Letters: Perspectives on the tax people

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Helpful staff, terrible laws

I don't doubt Sean O'Grady's account of his unfortunate personal dealings with HM Revenue and Customs, but his article (8 September) is unfair in extrapolating those dealings into a generalised cheap shot at HMRC staff.

First, my personal experiences are very different. Once I have got through to the right person (and the call system is indeed a nightmare), I have nearly always been dealt with courteously, professionally and – on occasions – in an exceptionally helpful and constructive way.

Second, it should be recognised that HMRC staff are operating a tax system of Byzantine complexity, which politicians have never got round to reforming in the fundamental way that is needed.

This is because, historically, tax law has grown up under a common law system, with rules of strict interpretation, often leading to the elevation of form over substance and giving vast scope for armies of professional advisers to promote ever-more inventive avoidance methods. This was eventually countered by a couple of House of Lords decisions, and some new laws, but this has been mere tinkering.

What is needed is to tax substance over form; to eviscerate much of the detailed legislation; to adopt a general anti-avoidance principle; and to provide a full advance clearance mechanism.

Philip Goldenberg, Woking, Surrey

Businesses left in the dark

HMRC? Don't get me started. In addition to our own personal tax, those of us fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to run our own business have to grapple with employees' PAYE, student loans, SSP, SMP – the list goes on. Topped off of course by the dreaded VAT.

They of course do not have to tell you about any changes in the rules; you have to find out. A bit like doing a jigsaw without the picture. And if you fail this test then a fine awaits.

Kim Molnar, Preston, Lancashire

Women killed by families

I am grateful to Robert Fisk and The Independent for shedding light on the widespread femicide committed in the name of honour ("Crime wave that shames the world", 7 September).

Women in different parts of the world are being killed by male members of their families on the strength of rumour. Victims of honour crimes are dumped in unmarked graves without any funeral services. Their families bury their life histories with them and repress any acts of remembrance.

The civil code which allows such crimes to be committed must be replaced by a humane and egalitarian law. One day we shall build a mausoleum in the centre of many capitals and inscribe on it the names of women, who were senselessly murdered.

Fadia Faqir, St Aidan's College, Durham University

Thank you so much for the article from Robert Fisk highlighting the horror faced by countless thousands of women every year. For most of my adult life I have been appalled that a blind eye has been turned to this terror. Could it really be because they were "merely" women?

Apartheid was challenged by the revulsion shared globally by millions and the direct action that was taken to demand change. It came.

Like many, I feel that "honour" killings are just one symptom of the institutionalised misogyny and sexual apartheid that has found safe shelter within certain cultures. For too long this subject has been swept under the carpet for fear of causing offence. Meanwhile, countless women continue to live in desperate fear and oppression. Change only comes by vociferous action and challenge. I am grateful for this article and hope that a clamour can begin for change.

This year the Organisation of the Islamic Conference will once again introduce the Defamation of Religions Resolution in the United Nations. It allows governments the power to determine which religious views can and can't be expressed in their country, and it gives the state the right to punish those who express "unacceptable" religious views. In effect, it seeks to make persecution and prejudice legal. One hopes that the UN will throw it out, but then one has hoped that the UN would act decisively against "honour" killings.

Glynis Reed, London W11

I feel ashamed that such barbarity exists in many countries in this 21st century. It hurts me more because I come from Pakistan, where such crimes also take place.

I grew up in a small town but never heard any such incident in our town. But official data presented in the country's parliament recently shows that more than 4,000 people were killed during the last six years in honour killings.

Such crime is normally attributed to cultural traditions. Culture is a deep-seated belief system concerning how members treat each other and react to the outside world. One cannot deny that religion has a lot to do with honour killings, as Islam does not allow sex outside marriage, and most Muslims are very religious in the country.

Just as sinister a crime is imprisoning women in their houses, unableto step outside without a male family member. Just imagine a person not able to do anything independently in life, such as getting out for a walk, or making her own friends and marrying somebody of her own choice. Unfortunately I do not see any positive change in the near future.

Sharif Lone, Germany (address supplied)

Iniquity of the house market

Graeme Brown of Shelter Scotland (letter, 6 September) is right to welcome the fall in house prices, but that modest reduction does little to ameliorate a problem that should shame us all.

Most property sales are part of a long chain, at one end of which is a first-time buyer, at the other end an inheritor. The average first-time buyer risks near-poverty to finance the purchase at today's grotesquely inflated prices. The average inheritor will be middle-aged, mortgage-free or close to it, and will have done little to deserve the largesse beyond being someone's relative. It is a direct transfer of wealth from the poor to those who generally have no real need of it, and a fair society should not tolerate such iniquity.

Other measures aside, I cannot understand why anyone should object to a drastic lowering of the Inheritance Tax threshold, except perhaps those so blinded by the prospect of a spending spree when an aged relative dies that they cannot see who will actually be paying for it.

Patrick Tuohy, Hastings, East Sussex

Too easy to hack into phones

Leaving to one side the question of the identity and character of the people who colluded in accessing the voicemails of various public figures, two more questions seem far more important. Why was this technically possible? And knowing that it is technically possible, why do potential victims persist in not taking elementary precautions?

Most mobile phone service providers permit a subscriber to access their voice messages using their telephone number as authentication. If the subscriber is calling from the associated mobile phone then no PIN is required to listen to any messages. This is a severe security weakness, as it is possible for a criminal to spoof the caller ID and so appear to the voicemail system to be calling from the subscriber's mobile phone.

That weakness is well known. In partial mitigation of it, the service providers offer subscribers an option to set a PIN code to be required whenever their voice messages are accessed. Anyone who cares about the privacy of their messages should set this feature using a non-obvious PIN code.

It astounds me that, as reported in The Independent on 4 September, Tessa Jowell should fall victim to this attack 28 times and apparently not realise it. However, it appears that first the police and then her service provider finally advised her to increase her security. Thank goodness our Cabinet ministers are so well advised.

Mike Cherry, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

A university to be proud of

I am astonished that Michelle Willmott (letter, 6 September) should make a negative comparison between a degree from Liverpool Hope University and one from Oxbridge. I was one of the fortunate first intake to Hope in 1964. In those days we were generally altruistic, optimistic and enthusiastic but few of us sought to make "contacts" to benefit our future careers.

Having been refused by every other institution, not being the most focused schoolboy, I was given by Hope an opportunity and education for which I shall be for ever appreciative. After three headships and a time with Ofsted, and with a research doctorate, I have not caught too much harm!

Mic Carolan, Wigan

My husband and I are graduates of Oxford University and the parents of two recent graduates: one from Oxford, the other from Liverpool Hope. Both have enjoyed excellent educational experiences, but, whereas Oxford has been able to burnish its reputation over centuries, Liverpool Hope deserves, in our experience, enormous credit for having developed its splendid combination of high academic standards and outstanding pastoral care in only a very few years.

At a graduation ceremony in July in Liverpool Cathedral we were privileged to hear the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gerald Pillay, speak with conviction of his vision for Hope as a university which will continue to strive for the highest academic standards, while remaining numerically small enough to ensure that the human being is never sacrificed to the system.

Many "elite" institutions could learn from this approach.

Ann Marie McMahon, Chester

Turkey has no place in Europe

Jon Summers (letter, 31 August) argues that if Martinique in the Caribbean and Iceland in the North Atlantic can be in the EU, so can Turkey, despite being almost entirely in Asia (it borders Iran and Iraq).

Martinique is tiny and its population has a living standard little different from metropolitan France; culturally it is essentially French. Iceland, also tiny, was settled from Scandinavia, to which it is geographically close and culturally similar.

In contrast, Turkey has a population approaching 100 million. It is poor, culturally alien in almost every respect. Its political divide is between extreme nationalism and growing Islamism. Its democratic and secular claims are, judged by European norms, spurious.

Intolerance of Shia Muslims and Christians is at a high level. The civil war still raging between Turks and Kurds has brought 30 times the number of deaths as occurred during the "troubles" in Northern Ireland. If Turkey appears to be stable it is because the army has the upper hand, which it demonstrates by periodic coups.

As for Germany and Austria having received large numbers of Turkish immigrants, public opinion there is more hostile to admitting Turkey to the EU than public opinion in Britain.

What has always been fundamental to the concept of European unity is a shared culture, much more important than trade advantages or the strategic interests of the United States. David Cameron shows poor judgement in favouring Turkish membership.

C J Woods, Celbridge, Co Kildare, Ireland

Child poverty is a real challenge

Mary Dejevsky's ideas about child poverty (31 August) bear very little relation to the facts.

She makes the mistake of thinking that child poverty campaigners are only asking for better support for those out of work, overlooking the fact that more than half of families below the poverty line have work and most of those without work are desperately trying to find it.

It's also wrong to suggest that too many children are being born. The birth rate is much lower today than in previous generations. It is lack of affordable housing, not a surplus of children, that requires urgent attention. There is no great financial incentive to have children from the benefit system. Research published in February this year put the current cost of raising a child at £10,000 a year, which is well above what you can receive in welfare benefits and tax credits.

People always had children in "unpropitious circumstances" and it is ahistorical to suggest some moral golden age in which this was not the case. Our shameful problem as a nation remains that, compared with most other wealthy countries, the circumstances for child-raising are unpropitious for a much greater proportion of families.

Imran Hussain, Head of Policy, Rights and Advocacy, Child Poverty Action Group, London N1

No humane way to hunt wales

Tom Sutcliffe (7 September) is absolutely correct to point out the hypocrisy of the carnivorous west when it comes to the Japanese taste for whale meat. But it is precisely the animal's "free-range" status that makes ethical objections to modern whaling incontrovertible – whatever you believe about their beauty, endangered status or even their intelligence.

In this industry the innocent initials TTD represent Time to Death – the period between the harpooning of a whale and its demise. Under International Whaling Commission regulations, no infringement is reported if this is less than 30 minutes.

Imagine if, in the slaughterhouse, our domestic livestock took half an hour, or more, to die. Or indeed, if a cow or a pig had to be dragged backwards in the water to drown it. The bottom line is that it is impossible to kill a whale humanely at sea. Every other argument proceeds from that point.

Philip Hoare, Southampton

How early colour photos worked

As a collector of 35mm copies of old colour slides of railway topics, I was fascinated by the double-page spread illustrating the work of Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky (28 August).

The earliest slide I have was taken in 1934 on the Great Western at Exeter. This was taken using the Dufay system. Most early colour film, which was commercially introduced in 1934, did produce transparencies as opposed to negatives (letter, 6 September).

Prokudin-Gorsky's method was very similar to the Paget system of producing transparencies in the UK. Having triple colour plates laid on top of each other does work very well – apart from the cost and the weight of a box full of plates.

Now all I need is to find out how to get a copy of the scene taken on the Murmansk railway line in 1910.

Chris Youett, Coventry

Struggle on the Underground

Have you ever tried to travel across London at the weekend? You'll find your journey affected by constant engineering works. The weekday journey is one of overcrowded trains and random cancellations.

And then there was this week's strike action. But I suppose we should be used to this as it happens every few months.

What would happen if the teachers, the health workers or even Tesco went on strike? It wouldn't happen. For Transport for London and the unions to allow this to happen, particularly in the current economic climate, is selfish, backward and completely unjustifiable.

Can't wait for the Olympics!

Caolan Byrne, London N8

Hunting ban

Sorry, Mr Clayton (letter, 7 September) but the Hunting Act was, according to MORI, supported by only 47 per cent of the public. One quarter of all those polled expressed indifference. Given that the ban is routinely (and rightly) ignored, however, it's perhaps churlish of me to quibble.

Allan Friswell, Cowling, North Yorkshire

Same as I?

Tom Geddes (letter, 7 September) is wrong to defend "lived in the same town as John and I". He (almost certainly) wouldn't say "lived in the same town as I". He might say "lived in the same town I do", but that is slightly different (grammatically if not semantically).

David Gould, Andover, Hampshire

Name an exam

Susan Chesters (letter, 8 September) asks for better names than "baccalaureate" for recognition of five good passes in English, maths, a science, a modern foreign language and a humanities subject. Back in the 1950s, we called it Matriculation.

Sue Johnson, Otham, Kent

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