Your front-page report "The great HMRC telephone rip-off" (18 December) was right to point out the high cost to HMRC customers of premium rate 0845 numbers.
But this practice goes on throughout government. My research has shown that 148 of the Department for Work and Pensions' helplines – or 87 per cent – are 0845.
The most vulnerable, poor and distressed people have to call these numbers to claim, change or enquire about sickness and disability benefits, carers' support, jobs, pensions, child support and even crisis loans.
Well over 30 million people call just seven of the DWP's most-used helplines each year but many give up on getting through after being kept on hold and charged. In one example, more than one in three calls to the employment and support allowance helpline are abandoned before they are answered, but on average over five minutes after they have been connected.
Callers to the incapacity benefit reassessment line wait nearly 13 minutes without being answered before they hang up.
That means some people who can ill afford it are being charged more than £5 without even getting through.
The DWP and HMRC tell us they don't profit from having 0845 numbers, but someone is making money from these calls.
If it's the Government, it's immoral. If it's only the telephone company, then it's a very bad deal for taxpayers.
Calls to such public service lines should be free.
John Healey MP
(Lab. Wentworth & Dearne),
House of Commons, London SW1
Since when have taxpayers been "customers" of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (report, 18 December)?
Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Make HMRC's phone an 0800 number. Then see how long they keep you waiting if they are paying.
Goring Heath, Oxfordshire
Dodgy grounds for the right to bear arms
If Mary Dejevsky considers that "a state that allows its citizens to carry arms is a state that is confident in its legality and unafraid of its people" (18 December) then she presumably regards our own (and Scandinavian neighbours among others) as verging on the illegitimate and fearful of armed insurrection.
On the other hand, she might consider the heavily armed Iraqi society of Saddam's days as indicative of state legitimacy and societal confidence.
People are asking, in the light of the 20 children killed by assault weapons this week, "why did this happen?" The answer is: because we let crazy people have access to military-grade guns. Why? Because America is about money, not protecting children. The gun industry donates huge sums to get members of Congress elected so that they can make sure they get to sell guns.
As long as we put money first then children are going to be gunned down by crazy people. The only way that we can change that is to do like we did last election and turn away from candidates who have big money behind them. As long as we are too lazy to vote smart then we will have to get used to having our children slaughtered to protect corporate profits of the gun lobby.
Gilroy, California, USA
In my twenties, I was seconded to work for an IBM support team in Jacksonville, Florida.
In the middle of my four-month stay I was allowed a business-class trip back to the UK. I arrived at the Jacksonville airport terminal by taxi. While I fiddled about getting cash to pay the driver, he put my suitcase and black executive-style briefcase on the sidewalk next to the taxi. I paid him grabbed my suitcase and bent down to pick up my briefcase.
Somebody shouted "Hey! What you doing?", and I glanced up. The well-dressed businessman from the next taxi was right next to me, red in the face, shouting loudly, and putting his hand inside his jacket. Behind the man an airport porter appeared from nowhere and grabbed him in a bear-hug, pinning his arms to his sides.
We all calmed down. It turned out the shouting man had a similar briefcase, and his driver had placed it on the sidewalk too. He thought I was trying to steal his briefcase. My taxi driver and the porter looked at each other knowingly. Naively, I assumed the look between them was an unsaid, "Man, these stupid white folks".
A little later it dawned on me that the porter had probably just saved my life. My fellow briefcase-owner was "packing heat" as they say in North America. He was legally carrying a concealed handgun.
Because of a simple misunderstanding, a rush of adrenaline, and the presence of a firearm, I very nearly got shot.
Bragg Creek, Alberta, Canada
Good tax, bad tax? Tell us, George
A major factor to take into account when evaluating the "goodness", or otherwise, of any particular tax is the extent to which it meets the objectives the tax setters had in mind when setting it.
If the objective of UK corporation tax as applied to multinationals (including, Starbucks, Amazon and Google) is to raise revenue directly, then it is clearly a bad tax. Being not fit for this purpose it should be abandoned in favour of an alternative tax designed specifically to achieve this objective.
But if the objective is to attract and retain multinationals then it might be seen as a good tax. In this case, rather than fuel arguments about the morality of tax avoidance (as distinct from evasion) our political leaders could better devote their energies to drawing the attention of those who do pay their taxes to the benefits which flow from the presence in our economy of multinationals (including employment creation, VAT revenues generated, income-tax and National Insurance receipts from employees, supply-chain effects and so forth).
The Chancellor can't have it both ways: so come on George Osborne, make it clear to us whether your objective is to raise revenue or to retain foreign-owned firms within these shores?
Sir Edward Gonnehr Professor of Applied Economics (Emeritus)
University of Liverpool
The head-honcho of Google gloating about his company's tax avoidance at a time many people are reeling from the squeeze appears the taunting of a bully (14 December); nevertheless, as he points out, their tax avoidance is not illegal.
David Cameron disingenuously attributes the "immorality" of this behaviour to the tax-avoiding companies: but the (very real) immorality belongs to successive governments which have created and maintained a tax regime riddled with loopholes. Recently, we have seen several good scams for large global companies to avoid tax in this country; others will follow, making it more difficult for medium and small business to compete and increasing the burden on ordinary taxpayers.
If more businesses agglomerate to become large, tax-avoiding entities, how are future governments to find adequate tax revenues?
Horsham, West Sussex
Renewables are our future
No one doubts that unconventional fossil fuels such as shale gas and tar sands could provide energy for many years (letters, 15 December). The problem is that we need to limit temperature rises to 2 degrees centigrade and that means keeping atmospheric levels of CO2 below 450 parts per million (ppm).
Levels have already risen from 280 to 391 ppm and are currently increasing at 2 ppm per year. So we don't have long before climate change becomes irreversible.
According to the Carbon Tracker initiative there are currently 2,795 gigatons of proven coal gas and oil reserves worldwide, five times more than can safely be discharged.
So why are we exploring unconventional sources such as shale gas and and why on earth are oil companies looking to drill in the Arctic? Energy conservation and renewables are the only rational way forward
Dr Robin Russell-Jones MA FRCP FRCPath
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire
Little town of Bethlehem
In his ever-entertaining column, Chris Bryant (15 December) assured us that politicians try hard to avoid telling untruths, so I guess it was an honest mistake for him to imply that the Christmas story was set in what is now Israel.
Bethlehem is in the neighbouring state of Palestine, separated from Israel (and largely enclosed) by a 27ft concrete wall. Jesus’s birthplace today is as it was 2,000-odd years ago, suffering under a harsh foreign occupation.
Christmas spirit in the hospital
While visiting my very sick mother-in-law yesterday, I was cheered by the decorations at the reception desk at Basingstoke hospital. They are outstanding – it looks like a grotto. Apparently, each department is being judged in a competition to see who has created the most beautiful decorations. Very inspiring in a time of austerity and misery. The staff were just amazing.
Am I missing something? The Church of England is the established church, and so is linked to the state. The state is to decide to extend marriage to same-sex couples. The Church of England is not to be allowed to marry gay couples. How does that work, then?
Hurrah for HMV
I could not agree more with Ian Craine (letters, 18 December) about HMV. Whenever I visit London, a visit to the store on Oxford Street is a must.
Not only do they have a popular music collection but also a large collection of jazz and classical CDs and DVDs with a knowledgable staff, and, I assume, they pay their taxes.
Strange that Gormley, that most robotic of sculptors/body-casters, should be railing against the creation of a “society of robots” (17 December). I would have thought he might have been inspired by the prospect to go for a “C3PO of the North” to remind us how it’s done.
London SW2Reuse content