Trading standards’ new powers used 27 times
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New powers given to trading standards officers to spy on suspected fraudsters and bad companies were used 27 times last year, new figures show.
Thirteen authorisations were granted to officers under the Ripa (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) in 2012/3 for surveillance, which mainly involved the sale of counterfeit goods, but also unfair trading practices and false representations.
The act was used five times to grant authorisations for the first time this year to conduct covert online test purchases to enable investigations into the sale of counterfeit and/or unsafe goods.
And nine authorisations were granted to acquire communications data (telecoms), for investigations into the sale of counterfeit goods, plus a consumer protection investigation into car sales, and 'clocked' motor vehicles.
A report into the use of Ripa by Norfolk County Council was noted by the cabinet at a meeting at County Hall yesterday.
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Dan Roper, cabinet member for public protection, endorsed the report, and said: 'Trading standards officers have a very difficult job trying to keep people safe from rogue traders. Criminals act in very covert ways and the Ripa provisions are used in a proportionate way by this authority.'
Two changes governing how local authorities use Ripa were introduced from November 1, 2012. A magistrate's approval is now required for local authority use of Ripa, in addition to the authorisation needed from a senior manager within the council and the more general oversight by elected councillors.
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And the use of Ripa to authorise directed surveillance only is now confined to cases where the offence carries a jail sentence of six months or more. But this is not applied in the case of investigations into underage sales of alcohol and tobacco.
The report noted that the effect of this change was to remove the power to authorise covert surveillance in relation to all alleged breaches of planning control.
It comes just days after trading standards bosses warned that investigations and enforcement action against rogue traders, fraudsters and businesses selling alcohol to children will be scaled back if wide-ranging council cuts go ahead.
As part of a package of £140m cuts proposed by leaders at Norfolk County Council, scam prevention, tests on consumer goods and the popular Trusted Trader scheme are all at risk in the authority's trading standards department.
Under one of the proposals, aimed at saving £370,000 over three years, trading standards advice will be scaled back to focus on what the council department has to do by law.
And that is likely to have a significant impact on the number of investigations which trading standards officers can carry out against businesses which operate unfairly.
Only the most serious cases would be investigated and officers would only be able to offer advice and support to the county's most vulnerable people if they are pursuing criminal investigations.
General consumer advice and support to individuals would no longer be provided, while businesses could have to pay for advice they seek.