The dangers of a no-deal Brexit

In recent months, much has been said about how a no-deal Brexit would lead to a major economic contraction. This is the consensus of the Treasury, the Bank of England, and virtually every professional economist. And the government’s own assessment yesterday was that the country at large is simply not ready for a no-deal.

But the consequences for our society of leaving with no deal go even further than this.

Queues at Dover and empty supermarket shelves may well turn out to be the visible evidence of the impact of a no-deal Brexit. But the consequences for our society of leaving with no deal go even further than disruption to trade or economic contraction.

These are points that we have made previously, but as parliament stands ready to debate ruling out no-deal, and with our exit just days away, I feel it is important to reiterate our concern that leaving without an agreement risks tearing the social fabric of our country.

So my message to parliamentarians is clear: a no-deal outcome will be disastrous for communities in the short term. We need to find an alternative way forward too if we are to rebuild communities for the long term.

No deal is no answer

Many charities have understandably stopped short of taking sides in the Brexit debate. They have focused on informing policy-makers of the implications for their areas of work, be they in medical research, care work or environmental protections.

These problems need not all be insurmountable if thoughtfully dealt with and any changes implemented over a sufficient time period, but pulling the rug away in a matter of weeks will trigger the most severe of consequences.

The economic and practical turmoil it would cause, along with the specific issues they face in their own areas of work, mean that a no-deal Brexit would be bleak for many charities and the people and causes they work for. People voted for change – there is no doubt about that. But they voted for change for the better, not for the worse.

When the economy struggles, communities across the country will need more support and assistance. Social tensions inevitably rise in times of economic duress. In a more divided, unequal country, this will be felt most in the places furthest away from where the decision about no-deal will be taken. Places where charities are already stretched following a number of difficult years. Like business, we may well be aware that a no-deal Brexit is catastrophic, but that is not the same as being ready and capable for dealing with it.

Strong, cohesive communities rely on a strong economy. And so do the organisations working within those communities. An economy unable to support the work that charities do in helping people build skills, find jobs and support the most vulnerable and disadvantaged will create major difficulties for our sector and the communities we serve.

The time to speak out

Even in the face of forces beyond our control, even when it seems futile, even when so many others are shouting too, we must still express what we know to be true. Everyone, every part of our economy, every part of society has a stake in what happens now.

Today we sent this briefing to MPs. It is a concise summary of issues we have previously raised, scarcely touching the surface of the complex problems many charities will face in their own areas of work. But it is a marker of our stake in this and I hope it will serve as a reminder to MPs, along with the many other briefings they will be receiving expressing similar concerns, of the immense gravity of what they are now dealing with.

Brexit presents a challenge in reconciling the banal, bureaucratic nature of the myriad problems it creates with their profound, life-changing effects.

Our European friends and neighbours who have made their lives here for years are now confronted with new immigration systems that demand they register their presence on a phone app. Practically, for many it may be little more than a minor inconvenience, but the message it sends about the welcome our country extends and about our values is powerful and troubling.

Or take the deeply mundane news that Britain doesn’t have the right shipping pallets to export goods in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Our country’s pallets don’t meet the sanitary standards required of non-EU countries importing goods into the bloc. Without our membership, British exporters will be stuck. It could be weeks or months for enough new pallets to arrive. It’s both risible and a signifier of how interconnectedness is key to our economic survival.

The nature of a parliamentary briefing paper does not lend itself to doing justice to the full depth and resonance of these issues, but that is no reason not to proceed.

I fear the recent years in politics, in the UK and elsewhere, have accustomed us to hyperbole to the extent that many words and sentiments have lost their potency, but it is no overstatement that this is one of, if not the most consequential moments for the country in our lifetimes. Yet our collective cognitive dissonance strikes me as startling – even if a no-deal outcome was an attractive option, people and organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors are simply not prepared for this eventuality.

Given the very real effects it will have on those we serve, we are calling on politicians of all parties to come together and secure a way forward that avoids a no-deal exit. Leaving without anywhere to go cannot by any measure represent a credible solution. The harm it would do to communities in the short-term alone – without even considering the longer-term impacts on prosperity and cohesion – should render it beyond question.

There is still time before parliament makes a decision. If you have evidence, please consider whether now is the moment to speak or write to your MP and share your expertise about what the impact will be on the people and causes you work for.

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

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