However you voted in the EU referendum, I think it’s fair to say we’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to be prepared—as a country and as a charitable sector—for Departure Day when it comes on the 29th of March 2019, just seven months away.
NPC’s State of the Sector research back in 2017 found that, at the time, most charity leaders didn’t think Brexit would have a big impact on their work. At a recent roundtable hosted by NPC, with BBC Newsnight’s Chris Cook and a number of charity sector leaders, there was a strong view that this is now changing as the Brexit process unfolds. There was a real sense that as a sector we need to start speaking up for ourselves and for the communities we exist to serve.
Some top Brexit-related challenges ahead for charities include:
- Growing need. Emerging data on Brexit shows that life is expected to become harder for many, at least in the short term—and particularly for groups that are already experiencing disadvantage. With many local councils hitting crisis point charities will need to work out how to identify and then support these communities where they can, stretching already stressed resources.
- Income problems. With some estimates suggesting household incomes are under pressure, many people already have less disposable income to spend on non-essentials—including charitable giving. This, coupled with the probable loss of EU funding in many areas – including medical research – will have a major impact on the finances of a large number of charities.
- Trouble finding staff. According to the NCVO, the charity sector employed nearly 39,000 EU nationals in June 2016, dropping to just under 31,000 in June 2017. Around 7,500 EU staff left difficult-to-fill social work roles in that time. Recent figures from the ONS suggest that the number of EU workers in the UK has fallen by 86,000 in the last year. This kind of dramatic drop in numbers has the potential to create real staffing problems for charities and they need to be thinking about how to address them.
- Difficulty getting good policy through parliament. Charities have been involved in recent government initiatives, including the Civil Society Strategy and the Rough Sleeping Strategy. Unfortunately, a pattern we are starting to see with these initiatives is no or little new money, and no legislative change. Time in parliament is currently dominated by Brexit. Even when we are ‘in the tent’ the legislative congestion means there just isn’t the time and space to meaningfully address policy on social issues, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. So charities need to think of different approaches to help create change that helps their beneficiaries
There is no denying that Brexit will create challenges for lots of charities—many will struggle to survive, some will go under and some will prosper. But the sector is not speaking up enough about the issues ahead. No one is standing up to share what they really think. And that is problem for a couple of reasons.
The first is that charities are one of the few groups in the UK that is still relatively trusted. As a sector, we sit close to the heart of the people we work with, and the millions of wonderful people that give their money and time to the causes that matter to them. We have a unique voice and credibility—and we have a responsibility to use that voice to speak truth to power and help secure the best possible outcome for the communities we serve.
The second is that, unlike some other more vocal groups, charities role is to elevate the voice, assets and requirements of the people we work with and respond to what they see and hear. If we agree the Leave vote was strongest in ‘left behind’ communities, we should not passively accept that their Leave vote could end up being a vote for a worse standard of living in those areas. We should do our best to help ensure that all parts of the country get the best possible outcome, whatever form our new relationship with the EU takes.
Whether you are delighted or horrified by the UK’s departure from the EU, there is no denying that it represents the single most disruptive political, economic and social upheaval of our time. As a sector, we should not keep silent. We will be remiss if we do not engage with the debate, challenge those in positions of power, call out problems, and try to shape the outcome into something that works for the groups and communities that we care about. It is time we stepped up.