Asylum-seekers, Injustice to expat pensioners and others


The balance has swung too far against asylum-seekers

Sir: The plight of Zimbabwean hunger strikers in British detention centres has prompted widespread concern. Yet these cases highlight an even more fundamental issue – namely that our asylum system is increasingly failing to offer protection to asylum seekers from countries which are clearly unsafe and where persecution, torture and human rights abuses are commonplace.

From January to March of this year more than 90 per cent of Zimbabwean asylum applicants were refused asylum. In addition, 140 rejected asylum seekers were returned to Iran, where arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, floggings and executions continue. Of applications from that country, 86 per cent were refused.

Since 2002 the proportion of asylum seekers rejected each year has risen from 50 per cent to 73 per cent. Many of these people – some fleeing the world's most tyrannical regimes – will be deported. Those who are not removed will have all support severed, forcing them to sleep rough in degrading conditions. Like those Zimbabweans currently in detention, they would rather starve than return to a country where they believe their lives will be at risk.

As well as dealing firmly with those it believes are abusing the system, the Government should put resources into improving the quality of Home Office decision-making and ensuring that asylum-seekers fleeing terror are able to get a full and fair hearing of their case.

All the evidence suggests that the balance of the system has swung too far in favour of deterrence, detention and removal, and that we are in danger of losing sight of the real and defining purpose of our asylum system. A robust and efficient system is one that is based on protecting refugees, not punishing them.



ID: just assume Blair is telling the truth

Sir: Let's just assume that everyone from the person I hand my ID card application to to the person who issues and posts me the card will not lose, misuse, or pass on the personal information about me stored in the card.

Let's just assume this and all subsequent governments will not lose, misuse, sell, or share my details in any way.

Let's just assume that ID cards will deter terrorism. Let's just assume that ID cards will reduce benefit fraud and identity theft.

Let's just assume that foreign governments and computer hackers will find it impossible to gain access to the national database.

Let's just assume that the Government can keep the price of the card affordable, and keep it from rising year on year.

Let's just assume that ID cards cannot be forged convincingly, and that they will not spawn a lucrative black market to be exploited by organised criminals.

Let's just assume that ethnic minorities will not be disproportionately targeted for producing the cards to authorities

Let's just assume that conscientious objectors to the scheme will happily march off to prison for non-compliance.

Why should we assume these things? Because Tony Blair and his ministers say we should. Surely we wouldn't let them run the country if we could not rely on their word?



Sir: It appears the media have fallen for the Government ploy of shifting the discussion on ID cards away from the principle of having them imposed on us at all to the practical problems of implementing them.

Thus, the discussion on the loss of individual freedom has been largely replaced by arguments on how much ID cards will cost. Even argument about giving the ID data base to the USA and allowing companies to obtain information has been drowned out by arguments on whether a card will cost £110 or £300.

This is just what the spin doctors wanted. Isn't the media wise enough, even after the experience of Iraq, to realise that having shifted the ground of the debate to cost, the Government will come along and make a "concession" and agree not to charge at all, or to charge a lot less than is being suggested?

What was that about the price of liberty being eternal vigilance? Obviously the media have fallen asleep on duty. The media should know that ID cards aren't about terrorism or benefit fraud. They're about developing a database to assist social control in the age of capitalist globalisation.



Sir: As a committed Labour activist (and very involved in the recent election) I never picked up that we were going to have to pay for the new ID cards. If this had got through to me I would not have given a minute to working for Labour (in fact I would have torn up my card and worked for someone else). I had assumed, as I imagine most of those who voted for Labour did, that the card would be paid for out of tax.

If the Government is really serious about making us pay then they need their heads examining. For they are proposing a new poll tax (and we all know what that did for Mrs Thatcher).

There is, of course, genuine argument to be had on all the other issues: privacy, freedom of the individual etc, but to me, as a democrat, even if the card passes those tests it must fail over compulsory payment. For this would be making us pay to be British. And that I am certainly not prepared to do.



Amazing injustice to expat pensioners

Sir: I have paid my National Insurance contributions in full, all my working life. I am now 62 and the contributions office in Newcastle has advised me in writing that I now qualify for 100 per cent state pension from the date I reach 65.

My plan is to retire to Phuket, in Thailand, but I have now discovered, to my utter amazement, that the British government hasn't got a "reciprocal agreement" with Thailand and that expat pensioners there don't get annual indexation increases to their state pension.

The absolute injustice of this incredible. Where I choose to live in retirement is up to me. After paying my "premiums" into the state pension for 40-odd years, I am entitled to the pension, with indexation, just as if it was a private pension plan.

On delving further into this sorry state of affairs, I have discovered that a neighbouring Asian country has got a "reciprocal agreement", so it looks as though I may have to consider re-routing my retirement plans to the Phillipines.

It's not as if my planned retirement to Thailand would cost the British government anything. As far as medical and dental services are concerned, I can get very good treatment in Thailand, for very reasonable fees, so I shall not be a burden on the health care system in England.



Now to build a socialist Europe

Sir: Steve Richards writing on 23 June refers to "Tory Euro-sceptics and pro-European Labour MPs", making no reference at all to the substantial body of left-wing opinion opposed to the right-wing drift in the EU.

The French, Dutch and the earlier Swedish referendum No votes where achieved by millions of workers, socialists and trade unionists rejecting the drive to impose neo-liberalism by Europe's right-wing elites. In Britain, a determined group of Labour MPs has consistently put the case for a socialist Europe and I myself put down the first Early Day Motion calling for a UK referendum on the EU constitution. With Ian Davidson MP and others, I was a founder member of Labour Against the Euro, Labour for a Referendum and Labour Against a Superstate and there has been solid socialist opposition to the right-wing EU project amongst the majority of Labour voters and trade unionists.

The federal dreams of Giscard d'Estaing have been shattered, and the free-market EU future has been soundly rejected. The workers of Europe very clearly want a more democratic and socialist Europe with full employment, properly funded welfare states to meet social needs and the abandonment and reversal of privatisation. I look forward to the major parties of the left in Europe picking up this agenda and regaining mass support amongst working people.



Prisoners face extreme stress

Sir: It is not surprising that prison suicides are accelerating ("The inhumanity of this failing system", 17 June), given the appalling conditions in many local prisons. However, it is not simply a question of conditions, bad as they are. The increasing number of prisoners impacts directly on the reception process.

Reception areas, particularly at weekends, are places of extreme stress for many prisoners as they are shunted through an often dehumanising and mortifying process which further reinforces their psychological vulnerability. The noisy chaos that prevails is further reinforced by orders that are shouted at them by staff who rarely if ever use first name terms or address them as Mr or Ms. The pressure to get as many through as possible in order not to disrupt the prison timetable only compounds an already fraught situation for those staff who do try to treat the prisoners with humanity and dignity.

It is also worth considering the changes made to prison escort services in this area. In the light of the contracting out of these services, prisoners are now delivered to prisons at the convenience of the companies not for the convenience of either prison staff or prisoners.

The Government therefore needs to look not only at the sentencing policies that are sending so many people to prison, and the insidious role of the judiciary in this process, but also at reception procedures themselves, including prisoner escort services.



Our '19th-century' science powers UK

Sir: In labelling the core scientific disciplines of chemistry, biology and physics as "19th-century classifications", the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England misunderstands the nature of science and how it progresses ("More university science courses likely to close", 29 June).

If chemistry is a 19th-century science, why is it that the UK chemicals industry generates a net £5bn export surplus at the start of the 21st century? Why is it that our only world class industry, the research-led pharmaceutical industry thrives, in the 21st century? Why was it that the Prime Minister met us in advance of the G8 summit, if chemistry is not key to tackling climate change and disease?

Science is multidisciplinary. Solving major problems depends upon real expertise in its fundamental disciplines.



Victims of the tax credit mix-up

Sir: Andreas Whittam Smith (27 June) exposes the hardship created by inefficient administration of the tax credit system.

Our daughter in law was told she owed some £800, and suffered hardship and uncertainty from the weekly deductions. When we heard of this my wife visited the office to pay off the remaining balance of £412.76. As they would not accept cash she gave them a cheque.

This cheque has never been presented and the deductions continued. A few days ago my wife cancelled the three-month-old cheque. When my tax settlement is due on 31 January, will it be all right if I lose the paperwork and hold back the payment for a few months?



Admission charge at the 'house of God'

Sir: On a recent visit to London's South Bank, I crossed the wobbly bridge and found myself at the door of St Paul's Cathedral. Upon the door was engraved the following: "This is none other than the house of God. The door to Heaven."

Upon passing through this door I was asked for £8 entry fee. I refused, naturally. Although tempted to overturn the money collectors' tables, I did not.

After 17 years of the Tories and 10 of Blair it now seems easier for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than those of more modest means. What would Christ have said? In His absence what do Canterbury, York, Lambeth etc have to say?



Naval disaster

Sir: Is there any other country that would hold the world's biggest ever naval review to commemorate a major national victory that changed the history of a continent and do so on a school and work day? And then, for those of us who work, not show highlights on TV in the evening? Too busy showing Big Brother and tennis!



World of gas-guzzlers

Sir: Writing about the effect of oil prices on American consumers, Hamish McRae (29 June) observes that "You can choose whether or not to buy a new Chinese-made sofa bed. You cannot choose whether to fill up your car." You don't actually have to buy a gas-guzzling SUV and drive it everywhere. Not even if you are American.



Sir: The EU car industry association Acea admitted last week that its members will fail to meet the voluntary target of reducing average CO 2 emissions from new vehicles to 140g/km by 2008. Currently they amount to more than 160g/km, improvements having been slowed by increased sales of 4x4s. With news that greenhouse gas emissions rose across the EU by 1.3 per cent in 2003-4 it is time for the European Commission to legislate. Vehicle manufacturers must be set a mandatory target of reducing emissions to an average of 120g/km by 2012.



About the size of it

Sir: Sam Little, of the Campaign for the Safe Use of Unusual or Illustrative Units, makes a good point about the double-decker bus, but could Mr Little clarify the CSUUIU position on the illustrative unit of land area? Is his group pro-Europe as in "an area the size of Belgium", pro-America as in "an area the size of Texas" or pro-British as in "an area the size of Wales"?



Named for success

Sir: May I have my six-figure salary, please?



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