Sir: I have just walked back to Bethnal Green while eating a midnight kebab purchased in Mare Street, Hackney, and with the bitter taste of onions in a mouth skirted with chilli sauce like an orange halo, learn that the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, has announced to the nation that she doesn't think that walking alone in Hackney after dark is "a thing that people do, is it, really", and that she is "fortunate" enough not to have to descend to such depths of depravity.
I would have been happy to let the matter pass were it not that Ms Smith insists on reinforcing nominal stereotypes by twittering on like a bimbette from the typing pool. For her information, what we in London's great East End like to do of a Saturday night is get absolutely hammered and, after a lock-in of satisfactory length, to leave our local hostelry in search of a fast-food emporium. This is, dear Ms Smith, what "people do" in these here parts. How unfortunate that more of us do not have someone paid by the taxpayer to drive us about on such occasions.
Now an "aide" of Ms Smith has announced that she recently "bought a kebab in Peckham". That is truly great news. Instructing your aide to buy you a kebab in Peckham must now be regarded as the ne plus ultra of street cred.
Sir: The disgusting cartoon of the impaling of Jacqui Smith, entitled "The Home Secretary pops out for a kebab" (21 January) was a disgrace.
Show me a woman of any age in any capital city in the world who would feel safe out alone late at night. Ms Smith should be commended for her frankness and honesty.
Key to good schools lies with parents
Sir: What is "the real nettle" Michael Bawtree would have private schools grasp (Opinion, 21 January)? He questions whether staff in state schools treat "with the same respect" the educational aspirations of less academically able pupils as the academic aspirations of the others. Whose fault is that? The staff at private schools or those in the comprehensives?
I am the head of a private Muslim primary school, with 230 pupils. Our parents choose the school not for elitist reasons (we have no entrance examination and take pupils with special educational needs) but because they support our faith-based ethos.
Our existence has no bearing whatsoever on the academic achievement of the local state primaries, so closing us would simply put more pressure for places on the local schools, a pressure we ease at no financial cost to the state.
The use of the word "apartheid" by Mr Bawtree and Dr Anthony Seldon, the head of Wellington ("Enough of this educational apartheid", 15 January), is misleading: there is nothing compulsory about which school we send our children to; it is a matter of choice and there is nothing sinister about that. Apartheid it most definitely is not.
Instead of trying to blame the independent sector for the state's shortcomings, why not focus on parental support? It is there, I believe, that the answer to the problem of underachievement lies; such support is not a monopoly of people with money to spare to pay school fees over and above what is taken from their taxes for education provision which they do not access. Many of our parents can ill afford our relatively modest fees but make the effort to do so precisely because they do care and want to have their children educated in a school that meets their own wishes and aspirations, a legal right since 1944.
Removing that right would not necessarily improve teachers' attitudes towards the education of the pupils in their care in state schools; improving parents' attitudes towards their responsibilities for their children's education would.
Head Teacher, Al-Aqsa Primary School, Leicester
Sir: The farce of giving vastly wealthy public schools tax breaks as if they were charities should have ceased long ago. Some of these schools may have been founded with a charitable purpose, but those days are long gone.
Apart from receiving an unjustified benefit from the state, the real harm these schools do is to ensure the majority of the wealthiest and most influential members of society have no stake or interest in the schools which serve most of the population. It is of little use to bewail the stubborn persistence of the anachronistic class system which still bedevils these islands if this educational apartheid is allowed to continue in its present form.
I still remember the 11-year-old who, having attended a maintained primary school, was in his second term at a public school and met some of his former school-mates for a chat. His comment afterwards was, "They used to be my friends, but I see how awful they are now."
Sir: Stephen Jackson (letter, 19 January) fails to make his case. First we have the subsidy myth (that a government decision not to tax equates to a gift). I am not impressed by the fact that some of the private educational sector pays little tax; I don't think state schools pay much tax either. The figure he quotes of £100m per annum of tax saving works out to rather less than £2 per head of population, not much to get excited about.
I sent my son to a non-charitable private school after a catastrophic failure in the state sector (we could have tolerated slow progress, but to have him go backwards was not acceptable). The school we chose is, as far as I know, a private limited company taxed on the usual basis. I hope it is profitable; it deserves to be, since it provides effective education.
Alas, quality education is not cheap. I would love to have got this from a state school and improved the family finances by £60,000 to £70,000, but it didn't seem fair to ask my son to put up with inadequate crowd control and institutionalised bullying as well as inadequate teaching.
I am all for improving state schools to match the best of the private schools, but I fear that an over-strict interpretation of charitable status will drag the private sector down to the level of the state sector, a "solution" the country cannot afford and should not tolerate.
Sir: Dr Seldon does the independent sector a disservice if he lumps us all together and if he believes that we are all "entrenched in the 20th century". Some of us are forging ahead in the 21st.
As a charity and the largest provider of education in the country, second to the government, the Girls' Day School Trust (GDST) expects to play a leading role in extending educational excellence. We do agree that the academy programme presents an opportunity for ground-breaking partnership between the state and independent sectors, which is why we have made a pioneering commitment to it.
We are converting two of our excellent fee-paying schools into free academies, open to girls from a range of backgrounds and abilities. Our Belvedere School in Liverpool was the first independent school to transfer to academy status in September 2007; our school in Birkenhead is set to follow suit in 2009.
Director of Communications and Development, GDST, London SW1
Asylum-seekers vie for NHS resources
Sir: Dr Dillon and Ms Kitchen bemoan the withdrawal of care for failed asylum-seekers (letters, 18 January). I'm sure they would both also be among the voices exhorting the Government to provide the latest drugs and treatments, despite funding restrictions.
If we spend money treating people who are illegally present in our country there will not be enough left to treat those who have earned the legitimate right to treatment by paying tax. Why, when somebody arrives at an NHS hospital, are they not asked for proof that they are entitled to treatment? I know I never have been.
I'm not suggesting that would preclude hospitals from providing life-saving treatment, but the immigration service should then be contacted so that illegals can be removed according to the law.
Pensioners get a tax bill but no vote
Sir: James Tilley writes that pensioners are discriminated against when taking up retirement in Commonwealth countries (letter, 21 January). Discrimination also exists for some living in EU countries. Pensioners who worked as teachers or other civil servants find their pension taxed at source in the UK. But if a pensioner is resident in France, say, he or she is still liable to French tax as a resident and has to declare.
Luckily, the French are reasonable enough not to tax them twice. But since no tax is paid in France, they are denied any benefits, of which there are several, available to a French taxpayer.
Moreover, after more than 15 years' residence abroad, they have no voting rights in the UK. They are taxed, I would say illegally, and disenfranchised. This anomaly should be done away with as well.
Rock of wages for the privileged few
Sir: Here we go again. The (possible) privatisation of Northern Rock (reports, 21 January) provides a further delightful cameo of the past 25 years' slavish adherence to a moribund economic philosophy (neoliberalism) whose unstated credo reads "socialise cost, privatise profit".
Yet again we see weak government bowing courteously to its mega-rich establishment gods: no public consultation or debate, of course. Yet another cosy arrangement to allow a small number of individuals to make gilt-edged hay at the expense of most of us. My recommendation would be a taxpayers' strike.
Wetherby, West Yorkshire
Sir: A decade or more of credit-driven "growth" has left the British economy utterly dependent on an increasingly fragile City of London, as Jeremy Warner demonstrates (19 January).
The prospects of a 1929-style crash and global slump is an incentive for society to consider how to create sustainable alternative models to replace a discredited market economy founded on fantasy finance, illusory wealth and gross inequality.
Gerry Gold and Paul Feldman
Only one option for the Lib Dems
Sir: Your report (21 January) about the potential for Labour to offer PR to the Liberal Demo-crats as a means of staying in power if there is a hung Parliament contains an error and raises significant questions.
The error: Jack Straw introduced the closed-list system for European elections. Under this, voters can choose merely which party to support. The parties pick who is elected. Nobody is suggesting this system for Westminster because it abandons the constituency link and places all power in the hands of the parties. The Alternative Vote system is the one probably favoured most by Labour ministers desperate to hang on to power.
It is not a proportional system: it retains single-member constituencies. The big question for the Liberal Democrats is whether to accept such an offer of half-hearted reform. The offer would be made only in the event of a hung parliament, and this tends to occur every 40 to 50 years. Should Nick Clegg demand full PR as the price for a coalition or should the Liberal Democrats accept a half-way house and hope for a further hung parliament as a means of completing reform?
There is only one option. The Liberal Democrats will be tarred with the "Vote Lib Dem, get Labour" brush in any case, so they may as well get as much out of such a deal as possible.
Mersey sound triumphs
Sir: Early Beatles songs are sung with American accents because the Beatles' primary influence was rock 'n' roll, and the dialect of rock 'n' roll is, of course, American (letter, 21 January). They carry this off with varying degrees of success. John Lennon does sound American, Paul McCartney doesn't quite manage it, and as for George and Ringo; their Liverpudlian accents are just too strong.
Rooting out problems
Sir: I was surprised by the headline of your article on NHS dentistry ("NHS Dentistry in crisis", 11 January). By coincidence, I was at the opening of a new practice providing NHS dental services in my constituency. There have been significant problems of access to NHS dentistry for some time but now, for the first time, the primary care trust can get involved and start to sort some of those problems. This is thanks to the new funding system introduced by the Government in 2006.
Gwyneth Dunwoodie MP
(Crewe and Nantwich, Lab) House of Commons,
Cross about exorcists
Sir: Congratulations to Johann Hari (Opinion, 17 January) for his sleight of hand in managing to make not only Pope Benedict but also the "wet and woolly" Church of England appear somehow complicit in the torture of a Congolese girl and the murder of a Romanian nun. The practice of exorcism varies enormously from culture to culture, and can indeed be abused in the most terrible way, but it is simply slanderous to lump together all exorcists from a variety of traditions, and to accuse them of supporting those abuses.
Lay ChaplainThe Grammar School at Leeds
Flying in perspective
Sir: What Michelle Di Leo (letter, 15 January) and other defenders of aviation are reluctant to acknowledge is that, for most people, flying is a lifestyle choice and not a necessity. We do not do the weekly shopping, visit granny or collect the children from parties by taking a plane. Many business people also prefer a flight to a video conference because it gives them a holiday. In comparison with heating the home, cooking and running a car it is a largely dispensable mode of emitting carbon dioxide.
Down with icon
Sir: Journalists consistently abuse the word "icon". We had Roger Clarke in your paper (18 January) quoting uncritically a remark that the image of a man chewing a live octopus is "iconic". It may be a defining image and perhaps, in a vague University of Expolyshire way, that is what is meant, but since icon means "image", an iconic image is a tautology; an image-like image as meaningful as an iconic icon. Use of this word should be restricted to descriptions of Byzantine religious art and discussions of computer software.