Choice, housing and others

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Having a choice is not what we want; we just want equality

Having a choice is not what we want; we just want equality

Sir: Marie Woolf's report "Howard promises consumer choice on schools and health" (16 June) is an example of good, objective reporting. It also appeared to be completely taken in by the two main parties' attempts to foist on to the electorate a wholly irrelevant issue.

What most people I speak to want is not to have any choice of school or hospital but to have the local school and hospital offering excellent standards of teaching and health care.

To offer a choice of our basic social institutions is to admit that some of them will be failing and that consumer choice will somehow allow the more affluent, or dynamic, or bloody-minded, the opportunity to take their "custom" elsewhere. That is a nonsense that gets politicians off the hook: their sole responsibility is to help provide some of the funding, and the entire regulatory framework, for every school and hospital to provide all people in their catchment area with standards of excellence and professionalism.

A choice of hospital or school is not a choice that most people want to have. Can't politicians understand the basics?

Leverburgh, Harris, Western Isles

Sir: What is it with our political parties and this term "choice"? When I am ill I do not want to be a "consumer", I want to be a patient treated well and with equal competence in any GP's surgery or hospital in the country. I want to be part of a system that treats all patients equally, regardless of their financial background.

I do not want my children to be "consumers", I want them to be pupils in a state-run school system that provides a good education suitable for their skills in any school in the country. I do not want them to lose out just because I can not afford to live in a "good area".

By accepting "choice" into these systems the Government also accepts that there will be losers and winners, and experience has shown that the losers are always those on the lower rungs of the social ladder. This breeds inequality and resentment that divides the country.

This is what is happening on a global scale; do we really want it on a national scale as well?

Mollington, Oxfordshire

High property prices due to desperation

Sir: The rush to buy property stems from a very natural and human craving for financial security, plus another similar, however defensive, instinct for self-preservation (Hamish McRae; report, 16 June).

This has been brought about and fuelled not by success but by the failure of government and pension funds to honour their moral responsibilities, exercise duty of care in the matter of pensions provision in general, leaving devastating holes in some personal financial plans. Nor has either body created any reliable platform on which a citizen can save for his or her ever-lengthening twilight years.

Secondly, the inefficiency and extravagance of government and local authorities has put such pressure on many households' incomes that people have to do something.

Lastly, ageism is alive and well in the job world. Despite the low official unemployment figures, many over-50s find themselves driven into self-emplyment in all sorts of guises, including small-time property development, student and holiday lets and so on.

Partly, high property prices are the result of desperation: many people have taken the matter into their own hands and bought property and in the absence of alternatives they are likely to continue to do so.

Broughton, Hampshire

Sir: Call me naive, but surely what we have is not an absolute shortage of domestic property, but a supply shortage in the market. First-time buyers are being priced out at least partly by a speculative buy-to-let bonanza. This is forcing them to rent the very same properties that they would have bought had prices been within their grasp.

Hamish McRae wants us to build significantly more houses. But is it beyond the wit of a micro-managing Chancellor to tweak the tax system to make buy-to-let less attractive? Surely that alone would take some heat out of the market and free up more low-end properties for first-time buyers?

Realistically, a greatly increased house-building programme could not be achieved entirely on brown-field sites; but do we really have to solve what is primarily a technical problem in the market by covering even more of South-east England with concrete?

Gunton, Norfolk

Sir: Hamish McRae suggests that the "flight to the suburbs" is all about personal choice. May I make the counter-suggestion that it is a classic example of how the market is distorted by the externalisation of costs?

One reason why people may wish to live in a newly built suburb is to be close to the countryside. But the very building of the suburb means that other people are further away than they used to be. Journeys by suburbanites are more likely to be by car, and are likely to be longer than similar journeys by people living in the cities. Detached and semi-detached houses need more energy for temperature control than flats and terrace houses. But those who live in the more energy efficient cities won't escape the suffering caused by climate change due to profligate energy use. Furthermore, it is city residents above all who have to put up with 24-hour traffic noise caused by the car journeys of suburbanites.

Mr McRae is no doubt right when he says that some people want to live in the suburbs because there they can park their cars. Originally, people bought cars so that they could travel longer distances faster. Now they travel longer distances so that they can use their cars. The end can sometimes justify the means, but how can the means justify the end?

The first developer to design and build a community where the blight of traffic is designed out, without people losing their freedom of movement or access to facilities, will start a migration that will be a veritable stampede compared with the flight to the suburbs.


Child gambling

Sir: The Government's gambling deregulation plan, while commendable on many levels, has still left a significant loophole that will allow children to gamble ("Football clubs plan giant casinos as gambling law shake-up is unveiled", 15 June). The Department of Culture, Media and Sport have already accepted the argument that slot machines are addictive to some children by recommending their removal from single-site premises (such as chip shops).

However, the DCMS has recommended that "low stake, low jackpot" fruit machines will still be legally available for children to gamble on. These machines, usually found in seaside arcades, are known as "amusement with prizes" machines but are a bona fide form of gambling.

The stake and jackpot size has little effect in preventing habitual gambling in some minors. All slot machines (regardless of stake and prize structure) utilise well-known conditioning processes and can be potentially addictive. There is now an abundance of evidence both in the UK and worldwide that slot machines are addictive to a small minority and that adolescents are more susceptible.

The Government should seriously reconsider closing this loophole.

Professor of Gambling Studies
Nottingham Trent University

Cycling accessories  

Sir: In Oliver Bennett's pro-cycling article (12 June) a National Bike Week spokesman, Nick Harvey, is quoted as asserting that cycle-users in countries such as the Netherlands don't dress up in special clothing to ride. Quite right; but what the article omitted to point out is that properly equipped bicycles are also readily available there.

In the UK, the great majority of bike shops are filled with recreational bikes. None has simple essentials like mudguards, lights, a luggage carrier etc, and - the most important of all, in my opinion - a full chain-enclosure. The latter, especially, "civilises" a bicycle and ensures that it is genuinely user-friendly by reducing maintenance and protecting the rider's clothing: much more suitable for everyday use.

This won't suit everyone, of course; the additional equipment does increase the weight, and some owners may find it hard to lift such a bike, or carry it up stairs. But that's no reason to deny everyone else the opportunity to acquire such a superb example. I've enjoyed my fully-equipped user-friendly Dutch bicycle for four years now, and doubt that I would ever purchase any other type.

London E14

War and peace in Iraq

Sir: With reference to Robert Fisk's article "Iraq, 1917" (17 June) readers may be interested to learn that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has made every effort to resume work in Iraq in the years since maintenance first became difficult during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The security situation in Iraq continues to give cause for concern, making it impossible for the Commission to commence work on a five-year renovation and restoration programme. The scale of the Commission's task in Iraq is extensive - more than 54,000 Commonwealth war dead are buried or commemorated at 13 locations.

Work has continued at Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery, which has been cleared of undergrowth after the autumn rains, and in the south at Amara and Basra, on general tidying maintenance and boundary definition with the assistance of coalition forces. There is 24-hour watchman's surveillance at Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery and the Commission's local representative is able to visit a number of sites on a regular basis.

A review was held in March, at which it was decided that the situation could not be properly assessed until the handover to the new interim government, scheduled for the end of June. A further review will take place in September. However, the public can rest assured that the Commission will do everything in its power to restore the graves to a fitting standard.

Director General, Commonwealth War Graves Commission
London SW1

Sir: First we had the claims that Iraq possessed WMD, claims which have long since been disproved, but which Tony Blair clung to as long as possible. We also had claims that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear material from West Africa, claims that were discredited more than two years ago by the US, but which Blair stubbornly insisted upon until very recently.

Now the US committee investigating in the 9/11 attacks has declared that there is no evidence linking Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida. Yet Blair's office still insists that Saddam let al-Qa'ida operate out of Iraq and that he had created "a permissive environment" for terrorists in Iraq. Yet if anybody has created "a permissive environment" for terrorists in Iraq, surely it is Blair and Bush and the occupation force.

Blair's constant refusal to accept reality in the face of overwhelming evidence must surely be a symptom of some deeper psychiatric malaise that ought to disqualify him from office once and for all. Why does the Labour Party not take action to spare him and the country any further embarrassment or suffering?


Sir: So now it's official. The US had closer links with Saddam Hussein than Osama bin Laden did - how embarrassing.

Banchory, Aberdeenshire

Tommy's pool  

Sir: I little thought, when I learnt to swim in Sir Thomas's Pool at the end of the breakwater at Bude in summer 1939, that a more demotic age would call it Tommy's Pit (Review, 14 June). As I understand it, the pool was made by Sir Thomas Acland, a big landowner in the area, for his own brisk early morning swims. Is this true?


Patriotic profiles

Sir: I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to all those über-patriots who have so proudly draped the flag of St George over their homesteads in this latest binge of self-righteous, small-minded xenophobia. It has made the task of identifying those people you don't want as a neighbour so much easier for all those people looking to move house at the moment. I am looking forward to and their ilk seizing the day and adding this priceless information to their other splendid profiles.

Bromley, Kent

Taller and slimmer

Sir: While grateful to The Independent for a piece on James Joyce and Ulysses, the finest novel in the English language ("A great walk of fiction", 16 June), I can't help but point out three factual mistakes. Leopold Bloom was not 5ft 6in tall but 5ft 9in; he weighed 11st 4lb, so certainly wasn't fat; and he continued to have sexual relations with his wife Molly after his son's death, even though he abstained from full intercourse. Like Joyce, we devotees of the great work are sticklers for accuracy.

Blewbury, Oxfordshire

Take no notice

Sir: One of the oddest notices I have ever seen was on the North Yorkshire moors, and simply read: "Please do not throw stones at this notice".

Ilkley, West Yorkshire