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For trade deals to succeed the government must put consumers first

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Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection and Food Policy

Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection and Food Policy | Which?

4 min read Partner content

Consumer interests and protections should be at the forefront of the UK's trade deal ambitions.

We are fast-approaching the one-year anniversary of the government signing the deal with the EU that meant the UK could sign its own trade deals - one of the most significant consequences of Brexit.

Since then, the UK has made important progress with trade deals - negotiating over 60 rollover deals, signing a deal with Japan, opening talks with India, Mexico and Canada and paving the way for eventually joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The government has also signed trade agreements in principle with Australia and New Zealand - including a world-first consumer chapter in the New Zealand agreement.

These are important steps in the right direction but there are still concerns among the public that they are being left in the dark on what trade negotiations will mean for them and that their interests are not being represented.

A Which? survey in June 2021 revealed that over two-thirds of the public (67%) feel they receive too little information from the government around trade deals. 

There was also low confidence that the specific needs of devolved nations would be met. Three in five (54%) Northern Irish consumers, a third (34%) of Welsh consumers and two in five (41%) Scottish consumers reported feeling “not at all confident” that trade deals made by the UK government reflect the specific needs of their nation.

In 2020, Which? spoke with panels of consumers across the UK - in and around Newcastle, Dundee, Belfast, Swindon and Cardiff - to find out what they really want from trade deals. 

The panellists identified four key issues they wanted the government to prioritise in future trade deals: maintaining safety standards for food and products, keeping their data secure online, protecting the environment and addressing regional inequalities by delivering for consumers in all parts of the UK. 

One year on from these conversations, Which? reconvened some participants across the UK from the 2020 National Trade Conversation (NTC) to understand their views on the government’s approach and to see if they still thought these four key issues were priorities. 

While participants said they thought all four areas were equally or more important, protecting the environment had become much more of a priority. In 2020, some participants felt that it  was a ‘nice to have’ priority but in 2021, this was viewed as much more important. 

The success of future trade deals will be judged on what they deliver for ordinary people in their everyday lives

Food standards were highlighted as the most important priority of these four areas, with participants agreeing that a set of core standards - including guidelines for food safety, environmental and animal welfare - should apply to all imported food.

Overall, participants had concerns about what the Japan, Australia and New Zealand agreements will mean for them and how they represent these priorities. 

For example, some found it difficult to understand exactly how different regions of the UK would be affected by negotiations and were eager for the government to explain this more clearly. 

On data protection, others said they had become aware of how much of their lives were lived online during the pandemic and wanted the government to take data security and privacy more seriously in future trade negotiations.

Our research demonstrates that clearer communication and transparency is needed from the government about how trade deals are negotiated and what they will mean for people across the UK.

Which? believes the government must be more engaged with consumers – including with those in devolved nations to understand their specific needs better – and deliver on the key issues they care about.

The consumer chapter included in the New Zealand deal is an important step in the right direction. The government should build on this by including a consumer chapter in future agreements which draws together and reinforces all the consumer interests and protections represented in other chapters of the deal. 

The success of future trade deals will be judged on what they deliver for ordinary people in their everyday lives, not just the export opportunities they provide. As the government continues its post-Brexit trade negotiations, it has an important opportunity to ensure that future agreements will deliver for people across the UK. 

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