PMQs review: Miliband pounces on the Tories' women problem

The coalition made the Labour leader's point for him as it fielded an entirely male frontbench.

Rarely have the Tories gifted Ed Miliband a better attack line than today. A few days after the deselection of Anne McIntosh MP and the removal of Sally Morgan as chair of Ofsted (prompting Harriet Harman to declare "it's like raining men in the Tory party"), the government made the error of fielding an entirely male frontbench at today's PMQs. After sardonically asking Cameron how his vow to "lead on women's equality" was "going in the Conservative Party", it did not take Miliband long to seize on this point.  

"Mr Speaker, I do have to say a picture tells a thousand words," he quipped, and the camera panned to confirm his point. "I guess they didn’t let women into the Bullingdon Club either. He said a third of his ministers would be women, he’s nowhere near his target. In his cabinet, there are as many men who went to Eton or Westminster as there are women. Does he think it’s his fault that his party has a problem with women?"

After that, it no longer mattered what Cameron said in his defence: the image of an all-male frontbench (with McIntosh, ironically, one of just two women visible behind Cameron) will play terribly for the Tories on the news tonight. Labour, by contrast, had ensured that it had more women (10) than men (9) on its frontbench. 

In response, Cameron played the Thatcher card, boasting that it was his party that had the first (and only) female prime minister. But 24 years on from her resignation, this risks just reminding voters how little progress the Tories have made since (just 16 per cent of Conservative MPs are women compared to 31 per cent of Labour's). It also allowed Miliband to repeat his retort of choice whenever Cameron mentions a former Conservative PM: "unlike him, she was a Tory leader who won general elections". 

After this, elevating the issue above mere tokenism, he came to his key point: "the reason representation matters is because it shapes the policies a government introduces". Miliband noted that the gender pay gap had increased for the first time in five years as a result of the minimum wage losing value, the rise of zero hour contracts and the childcare crisis. "He runs his government like an old boys network!", he concluded. 

Throughout the exchange, Cameron gave the impression of wanting to talk about anything else: the Bellwin scheme to help flood-hit councils, the tube strike, Labour's Falkirk selection. But all attempts to change the subject were bound to fail as he stood before that remorselessly male frontbench.

Ed Miliband highlights the government's all-male frontbench at today's PMQs.

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.