Conference diary: a bird’s eye view from Birmingham

birminghamI used to work for a conservation charity famous for protecting birds and once, on a call, a woman used the phrase “let’s kill two birds with one stone, here”. I barely noticed what she’d said (it was water off a duck’s back to me) but the caller got so embarrassed that she garbled an apology and then hung up, mid-call. Phrases, and their use, can be quite important to some people, which was a running theme at the Conservative party conference this week.

The tone was set on the very first day when Theresa May took the bull by the horns (apologies to any animal welfare charities) and announced a great repeal bill: a piece of legislation that will transpose all current EU laws and regulations into domestic law. (David Davis swiftly followed with a speech that clarified that the bill would transpose all current EU laws and regulations into domestic law “wherever possible”.)

The bill’s announcement certainly gave ministers and MPs a spring in their step around conference. No longer would they have to trudge from fringe meeting to fringe meeting repeating “Brexit means Brexit”. Now they had a sliver more certainty to go on. This of course, didn’t stop the mantra being repeated in many speeches across the week. Repeated, in fact until the words got garbled and Andrew Davies, Welsh Conservative leader promised, from the main stage “we will make breakfast a success”. Cheers and applaud followed: populist politics at its best.

The environment secretary, Andrea Leadsom, used Theresa May’s announcement to assure environmental organisations that post-Brexit nature protections (see the Pledge for the Environment) would be safe. This is a great ambition but raises many questions and the only clarifying answer forthcoming has been vague references to Defra’s upcoming 25 year plan for the environment.

Likewise, Greg Clark has a great record on tackling climate change and has promised that it will be at the heart of the government’s proposed industrial strategy. But his main conference speech mentioned climate change only once. His department’s expected carbon plan will have to do a great job of identifying investment gaps if he is to prove that he really is laying the groundwork for low carbon industrial strategy.

May’s repeal bill must do the same. Because, like “Brexit means Brexit”, “leave the environment in a better state”, “at the heart of the industrial strategy” and “two birds with one stone”’, the ‘great repeal bill’ is currently only a phrase. It needs to prove it is going to live up to its words. It’s certainly a sensible holding position and provides some clarity around the prospects for the environmental protections and product standards we benefit from in the UK.  But the real test will be what happens after the legislation has travelled the English Channel and settled in Westminster.

The transfer of such a large amount of legislation is a huge task for an already stretched civil service and much of it will be transposed as secondary legislation. This means that once domesticated, it can easily be changed or removed without full parliamentary scrutiny. Green Alliance has highlighted the need for assurances against the unpicking of these protections, and any changes in the future must be subject to full debate and a parliamentary vote.

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