Charities must have a voice in Brexit

The decision to leave the European Union will shape profoundly the future of our communities. I am determined that NCVO should give voice to the knowledge and experience of voluntary organisations who work with those communities day in and day out, and therefore have so much to offer the negotiations and policy debates about to take place.

This morning, at NCVO, senior staff from across the voluntary sector and a panel of sector policy experts discussed their vision of a post-Brexit society and how best we together can make our society a success. In my speech, I set out my thinking about how voluntary organisations should respond to the challenges and opportunities ahead, and I made the following points.

We need to learn but also move on from the referendum debate

Some have argued that we should not spend time reflecting on the reasons as to why the UK voted to leave the European Union, but instead we should ‘get on with it’ and focus on the future. Yet there are important lessons to be learned which are worth thinking about. The fact that the result was a surprise to many in the sector raises important questions: were we close enough to the communities we represent to see how people felt? Have we been carrying out our duty to build communities’ capabilities to speak up and make their voices heard?

I also expressed my regret at the fact that charities fell into the trap of self-policing during the debate. They perhaps didn’t do as much as they should have done to make their voices heard. If we want our democracy to continue to work effectively, we must find our own voice again and not be afraid to engage with the legislative and policy changes of coming years, even when the subject matter is as contentious as Brexit. Finding our voice amidst these difficult, contested issues is, the panel noted, one of our key challenges as a sector.

The rights of EU citizens in the UK need to be resolved

I also called on the government to resolve the future of EU citizens working in the UK, swiftly and conclusively. In my view, campaigning for the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU is the right thing to do – both from a human and from a pragmatic perspective.

NCVO’s own analysis shows that nearly 5% of the sector’s workforce are non-UK EU nationals. And as my colleagues on the panel highlighted, these include the low-skilled and the highly skilled. At NCVO we have already begun to think about how we can support and reassure EU staff, and I would urge all charities employing EU citizens to do the same.

The pressures faced by our public services today illustrate my point around pragmatism perfectly. EU citizens have made a significant contribution to our public services, in particular in health and social care, and we cannot afford to keep the people who are making those services run in suspense. EU citizens have helped make our charity-funded medical research become world-leading. Their right to stay is currently under threat, as is the care of a great many vulnerable people that depend on them. We need to resolve this now.

We need to think creatively and differently about tax rules and funding programmes

For many years, a meaningful proportion of the voluntary sector’s funding has come from the EU.  The EU has supported diverse activities, from medical research to helping people become employment ready. While the uncertainty around the future of such funding weighs heavy on the minds of many charity leaders, Brexit could provide an opportunity to create new, improved funding streams that are equivalent in size and scope, but more efficient, less bureaucratic and more strategic. The voluntary sector will now face the task of demonstrating the value of funding to different government departments and their differing priorities.

However, it is important to emphasise that there are opportunities to be found. For example we now have the chance to reform policy, such as rules which currently prevent the voluntary sector from recovering £1.5bn in VAT in the same way the private sector can.

Regulation isn’t just red tape

An oft-cited priority for leaving is the removal of red tape. But it is critical that voluntary organisations’ experience here is listened to: it’s vital that crucial safeguards for vulnerable people or the environment are not lost or watered down. Much EU law has been transposed into UK law as secondary legislation, meaning the government could amend it without consulting parliament. The Great Repeal bill must put in place mechanisms that ensure changes to important laws are subject to democratic scrutiny.

Work with NCVO to shape a better Brexit

This is a time of transition. We are all concerned in the sector that policy and regulatory changes creates winners and losers. And we are all concerned that the effort required to make our case, to stand our ground, is beyond any one of us individually. This point was made strongly by the panel and it is a challenge we should all rise to. In the coming months NCVO will work with our members to secure the best possible outcomes for our communities, our country, our voluntary organisations. I hope you will join us in working for that.

You can also read my speech in full.

The audience also heard from Sarah Woolnough, Executive Director of Policy and Research at Cancer Research; Martin Harper, Conservation Director at the RSPB; Andrew Kaye, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Independent Age; and Dr Sam Royston, Director of Policy and Research at the Children’s Society. With the permission of the speakers, we will make their presentations available.


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Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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