Trading standards viability 'under threat' from cuts

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Media captionScottish consumers spend about £56bn a year

The long-term viability of trading standards operations is under threat, according to the Accounts Commission.

It said services, which are run by Scotland's 32 local authorities, had seen deeper job cuts than other departments.

Trading standards offer the public help and advice on areas including fraud and consumer rights.

The council umbrella body Cosla said it was looking at more efficient ways of working.

Chairman of the Accounts Commission John Baillie said: "We're currently living in a period of economic hardship - the very time consumers most need protection and help. The longer-term threat to these vital services is worrying.

"Councils are having to cope with severe financial pressures on all fronts and so they need to work together to find radical new ways of delivering these services and establish national standards.

"They should do this as a matter of urgency before it's too late and they can no longer prevent risks to consumers."

He added: "We last reported on these issues a decade ago and things now appear worse than they were then."

The report highlighted spending on trading standards, as well as food and environmental safety services was just £21m a year, or less than 0.2% of councils' budgets.

A Scottish government spokesman said it welcomed the "robust and valuable report from Audit Scotland, given the importance of providing consumers across Scotland with information, advice and support."

He continued: "We recognise both the work that Cosla and councils are doing currently to improve co-ordination but also the scope for better integration.

"The Scottish government believes that the best interests of consumers in Scotland would be delivered through transfer of consumer protection powers to the Scottish Parliament."

'Urgent action'

The Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland (REHIS), the professional body for environmental health and food safety officers in Scotland, said the numbers working in the profession had fallen by 16% in the past four years.

Image caption Unison's said horse meat found in burgers showed the importance of independent inspections

Tom Bell, chief executive of REHIS, said they believed the report "could have gone further and examined environmental health protection as a whole".

He added: "The report rightly points out what REHIS has been highlighting for some time now - the under resourcing of environmental health services, poor succession planning and lack of training places."

Dave Watson, head of bargaining and campaigns for Unison, said: "Our members working in trading standards and food safety, within environmental health departments, tell us about many of the concerns noted in this report.

"For Audit Scotland to find that 'the long-term viability of councils' trading standards services is under threat' and to raise concerns about food safety staffing and training levels and loss of expertise demonstrates the seriousness of issues we have raised consistently."

Regulation call

Scottish Labour's Sarah Boyack said: "Urgent action is required to reverse this decline and to ensure that consumers across Scotland can access the same support.

"That means a more co-ordinated approach from councils with leadership from the Scottish and UK governments to implement the report's recommendations.

"This report should be a wake-up call for this SNP government on consumer protection in Scotland."

The report also drew reaction from the business community. Colin Borland, the head of external affairs in Scotland for the Federation of Small Businesses, said: "A lack of national priorities, standards and reporting means that consumers aren't protected, while businesses are getting an inconsistent and confusing service."

Mr Borland said the upcoming Better Regulation Bill was an opportunity to address Scotland's "haphazard approach" to business regulation.

He added: "Irregular and inconsistent enforcement puts people at risk and frustrates hard-working, conscientious, business owners."

However, public sector trade union Unison questioned whether greater regulation was the answer.

Unison's Dave Watson said: "The recent horse meat in burgers scandal also highlighted the importance of independent meat inspection in abattoirs.

"There is industry lobbying and EU consideration of relaxing the current standards. Unison wants to ensure that there is no threat of privatisation and industry self-regulation.

"We must maintain an independent meat hygiene inspection service as this service is being devolved to Scotland."

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