Deciding where the axe falls
Sitting in the public gallery watching the London Borough of Merton's councillors debate their annual budget on 2 March, I wondered what the other people there made of the debate. Labour councillors gave us quotes from Lenin and lame jokes about Marx and Trotsky. The Tories called Residents Association councillors "Sooty, Sweep and Soo".
Having stood as a Lib Dem council candidate last year, I'm not impartial, but the spectacle at times was hardly edifying. However, a handful of councillors from all sides spoke sensibly and respectfully about the problems faced. I was proud that Lib Dem councillors voted to use some of this year's underspend to protect cash for the voluntary sector, such as a local city farm, to keep a recycling centre open and to ensure false economies were not made with street cleaning and green waste collection.
Claims that "It's the Coalition's fault" are all well and good. But while the world economy was in chaos, Labour's Gordon Brown chose to massively increase spending on public services. Similarly, no one made them push financial deregulation as hard as they did, adding billions to the banking bailout bills. The Government borrows money to meet all its spending commitments. The interest on these loans is just under £119m a day; that's a new primary school each hour. This is money simply flushed down the drain, and we need to deal with the deficit as best we can.
Let's not pretend Merton Council hasn't chosen to cut services in the way it has: these cuts are local councillors' choices and priorities.
Anthony Fairclough, London SW19
Local community under threat
To what extent are the current spate of reforms based upon sound evidence, considered reflection and forward planning? How far are they fuelled by a passion to overturn anything which ministers' predecessors may have achieved, whether good or ill?
As a parent of children attending an inner-city community primary school and as a worker in the NHS, I am deeply concerned to learn that families I live with, work with and care about are being told to move out of London. They rely on housing benefit and have been told that the new rates, which will apply from 1 April, will no longer cover the rising rents demanded by private landlords.
The thriving local community I currently live in seems under threat of being broken up and dispersed, just when the Prime Minister is nudging us to buckle down and help each other in his "Big Society".
The cost of health may be high in this country (currently 8.7 per cent of GDP) and yet is it sensible to persist in emulating the model of privatised healthcare in the United States? There, 17.3 per cent of GDP is spent on health and yet vast sectors of the population remain excluded from decent healthcare provision.
Dr Susanne Griffin, London NW1
Do ministers really care?
I have been the sole carer for my husband since 1995, and caring 24/7 since 2004. As a carer, you're on your own, and it's very hard to winkle out any help. But finally, at the end of last year, I was offered the chance to attend seven sessions entitled "Caring with Confidence", part of the previous government's New Deal for Carers.
The sessions covered many aspects of caring, from carers' entitlements and dealing with professionals to caring for yourself and having some life of your own. Other topics included financial matters, managing day-to-day and in a crisis and looking after your own health and emotional well-being.
This course would have been immensely useful when I began caring. Even 16 years down the line, I have learnt a lot, which will enrich our life. I was very fortunate to be offered this chance. Other carers won't be so lucky. The course I attended is the last in this area, as the funding has been withdrawn.
Angela Comer, Clacton-on-Sea, Essex
Porn sends a shocking message to both sexes
While Jacqui Smith does state that porn is far too easy to get hold of and its influence on young people's minds is of huge concern, she goes on to suggest that the porn industry could become socially responsible by helping to pay for some sex education (Wednesday Essay, 2 March).
Does she not see the hypocrisy? Where are the condoms in porn films? The solution to the negative effects of porn on society, and the degradation of women in these films, is not acceptance and inclusion. It has been the reluctant acceptance by women, and even some feminists, of porn that has meant porn has become easily accessible by both adults and children, often in the form of unwanted images that pop up while online.
Children have seen graphic adult sex scenes before they have their own sexual experiences. What do we think their views are after watching films that portray sex with no emotional connection?
Women are objects in porn, and this is a dangerous message to send to men and boys. The message it sends to girls and women is even worse. It says they will be judged on their physical and sexual allure. This is evident in the rise of plastic surgery, which shockingly includes surgery on the labia to conform with what these girls see in pornographic material.
Our hyper-sexual culture is not liberating or empowering for anyone. To truly value ourselves, our mothers, daughters and sisters, to have emotionally connected sexual experiences based on respect for everyone involved, will take a lot more than "safe sex messages" and more sex education classes for children who have already seen explicit sex on their screens.
April-Tui Buckley, London SW6
Jacqui Smith's views on pornography and the effects on those who make it and buy it are relevant and well stated. However, I'd rather she take a look at the way certain tabloid newspapers view women. Their attitudes over the past 40 years have contributed to the lack of respect for women which has resulted in large numbers of young men viewing sexual assault and rape as legitimate relationship forms.
Then, I'd like her to examine the attitudes to female sexual assault and rape victims shown by mainly male-dominated police forces who receive their opinions on women and relationships from those self-same tabloids.
Mike Abbott, London W4
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places responsibilities upon employers which are aimed to protect employees from exploitation and to protect their health. One section of the act requires an employer to protect employees from other people's body fluids. The lack of condoms and other practices by the porn industry are breaches of this law.
W Attwood, Stirling
Universities go for top fees
The University and College Union shares the concerns of the 600-plus Oxbridge academics that worry universities are being left to "fly blind" following the increase in tuition fees (letter, 2 March). Research we produced in December made a mockery of the Government's claims that universities would charge over £6,000 only in exceptional circumstances.
The sector is in a complete mess and the academics are right to question the logic of universities setting fees in an untried higher education market before the White Paper with the finer details of the new system is published.
The Government must reconsider its disastrous plans to axe the entire teaching budgets of some institutions and shift the burden of funding higher education from the state to the individual. As the University of Exeter announces plans to join Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial in charging the full £9,000 a year fee from 2012, we believe the Government should brace itself for more universities following suit.
We calculated that universities will have to charge an average of £6,863 just to recoup money the Government has removed from teaching budgets. However, on top of punitive budget cuts, universities are reeling from new restrictions on overseas students and cuts to research funding. We also believe many institutions will opt for the higher fee to ensure they do not lose prestige.
David Willetts's recent efforts to persuade or threaten universities to charge less than the full £9,000 is an embarrassing admission that the Government has got its sums wrong and only just realised that its toothless access regulator has no legal powers to enforce fee levels. It is simply not on for the Government to try and shift the blame for universities' fee levels on the institutions. They are responding to devastating funding cuts from the Government.
The Oxbridge academics are right. We need to halt the current plans and ensure the changes are rigorously examined – something that was sorely lacking in the original debate in the House of Commons in December.
Sally Hunt, General Secretary, University and College Union London NW1
As unemployment figures climb, it is hard to understand why small and medium engineering companies in the West Midlands cannot find machine operators to produce the finished goods. The obsession with getting more and more students to university and the lack of apprenticeships means that the added value that manufacturing brings is being throttled through a skills shortage.
Don Brown, Coventry
As Libya burns, Europe talks
Adrian Hamilton is right (Opinion, 3 March). The European Union response to events in North Africa has been lamentable. No one should be surprised by this. The EU is not a state and still less the superstate that its critics fear. Nor is Baroness Ashton, the High Representative for the Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, a foreign minister. Her title shows how the EU is good on rhetoric, but it remains feeble on action.
Since Maastricht the European Union has had, on paper, a Common Foreign and Security Policy, but it is not common and it mostly avoids policy. Baroness Ashton was appointed by the European Council precisely because she would not make policy, nor would she offend national governments. Instead she would walk on eggshells collecting the views of 27 foreign ministers, while delicately liaising between the most powerful EU institutions, the Council and the Commission.
The member states are divided on foreign policy and they lack the political will to respond in any practical way to the North African crises. Handwringing and platitudes is all they can offer.
Inside the Council is a little-known body called the Crisis Management Planning Directorate. It is staffed by excellent people, but it depends on instructions from the member states through the Political and Security Committee. The Union has wonderful structures but none of this amounts to a row of beans without member-state authorisation, and their provision of adequate resources.
The people of North Africa will remember that the European countries and the EU stood by and did nothing in their hour of need.
Simon Sweeney, University of York
No excuses for Galliano
I found Susannah Frankel's defence of John Galliano (2 March) extremely uncomfortable reading. Her portrait of a shy, gentle, extremely talented man invites us to feel sympathy for Galliano and hopes to lead us to the conclusion that his remarks were merely a moment of understandable weakness from a man with too much on his plate. Moments of weakness are excusable. Moments of anti-Semitism are not.
We cannot balance hate with talent; measuring beautiful clothes (I will even say art) against abuse and cruelty. Even the fact that Galliano has been willing to talk to journalists through racks of clothing does not balance out the moment he told a woman her mother would be gassed and dead. If we say one act of hate and bigotry is excusable, we allow many acts of hate and bigotry to be excusable.
I find it more comforting to live in a world where one talented man is out of a job than in a world where it is acceptable to threaten, discriminate against and abuse others for any reason.
Abigail McMahon, Rustington, West Sussex
Inquiry into hacking case
Your article "No action against police who 'bungled' hacking case" (3 March) is inaccurate. Contrary to your assertion, I did not lead nor was any part of the original inquiry. For the record, the original inquiry that commenced in 2005 and concluded with the conviction of Goodman and Mulcaire in 2006, was indeed led by officers from Specialist Operations in the Met, which at that time was led by former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman.
Following the publication of what appeared to be new revelations in a national newspaper in July 2009, I was asked by the Commissioner, as the new incumbent in charge of Specialist Operations, to establish facts and determine whether the article had revealed any new evidence. It did not, a position subsequently supported by the Crown Prosecution Service. We have always said that if new evidence emerged we would consider it. That is what we have done in this case.
John Yates, Acting Deputy Commissioner, Metropolitan Police Service, London SW1
If there were a prize for the least surprising headline of the month, a strong contender would be "No action against police who 'bungled' hacking case". It is widely believed that no policeman is ever disciplined or rebuked, whatever the circumstances.
Gyles Cooper, London N10
Why they hate high-speed rail
I am intrigued as to why the people in the Chilterns are making such a fuss about the proposed high speed railway – did they make a similar fuss when the M40 motorway was proposed? Motorways are far more intrusive than railways, including the high-speed ones. Motorways take up much more space, have a far greater visual impact, and generate far more noise (the acoustic fences on railways are very effective).
Could the explanation be that there are several junctions in the Chilterns on the M40, so people in the locality can use it, whereas there will be no station for them on HS2? If these people were to regularly experience using the train services on the West Coast main line they might show some understanding for the necessity of HS2. Or is it, "We agree HS2 is needed, but not here"?
Ian K Watson, Carlisle
Who, exactly, are envisaged as passengers for the high-speed rail between London and Birmingham?
Are they football supporters? Parties of schoolchildren or students on educational trips to the NEC or British Museum? Are they families visiting relatives? Or, as I suspect, are the imagined passengers, in Mrs Thatcher's phrase, people like us? That is, well-paid business people whose travelling expenses are borne by their employers – just like the politicians and those promoting the proposal.
S Lawton, Kirtlington, Oxfordshire
Schwarzkopf's desert island
Your leading article of 2 March perpetuates the old canard about the egotism of the great soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as demonstrated by her choice of desert island discs. Faced with the request to choose music to take to the island that was connected with significant moments in her life, or brought to mind people and places (the underlying structure of the programme), she chose recordings from across her career that did just that. Would that we were all so blessed as to be able to make such a choice.
Robin Bulow, Deal, Kent
Glenn Bowman (letter, 28 February), along with so many other of your other correspondents, clearly misreads Julie Burchill. Although she may lack the verbal dexterity and wit of Swift, Burchill adopts a similar strategy of adopting an indefensible position and then, through hyperbolic exaggeration, rendering it ridiculous. The Independent is to be applauded for keeping the tradition of Augustan satire alive.
Tony Bex, Ramsgate, Kent
Bags of ideas
The craze for ever more expensive "must-have" handbags ("The cultural significance of the handbag", 3 March) was a brilliant coup by the fashion industry because, unlike shoes or clothes, handbags don't have to suit a particular body size – thus eliminating the annoying need of customers to buy something that actually fits.
Mary Rose Gliksten, Duns, Berwickshire