This week is the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham which marks the end of the conference season. Much like last year, the issue that is looming large is how best to implement our decision to leave the European Union.
It remains a divisive issue. We are entering a critical phase of the negotiations and they look set to go close to the wire. My view is that we must implement the decision that was taken to leave the EU and take back control but that we should also leave in an orderly way to avoid unnecessary turbulence. That is why, despite the frustrations that many feel, I think Theresa May is right to persevere with these negotiations. We don't yet know whether the apparent stubbornness of the EU is a negotiating tactic or and the only way to find out is to stick to the discussion but prepare for all eventualities.
However, there have been other issues discussed at the conference that received less attention. In my time as an MP and particularly as a Minister at DEFRA, I have worked to try to improve environmental and animal welfare standards. Michael Gove, in his speech at Conference on Monday reiterated this commitment by vowing to tackle the scourge of plastic in our oceans. At DEFRA we’ve made great strides in tackling the causes of plastic waste that are clogging up the world’s oceans by eliminating micro beads, introducing a new charge on plastic bags and plastic coffee cups as well as a commitment to call for 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030. There’s clearly much more to do but we’ve taken some big steps forward.
Opportunity for the next generation was another important theme this year. In education we have also seen improvements in recent years. There has been a substantial growth in the proportion of good and outstanding schools over the past 8 years with the proportion of outstanding schools increasing from 18% in August 2010 to 21% by March 2018. The proportion of good schools also increased, from 50% to 65%. Our Academies and Free Schools programme has also been a success with 42 out of the 158 free schools inspected to the end of 2014/15 as outstanding. Not only are these improvements testament to the hard work of teachers throughout the education system, they are also illustrative of the fact that more children have access to a good or outstanding school offering a better standard of education than they did 8 years ago.
One of the biggest successes of the last eight years has been the astonishing turnaround in the job market. Britain is working again. Eight years after Labour left office, the unemployment rate is the lowest since the early 1970s and levels of employment are at an all-time high. In Camborne, Redruth and Hayle, unemployment is now significantly below the national average with the total number of unemployed claimants for June 2018 totalling 840.
With the conference season over, parliament returns next week and the first task on my desk is the introduction of the first major Agriculture Bill since 1947 as we redesign policy on food, farming and the environment.