"We've just found out that the funding for our project will end next year, the demand is still there, but it is EU funding, so..." I was in Coventry interviewing the director of a women's organisation providing health, education and employment programmes for women in one of the poorest wards in the City. We were talking about the effects of austerity, but as so often in my interviews that day, it soon became clear that the problems caused by cuts to national and local funding were exacerbated by the impact of Brexit.
Women's organisations in Coventry, in a pattern that is being repeated across the UK, are finding that EU funding that they thought was secure for five years will end in 2018 or 19. Although the Government has promised to guarantee payments that have already been awarded, there is no certainty whether this money will be replaced by the UK Government once we leave the EU. Even if it is, smaller grass roots organisations that provide support to the most marginalised women are worried whether they will be able to access this funding.
Funding for the women's voluntary sector is just one area where the impact of the Brexit referendum is already being felt, even before we leave the EU. A recent round table organised by Coventry Women's Voices heard several examples of cancelled investment in Coventry alone. These included a housing project and an IT business that was about to sign a contract with a company planning to open an office in the area, but then decided to locate the office in Germany after the Brexit vote. Businesses that rely on exports are holding back on investment decisions until they know what the UK's new trading arrangements will be. This in turn is having an impact on businesses that supply goods and services to exporting companies or to their staff.
Academics at the two universities in the City reported that they had already been asked to withdraw from funding bids to the EU and were seeing falling student numbers. There was a particular concern about the loss of access to the Daphne programme, an EU funding programme that supports research into violence against women. Coventry based violence against women organisations have been partners in research programmes funded by Daphne, which have reflected the experience of victims and survivors in reports and policy recommendations.
For women's organisations at the round table the lack of clarity about what trading and other arrangements will replace EU membership was causing deep anxiety about the economic, legal and funding environment they may face in the future.
The announcement by the Treasury that Government departments have been asked to draw up plans to make 'efficiency savings' of up to 6% by 2019, just after the UK is due to leave the EU, is likely to increase this anxiety. WBG's research has demonstrated that women have borne the brunt of austerity since 2010 and that the poorest BAME women have been the hardest hit. The announcement of further cuts not only means more hardship for the poorest women, and makes it less likely that the loss of EU funding will be replaced by the UK Government. It also indicates that the government may not be as confident that Brexit will have the positive economic outcome of that its White Paper claims.
Alongside economic anxieties is the fear leaving the EU would make it easier to reduce the legal rights that protect women at work. These include equal pay, part time workers' rights and maternity and paternity leave, which are underpinned by EU law. They are also part of UK law, so will not disappear overnight as we leave the EU, but once we leave there is nothing to stop this or a future UK Government watering down, or even getting rid of some of these rights.
The Chancellor, Phillip Hammond has warned that the UK might have to change its economic model if it failed to get the trade deal it wanted from the EU. If a new economic model was based on a low tax, low social protection economy then women's rights at work could be under threat.
In response to these concerns the Women and Equalities Select Committee called on the government to include a clause in the Great Repeal Bill explicitly committing to maintain the same level of equality protection when EU law is transposed into UK law. This follows the Face Her Future campaign organised by Fawcett and others. This would help give some reassurance to women about legal protections post Brexit, but until we know the long term economic impact the women I met in Coventry will remain anxious about the future for them and their family.
Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson is the co-director of the Women's Budget Group
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