CONSUMERS face being exploited by rogue traders who will prosper at the expense of legitimate businesses because of Scotland's "broken" system of trading standards enforcement, it has been claimed.
Senior managers and experts say councils no longer have the staff or skills to protect the public from everything from unscrupulous tradesmen to gangster moneylenders.
And new rounds of cutbacks mean that local authorities have lost one in eight of their trading standards staff since a 2013 watchdog report warned the viability of the service was at threat.
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The revelations come in a series of leaked documents obtained as councils, experts and the Scottish Government try to thrash out a new structure for the vital service.
Peter Adamson, deputy chairman of the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland, said the work carried out by its members often went unnoticed but was crucial in protecting customers. Their duties include carrying out spot checks on goods for sale, monitoring measures in licensed premises and investigating rogue traders.
He said: "Failure to maintain the service may go unnoticed for a while; however, in the longer term the criminal and reckless minority of traders will prosper at the expense of consumers and legitimate traders."
Several expert groups, including a government working group on consumer and competition policy, are understood to be close to recommending that councils merge their trading standards units in to sustainable regional services - or even a new national quango.
A position paper from Cosla, the umbrella group for most of Scotland's councils, concedes that such moves are inevitable after a series of reviews.
Written by Fiona Richardson, chief trading standards officer for Scotland, the paper said: "Early indications from these reviews and the Scottish Government Working Group are a move towards reducing the number of trading standards unit.
"There seems a general acceptance that some individual trading standards units no longer have the resources or expertise to fulfill their full range of functions."
Another briefing paper from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute and the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland (SCOTSS) stressed the need for a new approach.
It said: "Both a Cosla group and a Scottish Government expert panel have expressed broad agreement with the principles of the CTSI vision, namely that the current system in Scotland is broken and that there is a need for structural change."
Scotland's public spending watchdog has already warned - as long ago as February 2013 - that the system was in crisis.
Audit Scotland found that the "long-term viability of councils’ trading standards services was under threat".
It added: "Urgent action is needed to strengthen protection for consumers.
"These are small services compared to other council services, spending about £21 million a year, or less than 0.2 per cent of councils’ budgets.
"They have a low profile among councillors and senior managers and have experienced greater than average staff reductions in the last four years."
However, figures from SCOTSS show the service has suffered further cuts since the Audit Scotland warning.
Frontline council units handling everything from rogue traders to gangster moneylenders lost 13 per cent of their staff from 372 in 2012 to 322 in 2014. Of those, the number of qualified trading standards officers fell by 11 per cent, from 165 to 147. That means some councils, sources acknowledge, simply cannot do their jobs.
One local authority, Inverclyde, currently has just two trading standards officer posts, one of which is currently vacant and being filled.
Audit Scotland found 1.3 million Scots felt the need to complain about goods or services - but that 500,000 did not do so or did not pursue an unresolved complaint.
Cosla, in a statement, said: “Trading standards services in Scotland, like many other council services have suffered reductions in recent years, however fortunately nothing like the cuts currently being faced in England and Wales.
"Whilst Cosla is fully aware of the resource issues affecting the service we continue to seek further detail on that from the profession in order that options for the future can be worked up and fed into the various ongoing reviews at a Scottish and UK level, all of which Cosla is actively participating in."