Is the marine environment a political priority?

By: Emma Crane
Date posted: 5 October 2018

Emma Crane, MCS Public Affairs Manager, attended the recent party conferences to ensure that marine issues are on the political agenda. Here’s her recap of how the events played out.

The party conference season is over for another year and MPs return to Parliament next week. Over the last month each of the major political parties headed to cities around the UK where they were joined by an eclectic mix of party members, corporate lobbyists, CEOs, and policy and public affairs leads from charities, NGOs and other groups with an interest in influencing policy.

Theresa
May

The days are long, filled with fringe events, conference speeches, meetings with MPs and drinks receptions where everyone hopes to chat to a minister. The food is bad (I don’t want to see another sandwich for a long time!) and a lot of time is spent queuing, but it gives organisations such as MCS a valuable opportunity to glean intelligence about upcoming policy changes, question politicians and ensure that the issues we care about are on the political agenda.

Theresa May, after dancing her way onto the stage, mentioned the environment just once in her speech. However, there was strong focus on the marine environment in Michael Gove’s speech with assurances that the UK will fish sustainably after EU exit, that 30% of the world’s oceans will be protected, we will have a Green Brexit and that we must “action this day” on ocean plastic. Whilst this positivity is to be welcomed, we’re still waiting for many policy announcements and consultations on plastic. We’re yet to see the draft Fisheries Bill or the government response to the recent consultations on the fisheries white paper and marine conservation zones. We still haven’t got clarity on a single-use plastic tax or on environmental principles and governance after Brexit. The longer we wait the more plastic enters our oceans and the more marine wildlife suffers due to lack of adequate protection. So we really need to see some action.

Encouragingly, a number of Conservative environmental fringe events focused on ocean plastic (most of which were standing room only with queues out the door!). MPs spoke about the Blue Planet effect and had clearly been influenced by this and the recent huge public response to the consultation on single-use plastic.

Thérèse Coffey MP confirmed that the Waste and Resource Strategy is expected this month (but will definitely be out before Christmas!) and that there will be an announcement on taxing single-use plastic and changes to the waste collection system to make it simpler. On a deposit return scheme, she mentioned that this is more complex than people think. It’s clear that we must do more to dispel the argument being pushed by industry that a deposit return scheme should apply to “on-the-go” items only.

At the Labour Party Conference Jeremy Corbyn (not dancing, but definitely upbeat) announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero and a green jobs revolution to tackle climate change. Sue Hayman, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, launched a joint report with the Shadow Business Secretary and highlighted the need for departments to work together on making sure that there is a focus on the environment in decision-making. The Treasury was singled out as a major blocker to environmental change. It is a welcome step forward to see these environmental commitments from Labour and let’s hope we see more action through future policy announcements.

Labour also confirmed an ambition towards standardising recycling regimes across councils and the need for extended producer responsibility. The commitment to a deposit return scheme was confirmed and there was strong support for an ambitious Environment Bill with a watchdog with teeth to hold all public bodies to account after EU exit.

In conclusion, whilst the rhetoric was strong from both parties - at the end of the day actions speak louder than words. For everyone who saw the heartbreaking scenes of the flesh-footed shearwater chick vomiting up plastic in the excellent Drowning in Plastic documentary, there can be no greater sign that the Government needs to take urgent action on behalf of our marine environment.

The future of our oceans depends on it.