Brexit: social and equality impacts

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


This report has examined 137 potential social and equalities impacts resulting from Brexit. While there is still great uncertainty about the exact form that Brexit will take ( 'soft' or 'hard', with or without a comprehensive trade agreement), the effects will likely be felt across all equalities groups in Scotland/the UK.

Some of these impacts will be shared across different groups of people. In particular, if the majority of economic forecasts are correct and the UK's economy will suffer post-Brexit, the negative socio-economic effects of the UK's withdrawal from the EU will impact across all equalities groups that are disproportionately represented in the low-income bracket.

This category includes: women, disabled people, older people, minority ethnic communities, people from a migrant background, people with caring responsibilities, care-experienced young people, refugees and asylum seekers, offenders and ex-offenders, homeless people, Gypsy/Traveller communities, precarious workers, and people with substance abuse issues. These groups are more likely to rely on public services and benefits and have less disposable income and spending power.

The socio-economic impacts of Brexit across equalities groups – with regard to their access to public services (especially health and social care), their ability to buy daily essentials in the case of price rises, and their ability to access affordable housing – are likely to be widespread and, according to economic analysis, most likely to happen. In some cases, i.e. for those living in poverty or suffering job losses, these impacts will also be deeply felt.

There are also likely to be legal impacts of Brexit across equalities groups, with regard to the rights and protections they currently enjoy, and which they may have otherwise enjoyed in the future had the UK not decided to leave the EU. At a general level, all equalities groups are likely to experience the loss of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – which guarantees a freestanding right to non-discrimination – and recourse to the rulings and case law of the European Court of Justice. This impact is likely to be widespread across equalities groups and, given that the UK Government has made it clear that the Charter and CJEU will have no jurisdiction in the UK after Brexit, most likely to happen.

Equalities groups are also – across the board – likely to feel the widespread loss of European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF), from which they have greatly benefitted over the years. It is as yet unclear whether equalities groups will continue to be funded in the same way, and at the same level, through the UK's proposed post-Brexit Shared Prosperity Fund.

Different equalities groups will also feel the effects of the potential amendment or repeal of specific piece of EU legislation. For instance, women would be adversely affected by the loss of the EU Pregnant Workers' Directive. Several equalities groups that have high representation amongst precarious workers (women, minority ethnic people, carers, disabled people) would be adversely affected by the loss of the EU Agency Workers' Directive. Disabled people would be adversely affected by the loss of the EU Passenger Rights Directive and any decision not to implement the European Accessibility Act. Mothers, fathers and carers are also likely to lose out on the decision not to implement the Work-Life Balance Directive. Refugee children will be adversely affected by their loss of rights to family reunion in the UK. These impacts will be widespread and deeply felt by people who are discriminated against as a result of their loss.

However, the impacts of Brexit will be gravest for people who face multiple inequalities. For instance: a disabled EU woman on a fixed-term contract, a minority ethnic single mother on a low-income, a man with a mental health disability who is homeless and has substance abuse problems, or a young, care-experienced member of the LGBTQIA+ community. People with several protected or personal characteristics who face multiple disadvantage will likely face the deepest socio-economic impacts and the widest forms of discrimination in the workplace and society at large. It is these groups that the Scottish Government should consider focussing on first and foremost, to mitigate any adverse effects of Brexit, as they are also the groups least likely to be resilient to changes.

To take one example, minority ethnic women – especially those from a non-Christian religious background – have faced mounting discrimination hostility since the EU referendum in June 2016 and would likely suffer the most from any economic downturn post-Brexit. Minority ethnic women have reported a sizable increase in racial discrimination (from 61% in 2016 to 74% in 2019). There has been a rise in Islamophobic and sexist incidents, and EU migrant women have also reported feeling more prone to racial harassment.[433] Studies have also shown that austerity and public services cuts will disproportionately impact minority ethnic women "as a result of structural inequalities, which means they earn less, own less and have more responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work".[434]

This report strongly recommends, therefore, that future research on the social impacts of Brexit should adopt an intersectional perspective, by examining the impacts on vulnerable people facing multiple inequalities. While this type of research is more complex to measure and analyse it is here that the impacts of Brexit will likely be most deeply felt.

As Baroness Burt of Solihull asked in the House of Lords,

"What work has been done to see what happens when a number of these protected characteristics overlap, for example, in the case of a pregnant woman from a minority in a low-paid job? This is called intersectionality, and we know that the people affected suffer disproportionately, but it seems to have been consigned to the "too difficult" box when it comes to measuring the effects of government legislation."[435]

On a final note, it is worth stressing that while this report has sought to identify a broad range of potential impacts of Brexit, some of these impacts are more likely to occur than others under different Brexit scenarios. While some impacts appear to be certain at the time of writing – resulting from the clauses contained in the revised EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill and the UK Government's statements that it does or does not intend to stay affiliated to certain EU laws, funding and institutions – other impacts (for instance the loss of certain protections, or socioeconomic impacts) are as yet unclear, and will depend very much on negotiations between the UK and the EU in the coming months.



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