Question for Short Debate
My Lords, this is an unashamed shout-out for those local services that protect our citizens across the country and that promote legitimate businesses at a time when economic growth is not only desirable but essential.
Why do these regulatory services need our advocacy? Their strong focus on prevention can make them less visible than other public services. As one environmental health officer told a recent UNISON survey, our success is that nothing happens, meaning that nothing bad happens. However, it takes a considerably robust infrastructure to maintain that status quo. Those Peers who have glanced at the title of this debate and thought, “Ooh, that sounds dull,” will wish that they were here and will probably say that they were here, to misquote Shakespeare, because this is a story of disease and pestilence and contagion; it is a narrative of small-time scams and mis-selling, of international-scale fraud, of injustice and of heartbreak for those caught up in it all.
I see that the Minister is from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and I welcome him to our debate. While I have very cordial relations with his department through my involvement in trading standards, many of the points that I make this afternoon will also be directed at his colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government. However, as I was frequently told when I sat where he is sitting now, at the Dispatch Box you speak for the whole Government, as I am sure he is well aware.
Environmental health might include food safety, health and safety at work, environmental protection, public health nuisances, private sector housing and, of course, licensing. Trading standards might include business advice, fair trading, product safety, under-age sales, weights and measures, food standards and farm animal health and welfare. These services are under crippling pressure, as never before. Will the Minister explain how these services will be fit for purpose into the future, given the hit that they have taken under the austerity agenda and given yesterday’s spending review announcement of a further 10% reduction in local government spending? I ask the question as president of the Trading Standards Institute and as a firm believer in our local public services being an anchor of our democracy.
I thank all noble Lords for taking part in this debate. I am particularly happy to see the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, in her place, an esteemed vice-president of the Trading Standards Institute, as I am to see my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey, who chairs the recently established National Trading Standards Board.
There are two key pillars for an effective regulatory system. The first is that the system is underpinned by well constructed legal instruments. The second is that the enforcement of such a system is well resourced. I will deal with the resource issue first. A well resourced regulatory system brings about significant benefits to society. A cut to trading standards and environmental health is a cut to community health, a barrier to preventing crime, a boost to fraudsters and a shot in the arm for those who distort our economy and make it extremely difficult for honest enterprises to survive. In a survey by UNISON of more than 300 trading standards officers carried out in the last few years, over 95% of respondents said that they now had fewer staff, three-quarters said that they now undertake fewer inspections, 70% said that they had stopped providing some services altogether, 70% said that they did less preventive work and half said that they were less equipped to deal with new forms of scams in our digital age. That is hardly the picture of a healthy regulatory system. In addition, it is estimated that UK consumers spend 59 million hours a year trying to resolve disputes with traders, which costs our economy more than £3 billion a year. As the Audit Commission and Audit Scotland said in their 2013 report:
“The long-term viability of councils’ trading standards services is under threat and urgent action is needed to strengthen protection for consumers”.
As well as the day-to-day running of the service, there are the emergencies—those dreadful, nasty surprises such as the horsemeat scandal. The food industry was shaken to its core earlier this year by the adulteration of meat products. Members of the public, as well as Parliament, were calling for more resources, more sampling and for the service to carry out more unannounced checks. How will the Government avert a future adulteration of the food chain and how do they intend to strengthen our enforcement procedures? Is the Minister satisfied with the welcome but very modest budget set aside by BIS for kick-starting the additional work that trading standards has taken on in the new consumer landscape? I declare an interest as chair of the Consumer Codes Approval Board. Do the Government believe that the balance between local and national funding of trading standards is the right one?
While I have so far concentrated on trading standards, the story of our environmental health services—they, too, go back to Victorian times—is very much the same. UNISON’s 2012 survey of 4,000 environmental health officers found reports of increases in pest infestation, landlords cutting corners, poorer housing conditions, overcrowding and increases in disease. Using DCLG’s own departmental figures, we can compare spending for 2012-13 with the actual spending in 2010-11. We see the following very worrying changes. There are falls in spending of 8% on food safety, 6% on private rented housing standards, 28% on pest control, 14% on health and safety and 47% on port health—the officers at ports of entry monitoring possible contamination of food and so on following events such as the Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan. Moreover, 31% less was spent on animal health and infectious disease control. How do we deal with the next major incident of Legionnaires’ disease—or more importantly prevent it—with these figures in our heads?
At the start of my contribution, I suggested that two key pillars underpin our work in regulatory services: adequate resources and effective legal instruments. I wonder how the draft consumer rights Bill, much of which I welcome, can put forward a proposal to insist legally that trading standards officers give two days’ written notice before many inspections can be carried out. What self-respecting fraudster is likely to leave evidence on their premises when they know that there is going to be a visit from the trading standards officer? I would be interested in the Minister’s view.
In conclusion, some would say, perhaps indeed the Minister will, that the answer to saving these invaluable services in a time of unprecedented austerity is through reorganisation—maybe sharing organisational boundaries, having a regional solution instead of a local one, better procurement or outsourcing privately. While I am not opposed to many of these measures—indeed, some are simply common sense, and I welcome them —they are already being undertaken and they have their problems as well as their solutions. There is a big question mark over the ability of reorganisation alone to make up the shortfall in spending on these vital services. The accountability to our citizens that local government gives our regulatory services has long been a part of our democracy and I am sure that we would all want that to continue despite the times we are living through.
My Lords, I have the honour to be a vice-president of the Trading Standards Institute, an organisation that I much admire, and so it gives me great pleasure to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, the president of the TSI, for securing this important debate.
The work of local regulatory services may not be an area of government that receives a great deal of attention when it is going well, but it is vital to upholding the rights of consumers, providing protection to the public and acting as a source of information to businesses and the community. Indeed, it is perhaps a sign of encouragement that we rarely see these services reach the national news for anything other than good news.
The noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, has highlighted the reduction in budgets in many services, but we have to remind ourselves of the climate under which this Government are operating. A horrendous fiscal deficit alongside an uncertain and shaky global economic climate has meant that tough decisions have had to be made in a variety of areas where many of us would not naturally wish to see less spending.
However, the Government have also been innovative in their approach. Spending less money does not necessarily mean a worse service or declining satisfaction. In many areas the Government have helped to identify new and more efficient ways of delivering services. A scrupulous review of all areas of government spending has allowed for innovation while protecting many taxpayers from having to increase their contributions to what, in many cases, was inefficient spending or unnecessary programmes. This has been particularly true in local government, which accounts for around £25 billion of the Exchequer’s expenditure. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s decision to freeze council tax has not only allowed households that are feeling the pinch to get some relief but also encouraged local authorities to look for new and innovative ways of delivering services?
Often without these budgetary pressures, similar organisations with similar remits can grow side by side without co-operation or without people taking the tough decisions that are needed. This is particularly true when it comes to consumer rights, an area of government that is obviously vital to protecting customers and business but in which many people used to get confused between the plethora of organisations involved, including the Office of Fair Trading and trading standards. Can the Minister clarify whether this duplication and confusion have now been clarified and, if so, whether this has improved the situation for consumers?
We need a system that is without confusion, where problems can be identified quickly and dealt with speedily. Unfortunately, we still hear of small businesses suffering because their competitors can sell fake goods or goods that have been acquired through undesirable means—at boot sales, for example. Does the Minister agree that this is harmful to the British economy and undermines the trust needed between consumers and businesses?
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that it is wise and democratic to empower local authorities to decide which services their residents need and to what extent they should be financed. I welcome the principle that councils should be given more control over their own budgets and should be held to account. The Government’s decision to allow local authorities to retain business rates to invest in their local area is a welcome and long overdue move. Can my noble friend say how much this change is expected to raise for local authorities? The further we move away from a situation where councils can always blame Whitehall and Westminster for decisions made locally, the better. Accountability and transparency are both great tools for ensuring that spending levels are maintained at a reasonable level and I welcome any steps that the Government take to increase the use of these tools.
Many of the services that the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, has raised do exceptional work for their communities, but these services cannot exist in a vacuum that ignores the wider fiscal situation, the need to modify and evolve to meet changing circumstances or the need for more local accountability. Like many areas of government, they have to adapt and become fit for purpose for this day and age.
My Lords, I start by recording my interest as the chair, for the past two months, of the National Trading Standards Board. I also reiterate the thanks given to my noble friend Lady Crawley for securing this debate, which I think will raise a number of very important issues.
The timing is extremely fitting. There is an increasing recognition of the harm that can be done to individuals by scammers and rogue traders or by those who flout environmental health regulations. I welcome, for example, the announcement this morning of the Sentencing Council’s consultation, suggesting that sentences for financial crimes should take into account the harm and impact on victims rather than just the sums involved. The sum of £2,000 scammed by a dodgy roofer from a pensioner could denude her life savings and shatter her confidence. At present, the sentence might only be a community order or, at most, six months. These guidelines would change the maximum to two years, and I believe that that reflects what society would expect.
The public expect those who, vulture-like, prey on their fellow citizens—particularly the most vulnerable—to be pursued vigorously and dealt with accordingly. That is why the picture painted by my noble friend Lady Crawley about the impact that recent budgetary decisions have had on local trading standards and local environmental health is so serious. Of course, the bleak economic environment referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, creates the climate in which it is more likely that scammers and fraudsters will emerge, and that is precisely why this is a time when it is particularly difficult, but especially important, that action is taken.
I am sure that the Government are serious about ensuring that the consumer is protected, but we have to acknowledge that the pressure on local budgets is not helping. There is a danger that the Government—I assume unintentionally—are about to make it all worse. There are proposals in the consumer rights Bill impacting on the powers of trading standards officers to enter and inspect. My noble friend Lady Crawley has already referred to those in brief. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what the problem is that these changes are designed to solve. The Government seem to envisage that in future two days’ notice should be given to traders before a visit—I repeat: two days’ notice. “Please Mr Rogue Trader, we want to come and visit the day after tomorrow, and please could you leave all your records of whom you’ve scammed in good order for us and leave all your counterfeit goods out for us to seize”. Come on. What precisely is intended to be the point of that? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us about the thinking that suggests that that is a sensible way forward. No doubt there will be exemptions but I come back to my question: what is the problem that the Government are trying to solve?
In any event, there is an advantage in unannounced visits. Certainly, some years ago when I was director of the Association of Community Health Councils, or when, as a new councillor 35 years ago, I visited care homes and children’s establishments without warning, the importance of such a facility was demonstrated to me. I remember the muttered asides and the nervous looks that told you far more than anything you would learn on an announced visit. That is why unannounced visits are important and why I wonder what the logic is in changing these things. The Government’s proposals will throw up anomalies. Some establishments will now end up being visited twice, instead of once, by the same officers. The Food Standards Authority requires, under statute, that some food-related visits are unannounced. The other, related, visits would be the subject of 48 hours’ notice. Why is that and whom does it protect?
How will a private dwelling be defined, as powers of entry will not be available for private dwellings? What if the dwelling is also the business office or contains the stores of business goods? Are they now protected, encouraging the bad guys to keep their records and their dodgy goods in their homes? It would also be helpful to have clarity about this.
What about the proposals to restrict trading standards services’ access to communications data under the Communications Data Bill? This will severely compromise the ability to protect communities and legitimate businesses and, indeed, to combat serious criminality. Communications data is used to support a broad range of investigations, often related to serious and organised crime and sometimes where consumers have been defrauded out of huge sums of money, or huge as far as they are concerned. This includes doorstep crime, unsafe and clocked vehicles and the sale of counterfeit goods, often over the internet. These rogue businesses often only display a single mobile phone number in a small ad or flyer, or hide their identity behind misleading internet accounts. Access to communications data is often the only effective way of pursuing an investigation into this type of crime.
I will cite only one example, although I have plenty more if people wish to hear them. Cambridgeshire County Council has one case proceeding through the courts with 17 defendants, three of whom have already received prison sentences. The total amount of money involved is £700,000, defrauded from over 100 victims. Picture again the pensioner who has potentially lost their life savings. The communications data on the landline phone numbers used on invoices by these individuals and the billing details on mobile phones made a substantial contribution to the evidence in that case. I presume that the Minister would not want such people to go unapprehended. How can taking those powers away from local trading standards departments possibly be justified? The public wants these people dealt with and surely so do the Government. Can the Minister explain the rationale? If the argument is that the powers have been misused, perhaps he could give us the evidence to show that that is the case.
I would like to hear why the Government think this is necessary because Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, charged by Parliament with reviewing the use of these powers, concluded in his evidence to the Protection of Freedoms Bill Public Bill Committee in 2011:
“I am aware that some sections of the media continue to be very critical of local authorities and there are allegations that they often use the powers which are conferred upon them under RIPA inappropriately. However, I can categorically state that no evidence”—
I repeat, no evidence—
“has emerged from our inspections that have taken place between 2005 and 2010, which indicates that communications data is being used to investigate offences of a trivial nature, such as dog fouling or littering. On the contrary it is evident that good use is being made of communications data to investigate the types of offences which cause harm to the public, such as investigating rogue traders, loan sharks and fly tipping offences … Often the telephone number or communications address is the only information/ intelligence the local authority has to progress the investigation and identify the alleged offender”.
Sir Paul Kennedy thinks the Government are wrong. I hope the Minister can tell us why they believe that restricting access to that data is right. Above all, how do the Government expect the public to be protected if the number of those engaged in trading standards work is reduced by one-fifth and those that are left can inspect only by appointment and cannot access basic communications data about who the bad guys are?
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Crawley on securing the debate and on her opening remarks, in which she sketched out clearly the potential dangers of reduced funding in these areas. It was based on her own experience, which I found interesting.
I shall confine my remarks to environmental health services issues. In varying forms these services are provided by each of the district, metropolitan and unitary authorities in England, and what environmental health officers do often goes unsung. I think it was my noble friend Lady Crawley who made the point that it is a success for them when nothing untoward happens, but increasingly that success is being challenged.
It is the job of environmental health officers to assess, correct and prevent those factors adversely affecting the health of current and future generations, whether in their homes, their schools or their workplaces or out and about, at leisure or on the move. Day to day, this important local service deals with housing, food safety, environmental protection and workplace health and safety.
The scale of this responsibility is perhaps best illustrated by reference to housing. There are some 9 million families in the private rented sector and many of the properties are defective in some way, a third of them failing to meet the Government’s decent homes standards. Gas safety and improving poor fire precautions are priorities, particularly in the increasing number of houses which are in multiple occupation.
Increasingly, the role of environmental health officers has been to help to shape healthier environments and to address the causes of health inequalities. It is those inequalities that Sir Michael Marmot’s 2010 report identified as costing the national economy—which of course involves each and every one of us—up to £70 billion each year. It seems an astronomical sum but it highlights the importance of this issue.
A year ago, the public sector trade union, UNISON, surveyed its members who work as environmental health officers. Problems associated with rogue landlords were seen as an issue by 42% of those surveyed who are dealing with these matters on a day-to-day basis. This was added to by comments that hitherto conscientious landlords were now more prone to cut corners for cost reasons. It was clear that less active regulation gave many landlords the confidence to act with impunity. Respondents pointed out the impact of poor housing and exposure to pests such as bed bugs on the health of families—in particular, its effect on children. These sorts of trends can only add further impetus to the ever-widening health inequalities within society.
Other challenges facing environmental health officers concern their involvement in workplace health and safety. Those responsibilities are concerned principally with reducing the numbers of injuries and fatalities from work-related activities in a wide range of premises, yet too many employers claim that such legislation and its enforcement constitute burdens. Can it ever be accepted that ensuring safety at work is a burden?
The Prime Minister likes to appease his Back-Benchers, it seems, by banging on about slashing so-called EU red tape. He actually means slashing employees’ rights at work—rights such as four weeks’ paid leave or limits on the hours that children and young people can work, rights for mothers such as the right not to be sacked for being pregnant or for taking time off for antenatal appointments, equal treatment for workers employed through an agency, and last, but by no means least, the requirement for employers to protect the health and safety of their employees at work.
The role played by environmental health officers in that is essential. However, as their numbers are cut, so too are the number of visits they can make. This allows some employers to make a risk assessment—not about their workers’ safety but about the likelihood of being found out for failing to comply with health and safety legislation. Environmental health officers not visiting premises regularly will result in poorer knowledge of what is happening in the business community and, inevitably, a rise in workplace injuries and deaths.
The UNISON survey also asked respondents to comment on how cuts made over the past two years—as a result of the 2010 comprehensive spending review—had impacted upon their ability to deliver environmental health services. The responses showed a clear picture of a diminishing workforce and, consequently, reduced services. This often meant that staff had less capacity to undertake proactive work with communities and business, and many environmental health officers felt that that was a false economy, effectively storing up greater problems in the long term.
When cuts are made to services that the public cannot immediately see, there is a danger that they will not realise how much they rely on them until those services are gone. Environmental health is a service that is not important unless or until there is a problem. The media and some politicians are often disdainful of health and safety merely as a concept, but whenever an event leads to serious injuries, or even perhaps deaths, those same people are quick to ask, “Why was this allowed to happen?”. Cause and effect needs to be appreciated, and the relentless drive for cuts should not be allowed to mask the inherent dangers that they involve.
Revenue support for English local authorities has been cut by about a third in real terms since the 2010 comprehensive spending review, and the further 10% cut announced by the Chancellor in yesterday’s review continues that trend. Recent data gathered by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health highlighted another effect of the cuts. They suggest that as many as 25% of the environmental health services provided by local authorities are no longer headed by a qualified person. That, I suggest, is a disgrace and should be a real cause for government concern. I ask the Minister: is it?
There can be no question that both the levels and quality of front-line services have been adversely affected by sharp reductions in their funding over the past three years. The health and safety, and well-being, of the public—often, the most vulnerable members of the public—are being compromised daily as a result. I say to the Minister: are the Government content to allow this to continue?
My Lords, I think we would all agree that this has been a most valuable debate, and it is on a matter close to my heart. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Crawley not just on bringing this subject to the attention of the House but on bringing the subject to life, and reminding us of the importance of regulatory services.
We probably know that the Minister, in responding, will talk about the valuable work of trading standards but we need the Government to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. As we have heard today, nearly 30% of funding has been lost from consumer protection and, as we heard yesterday, there are more cuts to come. Some services have lost half their income, while some are struggling with just one qualified member of staff. At the same time, consumer disputes and calls to Citizens Advice are at an all-time high of about 1 million a year. Consumer detriment costs consumers about £6.5 billion, yet only £170 million is spent dealing with it. While the Government will try to suggest that responsibility for cutting trading standards rests with local councils, what choice do those councils have in the face of mounting social care bills and ring-fenced education budgets?
Some suggest that the answer, as we have heard, is for more innovation to make efficiencies. That seems to be the Government’s answer to just about every problem. However, there is compelling evidence from the National Audit Office that the unique nature of risks from a business operating across the UK, as opposed to risks originating from the building it occupies, means that something more radical is needed to safeguard consumer protection. We are therefore talking about not just funding but intelligence, structures and powers. Nor can the Government’s localist policies be used to shield or absolve them from their accountability for consumer protection. It is a government remit and there is a responsible Minister. The NAO estimates that nearly £5 billion of consumer detriment occurs across local authority boundaries, meaning that it can never be dealt with by a single local authority. Every local authority must play its part, working together to join up the dots of intelligence before mobilising a team to deal with the mischief and bring the perpetrator to justice.
The OFT estimated that when it led on consumer enforcement it was exposed to £10 million of legal risk at any one time. How many local authority trading standards, or indeed their council members, could possibly put their hands up to that? When investigations largely benefit those outside the area of an individual local authority, coupled with those investigations carrying high levels of risk, it is easy to sympathise with any local council for being wary of taking on the challenge. The result is that we have a patchy framework, a coalition of the willing, and too many consumers are missing out on the protection they need. That is why we need some action.
A stunning return on investment has been demonstrated by the new National Trading Standards Board, which as we have heard is now chaired by my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey. Last year it dealt with £145 million of consumer fraud, at a cost of only a tenth of that. It is a shining example of how investment pays off, and of what can be achieved by rebalancing local and national resources. We are not calling for a nationalised service, but for the re-engineering of a service with historic roots in local markets and shops, but which must now protect consumers who function in a global economy. Consumers and businesses have changed, and so must the services which police them. The work of the National Trading Standards Board is a taster of what could be achieved if consumer protection was properly resourced and properly empowered.
Finally, I come to the very welcome draft consumer rights Bill, which others have mentioned. I congratulate the Government on this. It represents a step forward for consumer rights. However, as any trading officer will attest, enforcement and the education of consumers about their rights will be crucial. The Bill also contains some confusing messages, as already outlined by my noble friends Lady Crawley and Lord Harris. If they are right, the Government appear to be proposing to reduce the penalty for obstructing an officer when carrying out his or her duty from a level 5 to a level 3 fine. That will incentivise obstructive behaviour, because it will be cheaper to pay the fine for obstructing an officer than to risk a proper penalty.
The other issue that was mentioned is the requirement for officers to serve written notice to traders two days before they carry out inspections. I have only to mention breast implants in France for us to remember that two days notice allowed all the silicone to be removed. We have already heard how unhelpful these issues would be to trading standards. However, I congratulate the Government on there being a draft Bill, and hope that they will rethink this. The issues mentioned would also add to cost and bureaucracy, which I understood the objective was to diminish rather than increase. More than that, they would undermine the very objectives of the trading standards service, which is to protect consumers. We would lose a third of the workforce, with powers diluted and costs increased.
We need to know whether the Government are genuine in putting consumers’ interests above those of business. As the Minister will have been briefed, he well knows that cutting £1 from trading standards costs the economy £6. Exactly how does this help the economy to move from “rescue to recovery”, as the Chancellor articulated yesterday? What will the Government do to ensure that citizens are not caught in a consumer protection postcode lottery? Given that the amendment successfully made to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill only requires letting agents to join a redress scheme, leaving enforcement to trading standards officers, what thought have the Government given to this vital area of consumer detriment? In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, the biggest consumer fraud of the century, how can the Minister justify a dilution of officers’ powers to protect consumers in the United Kingdom?
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this important and timely short debate—and I am pleased to respond to it. I begin by commending trading standards, environmental health and other local authority officers who, day to day, protect us. Their hard work ensures that we get accurate measures at the petrol pump and bar, and buy food that is fit for human consumption. Such effective regulation affords us a good quality of life and the Government value the hard work of those public servants.
The Government have taken major steps to reform the consumer landscape since 2012. These reforms will improve consumer protection. There will be clearer responsibilities and better co-ordination between consumer bodies and enforcers. Through the recalibration of the OFT and trading standards enforcement responsibilities, we have taken measures to close the enforcement gap without spending extra money. Consumers will benefit from the strengthened protection available to them. That is why in April 2012 we created a new National Trading Standards Board, while similar arrangements are taking shape in Scotland. This is making sure that local trading standards offices can work together and enforce the law across the country—something that was not easy to do before. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on his recent appointment as chair of the National Trading Standards Board. It has had a tremendous first year and will go from strength to strength under his leadership.
Alongside this, in April 2013 the Citizens Advice service became the publicly funded voice of consumers, championing their needs and empowering them to make the right choices for themselves. Consumers need someone they can trust and who has a track record in providing knowledgeable, fair and impartial advice. To ensure that the consumer bodies in the reformed landscape work better together, we have established a consumer protection partnership involving the OFT, the National Trading Standards Board, the Trading Standards Institute, the Financial Conduct Authority, Consumer Futures, the Citizens Advice service and consumer bodies from Scotland and Northern Ireland. They will share intelligence and assess and address consumer detriment, providing accountability for the national consumer protection system.
In addition, the Government are working to promote the efficiency and capacity of local authority regulatory services, enabling them to play their role in protecting consumers and promoting a level playing field for business. We will have better targeted enforcement, balanced by businesses which are better able to comply. There are over 400 local authorities across the UK, delivering vital protections in trading standards and environmental health as well as services on behalf of a range of regulators. Local authority regulators are at the forefront of interaction with business and have an important role to play in supporting their local areas by protecting consumers and facilitating local growth. While they are best placed to regulate local issues, there are challenges in achieving consistency between them.
The primary authority scheme enables businesses operating across local authority boundaries in England and Wales to form a partnership with a single local authority to co-ordinate advice, inspection and enforcement by trading standards and environmental health services. It provides advice, on a cost-recovery basis, that a business can rely on. It saves time for officers, promotes information sharing and reduces duplication. These benefits are why, to date, 759 businesses and 103 local authorities have entered primary authority partnerships.
Through her excellent work with the Trading Standards Institute, the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, will be as aware as I am of the importance of the professional competency of regulatory officers in supporting both consumer and business confidence. That is why the Government have created a common approach to professional competency for regulators across disciplines in environmental health and trading standards. This provides cost-effective means for regulators to improve the capacity and effectiveness of staff. The Government are supporting local authority innovation to provide more efficient and effective regulatory services. We are providing small targeted grants to encourage innovation, and are working hand in hand with local enterprise partnerships to support them in providing a better regulatory environment for businesses.
I will now talk about local government finance, which was more or less touched on by most noble Lords. This year’s local government finance settlement marked a new approach for local government, based on self-determination and financial independence. It is the start of the biggest shake-up of local government finance in a generation. We are shifting power from Whitehall to town hall, by providing a direct financial incentive for councils to promote growth and jobs in their areas. Councils now have more power than ever before but they need to understand the implication of this, and they have to act in their residents’ best interests and work harder on their behalf.
We recognise that last year, local government showed commendable skill in reducing budgets while still protecting front-line services. Now, through our community and neighbourhood budgets, we are rewiring the system and bringing local regulatory services together from right across the board, including local authorities, the police and the health service. They are finding millions of pounds-worth in local savings.
Whole-place community budgets provide an opportunity to align public sector activities, to make them more streamlined and efficient. My noble friend Lady Seccombe mentioned the freeze in council tax, which was extended again yesterday and has been welcomed by families up and down the country. Yesterday, the Chancellor said that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is a model for lean government. I also think the Secretary of State has a great knowledge of his portfolio and has helped to encourage the innovative thinking mentioned by my noble friend. While councils may face difficult choices, trading standards and environmental health are not being singled out. Ultimately, it is for local authorities to determine their own spending priorities. However, there must be balance: if councils intend to increase council tax then they should be able to demonstrate good value to their taxpayers.
This is a new dawn for local government, and regulatory services have a part to play in creating healthy local communities. From now on, if councils bring in more business and more jobs, they will be rewarded through retaining a greater share of business tax. My noble friend Lady Seccombe asked about the sums involved here. From April, local authorities directly retain nearly £11 billion of business rates instead of returning it to the Treasury, and they keep the growth of that share of business rates. Councils will benefit by doing the right thing by their communities. If they bring in jobs and businesses, they will be rewarded. Research suggests that allowing councils to keep a share of the business rates could generate an additional £10 billion for the national economy by 2020.
We are also ensuring that people have the information they need to hold their local authorities to account for how they spend taxpayers’ money, and for citizens, businesses and the voluntary sector to suggest ways of providing better value services which meet local needs. The code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency sets out three guiding principles: they should be open, demand-led, and timely.
A number of other questions were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris, about the consumer Bill giving two days’ notice. It is about balance: we must not unduly burden compliant businesses, for whom that burden is unnecessarily stressful. The Bill will allow trading standards officers to undertake spot checks as and when they want to. Giving 48 hours’ notice enables business owners to prepare themselves but if we receive any intelligence that something is wrong with their business and that it should be investigated, the officers have the authority to make an instant inspection.
The noble Baroness raises a very important issue. I cannot confirm this, but I am guessing that a lot of the inspectors who inspect those premises quite often get some intelligence that people are not doing the right thing. They then have the right and the authority to do an instant inspection. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned nursing homes where the same thing happens. Notice is given for the inspection of nursing homes and this is to enable the owners and managers, who are quite often not there, to be there. In the face of cuts elsewhere, we will be investing in trading standards so they can take wider responsibilities in this particular area. I am afraid that 48 hours is the norm that has been put in place.
A couple of other issues were raised but I will probably write to the noble Baroness on these. In summary, the Government are rebalancing responsibility. Local areas are best placed to understand their communities and innovate to deliver the best services for them. This is not simply because of the need to balance the nation’s books, but because we believe there are more effective and efficient ways of delivering services which can be best identified locally.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, for allowing the Committee to debate this important topic. I again thank all noble Lords for taking part in this debate. I know this area concerns us all. It is going through some reforms but given time, I am sure that the Government will realise if things are not going well. We always help with changing things if we have to.