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Trading standards officers have a vital role to play

IN any pub, cafe or hairdresser, the stories can be heard.

The bathroom renovation blighted by sub-standard workmanship, the routine car service resulting in a huge bill for parts that did not need replaced, the internet purchase that never arrived: such consumer war stories are rife, with 1.3m Scots each year believing they have grounds to complain about goods and services they have bought. In the midst of their frustration, at least they are not alone. They can always pick up the phone to trading standards.

For how much longer, though? The Accounts Commission's warning today that local authority trading standards departments are struggling to provide an adequate service due to punishing staffing cuts, has serious implications. Trading standards officers exist to referee business transactions; without them, consumers who cry foul would be left shouting into the wind.

Their numbers have reached such low levels just when the need for them is greatest. At a time of economic hardship, consumers are more likely to risk their money on cheaper but less reliable goods and services; at the same time, internet shopping is on the rise, threatening a whole new world of scams and piftfalls for the unwary. The Accounts Commission points out that low income families and older people - who are frequently targeted by doorstep scammers - are most at risk. The understaffing of food safety services, though not as severe as that of trading standards, is likely to be having a disproportionate affect on older people too, as they are most badly hit by the effects of food poisoning.

A crisis is pending on both of these services. Clearly, priorities must be set by councils managing competing demands but, even in a recession, departments performing essential functions must not be allowed to be depleted to such an extent. In the face of such need, councils must shore up staffing in trading standards and food safety, and do more to maintain levels of expertise in both. Now is the time to re-examine the potential benefits of co-operation between neighbouring local authorities, up to and including mergers between their respective trading standards departments to achieve economies of scale. Having such co-operation between the three Ayrshire, four Lothian or two Lanarkshire councils, for instance, might release funds to help enhance staffing.

Trading standards officers are in the front line of the struggle against the devious, the slapdash and the uncaring: they need better support to do their jobs.

Contextual targeting label: 
Business

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