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Monday 22 June 2009
Letters: Speaker election
Forget 'tradition' and just elect the best Speaker
There is a widespread perception that by convention the post of Speaker is alternated between the two main parties in the House of Commons. This tradition was cited by supporters of Conservative candidates for the speakership in 2000.
Ironically at the previous election of a new Speaker in 1992, in proposing the Conservative candidate, Peter Brooke, Sir Michael Neubert claimed there was a different tradition: "Since the Second World War the Speaker has always come from the majority party in the House at the time."
The actual history of new Speakers being elected or returned unopposed since the start of the last century is as follows. After the name of each Speaker I give first the Speaker's own party, then the majority party in the Commons at the time: 1905, J W Lowther (Con, Con); 1921, J H Whitley (Coalition Lib, Coalition Con); 1928, E A Fitzroy (Con, Con); 1943, D Clifton Brown (Con, Con); 1951, W S Morrison (Con, Con); 1959, Sir H Hylton-Foster (Con, Con); 1965, Dr H King (Lab, Lab); 1971, J Selwyn Lloyd (Con, Con); 1976, T G Thomas (Lab, Lab); 1983, B B Weatherill (Con, Con); 1992 B Boothroyd (Lab, Con); 2000 M J Martin (Lab, Lab).
In 1992 the substantial majority of Conservative MPs voted for Peter Brooke; Betty Boothroyd won because opposition MPs were joined by a number of Conservatives. Richard Shepherd is the only current Conservative candidate for the speakership who voted for Betty Boothroyd. Apart from John Bercow, who was only elected in 1997, the others all voted for continuing Conservative domination of the position.
At a time when there is common agreement on the need for change, MPs should be influenced not by dubious past traditions, but by who they consider the best candidate, irrespective of party.
Malcolm K Savidge
Johann Hari ("Widdecombe would win my vote", 19 June) thinks it is perfectly OK for Ann Widdecombe (Conservative) to be dubbed "Doris Karloff", but is outraged when a "few vile newspaper sketch-writers" dub Michael Martin (Labour) "Gorbals Mick". Of the two, I should think that Widdecombe is less enamoured of her nickname.
Now we can beat climate change
With your report "Biofuel is as good as petrol, say Boeing tests" (19 June), the last piece of the technology jigsaw is in place to combat climate change and wean humanity off its addiction to oil. Biofuels are not CO2-neutral, but go a long way towards it. They should be reserved for flying, because the alternatives are unlikely to be acceptable.
The research and development stage of technologies to reducing global warming is now complete and we need to get on to the demonstration and implementation phases. We can reduce energy use by 30 per cent through increased efficiency; we can use carbon capture and storage to make the production of electricity with coal carbon-neutral; and we can apply renewables, with nuclear as a back-up, for the remainder.
As an example, demonstrations have shown that the use of 1.5 per cent of the world's desert regions for solar power can produce the equivalent of the world's current electricity production. What Al Gore proposed in his film An Inconvenient Truth we can do. We should get on with it.
The political problem is contained in the oil paradox. When oil prices are low, there is no incentive to tackle climate change; when oil prices are high we cannot afford to do it. Only a political initiative will address this problem; all the technology tools are now there.
Dr David Pollard
Your article "The outlook for the rest of the century" (19 June) does not tell the half of it. Reflecting the Hadley report, it treats UK in isolation, as if what is happening to the rest of the world is not relevant.
A recent article in New Scientist was accompanied by a map showing what is likely to happen in the event of a 4-degree rise in world temperatures. It showed the entire American continent as desert, from the Canadian border to Patagonia; also southern Europe, the whole of Africa apart from the extreme south, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh the West Indies and China. The UK will be in a comparatively favoured position, and would therefore be overwhelmed by people forced out of their homes in their own countries, or else Britain would be driving them away to die elsewhere.
And population is continuing to rise at a quarter of a million a day, a billion in 12 years, and may be heading for the highest of the UNFPA predictions for 2050: 11 billion and continuing to rise.
We are tinkering at the edges. No one has properly got to grips with the threat, and almost no one seems to have recognised that the increasing pressure of population is making the situation worse, or is doing anything about it. We are in deep, deep trouble.
Gorgon at the British border
To add to the correspondence on border controls: two days ago, I travelled through the port of Calais as I have done for many years in order to take the car ferry. I am a 60-year-old female university lecturer and my companion was a 47-year-old female teacher.
I stopped my car and prepared to smile at the "border control" officer, as one usually does. I was met with a frozen stare and a demand to "take your sunglasses off; I can't see your face". When I obliged, still smiling, this gorgon narrowed her eyes and peered at length into mine, scanning my passport furiously as she did so.
She then snapped at my friend: "Take your hat off," at which point I started to laugh, then stopped myself as I realised I might be debarred from entering my own country. Not once in this exchange were the words "please", "thank you" or "hello" uttered.
Although this had its comic side – the possibility of two older women in a Ford Fiesta attempting to smuggle themselves into the lovely UK – it is is actually deeply disturbing and something I have never encountered before in many, many years of travel. What on earth do they think they are?
End the squabble over pensions
Capping the size of the pension pot that is eligible for tax relief does not mean that "it is impossible for anyone in the private sector to accumulate as good a pension as a senior civil servant automatically acquires" (Hamish McRae, 10 June). No public servants have acquired a pension remotely as large as that payable to Sir Fred Goodwin, to take one notorious example. Despite tax changes, top executives can still put aside part of their astronomic remuneration to provide for their retirement, if they wish; the only change is that they may not get as much tax relief.
All this is looking at the wrong end of the scale. There are few very highly paid people in the public sector; and even in the private sector the number of such people is easily exaggerated. The debate should be focused on pensions paid to the majority of employees. The average civil service pension in 2007/8 was £6,500 a year. This is hardly an over-generous amount.
We need to work towards a level playing field between public and private sectors; but the goal ought to be to level upwards, to pay a decent pension to everyone, not to cut back on existing pension schemes. Essentially, everyone ought to be paying more (if need be, substantially more) during their working lives, in return for a guarantee of a worthwhile pension on reaching retirement age.
The fairest way to achieve this would be to collect the additional money through National Insurance and pay out higher levels of state pension.
East Horsley, Surrey
Why gay men must not give blood
Paul Birrell's comment regarding the ban on gay men giving blood (Diversity, 18 June) needs some correction and clarification.
He claims it's "simply spurious" to state that gay men are a high-risk group for HIV. It's actually a fact. Figures show that gay men are the group most at risk of acquiring HIV in the UK – over 3,000 were diagnosed in 2007 alone (Health Protection Agency).
Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) currently supports the ban because the evidence so far shows it's the best way of maintaining a blood service that is as risk-free as possible for the amount of blood the NHS needs. Until we have the technology and the funds to ensure that every donation is safe, some forms of group restrictions are inevitable.
A comprehensive review is taking place this summer to see whether it would be safe to lift or amend the current ban. THT will be working with the National Blood Service to examine the evidence. Any regulations – and any changes to them – need to be based on facts, not political rhetoric.
Sir Nick Partridge
Terrence Higgins Trust
In presenting the issue of blood donor selection as one of discrimination, Paul Birrell gives a misleading view. NHS Blood and Transplant (of which the National Blood Service is a part) has no agenda beyond protecting public health.
To minimise the risk of a blood transfusion transmitting an infection to patients, all donations are tested for viruses such as HIV. However, the tests are not completely infallible, particularly in the early stages of infection. To reduce this risk, the current policy is to ask those groups whom Health Protection Agency data shows have an increased risk of blood-borne viruses not to donate blood on a temporary or permanent basis.
Currently, men who have sex with men are asked not to give blood permanently, with the exclusion resting on specific sexual behaviours, rather than sexuality. Other high-risk groups, including anyone who has ever injected drugs, or had sex for drugs or money, are also permanently excluded from donating.
This approach to protecting the safety of the blood supply is not unique to the UK. Most other European countries, as well as the United States and Canada, also operate lifetime deferrals for these groups.
Dr Lorna Williamson
NHS Blood and Transplant
Here we go again
Right-wingers holding sway at a New Labour Prime Minister's top table, another useless inquiry into Iraq leading to the inevitable whitewash, no one to blame for the financial mess and the FSA calling for yet lighter regulation of business. Thank goodness things are getting back to normal.
Crawley Down, West Sussex
Patrick Powell (letter, 19 June) asks "what is the point" of forcing us to replace millions of perfectly good low-energy analogue radios with energy-hungry digital ones. The point is to generate lots of money for cash-strapped governments, who can auction off the radio spectrum in narrower slices; for manufacturers, who know they will have a captive market for tens of millions of digital radios; and presumably for landfill operators who can charge for dealing with millions of suddenly obsolete analogue radios. Wasteful government and wasteful capitalism marching hand in hand, as usual.
Can I correct an inaccuracy in your report (19 June) of my claims against the House of Commons Incidental Expenses Provision – the bizarre title given to the MPs' office allowance? I did not purchase a £3.99 bar of Toblerone nor a £5.99 box of chocolates at the taxpayers' expense; they were a gift from my stationery suppliers and appeared as such on the published receipts, had your news-hounds bothered to check. I am not frivolous with the taxpayer's money, although I did allow my staff to consume the offending confectionery.
Martin Salter MP
(Reading W, Lab, House of Commons)
Any hope that the sycophantic and retch-inducing coverage of President Obama in our media would have subsided by now was dispelled earlier this week with wall-to-wall coverage of Obama swatting a fly. On the plus side, this is the first time that a death caused by Obama has been reported so widely. Who knows, maybe in the near future the media will detail the more significant loss of life that the messianic Obama is responsible for, namely the deaths of civilian human beings slaughtered by airstrikes and drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
No censorship here
Curious about the origins of the ubiquitous and fashionable word "redact", I consulted my Oxford Thesaurus. There it was, right at the end: "redactt (rare) after "bowdlerise" and "sanitise), under "censor". Another example, if one was needed, of our plain-speaking, transparent politics.
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