A week after the shock EU referendum result, Susan Smith examines how the third sector has responded and what the result means for the future
The UK has elected to leave the European Union and the ground beneath the third sector in Scotland is feeling very shaky.
As the days went by in the first week following the shock referendum result, the huge implications for the future goals and financial stability of organisations started to become clear. It has dawned on the sector that the rights of their staff and service users are in doubt and that financially it’s not just the loss of tens of millions of European funding they have to worry about.
The whole country has been worrying about money this week and that was reflected in responses from the third sector. As Maggie Lennon, director of the Bridges Programme, highlighted in her TFN blog on Friday, Scotland contributes 8% to the total UK spend to Brussels but gets back 18% of the total spend back to the UK.
We will likely see EU Social Fund spending repatriated, and it is critical that in the future the UK government commits to spending the same amount (or more) on supporting people into employment and vocational training - Peter Holbrook
Her organisation is one of several employability bodies that benefit from around £20m in European Structural Funding each year, ensuring it can help people who are furthest away from the job market find work.
Social Enterprise UK’s Peter Holbrook was quick to urge the UK government to commit to spending the same or more on supporting people into employment and vocational training.
“We want to avoid social enterprises facing the pinch by a combination of a freeze on public sector contracts, banks using the decision as an excuse not to lend money, and for-profit private businesses seeking to keep their balance sheets looking good by squeezing their suppliers,” he said.
“In the medium term, we will likely see EU Social Fund spending repatriated, and it is critical that in the future the UK government commits to spending the same amount (or more) on supporting people into employment and vocational training.”
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations(NCVO) and the Charities Aid Foundation, soon made it clear that they too would urge the government to commit to current European funding areas, but their concerns about third sector finances are more widespread.
Charities Aid Foundation chief executive John Lowe said: “In the short-term, the cloud of uncertainty hovering over the nation’s finances will have an impact on charities and their ability to help some of society’s most vulnerable people. It will be vital for the millions who benefit from the support of charities that government addresses this quickly. A strong and stable economy is a crucial factor in people and businesses feeling able to donate to good causes.”
On Tuesday, NCVO released a briefing highlighting that while the short-term impact may not be as bad as predicted the picture looks bleak in the long-term.
It predicts the third sector could suffer as a result of further public spending cuts, a reduction in trust and foundation grants as these bodies experience a drop on their own dividends, a fall-off in charitable giving as the cost of living goes up, and additional cost pressures linked to rises in demand as economic and social distress kicks in. If corporates choose to move overseas, this too could result in a drop in income to the sector.
The reality now is that the human rights, equality rights and workers’ rights that could not be removed while we remained an EU member are no longer secure - Sally Witcher
Next up came concerns about the rights and responsibilities that the EU upholds and what impact the loss of these could have on third sector staff, service users and the general public as a whole.
The Conservative Government’s attempts last year to scarp the Human Rights Act doesn’t give the sector faith in its commitment to the European Convention of Human Rights.
Children in Scotland raised concerns about the rights of families, children and young people.
Its chief executive Jackie Brock said: “While the political and economic future of Britain is arguably now uncertain, Children in Scotland remain absolutely committed to improving the lives of children, young people and families. In these coming years we will continue to work with our local, national and European partners in the third sector to further advance the rights of children and their representatives, as well as parents and families across Scotland.
“Furthermore, we urge the Scottish and UK governments to continue to adhere to the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Disability groups also raised concerns about rights. Inclusion Scotlandchief executive Sally Witcher said: “The reality now is that the human rights, equality rights and workers’ rights that could not be removed while we remained an EU member are no longer secure.”
Tressa Burke of Glasgow Disability Alliance (GDA) said equalities laws should be devolved to the Scottish Government.
“GDA and our 3,500 disabled members and member organisations are keen to see a strengthening of equalities and human rights legislation,” she said. “We call for the UK and Scotland to remain firmly within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons so that disabled people can live and participate fully in our communities, making choices and having control over our own lives, with the vital support we need to do this. We also join our sister equalities organisations in calling for the devolution of the Equality Act.”
LGBT+ body, the Equality Network, backed Burke’s call while attempting to reassure its constituents, many still reeling from the recent Orlando attack and nervous about the rise of hate crimes in the UK.
Its chief executive Tim Hopkins said: “Britain's gender reassignment and sexual orientation equality laws were originally introduced as requirements of EU law. But they are part of British law - the Equality Act 2010 - and are now stronger than the EU requires. Most of the Equality Act is not devolved to Scotland.
“In our view, the Equality Act needs to be strengthened and improved, but there is a danger that the UK Government might weaken it. For the past 18 years, the Equality Network has called for equality law to be fully devolved to Scotland, because we think we would then have better and more appropriate law. We will continue to call for that, and to call for improvements to the Equality Act to fully cover gender identity, sex characteristics, and intersectional discrimination, and we will of course oppose any weakening of the law.”
Protection of Scotland’s environment is another key cause for concern if we are no longer part of the EU. As the result broke on Friday morning, environmental organisations were some of the first campaigners to speak out. The green lobby is well aware of the role of EU environmental directives on our wildlife, countryside and overall environmental standards.
Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “There will likely be a huge fight at the UK level to keep laws which protect nature, prevent pollution and set standards for a clean environment.
"Most of EU environmental law is devolved to the Scottish Parliament so Scotland can decide to keep these protections in place but we will still feel the impact of deep cuts to budgets for the environment. As a society we lose the protection of being able to appeal to European courts if either the UK or Scottish governments are failing to protect the environment."
Only one certainty remains: Scotland’s diverse and strong third sector will campaign vigorously to make sure our voices are heard - John Downie
Jonny Hughes, chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said nature directives from the EU are some of the most important tools for safeguarding Scotland’s natural environment.
“If these directives are repealed or diluted, the health of our freshwater, our wildlife and our seas will be severely compromised,” he said.
“The trust, along with many other environmental organisations, has fought for decades to help bring this body of law into being. It would be a tragedy for our environment if we now began the painful process of dismantling what we have built. We are calling on the Scottish Government to retain all those acts of the Scottish Parliament that have transposed EU environmental directives and to implement them fully, just as if we were a member of the EU.”
While the aftershock from the Brexit catastrophe continues to rumble on in the disintegration of party politics, the prospect of a General Election and another Scottish referendum loom large.
This leaves the rest of the country, including the third sector, waiting in limbo for a calmer time.
Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations director of public affairs John Downie concluded: “With a fractured Conservative Government in Westminster scrambling to work out what it will do next, we are left with only worries about how this gap will be filled. Only one certainty remains: Scotland’s diverse and strong third sector will campaign vigorously to make sure our voices are heard."