Clare Periton: 'The biggest thing for us is the uncertainty'

The chief executive of Helen & Douglas House in Oxfordshire talks about the implications of the EU exit

The day after the UK voted to leave the European Union, Clare Periton, chief executive of Helen & Douglas House, a children's hospice in Oxfordshire was greeted with a nasty shock. The charity has most of its £7m reserves as investments - and with the pound at its lowest level since 1983, thousands of pounds had been wiped off the value overnight.

"The initial reaction was 'that's not good'," says Periton. The market quickly righted itself, but the initial drop was a sobering reminder of the impact Brexit could have on charities operating at a regional level.

"The biggest thing for us is the uncertainty," Periton says. "I don't know how things like the markets or manufacturing contracting or house prices are going to affect us, and we don't know what the government's going to do - and it's the not knowing that's difficult."

Aside from the value of reserves, the economic ramifications of Brexit could have an impact on volunteers, she says.

The charity, which had an income of £12m and spent £11.2m in the year to 31 March 2015, relies on more than 1,000 volunteers, and there's no such thing as a typical one, Periton says - some are students, some are retired and some have part-time work elsewhere.

"If wages go down, that's going to affect volunteering - if less money is going into the family pot, are people going to need to work longer hours and have fewer free hours?" she asks.

And when it comes to the charity's 281 paid staff, there is even more uncertainty - a "considerable number" of them aren't UK nationals and about 14 could be directly affected, she says.

It might not sound like a huge number, but it could affect every team in the organisation, including catering, housekeeping, estates, retail and, of course, nursing.

"If you look at our catering team, nearly a quarter of them are from somewhere else, and housekeeping is run by a Polish lady - so I think that's the issue," Periton says.

"They all work hard and do a good job. I'm not convinced there are more people around who can fill the roles to that standard."

The nursing question is pressing, she says. "If we're not training them, and we can't bring them in from outside the EU, and they can't come from inside the EU, where are they going to come from?" she says.

"We're a market in Oxford that is a nurse's paradise. We match the NHS on pay and pension and on most terms and conditions - improving on that is very difficult."

The lack of certainty over the terms of any Brexit deal makes it difficult for her as a leader to reassure staff.

"When I came into work on the Friday after the referendum, people were absolutely stunned," Periton says. "I know some hospices sent statements to affected staff saying 'please don't worry', but I didn't feel able to do that. I can't promise something I have no influence over."

But she says she is a natural optimist, which is lucky because there's little her charity can do except wait and see what happens: "I know what the major disaster plan looks like. If the money doesn't come in, I have to reduce staff and services.

"The advice I got when I came into this role was to get myself a really good honorary treasurer and financial director to plan for five years down the line and prepare for the lean times - and that's more true than ever," she says.

Other than that, Periton says, it's just about getting on with the job. "This doesn't sound very technical, but I'm holding my breath right now," she says.

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