So, it’s happening. Article 50 has been triggered. Brexit is underway.
Leaving the EU will almost certainly lead to a massive disruption in how the UK functions, and where there has been a response from the third sector it has been largely one of concern. But, as the tech sector shows us, disruption also has upsides. It gives an opportunity to reassess and re-balance the status quo, and can bring positive changes.
So here are some areas where leaving the EU could, if seized upon by the third sector, lead to positive change.
A new commissioning environment
Income from commissioning is increasingly important to how the third sector runs. Sub-sectors such as health and housing have whole areas of service provision driven by attracting public sector money. Currently all commissioning by public sector bodies has to follow EU procurement rules; in particular the core principles of transparency, equal treatment, open competition, and sound procedural management.
These principles are admirable in their intention—and we should try to preserve them going forward. But one of them in particular has caused frustration for charities, and the sector may want to use this as an opportunity to argue for reassessment. The equal treatment principle means public sector contractors cannot prioritise a certain type of organisation to receive funding. Charities and private sector organisations must be judged on the same criteria and treated in fundamentally the same way.
Now this has never been a barrier to commissioners specifying—within reason—the kind of service it wants in a way that clearly favours one sector over another. But very few have done this not least because they tend to be risk averse. This pushes charities to justify their intervention in the same terms as private sector organisations: focusing them on efficiencies instead of on the impact, social good and community cohesion that can be bought by the third sector. If these rules were reformed, public sector providers would be more easily able to prioritise partners that fully act for the public good, instead of private profit.
The opportunity to push agendas and redefine focus
The legislative challenge of Brexit is vast. Sectors that have for decades have been shaped by the EU will need to be re-examined as greater responsibility returns to the UK. This creates an opportune environment to campaign for change.
One example of such an opportunity was highlighted by Martin Harper, the conservation director at RSPB, during NCVO’s recent panel on how the voluntary sector should respond to leaving the European Union. The EU’s agriculture funding is channelled through the Common Agricultural Policy. Brexit creates the opportunity to push for a shift in agricultural funding towards supporting environmental land management and the promotion of more sustainable farming methods; which could lead to a significant positive impact on UK wildlife.
For another example, shortages in the labour market strengthens the case for offering young people new training opportunities, putting youth and employment charities in a stronger position to make their case.
So even if a sector does not receive significant EU resources, the unprecedented churn of new legislation that will come with Brexit will likely create avenues to shift the axis of debate.
Making challenges into opportunities
Brexit will bring challenges, some of which are already visible. The sector needs to be mindful of these challenges but also see how they can be transformed into opportunities. Ultimately, charities must not be fearful of change. There’s no denying it won’t be easy. But as long as organisations keep their mission in mind, they can adapt to changing circumstances and perhaps even emerge stronger than they were before.