look at it is in the purely legal sense, and I would summarise that as:
Trading Standards exist to enforce the laws that they have a duty to enforce.
What this means is that a number of laws have been created and they say that the duty is on Trading Standards/the council to enforce that law. By enforcing that law, Trading Standards/the council are doing something that will in some way benefit members of the public.
It is worth pointing out that most pieces of legislation put a duty on Trading Standards (the weights and measures authority) to enforce the legislation in their area but they don’t say that action has to be taken on every single issue that comes to light. It is up to the Trading Standards department to decide which areas of law it wants to focus its resources on.
The most important thing to take from the above is that there is no legal duty on Trading Standards to help any individual consumer as there is no law that says we have to. So whilst we have a duty to enforce the laws that stop traders from selling clocked cars – there is no duty on us to help any consumer who has bought a clocked car and needs advice or assistance. Practically speaking of course, we need witnesses and evidence, so if we need to contact a consumer for information we will normally assist them as best we can.
Likewise, we can prosecute a business for not complying with the law – but there is no legal onus on us to provide friendly advice in order to prevent the law being broken in the first place. Trading Standards can charge businesses for advice and many departments are now doing so. It is of course worth pointing out the duty to comply with the law lies with the business – and they can access legal advice from the private sector.
So in theory your local Trading Standards can focus all of its resources on enforcing the law and only have contact with consumers/businesses when discharging its duty in enforcing the law.
In my previous post I mentioned all of the voluntary services that Trading Standards provide – these services can actually make up a large proportion of a departments work. They are provided for a variety of reasons – for example, advice is given to businesses in order to get them to comply first time without having to spend more time and effort trying to get them to put right something they are doing wrong.
In terms of providing consumer advice – it is a no brainer – most members of the public expect Trading Standards to provide assistance when they have a problem (even though there is no legal duty to do so as I have mentioned). Many departments are now moving away from providing advice or assistance to consumers.
Many of the voluntary services are provided because the department thinks they are needed or because the local authority wants to provide them (possibly at a level higher than the Trading Standards department – i.e. councillors). For example, Approved Trader Schemes are a good way of engaging with local businesses.
Therefore, some might say the purpose of a Trading Standards department is to protect consumers, or to help business comply with the law. Whichever stance you take may well influence the way in which you would allocate your resources.
To sum up – there is a minimum a Trading Standards can get away with doing – only enforcing the law, but many departments will voluntarily provide extra services in order to serve their residents. Of course for every voluntary service provided, there is less money for enforcement – so it is a question of finding the right balance.