PMQs Sketch: Ed smirks as Dave smarts

Miliband declares NHS is Cameron's "poll tax".

It must have been the third pledge of David Cameron's support in as many days which reduced the colour of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley's face to that of his hair as he was led out for humiliation and sacrifice at Prime Ministers Questions.

Officially he was parked on the front benches to prove that Dave was still on his side, but having been deliberately jammed between a rock and a hard place -- in this case George Osborne and Ken Clarke (maybe more of an immovable object) -- he had all the look of someone invited to observe his own funeral.

Although he was just out of slap range it was clear that he had been shuffled up the Government front bench to at least share the smelly brown stuff that was about to be poured on his leader for stupidly trusting him with the National Health Service. And poured it was. Ed Miliband has had his own ups and downs, as this weekly bear pit deservedly chronicled, but he's been on a roll since realizing that Dave appears to be out of his depth.

The first clue to Prime Ministerial uncertainty is how quickly the volume control is turned up during what passes for the answers part of PMQs . The second clue, and that which gives most satisfaction to the massed ranks on Labour's benches, is the sudden and unseasonal change in the colour of Dave's skin above the collar.

This is referred to as the "crimson tide" and emerged so swiftly today that one would not have been surprised if reports had come in that the Thames Barrier had suddenly been raised a few minutes after 12.

Dave was dead in the water as soon as Ed mentioned Monday's summit at Number 10 on the reform of the NHS which seemed to have excluded anybody who worked in it.

The whippers-in on the Tory side tried desperately to get their own volume up to cover the PM's embarrassment but Dave flailed about from the start.

Giving Ed as much of the finger (index) as he could the Prime Minister then tried a new, if novel, approach to PMQs by proceeding to ask himself questions on Ed's behalf and then answering them, thereby breaking two parliamentary traditions. At one stage even the hapless Health Secretary tried to come to Dave's aid and was lucky not be mugged by his minders.

Speaker Bercow intervened occasionally to point out to both sides that continued caterwauling would not go down well with the public but MPs, confident that there constituents had far better things to do that watch PMQs, continued to ignore him. (He went on to keep them back in class at lunch-time for bad behaviour).

The Prime Minister had been slipped a copy of Labour's game plan for this afternoon's latest debate on the NHS but try as he may it was obvious that Ed was not going to be diverted by a few uncomfortable facts.

And it was now that Ed launched his own recently sharpened finger in the direction of the Prime Minister and declaimed: "this will become his poll tax".

Whether it was the word tax or the word poll, the face of the other Ed, Shadow Chancellor and part-time choirmaster of the hoi polloi, broke into the sort of smile which has led the PM to describe him as the most unpleasant man in Parliament.

Having successfully eviscerated Dave it seemed a shame that parliamentary tradition meant that Labour could not immediately operate in the patient sitting next to him, Deputy PM Nick Clegg.

With his own Coalition involvement in NHS reforms looking certain to end in tears he had spent PMQs looking like someone waiting for an operation on his piles. He now seems certain for surgery at his own spring conference in three weeks time.

As Ed smirked and Dave smarted it was clear to all that this one will run and run and run even after the Health Secretary has a mysterious accident and has to go private to recover.

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.