Going to an 08.30am breakfast event isn’t really the thing you most want to do on a Monday morning, but that’s exactly what I did yesterday – and worse still, it was to talk about Brexit.
Yes, Brexit, the topic of the hour. The thing that politicians, media, and businesses are obsessing over. But what about charities: are we obsessing over it and if not, should we be?
The event (hosted by NCVO – read more here) was an opportunity to bring people from across the charity sector together to look at how our organisations can overcome the challenges that will be created when Britain leaves the European Union.
We heard from a range of speakers – from Cancer Research UK to the Children’s Society and from RSPB to Independent Age. Each one works in completely different areas and on completely different things but all of them are expecting Brexit to change things.
Challenges are afoot
Let’s be clear, whatever you think about the referendum result, it is hard to deny that it presents challenges for the future. It’s the biggest constitutional change in our country for a generation – how can you change a country so drastically and not face challenges? (Caveat, there are opportunities too and I’ll come on to them in a bit).
The challenges we heard about from the various members of yesterday’s panel were different, but similar. Changes to funding, a concern about whether EU migrants [who currently work in the sectors they represent] would have to leave, a worry that repealing EU legislation would roll back advancements made in the past.
Let’s just take one panellist’s example; climate change. Climate change is a big issue in the EU and each member state is currently signed up to tackle climate change through a series of targets on emissions, efficiency and renewable energy. When we leave the EU, we’ll no longer be signed up to those targets and we’ll have to start from scratch on developing national law about this topic.
Now you might think that’s an irrelevance because common sense tells us the government will just pass their own law committing us to the same targets, only this time the law will be passed in the UK, not in the EU. That’s a fine idea but it’s implausible. Environmental policy is devolved in the UK – meaning that the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies are all responsible for managing legislation on this issue for their own nation. So suddenly we’ve gone from having one legal framework that signs everyone in the UK up to something, to a situation where the four nations of our country could have completely different approaches to something as important as climate change. Are you starting to see how this gets tricky?
Looking beyond Westminster
From a charity’s perspective all of this is just going to make our life harder. If we want to effect change we’ll have to make sure we’re talking to people in Westminster, in Holyrood, in the Senedd and at Stormont. At a time when charities are under increasing financial pressure, is that even realistic? It’s even more worrying when you consider the sheer amount of stuff we’ll be campaigning on. Cancer Research UK for example want to talk to the UK Government about immigration – because they need European scientists and doctors; health regulation – because they need to be able to carry out their clinical trials; education – because they want to make sure we’re training the doctors of the future; finance – because they rely on fundraising and they need a strong economy so people are more inclined to donate. Aside from changes relating to Brexit they’re also campaigning on the Government’s Industrial Strategy. That’s an awful lot of work for the next few years.
My point is that charities, unless they think carefully about how to approach this, will be overcome with the challenges that Brexit will present.
What we need to do is think about how we can work together to achieve shared goals. We need a sector wide response to protect and enhance the charity sector into the future, and we need to work amongst ourselves to form partnerships, so that we can support each other on thematic issues of mutual importance, like health.
And in spite of all this this, we should recognise that along with challenges, Brexit will also provide us with a number of opportunities as a sector.
Are there any opportunities?
Charities will need to work with Government on addressing the hundreds of issues that will need to be dealt with after Brexit is a good one. Brexit is a huge opportunity to demonstrate the advocacy role our sector can play in shaping legislation and solving key social and political issues. And it might also help to rebuild the relationship between charities and government, so that they see us as partners in delivering their agenda, rather than a nuisance that needs to be squashed. The importance of this should be at the core of the sector-wide response to Brexit.
There’s an opportunity to reframe things, too. Reforming immigration policy is something that Independent Age is speaking out on. They said yesterday that they relied heavily on EU migrant workers, but they also understood that current Home Office policy relating to immigration was outdated and cumbersome and change would be welcome.
We can look again at how we fund and regulate our organisations. NCVO were adamant that there is an opportunity for us to make changes to burdensome regulation, to procurement, and to current VAT rules which stop the sector claiming £1.5bn in VAT the same way that the private sector can.
So there are opportunities for us, and we should think about how best to utilise them.
Time to get rowdy?
But back to my original question – is it time for the charity sector to get rowdy about Brexit?
In short, the answer is no.
We don’t need to be rowdy, we need to be rational.
Each of us needs to spend time thinking about what might change for us once the UK leaves the EU. We need to consider how best to engage with governments – UK and national – and we need to work hard to prepare for the time when that change will come.
A lot of our time over the next few years will be taken up by conversations focused on Brexit, and that will be hard to deal with, especially because charities don’t really want to be caught up in conversations about EU regulations; we want to be spending our time directly helping our beneficiaries. But the charity sector has an incredible opportunity to work with politicians and policy makers to help re-shape the UK post-Brexit; to make it a fairer society and to correct some of the social injustices we see. Let’s not waste that chance.