Call for more consistent approach to consumer protection services
The report of a major review of the trading standards services in Scotland is launched today (15 June). Up to standard: a review of trading standards services in Scotland found a complete lack of consistency in the services offered to consumers and to businesses. It also discovered that there is no effective national system in place to measure the effectiveness of the service and that resources to support trading standards differed enormously across Scotland’s 32 Councils.
The report argues that consumers and businesses should be able to access a consistent service to protect and enforce their rights irrespective of where they live, work or operate in Scotland. In order to achieve that consistency and to secure a sustainable service the Scottish Government and Local Government need to agree a set of key outcomes, based on a risk assessment, which trading standards would be required to deliver.
Once that set of outcomes have been agreed, the review argues that a set of performance indicators need to be put in place to measure the effectiveness of trading standards across the 32 Councils in delivering these outcomes.
Douglas Sinclair, Consumer Focus Scotland’s Chair, who also chaired the review group, said:
'The public in Scotland naturally look to their local council to ensure they are protected and we are concerned that if trading standards is further reduced the enforcement of consumer protection legislation will be put at risk. This would result in more opportunities for rogue traders to flourish and for consumer detriment to increase. In the current financial climate consumers need a strong system to safeguard their rights.'
'In addition to differences in resourcing, we believe that consumers are not well served by the current inconsistency in the handling of consumer enquiries. Most, but not all councils, direct enquiries to Consumer Direct in the first instance. But Consumer Direct is not able to handle complex complaints, which are then passed on to local trading standards services, which differ in the extent to which they will assist consumers. This is clearly not in the consumer interest.
'Our message to the Scottish Government and to local government is that they need to work together to develop a consistent system of consumer protection by focusing on the areas where consumers are at greatest risk.'
Ron Gainsford, Chief Executive of the Trading Standards Institute and a member of the review group, said:
'Trading standards practitioners across Scotland must be applauded in the way they have continued to so successfully fulfil their roles supporting and protecting their communities with resources that have been tightening for many years. The report may not show consumer detriment from the lack of consistency in trading standards delivery in Scotland but consumers and businesses alike will soon start feeling the impact if the Scottish Local Government does not start investing in the service’s future now.
'If it wasn’t for money injections from central Government for specific projects combating for example illegal money lending and illicit tobacco, the trading standards service in Scotland would already be in dire straits. As we anticipate drastic cuts in the budget announcement later this month the Scottish Local Government must start reading the writing that has been on the wall for many years if it is to not only safeguard the standard of protection in its communities, but also achieve the important recommendations from this review.'
Dave Roderick, Chair of the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland (SCOTSS) and Trading Standards Manager for North Lanarkshire Council, who also sat on the review group, added:
'We acknowledge the findings of this review and the challenges facing the service that have been identified. We accept the need for consistency in the delivery of trading standards which accords with our own vision of a framework of authorities delivering excellent, effective services and better outcomes for consumers and businesses.The Society will now work with those other bodies identified in the report in order to work towards developing a sustainable and continuously improving service.'
Consumer Focus Scotland initiated the review after previous research identified significant variation in the way in which trading standards services are delivered across Scotland. It set out to examine if this variation was causing any consumer detriment and to provide constructive proposals for making improvements to the current trading standards landscape in Scotland.
Research into the consumer experience of problems with goods and services and a discussion paper on local regulation and consumer protection have also been published today. All three publications are launched at the Trading Standards Institute Annual Conference at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (15-17 June).
Up to standard: a review of trading standards services in Scotland (PDF 3.14MB opens in a new window) can be found on the Consumer Focus Scotland website
Two other reports,
Cause for Complaint?: How consumers deal with problems with goods and services in Scotland (PDF 303KB opens in a new window) and
a discussion paper on local regulation and the consumer interest (PFD 177MB opens in a new window),
have also been published
Notes to editors
1.Consumer Focus Scotland is rooted in over 30 years of work promoting the interests of consumers, particularly those who experience disadvantage in society. We work for consumers in all aspects of their lives: as tenants, householders, patients, parents, solicitors’ clients, postal service users, energy consumers and as shoppers.
2.In research commissioned by Consumer Focus Scotland, 62% of consumers surveyed were aware of trading standards services, yet only 7% had been in contact with them within the previous 3 years. When given a set of hypothetical scenarios, a large proportion of consumers surveyed reported that they did not know who they would contact for advice if they were attempting to resolve a complaint. Cause for Complaint, How consumers deal with problems with goods and services in Scotland, Consumer Focus Scotland, 2010.
3.The members of the Trading Standards Review Group were: Douglas Sinclair, Consumer Focus Scotland (Chair); David Roderick, SCOTSS; David Thomson, South Ayrshire Council (and formerly SCOTSS); Ron Culley, CoSLA; Sylvia Murray, CoSLA; Colin Mair, Improvement Service; Ron Gainsford, Trading Standards Institute; Harold Meiehofer, Trading Standards Institute (Scotland); Kyla Brand, Office of Fair Trading (Scotland); Mike Coates, Office of Fair Trading; Colin Borland (Federation of Small Businesses); Susan Love, Federation of Small Businesses; Alastair M Brown, Society of Chief Officers of Environmental Health in Scotland; Joe Brown, Scottish Government (Observer Status); Andrew McConnell, Scottish Government (Observer Status); Diane Strachan, Scotland Office (Observer Status)
4.Up to Standard highlights two examples of the types of problems trading standards services investigate in Scotland:
Case study 1: Mephedrone – 'Legal High'
Consumer detriment comes in many forms, and the safety of products is one of the complicated areas in which Trading Standards services work innovatively for the protection of consumers. Few can have missed the recent national furore over the so called ‘legal high’ mephedrone. Reports show young people were widely consuming the drug in dangerous quantities in the mistaken belief that ‘legal’ means ‘safe’. Neither the police nor the Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency had powers which could tackle the problem.
Selling dangerous products is obviously not safe and nor is it legal. One local trading standards service responded when mephedrone was openly being sold by a local trader as 'an invigorating bath salt'. Officers recognised that although mephedrone has no function as a ‘bath salt’ the description meant it could legally be treated as a cosmetic product and must comply with cosmetic labelling requirements for ingredients and manufacturer details. On that basis officers seized the entire stock of the trader’s ‘bath salts’ , thereby protecting consumers by ending the supply of a dangerous drug from one its main sources at a crucial time. As a result the trader faces prosecution under general product safety regulations.
Case Study 2: Car Park Operator
The actions of one trader can very suddenly generate huge consumer detriment. When this occurs Trading Standards need to respond quickly and innovatively using their civil and criminal intervention powers at the right time in the right way. When a disused car park in a Scottish town centre changed overnight from free to chargeable - using CCTV and inadequate signage, the local Trading Standards received over 220 complaints in two weeks via their Consumer Advice and Intervention Centre. As £150 penalty charge notices dropped through unsuspecting consumer’s doors, local press, MP’s MSP’s, hundreds of furious consumers and affected businesses demanded action.
The service acted fast by consulting with the business, advising consumers and arranging an audit of the site using the operator’s own trade body. Armed with evidence that the site was non-compliant, they managed to persuade the DVLA to stop disclosing the keepers’ details therefore stopping the fines. The trader was however, a very well-resourced national operator who responded aggressively. Refusing to budge, they threatened legal action against the Service claiming an orchestrated campaign had developed. Trading Standards utilised their civil interdict powers against unfair terms and contractual breaches.
After a battle which generated a great deal of distress amongst consumers, particularly the elderly who could least afford to pay, the Trading Standards Service forced the trader to concede. Over £23,000 in fines were either refunded or cancelled to the delight of consumers. Affected businesses saw trade return and a relieved landlord was able to remove the car park operator from the site. No other local Service would have been placed to tackle such a multifaceted consumer problem and deliver positive results for local consumers and businesses.
For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Ryan Norton, Communications Manager on 0141 227 1852 or firstname.lastname@example.org
15 June 2010