Come what May: Preparing for Brexit

The PM’s speech outlining the government’s starting position on Brexit negotiations was a long time coming, and it provided some clarity on a few key issues that could have profound implications for the voluntary sector.

Outside of the single market, lots of laws will be up for grabs

The PM confirmed what many had suspected and some had feared: the UK will leave the single market. This could have serious ramifications for voluntary organisations, beyond the spectre of economic instability. Crucially, it means that EU legislation need no longer apply. The great repeal bill will move across some but not all legislation, and thereafter the government will have new found liberty to drop or alter that legislation.

Moreover, any EU legislation that’s rolled over into domestic law as part of the great repeal bill will no longer be enforceable by the European Court of Justice – meaning the voluntary sector will lose the ability to challenge government decisions in respect of that legislation (in UK courts you can challenge the decision making process but not the decision). This presents a huge threat to voluntary organisations that have long depended on EU legislation to protect the vulnerable.

What do voluntary organisations need to do?

Bearing in mind that the great repeal bill will probably come into effect in just over two years, voluntary organisations must begin the process of identifying legislation that is most important to them, and building up an evidence base to demonstrate why it’s in the government’s interest to keep it, strengthen it, or drop it altogether. Indeed, not all EU legislation has been popular (the Common Agricultural Policy and VAT rules spring to mind), and this process also provides a window of opportunity to improve or remove certain EU related legislation, if so desired.

Voluntary organisations must also think carefully about which government department to target their advocacy towards. DExEU is, unsurprisingly, largely dealing with negotiations for exiting the EU. So unless your issue is relevant to negotiations between the UK and the EU and needs to be settled as part of those negotiations (such as trade or movement of people between the UK and the EU) – it will probably be dealt with by the department with day-to-day responsibility for that area, and that’s where you should target your advocacy.

Mind the funding gap

Charities in the UK currently receive significant amounts of EU funding. However, the PM’s statement that the UK will no longer contribute ‘huge sums’ to the EU budget, effectively ruled out the UK continuing to receive anything like the same level of EU funds in the future.

The future of lots of funding streams will be up in the air come Brexit – and not just those that currently come from the EU. If these funds aren’t replaced it’s potentially a huge problem – especially for the environment, skills and employment, and medical research sectors.

What do voluntary organisations need to do?

Where possible, affected organisations should identify the funding streams that are most important to them, and begin building a robust evidence base that demonstrates their value. If voluntary organisations want to shape the new funding streams that could be in place as early as March 2019, they need to start doing so as soon as possible.

Identifying key decision makers and influential allies will be crucial. Who currently administers the funds and who else benefits from them? The Treasury will have an overview and probably the final say, but are often harder to reach than the departments responsible for administering the funds, such as DWP, DCLG or DEFRA. Local authorities are huge beneficiaries of the same ‘structural funds’ from the EU (such as ESF and ERDF) that lots of voluntary organisations benefit from, and could be useful allies in the battle to have funding maintained.

The PM did also leave the door open for ‘appropriate contributions to the EU’ – which could allow the UK to pay into and receive certain funds, a la Norway. Where funds have an international dimension, voluntary organisations should consider whether this would be preferable to a substitute domestic funding stream.

Before actual Brexit, it’s crucial that funds continue to flow from Brussels to the UK. The Treasury has agreed to ‘underwrite’ any EU funding agreements made before Brexit, thereby ensuring the projects receive funding up until completion, even where they run beyond Brexit. This is very welcome and should safeguard funds that are allocated by UK authorities, such as ESF and ERDF.

However, where funding streams are allocated directly by the European Commission, such as Horizon 2020, there is a risk that the commission will no longer award funds to UK projects once Article 50 is triggered – for instance, if the awarding criteria are strongly linked to EU Directives that will cease to apply before the project is completed.

It’s important that organisations seek clarity on whether this will be an issue for them. If so, pressure must be applied to both the commission and the UK government to make sure that funding streams don’t simply dry up for two years.

What are NCVO doing?

Brexit is daunting to say the least, especially for smaller organisations – but we’re here to help. I’ll be working full-time on Brexit – running workshops, steering groups and more – to try to bring as much clarity to the voluntary sector as possible, and helping it to find its voice.

You’ll be hearing plenty more from me in the coming weeks and months, but I’d like to hear from you too. Please do get in touch at with any Brexit related questions or intelligence.

I look forward to hearing from you!


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Avatar photo Brendan Costelloe was senior external relations officer (EU) at NCVO, leading on Brexit work.

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