If you were in business and a trading standards officer came knocking, what would you do? “Invite them in and put the kettle on,” said Dave Belmont, of Acorn Stairlifts, West Yorkshire. “There’s a perception that if your business has dealings with trading standards it has a problem, but in our case the exact opposite is true.”
Acorn supplies its stairlifts mainly through direct sales to predominantly elderly consumers. For the past four years, Acorn. has had a primary authority relationship with West Yorkshire trading standards, who provide at-cost advice. The company says that their business-friendly advice is a factor behind its success at home and abroad. In the past four years sales have tripled in the US and doubled worldwide, exporting to 80 countries and helping to develop a UK manufacturing base that today employs 800. Turnover is almost £150m.
Mr Belmont said: “Having a secure home market and assured advice helps us in a number of ways. We find we are already compliant with overseas requirements and this puts us ahead of our competitors. “Our trading standards endorsement has helped us gain many accreditations in the past twelve months which has increased consumer confidence in our business and which in turn has resulted in higher sales.”
Ideal Foods, a sea-foods wholesaler, in Cornwall, needed urgent UK trading standards support after the Vietnam government changed its import procedures, overnight. A £1.5m contract and 150 jobs were at risk and with no central government support forthcoming the firm turned to Cornwall Council’s trading standards team.
Within a couple of no-doubt frantic weeks, the council helped Ideal overcome Vietnam’s new regulatory burdens by creating an export template for its supply chain. Lauren Horner, the firm’s technical manager, said at the time that she was more than grateful to officers for being able to offer such a good service locally and for their help when others were unable to assist.
Buckinghamshire and Surrey trading standards has been supporting Everyone Active in its successful bid to gain gold status for its cafes in the Eat Out, Eat Well awards. The leisure firm, with a £106m turnover, benefits from a primary authority relationship with one single trading standards team which has been training some of the managers of its 115 UK facilities.
“Most sites could only achieve silver due to not attending a nutrition course, this was the next simple step we took within the partnership,” said Andy Coupe, the firm’s head of food and beverage. If diets matched national nutritional guidelines it is estimated 70,000 UK deaths per year could be prevented with the health benefits valued at £20 billion each year.
Trading standards support, and especially primary authority, is of great value to business just as regulatory failures are a huge cost, as the following examples show.
– Stockport trading standards supported a car dealership that was generating excessive complaints. After reviewing procedures and analysing complaints sales increased by 26% and complaints reduced by 25%. The firm has opened another branch and turnover is £16m
– An initiative between North Yorkshire trading standards and a fireworks manufacture led to greater levels of storage compliance across a supermarket chain. Stores requiring remedial action fell from 20% to 6%.
– Northamptonshire trading standards helped a builders merchant review its testing procedures. £8m in noncompliant products destined for the construction industry were identified.
– Nottinghamshire trading standards helped an animal feed producer comply with both domestic and international markets. In the USA alone the firm requires 50 different licences and registrations.
– Just before Easter £1m worth of chocolate was saved thanks to Derbyshire trading standards. Tests showed it was within acceptable limits and third-party concerns over contamination were unfounded.
– The VW diesel emissions scandal cost the German firm £12.7bn and meant they crashed to an annual net loss of £4.3bn in 2015.
– Last year, trading standards intercepted £26.1m of defective hoverboards at UK ports and borders. A voluntary recall is believed to have cost retailers even more.
– Horsemeat testing costs Tesco up to £2m a year and the scandal wiped £300m off its value.
– Online ticket fraud cost consumers £5.2m, last year, a quarter of the tickets were for the Rugby World Cup and the Premier League.
The changing face of regulatory services
Chris Fay, editor-in-chief of trade journal TS Review, looks at the challenges.
More than half of businesses have said that their only contact with their local council is through regulatory services and both parties must increasingly consider these visits as an opportunity. As councils move toward near total reliance on business rates retention, they will be required to demonstrate added value to businesses and compete with each other. Vital public services will depend on it.
Economic development is not a statutory local authority duty but regulatory services are, and councils must use the talents and skills of their trading standards team as part of their business offer.
As the examples on these pages show, trading standards is a business enabler. It helps businesses understand their obligations and improve customer service while protecting the vulnerable from the unscrupulous and safeguarding public health.
Devon and Somerset trading standards is one service that is ahead of the game and has taken this concept to its logical conclusion, training its trading standards officers to become business support mentors too. The scheme, believed to be the first of its type in the UK, is being rolled out to all 19 local authorities in the Devon and Somerset Better Business for All partnership. These partnerships encourage local authority regulators to work with local businesses to understand the support and advice they want.
Tim Milsom, business support lead at Devon and Somerset said: “In essence, we are using our existing workforce that carries out over 60,000 business contacts a year to deliver business mentoring.” The model is an extension of the primary authority arrangement offered by many local authorities. It allows firms to tap into trading standards support, at cost.
Trading standards support is particularly vital for smaller businesses, who can struggle to pay the high prices for solicitors and consultants hired by larger retailers and manufacturers. Unfortunately the unsustainable trajectory of trading standards, which has nationally seen staffing levels drop by half in the last five years, is decimating the capacity for councils to provide this support and facilitate economic growth.
For the second year running, the Local Government Chronicle confidence survey indicated that trading standards was one of the least likely services to be protected from cuts, despite their increasing importance to local agendas. Meanwhile, the Local Government Association has said that there needs to be honesty about what trading standards services can achieve and many in the profession agree. A move to larger, fewer services would deliver better results for both consumers and businesses.
Melissa Dring, director of policy at CTSI, said it was time for the government to provide clear leadership to councils through the forthcoming Cutting Red Tape Review. She said: “The review is an opportunity to reshape and rationalise the legislative framework for local authority regulators and make it fit for the 21st century. “But it is vital that the government acknowledges the important role which local authorities play in supporting legitimate businesses and creating the conditions for economic growth.”