We asked consumers around the UK for their views on future trade deals. Here’s what people in Northern Ireland had to say.
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 2-week period.
One of these groups was from Northern Ireland. From this we developed a rich picture of what matters most to them about future UK trade deals and we present some of the highlights here
Northern Irish consumer priorities
In Northern Ireland, 19 consumers attended 10 hours of workshops over a 2-week period. From this we developed a rich picture of what matters most to them about future UK trade deals.
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The standards covering food for Northern Irish consumers will maintain equivalence with EU standards, given the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nevertheless, participants in Northern Ireland felt strongly that UK food standards should not be compromised through future UK trade deals.
When surveying 1,009 Northern Irish consumers about their key priorities for the UK when negotiating trade deals, 50% said that “maintaining existing health and safety standards for food and other products” was their key consumer priority.
There was a sense of relief among most participants that the food on the shelves in NI would be shielded from any future changes to food standards. However, there were some concerns that consumers would have less choice in NI compared to the rest of the UK because food suppliers may be reluctant to deliver to NI given the complexities of the protocol.
“I think we need to avoid being at a disadvantage due to this NI protocol, as well. We don’t want to be subjected to fewer products just because we have higher food standards here. We need to ensure that there’s a choice and a variety.”
Ensuring trade deals do not have a detrimental effect on local industry was also a common theme in our Northern Irish discussions.
Whilst participants explored the potential benefits to consumers resulting from trade deals, for example cheaper beef from New Zealand, they were also concerned about how to protect local farming from being undercut as a result.
There were also concerns that potentially lower standards of production in other countries may price out local farmers who need to maintain these high standards to trade with the EU.
“…for me, it would be protecting our home-grown produce, where possible and not putting that at a disadvantage so that we can continue to enjoy the produce of Northern Ireland and also, that the landscape and the countryside is protected.”
Northern Irish participants felt strongly that the existing standards for consumer products – such as cars and toiletries – should be maintained, and felt they did not want to sacrifice this for more choice or cheaper products.
“The government has a massive responsibility to protect its citizens from danger; ie. some people remark about the importance of consumers having choice, however it is my strong personal view that instances like this [low safety products] are examples of when consumers shouldn’t have the choice as to whether they can buy products that are unsafe or not.”
In addition to this, participants also wanted the possible environmental impact of trade deals to be considered. In the discussions about food this centered on reducing air miles, whilst in the discussion of consumer goods there were some concerns that cheaper goods would mean a trade-off with quality and would encourage a ‘throw-away’ attitude amongst consumers with detrimental impacts on the environment.
“You buy cheap, you buy twice. That’s a false economy. This whole thing about making the economy better by reducing the cost of products coming into the UK, you’re going down a slippery slide.”
Participants acknowledged that digital trade is growing and has an important role in future trade deals. However, there were shared concerns about the complexity of digital trade and the accompanying protections. Therefore many participants were concerned about the potential reduction in data privacy rights.
“As digital trade is the future it seems a minefield which I can’t fully understand, I just hope that the current EU laws are updated and enhanced and not reduced so as our information is handled correctly and not sold to just anyone.”
Despite these concerns there was some recognition of the potential benefits. In NI, there was an appreciation that digitising trade paperwork could be immensely helpful in softening the border between the North and the South, making commerce quicker and seamless.
This was felt to be particularly important given concerns that maintained standards could result in lack of choice due to barriers in place for businesses exporting to NI.
“Digital technology might help a softer border between NI and ROI for transfer of goods and service.”
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.
One principle which was particularly noticeable in Northern Ireland was the need to ensure all of the UK was considered – and specifically for Northern Ireland, that its special position was acknowledged in trade agreements and not ignored.
There was also the belief that NI lacked an adequate representation in ‘London-centric’ trade deals. Respondents to our supplementary survey in December also anticipated Northern Ireland having little representation in UK trade deals – 42% of Northern Irish respondents didn’t think Northern Ireland would be represented at all.
Only 6% thought Northern Ireland would be “completely represented” – whilst 26% felt the UK government would be completely represented.
“Our trade deal is going to be different than the mainland UK trade deal, no matter what way it is done going forward. We are under separate regulations and standards, so whatever trade deal the mainland UK, London-centric Government does, they can do it whatever way they want, but it’s not going to be able to be transferred to Northern Ireland.”
Linked closely to this was the desire for the frictionless border to be maintained between the North and South in order to preserve stability and peace. There were fears that added border checks, paperwork, and certificates would result in increased costs for NI businesses which could be passed on to consumers.
“[I’m worried about the] Paperwork [needed for] exporting beef across the border causing delay and bottlenecks.”
Meaningful benefits for consumers
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.
Are you in Northern Ireland? How do these priorities land with you? Do you share them, or are there other areas which you feel should be prioritized?
Has the end of the transition period affected your sense of priority for future trade deals?
Let us know in the comments.