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National Trade Conversation: England

The visual minutes of the National Trade Conversation Northern England session

What do consumers from England think about trade? We asked, as part of our National Trade Conversation.

The UK is developing trade policy as an individual country for the first time in over 40 years and the result of this will impact on consumers across the UK. It’s therefore essential that the consumer voice is heard when the UK negotiates trade deals. 

To make sure this happens, Which? carried out the National Trade Conversation, a large scale piece of research to understand what consumers wanted future trade deals to deliver. 

Across the research almost 100 consumers grouped by their location attended 10 hours of workshops over a two week period. 

Two of these groups were from England – one in the North East and one in the South. From these groups, as well as those in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, we developed a rich picture the complexity of UK consumers’ perspectives on trade.

the visual minutes of the National Trade Conversation in Southern England

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Food standards

Participants from both our English dialogues wanted the government to maintain health and safety standards for food and other consumer goods as a key priority in future trade deals. 

“By far the biggest area of concern discussed is the impact (health and financial) of potentially lowering standards. If we do, it should be prudent and reasonable (based on science to protect consumers) not just because we need to make trade deals.”

When we asked 1,776 English consumers in a supplementary survey what their top priority is for UK trading objectives, half (50%) ranked “maintaining existing health & safety standards for food and other products” as their top priority1.

There were a variety of reasons behind participants’ view of the importance of maintaining food standards. Many were concerned about the health implications of reducing standards for both consumers and from an animal welfare perspective.

Some were also concerned about the impact importing food of lower standards would have on UK farmers. Others didn’t want food standards to be lowered just for the sake of agreeing a trade deal, and wanted assurances that any modifications to standards would take a science-led approach.

“So, maybe, the science isn’t quite there on some of the stuff and it’s a bit of the chicken and the egg, some stuff ends up in the food chain that maybe shouldn’t be there and so, they don’t legislate against it until it’s proven to be bad for you. Well, that’s the wrong way round, it shouldn’t go into the food chain until it’s proven it’s safe. So, I think that’s where keeping standards high to begin with is better than lowering the standard and going off that.”

The UK’s food supply was a topic discussed in both of our English dialogues.

In Southern England, we heard more support for trade deals enabling the UK to source a reliable and diverse range of food at stable prices from a range of countries.

In Northern England self-sufficiency was emphasised more, in terms of eating more seasonally to be less reliant on other countries, promote UK farming and reduce our environmental impact.

1 Yonder, on behalf of Which?, surveyed 1776 English adults online between 4 and 16 December 2020. The data were weighted to be demographically representative of the English population.

Product safety standards

English participants also wanted existing standards of other consumer products to be maintained, concerned that lowering standards could lead to a ‘race to the bottom’.

In general they felt that the risks of lowering standards far outweigh the benefits for consumers. Some voiced their pride in Britain’s reputation for high quality goods, and were concerned in how consumer trust could be impacted if standards were to change. 

“I just think, if we’re going to reduce safety standards for cars and things, doesn’t that just open the gateway for lower standards for other things, other goods, other things that are made? And that’s not the way you want to go, really. You would like to think other countries will step up and improve their standards.”

Data protection

While people had low awareness of the full spectrum of ways in which data is collected about them, and how that data may affect their consumer lives, they were acutely aware it is valuable to businesses across the globe.

Participants wanted to see existing consumer protections afforded to them – and their data – maintained and not compromised on for the sake of a trade deal. This was true both of their proprietary data and also their rights relating to cross border online shopping and services.

Participants in Southern England felt particularly strongly that future trade deals should not compromise existing consumer rights and protections.

“It’s our data: we should have the right to decide”

Wider issues

Throughout the National Trade Conversation, it was clear that whilst we asked people to answer as a consumer, being a consumer is interwoven with wider views as citizens of the UK.

We identified a number of principles that underpinned their priorities which reflected these wider concerns. English participants were hopeful for what future trade deals could achieve for the UK economy, including both businesses and consumers. 

One priority that came through strongly in our dialogues in the North East was the desire for these benefits to be felt across the UK, not just London, and for small as well as big businesses.

This sense of fairness was important in an international context too. Participants were keen for any trade deals the UK made to be beneficial to the other party and promote ethical and responsible trade. Creating ‘fair’ deals for both sides was thought to help promote resilient trade deals.

“What the government needs to do to make sure that a huge benefit in a trade deal with a particular country, isn’t just going to benefit one particular industry or area. Again, we understand that there would be compromises but there needs to be an element that it’s made fair so that it’s not just people in London who are going to benefit from it, it’s going to be most of the country”

“[We should] consider all countries, not consider the countries which are the big and mighty countries who have lots of money, but also let’s not forget about the smaller countries who might not have the power to put themselves out there like we do because of the financial perspective”

Minimising the impact of future trade deals on the environment was a priority for many participants in Southern England. Some were concerned about increasing long distance trade of goods and its potential to contribute to climate change.

This was particularly the case when discussing food, and the carbon footprint of non seasonal items from far away. But participants saw potential opportunities in this space too, and hoped trade deals could be used to promote environmentally friendly practices and industries.

“If we don’t have a planet we can’t trade”

“It might be that the environment could benefit from influence which we may be able to exert as a result of trade negotiations”

Not just choice and price

Overall, the National Trade Conversation revealed a number of insights relating to consumer priorities for trade deals. One important finding is that the UK consumer is a complex individual with a range of perspectives.

It is inadequate to assume a simplistic view of the consumer, who is entirely focused on choice and price. Their priorities take these into account, but in the context of how these choices affect the environment, health, employment and fair trade.

It is essential that trade deals deliver meaningful benefits for consumers in their everyday lives and Which? will continue to press the government to make sure that the consumer voice is heard in negotiations.

Learn more about Which?’s work on trade, and read the full report on the National Trade Conversation

What are your priorities? 

How do these priorities land with you?  Do you share the view from a particular region (possibly one outside of where you live)? 

Are there other areas that you feel should be core to future trade deals?

How informed do you feel about the trade deals being negotiated by the UK Government?

Not very well informed (66%, 29 Votes)

Somewhat informed (25%, 11 Votes)

Well-informed (7%, 3 Votes)

I tend not to pay attention (2%, 1 Votes)

Something else - tell us in the comments (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 44

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Is it important to you to be well informed about the trade deals being negotiated by the UK may affect you? If so, what would help or hinder your understanding of these trade deals?

Tell us in the comments.