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Wed 16 October 2019
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From defence to the environment, poverty to animal welfare, for three years now Brexit has suffocated debate and reform in equal measure – but for how much longer will this continue?


There are many things hidden within Brexit. Dark money funding illicit campaigning. Lies at the heart of the prorogation of Parliament. Fake social media accounts spreading hate. Messages sent on encrypted software from the phones of Government Special Advisors. The list goes on.

At the same time, there are many things that Brexit has hidden. For more than three years now, the UK has been embroiled in a seemingly endless interrogation of facts and falsehoods, policies and politics, all circulating around the central point: should the UK stay in or leave the EU? Brexit has taken up endless column inches, filled broadcast schedules and become the nation’s obsession.

And it is an obsession that has suffocated much else. How many exposes about public health, education, local government or defence have been rejected by news editors struggling to find space for them? How many charities have found their campaigns denied the oxygen of publicity? What political lobbying of Parliament has failed – as ministers resign their portfolios with alarming speed – with any agenda that isn’t focused on the EU?

The charity I run, Action on Armed Violence, is a case in point. We aim to investigative the causes and consequences of armed conflict, with special attention to the impact of explosive violence. As more than 90% of those killed or injured in the past eight years by explosive weapons in towns and cities have been civilians, it is a pressing subject indeed. We focus, for instance on the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD) estimate that its air strikes have killed or injured some 4,347 militants in Syria and Iraq between September 2014 and July 2019. Yet, at the same time, the RAF has – allegedly – only killed one civilian with its air-dropped bombs.

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It is ratio so at odds with other findings of civilian harm from explosive violence that we tried to lobby the MOD to establish – as has been done in the United States – a civilian casualty unit within its operations. In addition, we wanted to persuade the Government to renew its Protection of Civilians strategy. Initially, the noises were good. Gavin Williamson announced the establishment of a Centre of Excellence for Human Security. But, then he was gone, and – soon enough – so was his successor, Penny Mordaunt. The urgency of the now faded. Meetings were delayed, then cancelled. The flame of reform fluttered and died. And countless other charities have felt the same.

According to Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace, while concerns over climate change, plastic and air pollution have been high up the news agenda, the same cannot be said for government action on these matters. This month, ministers “unceremoniously ditched two key pieces of legislation, the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill, without a commitment to carry over progress made on them so far into the next parliamentary term,” she said. Much-needed reforms of the way ministers distribute farming subsidies and fishing quotas were ground into the dust. At the same time, the Environment Bill, which was supposed to introduce ambitious targets to enhance nature, shore up the UK’s environmental standards, and replace the agencies enforcing them, has been delayed until 2020.

Aims to tackle poverty have been similarly sidelined. Helen Barnard, deputy director of policy and partnerships at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “There is no doubt that action to solve poverty has stalled. We know from speaking to people on low incomes they are as likely to say they are financially struggling as they were during the 1992 and 2008 recessions. People are frustrated about being locked out of well-paid jobs and feel their areas are not receiving their fair share of investment.” Crucial issues, such as investment in skills and training and restoring towns – often overlooked across the country – need, according to the charity, a “renewed focus”. But, it is a focus the Government is unable to afford.

Other bills designed to reform have fallen by the wayside. One, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill collapsed this month. The RSPCA had high-hopes the bill would have increased “sentencing for acts of animal cruelty”, and urges it be re-introduced as soon as the next session starts. “We…have long been campaigning for the current maximum six-month jail term to be significantly increased to five years,” the charity said in a statement. “The Bill came so close to being enacted – let’s not allow this important change to animal cruelty sentencing to slip through our hands.”

From defence to the environment, poverty to animal welfare, Brexit has suffocated debate and reform in equal measure. It is a reality perhaps best summed up by the fact that, when the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was interviewed the other day on Radio 4’s Today programme, he spoke for eight minutes about a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and for just two minutes on the story of new multi-million-pound Royal Navy ships being built. There was no space for him to be grilled over Iran, arms sales to Saudi, cyber threats from Russia, the Army’s recruitment crisis, or the deaths of civilians from the RAF’s planes. It was a case of – as one defence correspondent for a national newspaper opined – “Brexit Britain, nothing else matters”.

“Brexit Britain, nothing else matters”: perhaps that should be the slogan for the £100 million advertising campaign the Government is currently running, trying desperately to persuade us all that it won’t be that bad.

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