Scottish shoppers face a greater risk from rogue traders and online scams as trading standards offices across the country are hit by cutbacks, according to the public spending watchdog.
The long-term viability of councils’ trading standards services is now under threat, a damning report by the Accounts Commission today warns, with older and vulnerable people at particular risk.
About half of Scotland’s 32 councils now have so few trading standards staff, they may be unable to provide an “acceptable” level of service, the commission found.
Trading standards and food safety services have lost nearly a third of their staff since 2008, the report finds, through a combination of voluntary redundancies and turnover. Not enough new staff are being trained to replace them.
It means Scots could be at greater risk from food poisoning, doorstep crime and scams, as well as unfair or unsafe trading. Legitimate businesses could also fall away as they struggle to compete and the decline in the local economy could also see a rise in crime.
Accounts Commission chairman John Baillie said: “The longer term threat to these vital services is worrying.
“We’re currently living in a period of economic hardship – the very time consumers most need protection and help.”
“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.
“The public are entitled to expect a consistent standard of advice and protection across the country”.
About 1.3 million Scots are unhappy about the goods or services they have bought, on an annual basis, although about 500,000 don’t pursue the issue, according to the report. It also finds people depend on trading standards officers more in tough economic times, but fifteen councils now have eight or fewer staff.
It is now a decade since the last report by the commission on this issue.
“Things now appear worse than they were then,” Mr Baillie added.
Councils spent £34 million on services to protect consumers in 2011-12, including trading standards and food safety.
There are about 620 trading standards officers covering the whole of Scotland, dealing with more than 100,000 businesses, but there are an “unknown” number of rogue traders. More than 1500 firms are assessed as high risk.
Councils are now doing fewer routine trading inspections and instead now focus on the highest risks to consumers. These include local markets, doorstep crime in vulnerable communities and test purchasing for under-age sales.
Stephen Hagan, chairman of the consumer protection task group for local government body Cosla, said dedicated trading standards staff “punch well above their weight”, but that consumer protection is not purely the responsibility of Scotland’s councils. Council departments should work with key agencies like the police.