PMQs review: Cameron's Andrew Mitchell problem isn't over

The Chief Whip gave the saga new life by shouting that he "didn't" swear at the police.

It is a measure of how weak Andrew Mitchell's position is that David Cameron couldn't summon a word in defence of his Chief Whip at today's PMQs. Challenged by Ed Miliband to say whether Mitchell (who sat visibly trembling on the frontbench) used the words attributed to him by the police ("fucking plebs"), Cameron merely reiterated that the Chief Whip had apologised and that his apology had been accepted. He said nothing to suggest that Mitchell is secure in his post, simply stating that the government "will get on with the big issues". The Chief Whip didn't help matters by shouting "I didn't" when Miliband claimed that he swore at the police, inviting the press to again ask what he did say.

Miliband, who had earlier referenced Boris Johnson's call for those who swear at the police to be arrested, quipped: "It's a night in the cell for the yobs, it's a night at the Carlton Club for the Chief Whip". He later added: "They say that I practice class war and they go round calling people 'plebs'." But the Labour leader slipped up when he claimed that "everyone else is losing their jobs, the Chief Whip is keeping his". Given today's positive employment figures (which Miliband noted earlier in the session), it wasn't the best attack line to use and Cameron was swift to capitalise. "He wrote those questions yesterday before unemployment fell," the PM observed. Miliband also again falsely implied that all millionaires will benefit from the abolition of the 50p tax rate (he should have said those who earn £1m a year), a line that gives the media a licence to probe his own personal worth.

The session ended rowdily with Cameron baldly refusing to answer Labour MP Chris Bryant's question on why he had not released all of the text messages between himself and Rebekah Brooks. Cameron insisted that this was because Bryant had refused to apologise for previously quoting unpublished material from the Leveson inquiry (some of which had contained untrue claims about him), but it made him look like a man with something to hide.

Update: Tory vice chairman Michael Fabricant, who resigned as a government whip in last month's reshuffle, has taken to Twitter to confirm that Mitchell did intervene during PMQs to claim that he "didn't" swear at the police.

As I wrote above, this will only increase the pressure on Mitchell to finally reveal what he did say.

Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting on Whitehall. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.