As the UK starts to develop its own trade policy and to negotiate new trade deals for the first time in over 40 years, it was important for Which? to understand what consumers want from future policy. In order to find out, we commissioned the National Trade Conversation (NTC) – a large scale piece of deliberative research that would give people a unique opportunity to say what their priorities are when the breadth of issues that could be part of trade talks are explained.
About the methodology and content
The NTC was made up of virtual public dialogues in 5 locations, covering all nations of the UK. Each dialogue was made up of 5 separate 2 hour workshops — so participants spent a substantial amount of time debating the question at hand. In total, 97 members of the public took part in the National Trade Conversation. It was important to us for the NTC to be as inclusive as possible, so participants were recruited to reflect a broad cross section of society. Likewise, we ensured the evidence provided came from a range of organisations and experts.
International trade is a complex topic, so the NTC was designed to ensure participants had a confident grasp of the basics of trade before beginning to deliberate on what their priorities were. We also made sure to build in time so that participants felt encouraged to ask questions throughout the process. Given trade covers a vast range of products and services, we decided to bring the issues to life using a few key examples. We talked about how food, cars and toiletries could be affected by trade, as well as digital trade as an example service. Participants then put together their key priorities for the UK’s future trade deals.
Key findings of the National Trade Conversation
Looking across all the priorities from each of the five locations, four key priorities emerged. These were:
- Maintain health & safety standards for food and products
- Maintain data security regulations that protect consumers’ digital rights
- Help address regional inequalities by protecting and promoting jobs, skills and industries across the UK
- Protect our environment.
We also identified four principles that underpinned these priorities, which were:
- Trade deals should be fair for all involved
- Trade deals should aim to be ‘future-proofed’ and reflect long term aspirations
- Trade deals should represent the whole of the UK
- Trade deals need to be made more transparent for consumers.
Views on priority trading partners
We showed participants the UK’s negotiating objectives for each of these four countries and, where applicable, their negotiating objectives for the UK.
The Department for International Trade has identified four trading partners with whom agreeing a free trade agreement is a priority. We showed participants the UK’s negotiating objectives for each of these four countries and, where applicable, their negotiating objectives for the UK. The UK and Japan agreed a free trade agreement whilst the National Trade Conversation was being carried out. Participants’ responses to the remaining three priority countries are summarised below.
The United States
It was clear to participants that it is important for the UK to secure a trade deal with the USA, given the size of its economy and its global influence. They were positive about USA objectives which have a clear consumer benefit — such as reducing/removing tariffs on products like cars and clothing. However, consumers were mostly negative about the USA’s negotiating objectives and felt they reflected an aggressive and uncompromising approach.
Participants wanted reassurance that a future trade deal with the USA would not compromise the levels of data protection they currently enjoy.
The USA was generally perceived to have lower standards and consumer protections than the UK, especially for food. Many participants were also surprised to learn about the lower levels of consumer data protection and security in the USA compared to the UK. Participants wanted reassurance that a future trade deal with the USA would not compromise the levels of data protection they currently enjoy.
Participants generally felt the trading objectives of Australia and the UK were broadly complementary. Participants were pleased to see the potential benefits of reducing/removing tariffs on a range of Australian consumer goods. They were also positive about the possibility of a future deal including sustainability provisions about the environment and climate change. However, many participants were surprised to learn that Australia permits some food production methods which are currently banned in the UK, and did not want this to be imported to the UK.
At the time of the research, New Zealand had not released detailed negotiating objectives so participants had limited materials to discuss. Overall, many of the views participants held about an Australia—UK trade deal held true for a New Zealand—UK trade deal too. This included positivity about the benefits to UK consumers if tariffs are reduced/removed on a range of consumer products, but also worry about the impact on the environment if the UK imported substantially more goods from New Zealand.
Recommendations from Which?
We have written a policy paper outlining our recommendations to the government, based on our insights from the NTC. These include, but are not limited to:
- The government should take the opportunity to work with trading partners to improve consumer protections and standards — whether for safety, animal welfare or wider sustainability and based on the precautionary principle.
- This approach is also needed for standards for consumer products more generally. The UK must ensure that trade deals uphold consumer protections and that any move to alignment or recognition of the other countries’ standards, or how compliance with our standards is assessed, will not undermine this.
- The government must ensure that provisions relating to digital trade and data flows within the trade deals it is negotiating uphold the protections that consumers can expect under the current GDPR regime.
- The UK should play a leading role in placing environmental considerations at the heart of the trade deals it is negotiating, including through a specific chapter that goes beyond the sustainable development chapter that has been included in EU trade deals the UK has been party to.
You can find out more on Which?’s work on trade policy, as well as read the full report on the NTC, here.
- TACD’s policy documents on trade are here.