Where is the voice of local government in the Brexit debate? You’d have to look pretty hard to find it, says Janet Sillett of LGiU.
This isn’t my first blog to point this out, but it is surely more crucial now that that voice isn’t ignored, given the publication of the Repeal Bill (the EU (withdrawal) Bill).
There seems to be some of the same frustration in Scottish local government as there is in England about the lack of involvement in Brexit nationally. In Scotland, there have been various inquiries and subsequent reports undertaken by the Scottish Parliament’s Committees, both before and after the EU referendum. However, there has been scant evidence-taking from representatives of local government regarding the impact Brexit will have on Scotland’s Councils.
There are common interests shared by sub-national government in all the countries: Brexit poses very significant challenges to local government in all of them, both to individual councils and collectively.
However, local authorities need to make their voices heard. A call for written submissions to the Tourism and European and External Affairs Committee’s 2017 ‘Brexit: What Scotland Thinks’ Report saw only five out of 32 authorities respond. Argyll and Bute Council was one of them, saying that “local authorities have to be involved (in the negotiation process)”.
It isn’t as if local government hasn’t been actively engaged with the EU for many years – setting up offices, accessing funding, encouraging investment, and working with sub national government across the EU on best practice. The sector has much to add to the discussions over Brexit.
Individual and groups of councils will have their specific concerns about Brexit, but there are many issues that are shared among the majority of authorities. The uncertainty about EU citizens rights, for example, and especially the future of the EU nationals working in health and social care, the vast majority of whom are not British citizens.
The Repeal Bill is going to be probably the most significant legislation for local government for decades. There must be concern about the ability of the UK parliament to properly scrutinise the bill, given that some laws could be converted through secondary legislation – which could be amended later without parliamentary consent. It is going to be difficult for the devolved administrations, but it will be even more difficult for local government. It is important that MPs understand the concerns of the sector and of individual councils or regional groups. Groups of councils could bring together their MPs and MSPs to impress on them how critical it is that their authorities, individually and collectively, are not left on the sidelines.
Maybe we need more inventive ways of getting that (in this case, perhaps metaphorical) seat at the table? Local government could be examining in depth the potential effects of key areas of the negotiations on their communities, services and workforce – in partnership with those communities, workers, charities and businesses. What about commissioning local artists or writers to highlight how Brexit isn’t just a sterile debate between two opposing sides in Brussels?
Of course I am implying nothing is happening – and that isn’t the case. Some individual councils and regional groups are being active in preparing for the next two years and beyond – analysing the impact of Brexit on their communities, finances, workforce, local economy and services. In Edinburgh, for example, a member officer working group was established to examine the impact of the EU result on residents and vulnerable households and communities who use council services, as well as on their planned projects and service delivery, budgets, and key partners. For more on what local authorities are doing to plan for Brexit, and the relationship between Scottish local government and the EU, see our recent briefing.
Brexit poses significant and difficult challenges for all councils. But there will be opportunities too: when EU laws are brought into UK law, we must ensure that devolution from Europe doesn’t stop at Westminster or indeed Holyrood or Cardiff or Belfast.
There’s work to do to ensure local government gets their fair share of any devolved powers. Seemingly a lot of work, given where we are now. We need to shout louder.