Often when someone makes a complaint to Trading Standards and no action is taken we often get asked why no action is being taken.
Ultimately the answer comes down to money and paying for staff and associated costs.
The public think it is odd that someone (a business) could commit what appears to be a breach of the law and get away with it. Surely there must be someone who ensures businesses are policed?
A better way of explaining is perhaps asking: what do Trading Standards HAVE to do?
The short answer is nothing.
That means a complaint be made about something which is possibly illegal but there is no requirement for Trading Standards to actually do anything.
Trading Standards departments are a part of the local authority (the council). The amount of staff they have and what their priorities are will be determined by the councillors and managers of the local authority. With almost 200 Trading Standards departments, we have almost 200 different sets of priorities.
Trading Standards enforce hundreds of laws. Many of them put a ‘duty’ on Trading Standards (legally referred to as a ‘weights and measures authority’ (which stems form the fact Trading Standards originally focussed on weights and measures issues)).
However, a ‘duty’ to enforce simply means there is a general duty to enforce the legislation in the local authority’s area. That is not the same as saying there is a duty to investigate and enforce breaches of every single incident/complaint. Furthermore, there is no requirement to investigate any specific complaint or a certain number of complaints. It is basically up to the council and some councils employ just 1 or 2 people in their Trading Standards teams – so clearly they are barely enforcing any of the hundred laws they are supposed to.
If a Trading Standards did not enforce anything to do with a specific law for 2 years, someone could take them to court or something to show the council was failing in its duty to enforce that law but that would take ages and wouldn’t necessarily lead to the local authority then focussing on that type of work. The local authority would likely argue it is up to it to decide what to enforce based on its own priorities. So I do not think there is anyway a member of the public can force a Trading Standards to do anything.
The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of laws Trading Standards have a duty to enforce are not enforced.
There are a couple of things Trading Standards have to do.
They have to have a weights and measures officer (but that person doesn’t have to do any weights or measures work!).
The Food Standards Agency also require the appointment of a ‘lead food officer’ and ‘lead feed officer’ who must be qualified and ensure the local authority is regularly checking compliance with food standards law. But ultimately there is nothing that requires that this work is actually done to any worthwhile (other than a telling off from the FSA or them taking over the work themselves).
In theory therefore, it is possible not to have a Trading Standards department at all. What is happening in reality is that the size of each department is dwindling with some local authorities only having as few as one or two staff. How can two staff enforce hundreds of laws in a large town?
What I would say is that there is a big variation in how different departments operate so I would not want to put you off making a complaint but you need to be aware that very often individual complaints are not investigated. Where I work the vast majority of complaints are not investigated.
Ultimately I feel the only way to get better Trading Standards coverage is if the Government steps in and some puts onus on local councils because it is unlikely councils will improve provision themselves.
One thing I would add is that if Trading Standards did need to look into every complaint we would need a shed loads more staff (hundreds of millions of pounds across the UK).
Update – 16 April 2022
I have noticed that some newer laws say the TS ‘must’ enforce the law within their area’. Clearly this is more onerous than just having a ‘duty’ so it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Note: TS can be a ‘food authority’ and a ‘weights and measures’ authority.