Our research in public attitudes towards UK trade policy was aimed at understanding public views on the unavoidable choices and trade-offs that trade policy requires and whom people trust to make and inform trade policy decisions. This Briefing Paper reflects on preliminary results from the research.Most of the information we currently have comes from the final all-day workshop, but we start briefly with two questions from the surveys – the pre- and post-surveys had pretty similar results. Asked to select the most important objective for trade agreements from among economic growth, combatting climate change, supporting human and labour rights or none of these, the majority prioritised growth. However, turning to trade per se, when asked to rank human rights versus more trade with developing countries, combatting climate change versus more trade overall, UK employees’ rights over more jobs and balanced growth across the UK over maximising growth overall they chose the first of each pair. This may reflect a lack of belief that trade is important for growth. Alternatively, it may reflect that people’s desire for growth and/or trade is materially qualified by distributional concerns. On the other hand, participants preferred to ‘promote efficiency in the UK even if jobs are lost in some parts of the UK economy’, so preferences are quite complex.
This possible tension between the different survey answers could reflect different phenomena and are a potential area for future CITP research. One is that people are inconsistent, and that further close questioning might elicit a ‘last instance’ answer. But research by political scientists on public attitudes suggests that the situation is more subtle than this: people do not necessarily have mutually consistent monotonically ordered preferences on these kinds of questions.
What was clear here is the difficulty participants had in deciding on complex issues. It showed up in participants’ work on the hypothetical scenarios during the final workshops, and, indeed, in other research on public attitudes to trade. This is a potentially important factor in considering how to structure and interpret public engagement over trade policy. For example, in two of our trade-off areas, participants tended to focus their discussion, and implicitly their decisions, on just one accessible aspect of the problem – health.
In the final workshop, participants were provided with information about one hypothetical trade-off in each area which was presented as the decision to be taken on accepting a section or clause in a trade deal. The trade-offs built on the issues discussed in the online sessions and involved both economic and non-economic outcomes. In each case, following initial discussion participants were asked to vote ‘yes’, ‘no’, or 'don’t know’ in response to each deal; they then discussed how they voted and eventually went on to repeat the process with a modified version of the same trade-off.
Trade and human rights
This concerned a hypothetical aspect of the prospective trade agreement between the UK and India. The participants were told that the deal would improve Indian workers’ rights but have mixed economic outcomes for the UK and India. A majority of the jury participants prioritised the promotion of workers’ rights abroad, suggesting that they thought that the UK should use trade to promote human rights abroad and were willing to accept higher consumer prices to achieve this. Their view was that the deal should be fair to both sides and prioritised long-term outcomes for workers’ rights over lower consumer prices, which participants held to be short-term outcomes. The modified trade-off stated that India would lose economically from enforcing stronger rights for workers and this, understandably, resulted in a decline in support. In discussion there was significant doubt about whether any agreed human rights would actually be enforced, and this underpinned a significant ‘don’t know’ vote, especially in the modified trade-off.
Balancing sectors and territories
Here, participants were asked whether they accepted one element of the recently signed UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement, imagining hypothetically that it could be separated from the rest of the deal. UK Government analysis predicts that the agreement will increase incomes and jobs in ‘other business services’ (things like legal work and accounting) but decrease them by about half the amount in agriculture. Business services tend to concentrate in the greater southeast of England, whereas agriculture lies mostly outside that region; business services also employ a higher proportion of women than farming. A small majority of our participants rejected the deal, prioritising concerns about intra-UK inequality over greater economic prosperity in total. The protection of agriculture on cultural/historical/security grounds was advocated by some, but territorial fairness appeared more prominently in participants’ reasoning. The modified deal assumed that, holding everything else the same, all the jobs created in business services would lie outside the southeast; this eliminated the majority for ‘no’, inducing a nearly equal split between acceptance and rejection.
Privacy and data-sharing
The juries considered a hypothetical trade deal that would make it easier to transfer health data abroad to countries with lower data privacy standards than the UK. This would potentially benefit health research, services and treatments, but would risk data privacy abuses. Assessing the risk of sharing data underpinned participants’ decisions to accept or reject this deal. All participants wanted to support medical research, so their trade-off depended primarily on their appetite for risk on data privacy. Precisely half of the participants voted for the agreement in its initial form, with a majority of the others opting for ‘don’t know’ rather than ‘no’. The ‘don’t know’ groups often wanted more detail about the possible deal before they felt they could decide. When the trade-off was modified to suggest significantly higher potential medical benefits, a significant majority voted for the deal.
Participants next considered (again in hypothetical isolation) a scenario in which the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement decreased the price of imported food (which would benefit consumers but hit certain UK farmers) but also increase the risk that the food would contain pesticides banned in UK food production. Citing potential health risks, a significant majority were unwilling to compromise on residual pesticide levels for goods admitted to the UK market despite the potential benefit of reduced food prices. Participants expressed a high level of trust in current UK standards for food, and many said they were willing to pay more for these to be upheld. They had less faith in Australian standards/enforcement. The modified trade-off promised food imported from Australia would meet the English and Welsh standards even if that permitted lower standards than Northern Ireland and Scotland currently maintain. This elicited a somewhat greater degree of acceptance but also led to a doubling of the ‘don’t know’ vote. Participants’ views were substantially driven by their assessment of the health risk and their levels of trust in UK or Australian food standards and their administration.