Former Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock appearing on BBC News.
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The Mike Hancock saga shows that politicians can't be judged by the law alone

Natural justice, not merely the law, must be seen to be applied in cases of wrongdoing.

There’s a great Rumpole of the Bailey story, where our eponymous hero, as ever defending not prosecuting, calls on the jury to administer, not the law, but justice for the accused, who is clearly guilty of the crime for which he is charged – but for entirely understandable reasons. I am often reminded of this, and ponder whether the same shouldn’t apply to elected politicians, only in reverse?

There’s nothing very positive to say about the Mike Hancock saga from anyone’s point of view and no one, save the complainant, comes out of this with any sort of credit. But the whole saga raises one interesting point: should our public representatives sit, not above the law, but in fact below it?

The major difficulty for the Lib Dems in the Hancock case, as with many of the recent cases of inappropriate behavior (on a wildly ranging scale it should be said) is the fact that often not only were the charges not legally proven, but the authorities felt that there was insufficient evidence to even start the full legal process. And therefore, as the accused are (rightly) innocent until proven guilty, they feel no need to resign nor often face any penalty under party disciplinary procedures, however much many folk feel they should. And indeed, when calls are made for elected officials to do the decent thing, their supporters more often than not revert to the clarion call that this wouldn’t be justice. But of course, what they mean is, this wouldn’t be the law.

Now, I’m not advocating that there should be some sort of built-in lower level of proof required for politicians than the rest of us; that would hardly be liberal. But I do wonder if everyone connected with politics should accept that not only does the law need to be applied to every case, but natural justice needs to be not just applied – but to be seen to be applied. And falling on your sword for the greater good, not of the party you are a member of, but of the electorate you are there to represent, might be the best service you can do.

Sure, it’s a pipe dream. Certainly it opens up the door to wrongful accusations becoming just another political weapon. Of course, on many occasions, the innocent will suffer – we all know that in politics, you can get smoke without fire. But it might just be a price worth paying.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.