One thing leavers and remainers can agree on is that Brexit will leave Britain profoundly changed.
Yet despite the ferocity and divisiveness of the debates elsewhere, the charity sector has been strangely passive on the topic. I’m not expecting charities to take sides—unless they have a very good reason to. But I would have expected a hive of activity when it comes to the implications of Brexit.
It’s true, the financial issues are not trivial. The sector benefits from more than £200m per year of EU grant money, and gets a share of the billions in ‘structural’ regeneration money. This income is clearly at risk, while economic uncertainty and weak exchange rates may also threaten the sectors finances in other ways.
But serious though these problems are they are only a limited part of the story. It is the profound implications for the mission of many charities that is the real, and relatively neglected, aspect of Brexit. It has the potential to re-shape British Society and our sector is not yet actively engaged in that process.
There are pockets of activity in policy areas where charities are alive to the wider consequences, such as environmental NGOs, or the migration sector. But we should be seeing a lot more of this.
More than half of the charities we asked in our recent State of the Sector research said they think Brexit will have no effect or a neutral effect on the policy and regulatory environment. I understand there’s limited space to think about new issues when times are tough anyway, but that’s a troubling finding.
Here are three examples of how Brexit could impact fundamentally on charities’ missions:
1) A policy bonanza
The government has been so entrenched in Brexit that there’s been something of a policy vacuum since the referendum. But that will come to an end before too long. What will replace it is an unprecedented policy bonanza.
Across multiple areas where we used to look across the channel, from human rights, through environmental regulation, to disability law, policy will be debated and re-made. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and potentially a threat. We need to get ourselves ready to play an active role and advocate for the causes we serve.
2) Struggling EU citizens
There are roughly 3.6 million EU citizens living in the UK. They comprise a substantial chunk of the workforce, especially in some areas where charities are active such as social care. The risks there are well documented.
Less obvious is the impact on EU citizens who may face particular difficulties in negotiating the post-Brexit settlement process. Consider groups like carers, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, vulnerable older people. There are substantial communities of EU citizens amongst them, and the question is: are the charities who exist to serve those groups alert to the coming challenge? NPC is working with a group of foundations to create a pooled fund that will try to help here, of which more news will follow.
3) A divided society
The underlying causes of Brexit have been much discussed—a decline in trust in institutions and politics, the yawning chasm between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, and between London and the rest. The failure to tackle inequality, or deal with the struggles of post-industrial communities, has found its expression in a populist middle finger to the establishment.
These are huge issues and they aren’t going away. Tackling them surely will require all kinds of responses—from national debate to local community development. Civil society is in a great position to contribute here and help British society to ultimately emerge as fair, tolerant, and cohesive.
To sum up then, the implications of Brexit go much further than money, and they impact in all kinds of serious ways on the causes we serve. A failure to engage with these issues risks making the sector irrelevant to some of the gravest challenges British society faces.