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Friday 6 November 2009
Letters: European law
Forget EU referendums – it's a question of in or out
David Cameron's pledges to pass laws to make further loss of sovereignty to the EU impossible without a referendum and to enshrine in British law the superiority of British law are naive at best and dishonest at worst.
Unless Britain is given a written constitution which can only be changed by referendum, nothing will prevent a future government repealing any ordinary law guaranteeing a referendum. The embodying of British law as superior is an absurdity as EU law is already legally superior.
The only way we can be masters in our own house to withdraw unilaterally.
I had always thought that once a general election returns a government, that government has been mandated by the public to take decisions on its behalf. I do not see why referendums should ever be necessary.
If the Conservative Party wants to run on a platform of taking the UK out of the EU – or at least ensuring that the UK remains the sick parrot of Europe – and they get voted in, the voters will get the government they deserve.
But if the newly elected government really does not have the courage to take decisions unaided, by all means have a referendum – along with others on continued membership of Nato, the war in Afghanistan, the monarchy and proportional representation.
I am interested to know exactly what kind of democracy S Dandy thinks we must wave goodbye to now that the Lisbon Treaty has been ratified (letter, 5 November).
Is it a democracy where the decision whether to go to war, or when to hold a general election, is taken by a single person? Where a political party can win a "landslide" after only 24 per cent of the electorate votes for it? Or a democracy where the executive may not pass legislation that breaches human rights, where the Parliament – voted in under proportional representation – gains power, and where the legislature is legally bound to address any issue that it is petitioned on by a significant number of citizens? The latter is the democracy we will enjoy as members of the EU under the Lisbon Treaty.
Andrew T Barnes
Let MPs have one home – in London
Denis MacShane (5 November) says that until 30 years ago, it was accepted that MPs would be London-based and make occasional fleeting visits to their constituencies. Would a return to this be altogether a bad thing? MPs are elected to a national parliament to debate issues of national or international importance. Local matters should be the concern of local council members.
My grandfather, J R Leslie, JP, MP, served from 1935 until Labour was overturned in 1950, as Labour Party member for Sedgefield. (Rumblings thereabouts are due to his turning in his grave as his shade contemplates the doings of a later incumbent.)
Upon election he moved to a modest house in Muswell Hill, north London, just as most people would move to where their job was to be. From there he commuted to Westminster by bus and Underground. He would return to the constituency, by train, for occasional weekends and longer in the vacations. From my childhood recollections, I believe that he was then accommodated by one of his constituents; what is certain that he used modest accommodation and would never have thought of needing two homes. That he was re-elected several times indicates that his constituents were satisfied with these arrangements.
I believe that the recent growth of the idea of constituency MP as local trouble-shooter militates both against the attention of Parliament to strategic concerns and against true local autonomy.
Steve Richards, in his article of 3 November, criticises Sir Thomas Legg for trying to impose "retrospective" limits on certain aspects of MPs' claims. I do not believe that there is a significant element of retrospection in his suggestions. The following are two extracts from the 2006 version of the Green Book which sets the rules.
"Members themselves are responsible for ensuring that their use of allowances is above reproach."
"It is your responsibility to satisfy yourself when you submit a claim, or authorise payments from your staffing allowance, that any expenditure claimed from the allowances has been wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the purpose of performing your Parliamentary duties."
Clearly some (but far from all) members have failed to meet the first of these, and others the second. It therefore does not seem unreasonable for Sir Thomas to make a decision on what level of allowances would have been "above reproach", and then to ask for repayment of any excess.
What seems worse to me is that a number of MPs, having spotted "errors" (which in a normal business would be regarded as fraudulent) when they were checking their claims before publication, seem to think that by repaying these they can get off scot free.
The Kelly proposals for changed rules on MPs' expenses will do nothing to restore the electorate's trust in politicians. Trust is earned by honest behaviour in the face of temptation. If the opportunities for dishonesty are limited by tighter supervision and temptation is removed by the imposition of unambiguous rules, the scope for politicians to demonstrate their trustworthiness is reduced, not enhanced.
We may be pleased that our MPs are costing us less than they were, and satisfied that they are being punished, but we will have no more reason to trust them than before.
In response to John Hawgood (letter, 3 November), I don't know about a "euro for the Guy" but I have just passed two young boys who were asking for "50p for our MP". Just in case you didn't quite get their message, the stuffed clothes that made up their pride and joy were clutching a large piece of paper with the words "Expenses Claim" boldly written on it.
Set schools free of government
So "3,000 parents lie or bend the rules" to get their child into their chosen school – or perhaps keep their child out of a less desirable school (report, 3 November).
All this really tells us is that the once much-vaunted "parental choice" is a myth: some schools are better than others, and parents know it, but not all can access the good ones. Parents who try to do the best for their children should be rewarded, not criminalised.
If we were setting up a national education service today, we would certainly not choose politicians as the people to run it. Let us close the Department for Education and Skills (or whatever its name is this week), give the schools back their independence, and distribute the education budget in the form of vouchers.
Schools would respond to parental demand; new and better schools would spring up; teachers could be paid a market rate (more for subjects in short supply, less in areas with lower costs of living). If the parents demand SATs, or independent inspection, or any other services, the schools could buy them in, giving re-employment to those out-of-work civil servants.
Until that system is set up, perhaps we could ban MPs from "lying or bending the rules" by putting their children into private schools. That should raise standards in the schools other parents have to put up with.
If we lose the Royal Mail
Last Monday, I waited in all day for a parcel from a private courier firm. It was not delivered. I got on to the website of the courier, which told me that an attempted delivery was made at 1.15pm and that a card was put through the door. Eight members of my family were having lunch at this time, three yards from our front door, No card was left.
I spent 15 minutes listening to their telephoned message that my call was important, etc, then gave up. I eventually got delivery on Wednesday.
The Post Office and even Parcelforce have never treated me like this. All these people who want to privatise the Post Office will have to get used to this kind of treatment, because the Post Office as we know it is on the way out.
St Ives, Cornwall
Under the spell of Roald Dahl
David Walliams's article about Roald Dahl (4 November) struck a chord. Not only have I enjoyed taking my children to see his plays, but I was lucky enough to hear him speak. I was at grammar school in Amersham, just up the road from his home, and he was the guest speaker at my sixth-form prize-giving.
So how has does someone 67 years older than us keep the attention of 300 sixth-formers? Two simple stories: one about his recent visit to the Mars factory in Slough and how they put the bubbles in Maltesers; the second, the results of a survey at a girls' boarding school about their preferences when choosing a boyfriend.
He had us all in the palm of his hand. Forgive my naivety: it took me many years to realise that he had made it all up.
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
Tricks to chase the Devil away
As I understand the custom, children go out "guising" (letters, 4 November), that is, they are "disguised", so that the Devil may not recognise them while they go from door to door entertaining people, to make them laugh and thus chase the Devil away from their homes on All Hallows' Eve.
In exchange for the performance of a song, poem, joke, dance or magic trick, the children are rewarded with sweets, nuts, fruit and some money.
I believe that the version called "trick or treat" has come from the USA. But I always make my Halloween visitors perform some sort of entertainment before I give them anything.
Enemies of liberty
The most important dichotomy between political philosophies over the past two centuries (letters, 30 October, 4 November) has been not between left and right but between libertarian and authoritarian. If your attitude is that you are right and that everyone else had better do as you say then it is very easy, like Mussolini, to flip from being a socialist to a fascist.
Pandora has got it all wrong (3 November) when she suggests Wayne Rooney's son Kai Wayne is named after Latin, Burmese or Maori words. As any Trekkie will have noticed, he is obviously named after Kai Winn, the evil Bajoran religious leader in Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Instead of following in his father's footsteps as a footballer we can surely expect the young Rooney to convert the Stretford End away from spiritual devotion of the infidel Cantona to the true path of the Pah Wraiths.
The Rooneys' baby has been given the name of a character in the medieval tale of Culhwch and Olwen, where he appears among the foremost men of Arthur's court. He is able to grow at will as tall as the highest tree and any load he carries is rendered invisible. But perhaps Cai's most perturbing attribute for the new parents is that he is able to go without sleep for nine days and nights. Cai (Middle Welsh, Kai) is known in English and French literature as Kay.
Dr Meic Stephens
Brian Viner's digression (5 November) about the small, sand-filled, lighthouse found in the rectum sent me to my 1967 edition of Bailey and Love's Short Practice of Surgery, and to one of its most celebrated passages: "The variety of foreign bodies which have found their way into the rectum is hardly less remarkable than the ingenuity displayed in their removal" (the turnip, for example, removed with obstetric forceps). The article is accompanied by an X-ray of a pepper pot, found, on removal, to be inscribed "A present from Margate".
Andrew Johnson FRCS
The article on Sherlock Holmes (2 November) states that Holmes has been portrayed on film many more times than any other fictional character. There is also the implication that many more actors have played this part than any other. Dr Watson must have made a very similar number of appearances and been played by a similar number of actors.
Seven things we learned from this weekend's Premier League: Liverpool attack is title material, but their defence is not; Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has brought no bounce to Cardiff City; Spurs defeat couldn't come at a worse time for Tim Sherwood
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