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Tuesday 13 July 2010
Letters: Lords and education
End bias in our voting system
Labour argues that the proposals to increase the size of constituencies and make them more equal is "gerrymandering". Quite the reverse is true. Currently the average size of a constituency in Wales is 55,000; in Scotland and Northern Ireland it is 65,000; and in England it is 71,000. In London the range is from 62,000 to 90,000.
The electoral system is biased in favour of Labour. At the last election the Tories, with 36 per cent to Labour's 29 per cent, failed to get a majority. If Labour got 36 per cent and the Tories 29 per cent then it is possible – according to the Electoral Calculus website – that Labour would have a majority of over 70.
Unequal constituencies are only a part of this bias. Other more important factors are tactical voting, turn-out differentials and vote distribution. The Tories should realise that it will be very hard for them to form a majority – even with equal size constituencies.
I, like Harvey Cole (letters, 7 July), am not happy with a referendum on AV alone, particularly when it is mixed in with other changes. But I don't think having two referendums improves the picture.
Instead, we should settle the question once and for all by holding a vote that considers all the possible options, including AV, the various PR options and First Past The Post (FPTP). It would need to be a referendum conducted on AV lines (!), but we would then have a true reading of what the voters really wanted.
In US elections, votes on numerous items – including changes to the law or the constitution, police chiefs, judges and sometimes the local rat-catcher – are often held at the same time.
It is also getting a little tiresome hearing about the disconnect between the constituency and the MP caused by a PR system.
Far from it – the major purpose of the connection is to allow the MP to take up problems with government departments on behalf of constituents. If one's MP is a member of the government one may not have a particularly enthusiastic advocate – and if the MP happens to be a minister in the department concerned, the representation would be useless. With PR one would have several MPs to choose from and could pick the most appropriate one.
Port Solent, Hampshire
At present the Assemblies for Scotland and Wales are selected by the Additional Member System; the Northern Ireland assembly by STV; the English Parliament by FPTP; and the European government, which sets 70 per cent of our laws, by PR. Surely by now we must know which is best?
North Tawton, Devon
Why don't we have an AV referendum on voting reform, rather than the FPTP referendum on AV that we are going to have? Options for voters to list in preferred order could include FPTP as now, AV, AV-plus, party lists (as in Euro-elections), or proper single-transferable-votes for individuals in multi-member constituencies. Or even "none of these".
H Trevor Jones
Lives of terror suspects ruined
Robert Verkaik's interview with terror suspect Babar Ahmad (8 July) is a fascinating insight into an often overlooked aspect of the "War on Terror" – that of the men whose lives and reputations are tarnished with the label of "terrorism", yet who are never charged with such offences. The Independent should be commended for having the courage to give a voice to those dehumanised by society.
The mere fact that Ahmad has been in prison for six years on suspicion of being involved in terrorism is enough for most people to automatically assume his guilt, irrespective of the facts of his case. It beggars belief that a British citizen can be detained without charge for what has effectively been a 12-year prison sentence, without ever being questioned about the allegations against him. If there is evidence against Ahmad, surely he should be charged and brought before a court of law in this country and given the opportunity to defend himself.
The US-UK Extradition Treaty under which Ahmad is being detained allows British citizens to be extradited without the need for the US to provide any evidence in support of any allegations made. As a result, people like Babar Ahmad continue to be penalised on the basis of suspicion alone.
Both the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems expressed their opposition to this Treaty prior to the election. They are now in a position where they can do something to uphold that once-sacred concept of the presumption of innocence. Will they?
UK is a nation of winners
My wife I have visited the UK roughly 10 times in the past 10 years, including our last trip which concluded the day before we Americans recognised our independence from the UK. In over a decade of trips, we have never had a negative experience. On a Sunday in July, my son and I visited a pub in Oxford to watch England's loss in the World Cup, and a few days later, I watched every volley of Andy Murray. On the heels of those losses, the news seemed to immediately focus on the tremendous losses of the UK.
But let me tip my hat to what I consider to be a nation of winners. Every person we have encountered – from cabbie to clergy; from pub owner to public figure; from salesman to street sweeper – has met our queries with charm, patience and earnest charity. We have thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of friends and strangers; a great appreciation of the arts in your wonderful theatres and television; history preserved not only in museums, but on virtually every street corner and – despite the reputation – culinary offerings to satiate any palate.
As an Episcopal clergyman in the US, I am grateful for the ties that bind us to our mother Anglican Church; and as an American (independence aside), for the fact that we are peoples whose shared ideals, language, and principles bind us together strongly even if geography separates us.
The Reverend Dr Russell Levenson, Jr
How children's brains develop
"How a deprived childhood leaves its mark on the brain" (6 July) concurs with increasing bodies of research showing that the brain grows and develops fastest in the second year of life. Stress affects the brain through cortisone release. Adverse emotional experiences in infancy can damage parts of the brain concerned with emotional development, and can lead to permanent structural changes.
Different kinds of research, emerging in different fields, are now coming together to underline the special importance of the first three years of life. Patterns of brain development arise and affect not just the emotional health of the under-threes, but patterns of behaviour in adults too. Such research should be given a high priority.
Sir Denis Pereira Gray
President and Chairman of the Scientific Board, What about the Children? Exeter
British shipping industry in peril
At a time when ordinary people are bearing the brunt of the national deficit, the Government should be keeping its promise to keep Britain "open for business". We write in dismay therefore that it appears on the verge of encouraging shipping companies to take their business elsewhere.
British shipping is the UK's third-largest services earner, contributing £10bn to GDP and supporting 150,000 British jobs across the country. Yet as a result of a seemingly obscure regulation arising from the Equality Act, many major companies will have little choice but to re-register their ships away from the UK.
In common with operators of ships on other major registries, these companies are currently able to pay seafarers resident abroad at levels that are determined internationally and are related to those of highly skilled professionals in their home countries. What is being proposed would compel UK-flag operators to pay UK rates to these seafarers – even though they do not incur their living costs here and may never even set foot on British soil. The resulting increase in costs will put our UK operations under intolerable pressure not felt by our competitors in other countries.
Long-term British jobs are at risk. We, the undersigned, urge the Prime Minister to help the UK trade its way back into prosperity and avoid the collapse of a national success story that is vital to our economy and strategic capability.
Jan Kopernicki, Vice President Shipping, Shell International Trading and Shipping Company Limited and President, British Chamber of Shipping; David Dingle, CEO, Carnival UK;
Nigel Pusey, CEO, The Maersk Company; Michael Parker, Chairman, CMA CGM (UK) Holdings Ltd; Captain John Garner, Fleet Director, P&O Ferries Ltd; Robert Åkerlund,
Director, Stena Line Group; Max Peng, President, Evergreen Marine (UK) Limited; Alan Bekhor, CEO, British Marine plc; Perry Kennedy, MD, Gulf Offshore NS Ltd; John Denholm, Chairman, J&J Denholm London EC1
Recyclables going into landfill
I am dismayed to read that "UK will run out of landfill sites in eight years" (8 July). There is a clear relationship between the volume of rubbish sent to landfill and council policy.
One of the most easily recyclable materials is the polystyrene family of plastics; among the first items to be marked with the recycling symbol were yogurt tubs and ice-cream cartons. We happily recycled these until two years ago when our local council stopped accepting them. Only PET "bottle-shaped" items are now accepted, and bins containing a single visible yogurt tub are rejected as "contaminated". Our family's volume of waste went up some 50 per cent overnight.
This council uses the services of the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority, and I took this up with them at the time, simply to be told that they "do not have a facility" for this recycling.
I understand from other sources that the real problem is that the bottom dropped out of the market for some plastics, so while it is physically practical to recycle the materials, it is not economically viable. PET and polystyrene cannot be recycled together, and so would have to be sorted, probably by hand.
Surely it cannot be justified to increase our volume of landfill because of market forces? This seems like a paradox which is concealing a creative employment opportunity somewhere.
Westhoughton, Greater Manchester
Lords shouldn't legislate
In recent years various problems have arisen from the failure to properly reform the House of Lords. The latest being the opting out of "non-dom" peers, and the subsequent call for these members to be stripped of their titles.
Surely it is time to separate the honours system from the second legislative chamber? Whichever way the membership of the second chamber is chosen, the people serving there should only be known as senators or some such other name.
This would free up the ancient and traditional titles of our kingdom to be used to honour those people in our society held in high esteem. The granting of these honour titles, which would be only for life, would not give access to the legislative process.
Barry M Watson
Job-seekers who can't spell
Joanna Biddolph (Letters, 8 July) cites the example of an applicant who made an error with his own name when applying for a job. In Mother Tongue Bill Bryson describes how recently standardised spelling took over from phonetic variations with more widespread literacy, so maybe anything goes. But I, for one, will miss the attention to detail and values that are rapidly getting lost in the rush. The shortcomings of the CVs with which Joanna is presented are part of a wider picture. Still, she'd have had trouble with Shakespeare's CV: even he never spelt / spelled his own name the same way twice.
How to cut costs
As the Government is looking for ways to reduce spending, it could follow the lead taken by Bristol City Council. Although it has offices all over the city, the only way to apply for housing benefit is over the phone.
The system is quite simple – do not answer the phone. I have been ringing their number for over 20 hours in the past six weeks without a response.
Funny World Cup
Perhaps Dom Joly's "Weird World of Sport" (12 July) should be renamed "Weird World of Geography", if he believes that Uruguay is an Andean nation.
No wonder the Dutch complained at the end of the game; Spain had a massive advantage. How many teams can bring on Jesus to perform miracles on the right wing?
David A Harvey
Anagrammatists know the score. Andres Iniesta = read as is in net.
Clockwork orange indeed.
Perspectives on education
Where will the wild pupils go?
It is hardly surprising that David Cameron is terrified by the prospect of sending his children to a school in central London (report, 12 July). Every concerned parent shares his "terror". What is depressing is his refusal to tackle the question as to why these schools are bad. Instead, he offers to continue the policy of the Labour government in coming up with gimmicks designed to allow determined parents to escape the "bad schools" and pins his hopes on "free schools".
"Bad schools" are not bad because they have been cursed with weak heads and incompetent teachers. Nor is it mere coincidence that they spring up in inner-city areas. These schools are "bad" because they are top-heavy with pupils from deprived backgrounds whose behaviour is often completely out of control.
While the staff in schools in the leafy suburbs are free to devote all of their energies to planning good lessons, the often highly talented teachers in inner-city schools need to be more concerned with strategies for dealing with wild behaviour.
Public schools offer parents the opportunity to ensure that such youngsters do not obstruct the education of their own offspring. Provided that they have control of their intake, Mr Cameron's free schools will be able to offer the same guarantee. But what will become of the wild children themselves, and those who have to share their schools?
Good riddance to PFI building plans
The row over cuts to the "Building Schools for the Future" programme has ignored the fact that every school and hospital built in the UK since the mid-1990s has been funded by Private Finance Initiatives, invented by Conservative Chancellor Kenneth Clarke in the mid-1990s and re-branded as Public Private Partnerships by Blair and Brown. The costs are many times more than funding construction from taxation or loans. Only 30 per cent of teachers surveyed by the Educational Institute of Scotland in 2007 said PPP provided value for money.
PFI means cuts in the number of trained teaching staff in the new schools, and shortages of money for other government spending and so increased public debt, taxes or service-cuts.
Every school planned under the programme is funded by PFI or PPP.
We should be welcoming the scrapping of this gravy train for the big firms who are the primary contractors in PFIs and PPPs, and demanding that where the new government does fund the building of new schools, they are funded from taxation or loans, either of which is much better value for money.
Private schools escape pain of cuts
In order to justify swingeing cuts in public spending, David Cameron comforts us with "We are all in it together". Like hell we are.
Michael Gove's gaffe highlights the extent of the damage which will be inflicted on state schools while their public counterparts, such as Eton, continue to benefit from charitable status. They will go on receiving relief from VAT and rates, while state schools fall into decay. This privilege should be suspended for two years to accord with the freeze on public-sector pay.
A W MacQuillin
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