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Tuesday 31 August 2010
Disabled fear Tube cuts plan
It's not just the unions who are furious about plans to cut 800 jobs on London Underground ("Tube strike series 'seriously damaging'", 25 August). We at Transport for All are extremely concerned about the effect of these on older and disabled Londoners. The threatened savage cuts of more than 7,400 hours of ticket-office staffing every week across the network will have a disastrous impact on our freedom and independence.
TfL seem to think that Oyster machines and CCTV can replace human staff. They cannot. Many of our members have impairments such as blindness or learning difficulties which mean that they simply cannot use automatic ticket machines and, without a staffed ticket office, will effectively be barred from the Underground.
The presence of station staff is also crucial in making disabled people feel safe. Disabled people are at greater risk of experiencing violence and hostility than the general population, and we feel more unsafe and vulnerable to crime and harassment on empty platforms or when there is no one else at a station. Without station staff present to deter or deal with intimidating passengers, fewer disabled people will travel on London Underground. CCTV cameras may be able to record an attack, but they're not able to intervene.
Every day, London Underground staff support disabled people to buy tickets, to advise on routes, to help manage station stairs and escalators and to board trains. Already, disabled people have been left stranded on trains, with no staff available to help them disembark.
Accessible workplaces, accessible restaurants and pubs and accessible hospitals mean nothing unless we can actually travel to reach them. Cutbacks on station staff will condemn many disabled people to more hours of being housebound and isolated. We urge TfL to show their commitment to equality and inclusion and rescind these cuts now.
Campaigns and Outreach Co-ordinator, Transport for All, London SW9
Education must offer choices
It is disappointing to read the comments of Ms De Waal of Civitas ("Schools 'promoting bogus qualifications'", 24 August). Vocational related qualifications (VRQs) are on the rise, and the future of our education system must lie in ensuring academic and vocational qualifications function harmoniously hand-in-hand.
That is to say, to have strong academic courses, we need strong vocational courses, and vice versa, with young people free to chose a high-quality option which suits them. So rather than abandoning this ever-widening pathway, we need to ensure it delivers the level of quality we expect.
We need more rigour to vocational assessment and examinations to ensure that all students are given the best possible start in life and are not hampered by a prejudiced education system. We need vocational courses to be taught by experts in specialist institutions such as the proposed University Technical Colleges, thus ensuring all young people have access to the best possible standards of teaching, whatever choice they pursue.
VRQs have often been introduced to motivate students who have lost interest in the conventional "academic" curriculum. By shunning VRQs, we are shunning a huge portion of our nation's future, and Civitas's comments serve only as a regressive step at a crucial time when we need clear, structured progression.
Director of Education, Edge, London SW1
The headline on Richard Garner's article should have been "Ofsted Promoting Bogus Qualifications". The vocational exams in question give a student four grade C GCSE equivalents in the time normally taken to deliver two GCSEs. If a school does not do this to boost its results, it is likely to be roundly criticised by Ofsted, and even put into special measures.
Teachers know that such courses are often not in the best interests of pupils, but the pupils have to be sacrificed for the sake of the school. This has been known to be the case for a decade, and is just one more sad example of targets adversely affecting outcomes and what is wrong in education. Oh, for some common sense.
Dr D J Moulson
Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire
Our cricket has been tarnished
I paid good money this summer to Virgin for Sky Sports and to the ECB to watch Pakistan play Test cricket against Australia and England. I reasonably expected Pakistan (and England and Australia) to give 100 per cent to each and every ball with a view to beating each other.
It is quite clear to me, regardless of the outcome of the police enquiry, that the cricket has fallen well short of my expectations, and I shall not only not pay for Test match tickets to watch the matches but will be seeking reimbursement of my aforementioned outlay, through the courts, if necessary.
They have brought shame on themselves and caused me and millions other like-minded fans to question the very provenance of the game at the professional level.
Unfortunately, match-fixing is prevalent in many sports, including the genteel sport of cricket. It is high time that its world governing body, the ICC, asserted its authority and stamped out corruption from the game once and for all, before its integrity is tarnished for ever.
Professor Ian Blackshaw
International Sports Law Centre, The Hague, The Netherlands
Can we now expect the administrators of the game to take a long look back at "unusual" events in the past 10 years of Pakistan cricket?
Turkey should be in the EU
Steve Parker asks (Letters, 21 August) whether others are concerned at David Cameron's warm support of admitting Turkey to the EU. I am not concerned.
Mr Parker claims "geographically, [Turkey] is in Asia", casting doubt on his grasp of politics and geography. Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe and is due to hold the presidency of the Committee of Ministers from November this year. Geographically, as Mr Parker notes, it has a toe-hold in Europe.
For comparison, what might he think about Iceland, far across the cold North Atlantic; or Martinique, a department of France but located (conveniently for holiday-makers such as Mr Parker) in the Caribbean?
Germany is the economic engine of Europe. Its manufacturing and productivity leave Britain in the shade. For many years, Germany and Turkey have had strong ties. There are many Turkish immigrants in Germany, some third generation, contributing to its economic success. Perhaps Mr Parker is unaware of that, but to quote him, "none of this is ancient history".
Why would Turks, newly admitted to the EU, and who have a long and remunerative relationship with Germany, decide that their future lies with the economically junior Great Britain? About as unlikely as Britain being inundated with German economic migrants.
Mr Parker likes to holiday in Turkey. Perhaps he should ask the Turks whether they enjoy having him as their guest. Given the unfailing politeness of Muslims to guests, they are bound to answer "Yes". If I were a Turk, I might privately think otherwise.
Terence Eastman (Letters, 21 August) falls into the same trap as most Europhobes. He imagines that Schengen Area member states are less prone to illegal immigrants, less proud of their own independence and somehow more overrun by alien criminal gangs than we are.
They aren't. They are remarkably similar to us, except they see the freedom of their own people to travel around their home continent as more important than raising an expensive and ineffective fence against their neighbours.
The answer to stopping international criminals and illegal immigrants is co-operation with other states. It's far cheaper and more effective than using the UK Border Agency to harass innocent UK and European travellers.
Gulls drawn by fast-food waste
In 2005, I spent a week in a flat in the centre of Edinburgh and barely slept because of the noise made by the gulls, who never seemed to sleep themselves (report, 28 August). The street was a pedestrian zone with restaurants, and bags of refuse, many containing food, were put out at all times of the day and night.
When I returned a year later, the problem had been solved. The city council had decreed that no bags of refuse were to be put out, on pain of a heavy fine, except on the mornings when the vehicle was due to collect them. The gulls had clearly moved on.
If coastal and countryside gulls have declined steeply, and urban gulls have increased, and these are the same species, then surely all that has happened is that the birds have changed their survival strategy. Urban living is preferred because food is plentiful and easy to grab. Better control of food refuse is at least part of the solution.
Lorraine M Harding
Steeton, West Yorkshire
Languages have a cultural pleasure
Your correspondents argue that learning a foreign language isn't worth it because it doesn't pay and most foreigners speak English anyway (Letters, 27 August).
I am British and my ex-wife is French, and since my late teens I have been often to France and have lived and worked there. I have said more than once, maybe after a drink or two, "The best thing that happened to me was to have French culture opened up to me".
I can enjoy Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and I can enjoy Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel. I can enjoy Graham Greene and I can enjoy an André Gide. When I listen to a French person I understand not just the words and gestures but I also have a notion of the culture behind them. My ex-wife spoke three languages and often said that practising foreign languages was neither appreciated nor remunerated in the UK.
Learning a foreign language is not just learning a narrow technical skill, because it brings with it the culture that it expresses and embodies, bringing depth and breadth to our understanding and removing blinkers imposed by our Anglo-American culture. Maybe those who can't see beyond the narrow technical side of a foreign language are another example of the old saw about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Speaking a foreign language shows that one is reaching out and not waiting for others to make the effort.
Learning a foreign language can have a knock-on remedial effect in the understanding of English. Fifteen years ago, my editorial assistant was a young, British-born Afro-Caribbean woman who was fully competent in Russian, Swedish and Italian.
She told me that only when she was exposed to the discipline of learning a foreign language did she have any insight into the structure and rules of the English language, so casually was that subject taught then.
Nothing in the public arena suggests that English is generally any better taught now, rather the reverse, so the loss of languages from the curriculum is a double blow.
Pensions deficit is bound to grow
The elephant in the room that everyone is studiously avoiding when discussing pensions (Letters, 28 August) is the issue of redistribution. With 50 per cent of the population sharing about 5 per cent of the nation's wealth, and a similar proportion of national income, it's simply not possible for many to adequately finance their own pensions.
As inequality increases and the top 10 per cent – more particularly the top 1 per cent – command a larger and larger share of income, so that problem is exacerbated. Even those earning above the median wage of about £24,000 will struggle to set aside a sufficient amount in addition to meeting inflated housing costs, and rising student loans, food, fuel and transport bills.
Private pensions based on individual contributions cannot address this problem. Only the state can ensure a basic income in retirement by transfers from those whose talent, hard work, luck or accident of birth (however you want to frame it) gives them a higher income, to those with no special talent, the "idle", the unfortunate, or those with no inheritance.
As long as the dominant ideology regards progressive taxation as tantamount to state-sanctioned theft, rather than the prerequisite of a civilised and equitable society, the problem of the pensions deficit will continue to grow.
Fantastic news about a long-awaited breakthrough in the battle against TB ("Test offers hope of tuberculosis breakthrough", 19 August). The problem is in targeting the people to test. We have great programmes for diagnosing HIV and TB, because TB is the biggest killer of HIV-positive people. Patients at HIV clinics must be tested for TB, and vice versa.
Out of tune
Full marks to David Lister (Arts, 28 August) for berating Christ College Cambridge's University Challenge winners on their failure to recognise Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" (recorded in 1962). But it was their rival team (Liverpool) who failed to recognise the Joan Baez version. They guessed it was by Karen Carpenter.
Burgess Hill, West Sussex
Perspectives on the wheat genome
No key to world's food problems
In the article by Steve Connor (27 August), the scientific tour-de-force of the wheat genome is hailed as a new dawn for agriculture. Well, maybe. This could lead to the understanding that genetic manipulation is a dead end and that its promises of a better future stays in never-never land.
The most scientific breakthrough in wheat production in 10,000 years? Nonsense. This is clearly a statement that whines for research funding, more than a historical fact.
As a plant biochemist at the University of Agriculture (Copenhagen) in the mid-Eighties, I remember the beginning of the never-ending "breakthroughs" of genetic manipulation and the promises of a new and better world because of this new and fantastic tool.
Twenty years later, genetic manipulation in agriculture has delivered little but bigger profits for the agrobusiness and good funding for some university departments willing to perform this line of research.
I am afraid the decoding of the wheat genome, all respect to the enormous scientific achievement, will prove rather useless in solving the world's agricultural problems.
For a future, go back to the past
Sean O'Grady provides a welcome counterpoint to the view that the solution to the world's growing food shortages lies in boosting productivity through genetic modification and further agricultural intensification, but not only for the reasons he cited (Analysis, 27 August).
The contrasts between such scientific reductionism and real, whole-systems solutions are powerful. Productivity enhancement through intensive production of high-yield varieties involves costs outside the narrow goals of genetic scientists, the health of the soil, of the plants, and their nutritional value.
Modern farming techniques rely for "productivity" on the force-feeding of such crops with agri-chemicals. These, together with tilling and soil compaction, destroy natural soil structure and ecology including beneficial micro-organisms which enable uptake of trace elements and essential minerals, obliterating nutritional value and disease immunity.
Thin cell walls from too-rapid growth exacerbate disease susceptibility, necessitating drenching with fungicides, fumigants and other biocides (up to 12 in a growing season), further undermining soil quality.
Low mineral levels in intensively cultivated produce have long been implicated in livestock disease and infertility and, in humans, with a "pre-illness" propensity to a plethora of degenerative diseases.
Artificial farming is less effective than a whole-systems approach. Studies show that natural farming and organic farming are capable of similar, and higher, per-acre productivity, with none of the destructive elements.
The eureka breakthrough will come from the scientific insight that the key to future food security has been with us for a long time: natural, whole-systems management.
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