Now is the time to modernise and reform our parliament

The Green Party leader outlines a few simple steps to make parliament a more effective – and less ar

Adopting electronic voting or introducing an explanatory paragraph to explain the purpose of specific amendments to a bill probably don't sound like revolutionary stuff. They're not exactly up there with the Great Reform Acts. But even such modest changes could take us a step closer to a more efficient and accessible parliament that, if not yet fit for purpose, is at least less unfit.

Arriving at Westminster for the first time is a strange experience. The first thing I was shown was not my office – that took at least a month to be allocated – but the pink ribbon where I was to hang up my sword. The antiquated language that parliamentarians are still expected to use in the Chamber, the late-night voting and the unpredictability of the daily agenda feel pretty anachronistic and, at times, obstructive.

Westminster traditionalists cling on to these old-fashioned procedures, making valiant claims about defending our heritage. But the fact is, most people believe parliament to be remote, unaccountable and incomprehensible. I'm hardly the first parliamentarian to recognise that something needs to change.

As peers dust themselves down after several weeks of bitter conflict and sleepless nights over changes to constituency boundaries and the AV referendum, and as MPs continue to pay the price of the expenses scandal, it is unsurprising that many are again asking how we can change our political system for the better.

In my well-attended Backbench Business debate today, MPs had the opportunity to put forward their views on the hugely inefficient processes that shape our parliament – and offer their own ideas about how we can drag Westminster into the 21st century. In my report, The Case for Parliamentary Reform, published in November, I outlined a number of proposals for first steps towards change.

First, an electronic voting system would make far better use of MPs' time. The voting system we currently use is bizarre and time-consuming. Just queuing up to vote accounts for around £30,000 of the total amount spent on all MPs' salaries in one week. In the last parliament there were over 1,200 votes. As it takes about 15 minutes per vote, that means an MP with an 85 per cent voting record would have spent over 250 hours queuing to vote – hardly the most effective use of time and money.

Hand-held electronic devices would help speed up the process. Security options could be used to make sure they were operated only by the member; you could also ensure the device was operable only within the Chamber or voting lobbies – as opposed to a pub nearby – and therefore maintain the opportunity for people to meet ministers.

Furthermore, if all votes were held at one time of the day, this would remove the need to rush backwards and forwards between offices in far-flung corners of the estate. On most sitting days, there is at least one vote and there can be four, five or more votes in a day. Time spent running to and fro and slowly filing through the "Aye" and "No" lobbies could be spent doing more useful things – like responding to constituents or scrutinising legislation.

I'd also like to see measures to prevent the "talking out" of private member's bills. Thanks to the absence of limits on speaking time, individuals are free to ramble on for hours and obstruct the progress of legislation.

An end to late-night sittings would also make working hours more family friendly for both MPs and their staff.

And a systematic overhaul of parliamentary language would help demystify the parliamentary processes. I'd like to see a far greater use of plain English – no more of the "Honourable Gentleman" this and the "Noble Baroness" that. Similarly, I'd make it compulsory to add an explanatory paragraph to explain the purpose of specific amendments to a bill, so that MPs and the public know what they're voting on.

While such reforms may seem modest, they are not unopposed. I have been regaled on many occasions about precisely why MPs should be allowed to drone on for hours, talking out legislation, and why Westminster should remain just as it is.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Parliament Act of 1911. Fast-forward exactly 100 years, and while it's clear that progress has been made, there's still a long way to go. As the political process struggles to achieve legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of voters, the task of ushering in a more effective and user-friendly parliament feels more urgent than ever.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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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.