How will Cameron solve his prisoners' votes headache?

Ministers deny that they are planning to introduce votes for prisoners. But they still need to respond to the European court's ruling.

David Cameron once memorably declared that the thought of giving prisoners the vote made him "physically ill" but, as he later conceded, the government will have to "sort this out one way or the other". The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled as long ago as 2004 that the UK's blanket ban on prisoners voting was illegal and repeated appeals against its decision have failed.

With just a month left until the deadline for the government to respond, today's Guardian reports that ministers are planning a draft bill to introduce limited prisoner voting rights in order to comply with the court's ruling. An announcement will reportedly be made after the police commissioner elections on 15 November. Conservative MPs, unsurprisingly, have reacted with fury to the news. Within hours of the Guardian story being published, Nick de Bois, Douglas Carswell, Stewart Jackson, Zac Goldsmith and others took to Twitter to reaffirm their opposition to the move. De Bois tweeted: "Sitting working with 5 other Cons MPs - if reports of prisoner voting rights are accurate then that's 6 MPs who won't vote for it". In February 2011, of course, no fewer than 234 MPs voted to keep the ban on prisoners voting, with just 22 opposed.

The government has responded this morning by categorically denying that it is planning to bring forward a bill, with one cabinet source telling the BBC: "It is completely untrue. It's not happening. Its complete nonsesnse." The Prime Minister, we are told, continues to believe that "when people go to prison, they lose their right to vote". But this doesn't alter the fact that the government will have to respond in some form to the ECHR ruling by late-November. So, how could it do so? Tory MP Dominic Raab has previously argued that ministers could simply ignore the ruling, with little prospect of the UK being fined by the European Court or ordered to withdraw from it. But the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, is known believe that, after the failure of successive appeals, the government has no choice but to comply with Strasbourg's demands. Expect Tory MPs to challenge Cameron to make it clear where he stands when PMQs begins later today.

David Cameron visits Wormwood Scrubs Prison earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.