Labour MPs do not regret the outcome of the Syria vote

The party was right to demand full evidence should precede any decision - Cameron was in a rush to prove himself a world leader.

As world leaders are gathering in St Petersburg, the dust is still settling in Parliament after the sudden recall of the Commons last Thursday and the debate on Syria.

In an attempt to hide his own failings, David Cameron has tried to argue that Ed Miliband U-turned last week by opposing military intervention and that Labour MPs now regret the outcome of that vote.

Both of these claims are simply untrue.

The Labour leader and shadow foreign secretary made it clear back in May that serious questions remained unanswered about David Cameron’s suggestion of sending British-made arms to the Syrian opposition. So it should have come as no surprise that our approach to any military intervention would be similarly measured.

The truth is that the outcome of last week's vote reflected great unease among the public about future military intervention in Syria, given the experience of both Iraq and Afghanistan, but was also a product of the arrogance and incompetence of the Conservative leadership. Having worked in the government whip's office, I cannot imagine how they got themselves into that mess.

Labour believes it is crucial that the government plays an active role in finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. A new diplomatic initiative is urgently needed. Cameron and other leaders should insist that this is put on the formal agenda of the G20. We have also called for the establishment of a contact group on Syria which would involve countries which have taken different sides in the conflict.

The debate about military action risks overshadowing the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria and the wider region. The UN estimates that over two million Syrian refugees have now fled to neighbouring countries. The UN and its partners in June appealed to the international community for £3bn for Syria relief operations this year. Yet only 40 per cent of this fund has so far been received. As the second largest donor, the British government is well-placed to put pressure on others to deliver on their promises.

Labour MPs are extremely concerned about the horrific situation in Syria. None of the colleagues that I have spoken to this week regret demanding that the full evidence should precede any decision and that we weigh carefully the case for military intervention. Nor was voting against the government motion last week a decision they took lightly. Cameron was in a rush to prove himself a world leader but he fell down through characteristically abysmal party management, the lack of a compelling argument and poor judgement.

Stop the War protesters demonstrate outside parliament before the vote on possible military action against Syria on 29 August. Photograph: Getty Images.

Emma Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and former shadow Europe minister.

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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.