It's John Bercow's fifth year as Speaker. Photo: Getty
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Five years of the Speaker: what has John Bercow changed in parliament?

Sunday marked the five-year anniversary of John Bercow's time serving as Speaker of the House of Commons, having been elected to the office on 22 June 2009. What's he done in that time?

"Just because I’m a little chap it doesn’t mean I haven’t got a big ambition," John Bercow once said. And so it proved true, as he became the 157th Speaker of the House of Commons in June 2009 at the age of 46.

Known for chastising MPs for behaving childishly in the chamber, warning that it is off-putting to the public, he has complained in a letter to the three party leaders about the "yobbery and public school twittishness” of politicians, particularly during PMQs. His outrage at their behaviour often manifests itself in the Speaker himself hollering across the Commons, and many – particularly backbench Tories – have been infuriated by his interjections.

However, many of the new crop of MPs, particularly 2010-intake Conservatives, appreciate the way he doesn’t discriminate by seniority when calling MPs to speak in the House, letting newbies as well as old-timers have their say.

And in spite of his tendency to rile the backbenches, he has been a bit of a moderniser in Westminster, and not least because he refuses to wear the traditional robes of the office.

Sunday marked his fifth "birthday" as Speaker, so it seems a good time to look back at what Bercow has changed.

 

  • Reinvigorating Urgent Questions

It’s a bit technical, but Bercow has resurrected the system of granting Urgent Questions. These are a way for any MP to petition the Speaker to demand that a department delivers one of its ministers to parliament to answer on an urgent matter that may have suddenly or unexpectedly occurred. Bercow has granted 177 of these so far, compared to the two granted in the previous speaker’s last year of office (2008-9).

 

  • Parliament helpline

Established this year following a run of stories in the press about bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff. It main purpose is to offer welfare support and confidential advice to MPs’ staffers.

 

  • A new Education Centre

This centre will allow the number of visitors to parliament for educational reasons to more than double from 45,000 to 95,000. It is primarily for children and students, and will open in 2015.

 

  • Parliament creche

In an unprecedented move that many MPs, male and female, continue to praise, Bercow set up a nursery in parliament, which has the capacity for 40 children of MPs, peers and other parliamentary staff.
 

  • Increasing outreach

The Speaker has been personally involved in parliament’s outreach work, going on over a hundred external outreach events across the country since being elected. He also does a lot for making parliament accessible, for example, recently inviting Newsround press-packers to watch and report on PMQs, and playing a tennis match with some visiting children in Westminster.

 

  • Reforming senior level recruitment

This includes for the first time publicly advertising for the role of Clerk of the House, and an open application process.

 

  • Equality networks

The Speaker has made some moves to improve women and minority representation in the Commons by creating four “workplace equality networks”. These are LGBT, disability, gender and race, ethnicity and cultural heritage.

 

  • Allowing an extra amendment to the Queen’s Speech in 2013

This is a change that the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy has pointed out, remarking that it “may be the most important ruling by a Speaker for decades”, and calling Bercow “less a constitutional monarch than a Commons Napoleon.” In May 2013, Bercow granted a third amendment to the Queen’s Speech, when prior to that, only two were ever allowed. It’s significant because it opens up the opportunity for a greater number of viewpoints to be expressed in the House.
 

He was elected to the Speaker’s office on a pledge to reform, and he has done so. The little man in the big chair has made some even bigger changes.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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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.