Gerry Sutcliffe – 2005 Speech to the Trading Standards Institute Annual Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by the then Trade Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, to the Trading Standards Institute Annual Conference in Brighton on 21st June 2005.

Introduction

They say you can measure your success by the amount of repeat business you get. Since May 5th the country’s invited us back for another term; I’ve been invited back to the DTI to be Consumer Minister again; and now, Ian, you’ve invited me back here.

I hope this means I’m doing something right.

So I want to thank you for inviting me to open this year’s conference for the third time in a row.

Two years ago – Scotland.

Last year – Manchester.

This year – Brighton.

Ian – I can see the pattern you’re developing here. So let me say right now I’ll be happy to carry on moving southwards and accept what’s clearly going to be your invitation for Paris next year. And Rome in 2007.

This week you’re focusing on Delivering the Vision. Vision is very important to us. But so is delivery. And I think it’s clear that our vision, and yours, is of great changes for Trading Standards. These changes should alter the way enforcement is delivered, the way we interact with consumers and business.

Launch of New Strategy

The new strategy underpins what we’ll be doing in the next decade. It sets out a plan for a regime that supports both economic progress and social justice; that protects vulnerable consumers; and which supports markets that are open, competitive and fair, with opportunities for business growth and innovation.

The regime will be based on proportionate, risk-assessed and evidence-based intervention. Instead of regulating and inspecting on a routine all-inclusive basis, we want to see more effort targeted on rogue traders, and a lighter touch for mainstream responsible businesses.

We want to see prosperous, and fair, national and international markets, where both business and consumers can trade with confidence, and where everyone receives a fair deal.

This new strategy sets out our plans to achieve these objectives.

Some quick highlights:

We’ll complete the rollout of Consumer Direct across the whole of Britain within a year.

We’ve already said we accept Hampton’s recommendations. Which means we’ll set up the proposed Consumer and Trading Standards Agency by 2009.

We’ll implement the conclusions of the “Less is More” report on better regulation. Measuring, and then reducing, the administrative burden of regulations.

We want to see less attention paid to, and less effort spent on, routine inspection. In its place, a new priority on tackling the most urgent issues, piloting specialist Scambuster teams at a regional level to crack down on genuine crooks. More coordination and joint working across boundaries. And an additional £1.5 million, to be bid for in 2006/7 and 2007/8, to get these teams going.

We’ll work to improve the performance framework for Trading Standards, rolling out the peer review process.

We want to see an appropriate balance between the rights of consumers and their responsibilities. Protecting the weakest. Helping people to make the right decisions, including rolling out the OFT Consumer Codes Approval scheme, and work like the new TrustMark initiative, launching to consumers this Autumn. For the first time consumers will be able to make an informed choice when finding firms to undertake work on their homes or – through the VBRA’s code approval this year – on their cars. And I want the VBRA’s code to be just the first step to wider commitment by the motor sector.

We’ll implement the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive – introducing a general duty not to trade unfairly. A new, easier to understand basis for consumer protection, with powerful new tools. – Which does not mean an end to criminal sanctions or a drop in the levels of protection.

We’ll work to improve redress for consumers

And we’ll work with the Commission to review consumer law across Europe, with a view to simplifying and modernising

Consumer Direct

Let me start with Consumer Direct, which is at the core of our new vision.

Consumer Direct is here to stay. The future success of both Trading Standards and Consumer Direct depends on cooperation and working together.

So it’s vital that we continue to build on the partnership we’ve developed.

Last year I told you I knew Consumer Direct was going to be a success. Today, I can prove it. Consumer Direct is working. It’s already taken over four hundred thousand calls.

But as we’re often told, size isn’t everything. Quality counts as well. Our satisfaction ratings are outstanding. Some of you will know these already, but survey figures show:

Eighty-four percent of callers satisfied or very satisfied.

Nine in ten saying they would recommend Consumer Direct to others.

And it’s reaching new people. Three quarters of callers said they’d never accessed this sort of advice from any organisation.

Just as importantly, we know Consumer Direct is saving consumers money. Between £150 and £200 each.

We’re well into Wave 2. I’ve launched Consumer Direct in three new regions – the South East, two weeks ago here in Brighton; two days later, the East of England service in Newmarket and last week in London. Next week, the East Midlands.

When all four are up and running – Consumer Direct will cover about three quarters of people in Great Britain.

We’ve only got here because of the hard work and commitment from all of you. Let me thank everyone in Trading Standards for your support and hard work. But in particular I’d like to highlight the work of:

Peter Denard and Clive Bainbridge in the South East.

Ian MacLachlan and Mike Hill, East of England.

In the East Midlands, Richard Hodge and Peter Heafield.

And in London, all involved at the ALG, and Colin Perrins

Eight regions running already. Three more to finalise. I know the West Midlands, North West and North East are making great strides as well. I hope to be signing contracts with all three soon. Now we know the service is delivering real results, we’re not going to hang around. Last year I said we’d be finished by the end of 2006. We’re going to beat that. I want the whole country to have Consumer Direct by Spring next year. And we’ll deliver that, together.

Looking forward – once national rollout’s complete, I’m discussing the OFT taking over the leadership role for Consumer Direct. I’m sure this will be a logical and positive move. It’ll help improve cooperation, build better links, and make the best use of the intelligence the service provides. I recognise the critical role Trading Standards have played in developing and operating Consumer Direct. So do OFT. Both I and John Vickers want you to continue your ownership of Consumer Direct and your partnership with us in taking it forward.

Talking about intelligence – we’ve now got the pilot phase of the central database finalised. We’re training Trading Standards officers across the regions in using the database. I expect this to quickly become a vital tool to support, and help target, enforcement activity.

It’ll change the way you operate. First tier advice is now the province of Consumer Direct. You must meet the challenge of providing second tier advice. You need to be able to react to the complex cases referred from Consumer Direct. You – and other partners like Citizens Advice – need to be able to support the most vulnerable consumers, those that are in greatest need of your expertise.

A fully operational Consumer Direct is at the heart of our new vision. And we see the new Consumer and Trading Standards Agency taking over responsibility for Consumer Direct in due course, as well as drawing on the intelligence it provides to help frame the direction of enforcement activity and inform the work of the Trading Standards service.

Hampton & Consumer and Trading Standards Agency (CTSA)

Philip Hampton’s report on reducing administrative burdens marks a new, more intense focus on regulatory services.

The final Hampton report was published alongside the Budget. It said burdens on business could be reduced by streamlining the regulatory system to have fewer, larger regulators, with which business must interact. We accepted the recommendations, including creating a new CTSA at the centre of Government to co-ordinate work on consumer protection and Trading Standards.

This is a major new step, with implications for all of you here today. We want the CTSA to be a strong, proactive body responding to the needs of consumers and business in the 21st century. It’ll be consumer-focused, but also ensure a fair trading environment for business, to drive competition.

Philip made strong recommendations, and we’ve accepted his report. But he also recommended we consult on this, and we’ll be doing so shortly, seeking views on the structure, powers and role of this body.

Let me give you a flavour.

We already know that Hampton recommended that the CTSA should co-ordinate all aspects of Trading Standards work. This means it’ll cover issues such as fair-trading, product safety and weights and measures. It will not deal with work currently done by the Food Standards Agency, Health and Safety Executive and the proposed Animal Health Agency.

Hampton also said the CTSA should include the consumer enforcement functions currently carried out by the OFT, as well as the National Weights and Measures Laboratory, the British Hallmarking Council and the Hearing Aid Council.

An effective CTSA will meet Hampton’s call for a more coherent enforcement network. As well as its role in consumer enforcement, he said the CTSA should:

Provide strategic leadership to the Trading Standards Service on advice to business

Address consumer education needs; and

Be responsible for a framework of minimum performance standards for you.

We’re already making progress on this. The Audit Commission’s launching a consultation on the comprehensive performance assessment regime for England. For the first time ever, it includes trading standards performance measures. This is something that we’ve lobbied for long and hard, and I’m delighted the Audit Commission have taken it on board.

They’ve included not only BV166, but DTI performance measures 1, 2 and 3. And they’ve included our suggested definitions for minimum standards. These standards are not statutory – they’re not a new burden – but they are a major step forward in making clear what we expect from the trading standards service. The CTSA will build on the work that DTI has begun.

Hampton’s overall objective was to reduce the burdens on business. But setting up the CTSA provides us with an opportunity to ensure additional benefits not just for business, but also for consumers and government.

Arculus

Alongside Hampton, we’ll adopt the 8 recommendations in the “Less is More” report. Following the Dutch approach to reducing the administrative burden of regulation and its cost – first measuring the burden, then setting a target to reduce it. Applying a “One In, One Out” approach to new regulation. And a commitment from us to simplifying or removing complex, burdensome regulation.

Retail Enforcement Pilot

This and Hampton show the importance we attach to better regulation. We’re going to put our money where our mouth is. So I’m delighted to announce a scheme being piloted in Warwickshire and Bexley. This coordinates approaches by – and from – multiple agencies; sets up a model to pilot new methods of risk assessment; and provides a new feedback mechanism for companies, which will help rank both business and authorities.

The pilot moves away from inspection and towards advice and education for the business community. We all want more compliant businesses. If we get better at telling them upfront what they have got to do, how they should do it and what help they can get, then we’ll go a long way to helping.

And the pilot establishes a new mechanism for resolving conflicting requirements within and between authorities.

Gerry Murphy from Kingfisher will be talking about this in more detail later this morning, so I won’t steal his thunder. But this Retail Enforcement Pilot is one example of how we can deliver substantive benefits in line with the Hampton recommendations.

Legislation

On the legislative front, we’ll be bringing in the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive – a general duty not to trade unfairly.

I know this has caused, and is causing, concern for some of you. So I want to spell out again why we support it. And I want to knock a few myths on the head.

We support the Directive because it will introduce safety-net legislation – a “general duty” – requiring traders not to treat consumers unfairly.

It will fill gaps in our existing legislation and set standards to judge new practices. Simply put, it will give us stronger legislative tools for preventing consumer harm.

Take the conmen who evade the timeshare legislation by moving into holiday clubs – same unfair practice, but a slightly different product. Suddenly timeshare legislation doesn’t apply. A general duty would have helped prevent that.

Filling those gaps is a good thing – as experience around the world shows. Bringing this Directive in will help us meet our target. And it’ll help you protect the people most in need.

There’s a lot of discussion about this Directive and what it means. And there’s a lot of misinformation out there. So I’m going to be blunt:

People say this will mean an end to criminal sanctions. Nonsense.

That it’ll be impossible to enforce. Nonsense.

Less protection for vulnerable people. Nonsense.

There’s a lot of detail I can’t cover here. But for those interested – my team will be holding a mini-theatre this afternoon.

We’re also carefully considering the responses to last year’s consultation on doorstep selling. This is heavily linked to both the Directive and to aspects of the Consumer Strategy. We expect to make an announcement on our chosen way forward in the near future.

There are many other aspects to our work – particularly credit, and progress on weights & measures and the General Product Safety Directive. They’ll all be covered at mini theatre sessions on Thursday, so I’ll just say a few words on each:

Reviewing W&M

On weights and measures, we’re continuing to progress our commitment to simplify the regulations. On food, the current priority is responding to the Commission’s proposals on specified quantities. Our stakeholders want UK legislation to await the clarification of the relevant European requirements – and of course we’ll be guided by that. But we’ll shortly be publishing consultative drafts of new regulations to simplify the weights and measures requirements on packaged goods. Good for business, we think. And less of a burden for you.

GPSD

On GPSD, we consulted on draft Regulations earlier this year.

Your responses have helped us fine-tune them in some areas, but the balance of views from the enforcement community, consumer groups and business suggested that our proposed approach was broadly right.

I know that some of you aren’t convinced of the need for the advisory scheme we’re introducing for recall cases. But business argued strongly for a safeguard and this represents the lightest touch possible.

The legislation emphasises the importance of business voluntarily notifying safety problems and taking action itself to remove risks to consumers as an alternative to formal enforcement activity. Business will need to know about its new responsibilities. And we’ll work with you to make sure the message gets across.

Consumer Credit

The Consumer Credit Bill just missed out from getting Royal Assent in the last parliament – due to the PM calling a General Election. But I am very pleased to have been able to re-introduce it so early in this new parliament. It’s now making good progress, and I hope to see it through the Commons by summer. The reforms in the Bill will ensure that consumers are better protected in the credit market.

We’re making great progress on the commitments in the White Paper on wider credit issues, including new legislation to establish a transparent market, shaping the European agenda

through the Consumer Credit Directive, and taking forward work on tackling over indebtedness.

All of this will help consumers understand their credit situation, manage their commitments more effectively, and help vulnerable consumers avoid the dangers of over-indebtedness.

Conclusion

I hope all of this reinforces our commitment to supporting the work that you do and the issues you care about. And our commitment to protecting the weakest and most vulnerable. But let me come back to what I said earlier – the way we all work needs to change.

A greater emphasis on joined up-ness . All of us working more closely together; across authorities; with other enforcers; and with us. With the CTSA coordinating, prioritising and spreading best practice.

More focus on intelligence-led work – cracking down on the worst rogues and the hardest-to-beat scams, drawing on evidence from Consumer Direct and other sources.

Less routine inspection and more help for business. Working for consumers. Promoting competitive markets. And ensuring a fair trading environment, fit for the 21st century.

Let me be clear here. For the first time in a generation, Hampton means you’re right in the spotlight. I want us all to work together to deliver this new vision. Let’s get it right.

Finally, I couldn’t let Judith go without paying tribute to her leadership. The Institute has been blessed with some wonderful Presidents – Lord Ezra; Lord Borrie; and then Baroness Wilcox took the helm. I’ve seen first hand the drive and passion that Judith has given the Institute and all matters Trading Standards.

The time has come for her to hand on her role and responsibilities to a new President. Judith and her predecessors are a hard act to follow. – But I am sure Lord Garden will relish the opportunity.

Tim, you arrive at the TSI and the Trading Standards arena at a fascinating time. I’m sure I will be seeing a lot of you and I wish you and the Institute every success as we move ahead.