John Bercow at the 2014 State Opening of Parliament. Photo: Getty
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John Bercow is becoming dangerously outflanked over Commons clerk row

The Speaker’s appointment of Carol Mills, the secretary of the department of parliamentary services in Canberra, has caused resistance even from his allies.

John Bercow has always been the marmite man – MPs either love him or hate him, with very few sitting on the fence. It’s been unusual, then, to see him as such a uniting force over the past few days. Unfortunately for the Speaker, the common cause has been the opposition to his proposed appointment of Carol Mills as the House of Commons clerk.

It would be easy to think that the latest furore is part of the usual rough and tumble that comes when you have a Speaker who is disliked personally by a sizeable number of MPs from the governing party. But, in truth, the Mills row has taken Bercow into new and dangerous territory.

Since his election five years ago, Bercow has swiped aside any challenges to his position, notwithstanding the fervent desire of many Tory MPs to unseat him. His saving grace so far has been that, amid all the personal sniping, he had been thought to be doing a pretty decent job, particularly in standing up for backbenchers’ rights. Many MPs also recognised that Bercow seemed to have a genuine love for Parliament, even if it did come second to the sound of his own voice.

That is why his proposed appointment of Mills, who is widely thought to lack the necessary experience to do the job of clerk properly, is so incendiary. This time, the resistance is not coming from the usual suspects. Instead, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who even went as far as proposing Bercow for re-election as Speaker after the 2010 poll, is one of those speaking out. Margaret Beckett – who initially ran against Bercow as Speaker, but whose supporters flocked to Bercow en masse once she withdrew – is another who has turned against his proposal.

Anyone who thinks that this public resistance is likely to make him change his mind is in for a rude awakening, not least because to back down now would be a humiliating reversal. Bercow's instinct is always to dig in his heels when he faces opposition. Like a cornered animal, he snarls and lashes out – there’s certainly no chance of him rolling over for someone to tickle his tummy.  But this is a real political weakness, because in seeking to punish anyone who disagrees with him, rather than trying to broker a middle way, he only makes the situation worse for himself. From such small acorns of dislike, great enmities grow. No wonder that, having originally fallen out back in 2005, David Cameron still, as one aide told me, “spits blood” at the mention of Bercow’s name.

The Mills episode threatens to highlight the Speaker’s combative side to a whole new audience of MPs, and could well erode significant support amongst members who had been won over. Meanwhile, it will act as a lightning rod for the “anyone but Bercow” camp, who have been waiting for a moment to pounce, and could well make some of their more ambivalent colleagues think that there is a point to what they’re saying. After all, the appointment of Mills comes across as a power grab, which threatens to undermine the institution Bercow is meant to love.

Until now, I’ve always thought that talk of unseating Bercow has been over-hyped, but the Speaker is becoming dangerously outflanked. If MPs think he can’t be trusted to protect the Commons, and with a group of plotters waiting in the wings, he could be vulnerable when the House votes to re-elect him after the 2015 election. He will be particularly worried if the Conservatives win a majority. If they do, David Cameron might be tempted to capitalise on these concerns by taking the marmite man and making him toast.

Bobby Friedman is the author of “Bercow, Mr Speaker: Rowdy Living in the Tory Party

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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.