New frontiers: reflections on civil society and Brexit

Jane Thomas from the Brexit Civil Society Alliance shares her reflections on the recent event New Frontiers: the social sector in post-Brexit Britain. It first appeared on the Brexit Civil Social Alliance website and is reproduced here with kind permission. A future event will take place in Manchester on 11 July, details to follow.

Last week, the Brexit Civil Society Alliance, NPC and Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales brought together leading organisations from the third sector to try and map out the role and mission for the social and wider voluntary sector through (and beyond) Brexit. Not surprisingly this proves to be an ongoing challenge not just because of the diversity of the sector but also trying to second guess just what the issues may be in the coming 12 - 24 months is nigh on impossible. But crucially the question remains on how prepared the sector (or anyone) is for the next chapter of Brexit, whether we can shape the agenda and ideally coalesce to act cooperatively and collectively in the future.

As I said at the conference one of the biggest things - and biggest challenges - is the politics of Brexit. It has thrown a spotlight into the nooks and crannies of the UK's constitutional and parliamentary process and what it has shown are the inherent weakness in our system and current arrangements.

There have been the massive constitutional strain put on the hard-fought and won (and partial ) devolution settlements. As illustrated with the passage of the EU Withdrawal Act, the UK Government have often sidelined the devolved nations in both Brexit negotiations and relevant legislation.It has been a challenge for Scotland fresh out of a devolution referendum and having votes so clearly to Remain. It has been exceptionally challenging for Northern Ireland with Stormont not sitting and only the DUP in Westminster and Wales continues to   as a subsidiary of England plc.

Brexit has exposed the inability of our parliamentary system and our political party system to respond to the challenges of complex legislation made one hundred times worse with a minority government reliant on the DUP. It has brought to the fore how powerful the executive can be, how legislators can avoid scrutiny and debate,  and a break down of party discipline.

The complexity and the politics of Brexit have had a really negative effect in enabling people and organisations to engage in any meaningful way. And the ability for organisations or civil society to make any interventions or have any impact has been difficult when it’s hard to find where the traction is.

For the last twelve months, the Brexit Civil Society Alliance has been visiting different parts of the UK to have conversations with local civil society groups to link them with what we are doing and to have discussions on Brexit impacts and mitigation. It's taken us to Belfast and Edinburgh, Cardiff and Cornwall, to Penrith, Rhyll, Bradford and York - and will see us in Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham in the next three months. This is what we have found.

Future funding

First, the issue of future funding is vital for the sector. The sector deserves business certainty as much as any. The whole issue around Shared Prosperity Fund, that is due to replace EU funds, its allocation and access to it remain unclear which is unacceptable. The fact that there is still no date for any consultation never mind roll out has massive implications. At a Charity Finance Group seminar on Brexit, a major concern is one of timing -  “Lots of charities are already teetering on the edge of solvency. Any delay in moving from one system to another is a problem in the short term, even if things are smoothed out further down the line” said Abbie Rumbold, partner at Law firm  Bates Wells Braithwaite.

This is no small sector. In  2016 the estimated income of the UK voluntary sector was £73.1 billion, according to the Charity Commission. But, and somewhat ironically, the part played by EU funding in that sector is often overlooked as are the benefits. Those disadvantaged groups living in areas of poor economic growth often do not realise how much they have benefited from EU support. And therefore the messaging on the ground about the EU is often very partial.

Labour market

Second is the issue of the labour market. There is a huge issue for healthcare and social care charities who rely on EU nationals to retain staff given the need to meet any future earnings threshold required to obtain a visa [currently proposed as £30,000]. But it is also an issue for those communities where EU nationals live who are experiencing a rise in hate crime and /or additional support from front line advice organisations.

Brexit has been challenging for those communities with different and disproportionate numbers EU and non-EU people - and in places such as coastal communities as well as our urban areas. As community worker at our  Bradford Round Table said: “we have now gone back 30 years in terms of community cohesion in the last two years”. So the tensions Brexit has brought and will continue to bring, to social cohesion is a third issue that the sector is confronted with.

Preparedness

Finally is the issue of preparedness. The capacity, and therefore ability, to respond to Brexit is nigh on impossible for many smaller and even charities. This was articulated very clearly at the first round table we did in Wales and has been raised at every event since. One of the things we have tried to facilitate is helpful signposts and advice and support for smaller organisations which includes our Campaign Toolkit, that is available on our website.

Linking those most disengaged and remote from Westminster has been a challenge - and one that the government has failed. It was a clear message from Cornwall and the North East who felt totally removed from the process ( “it's happening down there”).  For some, there is Brexit fatigue but for most their day jobs and priorities is just delivering what they are set up to do. And that for most are a challenge in itself.

This so far is a pretty gloomy picture. We heard from Tony Armstrong of  Localities work and reflections on how community organisations can thrive post-Brexit (look here for more details Locality Future Places report). But as he has also said that against a backdrop of austerity and continued cuts at local authority level the uncertainty for the sector is massive.

We had the referendum in 2016. We've had two years knowing our date of departure. In that time civil society organisations been relatively compliant. Some of this is down to legal issues such as requirements from Boards and Article of Association. Some of it is undoubtedly down to the fact that the Lobbying Act has cast a long shadow. But the need for amplification of voices when key legislation is making its way through parliament is even more acute when parliamentarians themselves don't know what to do - or how to do it.

Going forward we need to turn up the volume and to have a place at the table when key legislation that affects all our organisations and communities is being debated.

It is obvious that the logjam in our system has opened up space and we need to now step into this space without compromising organisations or the sector.

The Brexit Civil Society Alliance has built, and maintained, a wide body of supports by coalescing around a core set of values and principles. Can civil society organisations do the same? And even if that happens how to navigate your way around the new politics with the rise of the right, the potential break up of a two-party system and where discourse is increasingly negative and factless.

The take home for me from the conference was the urgent need to build a narrative of positivity based on what we would like to see and become as a country and what civil society role is at the heart of this. We need to move beyond the constraining narrative of Brexit as its played out in the main political parties and more to where we go from here. We need to build on stuff we are already doing individually and collectively and to be perhaps one step ahead of our politicians.

Finally what is needed is a clear steer from civil society groups and organisations on how to respond to the challenges of Brexit and to ensure voices are heard. It could be a huge opportunity to mobilise and strengthen the power and influence of the sector if we get it right.