Why we should vote down AV
The Alternative Vote will not solve our democratic problems. Electoral reformers should vote against AV in the forthcoming referendum.
AV is not proportional and can exaggerate landslide elections. In 1997, for example, it is probable that Blair would have had a majority of over 200 with AV. It exaggerates the tendency of our current system to direct voters into a two-sided competition. Smaller parties, such as the Greens, are no more likely to be elected than today.
AV is likely to derail reform. If AV proves durable, another disproportional system will be entrenched for decades, as it has been in Australia. If it does not, then the next step is far more likely to be back to the familiarity of first-past-the-post than forward to a proportional system. Where there's a cultural tradition of FPP the political reflex is to gravitate back to it. Two western provinces of Canada re-implemented FPP after using AV. To believe that AV must be supported to sustain the momentum of reform appears misguided.
AV gives minority parties greater electoral leverage but without democratic accountability. A minority party can barter with larger parties, urging its supporters to give the larger party their second preferences in return for policy concessions. Smaller parties should be heard, but transparently and after receiving a mandate.
Let's not fall foul of this referendum's false dilemma. The question on the ballot reads: should AV be used instead of FPP? Most reformers would say: "No, PR should."
Dr Thomas Lundberg
Eectoral systems specialist, University of Glasgow
Dr John Cox
Chandlers Ford, Hampshire
A 40 per cent threshold on turn-out for the referendum on AV will mean that if 25 per cent vote for and 24 per cent against, with 51 per cent staying at home, the proposal is approved. But with 25 per cent for and 10 per cent against, with 65 per cent staying home, it will fail.
The opponents of change, being happy with voting that does not represent the voters' votes, will no doubt seize on this and tell the supporters of the first-past-the-post ritual to stay at home – and win a clear mandate on a minority vote, true to their prime principle.
They could be asked to stop misusing the word "democratic" though; it really is unnecessarily offensive.
Parking cowboys and the law
David Ashton's letter (27 January) tells of the inefficiency or self-interest of the British Parking Association and some firms. He does not know the half of it. I know of lady pensioners reduced to tears for being a couple of minutes overdue in leaving a car park. A local paper carried the story of a man charged a minimum of £50 with threats of escalating costs and bailiffs for overstaying. Except in his case he was not parked, he was trying to exit the car park but could not because of congestion. It seems car park managers see their occupation as opportunities to make excessive profit from the naive and easily intimidated.
In fact, without going to court they have no authority to demand money. There are three ways they can proceed, one criminal – the Trespass with a Vehicle Act – and two civil – simple trespass and breach of contract. The first has to be initiated by "a constable in uniform" and would not normally apply. Simple trespass really needs proof of material loss and is virtually impossible to prove in these circumstances. Breach of contract is the only viable way of enforcing parking conditions.
However that comes within the scope of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 which state that "binding the consumer to terms with which he had no real opportunity of becoming acquainted before the conclusion of the contract" may be regarded as unfair. Another local case illustrated this, when inadequate signposting meant a lady entered and left a car park without knowing the company considered that she had entered a contract.
There may be those who have suffered at the hands of these operators who consider this way of working to be little short of extortion but they should remember that the Government is party to this because the DVLA provides drivers' personal data to these people. So it must be all right then.
Too diverse to be a Big Society
The Big Society idea has no chance of working in Britain. Britain's big cities are simply too diverse for such an idea to take off.
Ethnic diversity and social capital – the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups and organisations – are negatively correlated. This was confirmed by Professor Robert Putnam, who conducted his research in ethnically diverse Los Angeles and more homogeneous South Dakota. The research shows that the more ethnically diverse the place, the less people trust each other. In other words, diversity undermines trust, and hence the level of social capital
While David Cameron's Big Society agenda may work in a society with a homogeneous population such as rural Britain, it has little chance of working in big cities, where the level of social capital is continuously being undermined by the rising diversity.
RANDHIR SINGH BAINS
Gants Hill, Essex
Tom Sutcliffe's argument ("Secularism is the word Cameron is looking for", 8 February), that "the values we share as citizens of the country cannot be underwritten by any divine authority, because divine authorities have proved so quarrelsome and contradictory" has merit. But he cannot claim the majority of those from faiths other than Christian as its supporters.
All the anecdotal evidence (and there is no other) suggests that they tend not to demand the "fairness" he wants. Rather, they prefer Britain as in some sense a "Christian" country to a "secular" one.
This is not a defence of bishops in Parliament, or any other item on the agenda. It is a call for right orientation, that secularisers don't claim as supporters those who oppose them.
Fr Patrick Morrow
Anglican Chaplain and Interfaith Adviser
Brunel University, London.
Two years ago I discovered through DNA testing that my ancestors, both maternal and paternal, have been in the British Isles – without genetic adulteration from immigrants, I mightadd – since just after the last ice age.
I would therefore like to take this opportunity (as a pure-bred Briton) to welcome all recent immigrants to these islands (Beaker people, Bangladeshis, Saxons and so forth). Please work hard and pay your taxes and contribute to the land of my ancestors and my half-Turkish son.
This welcome does not extend to Nordic supremacists or Australian/ American tax avoiders. You can go back to where you came from.
If David Cameron is serious about a more integrated society he needs to reverse Tony Blair's deeply divisive and retrogressive promotion of faith schools. No school, whether in receipt of state funds or not, should be able to select on the basis of the parents' religion or to have a mono-religious morning assembly.
Coping with the cuts
I was concerned to read the letter from Mark Murton from Wallington (5 February) concerning the closure of a local charity because of "massive funding cuts". I would not want your readers to be left with the impression that Sutton Council is responsible for the potential closure of the Vine Project.
Please be assured that the council works very closely with the Vine Project and supports financially the handy person service which Mr Murton describes. The funding for this project is continuing into 2011-12 and in fact we are about to increase funding in the current year.
We have been in close dialogue with the trustees and chief executive in the light of their financial problems, which arise primarily from funding from another source not materialising, and we are in the process of identifying additional financial resources to enable the organisation to carry on providing a supported volunteer programme and furniture recycling project to the borough's residents.
Cllr Colin Stears
Executive Member for Adult Social Services and Health,
London Borough of Sutton
Reagan's idea of freedom
It is said the Americans don't get irony. Perhaps Rupert Cornwell was testing this thesis in his eulogy to Ronald Reagan (5 February), asserting that Reagan has been vindicated and that he understood a central truth, "that Communism is bad, freedom is good".
That would be the freedom to be ruled by dictators who served US economic and political interests; the freedom to have one's government subverted and overthrown if it didn't serve those interests; the freedom to be hunted down by US-trained death squads; the freedom to be tortured and murdered by CIA-trained and financed torturers and murderers; the freedom of the CIA to assassinate at will; freedom from pesky democratic politicians, trade unionists, human rights activists, nuns, priests and bishops.
Yes, Reagan has been vindicated all right. Let's all drink a toast to that centenary.
How to tell the Kates apart
To inform John Naylor of Haifa (letter, 8 February), Kate Middleton is to marry Prince William and should one day become Queen of the United Kingdom and its remaining dominions.
Her future father-in-law has said he will be Protector of the right to worship all faiths and, no doubt, her husband will adopt the same stance. She will have a life of provision rather than privilege (in my view) but will be expected to undertake immense charity duties among other national roles.
Kate Moss is known for some notable fashion work and going to parties.
I trust this helps.
R W McMillan
Stoke on Trent
The world of Clarkson
S Ramirez Zambrana justifiably objects to the comment by the Top Gear presenters, "Imagine waking up and being a Mexican!" (letters, 8 February). But how about waking up and realising you are Jeremy Clarkson? Now that would be truly shocking. Mind you, I believe there is a clinic in Switzerland that can assist in such cases.
Am I allowed, in these post Clarkson/Mexico days, to give a hearty welcome to Stefaan Engels, who has run 365 marathons in a year, to the illustrious ranks of famous Belgians?
The victims of stammering
Professor Chris Barton (letter, 3 February) has had an easy experience of living with a stammer. I have had a stammer most of my life and have found some people, young and old, trying to rush me to get the words out or starting to stammer back at me. Stammerers are the real sufferers and not the listeners, because they must cope with the problem that they may have to change what they say to avoid stammering.
West Bromwich, West Midlands
My father died in 1991 and was cremated at Redditch. We scattered his ashes in the crematorium grounds a few months later. I believe he would have wholeheartedly agreed with the scheme to harness energy to heat the local leisure centre (report, 7 February). I certainly approve 100 per cent myself. What an innovative and sensible use of resources.
Perspectives on the forest sell-off
National Trust cannot take over
Congratulations to Peter Marren for his excellent feature "The Woodlanders" (3 February). Coalition policy with respect to the Forestry Commission can only be described as founded on wilful ignorance of almost every aspect of that organisation.
For the minister, Caroline Spelman, to suggest that private owners and charitable bodies, including the National Trust, are in a position to know how best to manage the public forest estate is absurd. The Forestry Commission has set a standard they cannot hope to equal.
The trust is already overstretched, not least in the difficult endeavour to purchase and protect what remains of beautiful coastal land around Britain, a campaign that has been operating with varying degrees of success since the 1950s. Why load the National Trust with yet more responsibility when the Forestry Commission is doing an excellent job at a cost of 30p a year for each person in the country?
Estate must stay together
Our forests are "whole wondrous ecosystems full of scents, birdsong, light and shade" (Nature Studies, 4 February) and "commercial conifer plantations which are dark, silent places largely devoid of wildlife" (letter, 7 February).
Both descriptions can be applied to the forests managed on our behalf by the Forestry Commission. The differences underlie the Government's approach of splitting and stripping the assets.
After sale or lease the income from conifer forests would go to private companies, there would be little hope of their ecosystems being enhanced without grant incentives, and receipts from sales and leases would be applied elsewhere.
On their own, the heritage forests and community woodlands would be divided up and generally have insufficient sustainable income and resources to maintain or improve conservation.
The forests should be kept under one management umbrella with diverse, balanced and complementary objectives.
Don't rely on legal safeguards
The proposed "sell-off" of Forestry Commission (FC) woodlands in England has to be exposed for the sham that it is.
Ministers state that public access to forests will be protected, as will the ecology and environmental matters. This is true in so far as access on foot in most FC woodland is protected under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. Statutory protection existing through the Wildlife and Countryside Act and other legislation does exist but requires policing. The FC can be relied on to ensure compliance, working in partnership with the environmental agencies and others such as the RSPB. However, private sector timber companies are in forestry for profit and anything that would add to the overheads will be at risk.
Forestry Commission bike trails, for instance, are free, and their maintenance, daily safety inspections, publicity and so on provide just one example of positive proactive management. The private sector might be expected to keep the high-profile facilities open but charge for their use. Many bike trails and the waymarked footpath network can expect to be quietly "downsized" unless the Coalition is willing to provide funding.
I know from experience that the mechanisms proposed to transfer commercial woodlands to the private sector will be complex, expensive to manage and unlikely to work in the public interest.
Already job losses in the Forestry Commission have been announced. Many of these jobs are likely to be in those work areas where the greatest public benefit in the woodland estate is derived.
The public must vigorously defend their forests before they find the gates being locked against them.
Tax breaks for the rich
In all of the debate and argument about the Government's proposed sell-off of our forests, I have seen little comment on the tax benefits of forestry ownership.
These include: tax-free income from the sales of felled timber or the value of the timber if the forest is sold; 100 per cent relief from inheritance tax on the value of the forest if it is owned for two years before death, as opposed to seven years for other assets; and a concession to pay inheritance tax back over 10 years interest-free if death occurs within two years.
Would it be too cynical to suggest that, in selling the nation's forests, the Government is creating a nice tax-avoidance opportunity for its rich friends?