A History of Trading Standards

It is easy to suppose that the Trading Standards service only began recently. This is, however, far from the truth. Indeed, the origins stretch way back to the first enforcement of legislation on Weights and Measures, which began before the Norman Conquest.

Over a thousand years later, the enforcement of Weights and Measures legislation is still a core part of Trading Standards work in Devon, Somerset and Torbay, making sure people get what they pay for, whether it’s a litre of petrol or a kilo of beef. However, our work now covers a much wider area than checking quantity alone.

Standardising Weights & Measures

There is a long history in the UK of laws controlling weights and measures. One of the biggest problems originally was standardisation – making sure that a pound or gallon of produce you bought in Devon was the same as in Cornwall, Sussex or Lancashire. It sounds a simple enough task, but in fact it took until the early years of the 20th century to properly accomplish. Part of the problem was that the early statutes made little provision for anyone to enforce the laws, and without enforcement, things went on as before.

For example, a type of scale called the bismar or auncell was much used in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, particularly by merchants in the wool-trade. This type of scale was at best inaccurate and, at worst, an open invitation to commit fraud. In 1348 Edward III outlawed it, but it continued in use even after further Acts of 1352 and 1360.

Adding to the confusion was that products could be sold in an array of different measures, with similar products often made impossible to compare because they were sold so differently. As recently as 1937, the American ‘Journal of Science’ reported (with evident relish) that the British ‘sell pickled cod by the barrel, trawled cod at so much each, hooked cod by the score, crimped cod by the pound, shrimps by the stone and soles by the pair’!

Eventually it was recognized that these problems could not be tackled without ensuring effective enforcement. The Weights and Measures Act 1834 provided for the first appointment of ‘Inspectors of Weights and Measures’. To this day, Trading Standards Officers can still be known by this name, particularly by shopkeepers, publicans and other traders who use weights, measures and scales in their business.

The Service Grows

Until well after the Second World War, the work of the Weights and Measures Inspector was mainly concerned with the physical weights, measures and scales used by businesses. Apart from spot checks at the premises where the equipment was used, there were, until 1963, annual ‘stamping stations’ in towns and villages. Traders would bring their weights and scales in for testing and, where necessary, adjustment.

Gradually, as commerce became more complex, more and more consumer protection statutes were added to the inspector’s armoury. The Petroleum Act of 1871 gave responsibility for the licensing of retail sites storing petroleum. The Sale of Food and Drugs Act 1875 was the beginning of the inspectorate’s ever-growing concern for quality as well as quantity. The Act empowered inspectors to sample food and drugs for adulteration, and from it developed the complex legislation that now controls the composition, purity and labelling of foodstuffs.

The Explosives Act 1875 regulated the storage of explosives for retail sale. The Merchandise Marks Act 1887 provided some regulation on the accuracy of written descriptions of goods. The Fertilizers and Feeding Stuffs Act 1893 was concerned with the quality of agricultural materials. This legislation has developed over the years and in its current form is still enforced by Weights and Measures Authorities – in Devon, Somerset and Torbay, this is Devon & Somerset Trading Standards.

Keeping People Safe & Protected

The Food Act 1984 and the many sets of regulations made under it provide a large measure of control over the composition, purity and labelling of food. While much of the Trading Standards Officer’s task in enforcing food law currently consists of advice to food manufacturers, not so many years ago there was widespread adulteration of staple foods.

For example, in the days when milk deliveries were made from a bulk tank, the milkman drew off the milk for delivery in a measure that was tipped into a container provided by the purchaser. It was not unknown for the milkman to try to dilute the milk in the tank with water. To check for things such as this, inspectors would buy a formal sample of the milk from the milkman, and the Public Analyst then certified that the sample did or did not contain added water.

The Trading Standards Service continues to respond to changes. The current range of legislation enforced is far wider than anyone could have imagined even a hundred years ago. The Service’s responsibility now extends to over 200 Acts and numerous Regulations.

Dealing With Crime

Alongside the ever-increasing detail and complexity of laws, Trading Standards Officers have to combat some human tendencies that never change. Over the last 20 years or so, the Trading Standards Officer has had to deal with more activities on the fringes of organised crime. An example of this is ‘Car Clocking’, which is the practice of winding back a vehicle’s odometer to make it appear as if it has done fewer miles and is therefore a better bargain that it actually is.

Another practice that is indistinguishable from organised crime is counterfeiting. This is where a product that is well-known to consumers and often selling for a high price is cheaply copied so as to be deliberately mistaken from the genuine product. All sorts of things are being counterfeited, from consumer goods like DVDs and CDs, clothing and perfumes, to industrial components and even aircraft brake-pads! Here, action by Trading Standards Officers may be necessary to protect the public’s safety as well as their pockets.

Many recent changes in the law have been as a result of the European Union’s influence on UK law, as well as with the increasing trade within Europe. In practice this has meant more control on the safety of goods. There is a duty to supply safe goods of almost all descriptions and the Trading Standards Officer’s role has grown to cover this important area, particularly where unsafe goods may injure the young and vulnerable.

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations replaced the Trade Descriptions Act in 2008. These regulations give officers more scope to tackle unfair and even aggressive practices and for the first time placed a requirement on businesses not to omit information from sales material which a consumer needs to choose whether to buy goods or services.

Over the past 20 years our work in relation to age restricted products has increased, largely to combat the social, health and personal safety problems caused by underage drinking. We are currently building Community Alcohol Partnerships with businesses, police and licensing agencies to help reduce the illegal sale of age restricted products to young people.

A Changing Role Throughout The Year

The summer months usually see an increase in rogue trader activity, with the warmer weather bringing out opportunist cowboy builders, roofers and tarmaccers. Officers must ensure they are ready to respond to incidents at a moment’s notice to reduce harm to potential victims, often the elderly and vulnerable, by tackling misleading claims and aggressive practices.

The run up to November the 5th is also a busy time for us as we ensure the safe storage and sale of fireworks for public and organised use. The increased spending during the Christmas period keeps Officers busy, as more products are purchased and things such as festive markets leave extra opportunity for unsafe and counterfeit products to appear.

With a steady rise in the number of products being purchased on the internet, the potential for ‘e-crime’ is also increasing. Sales of bogus tickets for concerts and events is just one example. Trading Standards officers have had to develop new skills needed to investigate criminal internet trading practices.

Support & Education

However, it would be wholly inaccurate to assume that the work of the Trading Standards Service in Devon, Somerset and Torbay begins and ends with enforcement. Over the last five years the Service has focused more resources on Business support and Consumer education. We recognise that by supporting businesses with advice, sampling of products and the introduction of a ‘Buy With Confidence’ approved trader scheme to celebrate great businesses locally, we can help improve and support Devon, Somerset and Torbay’s economy.

‘Buy With Confidence’ started life in Devon as ‘Customer First’ but has now grown into a nationally recognised scheme run by many authorities across England. We have a team of Business Support officers dedicated to helping businesses ensure legal compliance.

In 2006 Trading Standards Services ceased provision of consumer advice. This responsibility was initially transferred to Consumer Direct and is now being delivered by Citizens Advice, whose Consumer Service handles thousands of calls from consumers requiring assistance across the country.

We work closely with Citizens Advice to ensure that the information received from those calls is used by us to shape and direct our consumer protection work, including alerting us to potential criminal infringements.

Despite our stepping away from the direct provision of consumer advice, consumer education remains on our agenda. We recognise that many of the modern scams involving phishing emails, bogus calls and ‘prize draw winning’ letters are well organised and cannot be tackled by enforcement alone.

Our tsconnect email newsletter service, website, radio and television work, as well as our Facebook & Twitter pages warn consumers about the potential pitfalls of the latest scams. We also work closely with partner agencies to ensure consumers get the information they need.

As long as there are businesses and consumers that need support, as well as those prepared to break consumer protection laws, there will be a need for a Trading Standards Service – but by balancing enforcement with advice and education, we aim to protect consumers and maintain a fair trading environment in which local businesses can thrive.