Cutting disability benefit, A culture of secrecy and others

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The Independent Online

A Labour government should not be cutting disability benefit

A Labour government should not be cutting disability benefit

Sir: As someone who is paralysed from the neck down, I would like to know how cutting my benefit will "incentivise" me back to work or, more to the point, will encourage employers to feel that I am more employable ("Disability benefit cut but those who go back to work will get bonus", 2 February).

How much lower will my income need to be to effect this aim? Would a cut of £20 counter the lure of Celebrity DIY Makeover Bargain Hunt or re-runs of Norman Wisdom films on daytime TV? Perhaps if I were hungrier I would make more of an effort of doorstopping the MD of my nearest equal opportunities employer (providing there were no stairs)?

Living through the 1980s and 1990s it became de rigueur to claim that those on disability benefit were parasites, culminating in John Major's (in)famous suggestion that it "beggared belief" that so many could be legitimately claiming incapacity benefit (IB), notwithstanding the fact that Tory governments were conniving in massaging unemployment figures by "encouraging" some to switch to IB. No doubt there were those claiming a few quid a week more than they should have been because of this. No doubt, also, many who should have been claiming IB were not, because of the stigma attached and the onerous Kafkaesque system one has to enter in to.

What has been more depressing, however, is to see a Labour government pick up where the Tories left off - but this time with little opposition in Parliament. Since 1980, disability benefits have fallen further and further behind earnings, such that incapacity benefit now constitutes just 15 per cent of the average wage. The number receiving IB, at 1.4m, is at its lowest for 10 years.

If some are abusing the system, then they should be weeded out, but across-the-board cuts, irrespective of the genuineness of the claim, does not strike me as the action of a decent government.


Culture of secrecy will not change overnight

Sir: Your editorial (2 February) says that the "the worst fears about the effectiveness of the Government's Freedom of Information Act have been confirmed".

The Freedom of Information Act, and the even more powerful Environmental Information Regulations, provide genuinely powerful ways for members of the public to access information and increase the accountability of our elected representatives and civil servants. It is an essential part of any modern constitutional settlement, and long overdue.

Undoubtedly there are problems with the legislation. Some of the loopholes are much too wide - and there are certainly too many of them - and the ministerial veto represents a serious potential threat to the effectiveness of the system. However, overall it provides unique opportunities for journalists and others to access previously unavailable information.

In the month since the legislation came into force, Friends of the Earth has had a mixed responses to its requests for information and, importantly, to our legally guaranteed rights of "advice and assistance" in seeking such information. However, the bad examples are not primarily the result of bad law, but rather of bad practice. They are the result of the continuing culture of secrecy by civil servants as well as, in many cases, basic misunderstanding of the laws.

This culture and ignorance is not going to change overnight. And it will not be changed by writing off the legislation and ignoring it. But it will change if we, journalists, professional campaigners and other citizens, make well-crafted requests and, when refused access to information, take our cases to the Information Commissioner for determination. We are no staunch defenders of this Government of its policies, but let's give this legislation time.

Head of Legal Affairs
Friends of the Earth
London N1

Sir: If the Government is not complying with the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, then MPs must urgently review the legislation with a view to reducing the number of permitted exemptions.

There is no rational reason for the intelligence services to be given absolute immunity from the law. Whilst it may be possible to construct an argument that current operational files should not be released immediately, the same argument cannot be applied to decades-old files of agents, officers and targets that are long dead. But by restricting our access to very old files only, we still have little opportunity to hold the clandestine services to account for their activities and our taxes which pay for their covert operations.

Sweeping exemptions make a hollow mockery of our democracy and place these agencies above the law and beyond accountability to the electorate. MPs must legislate to make it illegal to withhold information because it might cause embarrassment to the government, as is the case in the US. The law must also state that in any case of doubt over whether information should be released, the law must mandate its release. Further provisions must also prohibit the retention of information detailing illegal activities within government or by its contractors. Such provisions are the only guarantee to correct decades of secrecy.

We are well overdue for a thorough Parliamentary review of civilian and military/intelligence secrecy regimes and how they work with the FOIA and Official Secrets Act.


Sir: Your front page article "Is this freedom of information?" (2 February) by implication accuses the BBC of "obfuscation and evasion" in relation to the Freedom of Information Act. This is just not true. We have so far received 200 requests for information and are responding to all but one within the legal deadlines.

The Governors are fully committed to meeting both the spirit and the letter of the Act. In doing so we want to develop a consistent policy which enables us to publish the maximum amount of information possible without, as the Act says, "prejudicing the effective conduct of public affairs". For this reason in relation to just two areas we are exercising our right to take additional time to consider fully the public interest issue in disclosure.

Some might characterise the BBC's past policy on disclosure as being to publish only under duress. I can assure you the present board intends the reverse to be the case.

Chairman, BBC
London W1

Sir: As an Australian, I was not suprised to read your report concering the problems with the recent British Freedom of Information Act. Australia has indeed had an FOI Act since 1982. But this just means that our government has had more time to refine its refusal techniques! An article in The Weekend Australian newspaper last year entitled "A Very Secret Service" outlined the problems: "Bureaucratic stonewalling is stifling the good intentions of the FOI Act. It needs reform. . . you go through this kind of automatic process of refusal". Sound familiar?

Perth, Western Australia

Sir: Of the 10 examples on the front page (2 February) of failed attempts to use the Freedom of Information Act, three were rejected on the grounds of cost. It seems that information which would otherwise be "free" (in the sense of not being contained) can remain undisclosed because it is not "free" (in the sense of having no purchase price).

It would be interesting to discover what the ombudsman's view would be if you were to offer to pay whatever excess costs might be incurred in retrieving the information you requested.

West Bergholt,

Sir: With regard to your front-page article "Is this freedom of information?" (2 February), I wrote to Tessa Jowell three weeks ago asking what input the brewer-funded Portland Institute made to her decision to approve 24-hour drinking. As yet I have received no reply. Maybe, as in the case of the casino legislation, she needs "extra time to determine if this is in the public interest".


Aids prevention

Sir: In order to rid the world of HIV/Aids we absolutely must have an effective vaccine ("How to stop a killer", 26 January). However, in the meantime, while the world's scientists are fighting this critical battle, every year some 4.5 million more people will be infected with the virus as a result of unprotected sex. That is why we also need to intensify efforts to develop alternative preventive technologies, including microbicides, to block the sexual transmission of HIV.

Microbicides - inexpensive, medicated vaginal gels that women can insert prior to sexual intercourse, if necessary without their partner's agreement or even knowledge - represent the technology most likely to fill this need in the near term. Several of these products are currently undergoing large-scale clinical trials, and if all goes well we anticipate that by 2008 one or more of these will be proven effective, safe and acceptable to the user.

The benefits of microbicides, in terms of both the public health and national/regional economies, will be immense. An analysis conducted by colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, based on data from 73 low-income countries, indicates that 2.5 million HIV infections will be averted within three years of introducing a microbicide. Savings in health-system costs could amount to $2.7bn, with an additional $1bn in productivity savings gained from preventing absenteeism and reducing the need to retrain and replace workers.

Gordon Brown's pledge to mobilise massive funding for Aids treatment and prevention deserves the strongest possible backing. His initiative must highlight not only support for the much-needed Aids vaccines but also for the development and provision of anti-HIV microbicides.

International Working Group on Microbicides
London NW3

Climate change

Sir: Your correspondent M A Lees (letter, 29 January) is right to point out that a retreat from globalisation and attendant economic contraction is a necessary condition of averting catastrophic climate change. But to suggest that "the cure is almost as bad as the disease" is very misleading.

Actually, of course, it all depends on where you live: the benefits of cure will accrue first to the poorer nations who are most immediately in danger from climate change and who also lose rather than gain through globalisation; the disadvantages will be experienced by those living in the rich and powerful nations whose untrammelled industrialisation and commercialism got us into this mess.

But wherever you live, to use the notion that "we won't like it and neither will the markets" as a reason for carrying on as we are would surely be insane; like the rationalisation of the alcoholic who decides to carry on drinking himself to death on the grounds that it would be painful to stop and that Saturday nights wouldn't be the same any more.

Godalming, Surrey

Lighthouse family

Sir: The Godrevy Lighthouse ("To the lighthouse no more: Woolf's Cornish inspiration faces a dark future", 29 January) was near Talland House which, contrary to your report, was not the home of the Woolf family. It was the summer home of the Stephen family where Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) spent most of her summers as a child from 1882-1894. Virginia Stephen did not meet Leonard Woolf until about 1904 and she married him in 1912.

London NW11

Voting for the future

Sir: Julien Evans (letter, 1 February) asks how many votes a political party would receive if its manifesto were to include a pledge to increase petrol tax to safeguard the future for our children. The answer is at least one million votes - the number of people who voted Green in the European election of June 2004.

It is a great pity that instead of the 40 MPs that a million votes would garner under strict proportional representation, the UK has no Green MPs at all. Electoral reform would seem the first step towards really long-term thinking at Westminster.


Anatomy lessons

Sir: As a medical student and aspiring surgeon, I followed Channel 4's Anatomy for Beginners programme with interest. If only UK medical students could be taught as comprehensively. Unfortunately, anatomy is no longer considered an essential skill by the politically driven medical educators of today, and students at my medical school now receive only 40 hours of practical teaching compared to 520 in the 1980s. As the government struggles to increase the number of doctors, is it really safe that the surgeons of the future will graduate knowing little more about the fundamentals of the human body than an interested television viewer?


Comedy protest

Sir: Thank you for clarifying my thinking on Dick and Dom In da Bungalow ("Morning Sickness", Review, 1 February). While not wishing to spoil the immense enjoyment of the programme of my seven-year-old son, I did have my doubts about the show. Now that I know that it has stimulated angry protest from a Conservative MP from Mid Worcestershire, I realise that it must have a lot going for it.