The UK/EU relationship is at a new stage. As the implementation of the Trade & Cooperation agreement (TCA) between the UK and the EU is now in focus, partners across Scottish civil society are keen to ensure that the Scottish voluntary sector is included, heard and understood in what comes next.

The TCA creates two structures for civil society to engage with decision makers on the new relationship between the UK and the EU, its implementation, and its impact on communities: a Domestic Advisory Group (DAG) for discussion at the UK level between stakeholders and the UK Government; and a UK/EU Civil Society Forum (CSF) at the transnational level for civic society dialogue between the UK and EU.

The principle of a UK Domestic Advisory Group (DAG) is to ensure a strong voice in a post Brexit world. While the UK’s “divorce” from Europe has taken place, the resulting legal separation agreement has been somewhat hastily put together, with a number of unintended consequences. The voice of the DAG and the discussions it will promote will be critical to addressing these consequences.

The separation agreement (the TCA) is due for general review by the end of 2025, hence the importance of hearing from people, businesses, and communities about the impact of the separation, and whether there are things that we can do to make it less traumatic and more workable.

Last year the UK Government opened up Expressions of Interest (EoIs) for membership of the UK DAG, and in partnership with the Third Sector, I was delighted to be nominated by SCVO and subsequently elected as Vice Chair of the DAG, representing the UK Third Sector. As Anna Fowlie, Chief Executive at SCVO, says ‘representation from the voluntary sector is crucial because these structures will enable the UK Government and the EU to listen to, and take on board the views of, civil society in understanding the impact the new relationship is having on organisations and communities. We know that many organisations across the sector have relevant expertise to share on these groups’.

The Executive Council responsible for leading the work of the DAG and setting out its agenda follows the European model of a social partners approach comprising of the CBI, the Trade Union Congress, and the NGO Sector (Third, Voluntary, Academia), so I am pleased therefore to serve for the next two and a half years to serve as Co-Vice Chair alongside Paul Nowak, Deputy Secretary General of the TUC; and Chair, Sean Maguire, Europe Director of the CBI.

From Scotland, I am joined on the DAG by the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation and The Scotch Whisky Association. It has been evident since the divorce that the impact of bureaucracy, administration and customs paperwork has been acutely felt by SMEs across Scotland and the UK and Trade is firmly on our agenda for our next meeting in early October alongside Sustainability, Energy and the Level Playing Field/Divergence.

From a citizen perspective, I believe it is important that we shape the TCA to work in a way that will ensure participation, empowerment and non-discrimination between the UK and the EU, to protect our most vulnerable citizens. For example, the lack of recognition of the UK Blue Badge scheme has left disabled people visiting Europe unsure of their rights after leaving the EU, providing a substantial financial and accessibility impact, and is one of the policy areas to which I hope the DAG will give urgent attention when meeting with our EU counterparts.

The cost-of-living crisis is also on everyone’s mind. SCVO rightly points out that ‘inflationary pressures impact on both our sector and the communities the sector works with. Like households, voluntary organisations are affected by rising energy prices and other rising costs. Still, unlike households, there is no energy price cap for voluntary organisations, which leaves them completely exposed to the wholesale costs of energy on the market’. I hope this will be thoroughly discussed at our next meeting.

We often think of trade as macro, high-level policy that should be left for Government-to-Government discussions and conferences, however now more than ever we are seeing the impact of trade policy on the daily lives of the public. Be it additional bureaucracy holding up queues at ports, or the disruption of supply chains being passed on to everyone’s increased cost of living, we all need greater control and input into how we travel, trade, and communicate to our European partners. The DAG presents this opportunity: enhancing democracy and participation, non-discrimination and empowering us all to create a better connected and more prosperous society.

We are well placed in Scotland to set up a Social Partners Forum to link into the UK and EU agenda, and it is important that we identify areas which may have a disproportionate effect on Scotland and particularly communities of inequality.

I am hoping to join with social partners to have a first meeting in Scotland in late October to consider priorities and issues and to hear first-hand about concerns that citizens have, and a call to contribute to that discussion will be promoted through SCVO, the ALLIANCE and other third sector channels in due course. But in the meantime, if you have any matters that you would like to raise or feed into the process, please get in touch.

Twitter: @IreneOldfather

Email: Irene.oldfather@alliance-scotland.org.uk