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Overcoming adversity: CTSI Heroes praised at landmark virtual awards

Speed, adaptability and unwavering hard work formed the pillars of this year’s CTSI Hero Awards. Now in their 15th year, the awards took a different format – the first ever virtual ceremony.

Despite ongoing restrictions, senior officers from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute logged on to present the awards, led by Vice Chair Wendy Potts. In a brief introduction, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy addressed the term “hero” in a pandemic.

“A hero is described as somebody known for their courage and achievements. These awards will celebrate those who have worked tirelessly on the front line to protect consumers from harm.”

Adapting to the ‘new normal’ took centre stage in this year’s ceremony, held on Friday 9th October. While every trading standards officer goes above and beyond to protect consumers, this year will doubtless be remembered as one of the most challenging in their careers. With Brexit, political uncertainty and budget cuts to overcome, a pandemic was an unexpected curveball that transformed our heroes’ priorities.

In a nod to these teams’ outstanding dedication, CTSI created a new category for 2020: the award for Outstanding COVID-19 Contribution. Both branch and section winners were recognised for their efforts, but this new category would highlight these teams’ incredible resolve in times of crisis.

New challenges

A surge in criminal activity related to the pandemic has put unforeseen pressure on the Institute. In particular, fraudsters are targeting the vulnerable through email and telephone scams. Meanwhile, in March, CTSI warned consumers against opening their doors to bogus healthcare workers offering ‘home kits’.

This posed an unprecedented challenge to stop the spread of disinformation. Many winners were recognised this year for their outstanding contributions to public service – producing vital documentation to keep consumers safe.

One such hero who has seen these dangers first-hand is Paul Holland, who won the coveted Brian Smith Hero Award. Paul had worked with Brian, who sadly passed in 2017, on a ground-breaking scam prevention scheme for local authorities throughout Scotland.

Since 2013, the scheme has blocked more than 1 million nuisance phone calls, and put more than 1,200 prevention packages in place. Paul faced funding hurdles and increased demand due to ageing populations. Despite this, his steely determination saw the scheme expanding from just three Scottish regions to the entire nation.

Paul said: “Since the pandemic, scams have increased fourfold. There are many vulnerable households out there who may fall prey to doorstep sellers. Brian has inspired us all to carry on with our prevention work, which has saved thousands of pounds and supported people to live independently.

“I’m so proud to be part of a team who worked round-the-clock to secure extra funding for this project. The feedback from families has been great, from reduced financial strain to less stress. To be recognised in honour of Brian is just fantastic.”

Katherine Hart, a CTSI Lead Officer at Angus Council Trading Standards, was also awarded for her contributions to preventing doorstep crime.

Getting up to speed

With ever-developing lockdown legislation, UK trading standards officers have been up against the clock. Demonstrating unsurpassed diligence, speed and teamwork, the Environmental Health and Trading Standards COVID 19 Expert Group took home the Outstanding COVID Team category.

The staff were nominated by Paul Bannister of North Lanarkshire Council. Protective Services Manager Paul was overwhelmed at the performance of the group, who coordinated the Scottish local authority enforcement response to Health Protection in just three days.

On 26th March, the new Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020 came into force. Both Trading Standards and Environmental Health officers were tasked with producing guidelines – not only to stop the spread, but to maintain business compliance.

Paul said: “The restrictions were passed in Parliament at 7:15pm on Thursday 26th March. By close of play Friday, the team had got together and ratified a prohibition template from scratch. The only word I can use to describe their expertise and teamwork is ‘astonishing’.”

The team faced not only time constraints, but uniting entirely disparate departments. Their guidelines were rolled out among 32 Scottish authorities, as well as Police Scotland.

“Never in my 30+ years dealing with Scottish and UK government departments have I been so impressed. These individuals all volunteered, on top of their day jobs, to collate, share and develop this advice. We’re soon to be facing the monumental challenges of Brexit, but with their drive and commitment, I’m confident that they can do anything.”

While this award epitomised team success, we must also give thanks to key individuals. Hertfordshire Trading Standards Lead Officer Vicki Burch won an individual hero award for her outstanding contributions to health and safety compliance.

Like Paul Holland, Vicki was overwhelmed with the award and wanted to put the spotlight on her staff. “It’s really lovely to know that we’ve been recognised as a team in what has been a very stressful time.”

Chair of the East of England Product Safety group Vicki led the charge on personal protective equipment business compliance. She faced a series of challenges, including business closures and changing guidance on precautionary measures.

Despite these obstacles, Vicki composed a ‘business companion’ guide – a comprehensive set of compliance guidelines for all businesses. “There were so many different considerations,” says Vicki.

“Some were quite simple, such as the hospitality industry, but then we had to consider importers, manufacturers, retailers. We needed to put them into layman’s terms so that local authorities could distribute them among several industries.”

This was compounded with differing legislation between UK and EU products, plus the difficulty of warning the general public about PPE scams. In a matter of days, Vicki was able to produce guidelines that would be used nationwide – as well as run webinars and training.

Praising the unsung heroes

The Hero Awards are renowned not just for recognising trading standards officers, but for the consumers they protect. One brave individual was named a Hero for stepping up and sharing her experiences after she was targeted by a loan shark.

Mum of five Becky, whose name has been changed, was nearly driven to suicide after a seven-year battle. She was nominated by the National Trading Standards Illegal Money Lending Team for coming forward.

Holly Luckman, Press and Communications Officer at the England Illegal Money Lending Team, spoke of Becky’s bravery.

“A vulnerable woman had moved to a new area and was struggling to make ends meet. She befriended one of the mums at the local school, and told her she was desperate to buy new school uniforms.

“This supposed ‘friend’ lent Becky the small sum of £50, which, over seven years, became £35,000.”

Unbeknownst to Becky, she had borrowed money from a notorious loan shark, who had employed this ‘friend’ to take regular payments. Becky was followed when collecting benefit money, and the friend had also begun making threats to the family.

Fearing reprehension from the police, Becky did not ask for help. It was only when she confided in a support worker that she was able to get help from the NTS team.

Holly added: “Becky has a new life now. She’s moved away and her family are safe. She’s also shared her story anonymously on several press outlets. She recently featured on the BBC and Channel 4, and we’re pleased to say she’s inspired so many more to come forward.”

The NTS team have praised Becky for her role in raising awareness of these illegal practices. Many victims may feel like they are wasting police time, or fear being prosecuted themselves. Becky’s story is just one of many that have won previous Hero Awards. She told Holly: “If my story can help even one single person escape loan sharks, that’s progress.”

One element that may have been overlooked during the pandemic is animal welfare. Another group of unsung heroes was the National Animal Health and Welfare Panel. Comprising six members, the team produced national guidelines for daily animal welfare threat identification.

Stephanie Young, Principal Trading Standards Officer at Staffordshire County Council, was thrilled with the award. “It’s so lovely to see the field of animal and welfare recognised. Awards are often targeted towards people, so it’s great to see another area of trading recognised. We’re a voluntary panel that has worked non-stop throughout the pandemic.”

The group were faced with an ever-growing list of concerns as lockdown was announced. On 23rd March, they agreed to set up a daily animal welfare threat identification teleconference. Stephanie says: “There were so many things to consider, even the individual businesses that would have an impact on animals. Something as small as the closure of a dog grooming business could have untold side effects on animal welfare.”

Coupled with this, Stephanie’s team also had to overcome changing rules in different local authorities. “There was no rulebook. We all take a different stance on what the law says. We had to take a national approach and produce consistent guidance.”

The group worked with local authorities and local government to identify threats, from pet ownership to livestock. They also put together FAQ guides, and held regular calls with organisations such as Defra UK.

“We had to consider both country and district trading standards, as well as environmental health. We became the first port of call for questions. As legislation changed, we had to respond to that battle rhythm.”

Onwards and upwards for the heroes of 2020

If there is anything that 2020 has proved, it’s the unmatched dedication of trading standards officers across Britain. Battling deadlines, changing rules and the ongoing pressures of their day to day roles, these individuals have more than earned their 2020 accolades.

Peter Stonely recognises these contributions more than most. The Joint Lead Officer for Civil Law, Peter has worked with CTSI for more than 20 years. He was honoured to receive the Outstanding Contribution to Trading Standards Award, and spoke highly of all this year’s heroes.

“It came as quite a shock. I wondered why I had been asked to give a round of thanks at this year’s Hero Awards. It was only afterward that I realised it was because I’d won Outstanding Contribution.

“When I look at those who have won it in previous years, I’m honoured. All of these people have put so much into the profession, and I have nothing but the deepest respect for them.”

Peter, who was recognised for his vital role in establishing the 2015 Consumer Rights Act, gave an uplifting speech from his home. “My colleagues are passionate, and every person who has been put forward for an award has shown that. They’ve gone above and beyond what is expected of them.”

2021 will not be without its trials for these trading standards heroes, but with their new experiences, they’re doubtless ready and waiting.

PRO

Katie Thompson

Katie Lingo

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katie@katielingo.co.uk
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