Letters: MPs' real job

Self-righteous tit-for-tat distracts MPs from their real job
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The Independent Online

Sir: A war of attrition has broken out between the two main political parties to see how many ministers and MPs can be dismissed for alleged improper practices. And while this tribal warfare continues, it wastes valuable time.

After Peter Hain was forced to resign, and the education minister Alan Johnson is under investigation over donations, Labour is trying to level the score. Conservative MP Derek Conway is in their sights for using funds to employ his sons.

This sudden self-righteousness is hypocritical: it has been the norm for many years for MPs to employ their families. So where will this tit-for-tat end, and is it not a distraction from the real problems facing this country? Does it not expose the farce of party politics in a democracy?

Instead of endlessly pursuing each other, MPs should reform the system and end political parties. MPs should represent all the people, all the time and be elected not for the party they belong to but on their integrity.

Malcolm Naylor

Otley , West Yorkshire

Sir: Your report about the MP Derek Conway's "employment" of his son as his research assistant (29 January) concentrates on the misuse of public money. Other questions arise.

In the Civil Service and local government, there are strict rules to ensure that appointments to jobs are made on merit – most businesses will do the same. Yet MPs are free to appoint members of their families to jobs in their private offices. If MPs paid these wages from their own pockets, there could be no objection, but the money is from the public purse.

It would probably help everyone if there was more transparency – all support jobs for MPs should be advertised and subject to fair recruitment procedures. Political parties are crying out for more ethnic minority and women parliamentary candidates. Research assistant jobs are often the first step on the political ladder and should be made more readily accessible to all potential applicants.

The other issue is one of policing. As I understand it, there is an investigation only if there is a complaint. MPs are unlikely to grass each other up, particularly if the practice of employing family members is widespread. Any expenditure of public money is ordinarily the subject of independent audit and scrutiny. Or are MPs above the law?

John E Orton


Don't blame cows for catastrophe

Sir: Humanity is in the process of unleashing between 50 and 100 million years' accumulation of carbon from fossil fuels over just two centuries; 50 per cent of the release has been over the past 30 years and the pace is still accelerating. It is this dramatic and unprecedented upsurge in emissions which threatens runaway climate change.

It is inevitable that students of the Jeremy Clarkson School of Climatology, with the enthusiastic support of the motor, aviation, oil and coal industries, will be keen to promote scapegoats for the catastrophic situation we face, but blaming cattle and sheep because of their methane emissions ("Skippy for supper", 24 January; letters, 28 January) simply does not work.

Yes, methane is a potent "greenhouse" gas, but unlike CO2 it is short-lived in the atmosphere. More important, cattle and sheep numbers are falling, not rising. Even in the burger- and steak-obsessed US, cattle numbers are today no higher than the estimated 100 million methane-belching bison which grazed the prairies for millennia before they were wiped out as part of the genocide of the Plains Indians.

The world's grasslands, maintained by grazing livestock, safely lock up at least as much carbon as all of its forests.

Aidan Harrison

Rothbury, Northumberland

Sir: With its Science and Technology Projects, Taiwan has placed itself at the cutting-edge of new technology. Government-funded ventures encourage competing companies to pool their research, in order speedily to develop new products.

The idea is not new; the 1939-45 US "Manhattan Project" saw thousands of scientists working together – in the race against Nazi Germany – to produce the first atomic bomb. If President Bush wants his legacy to be more than a Middle East in turmoil, he has a last chance to initiate a Climate Project. However, considering the Bush family interests in oil, it doesn't seem very likely.

Alan Aitchison

Wakefield, west yorkshire

State schools let able pupils down

Sir: Christopher McKeon (letter, 25 January) is correct in saying that independent schools are protecting some of our children from the negative impact of their less reputable peers.

Grammar school educated, I have taught in comprehensives for twenty years. Over that time, I have seen increasing numbers of conscientious, able pupils compromised both educationally and culturally by daily exposure to less civilised children. Forcing up numbers admitted to sixth forms is now having the same effect at that critical stage of education for able children.

I have also seen the state system deprived of a number of good teachers who would have thrived in grammar schools, because they were not comfortable in the less academic comprehensive environment; many moved to the private sector.

I am no instinctive supporter of unmerited privilege, but I have regretfully come to the conclusion that the only way to meet these children's needs is to put them in a different environment. To place independent sector pupils in comprehensives would simply dumb down their experience. That has already happened to those who would have been the natural candidates for the grammar schools that served a certain type of pupil from perhaps less wealthy homes well for several decades.

This country is more in need of educated, and socially civilised, young people than ever – yet nobody seems to make the connection between social attitudes and education. Putting all-comers through one-size-fits-all schools reduces them to the lowest common denominator: it has no other effect than brutalising the whole experience for everyone.

I J Stock

Coggeshall, Essex

Sir: I send my children to an independent school set up by a small group of parents who were dissatisfied with the local state schools, even though many of them were, by Ofsted's standards, "outstanding".

The school is "alternative" in the sense that the teaching, curriculum and assessment all differ from the state system. We would love to be state-funded, but our applications fail because we do not want to follow the national curriculum or carry out SATs. The only way we can maintain our autonomy without compromising our ethos is by staying independent.

The dissolution of the independent system would mean the end of alternative pioneering schools like ours, by destroying the diversity which the current system allows.

Charlotte Walker

Lewes, East Sussex

Sir: Joan Bakewell (Opinion, 18 January) is confusing the issue of the apparent tax benefits of charitable status for many independent schools with the principle of the privilege they endow on their pupils.

Private education, representing 7 per cent of the total school population, saves the Exchequer billions every year. The tax benefits to independent schools from charitable status are a tiny fraction of this saving; this is a balance of advantage which, as a taxpayer, I consider to be of substantial public benefit.

If, for sociological reasons, she considers the availability of private education should be ended, confronting this "privilege" head-on is what is called for. To delegate such social engineering to the Charities Commission undermines the argument.

David Bracey

Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire

Why there is less TV for children

Sir: Dominic Lawson (Opinion, 22 January) links new restrictions on food advertising to children with commercial broadcasters' unwillingness to invest in programming for young children.

In fact, investment in new children's programming has been falling since 2001, long before the rules on advertising to children came into effect in 2007. Annual spend on children's programming by commercial public service broadcasters has fallen every year since 2001, from £62m down to £27m in 2006.

Lower investment levels are mainly due to the significant increase in the number of children's channels, in addition to the BBC's dedicated children's channels (CBBC and CBeebies). More competition for children's viewing has fragmented audiences, and reduced viewing of children's programmes on commercial public-service channels.

Ofcom's research into children's media consumption habits also found that, while television is still the primary medium for most children, the internet is catching up fast, particularly among older age groups. The weekly time 12-15 year-olds spend using the internet has more than doubled between 2005 and 2007, from 4.6 hours to 10.5 hours.

These are the main reasons for increased pressure on funding for new children's programming. Ofcom will monitor the effect of restrictions on food advertising to children, but the evidence already demonstrates that the transformation of digital choice and resulting audience fragmentation are the primary causes.

James Thickett

Director of Market Research, Ofcom, London se1

Caught in quagmire of family law

Sir: The many thousands of people who choose to live together rather than marry should sit up and take notice of the recent British Social Attitudes report by the National Centre for Social Research (leading article, 23 January). So too should the Government.

The new report reveals widespread confusion over what protection cohabiting couples have under the law, with over half of people still believing in the "common-law marriage" myth.

A government-funded awareness campaign in 2004 has clearly failed to get the message across that living together does not provide cohabiting couples with financial rights if their relationship ends, even if they have lived together for many years and have had children together. Instead, cohabiting couples seeking redress are faced with a legal quagmire.

Resolution, an association of 5,000 family lawyers that campaigns for fair family law, has been calling for a new law to protect cohabiting couples since 2000. Our members regularly witness the injustices created by the current situation, including financial hardship and even homelessness.

On a more positive note, the report finds that nine in 10 people think that a cohabiting partner should have a right to financial provision if their relationship is a long-term one, includes children and has involved prioritising one partner's career over the other's. We very much hope that the Government is listening and urge it to commit itself to reform that will provide cohabiting couples with a legal safety net.


Chair, Cohabitation Working Group, Resolution, London, WC2

Weighing the bids to build eco-towns

Sir: Absolutely no decisions have yet been made on the locations of our 10 new eco-towns, despite what your article (25 January) implies. We have received more than 50 bids; some appear to be good, others less suitable. Many bids are for locations on brownfield sites, for example disused public-sector land.

We desperately need new homes, and we need to tackle the challenge of climate change. Most of our new homes will be built in existing towns and cities – but new eco-towns are especially important as they will give us the chance to build low-carbon design into communities, offering low-cost, green homes.

There will be plenty of opportunity for local people to have their say on the proposals once a shortlist has been published for consultation.

Iain Wright

Junior Housing MinisterDepartment for Communities and Local GovernmentLondon sw1

Limits of the market

Sir: Can Jon Hawksley (letter, 23 January) clarify how market capitalism's greed-driven success has benefited the overwhelming majority of the world's population, as opposed to those resident in the dominant western world?

Philip Grey

Wetherby, West Yorkshire

Dream about a dog

Sir: According to Allamah Ibn Sirin's Dreams and Interpretations, Robert Fisk's dog (Opinion, 26 January) symbolises his enemy whose enmity hasn't reached its peak and who will soon become his friend. If a dog attacks, it means the harm caused by the enemy will not be confined to unpleasant words. So while the meaning proposed by Ibn Sirin appears to be the reverse of Robert Fisk's actual relationship with his grandfather's Labrador, it also seems to indicate a symbolised vision of relations pre- and post-9/11. Hopefully, happier dreams will follow.

Michael Allen


Mayoral wars

Sir: Like most people, I find it very difficult to choose between a rock and a hard place and am relieved to have no vote in London's mayoral elections. However, I fail to see the relevance of Ken Livingstone's opposition to the Iraq war and the renewal of Trident (Kate Hudson, letters, 28 January). These may well be two of the issues that separate the incumbent mayor from his chief rival, but what bearing can either have on the governance of our capital city?

Stuart Russell

Poulton, Gloucestershire

Liverpool under attack

Sir: Terence Blacker (23 January) needs to address his negative attitude towards Liverpool. Was he bitten by a Liverpudlian as a child? Liverpool will get by with a little help from its friends, few as they may be in the English media. As for Ringo, I like the guy, but what a jammy sod! Without Harrison, Lennon and McCartney, he would be just another "scouser" for the likes of Tel boy to sneer at.

P Saeed


European court

Sir: Your headline (28 January) says: "Asylum-seekers awaiting EU court ruling on detention", but the article refers to the European Court of Human Rights. This court pre-dates the European Union and is nothing to do with it, having been formed in 1950 by the European Convention on Human Rights, signed by all 47 members of the Council of Europe.

Sam Boote