'Choice' in public services, EU Security Council and others

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The Independent Online

'Choice' in public services merely enshrines inequality

'Choice' in public services merely enshrines inequality

Sir: It is dismaying to me and, I suspect, many other disillusioned Labour supporters, to see Tony Blair and his entourage persisting, like so many Tories, in trumpeting the virtues of "consumer choice" where schools and hospitals are concerned.

When you are ill the last thing you want to do is "choose" where you want to be treated. You just want, and expect to find in a civilised country, an easily accessible, good local hospital where you can be treated as efficiently as anywhere else. Likewise with schools. A decent state education system should provide good local primary and secondary schools for everyone, eliminating traffic-clogging school runs and the erosion of both school and community life.

Choice in health and education conceals and perpetuates unacceptable inequalities in provision. The crude information provided by league tables, so unsuited to measuring complex schools and hospitals, actually institutionalises the inequalities: however good the schools and hospitals at the bottom of the league are, just being at the bottom damns them and demoralises them.

People have too much choice in too many areas. It confuses them and makes them feel insecure, wondering if they have made the right choice. Where measurable products like those in Which? magazine are concerned this doesn't matter. But where health and education are at stake choice shouldn't enter into it. People who can afford expensive private school fees and health insurance can obviously contribute the taxes needed to pay for top-quality state health and education for everyone; we all benefit from a well-educated, healthy population.

The promotion of consumer choice serves to disguise what is fundamentally a lack of responsibility on the Government's part - it's somehow up to us to negotiate public service deficiencies and if only a privileged minority can do this to their advantage then so be it. The Government has likewise left the woefully ignorant electorate at the mercy of the media to inform its "choice" in the referendum on Europe - another total abdication of responsibility it hopes we haven't noticed.

Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire

EU cannot take our Security Council seat

Sir: The UK will retain its permanent seat on the UN Security Council. There will be no EU seat; the EU is not and cannot be a member of the UN or take our seat on the Security Council. The EU constitution cannot override the UN charter, which allows only states to be members of the Security Council, and nor would we wish it to.

Even in anti-European circles in France, no one suggests that France will lose her seat in the Security Council or that Brussels will tell the President of France what his foreign policy should be. Only in the isolationist anti-EU world of UKIP and Tories like John Redwood (letter, 23 June) is this nonsense still in use.

Britain, France, Germany and other member states will maintain their independent, sovereign rights to decide foreign and defence policy issues. Where all 25 unanimously agree on common foreign policy issues - for example on the western Balkans or the Middle East peace process - we want the existing EU foreign affairs chief, Javier Solana, to represent that policy. He adds value to what Jack Straw, Joschka Fischer and other EU foreign ministers do. But he does not replace them and foreign policy remains in the hands of nation states.

This is exactly the vision that Margaret Thatcher set out in the mid-1980s which led to the adoption of the Common Foreign and Security Policy in the Maastricht treaty in 1991, a treaty John Redwood supported wholeheartedly.

Minister for Europe
Foreign Office

Sir: John Redwood said, "Let us suppose we wanted to support US action in some Arab state. The EU could tell the UK that such action would be against EU interests, or against a common policy, and so we would be unable to take action." (Letters, 23 June)

Good thing too. We cannot trust UK politicians (Labour or Tory) when it comes to their support of this disgraceful American regime. This last 18 months has shown that had we listened to the majority of the Europeans, then we would all be living in a much safer world.


Sir: Some of us who were born before the Second World War may have been surprised and dismayed lately by the strength of anti-EU feeling. We remember the agony of the war and the austerity of the period of rebuilding a ruined continent down to 1960.

Those born since 1960 have never known anything except peace and prosperity. They assume this is the normal state of affairs. It is not. It is extremely rare in European history. You would have to go back to the Roman Empire to find a period of peace and prosperity as long and as universally enjoyed. To a considerable extent this has been on account of the EU. As memories of war and austerity fade and as we are no longer bound together by a common enemy in the USSR, what is there to prevent a return to the deadly rivalries of previous centuries?

This great project must succeed and we must play our part in ensuring that it does. It is well worth the relatively minor surrenders of sovereignty which Mr Blair has negotiated.


Sir: Because of our very peculiar electoral system we have a government with a huge parliamentary majority in spite of receiving a minority of votes cast.

Because of the vagaries of the Westminster system the Government is able to ride roughshod over Parliament, against the wishes of many of its own backbenchers. And because of our Prime Minister's unfathomable self-belief we were led into a war behind a Texas oilman who did not get a majority of votes from his own countrymen.

In the unlikely event that our sovereignty were to be eroded by our further commitment to Europe, could we possibly be worse off than we are already?

Frampton Cotterell, Gloucestershire

Sir: If we are to mimic the USA and have a united states of Europe, why not copy the style of their constitution? Given a brief and easy-to-read document, voters could come to an informed decision as to whether they agreed or not without relying on the jaundiced views of the media or politicians. But hands up who has read the entire draft EU proposal? Who really knows the difference between myth and reality? A lengthy constitution written in legalese jargon makes no sense and neither does a referendum on it.

Ryton, Tyne and Wear

Blair has lost our trust

Sir: Melvyn Bragg deploys his customary eloquence in defence of that other great persuader, Tony Blair ("Stop Kicking a good Prime Minister", 21 June). It is indeed unfortunate that we have lost Mr Blair's gifts just when we need them most - to lead the fight against UKIP.

Britain and Europe have lost the benefit of Mr Blair's persuasive gifts because he has lost our trust. You cannot be a great persuader if your audience doesn't believe a word you say. And we disbelieve him, not because of his mistakes in Iraq but because, unlike Melvyn Bragg, he obstinately refuses to admit them.

Those mistakes are far more catastrophic than Lord Bragg admits. Britain may seem a better place to live, if you set Iraq on one side. But you can't set Iraq on one side, because Britain is now an incomparably more perilous place to live. British citizens are reviled and threatened around the world because of our Prime Minister's identification with the loathed Bush. There is one thing Mr Blair can do to regain our trust and respect: he can publicly distance himself from Bush, and admit his policy of blindly following Bush was wrong.

Harder to do, but even more important, Blair can influence the American electorate. The Democrats are the natural allies of the Labour Party, and Senator Kerry's stance on Iraq is close to what Blair was trying to achieve at the United Nations when Bush simply wanted war, regardless. Past Labour leaders, while stopping short of a ringing endorsement of a named candidate, have found ways to make their sympathies clear. Unlike them, Tony Blair enjoys the respect, even adulation, of the American public. He now has a golden opportunity to make really good use of their respect while simultaneously regaining ours.

New College, Oxford

Sir: Melvyn Bragg is wrong to say that there was legitimate authority at the UN to invade Iraq. Although Iraq was in breach of UN resolution 1441, the punishment for this was never a pre-emptive strike by Britain and the US. The UN controls the process so it's up to the majority of their members to decide on action taken. If you apply the coalition logic for going to war then there is nothing to stop Syria and Iraq invading Israel for constant material breaches of UN resolutions.


Lessons of Soham

Sir: We are losing sight of the point here (leading article, 23 June). No one wants paedophiles working in schools. But Ian Huntley didn't work at Holly and Jessica's school (they were at junior school, he worked at the comprehensive). He gained their trust because he was their favourite classroom assistant's boyfriend. If he had had a job unrelated to children and shared a different house in Soham with Ms Carr, it could easily have turned out just the same. We may never be able to ask people's boyfriends for references.

I would like to see police have access to a national intelligence database as well. But only Huntley is to blame for Holly and Jessica's deaths.

Ely, Cambridgeshire

Rugby referees

Sir: Not since 1967, when the distinguished referee Kevin Kelleher in his 16th test ordered the All Black legend Colin Meads from Murrayfield, has there been so much controversial newsprint expended in two hemispheres until the sending off in Auckland of Simon Shaw.

The two incidents differ. Meads, who had earlier received a warning for dangerous play, was dispatched three minutes before full time for taking a swing at the ball and the Scottish number 10, Chisholme, missing both. Rugby football's law 20 section 2(c) empowered Kelleher to act as he did. Shaw was dismissed after 12 minutes, without prior warning, for kneeing an opponent in the torso outwith the referee's vision but within the view of the TV referee who advised the red card use, which was outside his authority (foul play).

Both cases went to judicial committees. Meads was denied a personal hearing and received a two-match ban. Shaw, who was supported by the Rugby Football Union QC, was cleared but not vindicated.

Do the two stories not reflect the differences between the amateur and professional games, or could it be the diverse interpretation and cultures of the two hemispheres? Arguably, the only similarities were the choruses of the two sets of home supporters who bayed "Off! Off!"


Family values

Sir: As a married woman with two daughters I object to being lumped into the category of "swapping sexual favours for a wedding ring or some sort of commitment" ("Reform must recognise the value of prostitutes' work", letters, 10 June).

Has the writer ever experienced a relationship with the depth of caring and give-and-take that marriage requires to establish a setting in which children can thrive? I suspect not, and I am sorry for her.

My grandmother, a trained "turn-of-the-last-century" nurse, cleaned toilets to support her five sons and ailing husband. I believe that such a woman is a heroine.

Truro, Cornwall

Entrepreneurs in space

Sir: In your coverage of the first privately funded space flight (22 June), why is no mention made of the damage done to the earth's ozone layer by every trip to space? Why is there no contemplation of the probable increase in this damage that entrepreneurial space flight will bring?

New York

Asparagus invasion

Sir: I try to buy organic produce, but I am also an ethical consumer, avoiding air-freighted goods and produce sourced from countries with poor human rights records. This weekend, my local Sainsbury's had organic asparagus on the shelves. A safe bet you would have thought, given that it is the height of the English growing season and in Birmingham we are surrounded by dozens of local asparagus farmers. Imagine my horror when I discovered the asparagus on sale was "produce of China"! Can any of your other readers match this example of insane globalisation?


Skirting the issue

Sir: Reading the story "Short skirts force school to impose trousers-only rule" (1 June), I thought it was 1 April. Back in the Sixties, when I was at school, miniskirts were in fashion. An edict by my school that skirts should not be more than four inches above the ground when kneeling was put into effect by school mistresses with tape measures without much trouble or protest. Why is this an issue now? Outside school premises, a more fashionable hemline was achieved by rolling our skirts up at the waistband.


Take no notice

Sir: It is not only slow-driving red squirrels that require consideration when trying to adapt to human ways (letter, 21 June). Last year, I noticed a sign on Handa Island nature reserve, off the north-west coast of Scotland, reading "Please Help Puffins Keep To Path".

King's Lynn, Norfolk