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Monday 24 May 2010
Letters: House of Lords reform
How to elect the House of Lords
It is important that if the House of Lords is to become elected, as the new Government wants, it does not become a House of Commons echo chamber or lose its valuable expertise.
As a solution, why not let lawyers elect lawyers to the House of Lords, scientists elect scientists, economists elect economists, etc, across all disciplines? The House would then consist of a wide range of democratically elected people at the top of their fields, free from Commons influence, but with members who were accountable – to their peers. It would also prevent dubious cash-for-honours appointments and keep the career politicians in the Lower House.
Chris Bryant (Opinion, 19 May) rightly criticises the idea of achieving a grouping in the House of Lords that reflect the electoral results by increasing the number of peers. Surely the correct way is to reduce the numbers. Take the Liberal Democrats at 72 seats, reduce the Conservative peers to 112, the Labour peers to 91 and allow 38 peers for the "others". This gives the correct percentages and a saving of 394 peers.
How do you decide who should go? The first step is to exclude all those who played no constructive part in government during the last 12 months of the last government. Next compile a list of the remainder using a scoring system to put them in order, with those who did most in the last 12 months at the top. Each party then takes their top 72, 112, 91 etc. The rest can then leave. For legislative tidiness and future elections, one may want to allocate 275 seats to peers with a political allegiance and 50 to "others" or cross benchers.
At a stroke, reform of the House of Lords and a nice budgetary saving.
It is perhaps a bit odd that Chris Bryant mentions Lloyd George but not that great abuser of the honours system, Tony Blair. Blair in his 10 years created 357 life peers, whereas Lloyd George only created 91.
Artificial life still a long way off
So Craig Venter has created artificial life and is playing God? Not really, as was pointed out by Sir Paul Nurse, a cell biologist and geneticist who is a Nobel Prize recipient and the new President of the Royal Society (21 May).
In effect, what has been achieved is a glorified form of genetic modification. Venter has taken the DNA from a very simple bacterium, reconstituted it artificially, and inserted it into another bacterium whose DNA had been removed. This second bacterium went on to reproduce and function.
This is certainly very impressive and may have important practical results in the future, though Nurse seemed rather uncertain about that. But it doesn't amount to the creation of life.
To create a real artificial cell, biologists would have to do a great deal more. They would have to manufacture all the complex machinery that exists outside the nucleus and make it work together correctly, which is more difficult by several orders of magnitude.
David Cameron's 'Big Society'
David Cameron seems to have persuaded Clegg to sign up to his "Big Society" and I presume they now both see this as a way of fixing what the Tories described as a "broken society". But if society is "broken" is it really the people this policy is aimed at who broke it?
Their targets would seem to include those prone to acts of anti-social behaviour, those who become pregnant too young, those whose parenting skills are inadequate, those who revel in violence after a long evening's drinking. And certainly these people need help, for these ills are not all self-inflicted.
But what do we do with those whose effect on society is malign because they have opted out in different but more fundamental ways. These include those who have opted out of the state education service by choosing private schools; those who have opted out of the National Health Service by choosing private hospitals; those who would never dream of using local public transport so care little for the state of that service and the provision of "freedom passes" to the over-60s; those who will never be reliant on meals-on-wheels or on carers provided by the local authority to enable them to get up and dressed in the morning; those who buy their own books and never visit a public library.
These people have opted out to the extent that cuts in public spending will not affect them one jot. As long as their bins get emptied they are OK, and they would probably hire someone to deal with the situation if the bin-men failed to arrive. The only interest these people have in government is reducing their taxation.
Society demands that everyone plays their part and pays their part - and the frighteningly high proportion of those who have opted out who are now sitting as MPs is a warning to us all.
Attitudes to abortion
I share Amy Jenkins's exasperation with the pro-life lobby, but for radically different reasons (opinion, 22 May). For example, I am vexed by the moral inconsistency of anti-abortionists who aren't also pacifists (and, in the US, against the death penalty). And the attempt of the pro-life lobby to ban the abortion advert – I should think Ms Jenkins would take a sneering delight in its obvious inanity, while I deplore it for its tactical counter-productiveness.
But where Ms Jenkins really loses me is in her dismay that abortion is "still something to be covered up". Perhaps hesitation to shout "I'm having an abortion!" from the rooftops indicates not unhealthy repression, but the virtuous vestige of a cultural sense of shame that is fast disappearing.
Revd Kim Fabricius
Assaults on NHS staff indefensible
There were 54,758 physical assaults on NHS staff in England between 1 April 2008 and 31 March 2009. Of these, 1,250 were on ambulance staff; an average of 24 per week. Attacks are often carried out by middle-class, professional people. In 2006, a doctor was convicted of an assault which left a paramedic in a coma. He was sentenced to 200 hours' community service. The GMC simply suspended him, saying that it would not be in the public interest to strike him off.
Ambulance staff are the front line of emergency health care. We depend on them when we suffer life-threatening emergencies and, in order to deliver the care we expect, they depend on unimpeded access to us. Anyone who assaults them shatters this contract, not to speak of the effect they have on the lives of their victims. I know staff who have lost a year and more of their pro-fessional lives and suffered huge strain on their home lives as a result of beatings from people they were trying to help.
If we expect to continue benefiting from emergency care, we must protect our ambulance staff. Trusts have responded to this need by strengthening security arrangements and relationships with the police. They invariably press for attackers to be prosecuted. Unfortunately the system often fails when the attackers are brought to court. Aside from mental illness, it is difficult to conceive of any mitigation for such assaults, but too many convicted attackers still manage to evade custodial sentences. The case of Melissa Massey (report, 21 May) is yet another example; the magistrates' court sentenced her to eight weeks in prison, but she was released by a judge, on appeal, after four days.
Previous good character and an industrious nature are not sufficient to mitigate a drink-fuelled attack on a blameless public servant who would not have been in range of Ms Massey's fist had she not been trying to help her. This young woman should have been allowed to serve her original sentence.
Tackle fraud to reduce deficit
For a government that claims to be committed to reducing the deficit, there is a striking omission from the coalition agreement, which contains no proposals to tackle fraud against the public sector. This currently runs at a level equivalent to a large proportion of the structural deficit.
According to its latest study of the size of the "tax gap", HM Customs and Excise estimate that as much as £40bn in tax revenues is lost through a combination of tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. This figure is likely to prove an underestimate because of the difficulty in obtaining data, for example about funds deposited in offshore jurisdictions.
Equally significant, the National Fraud Authority estimates that the public sector is the biggest victim of fraud in the UK, with losses amounting to around £17.6bn. Most of these losses relate not to benefit fraud, but to fraud perpetrated by public-sector employees and contractors.
Instead of ruthless spending cuts that will hit real jobs and services, the Government should focus its attention on those who defraud the public.
Overlooked sound artist
John Kieffer writes about Susan Philipsz's installations being nominated for the Turner Prize and about sound art from the early 20th century on (11 May). But he glosses over the period from 1967 to the present, and overlooks the consistent and extensive body of work produced by Charlie Hooker during this time.
Hooker has been exploring sound, image and the environment since the mid- Seventies. His work has been seen from Bergen to Brighton. I once rowed a barge for him along Camden Lock, while he conducted an orchestra of accordions, and his work Wave Wall is in a national collection.
Charlie has collaborated with a great many institutions including the Science Museum, the Department of Neuroscience at Sussex University, the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Change, and artists, designers, scientists and researchers at the universities of Brighton, Sussex and Reading. Charlie has consistently explored the relationship between sound and the environment, in addition to supporting and enthusing a generation of students through his teaching commitments at the University of Brighton.
This country has a tradition of exploring new areas of creative communication, and Charlie Hooker's contribution to that has been significant and should not go unrecognised.
Gary Lineker has missed the point
How very disappointed I was to read Gary Lineker's reaction to the Triesman exposé by the Mail on Sunday (19 May). He writes: "Negative stories about the players ... can affect their confidence and the overall performance of the national team."
Gary, you have it back to front. If people such as Triesman, Terry et al, who are in privileged positions representing Britain, followed an appropriate moral compass, there would be no negative stories for the press to print. Once again the perpetrators and their supporters are crying "We're being picked on – it's not fair" when their behaviour is exposed. No bad behaviour – no unfounded negative press.
Pakistan must help itself
While Denis MacShane is right to express concern over the lack of economic growth in Pakistan ("India is key to solving Afghanistan", 20 May), it is difficult to see how his proposal of more foreign aid to Pakistan can possibly help. Pakistan is not facing a natural disaster; its economic meltdown is self-inflicted – it insisted on acquiring nuclear weapons and cosying up to Islamic terrorism.
Pakistan, both politically and economically, has always been a state bordering on failure. Ever since its inception in 1947, it chose to subsist on foreign handouts; first through the security structure of SEATO and CENTO, and then becoming a front-line state against communism and terrorism. It never bothered to learn the art of earning its own living through strategic planning, economic reforms and investment in education.
Instead of propping up Pakistan through financial handouts, as MacShane seems to be proposing, is it not time Britain and the Labour Party encouraged Islamabad to cut its defence spending on nuclear technology, missile development and its proxy war against India in Kashmir, and to learn to live within its own means?
Randhir Singh Bains,
Gants Hill, Essex
Violence against teachers
Terri Judd's piece about violence against teachers described something truly appalling (20 May). Teachers, like myself, are uniquely expected to control students in our care and ensure they are not harmed and that they do not harm others. It is seen as a sign of weakness if a teacher admits he or she is struggling to control a class. In any other job with the public, one is encouraged to call for back-up and does not have to put up with aggressive behaviour. This pressure increases the risk of harm to teachers.
West Bromwich, West Midlands
Recovery from the current recession will require the inherent business skills that many Britons (of all ethnic origins) possess.
I note that the Government is suggesting a badger cull to deal with bovine TB. This is an ideal opportunity to develop the British badger-hair shaving-brush industry. You might argue that there is next to no market for shaving brushes. But people of a certain age will remember in the late 1960s purchasing much unwanted tat simply because it carried the slogan "I'm backing Britain". So why not "Buy a Brush for Britain"?
David H Clarke
Seaford, East Sussex
Is 'Bruce' real?
It is sad to see so many of your readers rising to Bruce Anderson's bait (Letters, 20 May). Some of them even appear to believe that he is a real person. I have always assumed that the "Bruce Anderson" column is written as a wind-up by a group of journalists giggling round a pub table on Sunday lunchtimes.
Sign in my local Sainsbury's: "English Asparagus". Place of origin? Peru!
Perspectives on Film Studies
The seventh art, not a 'soft option'
If only film studies was afforded the same status in UK secondary schools as it is in France ("France brings in film school for les enfants", 19 May).
Far from being the "soft option" its critics claim, film studies takes young people out of their Hollywood comfort zone and offers a window into different cultures and social issues, while its emphasis on critical theory, analysis, research and essay writing makes it intellectually demanding.
We would never dream of discouraging pupils from engaging with poems, novels, paintings and music, so why are we so quick in this country to dismiss the study of the seventh art?
Head of Film Studies,
The geniuses of British cinema
In Nicholas Lezard's column discussing France's initiative to get French school children into classic cinema ("Honey, the kids must see this film", 20 May), he says: "It should be adopted by this country as well."
Perhaps he is not aware of Film Club (www.filmclub.org), a British initiative which, to quote from its website, "gives pupils and teachers the chance to explore the world of film through after-school film clubs. With free weekly screenings, online reviewing, industry events and hands-on support".
Lezard reduces the British film industry to, "Ealing, Hitchcock and Powell-Pressburger", undoubtedly pinnacles of British cinematic achievement, and justifiably mentioned. But he neglects to mention the considerable oeuvre of David Lean; the silent comedy of Charlie Chaplin; Carol Reed; Nicolas Roeg; John Boorman; Terence Davies; Ken Loach; John Schlesinger; Lindsay Anderson; Mike Leigh; Ken Russell; Peter Greenaway; Alan Parker; Bill Forsyth; Derek Jarman...
Granted, some films by these directors are not "child-friendly", but if one tasked with commenting on our industry is as reductive as to omit so many fine film-makers, what hope for the next generation?
Labour 'trying to out-kip Ukip,' says MP David Lammy over 'inflammatory' immigration leaflet
Ukip election policies: Slash foreign aid, bring back smoking in pubs, ditch Human Rights Act
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