Is Public Safety Being Compromised by Budget Cuts in Local Authority Trading Standards?

John Raine, Professor of Management in Criminal Justice

Some of the most severe effects of financial austerity of recent years have been borne by local authority trading standards departments.  In a recent survey of such departments, and out of a sample of sixty-one respondents, ten reported having experienced budgets cuts of more than a third in the past four years, and one by more than 50%.  Almost all departments have shed staff by significant margins, and most now operate with less than half as many people as they employed a decade or so ago.  And it seems that more cuts are yet to come.

Of course these are hard times for the public sector as a whole and for almost every department and agency involved.  But how fair and sensible have been the cuts to trading standards departments?  To what extent might their apparent severity reflect the perceived lesser priority, smaller scale or lower public profile of trading standards compared with, say, children’s services, adult social care, highways and other such functions of local government.  Or to what extent are the large-scale cuts simply indicative of more limited understanding among councillor decision-making bodies of the nature and value of trading standards work?  Indeed, how well-informed and how carefully justified have the budget cut decisions that have already been taken?  Most important, to what extent were they based on an appreciation of the actual and potential impact on public safety and protection?

Earlier this year, a team of three from INLOGOV completed a major research commission for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) examining these questions.  From that research three key findings and conclusions seem especially relevant here.

A weakened public profile

Too few members of the public are aware of the existence of local authority trading standards departments, let alone of the specific functions and roles undertaken within them.  Whatever public image does persist about trading standards, it is surely dominated by traditional perceptions about ‘weights and measures’; of inspectors checking the accuracy of the pumps on the garage forecourts, of the green grocer’s scales and of the accuracy and clarity of content descriptions and sell-by dates on foods products on the supermarket shelves.  But in reality this is just a small part of the contemporary portfolio of activities under the banner of ‘trading standards’.

In the past, the local trading standards department was the place where consumers often took their problems and complaints to seek advice and assistance in gaining redress from traders with whom they were dissatisfied.  But these days that first line point of call for consumer complaints has moved from local authorities to a nationally-established Citizens’ Advice Consumer Service (CACS).  Only if an individual case is subsequently referred to the local trading standards department by CACS might a member of the public come into contact with their local trading standards officers – so inevitably the profile and significance in the public consciousness of the function will have been much reduced.

At the same time, many other proactive and community-oriented/public protection-type initiatives of trading standards departments, such as the designation and regulation of Cold Calling Control Zones (to deter rogue traders and doorstep crime), and the operation of Trusted Traders/Buy with Confidence schemes (i.e. producing lists of local ‘approved’ builders for housing repairs or of recognised second hand car dealers) tend not to be as widely publicised or promoted as they might.

Furthermore, the development since 2000 of cabinet and executive governance structures in local authorities, and the move to fewer but larger service directorates, has also served to lower the profile of trading standards and to distance the work from most councillors.  This is because the function now tends to be located in conjunction with a wider set of functions such as public health or regulatory services as a whole, and trading standards departments no longer report to their own particular committee.  They are similarly that much more removed from the key political and corporate arenas where budget decision-making takes place, and chief trading standards officers, who are typically now third tier appointees, probably have less influence in such decision-making settings too.

Insufficient Commitment to Collaborative Working

Trading standards departments are generally more involved in partnership-working than in the past – several now operating with shared service arrangements with near neighbours; all doing more together at regional levels; and most also working in closer collaboration with the police and other regulatory agencies.  However, there remains much unexploited scope for addressing the budgetary pressures through more sharing of resources and joint working.  This is particularly the case in relation to activities that require expensive equipment or extensive space requirements (e.g. metrology equipment and other laboratory testing work).  Reluctance to surrender control (for good and less good reasons, and whether on the part of the local politicians or by officials), has been a key obstacle to more sharing of services or other collaborations, and indeed to more efficient and effective working.  Most departments, as a result, are now operating with very limited resilience, doing what they can to maintain standards and enforce compliance, but with their limited resources spread very thinly indeed.

The work of most departments these days is also now more reactive than proactive in nature – driven particularly by intelligence reports and complaints rather than, as in the past, by schedules of planned inspections to monitor and enforce standards.  Inevitably this must have increased the risks of safety problems and other non-compliance issues arising, and of potential detriment and harm to consumers.  However, hard evidence as to the extent of such effects was found in the research to be mostly anecdotal or intuitive.

A Paucity of Outcome and Impact Data

More than anything, the research has highlighted the paucity of quantitative data available by which to understand the current outcomes and impact of trading standards interventions and particularly the effects of local authority budget cuts in these respects.  While there is mostly good information on the financial value of remedies achieved through trading standards officer interventions on behalf of complainants, the research found little available data on the non-financial benefits of trading standards work.  Furthermore still less was apparent on the value of proactive and preventative activity, for instance, the work to enforce the law on under-age sales, to deter doorstep crime, and to identify and pursue non-compliant trading via Facebook and other web-sites.  For sure, the task of devising measures of outcomes and impact represents a considerable challenge; especially so in relation to potential problems (i.e. ones that have not actually arisen because of the proactivity of trading standards officers).  However, a key recommendation from the research is for a national project to be undertaken to develop an appropriate framework of quantitative outcome measures and of more qualitative impact indicators.  The argument for this is simple enough.  Only through the compilation and presentation of such information can trading standards departments reasonably justify their current budgets and resist the pressure further cuts.  Who knows?  With better outcome and impact data, perhaps some budget restoration might be a reasonable expectation.

Research Report ‘The Impact of Local Authority Trading Standards in Challenging Times’ by John Raine, Catherine Mangan and Peter Watt, INLOGOV, University of Birmingham, was published in March 2015 jointly by BIS and TSI and can be downloaded at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/local-authority-trading-standards-a-review

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John Raine has been an academic member of staff at the Institute of Local Government Studies since 1979, during which time he has served two terms as Director as well as Director of Postgraduate Research, and Director of Postgraduate Studies. He was founder director of the University’s brand-leading Public Service MBA programme and of the MSc in Public Management.

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