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Sue Hayman: “We have to show our children that we are listening, that we are taking the climate emergency seriously”

7 min read

Earlier this month the UK Parliament became the first in the world to declare an ‘environment and climate emergency’. Shadow Defra Secretary Sue Hayman is determined to ensure the historic moment is followed up by real action. She talks to Marie Le Conte 

Sue Hayman, the shadow secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, has just been stung by nettles. Perhaps it should have been expected; we are not in Westminster but somewhere near Manor House in North London, at the Woodberry Wetlands.

Hayman wanted the interview to take place there because we were meeting to talk about the threats posed to our natural habitat by climate change, and there is little wilderness to be found in SW1.

Aggressive plants aside, it proved to be an apposite backdrop for what she had to say. “The Labour party introduced the Climate Change Act back in 2008, and we thought that was really groundbreaking at the time, but new evidence started coming out to show that actually, things are much more serious. There were different reports coming through, not just on emissions but also dramatic reductions in species, and issues around oceans”, she explains.

“I met with a lot of young people in my constituency and joined the youth strike action with children in Cockermouth, and they’re really worried about their future. And then I met with Extinction Rebellion, who decided to take more dramatic action. I thought, you know, here I am saying ‘yes, we’re listening to you, we hear you, we’re reading all these reports’ but we have to show our children, the people who are really concerned, that we are listening, that we are taking it seriously.”

This is why, on March 28, she decided to follow in the footsteps of the Scottish government, and cities including London, Manchester and Bristol and called on the government to declare a “national environment and climate emergency”.

DEFRA minister Therese Coffey sidestepped the question, instead praising the Great British Spring Clean and the Year of Green Action 2019, but the Labour party went ahead.

“I thought well, let’s just ask the government to support us in announcing this emergency because lots of councils are starting to do it, this at least will show that we are serious about doing something. They didn’t, so we just said to them, ‘look, even if you’re not going to support it, we’re going to bring a motion to the House to do it’.

It is exactly what they did, and on May 1, a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency was tabled by Jeremy Corbyn and approved by the House of Commons without a vote.

In his speech, the Labour leader warned that “if every country meets its current pledges temperatures will still rise by three degrees this century”, which would put southern Europe, the horn of Africa, Central America and the Caribbean in permanent drought, with cities like Miami and Rio de Janeiro lost to rising sea levels. “At four degrees, which is where we’re currently heading, agricultural systems will collapse.”

As a result, “global emissions must fall by about 45 percent by 2030 and reach ‘net zero’ by 2050 at the absolute latest”.

Though not legally binding, the motion acted as a statement of intent, and has already had some impact. On May 11, it was revealed that the Department for Transport’s director of Heathrow expansion and aviation and maritime analysis had written to environmental group Plan B to say they would be “giving careful consideration” to the declaration of environment and climate emergency when deciding whether to grant a review of the airport’s expansion.

This is a step in the right direction, but according to Hayman, the government needs to go much further than it currently is if it wants to address the issue properly.

“[Michael Gove] does say a lot of things that are important, particularly around the environment, but saying stuff isn’t the same as doing things, and we really need to see some ambitious targets from him, backed up by support from the Treasury.

“They have got to do a review of every department, every department needs to look at its own impact on climate change, and it needs to be steered through the Treasury.”

As she is keen to point out, climate change cannot be tackled by DEFRA alone; for things to change, every area of policy making needs to get involved.

This is something the Labour frontbench has been working on. The shadow cabinet committee on climate change was created six months ago, and includes transport, housing and trade among others.

Still, Hayman is conscious of the fact that such level of cross-departmental planning is easier said in opposition than done in government. “Departments are in their own silos, so how do you break that down once you’re in government?” she says. “I think the answer is probably through the Treasury; we’re looking at new green industrial strategy, whereby you have to go through the sausage machine of impact on environment and climate change in order to get your policy funding through.”

Speaking of which – the Labour party has spent the past few months preparing for another snap general election and the very real possibility of them getting into power, and it shows. Asked what she would do if she were to land in DEFRA tomorrow, Sue Hayman refused to settle on one thing, listing instead a number of changes she insists would be relatively easy to bring in.

“There are some easy things we can do. First of all, we would bring in a very different energy policy, so for example, we would ban fracking, because that’s not carbon neutral. And we will restore a support for renewable energy, for example tidal projects, which the government has not pushed forward on, and they’ve again reduced support for solar only last week.

“We need to be really looking about how we could encourage solar, and wind and tidal energy, because that’s got to be the way forward. You could very quickly move to about 90% of electricity coming from renewables. Heating is more difficult, but there are lots of ways that we can encourage that and invest in that.  We’d also do things like bringing a clean air act to try and tackle the issues around clean air. We’d work with farmers, because we know that a lot of emissions come from farming, and I met with the NFU recently, they have committed themselves to zero carbon. So how do you work with them to achieve that?

“We need to retrofit houses to make them efficient, we need to look at our planning rules on how new houses are built to make them more efficient...So you can do a lot quite quickly. But you need the political will to do it.”

This is an exhaustive list, and she is right that intentions count for a lot in government, but another obvious obstacle is, predictably, Brexit. With the UK’s departure from the European Union sucking up all the oxygen from Westminster, it is hard for MPs to make themselves heard, even on issues they deem vital.

Passing one motion through the House is one thing, but making sure that this sense of urgency remains a priority in SW1 is quite another.

Hayman is honest about how frustrating she finds it. “It’s very difficult to actually try and do anything outside of Brexit, partly because there is very little coming to the House that isn’t Brexit or Brexit related, but it’s also taking up a lot more of my time in the constituency, it’s what people want to talk about, so it does sometimes become frustrating to try to get some attention or support for something else. It would be great to be able to feel I was pushing forward on some of the other areas of policy that really matter as well.”

She is selling herself a bit short; after all, Britain was the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency, and other countries have already started to follow. There is still a lot to be done, but she is on the right track. 


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