With the general election now just 77 days away, debate in all policy areas is heating up among politicians across the UK. One major point of interest for those concerned with the future of trading standards will be that devolution is back on the agenda for all the main parties and that the debate today looks quite different than it did six months ago.
Prior to the Scottish referendum last October the vast majority of debate on devolution focused upon de-centralising powers from Westminster and giving Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland more control over country specific legislation.
One relevant and interesting example of the four nations taking separate legislative decisions is the case of charging for single use bags in shops. Wales decided to lead the way and has been charging 5p for every new bag since October 2011. England, on the other hand, has been dragging its heels on the issue and is only now introducing a charge in October this year. Policy makers claim they have learned lessons from the experience in the other three nations, and are adding a number of contentious exemptions in an attempt to improve the effectiveness of the policy.
For local trading standards services, devolution can lead to changes in remit and can be challenging for businesses tasked with complying with increasing amounts of complex, country specific, legislation. The powers and duties of trading standards officers already differ in the four nations; one example is Scottish legislation surrounding underage sales of alcohol, which is enforced by the police rather than trading standards. Had Scotland chosen independence from the UK consumer protection powers would have been transferred to the Scottish parliament and businesses and trading standards services alike would have had to adapt to a very different legislative environment.
So what’s changed? Since the Scottish referendum there has been a great deal of debate among politicians about the idea of regional devolution within England. This trend was evident as early as the morning after the referendum, when David Cameron spent only a few sentences acknowledging the Scottish result before switching his focus to the subject of devolution for England.
The UK Core Cities group, which includes the eight largest city economies in England outside London plus Glasgow and Cardiff, is calling for greater devolution from Westminster to town halls across the UK as a solution to austerity budgets. It has been suggested that strategic services such as transport and infrastructure will be delivered at a city region level to increase efficiency and reduce costs.
We are watching the development of these debates with interest to see what changes they might bring to the structure of local government in England and how it will affect the duties, powers and resources available to the trading standards profession.
How do you think this debate will affect trading standards?