Letters: Worsening social problems

Persistent inequality in Britain leads to worsening social problems


Sir: Your report headlined "Parents 'should babysit suspended pupils'" (20 July) is yet another case of Blair tackling the symptoms, not the cause. The Thatcherite policies which he has continued have increased stresses in homes and workplaces in our society in every way imaginable, with the results predicted by researchers.

Those who work do so for longer hours, often, like cleaners at the House of Commons, for low pay, while schools, universities, hospitals, roads and prisons all need more money spent on them to catch up for lost years. Yet we can afford enormous tax breaks for the rich.

The growth of an old problem to worrying proportions - teenage pregnancy - has been shown to be associated with the rise in inequality that Blair has overseen. A survey recently compared a dozen or so of the westernised nations. The USA and the UK, the two countries with the most inequalities, had the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, while the lowest rates were in those with the least inequality. Among the lowest was high-tax, high-benefit, high-productivity, high-growth Sweden, with the other Nordic countries also doing well.



Sir: The way cleaners are treated at the Palace of Westminster is not only a grim metaphor for the way most cleaners live and work (Johann Hari, Opinion, 20 May), it runs deeper than that. It shows the institutional gap between the life of the governed on the lowest incomes and the comfortable life of those who govern. Members of Parliament and the Civil Service do not notice the poverty below stairs. It is therefore easy for the Government to let the cost of housing far outstrip the lowest level of incomes, to set a 20-year target for the elimination of child poverty, do nothing about adult poverty and tinker with pensioner poverty, when all three have been urgent for decades from, among other things, the points of view of health, educational achievement and crime. The political will to pull poverty up by the roots in this wealthy nation is at best half-hearted. Comfort corrupts and absolute comfort corrupts absolutely.



Our way of life is bound to change

Sir: Politicians have been saying that the London bombings will not change our way of life. In one sense they are correct: people who live and work in London are unlikely to resign their jobs and sell their houses, primarily because economically speaking they have no choice. Moreover, to uproot one's whole pattern of existence in the face of a threat which is statistically much less risky than crossing the road, doesn't make any sense.

However, tourists may take a different view, and businesses may decide that some of the benefits of being in London might be outweighed by the disruption caused by the bombings. This will change our lives to some degree, as it hurts the economy. Furthermore, the politicians in question are proposing more draconian legislation, which will affect our civil liberties. Additionally, we can expect more security measures in public places, adding to the inconvenience.

It would be far better if the politicians gave up on their empty and misleading phrases, and took proper action, like improving the effectiveness of our security services.



Sir: I was surprised to read your letters page on Saturday regarding the emotions of Londonders, and with readers objecting to the headline "City of fear".

While I live in the North-west, I regularly travel to London and, had my plans not changed the evening before, would have been passing through King's Cross as the 7 July bomb was detonated. Having taken stock, I will be spending less time in London, and I will make more use of alternatives to visits such as tele-conferencing. I will travel when I need to and, I'm sure, will feel less safe than a month ago.

To suggest that being afraid is in some way wrong seems to me to miss the point. The point is that Londoners continue their daily lives despite any fear they feel, rather than because they don't have the sense to feel it. I'm sure many of your correspondents were writing while feeling the intense anger at events. Once the anger subsides, I suspect the vast majority of Londoners will feel that twinge of fear, but counter it through the need to carry on with the daily grind, while minimising personal exposure to risk.



Sir: As Londoners face the predicted consequences of Tony Blair's actions, he appears on TV, urging us to live life as normal. But what does he mean by "normal"? Is he offering to share his own bullet-proof cars and 24-hour armed protection, or does he mean we should continue to use public transport, despite the risk of being blown to bits by suicide bombs? If the latter, I trust Mr Blair will set an example to us all next week by travelling to work on the Tube.



Sir: I wish to thank The Independent for a refreshingly accurate and sobering leader of 23 July. Indeed, there is something undeniably artificial about the glorification of attitudes which disallow fear as a rational response to attack, instead encouraging a wholesale and rather hollow sense of "defiance".

This vivid dehumanisation of those who attack us can only cause us greater harm. We must resist the temptation to respond with mass proclamations of strength and put greater emphasis on understanding terrorism and coming to terms with our own, perfectly acceptable, fears.

This is especially relevant given the harrowing news of Jean Charles de Menezes' senseless death which we must consider directly alongside those 52 individuals lost on 7 July. Let this tragedy prompt greater reflection on the part of the British people, its politicians and its media.



Sir: Do the values that we are said to be defending include public execution without trial?



Voting reform may blunt terrorism

Sir: I read with interest your profiles of young Muslim men in Luton (20 July) who feel governed but not represented by Westminster and who suggest this, in the context of Western foreign policy, as a possible cause of terrorism. Simultaneously the Prime Minister's aides found some unelected representatives of the Muslim community to discuss how to avert future attacks. Perhaps the current lack of Muslim MPs indicates the answer: electoral reform.

Many of the communities that form our modern society are no longer geographical in nature and our current constituencies give us a homogenised parliament with ineffective representation. Well-intentioned and realistic MPs represent the middle ground in their constituencies, and so no minority group has an effective voice at the centre of power.

Our electoral system should provide the nation with lawmakers with a strong mandate who truly represent the diverse views of the people. Arguments relating to proportional representation, however valid, can only aspire to a fairer distribution of seats between our major parties - not for clearer representation for our communities.

In the next general election, we should provide electors with a second vote for a community-based constituency of their choice, enabling directly elected MPs to provide an accountable democratic voice for ethnic minorities, and also for universities, sport, business, religions, the voluntary sector, the arts and those other communities to which large groups of electors identify strongly, but which have no voice.



Sir: Since the revelation that the London bombers were British, there have been numerous interviews with other young British Muslims throughout the media. In all the interviews I have seen, the most prominent explanation given for young Muslims becoming extremists is a perceived detachment from the politicians who govern us. These young men do not feel represented or listened to by the politicians in Westminster. Surely these recent events can only add further weight to your newspaper's campaign for greater electoral reform, and the introduction of a fairer system of representation?



Sir: There is a clear link between the need for a fairer electoral system and the recent bombing in London. It is hard to imagine that a government elected by proportional representation would have taken us into the Iraq war. It is also likely that a political system allowing minority groups greater influence would tend to channel some extremists towards political rather than violent action.



Livingstone is right on the causes

Sir: Ken Livingstone's recent media interviews about the London bombings have been objective and intelligent. He is the only politician to have publicly responded to the bombings with compassion and insight, and who hasn't been afraid to view them in the wider context of the problems in the Middle East.

I'm sure that many people in the UK agree with Mr Livingstone's attitude: condemnation of the bombings, but also a desire to look at the root cause of such atrocities, namely, decades of exploitation and oppression of Middle Eastern countries by the West. I hope that these acts of terrorism do not lead to our freedom of speech being curbed.



Commons scrutiny needs overhaul

Sir: Greg Power is right to question the rigour of the House of Commons' committee system (Opinion, 22 July). The European dimension gives us a further reason to worry. The incapacity of the Commons either to hold ministers and officials to account for their performance in the Council of Ministers or to act as a conduit between EU affairs and domestic politics is already remarkable. Unless the Westminster committee structure is overhauled the UK Parliament will not have the faintest chance of fulfilling its obligations to scrutinise all new draft EU legislation within a six-week period for possible breaches of the principle of subsidiarity.

I have no doubt that MPs deserve a long holiday, but it will be frustrating for me and my MEP colleagues when we get back to work in Brussels on 29 August to have to wait seven weeks before Westminster really cranks up again.



Improvements to building rules

Sir: Claims from the Green Party that I have decided to drop regulations that would make homes more energy efficient (letter, 22 July) are wrong. I made no such announcement on 18 July.

The Government has been consulting on changes to Part L of the Building Regulations so that we can substantially improve the energy efficiency of new buildings and to introduce improvements in the spring of 2006, two years earlier than was originally planned. We are due to set out our detailed response to the Building Regulations consultation this summer.

Already, better regulations have substantially improved the energy efficiency of new homes. However, we believe we need to go still further and that is why the revision to Part L of the Building Regulations is so important.



'Old age' can be a misused term

Sir: Richard Cain and Dr Woodhouse have missed the point in their responses to my letter of 21 July concerning the death of Ted Heath from "old age". Yes, Sir Edward may have "legally" died of old age. But it was the misuse of the the term suggesting that old age in itself is an illness that prompted my letter. Too many people consider being old as the same as being ill, and are patronising accordingly.



Aussie redbacks

Sir: A minor correction to your amusing, if foreshortened, article "What's so great about Australia" (22 July). Funnelweb spiders do not hide under toilet seats. Redbacks do that. Funnelwebs hide everywhere else.



More spider verses

Sir: I'm sure your readers will come up with many poems about spiders ("Arachnophilia", letter, 19 July). Here are four which come immediately to mind: Whitman, "A Noiseless Patient Spider"; Frost, "Design"; and Ted Hughes, "Buzz in the Window" and "Eclipse" (134 lines about a pair of spiders). And this is not to mention the countless spider poems for children.



'Violent' video game

Sir: The fact that the "Grand Theft Auto" video game has had to be re-rated "adult only" (report 22 July), not because of its scenes of gratuitous violence and murder but because of a hidden sex scene, says much about the moral code of the American politicians and family values advocates who campaigned for its re-branding.



Family values

Sir: Why do wealthy people choose to have children, employ somebody else to care for them, then complain ("The trouble with nannies", 19 July)?



Elementary misquote

Sir: Further to Brian Viner's miscellany of misquotes built around the "Beam me up, Scotty" syndrome, I was always intrigued by the fact that in none of the Sherlock Holmes stories did the famous detective ever say "Elementary, my dear Watson". He often said "Elementary" and he often said "My dear Watson", but never in the same sentence. This is true for all nine books by Conan Doyle. As Michael Caine would say, "Not many people know that". Or is that a misquote too?



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