Brexit: social and equality impacts

This independent report focuses on some of the potential social and equality impacts of Brexit.

Potential Impacts of a 'hard' Brexit

Having explored the impacts of the Brexit process on equalities groups to date, let us now consider the potential impacts on equalities groups after the UK leaves the EU.

Our first scenario is based around what may happen under a 'hard' Brexit, based on the revised Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.[116] This scenario is based on the EUWAB passing unamended, and the expectation that the UK Government will follow the revised negotiated Political Declaration (with no 'softening' of the UK Government's position to further align with EU standards and laws)[117] when negotiating a future UK-EU trade deal.

(1) Loss of rights

While the UK Government has signalled its intention to uphold equalities legislation that has derived from EU law, the UK's decision to leave the EU makes it easier to remove specific equalities rights and protections in the future. In particular, rights relating to secondary legislation may be more easily reduced or removed (as will be considered below with regard to specific groups).[118] This is now considered to be more likely given the revision to the (December 2019) EUWAB to remove provisions safeguarding workers' rights which placed obligations on UK Ministers to make statements to Parliament to ensure transparency over any future changes or divergence in the UK from workers' rights provided for by EU law.

In addition, a new clause provides UK Ministers with the ability to legislate to enable specified lower courts and tribunals (and not just the Supreme Court or the High Court of Justiciary in certain circumstances) to not be bound by retained EU case law in certain circumstances.[119] Furthermore, upon leaving the EU, the UK may choose not to align with any of the EU's future provisions for equalities groups, leaving some EU-derived rights 'frozen in time' in the UK. There are also likely to be some general legal impacts on equalities groups as a result of Brexit. For instance, the loss of EU citizenship – including freedom of movement – will affect everyone in the UK, though it will affect some groups (such as EU migrants, UK pensioners living in the EU, and disabled people who rely on social security coordination across EU countries) more than others.

(2) Economy and Public Services

The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration set out a framework for a looser UK economic relationship with the EU, which ends membership of the Single Market and Customs Union (and the frictionless trade that this entails) and seeks to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union. The majority of reports that have sought to forecast the potential economic impacts of Brexit – including the UK Government's leaked study into the economic impacts of Brexit by 2033 – have concluded that there will be a relative long-term negative impact, including a reduction in economic growth and a fall in GDP.[120] These trends are captured in the infographic produced by the UK Government below.

UK Government analysis showing long term GDP impacts under different Brexit scenarios

As can be seen from the UK Government's own estimates in this figure, an FTA-based future relationship between the UK and EU will have a negative impact on GDP, second only to a no-deal (WTO-rules) Brexit in severity. The knock-on effects of any economic downturn resulting from a hard Brexit will be felt by equalities groups directly and indirectly. Directly, a slump in economic growth and falling GDP will likely increase job losses and push up the costs of living. Indirectly, an economic downturn may lead to reductions in public spending. Any cuts in public services and benefits will likely hit those groups hardest who are most reliant on them, including low-income groups (which several equalities groups fall under). Furthermore, increases in food prices will likely affect the poorest households, as these households spend a higher percentage of their income on food and daily essentials than wealthier households.[121] As many equalities groups fall into a lower-than-average socio-economic status, there are therefore likely to be general socio-economic effects across many equalities groups. In contrast, people who are wealthier and spend a smaller share of their income on daily essentials, and who have more assets and capital (allowing them to purchase private services) are less likely to be affected by public spending cuts.

(3) Continued impact on community relations

Based on data recorded in England and Wales, police have predicted a rise in hate crimes around the time of 'Brexit day'. Prior to the UK's initial departure date (29 March 2019), Scotland Yard's deputy head of hate crime, said: "If we look at what happened in the Brexit referendum then come March we would expect some kind of response at that time in the attacks that take place. We will do what we can to prevent an upturn."[122] While the police in Scotland did not record an increase in reported hate crimes after the Brexit referendum[123], it is possible that there are UK-wide effects on community relations in Scotland following the UK's departure from the EU on 31 January 2020, especially given the rise in unreported racism against Eastern European children in Scotland and England since Brexit, according to a University of Strathclyde study.[124] Furthermore, according to a UK-wide study from professional services firm Equality Group, more than half of minority ethnic Britons expect that Brexit will negatively change society's attitudes toward race, and a majority of minority ethnic Britons fear that the implications of Brexit will stifle their future career prospects.[125] Of the Scottish respondents included in this survey (including minority ethnic and non-minority ethnic people) 32% were mindful or concerned about the impact of Brexit on professional and societal culture.

(4) Immigration and labour market

So far, the UK Government's White Paper on Immigration (2018),[126] which may or may not be supported by the current government led by Prime Minister Johnson, will likely lead to reduced numbers of EU nationals coming to the UK. This is because the UK Government intends to end free movement after Brexit (or end of the transition period) and plans to require EU migrants to be subject to the same immigration controls as all other international (third-country) migrants. The UK Government has stated their intention to re-shape the current immigration system along the lines of an 'Australian-style' points-based immigration system (to 'go live' on 1 January 2021), which all EU migrants will need to apply through after the transition Period ends (currently 31 December 2020). They will thus be subject to the same minimum salary thresholds (currently £30,000 or the 25th percentile, whichever is higher) and may even require a job offer

(5) Potential further dilution of rights and protections (under trade deals)

There are some concerns expressed by equalities groups that certain rights and protections that they currently enjoy – in particular, relating to women's rights, consumer protections, employment rights, and precarious workers' rights – could be diluted or removed as part of the UK's pursuit of trade deals with the 70 countries which currently have trade agreements with the EU, and other countries that do not currently have a trade deal, such as the USA, if that country has lower employment, environmental and equalities standards.[127] The UK Parliament's Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has counselled that human rights clauses should be included in any future trade agreements that the UK negotiated to mitigate any regression in rights.[128]



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