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Friday 30 November 2007
Letters: Party funding
What gives political parties the right to take our money?
Sir: I am astonished and depressed by your leading article on party funding ("The State must make its contribution to democracy", 28 November).
Political parties should obtain funding through membership. If parties are unable to interest enough of us to even vote in elections, let alone become members, what on earth gives them the right to continued existence let alone the right to help themselves to our money? Worse, your leader seems to imply that if they aren't allowed to, then some level of sleaze is somehow only to be expected. That is appalling.
Moreover, such funding will make it harder for new or minority parties, already disadvantaged by our electoral system, to gain ground. They may receive some state funding themselves, but this will presumably be predicated on their level of support. Meaningful political discourse will be blocked by the artificial preservation of large parties that are really moribund. In effect, far from paying "the price for democracy", the electors are being asked to subsidise their own exclusion from the political process.
Let parties attract members, and if they can't, let them go to hell.
Sir: Our parliamentary system of democracy is based upon the election of a member by each constituency. Anyone can stand as an independent. By funding political parties the system builds in financial discrimination against such individuals, and is therefore intrinsically undemocratic.
The Revd Kenneth Kenrick
Stockport, Greater Manchester
Sir: Political party funds should be limited to a flat rate subscription from all members. Each party would be free to set its own subscription level, but would be unable to accept funding from anybody who was not a party member.
All parties would then have to encourage mass membership, and campaigning would again involve face-to-face meetings between politicians and the electorate, rather than glitzy advertising campaigns in the media.
Whitehall needs its own IT specialists
Sir: I agree with David McKaigue that the only people who can guarantee quality are the people actually doing the work (letter, 22 November). However, this should not lead us to dismiss the importance of structures and procedures. The mess caused by the dispatch of sensitive data through the internal mail by HM Revenue and Customs is not explained by poor training or morale.
The recently released internal email shows that the problem stemmed from decisions made towards the top of the HMRC structure. The vital phrase is contained in the plea not to "over burden the business [sic] by asking them to run additional data scans/filters that may incur a cost to the department".
That was because of the flagship government policy of outsourcing.
Companies will offer to do your IT services for far less than most businesses can do it for themselves if you sign a contract with them. They are very helpful and they willingly do almost anything you ask them to. The downside is that they charge you for it. Even the most trivial task not specified in the contract will end up on the bill.
The real explanation of the disastrous decision to transfer sensitive data is that it was made by Civil Service managers with tight budgets who saw the risk as preferable to facing the certainty of a big bill from their IT contractor.
Of course this is not the only HM Government IT fiasco to have occurred recently. The roots are same: the civil service lacks its own in-house IT capability. The obvious solution to this is to end outsourcing and recruit a corps of civil service IT specialists.
Senior Lecturer, Greenwich Business School, University of Greenwich, London SE10
Sir: I work as a niche IT recruitment consultant, and have been fortunate enough to be involved in recruitment for some government projects.
To develop a massive, state-of-the-art computer system, such as will be needed for the ID card project, is going to need highly skilled IT consultants; given the nature of the material they are handling, they are going to have to be security-cleared at least to basic (counter-terrorism check) level, and quite possibly to DV (developed vetting) level.
They are going to be responsible for accurately processing lots of information for 60 million people, all of which must be safeguarded and double-checked. That equates to an incredible number of staff.
Given the security requirements, they are all going to have to be British, and have lived in the United Kingdom for the past five years, and would probably keep the whole of MI5 security-checking for years.
In my experience, there are not even close to the number of eligible consultants available, so they will be able to command much higher daily rates. While I hate to bite the hand that feeds, this is a recipe for disaster.
Islam in the modern world
Sir: I agree with just about everything that Joan Smith wrote in her commentary "Islam and the modern world don't mix" (28 November) but take issue with the headline and a few of her points.
What she seems to have meant is that certain bizarre interpretations of Islam don't mix with the modern world. There are plenty of rational, non-sexist Muslims (and some of them are men) who would agree with her on this and who are eager for reform in the countries she mentions. But her piece seems to presume that no such Muslims exist.
And some practices she abhors, such as honour killings and forced marriages, aren't only found among Muslims. Usually these are ancient practices that predate Islam. Rather than blaming Islam for these unfortunate traditions, we should all work to see that they stop. No religious justification can ever excuse the denial of basic individual human rights, and Ms Smith can argue this without making a broad statement about any one religion.
Sir: I write with deep concern about the article "Islam and the modern world don't mix'". I am totally for free speech, but making statements with such deep connotations in a climate where Islam is already misrepresented is unappreciated by Muslims who are fighting to promote a balanced understanding of a beautiful faith.
Islam and Muslims are two different things. Unfortunately Muslims perceived to be acting in the name of "Islam" are often acting in clear contradiction to what the final Messenger of God taught. What is needed is more dialogue and discussion to clarify misunderstandings, but not this dangerous escalation of emotional rhetoric.
Goldsmiths Islamic Society, London SE14
Sir: Do we know how many school teddy bears in England are called Jesus? Would teachers allow it?
Search for common thread of autism
Sir: There is some truth in Angie Elliott's suggestion (letter, 19 November) that the term "autistic spectrum" has become so elastic that it appears almost meaningless. But it is worth remembering why so many apparently disparate conditions have been thus yoked together.
Since the 1960s, it has been demonstrated that the many disorders grouped within the autistic spectrum have their origins in "faulty wiring". Some people's brains are not working as they should. (Let us not forget the relative horrors of the 1950s, when researchers saw autism as a form of mental illness caused primarily by maternal neglect, and came up with a convenient culprit: the "Refrigerator Mother".)
Over the past 20 years, there has been a tenfold rise in autism, and it seems likely that many other cognitive disorders, which may or may not share a common aetiology with autism, are also on the increase. (It is common to hear teachers noting a marked decline in learning abilities of many children over the past decade.)
If we reject the idea of an autistic spectrum, we deny ourselves the ability to perceive that there might be a common thread and a possible common cause running through such diverse conditions as ADHD, Asperger's and autism. We may hamper the ability of researchers to get to the bottom of why there are so many children with dissociative problems.
Skipton, North Yorkshire
Cynical sham of 'consultation'
Sir: Colin Brown draws our attention to a cynical process of public consultation increasingly resorted to by this government ("Legal action threatened over 'sham' Heathrow consultation", 23 November). Why should central government departments be allowed to pre-empt genuine consultation on major infrastructure projects (nuclear energy, Severn Barrage, Heathrow third runway) by declaring their position in advance of the consultation or feasibility process? Judicial review should be used to outlaw this arrogant use of executive power.
Is there one law for ministers and another for local councillors? My wife is a county councillor and a member of the planning committee. Before any planning decision, she is restricted from engaging in promotion of, or opposition to, a development proposal. This would be deemed to undermine her quasi-judicial role in making planning decisions.
Dinas Powys, Glamorgan
Ian Smith was right about the future
Sir: The recent death of Ian Smith, the former Prime Minister of Rhodesia, is one of the saddest moments in the history of that now blighted country.
My father, Senator Jack E Jones, served under Smith as a member of the Rhodesian Parliament during the 1970s and being neither black or white, but of mixed-race descent, was horrified to witness the cheap racist slurs Smith endured. Smith was not a racist but a man of great pragmatism, who stood up for civilised values and who knew the consequences of handing government to a people who were not politically ready for the responsibility of government. He placed enormous emphasis on an individual's ability, and not their colour.
It's probably true that no other white government in history has introduced so many non-whites into its inner sanctum. The Rhodesian Senate in 1974 comprised 35 members; more than a third were non-white.
Smith said that handing Rhodesia to people without the ability to manage it would be like a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre. And so it has proved to be.
He was loved by all logical, honest, level-headed Rhodesians whether they were white, black or of some other colour. My father described him as a man with great honour and a visionary, and personally helped Smith bring about significant advances in society, which have since been radically undone.
If ever there was another leader who has proven to be sweepingly correct in his predictions about the future of his country I would like to meet him. And if politicians of today displayed a fraction of Smith's courage, boldness, intellect and integrity the world would be a far better place.
A naughty frisson at the Oxford Union
Sir: Let's get it clear that the Irving-Griffin disorder at the Oxford Union the other night was nothing to do with freedom of speech. These two are not denied free speech in this country. If you really want people who've got something to say about the subject, what about representatives from Pakistan, Burma or Zimbabwe? Or wouldn't they have the audience-appeal, or frisson of naughtiness?
It's naive and wrong to liken the Oxford Union to anyone's public bar. It's an exclusive institution whose guests almost always get some media attention so anyone who wants the publicity would love to be invited. As Griffin and Irving did.
Meanwhile, Irving has been challenged and discredited in a much better place, when he sued Deborah Lipstadt and lost.
Sir: I was under the impression that passing money through third-party accounts in order to disguise the origins amounts to money laundering. Presumably these funds destined for the Labour Party and received into third-party accounts would be classed as income. I hope they have been correctly declared for tax.
Power of punctuation
Sir: Further to the correspondence on the value of punctuation, an English professor wrote the words,"A woman without her man is nothing" on the blackboard and directed the students to punctuate it correctly. The men wrote: "A woman, without her man, is nothing." The women wrote: "A woman: without her, man is nothing." Punctuation is everything.
Sir: It's unrealistic to suggest (leading article, 28 November) that upping the excise duty on gas-guzzlers would make much difference. Given the higher fuel costs they are already paying, the increase would have to be a couple of grand before it had a major impact. No, the key step is making the guzzler's tax disc visually distinctive, and allowing local councils to operate a two-tier system for town-centre car parking. Authorities might then decide to restrict, quite severely, the availability of guzzler parking spaces.
Sir: Howard Jacobson (24 November) should understand that's the way it is in NYC (but nowhere else). The only thing he failed to mention was that if they had been up to speed at the Stage Deli, the waitress who farted on his sandwich would have charged an extra $5 for doing so.
Fear in the kitchen
Sir: Gordon Ramsay ("Ramsay's mysterious new protge named", 28 November) says he is worried that his new female chef "may be poached": is that worse than stir-fried, then?
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