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How is civil society in the UK coping with Brexit?

By Jane Thomas 25 April 2019

Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.

John Allen Paulos

For the last 18 months the Brexit Civil Society Alliance has travelled the UK listening to concerns from local groups and voluntary organisations about the impacts on their organisations as we face leaving the EU.

Brexit poses significant and complex challenges for civil society. As a UK wide alliance of charities, voluntary and campaigning organisations, we have been working together to ensure that the voices of civil society are heard in the Brexit process.

These conversations, mainly in the form of round tables, have shown that people are keen to know something more detail than just ‘Brexit means Brexit’. They have also given the alliance an opportunity to share what we have learned from our engagement with MPs and other opinion formers and to share information and intelligence around issues specific to the sector.

What have we learnt from around the country?

A local, social, reaction

In Cumbria we found a sense in the third sector and more widely that Brexit is something that is happening ‘over there’ (i.e. London) and that it is hard to get their voices heard, a sentiment echoed in Cornwall and Newcastle. In Bradford the third sector is trying to work out the impacts on beneficiaries from the most deprived areas and to understand the service mapping post Brexit.

Employment vulnerability

Generally the vulnerability felt by EU citizens in terms of settled status and employment prospects is matched by the concerns of those who rely on the jobs that EU citizens do, whether it be in the health service or in rural communities. Specific concerns have been expressed about the impacts of Brexit on the health and social care sector. And groups in Northern Ireland have raised huge concerns about citizenship rights.

Worries about funding

A common theme has been how and what is going to replace funding from Europe and how you advise beneficiaries now so they can plan effectively. And yet whilst many third sector organisations receive European funding because funding has been secured up to 2020, loss of funding does not seem to be an immediate concern for most organisations.

An exciting future?

Brexit remains a very abstract issue to many people, and utterly draining for others. More than two years on from the referendum there is a sense of ‘Brexit fatigue’ and an inability to know how to cut through the noise and the politics of Brexit. We often heard that it is so big people do not know where to start.

The Alliance has spent much time trying to do the joined-up thinking and engagement with Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. We need to continue to help empower civil society organisations to make their voices heard and to respond strategically to legislation. For smaller organisations and those without capacity just understanding the Westminster village and the parliamentary process is step towards helping them make the right choices for their organisation. We also know that we are the sum of our parts and that collective responses are far more effective than a lone voice.

We must continue to hold the government to account even after we have left the EU. This last three years have shone a spotlight on the fragility of our devolution settlements and the weakness of our constitution.

We will continue to strengthen out network – and so events like tomorrows conference with NPC help enormously in building a sustained and powerful alliance for the future. And we must believe in the strength of the sector to overcome and build on what this has thrown up. We need to move on from talking about the EU and start to talk about what sort of country we want to live in and what sort of civil society we want to be.