Consumer Credit Bill, Sleepwalking into a dictatorship and others

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Credit Bill will do nothing to protect the poor from loan sharks

Credit Bill will do nothing to protect the poor from loan sharks

Sir: The ill-conceived Consumer Credit Bill goes into Committee in the House of Commons on Thursday. The DTI solution to extortionate interest rates (such as £700 interest on a £1,000 loan repayable over a year charged by the legitimate home credit companies to the unemployed receiving state benefits) is to enable the poorest households to appeal against powerful corporations and loan sharks to the Financial Ombudsman Service. The imbalance of power is self-evident. There is no competition.

There will be one Consumer Credit Appeal Tribunal - in London. There are seven million adults in the UK with literacy age of 11 years, who will not be able to read the leaflets - let alone fill in the forms. The increasing incidence in mental illness has made the need to curb door-to-door lenders even more urgent. There is a lack of volunteer support and legal aid.

Vulnerable households are sometimes already engaged with the magistrates' court for council tax and truancy, the county court for rents, the Job Centres, the Inland Revenue and the local authorities for complex benefits; another tribunal is an expensive institution too far.

They have no access to justice; so the state must legislate for economic justice by curbing interest payments, ensuring loans are proportionate to means and the lowest incomes are enough for healthy living and participation in a wealthy society.



Sleepwalking into a dictatorship

Sir: Imagine a country where the head of state is unelected. Where the government rules with absolute and unopposed power from only 22 per cent of the electorate. A country where ID will shortly be made compulsory and vital services denied to those who can't produce it on demand.

This is a country where the old are left to die in poverty, where children are confined to schools from seven in the morning until seven at night in order that their parents can be absorbed into the state's consumerist ideals. A state where a family with two wage-earners cannot afford to buy a home and private pension schemes have become worthless, whilst the ruling elite force the people to subsidise both their way of life and their own pensions.

Shortly, this country will ban demonstrations within a mile of its seat of power so that its leader is not embarrassed in the presence of foreign statesmen.

Welcome to the United Kingdom - a country that is very nearly a dictatorship in all but name, with the numb compliance of a population who are sleepwalking into it. Start waking-up before it's too late.



Sir: I was wondering if Tony Blair had mentioned, in his 60th birthday message to the pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, that we have now introduced the wonderful concept of house arrest. I am sure it would cheer her up no end; I am certain she would understand the differences.

Perhaps to resolve this Tony should get his mate Jack Straw to mention to the Burmese junta that if they declared her a terrorist we would have to agree with her detention; then they could torture her and then our courts could use that information, because once obtained then there is no reason not to.



Sir: Andreas Whittam Smith makes a chilling prediction in the final sentence of his article "The erosion of our liberties" (20 June ) : "And that is why distrust of Mr Blair and his ministers will shortly turn to anger."

With the lack of a balancing influence of his ineffectual Cabinet and the support of blinkered, Blairite MPs, this wannabe-President is crushing any form of democracy in this country. So much major legislation is being forced through against the will of the majority of the electorate, under a system where the Government is returned with a significant minority of the vote.

Frustration is widespread and growing, to the point that will inevitably turn to anger. This is apparent to Mr Blair, demonstrated by his ever-more restrictive "security" legislation that daily removes our human and civil rights.

But history shows that repression of a society is ultimately bound to fail. Andreas Whittam Smith suggests that anger, rather than frustration, will shortly become apparent. Sadly, based on discussion with family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances, I can only agree with him.



Sir: Since David Williams (letter, 18 June) is asking former supporters of oppressive dictators to come clean, I would like to admit publicly that, to my infinite shame, I supported Tony Blair's New Labour party not only in the general election of 1997 but also in that of 2001.



Who will pay the cost of Kelly hours?

Sir: It worries me that no one has been discussing the cost of Ruth Kelly's proposals for after-school clubs (Opinion, 13 June), nor who is to staff them.

I am the chairman of a local after-school kids' club, a registered charity. We have a budget of about £52,000 a year, made possible by a big Lottery Fund grant, and fees of around £7 per day for each child (£14 for the all-day sessions needed at half term and in the holidays). Our fees are the lowest of all the after-school clubs in the area. We are inspected by Ofsted, and have to comply with strict space and staffing standards; the local council inspects our kitchen arrangements, and we need to satisfy social services of our competence. Our senior staff need NVQ3 in child care, and our mid-level staff need NVQ2. We get extra grants from the county council for the one-to-one staffing that the several special needs children on our books require. We operate in the village hall, as it became impractical to use the primary school that we started out in, since our needs and the school's needs were incompatible.

I cannot see that Ruth Kelly's proposals are at all well thought through. If she proposes that parents are not to pay fees, then who is to pay the cost? Wonderful ideas about music, art and language opportunities will need specialist teachers at even higher costs. A kitchen is essential, but not all schools will be willing to share theirs.

Is the minister proposing to abandon all the regulations that rule current after-school clubs? I hope not; they protect the welfare of the children. I think she has some detailed questions to answer.



Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's support for the recently announced extension of school opening hours, is disappointing (Opinion, 13 June).

Those disadvantaged pupils, about whom everyone must be concerned, will be unlikely to benefit from this scheme. For the families involved, education has ceased to be a ladder of opportunity; sometimes for more than one generation. The likelihood of these pupils, who gain so little from 12 years of compulsory education, gaining from extra hours is small.

These proposals will have two very harmful side-effects. The line between education and child-minding will be blurred, to the detriment of education. It is openly admitted that this is a policy driven by the fact that for many children both parents work full-time. Secondly, the state will control more of the upbringing of the children. Since the state is already failing to educate so many of these children adequately, the idea that it can now also socialise them is entirely unrealistic.

Nearly all the education initiatives of the last 40 years have been introduced to help those who are gaining least from the education system. Despite this, all the evidence is that the educational gap between the two nations - correctly identified by Ms Alibhai-Brown - continues to grow. The group which achieves least in our education system is those young people "in care"; a group for whom the state takes total control.

Using the educational system for social engineering has failed again and again. It is disheartening that this lesson has still to be learned.



Jewish reaction to cemetery attacks

Sir: It has been some years since I was asked what passport I carried or who I voted for in the Israeli elections - not out of malice but ignorance, presuming that being Jewish meant being a foreigner. I am prepared to accept that Michael Halpern (letter, 17 June) is just ignorant.

Britain is not playing host to me. I am not here as a guest; my stay is not temporary. I am British in every way, born and bred; I couldn't be anything else. The idea that my right to be British is dependant on someone else's goodwill is just about as insulting as it gets.



Sir: Awful as the desecration of Jewish graves was, I am surprised at over-passionate references to an "anti-Semitic attack". If this had been an attack on a Christian burial ground with daubs of Satanic images, would it have given rise to similar outbursts of an "anti-Christian" attack?

Attacks of this nature are, in the main, carried out by young vandals, possibly under the influence of alcohol, who do it "for a laugh" because they have no fear of being caught. Report it? Sure, but giving it undue publicity will only lead to copycat attacks.



PR does not have to mean party lists

Sir: Peter Tritt (letter, 20 June) regrets the switch to "PR" in New Zealand but does not realise that party lists are not an essential part of PR - in fact they are only a device invented by political parties to maintain their power whilst conceding "proportional representation". He should be either campaigning for "open lists" or preferably the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies (STV).

With STV MPs would still be answerable to a constituency, and the majority of electors would have an MP they supported and voters would have a choice of candidates from each party. With STV there is no "party list" or top-up necessary.



Sir: As a New Zealander, I hasten to express an alternative view to Peter Tritt. His view that "all that PR delivered is the tails of small fringe parties wagging the two large dogs of Labour and National" is a gross simplification. Small fringe parties don't get elected. There is an election threshold in New Zealand. I am sure the Liberal Democrats would make the cut here and they are neither small nor fringe.

After the first election in New Zealand under PR, a minority party did become kingmaker and negotiated with both National and Labour. These negotiations were protracted. But the negotiation process brought the voter alongside, and suddenly there was a point to voting. The politicians soon learned that the public will only continue to vote for a minority party if it is constructive in its negotiations.

Such negotiations are in the public interest. PR might not give Mr Tritt a lively election night but it is more democratic than first-past-the-post. I doubt that he expresses a majority New Zealand view.



A superstar shows that he is human

Sir: If I understand you correctly, being doused with water all for "a bit of fun" in a public place gives no one, especially a celebrity, the right be indignant. Your article (21 June) on Tom Cruise's indignant response, goes on to savage Cruise for allegedly carrying on a fraudulent romance with Katie Holmes among other things.

It's you, the press and the public, that have elevated people to mindbending proportions and then you have the gall to complain when they show a bit of humanity. If anything the press should've applauded Cruise for not busting the "jerk" right where he deserved it. A few years back when John Prescott lost his cool and rightfully skulled an idiot protester, the British press absolutely loved it.



Too many passengers

Sir: How long will it be before the Government decide that after the pay-as-you-go charges on roads, they could clear up the foreseen congestion on trains (report, 21 June) in much the same manner?



Conservative optimists

Sir: I had never heard tell before that Ken Clarke "looked forward to the day when the Parliament at Westminster had the same powers as a German Land" (Bruce Anderson, 20 June). But doesn't such an exaggerated ambition for Westminster (whose present powers compare unfavourably with those of the legislature in San Juan, Puerto Rico, let alone those in Munich or Düsseldorf) clearly demonstrate just that ability to rise optimistically above bleak reality that is surely a prerequisite for leading the modern Conservative Party?



Phoning Romania

Sir: Jill Gibson (letter, 20 June) should perhaps investigate alternatives to BT. My provider would have charged £1.44 (or £3.60, if to a mobile number) for the 24-minute call to Romania. The former charge is actually less than the cost of the same call to a UK 0870 "national rate" number. Something is indeed wrong, but it isn't the cost of calls to Romania.



Sir: If Jill Gibson thinks that BT's charges to Romania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, are exorbitant, she should be grateful that she is not calling East Timor, the poorest country in Asia, for which BT would charge her £2 a minute. However, unlike people in East Timor, if not Romania, Ms Gibson is fortunate enough to have a choice of telephone company.



Experimental orgasms

Sir: So, a laboratory experiment has shown that both men's and women's brains close down during orgasm ("Faking it", 21 June). It wasn't by any chance because they were expected to do it with their heads strapped in a scanner, wearing nothing but a pair of socks and being watched by a load of people in white coats? That would certainly close my brain down.