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10 Feb 2020

Will consumers get a say in trade deal negotiations?

Trade policy affects travel, food and our rights, but consumers risk being left out

Consumers think they're among the least likely groups to be represented at trade deal negotiations, Which? research has found.

Government priorities, business interests and workforce issues are expected to take precedence over consumer concerns, the survey of 2,269 UK adults carried out last year found.

One in five of those surveyed were worried that consumers won't be represented at all.

The research forms part of a new Which? policy paper 'Ensuring trade deals work for consumers'.

Here we explain why it's so vital trade deals deliver for consumers - protecting rights and standards, whilst delivering new tangible benefits.

Why consumers must be heard

Although the UK formally left the EU on 31 January, the transition period has meant very little has changed for consumers.

Any big changes will be the result of trade negotiations, both with the EU and other countries such as the US, which will begin later this year.

The UK is in the unusual position of being able to design a trade policy from scratch. But consumers may struggle to participate in influencing that new policy, with 70% of those we surveyed saying they don't feel knowledgeable about how the UK trades with other countries.

It's not that consumers don't care, however: we've found that people hold strong opinions on many issues, such as food.

93% of those we surveyed said it's important that UK food standards are maintained after Brexit, with serious concerns over growth hormones in beef and chlorinated chicken.

That said, we found that consumers anticipate positive outcomes from trade deals, particularly those outside the EU and we are keen that these opportunities are seized by Government.

Our paper outlines what new benefits could be sought for consumers in areas like travel and cross border shopping.

Four key tests for trade deals

For any trade deal to be consumer-friendly, we believe it should pass four key tests:

  • Standards - Safety and quality standards must be maintained and enhanced.
  • Choice -  People should have greater access to high-quality goods and services.
  • Price -  Lower prices should be pursued as long as standards, choice and your rights aren’t affected. 
  • Rights -  Consumers need to be supported by consumer rights and effective redress if anything goes wrong.

Beyond these tests, the government can make changes to make sure consumers are heard.

A 'consumer chapter' should be included in any trade deals, which would recognise the rights of each country to maintain existing levels of consumer protection.

All agreements should also include a 'floor' below which consumer rights will not be permitted to fall, with provisions to enhance these rights.

Find out more: travel during the Brexit transition explained, from Ehics to driving licences.

What Which? is doing

Our paper on 'Ensuring trade deals work for consumers' is only the latest in Which?'s research into Brexit and trade.

Our Consumer Charter for Brexit sets out our views on how to minimise the risks and maximise the opportunities of leaving the EU.

Which? is a member of the government's Strategic Trade Advisory Group, which brings together experts to advise ministers on trade policy. We're also working with other consumer organisations across Europe.