With the biggest challenge for the country since the Second World War swirling around us, why is the sector so silent? Brexit is the most important and fundamental political challenge for this cou ntry since 1945, so where are the voices of charities and the voluntary and community sector? To be silent is a mistake, and even an abdication of responsibility.
The sector should not stand aside from the Brexit debate. Of course, Brexit could yet be avoi ded and the Article 50 letter could be withdrawn, but it would be imprudent for the VCS to assume that this will be the case. I am not alone in being surprised at how silent the sector seems to be about Brexit, its causes and its consequences. Sir Stephen Bubb, former chief executive of Acevo , has tweeted to ask why charities are not speaking out on the dangers of a “hard Brexit” and even supporting the call for a people’s vote.
The call for a referendum might seem too political to some in the VCS, but the sector should be analysing and speaking up on how various permutations of any possible Brexit deal or even a “no deal” are likely to affect not just VCS organisations themselves but, more importantly, co mmunities across the country. If, as most economists predict, any form of Brexit leads to lower economic growth, a lower pound and less economic stability, there will be serious consequences for employment, living standards and public expenditure, with fur ther cuts to already austeritydamaged public services. The biggest adverse impact of any Brexit arrangement will fall on the most vulnerable in society and on the already most disadvantaged communities.
Further, if as result of Brexit the UK government we re to weaken the social and environmental benefits secured for us by the EU, it would be severely harmful to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society. There would probably be a growth in precarious employment, but fewer people in work over certainly fewer in secure, wellpaid work. all and Local economies and communities will be deeply hurt if exports are reduced, if inward investment is cut and if companies relocate to one or more of the remaining 27 EU countries. Another economic consequ ence is that there will be less public and other money, because the sector itself faces the prospect of less public money being available for grants and contracts. And there is no guarantee that in the medium to long term the UK government will make good t he loss of European Social Fund and other funding from the EU that benefits both the sector directly and the communities they work with.
These funding threats – they are, more likely, realities – should be wake-up calls to all of us in the VCS. There are many other reasons for concern, such as the potential risk to medical supplies, staffing for key public services and the implications for travel and residency across the EU and the UK.
The VCS has views on these issues and should be making them heard. The country is deeply divided regionally, by social and economic class, and in many other ways. Inequality, poverty and division are increasing. Tolerance is being eroded. There is a crisis and this crisis in part undoubtedly influenced the outcome of the 2016 referendum. The referendum campaign sadly brought to life this observation about the country’s two nations from Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were… inhabitants of different planets.” Too many communities feel marginalised and that their voices are not listened to. The VCS has a proud history of challenging inequality and its causes.
It must do so today with ever-greater vigour. It has offered a voice for and enabled communities to give air to their own voices. It must do so today. Most worryingly, Brexit in whatever form will almost certainly make these social and economic problems worse. The VCS must say this and act accordingly. In the political discourse surrounding Brexit, the VCS voice needs to be heard alongside those of business and the trade unions. The sector should complement and, where necessary, counter their voices.
The VCS and its national bodies must seek to shape the Brexit debate, focusing on whether to continue with Brexit and, if it is to be pursued, on what terms. It must also make the case for systematic social and economic change for a fairer, more equal country, wherever we end up in respect of Brexit. The sector can do this by drawing on its values, its principles and the evidence it gathers from its daily experiences. Of course, the sector must avoid being partisan and choose when and how to intervene with care, but surely it cannot sit to one side while the biggest political challenge for more than 70 years swirls around us.