Page last updated at 13:01 GMT, Tuesday, 24 June 2008 14:01 UK

Trading standards lacks recruits

"Fabio" on his computer
Trading Standards officers now have to police online retailing

A shortage of recruits to be trading standards officers is hampering work to protect the public, experts say.

The number of trainee officers fell from 140 to 97 last year, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy said.

The drop comes as officers face a greater workload from new consumer regulations which took effect in May.

Trading standards is one of the 10 public sector jobs facing the biggest problems recruiting new staff.

National shortage

A review found that lack of workforce planning and the dwindling number of recruits could compromise public protection work.

This would include action against rogue traders, monitoring animal health and preventing the sale of alcohol to children.

"We need to make sure that the continuing trend in recruitment and retention of trading standards professionals is reversed in light of the warnings and predictions made," said Ron Gainsford, chief executive of the Trading Standards Institute (TSI).

The Chartered Institute's report found that the number of qualified and trainee officers had fallen since 2003, including the 31% drop in trainees last year.

In a survey in 2006, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) said that four in 10 trading standards departments were unable to provide some services, owing to a lack of staff.

The London boroughs were the worst affected. Nearly half reported difficulties in recruitment.

Local action

The shortage is highlighted as new consumer protection regulations, which for the first time stipulate that businesses have a duty not to trade unfairly, became law in the UK in May.

These regulations are policed by trading standards officers and the OFT.

Consumer minister Gareth Thomas told the BBC that central government was investing in teams to tackle illegal money lending and scams, but it was up to local councils to address funding concerns for trading standards departments.

"I would encourage local authorities to look at properly funding trading standards teams," he said.

He would not be drawn on the reasons why nearly half of local authorities had difficulty in recruiting officers.

Loan sharks

Mr Thomas was speaking at the TSI conference in Bournemouth as he launched a new free helpline for people in the North West, Yorkshire, Humberside, South East and Central England to report loan sharks and receive support.

The helpline - 0300 555 2222 - connects people to the government-funded anti-loan shark team, based in Birmingham.

The TSI also released the results of a survey about the work of 70 local authorities across England and Wales tackling underage sales of alcohol.

Out of 1,402 test purchases at off-licences by volunteers aged 15 and 16, there were 231 sales (16%). That is a drop compared with previous years.

Supermarket sales also fell, with 12% of the 219 illegal sales completed.

But the figures were higher in pubs and clubs, where 44 out of 130 sales were completed (34%) without staff querying the buyers' age.

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