Sir: I own a number of properties in London and Birmingham. All were purchased prior to my election as a Member of Parliament. I live in Birmingham. I have two flats in London. One is rented out, the other I live in. If I were not a Member of Parliament I could rent out the second for around £25,000 per year. Even if I claimed the maximum Additional Costs Allowance it would only be £22,010. I actually claim £18,447 (437th). I don't mind the fact that I get less money than I would were I not to be an MP. I do, however, mind the imputation (leading article, 11 February) that there is anything wrong with this.
There are costs that people encounter when they have to stay away from home. Many organisations provide an overnight allowance and leave it up to people to work out how to spend this. If Parliament paid for a one-bedroom furnished flat for each MP and paid for the MP's food costs in full I could guarantee that this would end up as more than £22,010 for each MP per year.
The NHS appointments commission offers £157.50 per night plus money for child care for people staying in central London. Even if MPs only claimed on an average say 150 sitting days (MPs are in London on other days as well) then this would be more than the ACA allowance (£23,550). Incorporating it into pay to give say £20,000 extra after tax would mean say a £36,000 increase in gross salary costs.
I can afford to lose money on these situations and remain a Member of Parliament. However, Parliament should not be restricted to wealthy people. Hence there needs to be some way of paying for the cost of living in two places where necessary. An allowance system is probably the cheapest to the public purse.
John Hemming MP
(Birmingham Yardley, Lib Dem) House of Commons
Williams's challenge to good journalism
Sir: Paul Valley's thoughtful piece, "Williams is snared in a trap of his own making" (8 February), should be made compulsory reading on journalism courses.
When he observes that "news has little room for the subtleties of academic gavottes around delicate subjects", he encapsulates one of the toughest challenges we face daily, in print and in broadcast journalism. How, whether limited to 200 words or 200 seconds, to capture truthfully the essence of a complex story in crisp, thoughtful and attractive language. We are sometimes blessed with time for an "explainer" second package, but in the main, a short newscaster lead-in, followed by the classic "minute forty-five" report have to do the job. Tough call, even for the best.
But he also highlights that great divide in journalism between those who wouldn't let the truth sully a great headline and those who try to honour the truth even if it puts your package in a lower position in the running order of the news bulletin or your piece in a column closer to the back of the newspaper.
What Rowan Williams said, what he meant and how it was reported would make for a good seminar, too. But first, the students should read Valley. And one or two others, I daresay, would benefit from a glance.
ITV News, London WC1
Sir: How disappointing that The Independent chose to sensationalise the Archbishop of Canterbury's scholarly reflections on religious identity and the social and legal rights of minority religious groups in Britain.
The juxtaposition of your double-spread headline with a sinister photograph of black-veiled Muslim women incites precisely the negative gut reaction with which many of those who should know better (including Downing Street) greeted the Archbishop's suggestions.
If even Paul Vallely finds it necessary to chastise the Archbishop for offering the gutter press such easy pickings, how will it ever be possible to have the "honest and effective conversation across boundaries" for which the Archbishop calls?
Without that conversation, there is no prospect of dispelling alarmist misconceptions about matters such as sharia law, or of achieving and sustaining the "liberal pluralism" the Archbishop identifies as essential to harmony in an ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse society.
Sir: The issues that arise from the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech need to be separated.
First, we should be a society founded on the values of the Enlightenment. That means the human right to freedom of belief, of worship and of religious assembly, but it also means that conduct in the name of religion must be subject to the general law, not least to protect the human right not to be subjected, for instance, to forced marriages, female genital mutilation, child exorcism or "honour killings".
Second, those of all faiths and none are entitled to settle any civil law disputes by whatever means they choose. An agreement to let a religious court resolve an issue is effectively one form of dispute resolution.
Third, the criminal law should not be used to impose religious-based constraints on the population. There should be no blasphemy laws or other bans on the rational discussion of religious beliefs and practices, including theatrical performances, and no attempt to stop people taking their own moral decisions on issues such as abortion.
Sir: The Archbishop of Canterbury would have saved himself much trouble if he had spoken in terms of Islamic tribunals rather than sharia law. The Jewish Beth Din court is really no more than a tribunal, and it does a useful job well.
Since he did not speak about a tribunal, the suspicion will remain that he is seeking a prerogative position in law for religion and religious viewpoints. This is similar to the situation that existed in England in the reign of Charles I, with the Courts of High Commission and Star Chamber. These courts were rightly abolished by the Long Parliament in 1641, and thereafter there was one type of court in England. Nothing and no one was then privileged in law. This is the situation that must continue.
Sir: What a great idea. Religious law for the religious and secular law for secularists.
We would not have to pay for church schools, churches and chaplains, there would be no more restrictions on abortion or Sunday trading, we would be able to opt for assistance from a doctor to help us painlessly out of this world if life became intolerable, and any laws shaped by religious prejudices would be reviewed.
Women might at long last get equal pay and pensions and child support that are not based on the ownership of women and children by the men, husbands, partners or fathers who are responsible for their upkeep.
Ministers were warned on GP pay
Sir: Contrary to Steve Richards' claim ("Why Alan Johnson's letter could deliver the next election to Labour – or to the Tories", 5 February), the 2004 GP contract was neither a waste of money nor did the BMA take the government for a ride in its negotiations.
As health ministers pointed out on 4 February, the level of GP pay used to be among the worst in the world and GPs deserved their pay rise. What Mr Richards fails to realise is that during the contract negotiations the BMA repeatedly warned the Government that GPs were already working to very high standards and would therefore hit most of the new targets. The Government didn't believe them and budgeted for a 70 per cent hit rate. What happened? As we predicted, GPs proved how hard they work and achieved more than 90 per cent. What's more, the contract was signed off not only by Tony Blair, but by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. Any perceived overspend is the Government's fault, but they try to get out of that by continually devaluing the hard work GPs do for their patients every single day.
On the subject of extended hours, many GPs around the country already offer this service, which is negotiated locally to suit the needs of their population. What GPs do object to is being bullied by a government more intent on fulfilling a rigid political pledge than negotiating a sensible way to provide extended hours for the population of this country.
Dr Laurence Buckman
Chairman, GPs Committee, British Medical Association London WC1
Sir: Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, thinks family doctors are out of touch with their patients on extended hours (report, 31 January). We are not, but we are unhappy. Recently, I attended a meeting of half the GPs in the county. The mood was one of anger, despondency and despair. The Government has made improving access to GPs one of its priority agendas for the NHS, but at what cost?
Only a few days ago, Gordon Brown announced an increase in screening in the NHS. What he did not say was that he is now threatening to take money away from the evidence-based quality programme in general practice to fund extended hours.
The Government is pushing the populist agenda of access and choice of providers. Fine, for the minority of patients who have acute simple problems. What will be lost with this agenda is continuity and quality care for the vast majority of patients who have complex needs.
Ironically, while other countries are looking to base their health care on our model of primary care, the Government seems to be denigrating it. We have an overall 84 per cent satisfaction from our patient surveys, far higher than any government, despite a concerted campaign to malign us by the Government through the press in the past 18 months.
Dr Raj Kapur
Mild weather is a terrible warning
Sir: In no small part because of your paper's relentless coverage of climate change, I now find myself suffering from a sort of inverse Seasonal Affective Disorder. Faced – as last weekend – with mid-winter days of clear blue skies and warm sunshine, I now fall into a depression, knowing that this glorious weather is actually a forewarning of global disaster.
I also feel that treatment of my malady would be greatly assisted if the weather forecasters would present temperatures that are "well above the seasonal average" not in the celebratory tone they currently adopt but with an appropriate sense of foreboding.
If we are ever to save our race from self-destruction, we are going to have to learn very quickly that weekends like this are not just to be enjoyed; they are the warnings that something is going horribly wrong with our planet.
Don't mock the Obama inspiration
Sir: Mark Steel satirises Barack Obama as a "vacuous" Bob the Builder (6 February) because of his "Yes we can" catchphrase.
It is clear to anyone not totally eaten away by cynicism or in search of a cheap laugh that Mr Obama offers the genuine hope of building a better, more compassionate and wiser America, should he become President.
After the destructive years of Bush the Bomber and our own Blair the Blagger, it's a shame, in a year when many American people (particularly the young) seem to be genuinely inspired to strike out in a new and better direction, that Mr Steel is only able to play the tear-'em-down game.
'Genetic' get-out for over-eaters
Sir: A recent report, based on a scientific study, concludes that childhood obesity is caused by genetic rather than environmental factors (7 February). This conclusion is rather contradicted by your final paragraph, which suggests that childhood obesity will rise from one to two thirds of the population by 2050 "if nothing is done".
Either you are proposing that this is due to massive genetic shift and advocating population-wide genetic manipulation, or you are implicitly recognising that increasing calorie intake and reduced exercise are the actual causes of childhood obesity. In order to tackle obesity as a health crisis, we need to take responsibility for our own behaviour, not be excused by genetic studies that misrepresent reality.
Dr Dan Melley
A diet of plastic
Sir: Plastic is a synthetic material which never existed on Planet Earth until the 20th century ("The world's rubbish dump," 5 February). So nothing has yet evolved to feed on it. Could biologists develop a strain of salt-water tolerant bacteria capable of digesting, and thereby disintegrating plastic materials in the sea?
Sir: Having made the move from a large country location to a much smaller city flat to reduce our carbon footprint (aided by children being all away to university and beyond, being exhausted by the commuting etc) we no longer need two cars. What do we do with the larger one – a small people-carrier, diesel, with 125,000 miles since bought new? What will reduce our footprint the most – selling, giving it away, donating to charity, even reusing as a hen-coop or scrapping it to take one car of the road? Could your readers advise?
Radio with a brain
Sir: The point about Radio 4 ("In a class of its own", 8 February) is that it's the only talk station aimed at people of any age, class, race, religion or gender who have an attention span of more than 30 seconds and aren't obsessed by such ephemera as celebrity and fashion.
Frampton Cotterell, Gloucestershire
Sir: Contrary to the speculation surrounding your Big Question (8 February), time travel is already possible. I myself have just returned from a year long trip to 1997-98, where I witnessed the media hype surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the Spice Girls on stage, speculation about England's national football team and the trials and tribulations of a Prime Minister still in his first year of office. No, wait a minute, that was just last week.
Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire
Sir: Dominic Lawson (letter, 11 February) should also remember the comment of Sir Thomas Beecham when he was told about Herbert von Karajan: "He sounds like a sort of musical Malcolm Sargent."