Brexit: An end-of-year review

A year is a long time in Brexit, so here’s a quick review of the major developments in 2017, what to expect in 2018, and what this might mean for the voluntary sector.

Slow and uncertain progress

In December, Brexit talks finally moved on from negotiations on the ‘divorce settlement’, after sufficient progress on issues such as the divorce bill, citizens’ rights and the Irish border were outlined in a Brexit agreement (pdf, 474 KB)

That it took so long to deal with the easier aspects of phase one (the divorce bill and citizen’s rights), and to kick the harder part (the Irish border) into the long grass doesn’t bode well for the rest of the talks – in which the government will try to reconcile its economic objective of access to the Single Market, with its political desire not to abide by the rules of the Single Market. Although it’s not an aspect of Brexit that charities can easily influence, the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU could have the greatest impact on the sector – if a failure to strike a good deal leads to a recession and increased strain on charitable resources.

With so much of the two-year negotiating period for Brexit gone already, and with so much still to do, a lengthy transition period is looking increasingly necessary. We think the government should avoid arbitrary deadlines and prioritise a smooth and orderly transition that minimises confusion and uncertainty, and which gives the UK enough time to develop well-prepared policies and institutions that can meet the challenges posed by Brexit.

Citizens’ rights

We welcome the commitments to citizens’ rights in the Brexit agreement. European citizens enrich our society and our economy, and it’s only right that those who have made their lives here can stay and enjoy broadly the same rights they currently do. Charities of all kinds have benefited from being able to employ people from across Europe to work here, with sectors such as social care depending heavily on EEA citizens.

The upcoming immigration white paper and immigration bill must ensure that the sector can still access the labour it needs, and that future ‘immigrations skills charges’ are not prohibitively expensive. Failing to provide these sectors with a suitably skilled workforce would put intolerable strain on vital services.

Funding

The EU has provided significant funding for important areas such as employment and skills training, regional development, wildlife conservation and scientific research. It’s crucial that this funding is maintained post-Brexit.

With regards to domestic programmes such as employment and skills training and regional development, we welcome the Conservative manifesto commitment to create a Shared Prosperity Fund to replace Structural Funds. Brexit offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop world-leading programmes, building on the best aspects of European Structural Funds, while cutting the excessive bureaucracy that hampers current schemes. We have produced a report that outlines how best to design a replacement fund (pdf, 265KB) for employment and skills training.

While the UK will create new domestic funding streams, there is considerable appetite for it to continue participating in funding programmes with an international dimension, where collaboration adds value to the output of British organisations. This is particularly true for international development and research programmes, so we’re pleased that the Brexit agreement indicates the UK’s desire to participate in some EU programmes post Brexit. The agreement also makes clear that the UK will participate in funding programmes until the end of 2020 and UK organisations can still take part in them. Likewise, we welcome para 71 of the Brexit Agreement, which clarifies that Brexit itself will not constitute a breach of grant agreements.

Regulation

There has been considerable fanfare over the introduction of a clause to the withdrawal bill that allows parliament a meaningful vote on the terms of the final Brexit deal. It’s hard to know how this affects the final outcome in practice yet it remains the only potential improvement made so far in our eyes. We think the bill still falls short of safeguarding regulatory standards and parliamentary oversight, and we will continue to work with a cross-sector coalition to improve it. This should include, for example, retaining important principles in EU treaties which form a big part of our legal framework in many areas, such as the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and clauses that restrict ministers to technical changes while converting EU law.

Trade

Modern trade deals affect many aspects of public policy, including jobs, the environment, health and inequality. Yet, as things stand, the trade bill would give Britain’s MPs less say on trade deals than our MEPs would have had in the European Parliament. And at the moment, they’d also have less say on a potential US-UK deal than the US Congress.

We don’t think the government should be able to make the big changes that trade deals often entail without parliamentary oversight that allows for the public and civil society to engage. We will therefore continue to work with a cross-sector coalition to push for negotiations to be transparent and that agreements to be subject to scrutiny in parliament.

Keeping you up to speed in 2018

Brexit is shuffling the decks of politics and policy like nothing else, and making planning difficult for organisations of all kinds. To help NCVO members understand what Brexit might mean for them, we will be publishing a ‘Brexit planner’ in the New Year – covering a range of important issues from HR implications to regulatory changes. Please do get in touch if you have any particular questions you would like us to address: brendan.costelloe@ncvo.org.uk

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Brendan Costelloe Brendan Costelloe is senior external relations officer (EU) at NCVO, leading on Brexit work. He previously worked for the RSPB, and prior to that in local government.

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