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Monday 24 July 2006
Letters: Divorce laws
British citizens must be allowed to benefit from EU divorce laws
Sir: Franco Frattini, the European Commissioner for Justice, is right to argue that the proposed legal reform on applicable law and jurisdiction in divorce matters will simplify life for couples in the EU ("EU plans legal reforms to end divorce shopping", 18 July). But will UK citizens be allowed to benefit from it?
As an MEP, I know only too well from my casework that cross-border divorce is an increasing phenomenon as people make a reality of the freedom of movement offered by an EU without borders. The current system is a tangled and impenetrable legal web for most "international couples" who encounter difficulties.
Sadly, the UK may not allow British citizens to benefit from this simplification. The UK has a potential opt-out from all proposed legislation relating to justice and home affairs. Only a couple of months ago, the UK government quietly exercised this opt-out on a proposed new regime designed to facilitate the payment of cross-border maintenance obligations. This move will deprive many of our citizens of the more direct systems of payment due to be offered across the EU.
As the new proposals from the Commission deal with a related legal area there is again reason to fear that the Government will cave in to a few strident voices in the English legal community. Why should those using the British courts, at a time of stress in their personal lives, be presented with a more hostile and complicated system than elsewhere in the EU? Who, we might ask, is the law there to serve? Surely this time the Commission has it right; it's about making life easier for individuals and guaranteeing fair and efficient access to justice for all in their daily lives across the EU.
DIANA WALLIS MEP
(LIBERAL DEMOCRAT, YORKSHIRE & THE HUMBER) EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, BRUSSELS
Beirut evacuees are the lucky ones
Sir: Robert Fisk is absolutely right to highlight the disgraceful evacuation of British citizens from the Lebanon which contrasts so shamefully with the abandonment by the international community of the native population (report, 20 July). The media treatment of this episode in many areas has only served to confirm the appallingly discriminatory attitude of many in this country towards foreigners. "The Brits are out and they're safe, thank God, so sod the rest of them" seems a neat summation. No mention either of the possible increase in Israeli bombardment and consequent casualties now that the westerners are out. No matter. We already know from the Iraq catastrophe that an Arab life is cheap.
There is a wider and more important issue that is pertinent here too. For the predicament of these evacuees and the great sympathy afforded them should give us all pause to reflect on our attitude towards and treatment of asylum seekers arriving at our shores, many of whom will have fled war zones. But they will not have had the relative luxury of the assistance of any embassy staff, the intervention of a naval force and a ship to carry them safely off to their destination. The circumstances in which many of these asylum seekers will have fled are utterly beyond compare. They are unimaginably awful and harrowing, quite possibly involving the loss of possessions, homes, friends or family members, involving tortuous and arduous journeys without any assistance whatsoever. The lucky ones make it to our borders. And for what? To be demonised mainly. This business offers a salutary reminder of our common humanity that is all too often so depressingly overlooked in this country.
Sir: The "war against terrorism" has revealed the true colours of many elements within the international community, with very few nations being prepared to do any heavy lifting when it comes to facing terrorism head on.
The US, UK and now Israel have led the way against the Islamic fundamentalists seeking to destroy our way of life and have met with condemnation. It appears that many countries have not learned the lessons of history. Palestinian and Lebanese leaders have reneged upon signed agreements and some gullible western leaders have mirrored the actions of Neville Chamberlain holding aloft his piece of paper declaring "peace in our time". Burying our heads in the sand when confronting terrorism is akin to believing the assurances of Adolf Hitler and we all know what happened then.
RHYMNEY, SOUTH WALES
Sir: After the 7 July bombings, the Prime Minister urged moderate Muslim leaders to help combat a "completely false sense of grievance against the West". Only two weeks after the anniversary of the 7 July bombing, ministers stand accused of giving Israel a green light to bomb Lebanon and are seemingly unable to find anything stronger than the word "regret" to describe the subsequent carnage. This hypocrisy exposes the Prime Minister's empty rhetoric, and illustrates the key role he continues to play in escalating the cycle of terror and placing us in ever-greater jeopardy.
Sir: The UN has called for a ceasefire in Lebanon. This is clearly an excellent idea. It is precisely what Israel is trying to achieve. But sadly Hizbollah doesn't seem keen. That rather narrows the options
Sir: Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah admits that the "destruction of Lebanon is horrifying to witness" and asks "why is Israel targeting the infrastructure of that country?"(letter, 21 July). She then, apparently in all seriousness, gives us her answer: it's because "the President of Iran is a racist and has called for the destruction of Israel". Is it just me that wonders if there is something wrong with her logic?
Home Information Packs are needed
Sir: The Government's climbdown on Home Information Packs (HIPs) should be regretted by all those seeking to move home in the future. Which magazine previously championed this reform, but has now withdrawn its support following its emasculation by the removal of the compulsory Home Condition Report element. The climbdown is a victory for entrenched vested interests which currently have a stranglehold on the process.
HIPs will provide upfront, at the point a deal is struck, all of the information required by a purchaser to enable an informed buying decision to be made. Currently, this vital information is drip fed to the buyer by the seller's solicitors over a matter of weeks, if not months, in a process akin to drawing teeth.
The new industry of HIP providers which has grown up to ensure efficient implementation of this important Government reform has developed processes geared to provide this information within five days or so of a property being marketed. The average cost is £700 plus VAT, to include the now-optional seller survey.
Lawyers, surveyors, estate agents and mortgage lenders all derive huge incomes from "managing" the current chaotic and stressful process. They all have a vested interest in maintaining a shroud of complexity over a procedure which can and must be simplified in the interests of the consumer.
HIPs may not have been the perfect answer but they were already proving a huge catalyst for change and modernisation. Let us hope this most recent of Government flip-flops does not completely undo all of the good which has already been done in preparation for June next year.
Sir: During Prime Minister's Questions on 19 July, Mr Blair stated that although the Home Condition Report would not be required when the Home Information Packs become a legal requirement when selling a house in June 2007, they would still be required because "the reason for the Home Information Packs is that ordinary consumers are spending, at the moment, £1m a day on abortive sales".
If Mr Blair is right in assuming that £1m is spent on abortive sales every day of the week then £365m is lost in abortive sales every year. In2Perspective, which tracks house-sales volume, shows that over the past three years house sales averaged 400,000 per quarter. Taking a conservative figure for the cost of a HIP at £500, then the additional cost to home owners on an average year of 1.6m HIPs would be £800m. Since Mr Blair argues that it is worth "ordinary consumers" as he called us spending £800m to save £365m, I strongly suggest that he seeks some basic bookkeeping advice of his own.
Effective alternatives to failing prisons
Sir: How refreshing to read a letter from a practitioner (21 July), a Probation Officer daily involved in the criminal justice system. The UK already has the highest prison population in western Europe which shows that prison is a costly failure, both financially and effectively. What is required is fresh thinking about alternatives to prison.
Before my retirement, I was a Senior Probation Officer responsible for pioneering the Community Service Scheme for Offenders in Wiltshire. The one single truth that Community Service established was that the process of re-integration into the community is achieved through the gaining of self-respect, not through humiliation. To achieve this objective, offenders of all ages were involved in schemes such as a Saturday club for children with severe learning difficulties or disabilities. The offenders not only cared for the children, but gave their carers a precious day off. Similarly, they were involved in the running of a "stroke club", and a wheelchair shopping service for the elderly and disabled. A service of this kind requires no buildings and there are significant benefits, both for the offender and the community.
Who should fund the politicians?
Sir: Whereas I agree with Dominic Lawson (Opinion, 21 July) that "the solution to political funding is simple: parties should live within their means," what about the few non-affiliated MPs and cross-benchers?
I believe it is only a recent development for the British legislature to recognise political parties. Previously, only individual representatives of the people had a duty under the law; there was not a collective one.
Messrs Blair, Cameron and Campbell may be convinced that the taxpayer must shoulder the bulk of party funding, but there are alternatives to direct exchequer support, such as the creation of a new independent Political Service to complement the Civil Service. This would provide support to all individual Parliamentarians irrespective of any party membership or none, and would encourage more individuals to stand for election to Westminster.
We should await the outcome of Sir Hayden Phillips's Review of the Funding of Political Parties. It may provide some forward-looking solutions, anticipating the demise of outdated political parties, which have in so many ways become indistinguishable and unrepresentative of the will of the people.
The best bridge builders
Sir: It is reported that the new architect-designed bridge in Paris suffers the wobbles, just like the architect-designed Millennium bridge in London (21 July). How long will it be before people accept that the world's greatest bridges are designed by engineers? Examples include the Sydney Harbour bridge, the Clifton suspension bridge, the two Severn Crossings and the Forth bridge. And it took engineers to sort out the problems of the "unbuildable", architect- designed Sydney Opera House.
N T SHEPHERD
Celsius vs centigrade
Sir: Matthew Hoffman (Errors and Omissions, 22 July) talks about temperature in degrees centigrade. But the 9th General Conference on Weights & Measures in 1948 decided that the temperature scale would be known as Celsius, and gave us all until 31 December 1953 to stop using the word centigrade. The change was made as a number of countries already used the title Celsius, and others used "centigrade" for a measurement of angle. It seems that it always takes a long time in this country to make changes. And the conference also decided that we don't need the word "degree", either.
Sir: In "For Whom the Bell Tolled" (15 July) you describe Julian Bell as Virginia Woolf's brother. He was, in fact, the elder son of Vanessa Bell, Woolf's sister. It was, therefore, the writer's nephew who died in Brunete on 18 July 1937 while driving an ambulance for the Spanish Loyalists.
A modest proposition
Sir: Joan Bakewell refers to the sentence "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands!" as a philosophical proposition. However, a proposition is something which can be either true or false, and this is not applicable to an imperative utterance. "If you're happy and you know it" could form the antecedent clause of a proposition; readers might wish to supply a consequent clause of their own choice.
How to spot murderers
Sir: Like Robert Hanks (Last Night's TV, 21 July), I, too, had worked out the identity of the murderer just after the opening titles of the The Inspector Lynley Mysteries. As an inveterate watcher of whodunits on TV, I have formulated a theory that will crack most of them; look out for the well-known actor in an apparently very minor role: he or she will be the murderer. The more upmarket whodunits, like Miss Marple, overcome this weakness by having a cast with so many old hams that no one in particular stands out.
A cowboy Deputy PM
Sir: After "Yo, Blair", can we now look forward to "Yee-ha, Prescott" (report, 22 July) when the Deputy Prime Minister is running the country next month?
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