Women’s Budget Group position on Brexit

Date Posted: Thursday 17th January 2019

With the Article 50 deadline looming there is an urgent need to extend the negotiation period and to develop deliberative mechanisms to involve a wider range of voices, and in particular the voices of women and other marginalised groups.

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One thing we do know is that Brexit will have a negative impact on women’s lives and that leaving without a deal will be devastating.

Based on our analysis Women’s Budget Group has concluded that Brexit will have a damaging impact on the UK economy, with a ‘hard Brexit’, likely to be the most damaging.[1] For many women, particularly the poorest, this could mean job losses, cuts to services, squeezed family budgets and reduced legal protections. Far from taking back control, a bad deal with the EU will make us vulnerable to demands from larger countries to reduce consumer rights and regulations protecting public services and competitive pressures to reduce our own labour standards.

With the Article 50 deadline looming the UK is still facing uncertainty about what form Brexit will take. The Government’s proposed deal has been rejected by parliament and there is no clear agreement on a way forward. Even if the Government is able to get agreement on a revised deal (which appears very unlikely given the scale of its defeat), this uncertainty will continue as the proposed deal only covers a transition period during which the UK and EU would negotiate a more permanent arrangement. This uncertainty has had a negative impact on the UK economy; it is estimated that the UK economy was 2 to 2.5 per cent smaller by mid-2018 than it would have been if the UK had not voted to leave the EU.

We are generally wary of using GDP as the sole measure of the health of the economy, however this is the main measure that has been used in modelling to date and we are concerned that if the government responds to an economic crisis caused by Brexit as it did to the financial crisis this will lead to further austerity. Austerity policies since 2010 have disproportionately impacted women, and the poorest women, BME women and disabled women. Concentration on Brexit has meant that there has been no significant legislation to deal with any of the resultant problems, which can only get worse if post-Brexit negotiations over more permanent arrangements continue to dominate political attention and crowd out other legislation.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has estimated that under the Government’s proposed deal GDP will be around 4% lower than it would have been had the UK remained in the EU.[2] NIESR estimate that trade with the EU in services will be particularly badly affected, falling by around 60%. This will disproportionately impact women, since a higher proportion of women than men work in the service sector.

A no-deal Brexit will be even more damaging to the economy. Estimates vary from 5.5 to 9.5% lower GDP by 2030 compared to staying in the EU.[3] IPPR has calculated that in terms of employment impact women would be hit harder than men if there was a no deal Brexit.[4]

With this in mind Women’s Budget Group is opposed to both the Government’s proposed deal and a no deal Brexit.

We believe that the current crisis over Brexit demonstrates a failure of the political process and of political leadership that should have sought to heal divisions rather exacerbate them, not only between those who voted leave and those who voted remain, but between different regions of the country and different groups in society. The Government has been unable to get its proposed deal through parliament. Labour’s position is that it would negotiate a better deal with the EU, but the party remains divided over Brexit. It is unclear what form a different deal would take, or whether it would be possible to negotiate a deal that avoided a negative economic impact so long as Labour is unwilling to accept free movement of labour.

Brexit has also highlighted the continued exclusion of women from decision making processes. Women’s voices were largely absent from media debates in the run up to the referendum.[5] The UK’s Brexit negotiating team has been dominated by white men[6] and the political and media debates have paid little attention to the significant gender impact of Brexit or the impact on other equality groups.

Women’s Budget Group believes that with parliament unable to agree a deal it is incumbent on civil society to take a stronger stand. There is an urgent need to extend the negotiation period and to develop deliberative mechanisms to involve a wider range of voices, and in particular the voices of women and other marginalised groups.

This would require the Article 50 notice to be temporarily withdrawn (since the notice period cannot be extended without agreement from all 27 EU member states while withdrawal can be a unilateral decision).

We support calls for a Citizens’ Assembly to come up with new proposals for a way forward. This assembly should take evidence from women’s civil society groups and consider the gender and other equality impact of different proposals. The evidence available currently leads us to think that staying in the EU would be the best option.

Following the Citizens’ Assembly, it may be necessary to hold a second referendum.

Brexit: The role of Citizens’ Assembly

Citizens’ assemblies create a neutral forum for evidence-based, participative decision-making. Assemblies are constructed from a randomly chosen representative group of up to 500 members of the public. They hear a broad range of evidence and arguments on a subject, which they discuss and weigh up before making considered recommendations to their political representatives.

A Citizens’ assembly is a forum led by the public, we believe that this option can ensure that input in to the decision making is diverse and brings together mainstream and marginalised groups.

At the heart of the forum is the commitment to find common ground and make progression on Brexit decisions in a collective way, something that has been missing amongst our politicians. 

Find out more about the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit.