Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me here today.
Last year I made my first speech at your conference as the new Consumer Minister. I am glad to be invited back to speak to you all again.
Today I am here to make an announcement that I believe will put Trading Standards on a stronger footing for the future, and will help all of you meet the increasingly complex challenges you face in protecting consumers from being ripped off.
So I am very pleased to launch our consultation on reform of consumer institutions. It sets out our plans to establish Citizens Advice as a one-stop-shop that consumers can turn to for advice, information and education about their rights. And it outlines our proposals to bolster the Trading Standards Service, so it is better equipped to protect consumers.
Because your service plays a critical role. Helping honest business grow and protecting consumers from rogue traders is essential to creating the safe and prosperous communities we all want to live in.
That’s why Trading Standards sits right at the heart of our plans to reform the landscape of consumer protection and improve the provision of enforcement and advice, education and advocacy.
Over the last year I have done a lot of listening. We have crafted our proposals to take account of what you have been telling us. I know about the financial pressures you are all facing and the tension between your local funding and yet the fact that you must address threats which go beyond local authority borders.
We want you to continue to meet local threats under the control of local authorities. But this should be better allied with regional and national organisation and, yes, more funding for you to work collectively to enforce the law against threats that don’t fit neatly within convenient local boundaries.
So the consultation sets out a new model for national leadership of the service. But rather than describing this in detail today, I would rather sketch out for you a vision of the Trading Standards service I would like to see in a few years’ time.
I see a service with effective national and regional leadership, with a much greater capacity to understand where threats to consumers are coming from, and to prioritise enforcement action to meet those which cause the greatest harm to the greatest number of consumers.
The new Consumer Direct will reach far more consumers by being available online and by incorporating existing information from Citizens Advice. This will provide a much richer evidence base for you.
I want this to be combined with regional intelligence officers in every region, and collaboration with Citizens Advice, Which?, and the new Competition and Markets Authority, so Trading Standards can point exactly where consumers are suffering and can focus on the biggest targets.
I also want to see a service with high standards of professional competence, using leverage and influence as well as investigation and prosecution to deliver real results.
I envisage greater collaboration, with regional investigative teams supporting the smaller authorities and greater flexibility over who brings individual cases. These will be backed up by specialist national squads, located around the country, looking after the most complex cases in particular fields such as unfair contract terms or internet enforcement.
I also want a service that helps good people to move between local, regional and national teams, rather than having to leave to get promotion.
And I want a more confident Trading Standards service, able to quantify and demonstrate the huge benefits that we all know you deliver for consumers in the UK. One that uses this information to celebrate your achievements, raises your public and media profile, and showcase the enormous contribution you make to public welfare.
I also want to see a strong national Competition and Markets Authority, specialised in understanding why markets have structural failings and with the determination to make markets work well. I see this CMA interacting with TS in a true spirit of partnership, seamlessly complementing TS efforts to pursue individual businesses with wider action against structural problems.
Finally, I want to see a better balance, over time, between local and national funding.
This consultation is exactly that - nothing has been set in stone at this point. There is a lot of support for our proposals, but I realise that not everyone agrees with the direction of travel. There are some issues which have not been resolved and questions which still need answers.
For example, we need to think clearly about accountability and where to host specialist expertise. We need to work out corporate structures and governance and sort out finance and the costs of change.
This is your chance to shape the future structure of your profession and develop a consumer landscape which is fit for modern consumers and a modern economy. So I am urging you and your colleagues to respond to the Consultation and tell me what you like, what you don’t, what will work, what won’t - and the reasons why.
I know that times are tough at the moment, and the Trading Standards service is being asked to meet some big challenges - but that is often when inspiring ideas lead to the greatest advances. I want to hear all of your ideas in the months ahead.