Nicky Morgan voted against same-sex marriage partly because of her Christian faith. Photo: Getty
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Why does an MP’s moral code matter more than anyone else’s?

Faith doesn’t justify voting for inequality or taking the rights of minorities.

They say politics and morals don’t always go together. With new education secretary Nicky Morgan caught between her self-declared Christian beliefs and her responsibility to do her job, it seems (for albeit different reasons) that old adage might be right.

What’s an MP to do with their personal moral code? I imagine it’s genuinely difficult to leave your private faith at home (your concerns over gay relationships aptly in the bedroom, your desire to force women to give birth slotted on the kitchen table.) The problem is, by the nature of being an MP, your private faith is actually rather public: be it for abortion, gay rights, or assisted dying – when it comes to “moral legislation”, you get to inflict your personal beliefs on the rest of the country.  

It’s not as if these things don’t matter. Morgan is currently a women’s minister who doesn’t believe in a woman’s right to control her own body, and an education secretary and equalities minister briefed to tackle homophobic bullying in schools who’s voted to try and ensure gay children don’t grow up to be equal.

That she based those votes on her reading of a religious text as well as the legislation does not make it better. Even in a widely secular country, if a MPs’ belief comes from religion, we still seem expected to make special allowances for it. An atheist minister voting against government gay rights legislation would be a disloyal homophobe. Morgan doing it was her following her “Christian beliefs”. We don’t seem to let this happen to other parts of government. Why is policy about sex or love different than that on education or the economy? If Iain Duncan Smith told me he found a page at the back of the Bible that said God wanted the lame shipped onto the Work Programme, I’d be no more inclined to support it or respectfully disagree. Religion doesn’t make a bad policy better. Faith doesn’t justify voting for inequality or taking the rights of minorities. 

It reminds me of the Christian Relate counsellor going to court over refusing to do what he was paid for if it involved gay couples. Except, he was sacked rather than promoted. The judge at the time said legislation for the protection of views held purely on religious grounds couldn’t be justified; it was irrational, he said, and “also divisive, capricious and arbitrary”. Our MPs, apparently, work by different standards.

It’s more common that I think we often notice. Set to be debated in the Lords this week, the government has already said it’ll allow MPs a free vote when the Assisted Dying Bill gets to them. This is standard for abortion votes. Being a Member of Parliament sees your opinion on other people’s bodies matter – and when it comes to “policies of conscience” you get to listen to yours and use it to tell the rest of us what to do.  

It translates to how parts of the media report on the policies. This week began with the Daily Express reporting “MP outrage” over one such issue: the case of an abortion at 39 weeks. It was an entirely legal medical procedure as the pregnancy either carried “a grave risk to the life of the mother” or had “a severe abnormality” but this sort of detail wasn’t overly important. What mattered was how our MPs felt about it.

“We have a Jekyll and Hyde approach to disability,” said Labour MP Rob Flello. “On one hand the entire country can be united in praise of paralympians. On the other we can permit the abortion of children at nine months simply for the crime of having a disability. This law desperately needs some sanity.”

No matter that none of that makes any sort of sense, Flello gets to say those words out loud – and (thank you, democracy), if legislation to reduce abortion rights got to Parliament, vote nonsense into law. 

It isn’t just the privilege we give religion that’s the problem, it’s the lack of respect we give equality. I for one blame democracy. And society. Every last one us. It’s only when we allow the right to control our own lives to be up for debate that what an MP thinks of it matters. How is my right to marry or have a child or not even a legal question at this point? Take politics out of a woman’s body, a gay honeymoon, or even a deathbed. Nicky Morgan and her ilk can then believe whatever they like.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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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.