Andy Hillier: Shock and fear as Brexit becomes a reality

The voluntary sector needs to be part of the discussions as we negotiate our way away from Brussels, writes Andy Hillier

Andy Hillier
Andy Hillier

Shock. Horror. It was a result that few had predicted and many in the sector feared. But here we are in 2016 facing the reality of life outside the European Union and the prospect of a new prime minister with strong right-wing tendencies.

Life could be about to become a whole lot more difficult for the charity sector.

What's clear from the result is that there are deep divisions between us as a nation. The interactive maps of how the UK voted show a vast sea of blue in favour of a vote to leave and only islands of yellow for those wanting to remain. Outside Scotland and the main conurbations such as London, few areas of the country wanted to stay in the EU.

The strength of feeling to exit was startlingly high in parts of the country: almost 76 per cent voted in favour of leaving in Boston, Lincolnshire.

The local voluntary sector acts as a glue that binds communities together in many areas, especially less well-off ones. It steps in and offers support when no one else is there; it eases tensions between different minority ethnic groups and offers hope when many see only despair. But what it can't do is solve the UK's ingrained social problems. Despite 13 years of Labour rule, stubborn pockets of deprivation remain across the country. And despite six years of a coalition and the subsequent Conservative government pledging job creation and fairer pay, unemployment remains worryingly high and low pay and zero-hours contracts endure. Too many people are simply fed up and want genuine change.

Perhaps one of the ironies of the leave vote is that it could hit our poorest areas hardest. Charities in the UK received £214m from Brussels in 2014 to support their work. Much of this EU money is distributed according to such factors as indices of deprivation. Its removal could take away vital support such as funding for job programmes unless action is taken to offset its loss.

The economic downturn that many predict will also undoubtedly have broader implications for the sector. The stock markets have already entered a tailspin and sterling has dropped like bomb against the US dollar. A mini recovery might well happen once we know more about the exact plan to exit. But in the meantime donors may well become a little less generous and wallets and purses remain closed.

As the Charities Aid Foundation says in a statement today, a stable economy is a crucial factor in people and businesses feeling able to donate to good causes.

Of more immediate concern is how the sector will help to heal a divided nation. Almost 52 per cent of voters might have voted in favour of leaving, but 48 per cent did not. There are already signs of hostility and division: for example, the younger generation blaming the over-55s for risking their future by voting for an exit, and the better-off blaming those who are less well off.

In the not too distant future the UK faces toughs decisions about how many migrants it will welcome from our soon to be former EU partners. Families may well find themselves divided and charities will be called upon to offer support.

Then there's the fear that the vote to leave will light the blue-touch paper in communities where ethnic tensions are already high and lead to a more intolerant and less caring society.

These are unprecedented times and no one really knows what it could all mean in the long term. But whatever happens, the voluntary sector needs to be part of the discussions and part of the solution.

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