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Tuesday 12 May 2009
Letters: MPs' expenses
After the MPs' expenses scandal, time to make a fresh start
There is an inevitability about the expenses crisis consuming members of Parliament. Their behaviour is unacceptable and scandalous, but I am not yet convinced they are looking seriously for solutions.
MPs who have to spend half their week in London and the other half in their constituencies obviously need somewhere to stay in the capital. In many European countries MPs stay in housing blocks built near their parliament, one bedroom flats paid for by the state. No second home allowance needed. No second home means no need to spend money furnishing it, buying sink plugs, potted plants, plasma TVs, mock Tudor beams, piano tuning services etc. No second home means no opportunity to make money on the sly from buy and selling "second homes" or by calling your sister's back bedroom your principal home.
We are in this mess, in part, because successive governments have frozen MPs' salaries in order to impress the electorate, then quietly promoted expenses as a way of topping up the salary a different way. Peer pressure ensures that MPs are encouraged to join the trough, because that's just the way things are.
A little more honesty, both from politicians and from the public, and a ruling elite willing to learn from best practice and actually do something to put things right, and all this might have been sorted out years ago.
Christian Vassie, York
The current MPs' expenses scandal is wonderful. It has at last sparked such revulsion that there might finally be the collective will to institute radical reform of our political system.
We should take this opportunity to rip up this disastrously flawed system and start again.
Reform of the expenses system would be but a part in a project that should include: replacement of first-past-the-post with proportional representation so that everyone's vote counts; fixed parliamentary terms – it is beyond understanding that we still allow governments to call an election when it suits them; A fully elected upper house with non-renewable fixed terms; halving the number of MPs and paying treble what they earn just now, removing the expenses system – we might then attract the calibre of person we require to govern the country well; writing a UK constitution to enshrine our bill of rights
Fraser Devlin, London SE15
Where an MP employs an accountant, that professional would be remiss if he did not explain to the MP how the rules of parliamentary allowances could be exploited to obtain maximum financial benefit. The fault with the current situation is that the rules appear to be so full of loopholes that, to the outsider, their exploitation borders on the obscene. From the MP's point of view, the choice is whether to obtain the maximum benefit for his or her family, or whether to adopt a moral probity which would cost money.
In many other walks of life there are opportunities to exploit loopholes in taxation or in expenses. How many times, I wonder, are glasses raised among friends to congratulate someone on achieving a nice little earner by exploiting those opportunities? It is hypocritical to focus just on the shady dealings of MPs. They make use of the system, but behave in a normal human way. Alas, the world is not populated by Mother Teresas.
Michael K Baldwin, Sittingbourne, Kent
The defence of choice for many of our MPs is to blame the system, in some cases suggesting that we, the people, would act in the same way given the opportunity.
A system of lenient legitimate expense or subsistence claims may be permitted by a private or public company. But when, as an MP, you are entrusted with the purse of those you are representing, there should be a bond of trust that you will not abuse the system, even if the system is open to abuse. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
Brett Hawksbee, Harlow, Essex
I am looking for a job that requires absolutely no formal qualifications and no particular experience, lasts for up to five years, does not require me to work a certain number of hours, pays a salary of £65,000, allows me to claim for costs of furnishing and renovating my house, mortgage interest, furniture, entertainment, gardening, pizzas, bath plugs, toilet seats, coat hangers and blue films (many without having to provide receipts) and allows me to avoid capital gains tax on the sale of a second home. Can anyone point me in the right direction?
John Rogers, London SW16
Is it just wishful thinking to imagine that the publishing of MPs' expenses will finally lead to our parliamentary representatives behaving in a manner we would respect?
We should not forget that just seven years ago when our then Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, Elizabeth Filkin, tried to tighten up standards and bring transparency into the dealings of MPs, in other words exactly what we are now asking for, she was forced out of office by those in power.
Malcolm Onley, East Horsley, Surrey
The Prime Minister has said: "I want to apologise for what has happened in the events of the last few days." Shouldn't he be apologising for what has happened over the last four years? Or is he just sorry that the story's out?
Simon Molloy, London E8
Surely, they need to do more than say "Sorry." How about paying back this money which has caused such outrage?
Bill Boyd, London SW16
At last our MPs realise that everyone has something to hide even when they haven't done anything wrong. Perhaps ministers will now be more inclined to undo the legislation on civil liberties that has given the rest of us something to fear.
C E Evans-Pughe, St Albans, Hertfordshire
The game is up and we all know it, so let's not pretend otherwise. It is time for the Government to accept some form of responsibility and call a general election. Allow the winners the mandate to manage our coming out of recession and begin building a new system of respectability in public life. If it means a coalition, then so be it. Do the right thing.
Martin Stroud, Cottingham, East Yorkshire
Coming on top of the greed and obscene pensions of the UK's leading bankers, our MPs' cavalier attitude and immoral approach to their expenses will act as a much better recruiting agent for the BNP than immigration ever did. They should be ashamed of themselves.
Alistair McCulloch, Southport, Merseyside
From the original Watergate fiasco of 1973 onwards, it seems that every single controversy, no matter how minor, has been landed with the suffix "-gate". The latest is the McBride/ Draper affair, which has been dubbed "smeargate", and is so called frequently, even by your own paper.
Is it beyond the wit and wisdom of the media of this country to come up with a new word or phrase to describe a controversy? Or is it just a matter of time before we get "Rip-off MPs fiddling expenses-gate"?
Peter Henderson, Worthing, West Sussex
I wonder how many of the MPs who have been exposed for claiming for gardeners, plumbers and cleaners, for sink plugs, light bulbs, dog food, tampons, scatter cushions, fitted kitchens, single plastic carrier bags and Sky Sports subscriptions, or for second, third and fourth homes have lectured the leaders of third world on the evils of corruption and the need for "good governance"?
I wonder how many have attacked unemployed workers as "scroungers" or criticised single parents for "welfare dependency"?
Sasha Simic, London N16
When you start a new job, there is always someone there in the office or school or hospital to tell you what you can and cannot do. And what you can and cannot claim for. Who is it that does this in Parliament?
I have this vision in my head of this wicked old person, who really doesn't care about anyone or anything, urging on new members of the Commons or the House of Lords. You can almost hear his voice, or perhaps her voice, saying: "And if you're lucky you can get away with . . . ."
Helen Braithwaite, London NW3
An education that leaves out God
Religious school assemblies should not be disparaged with emotive language like "brainwashing". The neutrality in matters of religion argued for by Johann Hari itself conveys an unspoken message. If Christianity is left out and atheism not taught, God is not mentioned and is by omission portrayed as irrelevant.
In his article "Dear God, stop brainwashing children" (8 May) Hari caricatures the Christian assembly and portrays something indefensible. It is possible, however, to conduct the corporate act of worship in school in a way that is respectful of students and educationally enhancing. That will serve far better than silence about God, with its pretended neutrality.
The Rev Peter Michell, School Chaplain William Parker Sports College Hastings
How refreshingly lucid was Johann Hari's plea to stop brainwashing kids with God by making them attend a daily act of worship at school. It made me feel homesick: in France, where I was brought up, this article would not have been written; it would not need to be written. Its argument is already part of the French culture and education ethos.
When I first came to England and I tried the same argument on new English friends, non-religious or vaguely religious, I was told I was probably right in principle but it wasn't an issue worth getting excited over. No doubt I lacked Johann Hari's eloquence.
Gilles Launay, Gillingham, Kent
Rude visa staff at UK embassies
Ayo Hughes's letter (8 May) on rude and insensitive British visa staff in our embassies and consulates certainly struck a chord with me.
When applying for a visa for my American wife-to-be in Rome, where she worked, we were confronted at the embassy by an officious youth who asked me questions about her in her presence as though she were but a chattel.
When he challenged my financial ability to sustain her in the UK the interview took on an air of complete unreality – which I had to cut short before my Princeton-educated, profession-trained, very independent bride killed him. I pointed out my civil service rank (Grade 6 – outranking him by at least four positions), which jolted him out of his rudeness and, closing his file, he left quickly to stamp her passport.
John A Fidler, Marina Del Rey, California, USA
In your article on Sir Allen Stanford (11 May) we are told that "the 6ft 4in-tall businessman may have been allowed to run his banking business unfettered because he was passing information on to America's Drug Enforcement Administration". How can we possibly form a balanced judgement on this serious matter without also knowing his neck measurement and shoe size?
Martin Smith, Oxford
A real wonder
Did the writer of your article "Small wonder" (7 May) really own a Mini? My Austin Se7en of 1959 cost £550. She never leaked, rusted, fell to bits, failed in floods or needed big replacements. The paint quality was admired by other drivers. I changed her after 14 years because she was very low to get into and my back needed a higher car. I felt like a Formula One driver and never repeated that feeling in later vehicles.
Margaret Hunt, Swansea
Bad name for a dog
A minority of people may be offended by the name of Guy Gibson's dog Nigger (letter, 9 May), but no one seems worried about offending the families of the 1,600 innocent lives lost as a result of the Dam Busters raid. The vast majority were POWs or Russian slave workers, and the whole venture did little to damage the Nazi war machine. Incidentally, although several TV versions of the film have deleted the offending word, it comes over loud and clear in the climactic scene, if you happen to understand Morse code.
Vicky Broadwell, Bristol
James Lawton ("Onions was born for the name game", 9 May) is very wrong to claim the French don't play cricket. Their national team beat an MCC team in 1989, a match postponed for 200 years by the French Revolution. There's even a theory the game originated in France. "Criquet" is an old French word meaning "post" or "wicket", a game of that name being documented in the 15th century. They also played in the only appearance of cricket in the Olympic Games, in 1900, a game they lost, but remain the reigning silver medal holders.
Nic Granda-Barton, Norwich
Surely Eve could not have been the first mother-in-law (letter, 11 May). After all, who could she possibly have been mother-in-law of?
Justin Brodie, Chester
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