Fraudsters are getting a free pass to prey on the elderly and vulnerable due to dramatic cuts to trading standards budgets, it has been claimed – and things could get worse after Brexit.
Cash for the council-run service, which protects consumers from unfairness and illegal practices, has fallen from £213m in 2009 to £105m this year, with the number of enforcement officers slashed by 56 percent, according to research by the Labour Party.
Experts say it paves the way for rogue traders to peddle fake goods, scams and unsafe products much more easily, as local authorities struggle to keep up with the number of concerns flagged by members of the public.
Enforcement officers have a broad set of responsibilities, from product safety testing and policing plastic carrier bag charges, to ensuring off-licences do not sell alcohol to children.
But Labour’s shadow local government team says they are so overrun with complaints they can no longer launch pro-active investigations, thanks to government cuts to council budgets.
Last year in London alone, 1,350 people reported a business or person to their council’s trading standards department. But this led to just 44 visits and 363 warning letters being sent.
The party’s ‘health check’ report concludes that councils are failing in their statutory duty and that vulnerable and elderly people are in line to be hardest-hit.
Age UK said the report shows scammers can now “act with impunity” while the Chartered Institute of Trading Standards (CITS) told HuffPost UK services are in a “critical condition”.
Craig McClue, CITS’s head of policy, said. “Local government austerity has left trading standards budgets in a parlous state with major repercussions for consumer protection in areas such as tackling counterfeit goods – or making sure our electrical items and toys are safe.”
McClue said trading standards services are vital to protect business and consumer confidence nationally, adding: “This has never been truer as we face an uncertain regulatory future in global markets outside the EU.
“What is particularly worrying is that there is little sign of this situation changing, as more and more burdens are placed on services as the cuts continue.
“The government has ambitions for no less protections for consumers and high regulatory standards post Brexit. This ambition is seriously undermined by cuts that threaten the very existence of key regulatory services such as trading standards.”
Labour’s report says “unsafe” cutbacks mean unscrupulous businesses selling counterfeit goods and marketing scams go unchecked.
It comes as figures show that in 2015, consumers lost an estimated £15bn due to an array of fraudulent schemes, from mass-marketing letter scams to the sale of dodgy electrical goods.
Campaigners have also sounded the alarm over a likely uplift in workload for enforcement teams, with Brexit set to herald a new era of regulation.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said trading standards services play a “crucial policing role” in protecting older people from being “fleeced by scammers” and depleted services left them exposed.
She added: “Given the ageing of our population and the growing sophistication of fraudsters, a well-funded and effective trading standards service is more important than ever in our society.
“Without it, criminals and unscrupulous traders may well feel emboldened, feeling they can act with impunity – a frightening prospect for everyone but for older people above all.”
Andrew Gwynne, shadow local government secretary, said he feared further council cutbacks would worsen the situation.
He told HuffPost: “Government cuts have turned our trading standards departments into a husk of what they once were.
“After Brexit, we need to ensure that our trading standards have the resources they need to ensure that unsafe goods are not allowed to flood the market – but the government continues to cut funding for local authorities, with the funding gap expected to grow to £8bn by 2025.”
A spokesman for the Local Government Association, which represents councils across the country, said trading standards teams “do all they can” to protect older and vulnerable people.
“But with fraud levels increasing, it is extremely difficult to support everybody who needs it,” he added.
“It’s therefore vital that government ensures trading standards services are properly resourced, and stops giving them additional duties on top of their core role of protecting residents and stopping rogue traders.”
The government said it recognised the pressure on councils and that authorities were being handed power to retain business rates to bolster their budgets.
A spokesperson said: “The government’s top priority is to keep people safe, which is why we are providing UK consumers with the highest ever levels of protection, investing £12m each year in the product safety system through the new Office for Product Safety and Standards.
“Funding for trading standards is a matter for local authorities based on local need.”