Removing the Sharp Edges from Brexit: A Third Sector in Scotland Perspective

John Downie | 12 February 2018

© 2017 Kirsty Hughes

The next twelve months will see the UK begin to shape its future relationship with the European Union and set out domestic arrangements to either replace, replicate or re-design existing EU-wide frameworks and institutions.

At the moment, discussions are dominated by the technical aspects of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, however with that process soon to draw to a close (relatively speaking), we must again return to what leaving the EU actually means, what domestic arrangement we must make and how we can salvage the most valuable belongings from a swiftly sinking ship.

Brexit continues to cause real uncertainty across our society, and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) has made clear from the outset that we think leaving the EU will be bad for Scotland and Scotland’s third sector – exacerbating already difficult circumstances for charity organisations and those they work with and support.

How does the voluntary sector in Scotland see Brexit?

For 18 months we’ve been asking ourselves and our members what this means for them and the people and communities they support. We’ve worked directly with the sector in an attempt to gauge concerns, identify risks and help ensure our collective voice is heard as negotiations proceeded. Through this engagement we’ve found that Scotland’s third sector is overwhelmingly pro-European:

  • 86% felt leaving the EU would negatively impact the Scottish economy
  • 81% felt leaving the EU would negatively impact poverty & social exclusion
  • 80% felt leaving the EU would negatively impact human rights & equality
  • 68% felt EU policy priorities had been good for the voluntary sector in Scotland.

We also found that the third sector’s key concerns could be bundled in to these five main areas:

  • transfer of laws and repatriation of powers
  • free movement of people and trade
  • European funding (and what replaces it)
  • human rights and social protections
  • maintaining connections with European networks.

We have been clear from the start that membership of the EU is not all about the economy, single market membership and European funding. Instead, we have sought to focus on the human elements that membership of the EU has delivered – encompassing rights, protections, health, standards, movement, solidarity, networks shared learning and partnerships (links to all of our European activity can be found on our website).

Of course, SCVO and our members recognise the concrete benefits derived from the EU. Policy development at EU level has, in many areas, been far more progressive than at UK level – allowing UK citizens to enjoy greater workplace, equalities and environmental rights and protections than they otherwise would have. We are keen to ensure these are upheld and that rights, protections and standards do not regress or remain static.

With this in mind, we have been working closely with sector colleagues to develop the Scotland Declaration on Human Rights, which aims to ensure equality and human rights remain at the heart of Scottish society – regardless of the Brexit outcome. We hope you will add your organisation’s voice and sign up.

On the technical aspects of European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, we still hold real concerns about the stock transfer of power from parliament to the government – and the apparent lack of oversight and scrutiny in how those powers are used. We also worry that fundamental principles about how devolution works will be significantly undermined.

As a result, we teamed up with our counterparts in Wales – WCVA – to offer our backing to amendments tabled by the Scottish and Welsh Governments. While these amendments were defeated in the House of Commons, it seems that the UK Government have accepted the premise of the argument and claim they will now make the necessary changes in the House of Lords.

At SCVO we passionately believe that Scotland’s economy, public services and third sector are strengthened thanks to the contribution made by our valued EU colleagues and we believe it is crucial that they are supported to continue doing the great work they do. While the third sector can do little to influence immigration policy, we believe there is much we can do to encourage EU nationals to stay in Scotland – continuing to make this country their home.


In the coming weeks, we will launch the next stage of our #EUareValued campaign, which aims to give employers the encouragement and the tools to reach out to EU employees and offer them the support and advice they might need to make the decision to continue living in Scotland. We hope this resource will help to ensure EU citizens in Scotland feel valued and offers them some clarity and certainty at this difficult and confusing time.

At SCVO we welcomed the recent publication of the Scottish Government’s refreshed Scottish Government’s refreshed ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ paper – particularly given the significant developments since the original publication. This piece of work closely reflects our views and ambitions and offers much needed analysis, insight and solutions to complex problems. It merits a wider discussion and now requires proper engagement and responses from the UK Government and its departments.

SCVO will continue to monitor developments, keep our members informed and make sure the voice of Scotland’s third sector is heard as Brexit unfolds. Of course, as with all things Brexit, the goalposts seem to be continuously moving. However our opposition to EU withdrawal is unflinching, and in dealing with the practical realties of the situation, we support any action to remove the sharp edges from Brexit. For SCVO, the key sharp edges are the single market and customs union.

We believe that at the very least, the UK needs to stay in both the single market and the customs union, to keep the economy strong, ensure free movement of people, secure important funding, maintain hard won rights and allow us to continue building partnerships and learning from our friends and colleagues across the continent.

And our colleagues at the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) and Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) are in agreement with us.

SCVO, NICVA and WCVA issued a joint statement issued detailing the various measures we feel are essential to avoid or minimise the potential harmful impacts of Brexit. We all believe:

  • The best course of action is for the UK to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union, and
  • The EU Withdrawal Bill must be amended to protect the devolution settlements in Scotland and Wales.

Leaving the EU will be bad for Scotland and Scotland’s third sector – exacerbating already difficult circumstances for the sector and the people and communities they work with and support every day across the country.

John DownieJohn Downie | Twitter

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisatinos

John Downie is Director of Public Affairs at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO). He is also a member of the advisory board of Home-Start Scotland and former chair of Impact Arts, the Scottish community arts charity.