Trading standards is no longer a department on the periphery of local government that nails rogue traders its remit extends from tackling under-age drinking to loan sharks, says Mark Smulian
From foot and mouth to foot in the door, from loan sharks to child alcoholics, trading standards is a slightly obscure part of local government that regularly swings into action to protect the public.
Trading standards has traditionally sat outside the mainstream of councils’ activities, but the advent of local area agreements is changing that fast, and the service thinks it has a lot to contribute to all four LAA ‘blocs’: children and young people, safer and stronger communities, healthier communities and older people, economic development and enterprise. What’s more, officers think their profession could be a fount of good publicity for councils, as rogue traders are nailed, errant retailers corrected and criminals who prey on vulnerable people prosecuted.
Trading standards’ origins lie in medieval inspections of weights and measures. About 5,000 people work in it, with a roughly 60-40% mix of men and women. Its present name evolved in the 1974 local government reorganisation, when the service was given to top-tier councils and had new consumer protection laws, such as the trades descriptions and consumer credit acts, added to its traditional work.
Things have kept being added, including enforcement of animal health regulations and prohibition of alcohol and tobacco sales to under-18s.
Bryan Lewin, head of trading standards at Northamptonshire CC and president of the Trading Standards Institute (TSI), says child protection is a growing area of work.
He explains: “We do prevention of under-age sales of alcohol and tobacco, but there are worse problems such as sales of cigarette lighter refills. They contain butane, which is a bigger killer of children than all the drugs put together, and that puts us at the forefront of the health and anti-social behaviour agendas.”
Butane normally kills by being sniffed, rather than by fire. Trading standards will advise retailers on how to stay within the law, since their objective is “compliance, not to prosecute people”. But sometimes that is not enough, and children must be recruited as mystery shoppers to expose those willing to sell to under-age customers.
“We use volunteers as mystery shoppers, every council has its own methods and most use schools that see this work as part of training in good citizenship for pupils,” Mr Lewin says. “The tide is turning and we are finding underage sales are going down. Retailers recognise it is virtually impossible for a check-out or bar worker to spot by sight if someone is 18, so they are increasingly wanting proof of age.”
Another major concern is rogue traders, in particular those who prey on vulnerable people. These might be cowboy builders, or con artists who demand large sums from elderly residents for unnecessary driveway resurfacing, in what Mr Lewin calls “a particularly nasty scam that targets the housebound”. And fraudsters who offer large earnings potential to homeworkers for an introductory fee which, of course, they abscond with, never to be heard of again.
“There is not a trading standards department in the country that does not have a horror story about someone being ripped off by scams by rogue traders,” Mr Lewin says.
Scambuster’ teams have been set up in parts of the country that work across council boundaries and include members with police and customs backgrounds. They gather intelligence on rogue traders and on crimes like selling counterfeit DVDs and bogusly labelled branded goods. Once a case has been built, officers will go after the culprits, normally with police back-up in case of violence. This can mean all hands to the pump. Mr Lewin had to use almost his entire staff in a recent raid to seize a consignment of furniture that threatened public safety by being flammable.
Worse perhaps are the cases involving loan sharks, not far behind which often lurks actual or threatened blackmail and assaults.
“If someone goes to the police and says they have borrowed£100 and now the person wants£150 paid back, they will send them to trading standards,” Mr Lewin says. “Loan sharking needs thorough investigations by specialist officers to expose these horrendous offences.”
A trading standards service might be valuable, but what is it worth? Leon Livermore, head of trading standards at Cambridgeshire CC, has tried to quantify this as part of his LAA (see box above). He has specialised in fitting trading standards into LAA objectives so that the council and the public can see its contribution.
For example, his indicators on sales of alcohol and tobacco to children looked quite good, but it became apparent that most children did not try to buy these products anyway but relied on supplies from parents or other adults.
“We needed to develop new indicators, and chose a reduction in the numbers of children drunk in public places, and over two years we have managed to see that,” he says. “It helps us to see how our little bit of the worlds fits into to the rest of the council’s work.”
Trading standards can help with environmental objectives too, where officers have realised that public enthusiasm for combating climate change will mean “that the next place the conmen will move to from double glazing is wind turbines, solar panels and so forth”.
Mr Livermore had devised a “slightly off-the-wall idea” under which, to further LAA objectives on both the environment and economy, he will try to get funds to visit China. This is where most of this equipment is made and he will source reputable suppliers. Once that is done, the council would engage a partner to import the equipment and then train people who are long-term unemployed to install it.
“It would be low cost, and homes could be properly retrofitted, possibly under something like ‘trading standards approved’ status,” he says. “Residents would use our service, not cowboys, and we would be training people who need jobs”
This type of innovation is one of the service’s strengths, Mr Livermore explains: “Trading standards can be a powerful tool for change because we can initiate things and experiment it’s not like something going wrong in social care or education if we do something that does not work.”
TSI chief executive Ron Gainsford thinks councils should make more of their trading standards service since it is “one of local government’s few consistently good news stories” in its defence of vulnerable people and exposure of crime and malpractice.
Mr Gainsford says trading standards officers’ typical traits are that “they are investigative, they want to do good, they don’t want to see little old ladies being ripped off, they want to help vulnerable people.
“They need real skills in dealing with business at all levels, it might be a managing director of a large company one day and a used car dealer threatening violence the next.”
Council job advertisements often talk of ‘dealing with people at all levels’. In trading standards they really mean it.
What’s it worth?
With services having to fight their corner in a tight budget round, Cambridgeshire trading standards has tried to show its worth by setting an LAA indicator of a£500,000 annual contribution to the county’s economy.
For example, it provides free food labelling courses, which cost£100 a head if run commercially. If 30 people attend, the benefit to the local economy is£30,000.
If a business joins an approved trader scheme run by trading standards and gains more work because it is seen as trustworthy, the resulting profit would also count towards the target.
Other economic contributions would arise if an inspection of imported goods reveals a safety problem and saves retailers the cost of a product recall.
Down on the farm
When the crises of foot and mouth disease and bluetongue hit the nation’s farms this autumn, it was trading standards that had to enforce restrictions on animal movements once policy had been set by the government’s veterinary service.
Lucy Corrie, Surrey CC trading standards enterprise manager, says a 3km radius protection zone is set around affected sites and a surveillance zone at 10km.
Trading standards also decide which rights of way must be closed.
“We do closure and enforcement activity and work with the police to check on any livestock movements,” she says.
Surrey ran a seven-days-a-week operation during the outbreak, including a helpline for farmers. Ms Corrie says: “There is a team of animal health officers but with something like this we are all involved, and we had support from the districts and neighbouring councils.”