'Choice' in public services, Reality over WMD and others

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'Choice' in public services won't get you what you want

'Choice' in public services won't get you what you want

Sir: The critical argument against the one-sided choice in health and education proposed by the Labour and Conservative parties is that those choosing will not take account of their impact on others. The prescribed forms of competition will not lead to efficient, let alone equitable outcomes. One of these impacts concerns priority. I know when I want to be treated, but know nothing and care little about other patients' simultaneous need for rapid treatment. The proposed arrangements offer no balancing mechanism (unless we are to bid for doctors' or teachers' services). Another is congestion - how can I internalise the impact of my demand for popular treatment on the waiting time (or treatment quality) of others, or how my contribution to class sizes affects the educational experience of other students?

The "informed choice" proposals are wholly silent about these effects. If the major parties feel that one-sided choice by providers is ineffective, why would they believe that one-sided choice by recipients would be better? It rather sounds like they are promising "choice" because they hope everyone will imagine that they've only to choose a better outcome for it to materialise.

Kenilworth, Warwickshire

Blair's defiance of reality over WMD

Sir: Apropos the Prime Minister's haggard performance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee, how can he continue to claim - and believe! - that he was right to manipulate this nation into his and Bush's Iraq war, when even he now has to admit that his key argument at the time - Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction and the urgent threat they posed to this country's interests - has turned out to be baloney. As many of us contended back in 2002-3.

It was sad to see this "regular kind of guy" wriggling before the committee as he sought to offer waffly post-facto moralistic justifications for a needless conflict which has so far cost the lives of 60 British servicemen.

But does he really believe that "he was right"? If so, such "führer-bunker" defiance of reality would suggest that his mental balance is disturbed. In a prime minister, that would be a truly alarming condition.

East Carlton, Norfolk

Sir: Some people may have got the impression that Mr Blair has changed his position on Iraq's WMD. Clearly he has not, even though he now acknowledges that no WMD have been found. His belief is still that they existed (but have been hidden) and that they were a threat.

His strategy is obviously to continue to maintain his belief in this nonsense until everyone else in the world is bored with arguing. Notice that he always says "I believe that" something is the case when it is palpably disputable. This is like a team of tobacco barons saying that they believe that nicotine is not addictive. It is a device to get round a lie.

He went to war based on a false position and killed thousands as a consequence. We should not let Mr Blair off this hook.

London N5

Sir: You report that Tony Blair said in his justification for not finding WMD, "It is very important not to go to the other extreme and say: 'Because we have not found actual stockpiles of WMD, therefore he was not a threat.' "

The other extreme? At last, an admission from him that the position he took was extreme.


Sir: All the western intelligence agencies, it would seem from Blair's admission in Parliament, got it wrong about WMD in Iraq. In view of the vaunted ability of American spy satellites to monitor telephone conversations and read a car registration number from space, how come that they made such a disastrous mistake?

Blair and Bush have sent hundreds of their own citizens to their deaths based in totally false information and in the process have killed untold thousands of innocent Iraqis. Not one of whom needed to die, or should have died, except for the fact that these two misguided regimes believe that they have the right to determine what is right for the world.

Hong Kong

Sir: If Tony Blair now believes Saddam Hussein may have "destroyed" his WMD before the war - as Saddam claimed he had at the time and as many others believed - how does Blair now justify a pre-emptive attack which was based on Saddam's failure to co-operate with UN resolution 1441? Blair seems to be saying that it is possible Saddam had no WMD to give up; if so, he was clearly unable to comply. Is Blair himself now casting doubt on the war's legality?

Whitton, Middlesex

American way of sex

Sir: I read Catherine Townsend's article ("If you love me, bring a condom", 5 July) with mounting excitement. Profound ignorance about sexually transmitted diseases and safer sex is a British phenomenon; safer sex is an integral part of American culture. Gosh, I thought, my friends working with HIV positive people and teaching safer sex workshops will shortly be out of a job, having achieved their mission.

Except they won't, because the US is just as puritanical in its sexual mores as Britain, if not more so. There is no sex education in most schools; roughly 15 million Americans are treated for STDs every year (plenty more don't get treatment); herpes rates are falling, but syphilis and papillomavirus (which causes cervical cancer) rates are rising annually. By mid-August the Center for Disease Control will put new guidelines in place after pressure from the Bush administration that inform the public that condoms are ineffective against HIV; any outreach organisation talking about the benefits of condom use will find its federal funding cut.

The Bush administration's attitude to sexuality is representative of a whole swath of the American population. Of course, some sections of society are already better educated about safer sex than others, but the idea that it is entirely integrated into American culture would be laughable if it wasn't so sad.

Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, USA

Sir: It's not surprising we have a problem with sexually transmitted infections in the UK, given that "London mating rituals are steeped in 1950s nostalgia as the retro fashions dominating the high street". Who did Catherine Townsend interview? A "dashing" 39-year-old journalist, a 31-year-old investment banker, a 40-year-old PR executive, a 32-year-old City trader, a 25-year-old freelance writer, and a 33-year-old Australian banker.

Now, who gets most of the STDs in this country? Forty-two per cent of women with gonorrhoea and 36 per cent with chlamydia are under 20. Twenty-two per cent of all gonorrhoea is seen in men who have sex with men, 53 per cent of it in the capital. The populations suffering most from STDs are mostly deprived young urban populations, and homosexual men.

This report of intimate chats with the wealthy and educated heterosexual chums of a journalist says nothing about the inequalities in STDs, or the groups most affected. Why not take the trouble to talk to some of the people most likely to be affected and for whom, if gonorrhoea makes them infertile, in-vitro fertilisation is unlikely to be an affordable option?

Specialist Registrar in Public Health
Surrey and Sussex Local Health Protection Agency
Lewes, East Sussex

Bar on religious hate

Sir: As a Jew, I welcome David Blunkett's plans to introduce a criminal offence of inciting hatred against groups or individuals on the grounds of their beliefs. However, the worries of those who see it as an attack on free speech are real and must be addressed. This can only be done if the law is so framed that it only bans attacks on, or discrimination against, individuals or groups because of their religious orientation and not attacks on the religion per se.

The problem of defining what is and what is not a religion may also be extremely difficult, though a preliminary step might be to list those that should come under the Act. Some way must be found for dealing with any other groups wishing to be protected by it, perhaps by giving the Home Secretary the power to include them subsequently, with the possibility of an appeal to the courts should he refuse.

Also it is essential that it should not be possible to use the Act to suppress reasonable comment where it might impinge on a religious group. Thus the act should ban statements like "Most Muslims are potential suicide bombers", which is manifestly untrue, while permitting the unfortunately true converse that "Most suicide bombers have been Muslims".

Salford, Greater Manchester

Headscarf row

Sir: Khalid Haneef (letter, 6 July) says that "secularists can be as fanatical as misguided people of faith". This is true, but France, far from being a fanatical state, is one of the most civilised countries on the face of the earth. It drew up its secular constitution after a protracted battle to rid itself of a regime of religious tyranny which it was anxious never to see again.

It has every right to enforce that constitution and expect its citizens to abide by it. The fact that Muslims are now saying that their religion trumps their citizenship does not mean that France is wrong to insist on all its citizens living by its constitution. Why does the "give" in these increasingly frequent confrontations always have to be in one direction - the Islamic one?

Vice President
National Secular Society,
London WC1

Hitting children

Sir: The Government has, perhaps unintentionally, helped create confusion concerning law reform on the physical punishment of children (your leader "Missing: the smack of firm government", 6 July). We are afraid that by working with Lord Lester to defeat the equal protection clause, the result is public anxiety and legal ambiguity.

The proposal passed has already been shown to be unworkable and unjust. It is not a halfway-house, it is simply half-hearted. It shows exactly why we must avoid treading the legally and morally risky territory of defining how children can continue to be assaulted by being hit.

Giving children the same protection as adults under the law on assault, which our proposed clause would have done, is the only way forward, for both practical and principled reasons. The clear choice is between the status quo and equal protection. We understand that this is a difficult matter to resolve to the satisfaction of everyone, but the Government must now choose which side it is on as the Children Bill moves to the House of Commons.

(Baroness Finlay of Llandaff)

(Baroness Whitaker)

(Baroness Walmsley)
House of Lords

Sir: You need to be around at home to see your children, and to have the time, energy and patience to play with them. Its a bizarre world where parents risk being criminalised for occasionally smacking our children but can get away with, and indeed be encouraged to, work such long hours that we are hardly ever at home and when we are there we're so exhausted that we can't give our children the attention they crave.

Purton, Wiltshire

Price of rhino horn

Sir: I would like to correct the assertion made by Johnny Rodrigues that a single rhino horn fetches £60,000 in China (report, 5 July).

It is difficult to determine the price for obvious reasons; all trade in rhino horn is illegal and prosecution in Kenya, for example, can result in prison sentences of up to 22 years. However, Esmond Martin has published research showing that traders in Yemen, the other prime destination for rhino horn, charge $1,200 per kilo. An average black rhino carries about 3kg of horn. At most, then, a black rhino's pair of horns are worth $3,600 at the end destination. A team of five or six poachers might receive $250 per animal.

When another newspaper printed similarly inflated values of rhino horn last year, the story was picked up by Zimbabwean publications. Little wonder that local NGOs were concerned that the story itself would spark a wave of opportunistic poaching, by impoverished locals mistakenly believing that £60,000 is a good enough incentive.

Director, Save the Rhino
International, London SE1


Sir: On the M5 recently I was overtaken by a lorry thundering north marked "Malvern Water". A few minutes later I saw a similar vehicle going south marked "Highland Spring Water". Are we mad?

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Car-share opportunities

Sir: Car share lanes on motorways (report, 5 July)- just the thing for a harassed minister in his chauffer-driven Rover.


Sir: Car-sharing - time to buy shares in a blow-up doll manufacturing company.


Off-road capability

Sir: Where we live, the drivers of 4x4s have their own interpretation of the description "off-roader" (letter, 30 June). They drive off the road and onto the pavement.

Alsager, Cheshire

Take no notice

Sir: Respect for Martians (letter, 6 July)? Not from the irascible xenophobes of Tower Hamlets: "Pedestrians cross when green man is displayed."

London EC1