Thank you Ron, for that introduction - and for inviting me to this conference - not least, as it gives me the chance to make my very first speech as your Minister. I’m grateful to so many of you for making the early slot - though I guess your professional curiosity may have got the better of you.
A coalition Government? A Liberal Democrat Minister? Surely there must be some infringement of the Sale of Goods Act? Seriously, I’m actually very proud to be here, as Minister for Consumer Affairs.
Because I believe what you do - what Trading Standards’ wider family does, whether it’s Citizen Advice or the OFT, Scambusters or Consumer Focus, or your many other partner organisations - what you do isn’t just important. It’s vital.
Vital for consumers. Vital for business. Indeed, vital for the whole economy- for the recovery and beyond.
I want to be straight with you today about the public spending challenges we must all face - and I want to provide you with a sense of what the Coalition holds in store for you.
Yet I want to place on the record, right from the start, not just some warm words of thanks for your work, but a clear and unambiguous recognition that I believe you are part of the frontline of our economy.
The problem in public life so often, is that when things work well, they go unnoticed. Unvalued. The fact that we are fortunate to live in a country where the essential plumbing of our market economy normally works okay just doesn’t make good newspaper copy.
Whether it’s competition policy or consumer policy. Company law or insolvency law. Britain’s economic plumbing is actually amongst the best in the world.
There may be exceptions. I’m told that recently there have been some problems - with the banks. Yet I’m leaving all that to Vince.
But when it comes to consumer policy and the overall consumer framework, the UK scores highly when compared to the rest of the EU and the Anglo-Saxon world - and we should celebrate that.
But before you all get too comfortable, my message today is certainly not that everything’s hunky dory, so we won’t be changing much. Far from it.
Even without the financial pressures, there would have been an agenda of change.
Let me give just three well-known illustrations of some drivers of change.
Technology. Great work has already been done-and by many here- to grapple with the new challenges in the digital world but I’m sure no-one believes that e-Crime, for example, is sorted.
Climate change. I believe that we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of how the climate change challenge will affect our daily lives, particularly when buying and selling goods and services.
Globalisation. It’s not just that business is more global- it’s that crime- and serious organised crime - is more global. Counterfeit or dangerous goods. Fraud and money laundering. Drugs and human trafficking. All on a truly international scale.
So age old questions face by generations of Trading Standards Officers and their colleagues have to be posed again in this new environment.
How do we protect the most vulnerable - when the con man isn’t just knocking at the door, but phoning them up, using international direct email and emailing them too?
How do we keep the local face and the local knowledge, yet share information and co-operate across agencies, across local authority boundaries and indeed national boundaries, so we can keep one step ahead of the villains?
How do we minimise the regulation on businesses, striving hard to grow when we need their help to stop global warming?
Talking to Ron Gainsford, your excellent CEO, here at TSI. Talking to Ted Forsyth, the excellent Chief Trading Standards Officer in the community I represent. I know your profession is addressing these issues. But I want you to be clear that these are our priorities too.
Now over the next few weeks and months we will be more concrete in how such priorities will actually translate into policy over the next weeks and months to come. But I have no intention of rushing to re-invent the wheel.
I am, for example, currently studying the results of the recent consumer landscape survey that officials have been undertaking. And thanks, by the way, to those of you who’ve played a role.
And I’ve been reading something called a “Manifesto for Trading Standards”.
It’s already clear that some significant consultation will need to take place this year or next, before we can finalise any serious reforms.
So I hope today’s question and answer session can mark the start of a vital early dialogue between myself and you as a profession, to gather your ideas before any major changes are made.
Of course there is one driver of change that threatens to derail considered policymaking, whether we like it or not. And that’s deficit reduction. So let me take that head on, as promised.
Even under the last Government, I think it’s fair to say, Trading Standards was not a spending priority. I don’t have the sense that Trading Standards are a gold-plated service, even if they can still often be a golden standard.
And yet, I don’t imagine anyone here seriously think that Trading Standards will be spared from shouldering its share of the pain of deficit reduction.
The question is, for all of us - can we do more with less? Or, in some cases I guess, do the same with less.
I don’t honestly believe that in services like yours a salami slicing approach is going to work anymore.
So how can central Government, working with local authorities across the country, help to realise major efficiency savings - cuts - without jeopardising the core objectives of the vital service we are here to deliver?
Well, I’m hoping that this conference can begin to answer such questions.
I notice for example that you have one session on today’s programme entitled “How to halve the cost of a prosecution and double its chance of success”. I hope I can be sent the speaker’s notes.
But I hope you as an Institute can develop your own thinking and best practice about how Trading Standards might deepen still further existing co-operation with other local regulatory services - both within and across local authority boundaries.
The consumer landscape review has taken evidence already from examples of Trading Standards Departments experimenting with just that sort of rationalisation. As Minister, I need to hear your views, learn about what works and what doesn’t and understand how my Department can help you manage such challenging change.
Now, if I were a cynic summing up my speech so far Conference, I’d say that the Minister began by telling us how important we are, didn’t tell us what he was going to do with us, and then asked us to come up with some major savings.
But thankfully I’m not a cynic. Because I’m genuinely interested in working with you to find practical solutions to your issues.
So let me list a few issues I’ve already asked my officials to look into as evidence of my intent to be your champion in Whitehall.
First, could we grant the public, access to existing information, existing databases, held on prosecutions of rogue traders and other breaches of fair trading laws?
This may not be straightforward.
For example, I’m advised there are some key legal issues to consider before we can decide to make all or part of the Central Register for Convictions publicly accessible. But consider those issues we will.
Better sharing of information both with the public and between enforcement agencies is something I want to focus on.
Second, could we ensure that Trading Standards basic testing to combat under age sale does not require RIPA authorisation? While this is a Home Office lead, the advice I’ve received suggests the Home Office’s existing Code of Practice gives Trading Standards some reassurances. But perhaps the guidance could be clearer and more practical. Once again, I undertake, today, to work with TSI if your members continue to see a problem here.
And third, can we do more to help you combat scamming, whether by letter, telephone or email, by taking measures at critical choke points of a scam like the transfer of funds to the scammer? I’ve asked officials to look at the main ways money is wired abroad in response to international scams, to see if we can work with the main payment companies involved so consumers can be identified and warned of dangers, before it is too late.
These are just 3 small but practical examples - I’m sure in your questions you will come up with many more ideas.
You see, in coalition politics, in the new politics, we’re already learning some important lessons.
Look for where you can agree.
Be honest where you disagree.
And then work, in good faith, to come to solutions that take the best from all sides.
Ron. Conference, I hope that’s exactly what we can do, together, for each other, And above all, for the public. For whom Trading Standards is such a force for good.
So we don’t just preserve the excellence in Trading Standards in a difficult climate, but take that forward to new even higher levels.
I’m looking forward to our joint task. Thank you.