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Saturday 17 October 2009
Letters: Sir Thomas Legg and expenses
Three cheers for Legg – a truly independent man
Your leading article (13 October) is to the point in advising that errant MPs should swallow their medicine and pay back the sums that Sir Thomas Legg suggests. Sir Thomas provides a rare and magnificent example of independent assessment and evaluation.
Time after time prime ministers have selected distinguished public servants to investigate matters that have caused high anxiety among the general public. Lord Hutton, for example, investigated the death of Dr David Kelly. His report cleared the government of all wrongdoing and took the opportunity to castigate the BBC and, as a consequence, caused the resignation of both the BBC's excellent director general and its highly respected chairman. That report was regarded by many as an appalling whitewash.
In July 2004, another distinguished public servant, Lord Butler, reported on the intelligence used by the British Government to justify the invasion of a sovereign country, Iraq. The Butler Report was regarded by many as a rather more sophisticated whitewash, being highly critical of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, but cloaked in so much mandarin speak and obfuscation that the government was able to claim that the report had completely exonerated Mr Blair and his government.
Now, at last, one piece of good news arises out of the MPs' expenses mess. Let us celebrate that there is at least one distinguished public servant, albeit retired, who does not bow before power and is willing to call a spade a spade. A man who has determined and declared that among those expenses miscreants in the Palace of Westminster is one Mr Gordon Brown, who should repay £12,415 of the taxpayers' money that he claimed for cleaning and gardening at his second home.
A distinguished member of the establishment who places his integrity, his public duty, and his independence above the easy path of pandering to powerful government and to numerous politicians in both of the main parties? Sir Thomas is truly a breath of fresh air.
Gerald de Lacey
Globalwarming: it’s time for Plan B
Dominic Lawson is wrong when he says that we shouldn't worry about rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (Opinion, 13 October), but he’s right to point out that we are not going to solve it by lifestyle changes. People are not going to vote for lower economic growth and no more air travel.
So we urgently need a Plan B: a set of electorally acceptable policiesthat can prevent climate change. Our government should be working with others on the following: saving the rainforest, developing carbon capture and storage and funding research into carbon scrubbing. Rainforest destruction is responsible for 17 per cent of the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions, more than, for example, total worldwide car and air travel. We need to agree to compensate rainforest countries for the economic benefits that they would lose if they no longer allowed rainforest to be cut down.
Carbon capture and storage is vital. China, India and other countries are likely to be building many hundreds of new coal-fired power stations over the next 30 years, with potentially disastrous consequences. We also need to start taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The Royal Society rightly calls for more research into carbon scrubbing, which directly captures CO2 from ambient air, and buries it in, for example, disused gas fields. That’s Plan B. Let’s start it now, before we pass so many atmosphere tipping points that it’s too late.
Save lives with speed cameras
The shortcomings of speed cameras to which I believe Mr Bridgstock alludes (letter, 14 October) do not apply to average speed cameras. They do not cause braking and accelerating and, furthermore, compliance is very high, according to Geoff Hoon, when he was Transport Minister.
Thus, through a village, for example, such cameras would reduce the severity of injuries and damage in accidents: the difference between 30mph and 40mph in injury caused is well known. They would also reduce the noise of traffic: a vehicle at 56mph causes 10 times as much noise as one at 31mph. Noise is mentioned in Government guidelines as a reason for imposing a speed limit, but does not ever figure in reasons for enforcement.
Mr Bridgstock rightly says that we need to improve driver education. We should learn from the experience of drink driving. In the 1950s, society’s attitude to drink driving was very tolerant. This was changed by a mixture of education and enforcement. For enforcement to play its part, people must always feel that they might get caught, as they did on the introduction of the breathalyser.
Cameras do not do this, because drivers know where they are, and speed guns do not work either, because other drivers give a warning that the “speed trap” is there. Police patrols would work, particularly if unmarked vehicles were used. Dare I also suggest hidden speed traps? Average speed cameras should play a part in getting drivers accustomed to driving within the speed limit. It is a great pity that the Conservative Party proposes not to extend their use.
David Bell, Ware,
MOD abuse of small companies
One of the often overlooked side-effects of the MOD’s byzantine procurement policies is the impact they can have on small suppliers (“MOD procurement system is ‘so bad it no longer shocks’”, 16 October).
For a time, I was an adviser to a small precision electronics company which had indirectly been driven into near bankruptcy by the MOD. The company had spent more than 18 months designing an innovative piece of equipment for the MOD which had passed all tests with flying colours. They were promised an order within a month, and started to gear up to meet the MOD’s exacting criteria. In the interim, as a small company with finite resources, they turned down work from other clients to remain available to meet the MOD’s targets. Over the next 18 months, the MOD revised the specification numerous times, each time asking for updated drawings and timescales, always with the promise of an imminent order. Every excuse under the sun was used to try to justify the non-arrival of the order; personnel changes, long-term sickness and changing budget priorities.
Eventually, due to turning down other work and spending too much time on the MOD’s work, the company was forced into a CVA (Company Voluntary Arrangement) to avoid administration, with job losses and losses to suppliers as a result. The company re-formed and reopened for trade. The first customer? The MOD. Large companies appear to be able to screw money out of the MOD for non-existent products. Small companies do not have that power and have their goodwill abused.
London chair of the Arts Council
Terence Blacker (14 October) is wrong. Boris Johnson did not “insist” that Veronica Wadley be shortlisted for the London chair of the Arts Council – Liz Forgan and I shortlisted her. It is also wrong to claim that the chair of the committee thought she was “ill-qualified”. I was the chair and think she would bring valuable experience as well as commitment to the arts in the capital.
Under Wadley’s stewardship, the Evening Standard won a string of awards for its coverage of arts and culture and she chaired the theatre and film awards for many years. Rejecting her candidacy was a politically motivated decision, but Boris Johnson and myself remain absolutely committed to the arts thriving in London and will continue working with the Arts Council until a London chair is appointed.
Advisor to the Mayor of London on Arts and Culture,
City Hall, London, SE1
Private schools absurdly privileged
“There is no comparison between resources in the private and state sectors” of schooling, writes E Jane Dickson (9 October), and says the Government should respond by raising standards in state schools so as to knock out private education’s chief selling-point.
Perhaps Dickson hasn’t grasped the extent of the resources gap. Let’s take class sizes. According to OECD figures, class sizes in private secondary schools are around half those in state schools – 12 compared to 24. And that’s not because the state is especially stingy in funding its schools: we are almost on the OECD average for class sizes in state secondary schools.
We are the outliers in the startling and quite exceptional level of privilege enjoyed by our private schools and their students. This makes Dickson’s advice somewhat unrealistic. It also means there is a compelling national interest in the Charity Commission requiring private schools to show clearly and quickly how their charitable status can be justified.
Professor Ron Glatter,
Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire
Blair for President of EU? Dream on
As someone who is not from Britain, I have been following the debate about Tony Blair becoming “President of Europe” with some bemusement. Let’s be realistic: Norwich City are more likely to win the Champions League this year than Tony Blair to be appointed President of the European Union.
The French and Germans will not allow such a plum post to be given to someone who was the leader of the most awkward and eurosceptic member of the EU and who spent his time in office being George W Bush’s lapdog. If they cannot agree on a suitable French or German candidate, it will be given to a compromise candidate from one of the smaller (and almost certainly Eurozone) states that they can trust or intimidate as required – probably someone from Finland or Luxembourg (or maybe even Ireland, as a reward for voting the right way at last).
Thank you Mary Dejevsky (13 October). Are we sleepwalking into a bizarre appointment of that deluded “statesman” Tony Blair as EU President? We need someone honest and reputable; I cannot believe that the other EU leaders will really vote for him, and if we want to blight Europe’s relationship with the Arab world, I can’t think of a better candidate.
The solution to the problems at the Post Office is simple – give it the job of selling off government debt. We are told that much of Goldman Sachs’s income has come from trading government debt. So bring back the National Giro Bank and let it sell government debt. Then we can argue about post workers’ bonuses instead of strikes.
Far from merely illustrating the idiocies of the European voting system, as Andrew Parfitt (letters, 12 October) seems to think, the Irish “yes” vote, following the previous “no” vote, in fact illustrates the idiocy of all plebiscites. Popular opinion is extremely fickle, and largely motivated by self-interest, greed and (as here) fear. Thus, plebiscites are always liable to produce different results at different times. To blame all this on “Brussels gangsters” is naive as well as malicious – after all, the Irish were perfectly free to reject the treaty a second time.
Tory job cuts
John Hart (letters, 13 October) believes Cameron when hesays that no nurse, teacher, hospital porter, etc will lose their jobs under Conservative spending cuts; instead it will be the bean-counters, boxtickers, etc. Perhaps so, but he needs to be reminded that these people all came as result of the introduction of the “accountability” culture – and the idea that public servants were not to be trusted. Who was responsible for this? It wouldn’t have been Margaret Thatcher perchance?
Kindness of strangers
While I, like Gilly Usborne (letters, 12 October), have experienced ambivalent feelings about being offered a seat on public transport, I always accept with gratitude, partly because I think it would be churlish not to, and partly because I’m glad of a seat. As most of us eventually have to accept that we’re getting on a bit, it strikes me that accepting such kindnesses from strangers can also help me to reconcile myself to looking elderly.
Those who have expressed surprise at the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to a President of the US should rememberthat Alfred Nobel earned his fortune by inventing dynamite.
St Ives, Cambridgeshire
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