Which?’s National Trade Conversation has revealed the four main priorities of UK consumers when it comes to trade deals.
Maintaining health and safety standards for food and products, data security regulations, addressing regional inequalities and protecting the environment were the biggest concerns.
The National Trade Conversation is the first major study into what consumers want from trade deals currently being negotiated with Australia, New Zealand and the US. A deal with Japan has already been agreed in principle.
Leaving the EU is the biggest shake-up in a generation for the way we trade, with major consequences for what we buy and the prices we pay.
Yet consumers have been on the periphery of negotiations, too often behind business and labour concerns – a situation Which? wants to change.
Here, we explain what the National Trade Conversation is, the key findings and how the UK’s trade deal negotiators should respond.
What is the National Trade Conversation?
The objective of the research was to answer an important question: what matters to people about the consumer aspects of the UK’s trade deals, when the risks and benefits are explained?
Given the complexity of trade deals, a simple survey was never going to suffice.
With the help of research agency Hopkins Van Mil, we embarked on deliberative research – essentially getting people in a room (virtually, due to COVID-19), bringing in a range of experts to give them the facts, then asking participants what they thought.
Starting in August, we held separate workshops for people from within 40 miles radius of Newcastle/South Shields, Cardiff, Dundee, Swindon and across Northern Ireland. The aim was to represent all four nations, urban and rural areas, and both leave and remain voters in the 2016 EU referendum.
In total, 97 people took part. Here’s what they told us.
What do consumers want?
Our aim was to understand the range of views rather than to achieve consensus. Nevertheless, we found the following priorities were shared by most participants in most locations:
Maintain health & safety standards for food and products
This was one of the most important issues for participants, who were worried that the UK could be under pressure to allow imports produced to lower standards in other countries.
Participants said they were proud that the UK had some of the highest standards in the world, which had taken many years to build up.
They didn’t believe having access to more lower-standard products necessarily increases meaningful choice – it may instead increase existing inequality.
- Find our more: what Brexit means for food
Maintain data security regulations that protect consumers’ data and digital rights
Due in part to COVID-19, the widespread use of digital services means that we’re sharing more data with companies – and consumers wanted companies held accountable for keeping it safe.
Participants were wary of regulations being relaxed. Although people thought that the current system wasn’t perfect, they were very wary of any relaxation of their protections.
The priority countries that the UK is seeking trade deals with have different approaches to data protection – and none live up to the current general data protection regulations.
- Find out more: how data breaches lead to fraud
Help to address regional inequalities by protecting and promoting jobs, skills and industries across the UK
The consumers we spoke to wanted trade deals that help all parts of the UK to thrive – not just the service sectors of London and the South East.
They wanted the UK’s telecoms and digital industries promoted, and the government to help re-skill workers from industries that lose out.
- Find out more: what Brexit means for cars
Protect our environment
Trade deals should align with the UK’s climate change and sustainability targets (such as net zero by 2050), according to participants.
They thought it was essential to minimise the environmental impacts of what they buy. People saw a real opportunity to promote green trade that would not only benefit the UK, but the whole world.
- Find out more: recycling rules and logos explained
What does this mean for trade deal negotiations?
The National Trade Conversation findings have significant implications for UK negotiators.
The findings demonstrate that assuming consumers are wholly focused on choice and price is wrong. While these matter, consumers also care about the environment, health, employment and fair trade.
They wanted the government to apply a long-term view to its trade deal negotiations and not settle for short-term gains with long-term costs.
Finally, they expected the government to involve them in negotiations through clear communications, and present the evidence and expertise guiding negotiating goals.
It’s vital that UK trade policy earns and maintains the trust of the public.
Through the National Trade Conversation, the public’s views have been made clear and provide a good starting point as to how this trust can be grown both through policy as well as wider approach.
The government can demonstrate that it’s committed to putting consumers in the driving seat by pushing for a consumer chapter to be included in trade deals and ensuring that advisory groups on trade include meaningful consumer representation.