This article is from the April issue of Total Politics
A few weeks ago, a handful of MPs sat in the Commons chamber, while just a couple of hundred yards away, in the often-overlooked Westminster Hall, almost 80 MPs crammed in for a debate on cycling safety. Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert led the landmark three-hour session, one of the most well-attended Westminster Hall debates ever. For this, he received numerous nominations for MP of the Month.
But his interest in cycling did not begin this year. He became co-chairman of the cycling all-party parliamentary group soon after being elected in 2010, and writes about his love of cycling for this month’s Hinterland (p80). Huppert laughs: “I expect I’m the only MP who cycled away from their count.”
He has not been alone in his efforts – and praises The Times’ Cities Fit For Cycling campaign, which was launched after journalist Mary Bowers was left in a coma following a collision with a lorry just outside the newspaper’s offices.
“When I saw The Times’ cycling campaign, I thought there was an opportunity to increase the pressure on the government to take this more seriously,” says Huppert.
He tabled an early day motion to congratulate the paper on its campaign. “That then acted as a tool to get constituents to write to their MPs. This helped to get the backbench debate.”
The night before the Westminster Hall debate, he joined 2,000 cyclists on a ‘flash ride’ to Parliament. “It was a powerful event. We met afterwards on the Duke of York steps, and just to see that space filled with cyclists was astonishing.”
Equally astonishing was the support for Huppert’s debate. “We had somewhere between 70 and 80 MPs attending, including three ministers and two whips who didn’t have to be there. The fact that the leader of the House [Sir George Young] spent an hour and a half there says a lot.”
More than 27,000 cyclists have been killed or seriously injured on British streets in the past 10 years. The Times aims to improve cycle safety in cities with an eight-point manifesto: suggestions include a national audit of cycling, to find out how cyclists are killed or injured, the Highways Agency earmarking two per cent of its budget for cycle routes, and a default speed limit of 20mph in residential areas where there are no designated cycle lanes.
Huppert is realistic that some of these will be harder to achieve than others. “Some can be done quite quickly – cycling champions, for example. There’s no reason why that can’t be a role in each council. But rebuilding all the badly-designed junctions takes time. There has been a political will… but we have to secure it in every part of the country.”
Huppert claims 30,000 people have expressed support for the main points of The Times campaign. “There were some stunning speeches from MPs during the debate,” he says. “Oliver Colvile MP was a bit of a star, with his description of a ‘fat man on a bicycle’.” Other highlights included Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston confessing: “Some 30 years ago, I fell in love on a tandem.”
More seriously, the government pick-up from the campaign has been encouraging. “There hasn’t been any flat-out opposition,” says the Lib Dem MP, “[but] some people simply don’t think cycling is an important thing to discuss. The turnout of parliamentarians has shown that’s not the case.”
Party-leader support has also been positive. Nick Clegg, Huppert highlights, has been “extremely supportive”. “I haven’t heard anything directly from Ed Miliband, but Labour did a follow-up cycle summit.”
So, what next for the campaign? “A couple of people on the backbench business committee have indicated they thought there would be a very strong case for having another chamber debate,” reveals Huppert. He’s also writing to the prime minister: “We’d like a formal meeting [with him] to see what else we can do. He agreed to support the campaign when I asked him at PMQs. We’ll follow up on that.”
Around 24 per cent of adults cycle to college or work in Cambridge, and Huppert wants it to be that way in every city. “There are parts of the country where it’s not seen as a natural thing to do. You don’t have to wear Lycra to cycle to a meeting.”
Jo Johnson - Conservative MP for Orpington
Jo Johnson’s constituent Chris Tappin was extradited to Texas for a crime that he insists he did not commit, so the Conservative MP was determined to highlight the plight of the 65-year-old. Johnson received nominations for pursuing the issue of the extradition, both inside and outside the House. He recently asked the prime minister what steps he was taking to reform the US-UK extradition treaty. Cameron responded that the government was “considering” the Sir Scott Baker report on extradition arrangements. “A proper, sober, thoughtful review needs to take place,” said the PM. Johnson continues to campaign. “We are now in the hands of the US system,” he admitted. But writing to Tappin’s daughter, Johnson added: “I’m keeping up the pressure here.”
Anas Sarwar - Labour MP for Glasgow Central
Anas Sarwar received nominations from fellow MPs for his work as deputy leader of the party in Scotland. Described by one paper as “the brightest of the party’s bright young things”, Sarwar was elected at the tender age of 29, having been a party member since the age of 16. He is now acting with Johann Lamont in the fight against Scottish independence. Colleagues praise him for his “strategic thinking” and “political savvy” in tackling the tricky cross-party arguments. Pro-union parties recently met to discuss how to preserve Scotland’s place in the UK. Sarwar’s role alongside Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie and Tory constitution spokesman David McLetchie was noted. “He recognises the need for co-ordination,” said one Labour MP. “He’ll go far.”
Sarah Newton - Conservative MP for Truro and Falmouth
Sarah Newton has been fighting for the upkeep of Truro Cathedral in her constituency – and her hard work has been noted. She has used multiple opportunities in the chamber to raise the problem of cathedral insurance. Tony Baldry, who represents the Church Commissioners in Parliament, praised her campaign, saying that she is “absolutely right” to raise the issue. She also sought to help the local community raise funds to protect Truro Cathedral, securing an assurance that the Church Commissioners will give the historic building “£348,000 towards the operation and running of the dean and chapter”.
Newton explained that the Cathedral plays “a vital role in the city, not only through its ministry but [also] through its contribution to quality of life and the local economy”.