Membership bodies have welcomed provisions for the establishment of a Civil Society Forum as part of the UK's Brexit deal with the European Union.
The more than 1,200 page UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, published last week, covers every aspect of the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
Two articles under the heading "Institutional Framework" outline the role of the voluntary sector in the implementation of the deal and any further discussions.
Article six says: “The parties shall consult civil society on the implementation of this agreement and any supplementing agreement, in particular through interaction with the domestic advisory groups and the civil society.”
Article eight has a number of recommendations that include the organisation of a Civil Society Forum to discuss the implementation of part two of the agreement.
In addition, the forum should meet at least once a year, and include not only civil society organisations established in the UK and the EU, but also domestic advisory groups such as non-governmental organisations, business and employers' organisations, and trade unions, the agreement states.
Richard Hebditch, director of external affairs at the Association of Charitable Foundations, said: “It’s really important that the agreement’s institutional framework doesn’t shut out civil society from discussions that take place between the EU and UK ministers and officials.
“As the UK government will lose its right to take part in EU policy formulation, paradoxically it may well be the case that UK organisations will spend just as much time – if not more – working with European partners to try to influence the EU than they did before Brexit.”
Small charities must be included in the forum if it is to be representative of the sector, said Rita Chadha, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition.
“Coupled with proposed changes to procurement, there is a real opportunity here for the government to stand by small charities and enable them to play their part in the levelling-up agenda,” she said.
Clare Mills, head of communications and external affairs at the local infrastructure umbrella body Navca, warned there would be many competing voices across the sector.
Those voices must be heard and acknowledged alongside those from business, employers’ organisations and trade unions, she said.
Chris Walker, public affairs manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said while civil society had the expertise to inform the implementation, the extent of its involvement remained to be seen.
“We have always argued that the UK should maintain rights and standards fought for by civil society," he said.
“Protections have been written into the deal, but only in the context of trade and investment, so UK civil society will have to remain vigilant."
Geoff Nuttall, head of policy and public affairs at the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, welcomed the forum’s establishment.
“We strongly support this vital engagement mechanism, which will bring valuable experience from across society to bear on the development of all future co-operation arrangements," he said.