Letters: Soldiers' votes

Soldiers need to be told they have a right to vote
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The Independent Online

During my 20 years of service in the Army my wife and I had postal proxy votes ("Logistical problems threaten to leave forces without a vote", 20 March). Our parents knew how we wanted to vote and we trusted them to use our vote as we would wish.

Today's much improved communications enable service personnel in even the most remote locations to let their proxies know their views on politics, in total confidentiality. I find it hard to understand why there is "little enthusiasm" among service personnel for proxy voting.

Of more concern is the attitude of the Services' hierarchy to allowing "other ranks" to know their voting rights, let alone use them. It may have changed now, but when I was a young officer I was appalled at the attitude of many senior NCOs and officers, who had allowed junior soldiers to believe that they ought not to vote, because "politics and soldiering don't mix". Consequently the vast majority of soldiers had not registered to vote at all.

I served for 18 months in a recruiting unit, where I demanded that every recruit under my charge was given the forms and ordered to register for voting. In the Armed Forces, this is a once-only requirement: registration lasts for a whole career. There is no excuse for the Services not to do this for every recruit.

On leaving the Army, I stood in 1997 as a parliamentary candidate in a constituency with several barracks. Attitudes to voting had not changed. Many soldiers I canvassed in their married quarters, and in their own homes, were not registered and felt they had no right to vote.

Tony Vickers

(Lt Col Ret'd) Newbury, berkshire

Westminster's new can of worms

It can't come as any surprise to the majority of the electorate that ex-Cabinet ministers have shown themselves willing to offer companies their expertise on lobbying. They lay bare the state of British politics.

Of course, the ex-ministers could be full of their own self-importance or exaggerating what they could achieve. However, we should bear in mind that they were once at the centre of government, and their replacements didn't come with guaranrtees of higher standards.

Personally, I believe that lobbying of this kind is common practice. No doubt, as in the expenses scandal, another can of worms has been opened.

Alan Aitchison

Wakefield, West Yorkshire

So, in his own defence and to support his claim that he "complied with the MPs' code of conduct", Stephen Byers asserts that he misrepresented the true position to someone whose own bona fides he, Mr Byers, presumably regarded as beyond question.

We haven't got very far, have we?

Sam Macdonald

Barley, Hertfordshire

"I say I say I say, will you call me a cab?"

"Very well, sir, you're a cab."

While it is popular wisdom that the electorate regard politicians as a joke, it is not often that one proves the point so aptly. Thanks for giving me a really good laugh, Mr Byers.

Glyn Edwards

Worthing, West Sussex

Tough on the causes of crime

The Report "Black and Asian youths still victims of rough justice" (15 March) and the letter (18 March) from Deryck Browne of Nacro add nothing to the debate about possible (or even probable) racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Both refer to disproportionate use of "stop and search" powers by the police but neither gives any indication of what the statistics are disproportionate to. It certainly appears to be the case that the number of black teenagers being stopped and searched is disproportionate to the number of white, Asian and mixed-race teenagers being stopped.

Young black men are stopped more than young Asian men, young white men and young mixed-race men because the police believe, rightly or wrongly, that they may have been involved in some criminal or anti-social activity. Nacro should be testing the proportionality of stop-and-search statistics with crimes committed rather than quoting simple but probably misleading statistics.

There is little doubt that the discrimination suffered by young black men contributes to their lifestyle. These young men are more likely to be unemployed than other young men and many of those who are in work are in low-paid, menial jobs. This causes multiple deprivation – bad housing, poor health and a loss of positive attitudes.

It would not be surprising if the level of discrimination suffered by particular racial groups was reflected proportionately in the amount of crime committed by the groups. Therefore the only way to correct the apparent racism in the criminal justice system is to tackle the discrimination that leads to criminality. This will not be achieved by attacking the symptoms as the EHRC and Nacro advocate, but by eliminating the causes of criminality.

John Rogers

London SW16

How to avoid university cuts

The bleak future faced by British universities (report, 18 March) stems directly from public-spending cuts. It is certain that jobs will be lost, teaching quality will deteriorate and many suitably qualified applicants will be unable to find places.

A crisis of this magnitude threatens Britain's reputation as the home of some of the world's finest universities. Public spending is likely to be further reduced and so a radical solution is essential.

Here the example of the University of Buckingham, Britain's only independent university, may be instructive. It does not receive HEFCE funding and hence is unaffected by the cuts. It is doing extremely well. Academic posts are safe, new ones are being created, and student numbers and places growing.

Professor John Clarke

The University of Buckingham

Yesterday I passed by an advertisement offering paid internships to university students. It stated: "275,000 graduates – 90,000 first-choice graduate jobs. How will you stand out?"

Sean Cordell (letter, 19 March) argues against tailoring university courses to the needs of the job market. I would say in response: studying at university is ruinously expensive relative to the incomes of most people who have to work for their living. It is, therefore, precisely what Mr Cordell says it ought not to be: a superfluous luxury – and a folly – for the 185,000 graduates who won't get graduate jobs paying a graduate premium.

There is no shortage of graduates working in menial jobs or rotting on the dole, pondering their useless degrees and wishing with all their hearts that they had been "gently channelled into areas where skills are most needed".

Michael Petek


There is a single line in your table on the changes in higher education funding (18 March) that has finally persuaded me to give up on the Labour Party: Institute of Cancer Research, minus 10.3 per cent.

Alistair Read

London SE22

Violent restraint of asylum-seekers

While we welcome Dame Nuala O'Loan's long-awaited investigation into the abuse of asylum-seekers during the removal process (report, 12 March), it is clear that a worryingly high level of force was unnecessarily used, particularly through the use of handcuffs and violent restraint techniques.

Too many people who end up facing removal have been let down by the asylum process and have a well-founded fear of returning to their country. It is of no surprise that out of sheer desperation, they resist being sent back.

To avoid wrongfully removing people, the Government must invest in ensuring the right decisions are made about each individual case, and provide adequate opportunities for people who have sought asylum to explain why they need protection in the UK. For those who are not allowed to stay, alternatives to detention and forced removal should be further developed, to reduce the distress and harm to those involved.

Donna Covey

Chief Executive, Refugee Council, London SW9

Labour's proud link to unions

I cannot understand either the Labour Party's desire to distance itself from Unite and trade unions or the Tories' glee in the sudden discovery of the link. It is like the Campaign for Real Ale suddenly finding most pubs are owned and managed by transnational breweries.

The Labour Party can trace these links back to 1899, when a Doncaster member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants, Thomas R Steels, proposed in his union branch that the Trades Union Congress call a special conference to bring together all left-wing organisations and form them into a single body that would sponsor parliamentary candidates.

What is wrong with a political party grounded in the workplace representing "hard-working British families" instead of just talking about them from the rarefied hot air of the Eton debating society? We all know Tories are funded by big business.

The Labour Party should be proud of the guaranteed and fundamental input of real working people. After all, it is not as if childhood poverty, inequality and discrimination have been eradicated yet.

Graham Teager

Brackley, Northamptonshire

An obstacle to education

It would be much easier to reduce the need for the memorisation of correct answers and to turn schools into the "places of enthusiasm and delight" that Anthony Seldon (Opinion, 20 March) favours, if it wasn't for a noxious antique barrier.

Soon after children start to learn to read and to grasp basic English letter-to-sound correspondences with words such as "on, hot, spot", we begin to confuse them with exceptions like "once, only, other". As soon as they try to apply their phonic knowledge, gleaned from words such as "bed, end, up" to write other everyday words like "said, friend, mother", they discover that at least half of them do not follow basic rules, but require word-by-word memorisation of illogical quirks.

Even our best pupils take longer to learn to read and write than their peers on the European mainland. For our weakest and worst-supported children, literacy acquisition becomes a nightmare, and debars them from effective access to other learning for most or all of their schooldays.

Until we amend at least the educationally most damaging inconsistencies of English spelling, we will continue to have many pupils whose experience of school is mainly one of boredom and resentment.

Masha Bell

Wareham, Dorset

American irony

Susie Rushton (Urban Notebook, 19 March) muses: "Will he [writer David Sedaris] become the first American to persuade us to laugh about ourselves?" Can she really have never heard of Bill Bryson?

Steve Goddard


Fate of French Jews

Much is being made of the new French film La Rafle, with the implication that the rounding up of Jews in Paris in 1942 is being depicted for the first time in cinema. This subject was evoked with great power in Joseph Losey's Mr Klein, as far back as 1976. Alain Delon's icily indifferent art dealer, who seeks to exploit Jews for financial gain, is mistaken for a Jew of the same name and drawn into their fate, climaxing in a convincingly horrible evocation of the infamous round-up.

Grahame Smith

Gargunnock, Stirlingshire

Writers' rights

I don't know which of two articles in The Independent of 20 March made me choke more, a best-selling crime novelist whose works sell millions worldwide complaining that what he writes is not regarded as literature, or the headteachers of two upmarket English private schools complaining that Edinburgh University is showing preference for home-grown applicants over their unquestionably superior ones.

Gillean Arjat


Ashcroft inquiry

Chris Huhne criticises the Electoral Commission for the way we sought legal advice during our investigation into donations by Bearwood Corporate Services to the Conservative Party ("Huhne attacks cost of Ashcroft Inquiry", 17 March). His concerns are misplaced. As the independent regulator of party and election finance we have a responsibility to consider carefully the evidence in any case, and to ensure the law has been complied with. This was a complex investigation and it was incumbent on us to seek advice from lawyers with appropriate expertise in the relevant areas of law.

Jenny Watson

Chair, Electoral Commission

London SW1

Fried? No, pan fried

Can someone explain why menus say "pan fried"? What else would you fry in if not a pan? Is it a way of making the finished product sound healthier than just "fried"?

Ruth Harrison

Aylsham, Norfolk