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Brexit: consumer needs must be front and centre

Brexit westminster

Plans for the UK’s departure from the European Union are now underway. While the government is setting up an all-business forum to consider the needs of the economy, we’re concerned the voice of consumers isn’t being heard.

Writing in The Times today, I’ve again pressed for David Davis, as the reappointed Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, to consider the important role consumers should play in the Brexit negotiations.

Sir,

During the financial crisis of 2009, Which? established the Future of Banking Commission to give consumers, who had been ignored despite paying the price in bailouts and austerity measures, a voice at the heart of the debate. That Commission was chaired by David Davis MP.

Today, eight years on, Mr Davis has created a business forum designed to ensure that the Government’s negotiating position on Brexit reflects the needs of the economy. However, the voice of consumers, who not only voted for Brexit but will also pay the bills and feel the effects, is once again missing despite the fact that consumer confidence is what is keeping our economy growing.

Mr Davis now has the opportunity to remember the vision that led him to produce that important report on banking. To ensure consumer needs are front and centre in the negotiations, he should now invite consumer representatives, such as Which?, to join this critical forum.

Peter Vicary-Smith
Chief Executive
Which?

Have your say

Do you think that consumers are being appropriately represented in the Brexit negotiations? Should Which? and other consumer representatives have a role in this business forum?

Comments

It is perfectly simple. Business is pressurizing the Government over the terms of Brexit; so should consumer organizations. The view of business is rarely congruent with that of the consumer. The consumer wants quality products at low prices, whereas business wants the least disruption possible to their existing trading links, and will ignore consumer interests which lie with the expanded international free trade that should follow leaving the EU.

I agree with your analysis Allen.

The bottom line is that in a capitalist system, sorry to introduce the term, we need to have successful companies selling goods and employing workers [consumers].

Civil servants, journalists, newscasters etc produce no outputs of value but can exist because the money pump to pay for them is production and services that we can sell internally and to the world.

We have to be realistic about this simple fact – trade is what pays. Who pays calls the tune .

The role of Which? or other charities cannot be to sit at the top table and be part of the solution presented to the people [us]. What charities need to do is draw the lines in the sand when the Government tries to use the Brexit negotiations as an excuse for attacking the NHS , or worsening protective laws.

Part of the line-drawing is surely to educate the public on the potential outcomes and dangers. In this respect Which? was a total failure when TTIP was a possibility and Brussels swarmed with company lobbyists Which? said nowt.

I very much fear that getting too close to Govt. may weaken severely the ability to criticise openly when and if there are unacceptable moves that adversely affect consumers.

I cannot see why it is necessary to discriminate between charities and other organisations that represent consumer interests.Personally,I find continuing references to ‘the charity’ [i.e. Which?] distracting and confusing. I understand the implications of a charitable structure and its obligations but I don’t see that as being especially relevant in this discussion. There are various organisations with charitable, non-charitable, ethical, friendly, voluntary, not-for-profit status,and in other ways independent of government, that can contribute , and if we are not careful they will take Which?’s seat at any table.

I am also not sure of what “getting too close to Govt.” implies. This is about trying to get a place at “a business forum designed to ensure that the Government’s negotiating position on Brexit reflects the needs of the economy“. The Which? CEO says the Secretary of State “should now invite consumer representatives, such as Which?, to join this critical forum“. “Critical” in both senses of the word I hope. I don’t think this stance is evidence of any complicity with the government. Which? can take its own minutes of any meeting and challenge any spin or misrepresentation that might be put on the discussions.

JW-

Firstly . As you may know the ability for charities to be active in a “political” way has been affected by recent legislation which does make them different from the other variety of groups you describe but do not elucidate who they actually are. I am a little surprised you do not add that MP’s should also be representing consumer interests.

Secondly. “and if we are not careful they will take Which?’s seat at any table.” If you recall the Government got Which? to chair a committee on Direct Marketing which eventually produced a toothless report which seemed more to represent the views of the Direct Marketing industry rather than that of consumers .

The desire to be seen as important seems to be the main driver for this letter. Surely a rational man would see that the chances of affecting the negotiations are laughfully unlikely inside the system and Which? is better off outside being able to criticise as the leaks appear rather than stifled from commenting as an insider to the process.

In case it helps appreciate the immediate threats I would suggest bouncing into a trade treaty with the US a la TTIP is perhaps the most immediate danger to the British consumer.

Thanks, Patrick.

Much of our industry has been moved to other European countries with EU money for which we should be getting compensation as part of the negotiations.

One thing the government should be doing is getting industry working in this country again and importantly, British owned. We should not be relying on trade deals to support ourselves but creating products that we and other countries want, training and jobs for the unemployed, employment in areas of high unemployment, giving people back their dignity and hope for the future.

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I would love to see a return to the days when every washing machine, television, motor car, and piece of furniture, as well as all the linens, clothing and accessories for domestic life were produced here, plus all the machine tools and equipment for factories, offices and shops. Wouldn’t we all? But nobody has come up with the slightest idea of how we can achieve that .

Unfortunately, the decision to outsource so much of our consumption was taken by British traders and retailers, designers and manufacturers who saw an easy way out from difficult labour forces, outdated plant and equipment, high wages and tax obligations, and a generally inflexible industrial infrastructure.

Today the manufacturing industries we are left with, apart from a number of hi-tech concerns whose primary stock-in-trade is intellectual property rather than the hardware, are those where the goods are too heavy or bulky to economically shift half way round the world, like building materials,or, like foodstuffs, have rapid turnover and use home-grown ingredients, or like pharmaceuticals, are closely linked to the U K’s research strengths. Most of the rest of ‘heavy’ industry is fabrication and assembly using imported components.

Even entrepreneurs who have developed British products and manufactured them here have transferred production overseas [Dyson, for example].

Having said all that, there is still a surprisingly large industrial and manufacturing base in the UK but it is not concentrated in massive plants employing thousands of workers so it does not have the profile of our historical background. But that was a time when we had Commonwealth countries and colonies that would, before we joined the EU, instinctively buy British capital goods in return for our buying their wool, butter, fruit, meat, vegetables, cotton, coffee and tea.

Duncan – What on earth is wrong with service industries? We used to insure the world, and could do so again – modern communications technology would make it even easier. We can [and do] make TV programmes that are very popular around the globe. Publishing, law. media, accountancy,design, education, architecture, engineering, medial science and lots of other consultancy professions are service industries that could grow stronger and develop further internationally. Our great advantage in service industry expansion is the English language which takes us into more markets than any other, even into Russia and China. I always look on the bright side of life.

However much we might hanker for the days of when most goods were made in the UK, it is not going to happen. There are reasons why we stopped making cars, washing machines and electronic goods and they still apply. There is still a place for high quality specialist products and for consumer goods that a minority are prepared to pay for in this country and abroad. I support what John has said in his last two posts. I have no problem with skilled people working in service industries and hope that the future of the UK will involve focus on allowing our citizens to work to their potential rather than working on the assembly lines of washing machine manufacturers.

I hope that those involved in the negotiations will focus on trade opportunities that will help us realise our potential.

John, I grew up in an industrial town that probably had near 100% employment. Now, the industries have gone, that town is dead with too many people on the dole and no hope for employment unless they move. I don’t know the answer, but investment has to be made. Does the government keep paying benefits or would money be better spent getting people off benefits? Our wheelie bins are made in Germany, why can’t they be made here?

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I agree, Alfa, that not enough was done to support those industrial areas that suffered mercilessly from industrial decline. The government never decided to send production elsewhere, but it had a responsibility to deal with the recovery, and it funked it. The prevailing attitude was “get on your bike”.

Not all industries are resilient and heavy manufacturing, steel-making, chemicals, shipbuilding, mining, glass-making, etc, are usually locked into their locations due to their proximity to raw materials or established infrastructure, However, other forms of employment like public services, hospitals, prisons, offices, laboratories, educational establishments, light engineering, food manufacturing, military bases, and all manner of other service industries, could have been incentivised to relocate from over-populated metropolitan areas. But apart from setting up a few enterprise zones and retail parks – and virtually useless employment projects stuffed with management consultants – the government didn’t do it; no government since the early 1970’s.

Service industries also create employment for armies of lower-skilled workers in support services, supplies, maintenance, administration, haulage, and public services. There are many examples around the country where there was a male-dominated primary industry with alongside it a textile mill, or processing plant, or consumer goods assembly line, to provide a full range of occupations for the whole family. We should have built on that tradition but didn’t.
The trouble is we have lost too much and cannot recover lost ground, so we had better make the best of where we are.

In many cases the jobs we have lost were labour-intensive, hard, dirty, hazardous, and under-rewarded, and the places that provided them were polluting, unhealthy, and damaging to our waterways and countryside. New industries and services will need a well-educated highly-skilled and adaptable workforce. That is our biggest current challenge and I am not sure we have cracked it yet.

I agree with you, Duncan, and we could have it .

China is losing its competitive edge as labour problems, remuneration issues, and western environmental obligations undermine their unique selling point – an infinite supply of undemanding workers and an irresponsible attitude to the environment.

I don’t like some of the connotations of being “Great” so for me that is not an aspiration.

European legislation has done a great deal to protect the environment in this overpopulated country and most people don’t know much about this. Others may be concerned about financial matters but clean air and water and food that is free from hazardous chemicals are more important in my book.

I do hope that we can retain existing environmental protection and improve it for the benefit of our citizens.

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I just want us to remain a united kingdom through which we might achieve greatness if our endeavours succeed.

I cannot assess the psyche of other countries’ citizens but the beauty of having four nations within one realm is that we can play out any ‘nationalistic’ fantasies amongst ourselves without upsetting the rest of the world.

The mainland was called Great Britain for geographical reasons, not on account of global eminence. Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain which is why United Kingdom is the better name. “Great” was used by Victorian companies [such as the Great Northern Railway which wasn’t great at all] to impress people with their supposed size and power but it was usually an arrogance and I regard it as such today. The less said about European perceptions of greatness and leadership the better I think!

Some areas that suffered decline due to the demise of heavy industry re-invented themselves and moved with the times. I cite Corby as a good example.

What we have always been good at in the UK is innovation, whether in products or services. Finance, shipbuilding, hovercraft, jet engine, jet airliner, stainless steel, pharmaceuticals ……. Where we have fallen down is in properly developing those products for our own benefit, perhaps because we have given away the technology or not had the investment to properly capitalise on them, and others have taken the initiative overseas. We still innovate and need the support to develop new ideas – from the government but also from private investors. Investment involves risk – high with new innovations – but if successful can lead to very profitable enterprises for the benefit of all. Incentives for us to invest in innovation would help and incentives to manufacture in the UK.

John says:
8 July 2017

Everybody and his dog want their “say” in Brexit. If we’re not careful we’ll end up with a dog’s breakfast that nobody wants. The negotiators have their brief, let them get on with it. We can always do the finer adjustments once we’re free of Europe’s over-weaning interference in our sovereign affairs.

yes. I support your motion and would urge you to redraft the letter to David Davies, M P, in more robust term.

The European Directive on Consumer Protection and the E & W Consumer Protection Act , together with the mass of CPA group litigations in, for instance, metal in metal (MoM) hip impl serve to illustrate the confusion and weaknesses that presently exist in this area of commercial / legal activity.

David Reston

The postings here so far do not appear to take in to account the extreme technicalities in negotiating us leaving the EU, the single market, the customs union and the many other treaties that are part of the “EU”.
So I am not convinced that Which? would be a meaningful contributor to the process. Most of the work will be carried out by civil servants, who are experts in their field. “Negotiations” will be carried out by politicians trying to make a name for themselves by not falling flat on their faces. The whole process will be spun with the collusion of the media that will give us the sound bites but not the whole picture just as they did before the referendum. During that time it took me many hours of study to investigate the different treaties like Maastricht treaty, the Amsterdam Treaty and the Lisbon treaty. They all need to be taken into account before we leave the EU officially at the end of March 2019. Most of the work will be legal disentanglement. The major things that need negotiation will be how we can continue to buy and sell to the 27 remaining EU members and how much we need to pay to relinquish the financial we have committed to.

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That’s right, Greytech, but the government and the civil servants still need to know what consumers wish them to negotiate for, and Which? is best placed to provide that input. You never get a second chance to make a first impression – trying to peck at the fruits of the negotiations won’t look good and there probably won’t be time for that anyway.

” but the government and the civil servants still need to know what consumers wish them to negotiate for, and Which? is best placed to provide that input.”

I was curious as to the reasons you feel this to be true. My impression is that consumers are generally badly informed on Brexit matters and particularly trade regulations. I would think both Which? and the Govt. use the same survey companies so any results are I expect are down to artful construction of the questions.

Genuinely the public appear to have only a few sacrosanct cows and the primary one of those is the NHS. Any diminishing of consumer protections and regulations I cannot see logically following on from negotiations on access and tariffs with the EU.

Where consumers may feel a pinch will be on prices – particularly food prices and though it is a consumer matter it is subordinate to the overall negotiations which are of course a political matter.

Previously JW you talked of other bodies being “at the table” and I was wondering who they were and whether they could possibly be more or less effective. However as I think that any effect would be near zero I was left wondering whether there is any point that becoming part of the process is a good thing.

Perhaps “bodies” should be looking at the foreseeable fall-out and preparing useful contingency plans, and even plans which have a current application.

The trade treaty with the US I think will be struck quickly for political expediency and will be a much greater threat to the established systems and regulations of the UK. The fear must be that it will be a form of TTIP substantially already agreeable to the big businesses that lobbied so very hard in Brussels – and of course with the certainty that WTO will be the supreme arbiter of what is and is not allowed under its terms.

On a more immediate and practical note –

It is fairly well-established that many many people live in houses that require significant energy to keep to the temperatures recommended by WHO. Against a backdrop of falling real incomes and expected energy price rises should organisations like Which? be doing practical activities to soften the blow.

Previously I have outlined various options to lower heating bills where guidance would be very useful. I note that the air exchange units have been a building requirement in France since 1982. You may well think that there should be some adequate research showing the efficiency or otherwise of these systems and the usefulness in a UK setting. I note UK manufacturers such as Nuaire are claiming up to 95% heat recovery and good air quality.

Making the building stock more airtight has knock-on effects on the air quality we breathe and the moisture level and moulds in houses. Given all consumers live in houses and pay to heat perhaps Which? could focus rapidly and with vigour on an area where we could all benefit before the final break.

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I would trust Which? to know what consumers want and don’t want out of Brexit, Patrick, without having to go round and ask them.

I am always in favour of anything that makes space heating more efficient, economical and sustainable. All residential properties need controllable ventilation; currently a large number of them seem to have uncontrollable ventilation that is unhealthy. For a long time I have advocated treating older properties with cheap and effective insulation and draught-proofing that might not be the unaffordable best but will produce good returns. I would certainly welcome Which? giving this topic more than the usual cursory coverage; it could run for a year with each issue of the magazine tackling a different aspect over three or four pages. There would still be room for shoe polish and vinaigrette.

JW – Your faith is interesting. I think there are some very good people at Which? but I think that is a very big ask. I am finding currently even with Ordinary Members I get a range of opinions some of which are completely opposite on very simple matter like a twice yearly conclave of “regional represesentatives” and Council. Light year simpler than Brexit.

I support your concept totally. Whilst blaming the local energy providers is easy and emotive the world market in fuel is actual the main driver of price. Australia is just about to significantly up its prices by up to 20% for electricity and gas yet is one of the world’s largest exporter of natural gas.
choice.com.au/shopping/shopping-for-services/utilities/articles/electricity-prices-to-increase-july-220617

Que Choisir actually ran a “test” based on some firms advising on the best insulation/heat tech for four real houses around France. A genuine expert than took the advice and shredded most of it. A very big article but then big costs and important implications.

Choice in Australia have just rubbished electricity generation with battery storage suggesting waiting two/ three years for cheaper and better batteries. And of course they had to account for the vastness of Australia and differing climates.

There is a lot of mileage in these matters given most people live in houses. I suppose down in London renting is more common and these matters less important.

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Wrong positioning – reposted as a reply.

Stuart Chalmers says:
10 July 2017

Personally I think the whole Brexit thing is a massive waste of time that will result in few benefits, great cost, it will take many years to recover from it and a lot of people will suffer for it. I hope it will get ditched but in the meantime if we are forced to do it then I think we every relevant party should be represented!

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After reading your flyer about consumer needs ,Just like all the media and anti Tory interferers you are also on the bandwagon wanting to put your 2 pennyworth into the hat. What kind of negotiation do you think you could improve things Just shut up and let the poor woman do what she can to get us out of the mess you are all creating and show a bit of back bone instead of moaning. You were not elected and neither were were you ever asked to interfere in negotiations
Regards. an 83 year old who still has a bit of faith

Jack Whyatt.

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But there’s good news, too: Ryanair’s boss has suggested there’ll be no flights between the UK and the EU after Brexit by Ryanair, so not all bad, then 🙂

What?!! Not even to Dublin?

Probably by Easyjet… 🙂

Of course, via Vienna.

Of course. Make a nice stop-off for a coffee.

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DaveTheTester says:
26 July 2017

I agree – good piece

I think David Davis has enough on his plate without too many demands being made to confuse Brexit. If we do get a clean break without paying any more money to the Greedy Bureaucrats of the EU, it will benefit all consumers and taxpayers who had for forty years paid £200 billions to fund the building of EU HQs, roads, rail and all kinds of infrastructures of poorer, new member-nations to the detriment of our own NHS, Prison, Rail, Education and home-building for our own needy population.
Only 20% businesses trade with the EU but 100% of British residents had to obey the EU’s thousands of rules, laws and directives, and paid higher prices for our imports from non-EU countries. It is time for those businesses, which had benefitted from our forty years of enslavement to the EU that gave them their thriving profitability, to start paying some customs duties on their trade, to allow the rest of the UK to re-connect with the Commonwealth and trade with our loyal allies of the two World Wars.
Many countries such as Australia, New Zealand, USA and Canada have already indicated their support to trade with GB, with the rest of the Commonwealth looking forward to resume their trade with us that was stopped by EU law in the last four decades. Smaller businesses and sole-traders could start up again as soon as we are free from EU’s strangling regulations. All we need is for the government to be strong enough to resist being tied up in knots by Mr. Barnier.

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I think Brexit is turning into a trainwreck for the consumer in my opinion. I have already noticed a few products from continental Europe in our local supermarket have been discontinued. I suspect this is because the devaluation of the Pound – v- Euro means the supermarket no longer thinks the products are viable at the higher prices. This is a pity because although I recognise they may be “niche” products ( e.g. French cream, some cheeses, other items too) they are good products, luxuries some of them, that I used to treat myself to. This cuts down my choice. Prices for general produce are increasing markedly and this is very worrying for my daughters family who don’t have much disposable income. We were not sold Brexit on the basis we would all be poorer as a result.

Hi
1. Politicians lied prior during the referendum prior to joining the EU and they lied prior to the referendum to leave, SO NO CHANGE IN POLITICIANS THAT DO NOT LOOK AFTER YOUR INTEREST DESPITE YOU PAYING THEIR SALARY TO LOOK AFTER YOUR INTEREST.
2. EU was not created to be democratic – THAT DENIES YOU THE RIGHT TO SAY HOW YOU ARE GOVERNED AND HOW YOUR INTERESTS ARE LOOKED AFTER.
3. Throughout the entire history of the human race and throughout the world all dictator regimes have destroyed their citizens so that the few elite could live in splendour. DO YOU WANT YOUR LIFE DESTROYED? If you do not like this statement read history, do not take my word for this.
4. EU will not modify their conditions, Cameron tried to ameliorate some terms and failed. The EU governors are bullying tyrants that answer to no one. Negotiation with them is IMPOSSIBLE. All the EU leaders want is self importance on the world stage and to drag matters out to protect their perverted interests, which are not in the interests of the rest of the EU citizens – just look at the countries within the EU that are technically bankrupt and their citizens suffering. [IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT FOR THE UK?] FOR THE RECORD, it is only a matter of time before the EU will break up as the FAILED policies of the leaders cannot succeed.

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5. I would have invoked article 50 and walked away from the EU, freezing all payments to it and not entering any negotiations. Immediately entering into talks with trade agreements with the rest of the world. Effecting most within this two year period so that business could start immediate trading with the rest of the world. This would provide certainty for business by opening global markets and the UK economy would then be on its way. The UK economy would then start to grow benefiting all citizens. THIS WOULD HAVE BEEN THE BEST STRATEGY TO CREATE WEALTH AND GROWTH FOR THE UK PEOPLE.
6. All other strategies will have negative impact on the UK economy and your life dragging negotiations out, inflicting uncertainty on business, delaying trade deals with the global economy all these points are negative and damaging to the UK economy and this is all destructive to your standard of life. All remainers should note this. If they want to stay in a destructive Eu they should up and leave the UK now and never return and let the leavers get on with prosperity.

You’re wrong on so many points and somewhat confused, too.

We could say that about many posts, but we welcome all contributions.

Indeed we do.