Marking the Government’s homework on Brexit: a civil society perspective



Tomorrow the Brexit Civil Society Alliance will be speaking at the Institute for Government seminar on “Negotiating the next phase of Brexit”. This is timely given the six-month extension for Brexit and the opportunity now for a period of reflection on how the government has fared so far.

It is also timely as the Alliance is fresh from a unique and important conference in Belfast on Devolution and Brexit with civil society groups from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Organised by Brexit Forum Wales, Human Rights Consortium, Northern Ireland and Civil Society Brexit Project, Scotland attendees were primarily there to reflect on impacts of Brexit and to offer opportunities to collaborate going forward but during the two days there was much reflection on the government's handling of Brexit and the wider constitutional impacts for the UK.

Some take homes from this conference in Belfast provide an important starting point for the discussion tomorrow on how the government can best prepare for the next phase of negotiations (presuming, of course, we get there).

The first is the failure of the UK government to engage in any meaningful way with the devolved nations and the inability to reflect, or even understand, the nature of the asymmetrical devolution and how that can be protected as we go through negotiations. Instead, it's been a “command and control” attempt to govern from Westminster and Whitehall and this flies in the face of how many have engaged with their communities in the devolved nations - particularly in Northern Ireland where consent is such an important part of political life.

Rights and justice issues ran through much of the conversation at the conference in Belfast. This is not surprising as the issue around the Irish Border is fundamentally as much about human rights as it is about trade. It is though, an issue for other constituent parts of the UK. A question exists as to what extent the UK is protecting the rights of all its citizens equally and whether extending the frameworks supporting the Good Friday Agreement could be used as a wider framework for protecting rights.

Brexit has shone a spotlight on our constitution and it has found it wanting. The unravelling of the constitutional debate is heard everywhere except England. Fundamental to these questions is the assumption that our constitution is still evolving (the unfinished business that is a proper devolution settlement for England) alongside the presumption that constitutional arrangements were predicated on the assumption we would be staying in the EU. This last point is very important from a devolved nations point of view where relationships have been built and work has been done that circumnavigates London. On the one hand, then is the flowering of new political thinking and new alliances and shape of identity politics - on the other a constraining hand from the Government that stifles debate and opportunity.

It was sobering to listen to Jeremy Miles (Welsh Assembly Brexit Minister), Joanna Cherry QC MP and Claire Hanna Member of Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland. Each outlined the implications of Brexit for their constituent parts but also showed a very clear route map for going forward which will result in a very different United Kingdom for the future.

The story of Brexit so far for civil society increasingly is that it is something that is being done to us but not for us. That its about conversations ‘over there’ but not here. That people are not being listened to and are removed from the political process. The Alliance has spent the last 12 months holding Round Tables on Brexit in England and that message is loud and clear.

And so two specific messages - do not confuse Westminster with England. Brexit feels very much like a Westminster project driven by something that feels uniquely English rather than the United Kingdom. And yet go out into different communities in England and you will hear the same responses that you will hear in many communities in Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The second, and this really chimes with the Institute for Government report about the Governments need to have a proper engagement strategy going forward. Many civil society groups, NGOs and charities are reliant on EU funding. The government recognised early on the challenge of replacing these funds and announced the Shared Prosperity Fund to replace EU funding and a consultation on ways forward. That was nearly a year ago. Since then, there has been nothing. Meanwhile, the uncertainty for the sector is the same as for the business community. This is untenable.

If we do reach a position where the Withdrawal Agreement is signed sealed and delivered the next phase of negotiations will make that seem like a walk in the park. The UKs Future Partnership arrangements are going to test the most skilled of negotiators and will be more complicated and wide-ranging than the first phase.

Going forward and to endorse the Institute's findings it is imperative the Government needs to build an effective engagement strategy  - engage properly with the devolved administrations, business groups and civil society. The devolved administrations must continue to have a role with regular meetings with the Government to discuss the negotiations and the role of the Joint Ministerial Council must be protected and play its rightful role as the go-to forum.

Finally, the government needs to build on the expertise of civil society. During the passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill, there was much goodwill on the side of many organisations to help draft and shape amendments to improve the bill. These are people and organisations who have enormous skills and experience on consumer rights, environmental protection, constitutional law, and dare we say it - understand a thing or two about the Irish Border. Why would you want to leave experts like this who have the lived experience of what is being negotiated out of the room? If we want Brexit to work then the government must accommodate these voices, utilise the extensive networks and embrace the expertise of civil society.

Malene Bratlie