PM's power in hung election
The opinion polls are pointing to a hung parliament, and to Labour having the smallest share of the popular vote among the three biggest parties. Attention is focusing on what Nick Clegg would do in that case, but the focus should be on Gordon Brown.
After the election, he will remain, as a prime minister always does, the Queen's constitutional adviser, with the power to negotiate to remain in Downing Street, despite a big swing against Labour. It was all very well for him to declare that the problem would be sorted out by the politicians without embarrassing the Queen, but in fact he retains that constitutional weapon.
This is all wrong. Ideally there would be a principle accepted by all parties that the leader of the party with the largest number of seats would get the first chance to form a government, the existing prime minister having resigned in order to allow this. The problem is not the formal involvement of the Crown – it would be worse if squabbling politicians were all we had – but the unaccountable ex-royal power which has accumulated in the hands of the Prime Minister over the centuries.
To convince us of his democratic instincts, Gordon Brown needs to make a declaration now, well before polling day, that he would not use his constitutional privilege to boost his party against the expressed will of the people. Inter-party negotiation to form a government would then follow. An authoritative prime minister would be freshly in place, cutting out any unseemly clinging to power by the old prime minister, as happened in February 1974 under Edward Heath.
Ilkley, West Yorkshire
The claim by the Tories that a "hung"' parliament would lead to economic crisis smacks more than a little of desperation.
If you look away from Westminster, in the European Union only France, Malta and that paragon of good governance, Greece, boast single-party governments. Many countries rated most highly for good government, such as Germany, New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries, have multi-party rule. Multi-party administrations have been as effective in maintaining fiscal discipline as single-party ones.
If no party wins an outright majority on 6 May there is no need to panic. Politicians here, as in other countries, are pledged to tackle the deficit and are more than capable of adapting to the situation and forming an effective administration.
Since the Second World War no UK government, whatever the size of its majority of seats in the House of Commons, has had the support of a majority of votes cast in the preceding election.
If next week's election should result in a "hung" parliament, with no party with a majority of seats in the Commons, the resulting co-operation or coalition between two parties would have the result that the government would for the first time represent a majority of voters. Would this be a bad thing?
J Michael Walpole
MPs agree on prison policy
Your timely leading article on the crime figures (22 April) called for an all-party consensus on prison numbers. That is exactly what was achieved by MPs from all three parties on the House of Commons Justice Committee in our report, Cutting Crime: the case for Justice Reinvestment, published in January this year.
Members from across the political spectrum agreed that taxpayers' money would be more effectively used to cut crime if less of it was spent expanding prison numbers and more on preventing people drifting into crime in the first place and on more effective community sentences, including measures to tackle drug and alcohol addiction.
We knew that rational debate on these issues might go out of the window during the election, but we said that it was time to shift the argument "away from notions about which party was 'harder' or 'softer' on crime and criminals to questions about the most effective use of scarce resources to reduce offending and reoffending". Our conclusions were unanimous, and Parliament will need to return to them.
Sir Alan Beith
Chairman, Justice Select Committee 2007-10, Berwick-upon-Tweed
Hospital treats children equally
We have never attempted to mislead anyone about our involvement in the tragic case of Baby Peter, or denied that there were failings in the service at St Ann's ("Is this model hospital still there for all?", 16 April). On the day of the trial verdict I apologised for our failings, as I did later following publication of the Care Quality Commission report.
Our aim is to provide the best possible care for all the children we see – irrespective of their background or whether they are treated at St Ann's, at an outreach clinic or on the hospital's main site on Great Ormond Street. We strongly reject any implication that we focus on the care of one child over another.
Great Ormond Street Hospital is an NHS trust and receives referrals from other hospitals based on clinical need, not on ability to pay. While we do have private patients, these represent less than 10 per cent of the patients we see and, in most cases, they come to us because treatment is unavailable in their home country. Any private income is put straight back into NHS care, so that we can treat more children.
It is true that we fund-raise and we make no apology for that. We fund-raise so that we can buy medical equipment, undertake paediatric research, support families and fund our much-needed redevelopment. Our aim is to replace buildings which are very old indeed and just not suitable for today's healthcare needs. With the full support of the NHS, we are trying to provide better facilities for patients, families and staff as well as increasing our capacity so that we can treat more children.
Dr Jane Collins
Chief Executive, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust, London WC1
How to find the peers we need
For many years we have benefited from, indeed depended on, the expertise of the Lords to amend Bills sent to them from the Commons. Those Bills were often hurriedly and poorly drafted by a strong majority of one or other of the "old" parties there.
In their work, many appointed and hereditary Lords have played vital roles, especially when compared with those "promoted" from the lower house. If that sort of expertise is to be retained, it will be important that Lords are not elected in the same way that MPs are elected, representing parties and geographical areas. There should be no opportunity for the Commons to consider the Lords second-rate party politicians, rather than a key component part of making good laws.
If no other way can be found to get peers appointed for their non-party expertise, then they need to be elected to represent sections of the community with knowledge and experience of our nation and its economy. Almost by chance, there are many valuable unelected representatives of the law, medicine, industry, commerce, engineering, science, the arts, architecture, police, the armed forces and other key interests.
Could this be done by special elections, or by appointments from within those communities?
Sir Reginald E W Harland
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Pam Giddy (Podium, 2 April) repeats the fallacy that an elected Upper House will be more democratic. It will be less.
The useful reform would be to stop entry direct and unelected, into government by that side door (letter, 20 April). But a body of senior figures in business, the military and the law, plus former ministers bringing experience and warning, an expert and elder cautionary body, is what we need. The present Upper House breaks the doctrinaire rules of constitutional perfectionists, and it works. Over recent decades, no government thinking tyrannically has not, from poll tax to detention without trial, suffered reversal and embarrassment.
An elected Lords would be a House of political parties, served by a second rank of the professional politicians who have lately diminished the Commons. In Ms Giddy's model assembly the bad Bills would have been waved through .
More useful would be a ban on ministerial appointments there for five years after entry. And who needs titles? Create no new life peers and settle for the term "Upper House".
Thormanby, North Yorkshire
If Gordon Brown really believes that the House of Lords should be elected, can we assume that he will not be nominating anyone for elevation to the Lords after the election?
Richmond, North Yorkshire
When British troops mutinied
Recounting vividly the fall of Malaya to the Japanese in 1942, Robert Fisk (24 April) repeats a myth of an earlier conflict by saying the First World War British soldier was "immune to mutiny (unlike the French in 1917)".
France suffered mutinies by her misused and weary armies at the battlefronts or near them late in the war, as did Italy and, ultimately, Russia and Germany. British troops did mutiny under rather quieter circumstances in the training camp at Etaples, memorably depicted in Alan Bleasdale's 1986 television adaptation The Monocled Mutineer; nearly 70 years after the events depicted, the serial attracted condemnations, not for presenting an untrue story, but for digging up a true and brushed-over one.
The British at Etaples mutinied far from the enemy after suffering brutalities from the camp authorities. That might have been explained by a desire to prepare recruits for the horrors of trench warfare, but also being abused there were combat veterans rotated from the front who were in effect being told that they weren't good enough. Many of the soldiers employed to dish out the punishment had not themselves been in combat.
Wrexham, North Wales
Meeting with an unknown poet
I confess I felt a sense of acute remembered embarrassment when I heard of the death of Peter Porter (obituary, 24 April).
At a party in Bayswater in 1982 I was introduced to a man thus: "I'd like you to meet Peter Porter." He was bespectacled, shy and not very chatty. But we were left in awkward conversation alone for several minutes. At one point, as one does in that English way, I asked him: "So – what do you do for a living then?"
Not batting an eyelid he replied: "I'm a poet." I remember thinking, "What a pretentious git. Who tells you that their job is being a poet?" I didn't inquire further about his poetry. We made small talk, and he drifted off.
The next day I mentioned the encounter to my brother, who was horrified at my ignorance and enlightened me. I often wondered what Porter made of the philistine he encountered that night. And to think I actually prided myself on liking poetry.
Eastbourne East Sussex
Where is the evidence?
Iain Smith's suggestion (letter, 26 April) that since there is no proof of God's existence there is therefore no proof of his non-existence demonstrates skewed logic.
An existential statement can be demonstrated by evidence. For example, "the Yeti exists" could be confirmed by evidence such as photographs or a captive Yeti. Failure to prove the existence of something is commonly due to the fact that it is just not there. Conversely, existential statements cannot be disproved, as Bertrand Russell illustrated many years ago. The Yeti may be out there but we just have not looked in the right place so far. The burden of proof is on those who assert that something exists.
The atheists have nothing to prove or disprove. I would like to add that I am agnostic on the existence of the Yeti.
Restricted view from the pit
Victoria Summerley's complaint about seeing only the lower half of the stage from a seat in the back stalls (21 April) reminds me that when I began theatre-going these seats were separated from the front stalls and known as "the pit". Seats here were not much dearer than those in the gallery. This was a recognition that part of the stage would be cut off from view by the overhang of the dress circle.
Nineteenth-century novels reveal that the audience in this part of the house were similar in their rowdiness to those up in "the gods". The present practice of calling all these seats stalls and pricing them accordingly is tantamount to dishonesty on the part of theatre managements.
J Michael Walpole
High cost of high-speed rail
I agree with Gordon Martin on the importance of strong rail networks (letter, 24 April), but I am not in favour of the high-speed rail links of which he talks. Recent experience returning home across Portugal, Spain and France showed that such high-speed links have brought massively increased fares combined with a reduction in choice caused by domination of certain popular routes.
Is it really fair for a wealthy city passenger to arrive 10 minutes earlier at the expense of limiting the possibility of travel for those less well-off or in less popular locations?
Minister admits he is no expert
How refreshing to hear Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary, declare that he was honour-bound to accept regulators' advice on air safety limits because they are the experts on aviation and he is not. What confuses me is that Gordon Brown and Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, thought they knew best (despite having no medical expertise) in rejecting the advice from the specifically created board of experts on drugs about the criminalisation of cannabis. Some members of our Government have an overblown opinion of their technical abilities.
Perspectives on pupils from ‘poorer’ homes: Never shunned for being skint
I am a "poorer pupil" as described in your article "Poorer pupils struggle more in rich areas" (24 April). I went to an inner-city primary school, where most of the students were immigrants and from low-income families. I am now in Year 8, at a secondary school where the students are more affluent, and I am annoyed about what was written.
Sue Hackman presents a stereotype of the "poor pupil", describing them as displaying anxiety and tiredness, not having adequate rest and nutrition. It's as if she's saying that poor people can't look after their own children, which is offensive. My mother looks after me; she cooks for me and makes sure I get enough sleep, although she is self-employed and a single parent. Although my mum is busy with work, she always has time to cook and clean. I always have proper meals, unlike some of my "privileged" friends.
Also, Ms Hackman says "even the local high street can be alienating, full of things that they and their families can never dream of affording". My mother has made sure that I have never gone without. I usually get what I want, but that's because what I do want is within reason. I am aware that sometimes we are skint, but I'm never worried.
Hackman also says that poorer pupils are "socially embarrassed", "shunned" and "derided". I am not socially embarrassed and I have never seen anyone being shunned or derided for being poor.
I think I am probably more streetwise than my friends at school. They're scared of the more so-called "rough" areas, and I am more used to them. I don't feel disadvantaged; quite the opposite. By the way, I expect to get 10 GCSEs, not five.