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Agenda item

Presentation by Kent County Council Trading Standards

To receive a presentation from Kent County Council Trading Standards Officers.

Minutes:

Members received a PowerPoint presentation from Oliver Jewell, Principal Trading Standards Officer, Trading Standards, Kent County Council. He advised that Kent’s Trading Standards operation had been rationalised and was now situated entirely in Ashford, and comprised of four re-structured teams:

 

·         Complex Investigations Team - dealing with rogue traders on an in-depth basis;

·         Food Chain Team;

·         Business Advice Services Team – Brexit had increased the Team’s work-load considerably;

·         Consumer and Public Safety Team – this comprised 8 officers under Oliver Jewell as Principal Trading Standards Officer

 

His presentation covered the following principal areas and work priorities of the Trading Standards operation in Kent, with particular reference to his own Consumer & Public Safety Team:

 

Brexit

 

For Trading Standards Brexit remained a major unknown in terms of the impact that the final deal approved by Parliament would have on trading and business in the UK, or in the event of a ‘no-deal’ scenario, what degree of contingency and even emergency planning would be required. It was estimated that either final scenario would entail:

 

·         An increase in work at all the Channel ports and dock operations;

·         An increase in Trading Standards’ support to businesses;

·         The potential for criminals to exploit continuing uncertainty over the final outcome and subsequently, particularly in the event of a ‘no-deal’ scenario;

·         Significant contingency planning to prevent fuel shortages post Brexit and gridlock on the motorway and road system, in particular access to and egress from the Channel ports.

 

Consumer and Public Safety Team: Work Areas

 

·         Product Safety work concentrated on preventing faulty goods reaching the marketplace, initially as an Intel led operation at the docks and other points of UK entry and subsequently by inspecting retail premises that became subject to Intel reports or public concern. All products from cosmetics to construction materials and electrical machinery were subject to safety inspection by Trading Standards. CE and UK/CE safety labelling on products was subject to regular inspection, and were companies assisted in the event of products having to be re-called from the market;

·         Combating underage sales of alcohol and tobacco through an holistic and intelligence led approach between the Police, the public and young people to form effective partnership working in the community to identify and prosecute offending retailers;

·         Preventing the sale of illegal alcohol and tobacco [not overly prevalent in Kent to date] and supporting vaping sales (legitimate since 2016) as a healthier alternative to smoking pending, further definitive medical evidence of the ‘benefits’ of vaping over smoking;

·         Combating knife crime through an Intel led approach against suspected retailers and the enforcement of the over 25 policy;

·         Supervision of petrol storage, including design and construction of petrol stations, testing for leakages, and post Brexit measures to combat petrol hoarding;

·         Explosives monitoring, particularly fireworks and the possibility of bomb-making from such commonly sold products.

 

Illegal Tobacco

 

·         Illegal tobacco could most easily be recognised by its labelling - often in a Cyrillic [rather than English] script and without the usual health warnings. These products contained more impurities than legal brands and continued to burn when discarded by tired/inebriated smokers, leading to increased fire risks. The main targeted source of supply by Trading Standards were  ‘Mock Convenience Stores’ predominantly run by foreign nationals who sold a basic selection of consumer products e.g. tea, coffee, sugar, toilet rolls in an effort to hide their core business of illegal tobacco sales. Genuine retail stores were also ‘guilty’ of selling illegal tobacco attracted by both the profit mark-up and as a means of attracting increased customer footfall for sales of its legal consumer products. The advent of online and Facebooks traders dealing expressly in illegal tobacco products was a growing trend;

·         Trading Standards targeted illegal tobacco sales because of the increased health risks from such products particularly for minors, and the threat it posed to overall Government health policy, by making smoking more affordable. Cheaper illegal products also undermined local economies by removing revenue from genuine businesses and passing it to organised criminal operations, which in turn threatened the budgets/ funding of enforcement authorities and other Government bodies through the loss of tax revenue to the Exchequer. Employees (including children) of such ‘Mock Convenience Stores’ were also under threat to continue to work for their criminal taskmasters, who used untaxed and unlicensed vehicles to store and transport their stock, often using unlicensed drivers;

·         The results of a 2018 survey of smokers in SE England revealed that 70% bought illegal tobacco from shops, with 75% either knowing they were buying counterfeit products, or simply didn’t know or care. Some 83% of smokers had a single supplier (so changing their behaviour would be effective) with 87% agreeing that all smokers bought illegal product at some time, and that cheaper illegal tobacco made it harder to quit smoking. If caught and prosecuted for buying illegal product 70% of smokers surveyed would be put off, 78% would stop purchasing illegal product if they thought it was linked to criminal gangs, and 85% would stop buying if they knew the shop involved supplied to children;

·         Kent Profile: approximately 20 shops of a criminal nature had been identified in Kent but the traditional investigation/prosecution route wasn’t always the answer to effectively combating such operations, which often operated on a ‘handshake’ basis, with no paper trail to underpin prosecutions in the Courts. Utility bills continued to be met at such premises which were often eligible for business rates discounts/exemptions, making true ownership hard to establish, and successful prosecutions even harder to achieve.  Magistrates could impose significant fines against those convicted, but such sums were insignificant, compared to the overall profit made from such illegal operations which could pay fines from 1 day’s trading alone;

·         Investigation Options: exploring alternative strategies with local authorities and Kent Police were essential e.g. Illegal Tobacco Unit Roadshow funded by Kent Public Health [in Dartford in 2017]; School theatre productions at Primary and Secondary level warning against the dangers of smoking – particularly illegal products; Kent Police Open Day and spray-painting ‘Smoke-Free Zone’ signs in public places e.g. Young Mum’s Centre in the Isle of Sheppey. The use of ‘joined-up’ reporting across Agencies was also important and helped demonstrate the ‘nuisance’ caused by such ‘Mock Convenience Stores’ across the board e.g. the link that illegal tobacco sales [and alcohol sales] had to increased levels of anti-social behaviour (ASB). A multi-agency sustainable approach was required to both disrupt supply networks and deter users. All Intel (including from the public) was valued and passed to Trading Standards Intel Unit for analysis (intelunit@kent.gov.uk or tel. 03000 412020).

 

In response to subsequent questions from Members, the Principal Trading Standards Officer gave the following advice:

 

·         Magistrates could impose significant fines on retailers of illegal tobacco, and cases passed up to the Crown Court could result in prison terms of up to 10 years. However, Magistrates tended towards non-custodial community service orders and fines. This was the outcome in the recent case of a repeat offender successfully prosecuted and convicted in Dartford. The Magistrate had imposed a fine plus 240 hours of community service, in recognition of the fact that the offender was also an employer. A custodial sentence would impact adversely on the staff, possibly even closing the business in the owner’s absence in prison.

·         Trading Standards could be called to appear before Council Sub-Committees to give evidence in licence review cases to help combat illegal alcohol and tobacco sales;

·         Rogue traders who targeted an area and a particular customer profile e.g. the elderly, could be subjected to an asset revue by Trading Standards and made to justify their revenue holdings for the previous 6 year period. Where evidence of irregularities were found cases were referred to the Police for prosecution.  Any Intel received from elected Members and the public on rogue traders was always welcome and  assessed appropriately;

·         Bogus callers seeking unpaid tax on behalf of HMRC from local businesses were usually based aboard, and used ‘closed’ telephone lines that were difficult to check or trace. Members and residents should pass any/all details of such approaches to Trading Standards Intel Unit who would alert HMRC as appropriate. The Customer Information Team based within Trading Standards Business Advice Services, used their Twitter account to alert the public to such bogus callers when they came to their attention. Community Wardens and Kent’s Vulnerable Victim’s Officer where also informed as and when rogue traders and bogus callers were active in targeted areas.

 

Members had an important role to play, both in alerting their constituents and also helping to collate the facts and any evidence, for passing to Trading Standards to take appropriate action.

 

The Chairman and Members thanked Mr. Jewell for a very comprehensive presentation and for his detailed answers to their questions and concerns, and extended a further invitation to him to update the Committee in the future.