How Brexit is impacting on children’s, adults, environmental health, and trading standards services
As Alison Michalska, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, pointed out in an article for LGC in August last year, “little was said about the impact [of the EU referendum] result on children and young people”.
The economic impact of Brexit is the great unknown, and the subject of intense political debate. But the hit to Britain plc predicted by many forecasters could see already increasing demand for children’s services accelerate – with no guarantees of further resources. Young people from poorer households such as those hit by a faltering economy are statistically more likely to require social care intervention. And child poverty levels have already risen significantly this decade.
Also, EU legal arrangements such as the European arrest warrant, Ms Michalska says, are “increasingly important” in safeguarding and pursuing abusers.
Home secretary Amber Rudd has said remaining part of the European arrest warrant is a priority, but a report by the Lords European Union committee last July concluded it was not clear how this is compatible with the government’s position on the Court of Justice of the European Union. Its position is that the jurisdiction of the court will end automatically when the UK ceases to be an EU member state.
Moreover, a joint statement by children’s charities including Barnardo’s and the NSPCC last year warned that while the government intended to bring existing EU legislation into UK law, “without a renewed commitment to the fundamental rights of children, we risk children’s rights being diluted or impinged as future governments look to correct and update the statue book in light of our departure from the EU.”
The charity Independent Age reported in 2016 that one in 20 of the social care workforce are EU migrants.
At the time, the government did not have a firm position on the status of EU citizens post-Brexit, raising concerns that if those working in social care lost their right to work, an already sizeable and growing gap in the workforce could become critical.
The agreement the government reached with the EU in April last year went some way to allaying some concerns.
Those who will have lived in the UK for five years by the time Britain exits the EU will be able to apply to stay indefinitely, while those who arrive by the leave date of 29 March 2019 will be able to apply to stay for a further five years, when they will be eligible to apply for settled status.
This offers a degree of stability in the short term, but levels of immigration post-Brexit remains unknown.
The Independent Age research predicted a 350,000 gap in the social care workforce by 2037 even if, in an unlikely scenario, high levels of migration continue beyond 2019.
The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services has said any loss of workforce from a sector under such financial pressure would be “profound”.
Social care minister Caroline Dinenage recently said that workforce was a key element of discussions ahead of the green paper expected this summer. A failure to comprehensively address this issue is likely to undermine any wider reforms aimed at putting social care on a sustainable footing.
Council procurement faces changes from Brexit from multiple directions – both directly, such as losing the requirement to advertise large public contracts across the EU, and indirectly if a post-Brexit slump damages the pound so badly that prices of imported goods increase.
Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy chief executive Rob Whiteman has warned that prices for some services and goods have already risen after the pound fell following the referendum, and “a Brexit without a trade deal could plunge the pound still further”.
Disrupted supply chains could be a risk and Mr Whiteman has urged councils to establish where their purchases originate and with which foreign countries they deal.
Cipfa procurement adviser Mohamed Hans says large public contracts may have to still be advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union during any transition, and anyway English public contracts worth more than £25,000 must be advertised in the government’s Contracts Finder in England or equivalents elsewhere in the UK.
“On the one hand there is no clarity over what will happen, for example with the very large waste contracts which have mostly been won by companies from mainland Europe, and ICT contracts have hardware priced in dollars so if sterling takes a battering after Brexit that will become more expensive,” Mr Hans says.
“There is though a big opportunity for the UK to draw up its own procurement rules in the future, which could allow local authorities to let contracts in ways that help their local economies and smaller businesses and encourage apprenticeships.”
knife and fork
Environmental health has become a profession based on enforcing regulations that originate within the European Union and so faces “very significant changes” after Brexit, says Tony Lewis, head of policy at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
Three key areas – food standards, health and safety and environmental protection – “have relied on regulations and directives from Europe for many years and our concern is not so much what happens on day one of Brexit but what comes after that”, he says.
Despite the government intending to transpose EU law into the UK, the CIEH has been alarmed, for example, to “pick up intelligence” that work is under way on a new food standards law that would allow companies to gain accreditation from private sector providers rather than local authorities.
Mr Lewis is similarly worried by rumours of a potential Environment Bill amid fears it could water down strict European legislation.
“All the figures suggest there will be a downturn after Brexit so the government will be looking for anything that drives growth, and one way might be to relax regulations they see as barriers to business but which we see as important protections for the public,” he says.
Another point of contention is likely to be air quality, where the government’s performance against EU regulations has been so poor that the activist group Client Earth has successfully taken it to court over the inadequacy of its actions.
Again, the CIEH fears pressures from industry could see post-Brexit air quality standards become even worse in the name of relaxing ‘burdens’ on business.
The beleaguered trading standards service faces the double whammy of having the basis of the regulations it enforces uprooted by Brexit while also suffering the effects of a huge cut in officer numbers.
Craig McClue, chair of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute’s Brexit thinktank, says: “Pretty much every-thing changes in consumer protection with Brexit, as almost all the regulations we enforce come from the EU whether that is weights and measures, product safety, air travel delays or intellectual property.”
He says the government’s plan to transpose these regulations into UK law – at least initially – will still leave the problem of EU institutions that need reciprocity to work.
“One example is Rapex, which is an early warning system about unsafe products that works across the EU,” Mr McClue says. “If we are outside the EU we would be outside that system, and access to it would be in question.”
Mr McClue deplores the prospect that the regulatory complications caused by Brexit will come when trading standards has lost half its officers over seven years, “so we are supposed to maintain high standards with changing regulations and a decimated workforce”.
However, he is cautiously optimistic that any government grappling with a post-Brexit downturn will resist the temptation to scrap numerous regulations.
“It may be that the government sees regulations as barriers to business, but I think the mood has changed following the horsemeat scandal, Whirlpool tumble dryers catching fire and Grenfell Tower, and these are now seen as the results of regulatory gaps,” he says.