The Invisible (Tory) Man. Montage: Dan Murrell/NS
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Commons Confidential: Jeremy Hunt takes to the wards

Plus: Who on earth is Gareth Johnson?

Nurses robbed of wage rises have a new little helper in the wards: the robber himself, Jeremy Hunt. The Health Secretary boasts of working on the NHS front line in his Surrey constituency. A local Tory leaflet carries a photograph of him in a fluorescent pinny, heroically pushing a trolley. Hunt, who is about as popular as MRSA with staff, says he volunteers on Fridays at the Haslemere, Royal Surrey and Frimley Park hospitals. He finds the work “extremely rewarding” – a phrase that NHS staff never use about their employment under Hunt’s tenure.

Tough guy, Tony Benn. The former party chair Ian McCartney, the diminutive one-time leader of Little Labour, recalled going to talk about flooding in the Kent coalfield with Benn, who was then the energy secretary. Benn broke his ankle falling down the stairs on his way out of the Department of Energy building. The lefty hobbled in to cabinet and went to hospital later. Whenever the pair subsequently met, Benn would joke to McCartney, “Don’t come near me.” Whatever else he did, Benn nailed the old canard that lefties lack humour.

Have you heard of Gareth Johnson? I hadn’t. Apparently he’s a Tory MP. In four years, I can’t recall seeing or hearing the invisible member for Dartford in the House of Commons. Perhaps our paths just never cross. Further investigation has discovered that he is lobby fodder, hardly ever rebelling, and tops up his £66,396 salary with an £800 monthly sideline as a solicitor. How many more nonentities are there in the place?

Grumbling is heard in the Labour ranks after a one-line whip was imposed for a vote against disability cuts but there was a two-liner on badgers. Old lags mutter the welfare of people should be a higher priority than that of animals. True, but saving Mr Brock is a cost-free manifesto pledge – radicalism on the cheap. The disabled come with a price tag and, my unhappy lefty snout complained, they don’t generate as much sympathy. Which is tragic if true.

Leafing through the leatherbound book signed by guest speakers at Press Gallery luncheons in the Mock-Gothic Fun Palace, an informant deciphered on the front page the scribble of Richard Beeching, the British Railways chair who shut thousands of stations. Presumably Dr Beeching axed the previous volume.

Adam Afriyie has eclectic tastes. A snout spied the Tory drinking champagne and Diet Coke at the plush Corinthia Hotel, close to Westminster. I hasten to add for the benefit of the snooty Nicholas Soames, a puffed-up grandee who seems to treat the council-estate-made millionaire as an inferior, that Afriyie sipped from separate glasses.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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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.

***

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.