What is the current state of Trading Standards provision?

Last week, the Daily Mail reported that the National Trading Standards had a backlog of over 300,000 complaints relating to direct mail scams and ‘suckers lists’.  The paper (I have deliberately left off the term ‘news’ considering the standard of said publications content) claimed that NTS were sitting on these complaints and not taking appropriate action.

In truth, there is a significant backlog in dealing with these complaints but I believe that the 300,000 number relates to the total number of items of mail, not the number of complaints.  Several of these pieces of mail relate to a single complaint.

The backlog is a symptom of two things; the significant cuts to trading standards provision at local authorities; and the increased demand on those services.

Originally, direct mail scams were dealt with by the predecessor to the Serious and Organised Crime Agency.  That body also built up a significant backlog in dealing with these complaints.

National Trading Standards Board took over the administration of these complaints when it was created by the coalition government.  The board works closely with the Post Office and organisations like Age UK in monitoring scam direct mail.  When the board receives a complaint from these organisations that an individual is at risk of being conned, the consumer’s local authority trading standards department is supposed to arrange a visit to ensure that they aren’t being fleeced.

Direct mail scams usually involve unsolicited mail asking the householder to participate in a foreign lottery, or to invest in a high risk investment scheme, or to give money to a foreign charity.  When a consumer responds to this type of scam, they will receive a barrage of similar correspondence.  Each of these only asks for a small sum of money but cumulatively they can quickly empty the victim’s bank account.  Worse still, the criminals operating direct mail scams create lists of vulnerable consumers (‘suckers lists’) which are then sold between crime gangs.  This can result in a vulnerable consumer receiving hundreds of direct mail scam correspondence every week.

Accepting that there was a backlog in responding to cases, Leon Livermore, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute issued a press release setting out the following facts.

  1. The National Trading Standards Board has a finite budget only a small part of which is available for direct mail scams investigation.  Of the Board’s £13 million pound budget, £3.5 million is allocated for imported food sampling and for inspections at port authorities.  Another £3.5 million is spent on the English Illegal Money-lending enforcement team. The regional Scambusters teams (which deal with issues such as product counterfeiting and doorstep crime) receives £2.5 million.  The UK intelligence and co-ordination unit receives £1.5 million whilst smaller sums are spent in grants to regional trading standards teams for cross-border investigations. There is very little money left for the investigation of direct mail scams.
  2. Local authority trading standards services have seen resource cuts of over 60% since 2011.  Many local authorities are struggling to meet their statutory obligations and the level of criminal investigation has dropped drastically.  In 2011, the overall budget for trading standards provision in England was £230 million.  In 2016, it was £115 million.  Local authority services have seen redundancy levels of 40%.  The majority of officers made redundant have been at senior level or of officers with years of experience.  To give a measure of how low local authority provision has fallen, you only need to look at the number of food standards samples procured.  In my last job, we took roughly 300 food samples each year.  My old employer managed 41 last year.

For years papers like the Mail and the Express have criticised ‘tin-pot’ regulation and called for a bonfire of legislation.  Yet they are the first to complain when the policies they advocate have resulted in consumer detriment.

Only yesterday, Jacob Rees Mogg, the Conservative MP for the 18th century, called for the UK to have a similar level of standards and regulation to that of India.  That is a government back bencher comparing the level of consumer protection in the UK to that of a developing nation.  I do not think those were the Victorian values John Major was talking about.  It was also a staggering statement given the fact that India currently has a huge problem with dangerous consumer goods and contaminated food.

I have written repeatedly to government asking that it meets its responsibilities in relation to consumer protection and that it ensures that local authorities receive appropriate funding (possibly ring-fenced) to ensure that regulation is appropriately resourced at local authority level.  The only response I get is that local authorities have autonomy in budget allocation.  It appears that our government is absolving itself of its oversight of trading standards provision.

Given the statement of Mr Rees Mogg, it appears our government is determined to drive consumer protection back to the days when children were sent up chimneys and bread contained Alum.  It is simply an untenable position in 2017.