Wake-up call

Liverpool: judicial review In this feature l warning l undertaking l gamble About Councils must think carefully before slashing services that perform statutory functions, says Stephanie hudson, after her battle to save Liverpools trading standards turn took a surprise turn. Carina Bailey reports L iverpool City Councils eleventh-hour decision to conduct amore wide-ranging review of its trading standards restructureis a warning to other authorities to think carefully about their statutory duties or they could find themselves hauled before the courts. The surprise move was made on 26 September at the High Court, Queens Bench Division, Manchester the date former employee Stephanie Hudson had expected the legal action to become a fully fledged contempt-of-court case. Liverpool now has 12 months to conduct the new review and report its findings. A spokesman for the authority said: Despite the previous consent order not laying down specific conditions relating to the review it required the city council to undertake, the outcome of the original review was challenged. The city council has therefore agreed to revisit the review to address any concerns raised by the complainant. Hudson is delighted by the news of the councils decision. She hails it as a significant result and is now urging other local authorities considering similar cuts to their trading standards offering to think more carefully about where the axe falls. She says: I think Liverpool showed it had no knowledge or understanding of the value of trading standards thats very clear. The amount it spends on trading standards is very small, but its impact is quite immense. It has realised its done wrong although its saying it has not done anything illegal. But actually, on a moral aspect, its not right, is it? I wish it had actually consulted us properly about its intentions and listened to us. But it didnt consult us properly and it didnt listen We are now beginning to get an understanding of the scale of financial scamming, and its impact on society: people lose all their money, which often leads to health problems due to the stress and anxiety, and they then end up in care funded by the local authority as they have been scammed out of all their life savings. professor Keith Brown Everything I have pushed for is quite legitimate. Hudson initiated judicial review proceedings with CTSIs backing because she felt the authority had refused to take seriously her misgivings about its new structure proposals during a consultation process in 2014. As a result of the action at a permission hearing in May 2015 Liverpool City Council made an undertaking to review whether it had acted unlawfully after it ploughed ahead in 2015 with its plan to slash its trading standards department by more than three-quarters. The team was cut from 19 officers to just four and merged with Liverpools licensing department. During the original consultation period, Hudson had offered an alternative plan which made her own post redundant and came in 60 cheaper than the councils own solution but she felt her input had fallen on deaf ears. The fact weve had to resort to legal means is quite sad, she says, anddescribes the case as being very tiring and a constant stress. However, speaking of the latest news, she says: Its a huge relief. Idont know whether it will improve the situation in Liverpool, but at least I can feel I have given it a try and rest the issue. I wasnt being taken seriously; now I have to be taken seriously. There had been expectations that the original court order made in May 2015 would, for the first time, suggest what the minimum requirements for a functioning trading standards service should look like. This in turn was expected to inform how much funding the service required. But, in Hudsons eyes, the authoritys first report fell far short of these expectations. For this latest review, Liverpool agreed at the High Court that this would be carried out by someone who was not a party to or,in any way, involved in the original restructuring decision, the judicial review proceedings or the subsequent review, andwhoconsidered themselves to havesufficient professional competence and experience to conduct the review effectively. As far as Hudson is concerned, whoever is appointed needs to be willing to speak to CTSI to get its valuable opinion about whats needed. Hudson adds: You just need somebody who can make a proper judgement, to say whether or not this [restructure] is just and fair, and whether [Liverpool] can actually carry out its statutory functions. However, when TS Today asked who would head the review, Liverpool CC was unable to say who that person would be, orwhether or not they would be unconnected to the council. And, when asked if it would approach CTSI for advice and guidance, a spokesman gave a blunt: No. Questioned further about what the authority hoped to achieve by conducting this review, all the spokesman would say was: To comply with the consent order. Hudson has always maintained that, at current staffing levels, the authority would be unable to carry out its statutory functions under both domestic and EU law, and is adamant that it has already left the citizens of Liverpool exposed to greater risk from rogue traders. I have had quite a few people, who are clearly rogue traders, come to my door saying you need your gutters doing, your fascias doing. They put all these leaflets through your door, all with mobile phone numbers only, with a tick box to waive your cancellation rights. The scammers are out there already. I have never, ever had that through my door before. She says three such traders have knocked at her door in the past six months. I feel very angry. I know there are elderly people round here, and my area isnt particularly affluent, which is also quite disturbing, adds Hudson. She is certain that if Liverpool reinstates a clearly defined trading standards presence, it will worry any rogue traders out there. According to Professor Keith Brown, director of the national centre for post-qualifying social work at Bournemouth University, financial scamming is abuse and is now recognised as such under the Care Act. This says that local authorities have to have an area safeguarding board, with part of its duties being to protect and support people who have been financially scammed or abused. Under law, local authorities now have a duty to protect people, investigate any problems that arise and deal with them. However, across the country, trading standards have seen staffing levels and funding slashed. According to Brown, despite the rising tide of scamming, about half the local authorities in the county prosecute just one rogue trader a year, while most of the bigger ones take action against only two or three. Hesays: They have got a duty, but they are slashing the numbers of trading standards officers and there are nowhere near enough prosecutions given the scale of the problem. Hudson has no idea what persuaded Liverpools Labour-run council to change its mind at the eleventh hour however, she suspects the Labour Party conference taking place in the city may have been a factor. She explains: Trading standards is a very fundamental protection for people, particularly the vulnerable and elderly. Maybe having the Labour Party conference in Liverpool has given it pause for thought, particularly with Jeremy Corbyn being so socialist; if youve got a Labour council that is determined not to provide a service when it has always done its best to protect the vulnerable in the past, it doesnt look very good in Jeremy Corbyns eyes. Speaking of her expectations from the new review, she says: I hope it will find that [Liverpool Council] has left the citizens of Liverpool vulnerable. Some people may see the action that Hudson took as a gamble, but the way she sees it, somebody had to make a stand. E NFoRCEmENT pRIoRITIES For anyone facing the same predicament, Leon Livermore, chief executive of CTSI, which she has one firm piece of advice: Speak to has supported Stephanie Hudson throughout CTSI. See what it says, and see how it can help the case, said it was not just statutory duties you. It actually had a positive impact by my just that place obligations on councils. starting [judicial proceedings]. Speaking after Liverpool City Councils Local authorities dont like judicial agreement to conduct a review of its original reviews because it brings them into disrepute restructure of trading standards, he said: [regardless of the outcome]. Councils must also consider the governments She adds: Yes it was a gamble for me, enforcement priorities, the first of which personally; if CTSI hadnt supported me, focuses on consumer protection, doorstep I would be saying this is my home, I shall crime, counterfeit goods and mis-selling by have to sell it to pay the bills. That was at my measurement. Rarely have we been able to find any personal risk. reference to these trading standards duties Sometimes you just have to do these things. being taken into account, and it will be We havent rocked the boat [before now] and interesting to see Liverpool consider them. trading standards has just been decimated. Jonathan Goulding, a barrister at Gough Square chambers, hopes the action will make council chiefs think more carefully about their consumer protection duties in the future. He says: It is essential in modern society that well-funded and well-staffed trading standards departments exist to protect consumers from the many unfair practices they face daily. It is encouraging to see that the Liverpool review will consider consumer protection duties, and interesting to see in due course the weight given to them in the exercise of decision-making about the funding of essential services. He is backed by Cameron Crowe, a barrister at the 36 Group, who warns: Other local authorities will have to have careful and fair regard to their statutory duties in protecting consumers and vulnerable consumers in particular and ensure fair trading, in determining their priorities in relation to trading standards services, and must be transparent in the process. Hudson says she will be eternally grateful to CTSI for its support, describing chief executive Leon Livermore as incredible, thanking director of policy Melissa Dring for pointing her in the right direction, as well as having a fantastic legal team in Jonathan Kirk and Nadia Silver, of the 36 Group who took the work on pro bono and Peter Mellett at Cubism Law. I cant thank them enough, she adds. I so appreciate them. I do feel we have achieved something whatever the outcome. You cant just wipe trading standards away and not expect some comeback on it. Would she do it again? Like a shot! she says without hesitation. Itwas the right thing to do. Thats fundamental to trading standards, that you always do the right thing. Thats what makes a good trading standards officer. Credits Carina Bailey is editor of TS Today. Images: Brian Roberts To share this page, in the toolbar click on You might also like Making a stand June 2015