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Conservative Party Conference

07 October 2016

Alexandra Cardenas provides an overview of the topics discussed at the Conservative Party Conference.


The Conservative Party Conference took place in Birmingham from Sunday 2 October to Wednesday 5 October. The President hosted a joint reception with the Society of Conservative Lawyers and the Bar Council. Attorney General Jeremy Wright QC MP spoke at the reception, as well as former Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC MP, Ministry of Justice spokesperson in the Lords Lord Keen, Solicitor General Robert Buckland MP, Chair of the Justice Select Committee Bob Neill MP and Alex Chalk MP. This was followed by a dinner with local practitioners to discuss Brexit and other issues affecting their businesses.

On 4 October the president spoke at a business reception with Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He highlighted the substantial contribution of the legal sector to the UK economy.

On 5 October the president hosted a breakfast roundtable with members and stakeholders. This was to highlight the international opportunities for law firms post-Brexit, and to consider ways in which the Law Society and government can support solicitors who want to expand into new markets or areas of business.

During the conference, the Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers announced measures to curb 'vexatious claims' against the armed forces. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said that the Government will: 

  • put a time limit on making claims 
  • tackle ‘no-win, no-fee deals’ 
  • derogate from the ECHR in future conflicts

He noted that this will not be putting the armed forces above the law as they will still have to comply with criminal law and Geneva conventions. 

Read the speech in full

Read our response to the remarks

On Tuesday, the Lord Chancellor gave her speech to the Conference where she highlighted her priorities as: 

  • court reform 
  • diversity in the legal profession
  • prison reform 

Read her speech in full 

Please find below a summary of the main speeches delivered at the conference.

Prime Minister's speeches 

Exiting the EU

On Sunday, the Prime Minister gave her first speech to Conservative Party Conference, which focused on Britain's withdrawal from the EU. Her key points were: 

• Timing: Theresa May said that triggering Article 50 by the end of March 2017 will give the government sufficient time to get ready for the negotiations.

• Process: the PM said the UK will leave the EU through the legal process set out in Article 50. There will be no second referendum.

• The Great Repeal Bill: The Bill will be announced in next Queen’s Speech, and will remove the European Communities Act from the statute book. The Act will no longer apply from the date upon which the UK formally leaves the EU. May emphasised that the ‘authority of EU law in Britain will end’.

• The Bill will convert the acquis communitaire into British law. Parliament will then be free to amend, repeal and improve any law it chooses. The PM said that changes will then be to be subject to full Parliamentary scrutiny.

• Commentary: She repeated that there will be ‘no running commentary’ on Brexit negotiations. The government will give clarity whenever possible as quickly as possible, but a running commentary would make it harder to get the right deal for Britain.

• Hard v soft Brexit: May strongly rebuffed the hard v soft Brexit debate, saying this is a false dichotomy by those who have not yet accepted the result of the referendum.

• Devolved nations: On the involvement of the devolved nations in Brexit negotiations, the government will work with the devolved nations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but we will negotiate and leave the EU ‘as one United Kingdom’. She added that the Government will ‘never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom’.

• Parliament on Article 50: On Parliament’s role in Article 50, she said that it is not up to the House of Commons or the House of Lords to trigger Article 50 -  next week the Attorney General will resist the legal challenge on this point.

• Workers’ rights: Existing workers’ rights will continue to be guaranteed in UK law.

• Immigration: On Single Market v immigration controls, the government will seek to give British businesses maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the Single Market, but this will not be done at the expense of giving up control of immigration. 

• Britain’s role in the world: On her vision for Britain’s role in the world, May called on the conference to ‘ignore the pessimists’ and added that the UK does not need to ‘punch above our weight because our weight is substantial enough already’.

Read the speech in full

Domestic agenda

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister gave her second speech of the Conference which focused on her domestic agenda. The key points were: 

• The Prime Minister opened by highlighting that she is ‘ready’ and has a plan for Brexit. She said that people voted for change in June, and that a ‘change is going to come’. She called the referendum a ‘quiet revolution’ and a turning point for the country. 

• She spoke about injustices and education holding people back and the importance of creating a meritocracy. On business she criticised ‘elites operating in bubbles’, and encouraged them to acknowledge their responsibility to the communities that helped created them.

• Brexit: May also criticised ‘elites’ who complained about people who argued against leaving the EU, against the ‘wishes of the people’. May said she wants to support free trade, but it should not accept one set of rules for some and another for everyone else.

• May also reiterated that there will be no running commentary of the Brexit negotiations. The agreement with Europe should be in the spirit of friendship, giving British companies the maximum freedom to trade and operate in the single market, but added that Britain is not leaving the EU to give up control of immigration again of turn over jurisdiction to the European Court of Justice.

• She reiterated that Article 50 will be triggered by the end of March 2017 and that a Great Repeal Bill will be introduced. She said she wants ‘the authority of EU law ended forever.’

• Lawyers and armed forces: May said that we will ‘never again – in any future conflict – let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave – the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces’.

• Big business: May’s key message for business was the sense of companies and ‘elites’ being part of a ‘social contract’. May said she wants people to value success, but she also wants successful people to have a sense of citizenship. She argued that companies should be training local people, paying tax and contributing to the communities in which people operate. She argued that people in power act as though they have more in common with international elites than people ‘down the road’. May also decried directors who have misused company pensions while companies go bust. She said ‘I am putting them on a warning’ and again said that a ‘change has got to come’. 

• May also criticised the sense that there is a division between London and the rest of the UK, and the rich and powerful. She said she wants to govern for the whole nation.

• May said that too often the people who hold businesses accountable are drawn from the same ‘narrow elites’ and that consumers and workers will be represented on company boards and a review will be published later this year.

• She said that ‘nobody, no individual tycoon and no single business, however rich, has succeeded on their own’. She discussed the wider contribution of society to their success saying ‘their goods are transported by road, their workers are educated in schools, their customers are part of sophisticated networks taking in the private sector, the public sector and charities’.

• Tax: She was particularly firm in saying that ‘it does not matter who you are, if you are a tax dodger, we are coming after you’. She noted that ‘If you’re an accountant, a financial adviser or a middleman who helps people to avoid what they owe to society, we’re coming after you too’. 

• Meritocracy and opportunity: May said that too often advancement in Britain is about wealth and privilege. May confirmed that the Government ‘will lift’ the ban on new grammar schools.

• She closed her speech by saying that this was the ‘next generations’ opportunity’ to create a stronger better fairer future in Britain. She concluded that ‘the responsibility to grasp it falls on us all’. 

• The role of government: May said that she believes that ‘government can and should be a force for good’ and that the ‘state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot’.

Read the speech in full

Exiting the EU Secretary speech

On Sunday Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis MP, made his speech to Conservative Party Conference. His key points were: 

• David Davis said that Brexit is going to be biggest change for a generation, and that it is not just about terms on which we leave the EU, or just the future relationship with the EU, but a once in a life time opportunity for Britain to forge a new place in the world and make decisions about ‘the kind of country we want to be’. 

• He said that the task now to bring together all those who voted to leave and those who voted to remain. He asked those who are still battling the campaign to realise that it has finished and to help the Government seize the opportunities available to make Brexit work for everyone.    

• Trade: Davis said that the easier it is for the EU and the UK to do business together, the better it is for everyone. He said that ‘nobody wants to see an increase in trade barriers’, and that the Government wants to maintain the freest possible trade whilst listening to instructions from people to take back control of our own affairs. 

• Immigration: Davis said that the UK will still play its part in matters such as the migrant crisis. He added that the UK will control borders and bring numbers down. But it will always welcome those with skills, as to win in the global market the UK must win in the global battle for talent. Davis also said that the Government will protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK so long as British citizens in Europe are treated in the same way. He said he is sure this will be something that can be agreed upon. 

• Negotiations: Davis said he would not apologise for not making the bottom lines on the negotiations public. He also said the UK must resist the temptation to trade insults with the EU to generate cheap headlines, as the negotiations are too important for this.  

• The Great Repeal Bill: Davis said that the UK must prepare for the impact of Brexit in domestic law, and as it is the European Communities Act that placed EU law above UK law, this is why the Government will repeal this Act. To ensure continuity, the Government is taking the simple approach and transposing all EU law into UK law where possible.  

• Process: Davis said that the UK will not just tear up the treaties, as ‘if we want to be treated with goodwill, we must act with goodwill’. The UK will follow the process set out in Article 50. 

• Future of the EU: Davis said that while building a consensus at home, the UK also needs to approach negotiations with EU neighbours with ‘goodwill’, and need to respect what the EU means for them. He added that others see the EU as a guarantor of the rule of law and of democracy and freedom. Britain has always seen it differently, and has always been uncomfortable about the reality of the political project. This gives the UK the opportunity to create a more comfortable relationship that works for everyone. The UK does not want the EU to fail. A poorer, weaker Europe is not in anyone’s interests. 

Read the speech in full

Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech

On Monday, the Conference focused on "an economy that works for all" with Chancellor Philip Hammond MP giving his speech. The key points were: 

• Philip Hammond stated that the Brexit vote was a defining moment of this generation. He added that the message of ‘regaining control has been heard loud and clear’.

• EU negotiations: He said the negotiations will take ‘patience, experience, meticulous planning, and steely resolution’. He argued that the UK should approach the negotiations with confidence – no one should doubt it has the skills, ingenuity and determination to make a success of Brexit.

• Hammond said that the fact that economic data following the Brexit vote is better than expected is the clearest demonstration of UK’s economic strength.

• Single market access: Government will fight for the ‘best possible access’ to European markets for UK firms.

• HM Treasury will underwrite the multi-year EU funding won before the UK leaves the EU.

• Deficit reduction: Hammond said that the work on reducing deficit is not finished, adding that he will not target a surplus at the end of this Parliament, but emphasised that fiscal consolidation will continue. He said the Autumn Statement 2016 will set out how Government will deliver long-term fiscal sustainability, respond to short-term uncertainty and set out plans for investment.

• Productivity:  He said that the Government will make the UK the most ‘outward looking, dynamic, competitive, high skill, high wage, low tax economy in the world’ – and do this by attracting the best talent from around the world. He noted that productivity will be right at the forefront of the policy agenda and at heart of the industrial strategy. He said that productivity is still too reliant on a hand full of sectors, in London and the South East – he added that regional devolution deals will be key to rebalancing this.

• Hammond restated his commitment to the National Infrastructure Commission. 

• Innovation: He said that the UK has once in a lifetime opportunity to become a leader in technology innovation. He argued that as corporation tax falls to 17 per cent by the end of the Parliament, the UK will become more attractive to entrepreneurs and innovators. Hammond announced £220m of new support to biomedical tech innovation projects and to entrepreneur/university collaboration initiatives.

• Devolution: He said that HM Treasury will continue to drive the Northern Powerhouse project, but Government also wants to create conditions for success throughout the country.

Read the speech in full

International Trade Secretary's speech

International trade Secretary, Liam Fox MP, also delivered his conference speech on Monday. His key points were: 

• The UK’s trading past: Throughout his speech, Liam Fox harkened back to Britain’s strong trading past, saying that there was a time when ‘Britain’ and ‘trade’ would have been synonymous. He said it is ‘astonishing’ that for the last 43 years trade has been ‘outsourced’ to the EU.

• Initially outlined in his first Oral Questions in September, Fox reconfirmed his department’s three main tasks:

  • promoting exports of UK goods and services to support a growing economy that serves the whole of the UK
  • maximising opportunities for wealth creation through supporting Foreign Direct Investment with a renewed focus on overseas direct investment, and
  • delivering the best international trading framework outside the EU, including capacity to develop a national trade policy once we leave the EU.

• Trade issues: Fox said that the department has two main problems to tackle: a slowdown in world trading activity and deteriorating trade performance vis-à-vis our allies. He also noted that we need to drown out voices of protectionism with a strong appeal to free trade.

• Support for business: Fox said his department will be setting out a range of measures to help non-exporting businesses explore the possibility of exporting. This process has already begun by moving staff around the world, including three new sites in the US.

• Second referendum: Fox dismissed the possibility of a second referendum, indefinitely postponing Brexit or staying by a backdoor mechanism, saying that the Prime Minister is not known for saying anything other than what she absolutely means.

• Future Trade Deals: Fox acknowledged that while the UK is still a member of the EU that we cannot negotiate new trade deals. He said, however, that we can ‘discuss impediments that we might wish to eliminate ahead of agreements we might reach with other countries when we leave’. He added that as long as we remain a member of the EU we will push for agreements that open up free trade, including CETA. 

• Investment: Fox welcomed the increase in investment since the vote to leave the EU, citing Apple and GSK as examples. He said the UK has many ‘natural advantages’ that it will continue to exploit, including our system of law, skilled workforce, low levels of industrial disruption and low taxation.

• Fox emphasised that he will be working with other departments to make sure the UK is at the forefront of global trade when we leave the EU.

Read the speech in full

Defence Secretary’s speech 

Michael Fallon MP’s speech covered a number of topics including defence spending and diversity in the armed forces. He also made the following remarks about legal claims against the armed forces: 

• Fallon said that historical legal claims against the armed forces are causing distress. He noted that it is right to investigate accusations of wrongdoing but the ‘legal system is being abused to falsely accuse our armed forces.’

• He noted that half of the 3,000 claims have already been discontinued and another 1,000 will be ‘sorted’ by January. 

• He noted that one firm, Public Interest Lawyers, who were involved in ‘farming’ these claims has had its legal aid contract revoked and was shut down in August. 

• Fallon said that to tackle the vexatious claims the Government will: 

  • put a time limit on making claims 
  • tackle ‘no-win, no-fee deals’, and
  • derogate from the ECHR in future conflicts

• He said the ECHR needed to be derogated from as it is ‘damaging troops, undermining military operations and costing the taxpayer millions that should be invested in defence itself’.

• He noted that this will not be putting armed forces above the law as they will still have to comply with criminal law and Geneva conventions. 

• He closed this section of the speech by saying that the army wanted to be ‘fighting the enemy, not the lawyers.’

Read the speech in full

Justice Secretary’s speech 

The Lord Chancellor’s speech on Tuesday focused on prison reforms and she noted that new policies were to be announced in the coming months. She also acknowledged the contribution of the legal services to the UK's economy. 

The main points were:

• The Government will invest £1billion in a more modern justice system – for example, all vulnerable victims and witnesses will have their cross-examination pre-recorded before trial.

• The Government will release a white paper in a few weeks and will legislate for reforms early next year. Further reforms will deliver a justice system that is ‘efficient, just and straightforward, with far less paperwork.’

• Truss stressed the importance of diversity in the legal profession and the need to open up the legal system to draw ‘on the whole country’. She noted that only one in seven QCs, one in three partners in law firms are women and fewer than 1 in 10 judges are from ethnic minorities. She will work to break down barriers and make sure people from all backgrounds can rise up through the profession.

• She noted that the UK has inherited the finest legal tradition in the world, with the judiciary, barristers and solicitors being the best in the world. 

• She also announced measures to tackle gangs and extremism, and attacks on prison staff.

• £14m investment in extra prison staff was announced.  

Read the speech in full

Home Secretary’s speech

On Tuesday, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd MP gave her speech to the Conservative Party Conference. The key points were:

Protecting the vulnerable 

• Domestic abuse – Rudd said that a Britain that works for everybody ‘protects the less fortunate and most vulnerable’. She noted that the volume of prosecutions and convictions for domestic violence are at their highest ever levels, which means that ‘more victims are seeing justice being done’. This is also true for rape – the Government is setting aside £80 million for rape support centres and operations for early intervention. 

• Modern slavery – Rudd commended her predecessor for bringing in the first piece of legislation of modern slavery in Europe, and how the issue ‘is closer to home than people think’. 

• Child sex abuse – She said that government agencies have failed victims of abuse, adding that is why the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is essential to answer these questions. She went on to say that the UK has led the global effort in responding to the online threat of child sexual exploitation. 

• Rudd outlined how cultural differences in the UK will not be ‘an excuse for abuse of any kind’ such as honour based violence. She said that we have an ‘unequivocal rule of law in this country’ and ‘if people want to live here they must abide by it’. 

• Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) –  Following on from this vein of abiding by British laws, Rudd said she was committed to being the first government to prosecute for FGM, and that how the Government had already strengthened the law, and introduced a new FGM mandatory reporting duty and tougher penalties for perpetrators.

Immigration 

• Reducing immigration – Rudd moved onto the immigration saying that the British people sent a clear message with the referendum and that there was no question that recent levels of immigration motivated a large part of the vote. She said people’s concerns are ‘not unfounded and need to be addressed’, particularly regarding pressures on housing and public services. 

• he noted that a reduction would not happen ‘overnight’ and only a substantial reduction could help ‘change the tide of public opinion… so once again immigration is something we can all welcome’. She said it was her duty with continue Theresa May’s action in reducing immigration, and that Brexit is one part of the strategy. 

• Landlords and illegal immigrants – She said that as part of the 2016 Immigration Act, landlords found letting properties to illegal immigrants would be prosecuted. Furthermore, from December, immigration checks will be a mandatory requirement for those wanting to get a licence to drive a taxi, and from next autumn, banks will have to do regular checks to ensure they are not providing essential banking services to illegal migrants.

• Consultation on students and foreign workers - She announced that from today the Government will be launching a consultation on entry rules for foreign workers and students. She said the tests that employers had to undergo before recruiting from abroad had become ‘tick-boxing exercises’ and too often resulted in British citizens being discriminated against.

• Deporting foreign criminals – Rudd announced that the Government will overhaul legislation to make it easier to deport criminals, and that the public would have the right to challenge sentences for terrorist offences if they believed they were ‘unduly lenient’. She said that the Government will now be extending the Unduly Lenient Sentencing (ULS) scheme - under which people can ask the Attorney General to look again at sentences where they believe a mistake has been made - to cover all terrorist offences sentenced in the Crown Court.

Security 

• Investigatory Powers – Rudd said that the Bill is crucial for further powers to security services but also has greater transparency, overhauls safeguards and adds protections for privacy. She went on to talk about the importance of the ‘double lock’ of both Secretary of State and judicial authorisation.

• Money laundering – Rudd announced new legislation to tackle criminal finance, giving new powers to law enforcement agencies, and that the services of the ‘financial, legal, and accountancy sectors are in play’. She said that laundering money seriously undermines the integrity and reputation of our financial markets. She stated how it is paramount that these sectors ‘keep their houses in order to ensure taxpayers and savers money is not lost’. 

Read the speech in full

Labour reshuffle 

• Shadow Home Secretary – Diane Abbott MP has been appointed to replace Andy Burnham MP

• Shadow Business Secretary – Clive Lewis MP replaces Jon Trickett MP

• Shadow Brexit Secretary – Sir Keir Starmer QC MP, barrister and former DPP, takes on the role which had been one of two posts filled by Emily Thornberry, the shadow Foreign Secretary 

• Shadow Attorney General – Baroness Shami Chakrabarti takes her first role in the shadow Cabinet 

• Shadow Welsh Secretary – Jo Stevens MP has been promoted from Shadow Justice Minister to Shadow Welsh Secretary 

• Shadow City minister – Jonathan Reynolds MP returns to the shadow frontbench.

• Shadow Minister for Black and Minority Ethnic Communities – Dawn Butler MP has been appointed to this new role.

UKIP leadership 

UKIP leader Diane James MEP resigned on Wednesday. Nigel Farage MEP will take over as interim leader.

Tags: Westminster weekly update | access to justice | Brexit | Conservatives | party conferences

About the author

Alexandra Cardenas is Head of Public Affairs and Campaigns at the Law Society. Public Affairs manages the relationships with parliament and government. She is a dual qualified solicitor in England and Wales (2014), and Colombia (2002). Prior to the Society, she practised as a human rights lawyer and worked at Macmillan Cancer Support and Animal Defenders International.

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