PMQs sketch: A momentarily eerie etiquette

"Pipe down and be good boys".

It is fitting that scientists chose the Palace of Westminster to announce they were 99.999% sure they had found the Higgs boson particle - the final piece of the Standard Model of Particle Physics which theoretically describes the fundamental forces that control our universe - as, just yards away, the controllers of our present slice of infinity were meeting for Prime Minister's Questions.

The intellectual force behind PMQs had been summed up earlier by the Deputy Prime Minister of the coalition government who described himself as being “lobotomised” by the weight of its everyday activity.

Official confirmation by Nick Clegg of what many had suspected for some time was welcomed by observers who looked to PMQs for further confessions, but were 99.999% sure they would not get them.

To be fair to the participants, they knew they were merely making time for the real main event of the day, the appearance of Diamond Bob before the Treasury Select Committee.

But that was not going to stop the Government and its Loyal Opposition fighting like cats in a sack over how we are going to discover just how deep into our pockets he and Barclays bank had stuck their hands.

In an opening performance almost as rare as the Higgs boson itself the Prime Minister and his opposite number confused everyone by trying statesmanlike behaviour.

Unbeknown to their loyal supporters frantic, as usual, to get at their opposite numbers Dave had phoned Ed yesterday and suggested they adopt a non-partisan approach to the planned inquiry into the banks.

This led to total confusion in the Commons as both spent the first five minutes of PMQs being polite to each other. “You first”, indicated Ed as he proposed a softer more edible version of his call for a judge-led inquiry. "No , after you", seemed Dave’s reply as he sweetened his description of his select-committee alternative.

There was no difference in substance between him and Ed, said the PM, as Chancellor George nodded in agreement and the other Ed, his shadow, sat uncharacteristically mute.

The normally voluble terraces were stunned by this outbreak of light over heat. They sat momentarily transfixed, rattles, vuvuzuelas and voices eerily silent.

But those who kept the faith knew it could not last and within minutes of peace breaking out it was abandoned in favour of normal service.

Ed, whose plan had worryingly won the support of today’s Daily Mail, accused Dave of being out of touch with public opinion. His friend of just seconds earlier "did not get it,” said the Labour leader.

Dave, his colour thankfully returned to its normal puce, said he wasn’t going to have any lessons in “getting it” from the party that had been in government for 13 years.

With both sides now in full throat, Speaker Bercow signalled the return of business as usual by calling on Tory MPs to “pipe down and be good boys”, thus further enamouring himself to the party to which he still officially belongs.

Meanwhile as scientists over in Westminster Hall continued to celebrate the discovery of their rarely seen sub-atomic particle it was perhaps fitting that MPs should loudly cheer the discovery in their own ranks of a similar being, Tory MP Nicholas Soames.

Rarely seen before lunch, and sometimes missing afterwards, the Member of Parliament for Mid Sussex delighted all by lumbering to his feet with a loyal question about the banks ignored in the pleasure of confirming the earlier fears expressed by the Deputy PM.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.