67.UK civil society organisations play an important role in protecting equalities in the UK. This can take place at local level, for example delivering frontline services and advice to vulnerable groups, and at national level by supporting and informing the development of equalities policies and reporting back on their implementation from the grassroots. It can also take place at European and international level, where civil society organisations work in equality networks to share good practice, participate in equality policymaking, and provide shadow reports to the bodies that monitor international agreements, such as UN monitoring committees.
68.Professor Anna Lawson, Professor of Law and Director of the Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, gave the example of accessibility to show the breadth of activity across law, policy and funding at EU level:
In terms of accessibility, in the last few years there has been a really strong set of initiatives from the EU. Accessibility is very much part of the EU disability strategy. It is embedded in a whole raft of legislation and policies, which impact on the UK in areas such as transport, procurement, social funds and websites. There is a new one coming in on public websites.
69.Ali Harris, Chief Executive of the Equality and Diversity Forum, characterised the role of civil society organisations, charities and social enterprises as “providing a bridge between people’s lived experiences on the ground and research, and then connecting into policy making”. Fairplay SouthWest told us that support for civil society organisations is important to enable them to monitor equality legislation. It told us:
Support for civil society groups is essential in the effective operation and enforcement of proactive, responsive legislation such as the Public Sector Equality Duty.
70.After our evidence session in January 2017, we wrote to the Minister for Women and Equalities, Rt Hon Justine Greening MP, asking for more information about how the Government Equalities Office (GEO) was seeking to engage civil society organisations on the subject of exiting the EU. She responded that:
The GEO has also sought to engage stakeholders on the issue of EU exit. It ran a civil society consultation session on this as part of a wider NGO event in November. This was very informative in identifying and discussing some of the main concerns of equalities stakeholders [ … ] GEO senior officials will continue to work on EU exit programmes in their regular meetings with the CEO of the EHRC, and with the Equality and Diversity Forum.
71.Witnesses discussed the close relationships that have developed over time between many UK civil society organisations and European equality networks. Professor Anna Lawson argued that there would be benefits to civil society organisations, Governments and equality bodies remaining part of EU networks after the UK leaves the EU:
One of the great benefits of EU structures has been networks of experts, networks of Governments, networks of civil society and networks of equality bodies that bring together people from different countries with different types of expertise and different ideas of implementation of these agreed standards [ … ]. Staying part of these processes [ … ] is really important, even if we come out of the EU.
72.Professor Sylvia Walby, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and UNESCO Chair in Gender Research, Violence and Society UNESCO Centre at Lancaster University, also explained to us how the UK could stay part of European networks after the UK leaves the EU:
leaving the EU does not have to mean leaving the Europe-wide civil societal networks [ … ]. The UK could maintain its engagement in these networks, which are a mix of civil society, governmental agency, research, capacity-building and exchange of best practice [ … ]. We do not have to come out, but it would mean that the funding streams would have to be separately identified.
73.Women’s Aid is one of several organisations that has proposed that there should be formal mechanisms for civil society to engage with the Government on equalities, both during the process of exiting and once the UK exits the EU:
Women’s organisations, campaigners and legal professionals have significant expertise in this area, which the Government and civil service can benefit from during this process. The Government should consider establishing formal advisory groups or panels on women’s rights and violence against women and girls, who would provide expertise, guidance and recommendations during the Brexit negotiations. Re-establishing former mechanisms, such as the Gender Expert Group on Trade, could be considered in this regard.
74.Professor Walby elaborated on this, noting the importance of resourcing to enable this engagement:
Maybe one of the concepts there is of a platform at which civil society organisations meet Government, which needs resourcing in order for it to occur, both jointly across the equalities but also specifically for each of the different strands. The deepening of that will be very important.
75.However, we also heard evidence raising concerns about reductions in funding and resourcing for civil society organisations. The Discrimination Law Association told us that:
The impact of local authority cuts on charities and NGOs—and perhaps particularly on disabled people’s organisations—has also been significant and seriously affects participation in public life. That will adversely affect the development of law and policy in this area and it should be reversed as a matter of urgency.
76.Different UK Government departments and devolved administrations around the UK take different approaches to developing equalities policies and engaging civil society. Several organisations put forward the view that a cross-departmental approach to equalities was necessary, some citing the example of the Home Office-led Violence Against Women Strategy as an example of a policy area which benefits from a well-established structure and mechanism for drawing upon the expertise of civil society organisations. This could be replicated across other policy areas and sit within an over-arching equality strategy.
77.Ali Harris expanded on the suggestion of a cross-government strategy and how it might sit within government:
The clear thing is that the Government Equalities Office needs to have a strong co-ordinating role. If we had an overall strategy, it would potentially assist them in playing that co-ordinating role, because they would have a sense of what they are trying to achieve and when, and specifically what they are trying to achieve through that co-ordination. Otherwise, you can co-ordinate without a strategy, but it is co-ordinating disparate things rather than co-ordinating towards an overarching goal.
78.We believe that there is a wealth of expertise on equalities in civil society organisations that could be harnessed to enhance the development of UK equalities policies after exiting the EU. In some places, there are already platforms or structures in place that may need to be built upon. In others, they need to be developed. A joined-up approach across government departments will be important to ensure cohesive working, and with a focus on each equality area.
79.The Government should develop a cross-government equality strategy, in order to ensure engagement across government departments and provide a platform for linking with and drawing on the expertise of civil society organisations.
50 Fair Play South West () para 8
51 Letter from Minister for Women and Equalities on the work of the Government Equalities Office,
54 Women’s Aid Federation of England () para 39
56 Discrimination Law Association ()
57 Home Office, Ending Violence Against Women and Girls: 2016–2020, March 2016
58 For example, Women’s Aid (), Rape Crisis ()
24 February 2017