Call to join up trading standards

9 Dec 99
Trading standards departments need to work more closely with each other and with the Office of Fair Trading, according to separate reports from the Audit Commission and the National Audit Office.

10 December 1999

The reports found a wide variation in levels of service provided by trading standards. There was also a reluctance to refer cases to the OFT because of the length of time taken – in one case it took 16 years before a persistent rogue trader could be jailed.

'Things are not joined-up enough – that's the fundamental point. Consumer responsibilities are shared out and so it is particularly important that the different authorities involved work together,' said Steve Frost, NAO audit manager.

Local authority trading standards departments protect consumers from unfair trading, faulty goods and substandard services. They refer cases to the OFT, which can take action under the Fair Trading Act.

But the number of cases referred in 1998/99 fell by 30%, despite a background of rising complaints by consumers. The OFT also rarely refuses or revokes a consumer credit licence.

The Audit Commission said that expenditure by trading standards varied from more than £6 per head of population to under £1. It refused to name the high-spending councils, but CIPFA estimates put Westminster at the top at £6.73 per head, followed closely by Anglesey and Merthyr Tydfil.

'When the commission looks at local government services, ratios of two to one and three to one are common. This [six to one] is a broad range and it is difficult to understand the reasons for it,' said senior manager John Gaughan.

High expenditure did not automatically mean a better service, he suggested. One in 12 trading standards departments provided no consumer advice, while the number of prosecutions and cautions ranged from fewer than one to 26 per 1,000 inspectable premises.

'The level of protection or the way you are treated might appear to be a lottery or a gamble depending on where you are,' he said.

Gaughan commended councils that had approached trading standards collectively. There are currently two examples, with both the London boroughs of Brent and Harrow and the Metropolitan districts of West Yorkshire providing joint services.

'One of the options that should be explored widely as part of Best Value is the question of whether co-operation with other authorities, joint services or getting some services done by other authorities should be considered,' he added.


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