PMQs Sketch: May, they're behind you!

It's not Labour who are furious at May, it's those in her own party.

There is nothing like a good execution to get them going in the House of Commons but today, sadly, there was indeed nothing like it.

On the surface the plan was simply to further the destabilisation of the Government with fresh attacks on Home Secretary Theresa May over her summer-time immigration policy, which critics say involved stamping the word "enter" on the forehead of anyone who turned up.

Indeed following accusations that she had been economical with the truth at an appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee, the tumbril, so recently used to cart off Liam Fox, had been oiled and greased for another outing. Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz had slipped easily into undertaker tones as he toured the studios looking for victims and issuing the tricoteuse with new needles.

So it should have been with some trepidation that Theresa May entered the Commons chamber for Prime Ministers Questions. But 18 months in a post which has spelled the end of many a political career must have toughened her up for she entered under full sail, white top crackling, to face her accusers. But just in case she wavered Dave had sandwiched her between William Hague and George Osborne to stop any attempt to make a run for it.

Outside in the real world Ladbrokes had cut her price on being the next to exit the cabinet from 16/1 to 7/1 and she must have known half her colleagues, furious at anybody with a foreign accent being allowed into Britain, would have already been down the bookies. With lunch beckoning there was a fair amount of drooling going on at the thought of a slice of well-cooked Home Secretary as a starter.

Dave had let it be known that he had "full confidence" in Theresa May thereby leaving her open to instant dismissal if necessary, although the departure of two cabinet ministers within a month might be judged somewhat careless on his side. He also has this problem with women voters who seem to see more of the smarm than he would like, so losing Theresa would not be advantageous here either. Final confirmation, if it were needed, that the Government was once again up to its eyeballs in it came from the loud hoots of support from those behind her, happy at the thought there may soon be a vacancy.

Then up stood Ed Miliband and it all went a bit pear shaped. Immigration has always been dodgy ground to say the least for the Labour Party and it was clear from the outset that Dave was going to remind him of this. Ed had clearly spent hours with his advisors working out what to say and how to say it but whoever plays the Dave part needs replacing.

He had obviously decided to avoid concentrating on the claims by Borders Boss Brodie Clark that Theresa May might be telling porkies about whathad gone on although this was the only game in town. Instead he tried to skewer him on numbers getting in rather than the complaints from staff that cuts meant they could not do the job. As Ed accused Dave of dodging responsibility, being shambolic and out of touch, Tory cheers grew as they realised their man was getting away with it again and lunch was only minutes away.

Labour raised their volume in defence leaving Speaker Bercow to charge both sides with "shouting their heads off ". And that is what Ed seemed to be doing as his session with the PM drew to a close. Dave is an easy target at the weekly confrontation as all Labour has to do is wind him up and let him go. But Ed gives the impression of someone who learns his lines and is not too good on going with the flow. Labour may be 5% ahead of the Tories in the polls but bearing mind the state of the economy should be expecting more. Ed's own popularity out in the country, not to mention among his own MPs, could do with a lot of improvement.

It was left to Dave to round off his session with a reminder that Labour guru and Miliband backer Lord Glasman had said Labour had "lied" about immigration. Theresa May relaxed. Outside students protested and the eurozone continued to collapse. Next week MPs are on holiday.

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

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.