Trading standards: victim of austerity?

What could you buy for £1.99 per year?

According to the workforce survey published by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute in June 2016 this is the average sum per citizen per year available to Local Authority trading standards services to monitor traders to ensure compliance with and enforce consumer protection legislation.

According to the Institute, the total spend on Local Authority trading standard services has fallen to an estimated total of £124 million, down from £213 million seven years ago.

The majority of trading standards offices who participated in the survey consider that budget cuts have had an adverse impact on their ability to properly investigate cases where traders may have breached consumer protection law and in doing so put not only consumers at risk but also gain an unfair competitive advantage against those who comply fully with their legal obligations.

The Institute considers that further challenges lie ahead due to economic uncertainty arising from the recent vote to leave the European Union. The Institute’s Chief Executive, Leon Livermore has said that “outside the EU it is arguably more important than ever that the UK is able to demonstrate high standards and regulatory compliance and consumer protection in order to gain access to key markets”.

In an article in the Guardian newspaper published on 7th August 2016, those involved in the prosecution of businesses deemed to have breached consumer protection legislation speak of “a chilling effect on the willingness of Councils to take on larger, well-funded offenders” through fear of the prosecution failing, giving rise to a liability to pay legal costs.

This would appear to have an impact not only on the number of cases which are pursued but on the nature of such cases, with smaller traders who may lack the resources to mount a robust challenge being targeted for investigation and enforcement action as opposed to well resourced, national businesses.

It is also suggested that the outcome of such investigations may differ markedly to the position a few years ago, with the use of undertakings and cautions being preferred to potentially costly prosecutions.

Given the ongoing uncertainty as to Britain’s relationship with the EU and no imminent sign of a change in direction so far as the Government’s austerity measures are concerned, it is likely that trading standards officers will continue to struggle to provide an effective service – which affords protection to both consumers and responsible businesses alike – for some time to come.

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