Letters: Campaign for Democracy

For true political reform, the people must have a say
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The Independent Online

Over last weekend the Prime Minister announced that he was now in a position to move forward with significant constitutional reforms. The centre of his plans appears to be the establishment of a National Democracy Commission, which will have both ministers and "outsiders" sitting on it.

Haven't we been here before? Two years ago, on becoming Prime Minister, he published a radical Green Paper on the Governance of Britain that promised much and delivered little. After an initial fanfare it was put into cold storage. Now in a moment of political crisis the ideas it contained are being thawed out and we are to have a commission – but one which will still be controlled by the very same political elite who have lost the trust of the people in a catastrophic way.

A new settlement cannot be built on cosy fixes between the political classes. If the Prime Minister is serious about a new settlement for the country he has to show that he is willing to give power away and allow the general public to have a say in the shape of a new settlement. Without this bold step the Commission, along with his Green Paper, looks like political opportunism rather than principle. The Prime Minister should have an eye to his legacy, less than a year away from a general election. For a politician who has talked about a new constitutional settlement for decades, reforming British democracy could give him his place in history. But he can't do that if he does not reach out beyond Westminster.

Pam Giddy

Director, The Power Inquiry, London Se27

I am surprised to see that not one of the 14 contributors to "Change we can believe in" (21 May) suggested abolition of the whipping system. This would, I believe, be widely supported by the electorate as a step towards real democracy. Interest in elections would surely be increased in the knowledge that those elected could vote taking proper account of the perceived opinions of their constituents. W S Gilbert's Private Willis got it right over 100 years ago: "They have to leave their brains outside and vote just as their leaders tell 'em to."

Colin Maude

Skipton, North Yorkshire

MPs are victims of allowances lottery

There would not be a scandal if what MPs have spent on mortgage interest, crisps, duck houses and moats was their income. So what led them to think those extra allowances ranked as income? Answer: because Tony Blair, having set up an independent commission to advise how MPs pay could be taken out of politics and received the recommendation that they should be paid by reference to a grade in the Civil Service, lost his nerve because the one-off percentage increase would have been so great.

Instead, MPs were told they would be given additional allowances to make up the income difference. They felt safe as all claims were passed by the Fees Office. No wonder they got in a mess, because the aim of the exercise was how to get that extra money to them and not how to limit it for the benefit of the taxpayer.

It has been a lottery. Take David Cameron, who is said to be squeaky-clean because he only claimed mortgage interest up to the full amount available! However, if he had sold his second home at a profit, the Press would have been baying for his blood.

Our MPs deserve our greater understanding. The Daily Telegraph has done the nation a great disservice by its sensational coverage without fully explaining the background. The real culprit is Blair for his dishonest fudge producing a disaster waiting to happen. Add it to the Blair legacy.

Nevil Barker

London W11

Nadine Dorries claims that MPs were told that the the additional cost allowance was theirs by right, in lieu of a pay rise. If this was the case, MPs were not trying to deceive the Fees Office; instead, they were conspiring with them to deceive their constituents about how much an MP is actually paid.

She'd never have said that if it hadn't all come out: she'd have parroted the official line that MPs were simply reimbursed expenses necessarily incurred in the course of their jobs.

As for saying that Telegraph journalists are also guilty because they already knew about the system, what does she think they should have done before they had evidence? Publish and be sued for libel?

Charlotte Farmer


With less than 20 per cent of MPs being women, Westminster can barely afford to lose any female members of the House, least of all two within minutes of each other. But regrettable as the departure of a working mother from Parliament may be, Julie Kirkbride can hardly justify taking advantage of the taxpayer in the name of childcare.

Millions of British women today perform the difficult daily balancing act of juggling busy careers with young families. It is an expensive, time-consuming exercise, requiring significant personal compromises. The cost to women's professional prospects is well documented, as they are often faced with family-unfriendly employers who invariably favour their male and childless female counterparts. It is no coincidence that only 10 percent of directors of the UK's FTSE-100 firms are women. MPs are no different.

Unlike ordinary working mothers everywhere struggling to make ends meet though, Ms Kirkbride enjoys a generous salary and expenses system that has allowed her to subsidise her childcare arrangements at a cost of £50,000 to the public purse. While Ms Kirkbride is entitled to make adequate provision for her eight-year-old son, one wonders how many of the tax-paying parents who footed the bill could afford similar childcare for their own offspring. And more to the point, how many of them would find it acceptable to claim it on expenses.

Dr Christina Julios

Sessional Lecturer, Birkbeck, University of London

Julie Kirkbride would surely know that many of us carers do what we do for a taxable pittance. What she has done for her family is very noble, but that's not the issue. It's the fact that taxed carers, and others, have paid for it. When she sells this asset, I hope she will return the profit to where it belongs.

John Humphreys

Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire

It stretches the imagination almost to infinity when Mr Brown, an MP for 25 years, can say: "I will not tolerate behaviour that is against everything I believe in." Where has he been for the past 25 years? Even those outside Parliament have realised for some years that some of the Honourable Members were at the trough, but being outsiders, they were powerless to do anything about it.

But what exactly did he do about it, first as an ordinary member, then as a minister, then as Prime Minister? It is to be hoped they will reap their just rewards in both sets of elections coming up.

Philip Hennessy

Woodford Green, Essex

The taxpayer has been charged for accountancy fees, and that's quite within the rules, we are told, to ensure MPs pay the correct tax. Yet I seem to remember that in the first few days of the expenses scandal MPs left and right were apologising profusely for "simple accounting errors. After all, so busy, difficult to keep my accounts up to date etc." So the taxpayer has been paying for our MPs' inability to add up, or their inability to choose accountants who can add and subtract. Either way, I don't think I'm getting my money's worth.

Lesley Docksey

Buckland Newton, Dorset

So Deborah Orr (21 May) thinks that "junior ministers should not live apart from their families much of the time"? And the servicemen and women sent to Afghanistan and Iraq by these self-same ministers living apart from their families all of the time?

Patrick Roberts

Needham Market, Suffolk

Charles Kennedy claimed for some sweets and a toy (money that was repaid) and Tim Yeo claimed for a pink laptop. So what? Isn't it time to leave the trivia and silly hysteria to The Daily Telegraph and move on?

Penny Flood

London W4

Good side of the British Empire

Why does someone as intelligent and well informed as Johann Hari persist in his view that the British Empire was only a wicked and racist project ("We owe it to do right by the Kenyan victims of British brutality", 29 May)?

It was both, but like any human enterprise it contained good and bad. Often it provided standards of honesty and justice, peace and order, growth and civilisation not available in the areas of its expansion. Without these it would not have lasted as long as it did. And it was able to identify and ameliorate (if slowly) those things that it did wrong.

When we were trained in the fag-end of the empire in "duties in aid of the civil power" – how to put down a riot – the opening remark of our instructor was: "Remember that behind any riot there is a genuine grievance."

How many of the governments that replaced the Empire could be described as just, honest and benevolent to all their subjects?

J P C Bannerman


Turn down that noise on TV

RNID welcomes the announcement of an independent study into the extent of the problem of background noise on television ("Great drama – but can you hear a single word they are saying?", 1 June).

Background noise can make it very difficult for people who are hard of hearing to follow speech during a programme. In our 2008 annual survey of members, 87 per cent of respondents said background noise affects their ability to hear speech on television. In a more recent survey, we found more than half of respondents have switched off because of it.

RNID urges all programme-makers to consider the needs of people who are deaf or hard of hearing and, longer-term, we support the development of technology to enable viewers to turn down, or turn off, background noise on television.

Brian Lamb

Executive Director of Advocacy and Policy, Royal National Institute for Deaf People

London EC1

Thank you Anthea Holme, you are far from alone (letter, 2 June). Many of us have wept at the implacable accompaniment of a thousand wailing strings and synthetic hoots, toots and bangs to any TV trip from the rainforest to the arctic - and now they have reached the beloved final frontier, poetry.

I suspect that TV sound editors don't care a hoot or toot about us.

Alison Sutherland

St Ola, Orkney


Climate chaos

I wonder if T Sayer (letter, 1 June) appreciates the delicious irony of his metaphorical use of the phrase "the present climate" in a letter calling for a reduction in fuel tax; though we might be economically hooked on the use of cheap fossil fuels, the last thing the planet needs is an encouragement to us to drive ourselves out of our temporary economic problems.

Brian Moore


The forgotten vote

Your leader of 1 June proclaims: "This election should be about Europe, not MPs' expenses". I agree. But had I kept my copies of The Independent over the past three weeks, I could have calculated how little coverage your have given to European issues compared with your extensive coverage of MPs' expenses. The same is true of all the national newspapers. Given this, we should not be surprised to find many voters taking the opportunity on Thursday to signal to both the Labour and Tory parties their strong disapproval of their MPs' conduct.

John Boaler

Calne, Wiltshire

Gender politics

Jen Long (letter, 1 June) is quite wrong to believe that the French are unaware of the genders of nouns. I once teased a colleague by saying wasn't it curious that all things dangerous in French are often feminine, such as bee, wasp or viper; quick as a flash came her reply: "Yes, and all problems are masculine." It will not escape any French person extolling the beauty of mountains that the word for mountain is feminine.

Terence Hollingworth

Blagnac, France

Religion of self-denial

Richard Ingrams questions the appointment of a Church of Scotland gay minister (30 May). Priests, he reminds us, are not the same as dentists. Mr Ingrams and those who expect that sort of thing expect them to deny themselves marriage, divorce or happiness in the arms of another man, otherwise they forfeit the respect of Mr Ingrams and those who respect such medieval gestures of self denial. Ideally, perhaps, they should demonstrate the difference between them and the rest of us – especially dentists – by wearing hair shirts.

Peter Forster

London N4

Lord, no

Richard Heron in his letter (2 June) is wrong to refer to the commander of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842 as "Lord Elphinstone". The highest honour achieved by Major-General Elphinstone was CB, in reward for his service at Waterloo 27 years earlier.

Michael Grosvenor Myer