Brexit vote means less support for sector, says David Emerson

The chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations tells Directory of Social Change seminar that demands on government will see less time and fewer resources directed towards charities

David Emerson
David Emerson

Charities can expect to have less support from government now that the UK has voted to leave the European Union, according to David Emerson, chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations.

Speaking at a Directory of Social Change Brexit seminar in London yesterday, Emerson told delegates that the demands on government and the civil service created by the process of leaving the EU meant less time and fewer resources would dedicated to the charity sector.

And although Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, would be remaining in the role, Emerson pointed out that taking on responsibilities for libraries as well would effectively leave the charity sector with "half a minister".

"We might have had some reservations about the minister before, but now we have some reservations about his capacity and his timing," said Emerson. "How is he going to be able to devote as much time to charities?"

He said that all government departments would be forced to spend ministerial time on removing EU legislation and deciding what should replace it, leaving a "kind of paralysis".

He said: "I can’t see we’re going to get a lead from government. I can’t see that there’s going to be any capacity or scope, so we’re going to be left much more to sort out how we can do things between ourselves."

Debra Allcock Tyler, the chief executive of the DSC, agreed, and urged charities to put themselves forward to assist government. "Where there are gaps, step in and fill them," she said. "Get in there and offer your policy advice, offer your people and expertise. If you don’t, someone else will and it’ll be someone we don’t agree with."

But Andrew O’Brien, head of policy and engagement at the Charity Finance Group, warned that charities would need to change their attitudes if that were to happen.

"We need to stop talking about ourselves as a problem to be solved," he said. "If we keep doing that we’re never going to get a look-in from government because they’ll think of us as something to do something to, not do something with – so we’ve got to change the rhetoric."

Allcock Tyler said there was a role for charity leaders in bringing together their staff to heal the divisions caused by the referendum. She warned against assuming that everyone in the charity sector had wanted to remain in the EU.

"I think it’s going to be some time before all this emotional stuff disappears, to be honest," she said. "As leaders, this is probably one of the hardest challenges we face, and we need to separate our public face from our private."

She said leaders could have a disproportionate influence on what could be talked about in organisations, and expressing particular views about the referendum in the office could leave some feeling isolated.

But she said: "The raw emotion that we are experiencing is about difference, and we know how to manage difference in the voluntary sector. A lot of what we do is about managing difference."

She said leaders should be using the same tools with which they deal with beneficiaries to deal with differences among staff. Ultimately, she said, the focus should turn to how charities could manage the potential impact on beneficiaries.

"You’ve got to deal with staff, trustees, beneficiaries, funders, donors and volunteers, and there is one simple way in which you can bring all those people together – beneficiaries," Allcock Tyler said.

"Focus everybody on them and what they need. When we do that, those differences are diminished."

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