Brexit: social and equality impacts

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

Brexit Impacts since the 2016 referendum

Since the June 2016 referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, there have been changes to the economy, labour market, community relations, legislative timetable and the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, which have been directly caused/affected by Brexit. These changes have had a disproportionate impact on equalities groups.

(1) Economic Impacts

First, increased uncertainty around Brexit has led to slower economic growth, which has disproportionately affected low-income groups. According to the Guardian's monthly analysis of key economic indicators affected by the Brexit process for August 2019[88], the pound has fallen 18% below its level before the EU referendum in 2016, UK inflation has risen, the manufacturing and construction sectors remain in contraction, unemployment has increased and house prices has fallen for the first time since 2009. The Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde published a report in October 2019 which estimates that the "impact of Brexit uncertainty has cost the Scottish economy around £3 billion" relative to what it would have been otherwise.[89] Similarly, the Resolution Foundation has published a report suggesting there has been a drop in household living standards since the EU referendum.[90] It is likely that the increased cost of living will have had a disproportionate effect on low-income households, into which many equalities groups fall, since these generally spend a larger share of their income on daily essentials such as food, bills and housing.

(2) Community Relations Impacts

Hate crime and prejudice threaten community cohesion and have a corrosive impact on Scotland's communities as well as broader society. Hate crime can be verbal or physical, and it can have damaging effects on the victims, their families and communities. Current hate crime legislation in Scotland allows any existing offence to be aggravated by prejudice in respect of one or more of the protected characteristics of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and transgender identity.

Although there has been a marked rise in recorded hate crime since the 2016 EU referendum in England and Wales (including that reported by Welsh police forces[91]), such a rise has not been reported in Scotland or Northern Ireland.[92] The charity Show Racism the Red Card has argued that Brexit has been a 'major influence' in the rise of racism and race-related hate crime in England and Wales since June 2016.[93] In particular, there was a spike in hate crime in the three months directly after the referendum, with the majority of police forces in England and Wales reporting record levels of hate crime being reported to them[94] and the Metropolitan Police predicted a similar spike in advance of the March 2019 Brexit date.[95] However, in Scotland, according to statistics from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, the number of racist crimes reported to them has fallen by more than 10% between 2017-18 and 2018-19 to the lowest number since consistent statistics became available in 2003-04.[96] The Scottish Government has also published a recent report suggesting that the volume of hate crime recorded by the police in Scotland has been relatively stable in recent years.[97]

However, it should be noted that hate crimes are often not reported to the police. According to Police Scotland Chief Superintendent Barry McEwan, while there has not been a spike in the reportage of hate crimes in Scotland since Brexit, "we acknowledge that often these incidents go unreported."[98] Some academic research suggests that racism and discrimination has increased amongst certain migrant communities in Scotland since the 2016 referendum. A survey led by Dr Daniela Sime of the University of Strathclyde reveals that 77% of young Eastern European school pupils aged 12-18 living in Scotland and England had experienced racism and xenophobic attacks, and almost half (49%) had seen 'more racism' since the Brexit referendum.[99] These experiences ranged from 'everyday racism' such as name-calling and 'jokes' about accents, looks or country of origin, to physical attacks on young people, their family members and damage to their homes or property. In her evidence to the Scottish Parliament, Dr Sime said,

"We were quite interested to see whether Scotland is different from the rest of the UK, but we had no statistically significant data to suggest that there is a difference."[100]

A UK-wide research investigation based on police records from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) found that hate crimes against children had reached a three-year high in May 2019, with children being told to 'go back to their own country'.[101] While there has been an overall increase, this data was not disaggregated on a country-by-country basis, so it is difficult to account for any variation across the UK. Furthermore, a recent study by Opinium on racism across the UK found that 71% of people from ethnic minorities now report racial discrimination, compared with 58% before the EU referendum in 2016, with online racism more than doubling since the referendum.[102] The poll was weighted to be nationally representative, however, the results have not been disaggregated on a country-by-country basis.

Evidence shows that most people do not experience harassment, however a sizeable number do and of those, protected characteristics are often seen as motivating factors. The Scottish Household Survey (2018) found that 8% of adults reported that they had experienced discrimination, and 6% had experienced harassment in Scotland at some point over the last 12 months.[103] Groups more likely than other to report experiencing discrimination or harassment include minority ethnic people, people from LGBTIA+ communities, and people belonging to a religion other than Christianity. The most common reason cited as a motiving factor was the respondent's nationality.

(3) Labour Market Impacts – Skills Shortages

Third, the UK's Brexit-related immigration strategy (including the decision to end freedom of movement, the requirement for EU nationals to apply for settlement, and proposals to restrict EU migration in future) have affected EU migration levels, which has in turn affected large sections of the labour market by creating skills shortages. There has been a significant drop in the number of EU nationals coming to the UK (which is currently at a six-year low), and an increase in EU8 (Central and Eastern European) nationals leaving the UK.[104] These trends have adversely affected sectors of the economy that employ large numbers of EU nationals, such as agriculture, hospitality and construction. In particular, EU nationals leaving the UK has compounded a recruitment crisis in the NHS and the social care sector[105], adversely affecting people use these services. Equalities groups are over-represented amongst these health and social care service users[106], affecting in particular, disabled people, older people, people with long-term illnesses, pregnant women and others.

(4) Representational Impacts

Fourth, several groups representing equalities organisations (including disabled people's organisations, minority ethnic groups, and women's groups) have complained about a lack of representation of their needs, interests and voices within ongoing Brexit debates and negotiations. For instance, the Women's Budget Group, Race on the Agenda, Women for Europe, the Runnymede Trust and Inclusion Scotland have expressed discontent that equalities issues have been insufficiently accounted for in the UK's plans to leave the EU, and that the needs and wellbeing of equalities groups have not been prioritised in the Brexit negotiations.[107] Equalities groups are particularly concerned about the lack of equality impact assessments for different Brexit scenarios, and the lack of diversity in the make-up of UK negotiating teams.[108] This indicates a sense a political exclusion among equalities groups.

(5) Legislative Impacts

Fifth, several equalities groups have complained that the lack of legislative attention given to non-Brexit social policy proposals has had a negative impact to date on equalities groups. For instance, the charity Disability Rights UK stated that government action on disability has 'stalled' since the 2016 EU referendum, and that there has been insufficient attention on policy change that could improve the rights of disabled people due to the dominance of Brexit over the UK's legislative and policy-making processes.[109] This feeling was reiterated by the CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Campbell Robb, who stated: "There is a danger that Brexit could suck all of the oxygen out of attempts to implement a sweeping programme of social and economic reform that has been badly needed at home."[110]

(6) Immigration Uncertainty

Sixth, since the EU referendum in June 2016, EU nationals have experienced a high degree of uncertainty regarding their rights to continue living in the UK. The EU Settlement Scheme[111], introduced in March 2019, has provided a degree of assurance as to what their rights will be post-Brexit. However, there has been a high number of cases of EU nationals being rejected for Settled Status and being offered pre-Settled Status (which is less secure).[112]. Furthermore, there are concerns that vulnerable EU nationals – such as care-experienced children and older EU nationals with cognitive impairments – may be unaware of the need to apply to the Settlement Scheme and may lose their rights to reside.[113]

(7) Mental Health and Wellbeing

Seventh, mental health charities have reported a link between Brexit and increased stress and anxiety amongst the UK population. In 2019, the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) undertook a survey that explored this relationship in more detail.[114] It found that almost one in five people felt Brexit had caused them 'high levels of stress' and over one in ten people reported that Brexit had caused them problems with sleeping in the last year. Furthermore, the MHF emphasised that Brexit-related stress did not impact everyone equally; instead, it has a disproportionate effect on equalities groups, including people from a migrant background (including EU nationals), ethnic and religious minorities, people living with long-term health conditions and people with mental health disabilities. This analysis confirms other research that demonstrates that equalities groups – due to the discrimination and structural barriers that they face – are more vulnerable to mental ill-health.[115]



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