Trading Standards prepares for cuts

Posted on March 8, 2011 in Journalism

Across the country, trading standards services are preparing for next year’s budget cuts – wondering how to spread ever-thinner resources, and what will be the impact on consumers. Some of the answers are greater risk assessment and prioritisation of activities, but staff and projects will also be lost in this austerity drive.

Take Somerset, a service that expects cuts of £230,000 out of its £1.2m budget. “The lower end of our risk assessments won’t get attention – or will have to be done in different ways”, says Paul Clarke, group manager for Trading Standards.

TS Today, March 2011

Criminal investigations will carry on, he says, but individual complaints from the general public won’t now be done. Also affected will be pro-active business advice, such as advisory seminars to farmers, and inspections and under-age sales test purchasing. “We just won’t have the officers to carry it out,” says Clarke.

He is apprehensive of the consequences. The farmer services are well received and won a national RSPCA Innovator Award for animal welfare, but are to be reduced by around 50%. “There are implications for disease control and welfare of farm animals,” he admits.

Another worry is that the income his team used to receive for work it did for DeFRA will in future go to the council’s central coffers. Clarke is uncertain – or won’t be drawn – as to whether or not it will be passed on. “That’s something for the future”, he says.

Across councils, general advice and guidance is also under threat. “Local authorities aren’t being funded to provide free advice and guidance,” says Clive Cain, Bexley’s head of public protection. “And it’s hard, when you have worked in a service to support the general public, to then turn round and say that it’s not something we do.”

One project going to end is their ‘What Tradesman’ Scheme. “It’s unfortunate, as it’s a useful system, but it is going to suffer,” says Cain. But he has mixed views of its impact. On the one hand people will be able to find the information from elsewhere – such as other councils and trade organisations. But on the other, he says: “It leaves those that can’t afford a solicitor exposed and vulnerable.”

UNISON has expressed its concern. With some Trading Standards facing job cuts of up to 50%, says UNISON’s General Secretary, Dave Prentis, there is no way services can continue to protect consumers and hold businesses to account. “Standards will slip and vulnerable consumers, including the elderly, will be far more exposed to the likes of cowboy builders and rogue traders,” he concludes.

He also warns that fewer checks on underage sales of alcohol, knives, cigarettes and solvents will have an impact on anti-social behaviour.

Gloucestershire appears to facing particularly savage cuts, with the service due to lose 13 out of its 46 FTEs, as well as planning to save money on moving premises. “We are not going to stop doing anything, but there will be less surveillance,” says Will Windsor-Clive (CON), the county council’s cabinet member for Community Safety and Youth. He predicts there will be fewer checks on premises, petrol stations and weighbridge sites. And he says specific projects won’t continue – unless there is government money for them.

But he defends the scale of Gloucestershire’s cuts – on two grounds. He says an equality impact assessment will ensure reductions don’t adversely affect particular sectors. “We are going to protect the vulnerable,” he insists. And he queries whether some trading activities are really necessary.

“It’s always a matter of opinion how much we should do – and someone will always say we are not doing enough,” he says. “But there are a lot of things that we don’t need to do – ‘Gilding the lilly’, ‘box-ticking checks’, where one might expect everything to be right.”

“I am sorry, but given a budget officers will spend it,” he says. “In my opinion we are making some positive savings, but still leaving a positive and pro-active service.”

It is a slightly more positive story elsewhere. Surrey’s Trading Standards has to find a minimum 4% savings – and possibly more after a comprehensive review. “It’s difficult to see how services won’t be affected, says Peter Denard, the head of service. But the service has made good attempts at maximising its income from elsewhere.

It hopes to become a ‘primary authority’ – to develop a chargeable contract and fees for working for national companies, such as Kerry Foods Ltd, that are based in the county. It also plans to introduce charges for non-basic business advice, at around £60-£70 per hour.

And in a move hoped to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of regulatory services across the county, it is to manage the environmental health service of one of Surrey’s district councils – and is talking to others about the same.

There is also some good news in Bexley, where the service, despite the loss of two staff to early retirement, has managed to beef up and strengthen its role by working more closely with other council departments.

By way of example, it has trained up one its officers to become an accredited financial investigator, and she is now training other departments’ staff and helping them with their own investigations, eg tracking the proceeds of crime.

It has also got involved in Crime and Disorder, and will shortly be taking on the roles of licensing inspector and protecting children from harm. “It’s a reflection of how effective the service has been at reducing under age drinking through test purchasing,” says Clive Cain, the head of public protection. The latter, he says, has helped improved relations with the local police. “It helps open doors and oils the wheels on other issues – we are getting prompt responses [from the police] to instances reported to us.”

What of the proposal that Trading Standards services take on enforcement work of the OFT, such as prosecution of nationwide scams? All those interviewed were highly sceptical. “I don’t see how trading standards can take it on unless they get the resources – and I don’t see that happening,” said Mr Cain.

© Robert Bullard. Not for reproduction without prior permission