Groundhog Day delay

On again, off again – what does the delay (possibly) until Halloween mean for the Brexit fright fest, asks Janet Sillett.

I seem to be suffering withdrawal symptoms – where are the weekly votes on May’s Deal? Or any deal? Or no deal? A new referendum? Getting rid of article 50 once and for all?

Of course the extension of article 50 to Halloween must have come as a huge relief to many officials in central and local government, and the care sector, whatever their personal views on Brexit are. Councils will no longer have to inform the government twice a day about their plans for a no deal Brexit (as one officer in a County Council said they were told they would have to in the event of a no deal, even when there was nothing to report). Transport around our main ports will remain uncongested (as uncongested as they can be during a bank holiday weekend). There is more time to think about the consequences of Brexit on care staff and prepare for it.

Yet, as we know too well, this is a delay and not closure. We don’t even know how long a delay. Those votes will be back once parliament returns on 23 April. Councils, meanwhile, have to prepare for European Elections, which may not take place (that is unlikely, but like everything else Brexit related is not certain). Do councils stop all preparations for a no deal – no deal is off the table, but not necessarily permanently.

What are some of the other consequences of the delayed article 50 date? For councils, two mega ones stand out. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has said that the Autumn budget may not spell the end of austerity if there isn’t a brexit deal in place soon. The next round of local authority three-year budgets, which should be set out in the spending review and then implemented in the budget, may not be in place in time. This round runs out in April 2020.

Philip Hammond has warned that “If we don’t have a [Brexit] deal done, the level of uncertainty that will remain probably makes it inappropriate to do a long-term spending review.” Instead, the Treasury would have to give a short extension of existing spending plans, which would not allow the government to decide how to allocate funds earmarked to end austerity.

And then there is the social care green paper. It is possible that Brexit is more an excuse for it not appearing than a reason, given its history so far, but Brexit must have affected work on it. It has yet again fallen into that black hole we saw in the news recently.

What other uncertainties is local government (and everybody really) facing? The extension to article 50 has energised the people’s vote campaign. But even if it could ever get through parliament, it isn’t certain how it would play out or how long it would take to deliver it. It requires primary legislation, and then the referendum question would need to be tested for “intelligibility” by the Electoral Commission. Then there would have to be the campaign.

Meg Russell, of the Constitution Unit at University College London, said the process could be shortened if the question testing took place in parallel with the legislative process. But there are other hurdles.

“The question [of] can we get a referendum by 31 October and be within the process depends on the question. If it’s remain [in the EU] or [May’s] deal as is, then in order to make the deal legal, we would have to wait for the withdrawal bill to be passed.”

The new delay means ongoing uncertainty for EU citizens living here. Their residency, employment and social rights are not yet clear: 400,000 EU citizens have applied for “settled status” but this does not secure all the rights enjoyed under EU freedom of movement laws. The government wants the remaining 3.4 million to apply by the end of December 2020 if there is a no-deal Brexit, or by June 2021 if there is a deal. Will we end up with a deal with access to the single market and therefore with implications for free movement? No-one knows.

Can local government demand the government makes life more predictable for councils, given this context? There are certainly some issues that could be decided now – like the future of post-Brexit funding. There are still no detailed answers about the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. Perhaps the government can now properly respond to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee report Brexit and Local Government (our briefing for members on this is here)? Will it be clearer what government policies, reports or legislation may now make some progress, given the numbers of civil servants returning to their departments.

This phase of Brexit is only the divorce and not the settlement; if we leave the EU all that is to come. And, crucially, the wider political and philosophical issues that brexit has exposed can’t be solved by a short delay – those around public trust in politicians, for example, or about how to ensure some regions and some groups do not feel left behind in our society and economy.

Perhaps this delay, if it goes on until October does give a chance for the UK to start to think through these issues – how can we avoid this kind of division and toxicity in future? Local government is well placed to help to tackle these challenges – to bring people together and to engage citizens and residents in non-confrontational discussion and debate. There is certainly much to do…

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