Kirsty McHugh: I won't hold my breath for a Brexit dividend

For many of us who run charities, the vote to leave the European Union is an unalloyed disaster

Kirsty McHugh
Kirsty McHugh

Brexit. It's the scourge of the charity sector, isn’t it?

Well, it appears not. I’ve heard a rumour recently that there’s at least one charity chief executive or former charity chief executive who is actually pro-Brexit. Well, who knew?

Now, as the relatively new chief executive of the social mobility charity, the Mayor’s Fund for London, I am fiercely non-aligned. The Mayor of London might be our patron, but we’re independent, working across the capital with local authorities of all hues. And in my experience all politicians want the best for our young people, even if some might have an odd way of showing it.

But Brexit?

The truth, for many of us who run charities, is that Brexit is an unalloyed disaster. This isn’t about improving or removing arcane regulations or somehow setting the sector free; it’s about the impact of paralysis on government, which has driven most social policymaking into the ground.

I saw that close up in my previous role as chief executive of ERSA, the national membership body for providers of employment support. More than 80 per cent of our members were not-for-profits, all working to help the most vulnerable into jobs and education. Most of our members were desperate to see more leadership (and, yes, investment) in services for those with the most need. Nothing was happening at national level, with civil servants diverted beyond capacity to sorting out the impacts of our departure from the EU.

Those of us who work in employment and skills – and the Mayor’s Fund does – are also fearful of the removal of our largest collective funding stream, the European Social Fund. We might protest that the glacial progress in developing its successor is the fault of government, not Brexit, but isn’t this a specious argument?

Anyone close to government is aware of the magnetic and never-ending pull of the NHS and social care in Comprehensive Spending Review negotiations. Do we really think we are going to get a similarly ring-fenced fund of sufficient size, allocated regionally on the basis of pure need and primarily benefiting the social sector? We might, but those of us who remember competitive regeneration funding streams will suspect otherwise.

Brexit also equals economic uncertainty. Yes, we might do a marvellous all-singing, all-dancing deal with Mr Trump, including or not including our NHS, but we have years of uncertainty ahead. Business hates that. And many charities rely heavily for income on corporate trusts and foundations, plus, yes, the odd high-net-worth person or two. I’m not putting money on philanthropic giving increasing any time soon.

And finally, what about the impact on young people? I, for one, am not picking up any enthusiasm for Brexit among our young beneficiaries. We work in London, yes, but we know from various polls that roughly 75 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds back remain, and they can’t all be down south. Don’t we have to take their views seriously? It’s not enough to say that that their views are illegitimate: after all, an estimated two million more young people can vote today than could do so in June 2016 – and goodness knows what that figure will be by the time we leave.

So what should we say to those among us in the sector who might be harbouring a yearning, secret or otherwise, for a (hard) Brexit future? I’d say that everybody is entitled to their own opinion and it might well be that the social sector will reap a marvellous Brexit dividend. I for one, am not holding my breath.

Kirsty McHugh is chief executive of the Mayor's Fund for London

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