Brexit offers a huge opportunity to charitable organisations and they should view leaving the European Union as a chance to drive positive change, according to the newly elected Brexit Party MEP Matthew Patten.
Speaking exclusively to Third Sector, the former chief executive of the social mobility charity the Mayor’s Fund for London said charities held an important role in shaping the social fabric of Britain and would be instrumental in the post-Brexit era.
"Whatever happens, I’m very positive about the role that civil society does, could and should play in this space," he said.
Criticising charitable leaders who "denigrated" Brexit voters in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, he said his experience campaigning in the East Midlands had illuminated the disconnect between people at the top of third sector organisations and those they sought to serve.
"There is a profound difference between what happens in the charity world of London and the thick minestrone of civil society engagements, resources and investments that come with it, compared with so many other places in Britain," Patten said.
"There is a real opportunity here for the third sector to think beyond our own bubble and try to get more engaged in the everyday lives of people in the towns and regions where they live, particularly outside the capital."
He called on the government to make the Minister for Sport and Civil Society a Cabinet-level role and suggested the Charity Commission be moved from "the heart of Westminster" to another thriving hub of the UK as a "symbol of change and recognition", reconnecting with regional hubs, volunteers and beneficiaries.
Patten expressed sympathy for the uncertainty many voluntary organisations faced as result of the Brexit discussions, but stressed that "being part of the debate" was crucial.
"Organisations such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations have really engaged in trying to shape and put forward reviews of the sector, in terms of the implications for different types of Brexit, but very few charities have a view or plan for the outcomes that might happen," he said.
"If you are running a small organisation, particularly a small domestic charity, quite rightly your focus is the day-to-day cause and the people you are serving.
"But I think there will be opportunities when we leave the EU to influence things such as how we set our tax policy, among others. Regarding issues such as VAT, which has become really burdensome on smaller charities, there is now an opportunity to do something about it."
Taking practical action to drive positive change, Patten said, would also offer charities the opportunity to be "best in class" on environmental and human rights agendas, which are likely to pass through periods of change after Brexit, and thus improve accessibility to funding.
"There has been a lot of debate over what will happen around the European Social Fund and frustration that the government consultation that was promised has not been delivered," he said, urging third sector organisations to continue lobbying the government to deliver on the proposed UK Shared Prosperity Fund.
Patten added that charities should not only engage in how these funds are replaced, but also take the opportunity to scrutinise the structure of funding initiatives, making them easier and more accessible to smaller organisations.
"Moving beyond Europe offers a chance to make it easier for everyone in the sector to benefit, rather than just those who have the resources to deal with that bureaucracy," he said.
Patten further urged the sector to engage positively with the issue. "On a macro level, leaving the EU gives us a real opportunity to redefine social contracts in Britain," he said.
"The Brexit narrative from charitable organisations has often been negative, but my question is why? Professionally the sector is full of bright, intelligent, smart and forward-looking people who are responsible for shaping this. Surely we want it to be better."