Should parliament be at the centre of charities’ Brexit influencing strategies?

With the High Court determining that the triggering of Article 50 will require a vote in parliament to approve, does this mean that charities seeking to influence Brexit should now be turning their attentions to MPs and Peers?

Assuming the government’s appeal to the Supreme Court fails (which is by no means a safe assumption), on the face of it today’s judgement would suggest parliament is going to take on a much greater role in determining the outcome of Brexit, but in practice the impact of parliament on Brexit terms may well be less than is being assumed.

Article 50 vote

There seems little chance that Theresa May won’t be able to command a majority on this in the House of Commons. MPs may demand a clearer plan from the government in exchange for their support, which is where charities that want to safeguard current aspects of our relationship with the EU might feel they have an opening.

However, voting against the triggering of Article 50 is likely to be seen as a vote against the referendum result, and in the event that the Commons does vote it down there would be a strong possibility that it would lead to an election being called, which current polling suggests is likely to lead to a much clearer Leave majority.

What about the Lords?

It’s less clear what the Lords would do, and it is almost certainly true that a majority of peers would like to stop or slow down Brexit. But the position of the Lords is increasingly under threat given their unelected status, and a rejection of a popular vote in these circumstances would be very dangerous for peers who want to maintain the Lords and its powers, after the Strathclyde Review last year.

Parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit

Aside from Article 50, there are of course plenty of opportunities for parliamentarians to have their say on Brexit negotiations, which charities may be able to take advantage of.

The new Brexit committee does have a majority of those who campaigned for Remain, but the nature of committee work is to aim to seek consensus among members. Brexit is undoubtedly divisive, so there are likely to be some disagreements, but I would expect reports from the committee to unite in criticism of process rather than open up divides on the strategy and direction of the government on achieving Brexit.

The ‘Great Repeal’ bill

Next year’s ‘Great Repeal’ bill could be important for charities if it defines how laws will be examined post-Brexit, but it will largely govern the approach the UK takes after leaving rather than on the exit itself. It is likely to take place while negotiations are ongoing however, so some parliamentarians may see it as an opportunity to make wider points about what should and shouldn’t be pursued.

When it comes to exit negotiations, charities will be particularly interested in what happens to existing funding streams, the future direction of the economy, and the implications that might have for funding more widely. Parliament is likely to have some role in shaping the government’s negotiating position. The prime minister does after all have a narrow majority, and the prospect of losing votes, even non-binding ones, may well inspire commitments on what they will ask for.

But it’s worth remembering that the UK’s negotiating position will only be part of the question, with 27 other countries all looking to safeguard their own interests (and the collective interest of protecting the integrity of the remaining EU) it’s going to inevitably mean making compromises.

How should charities seek to influence Brexit?

What does this mean for charities’ influencing strategies? It certainly doesn’t mean that parliamentary opportunities should be ignored. Building coalitions in parliament (and with government) to protect or enhance the areas you think are important are going to be crucial in the years ahead as the government has the opportunity to revisit EU legislation that has been put into UK law.

But if you’re looking to influence the terms of exit, government still looks the more likely option for charities.

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Chris is NCVO’s public affairs manager, focusing on parliamentary work. He started his career working for several MPs in Parliament, and has also worked in public affairs and policy roles for the Federation of Small Businesses.

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