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Tuesday 22 February 2011
Letters: Arab revolution creeps nearer to the oilfields
The uprising in Bahrain may have more serious implications for the US than they care to acknowledge. The replacement of a longstanding ally by a populist regime formed from Islamist parties who in the 2006 elections won 32 out of 40 seats in the lower house of Parliament may be just the first of a string of Gulf regimes that could fall to unrest.
Bahrain however, is also headquarters of the United States Naval Forces Central Command and the US Fifth Fleet, which is currently acting in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The Carrier Strike Group that was until recently deployed had launched more than 1,800 combat sorties into Afghanistan since October 2010. Its replacement continues to demonstrate a force de frappe clearly visible from Iran.
It has long been part of the National Security Doctrine of the US to seek to secure its energy sources. A peaceful status quo in the Middle East with friendly oil states has been a desirable contribution towards that goal.
This goes to the heart of the matter. The potential loss of a strategic naval headquarters and possible further oil-producing allies in the Gulf could make the breakdown of the relationship between Egypt and Israel seem a minor disturbance by the shores of the distant Mediterranean.
Al-Sharif Abdullah bin Al-Hussein
We all recognise that the West has been sponsoring totalitarian regimes for decades and we applaud the Arab protesters' struggle for freedom, but there are consequences that we have been foolishly ignoring.
The protests are now dangerously close to various oil-producing Gulf states with dictatorial governments (such as Saudi Arabia). We have been keeping the lid on that region so that we can continue to control the oil that we so need.
Most industrialised countries have taken absolutely no measures to cope with a sudden reduction in the oil supply. Instead we have continued to build roads and airports, we depend on the car for most journeys, and our food is flown or trucked in "just in time". Even our daily bread is no longer made locally but white-vanned in from central factories to receive only the "final bake" in the bakery. Without oil we face massive supply disruption, and even hunger.
Politicians have been busy listening to the siren voices of slick lobbyists sent in by big business and have failed to protect local structures which would cushion the effects of a loss or reduction in our oil supply. The challenge for us now is to shepherd through these changes in Arab states in the hope that disruption will not spread to the oilfields. That task is made considerably more difficult by the loss of credibility which we have suffered because of our support for dictators, our Machiavellian meddling in the region's politics and our waging war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I just hope it all goes through smoothly, and my advice to everyone would be: "Don't sell your bicycle."
In the debate about the morality of the UK selling arms to repressive regimes one factor is usually taken as a given: that arms exports are good business for UKplc. I would like to draw attention to research based on "collaboration over two years between the Ministry of Defence and independent academic economists" (Chalmers et al.,2002, Fiscal Studies, Vol 23 pp 343-367) modelling the economic effects on the UK of a 50 per cent reduction in defence exports.
To quote the authors: "The economic effects ... are relatively small and largely one-off ... The balance of arguments about UK defence exports should be detemined by non-economic factors." By relatively small they mean an annual effect of under 0.5 per cent of UK defence spending.
Isn't it time that we stopped pretending that arms exports are vital to our economic health and shifted the debate to issues such as human rights, ethics and the moral standing of the UK in the world?
Not only have the weapons we sold to repressive regimes been used against innocent unarmed protesters but our collaboration with these regimes for oil and other commercial gains shows only too clearly how we value the free speech and human rights we trumpet from the rooftops.
Both Labour and Conservatives are equally culpable. In particular, Tony Blair's pact with Colonel Gaddafi says everything there is to say about this Middle East peace envoy. What does it say about us that we elect politicians of that calibre?
Barclays make a joke of bank levy
The news that Barclays Bank paid a mere £113m in corporation tax in 2009 rather than around £3.25bn that we may have expected (28 per cent of £11.6bn pre-tax profit), is not only a testament to the effectiveness of systematic tax avoidance; but to the underlying inadequacy of the standard corporate tax mechanisms to gather an appropriate tax yield in the banking sector.
At one stroke Barclays have undermined George Osborne's much-trumpeted Bank Levy of £2.5bn. The levy is now seen to yield from all the banks combined only about 75 per cent of the saving in corporation tax made by Barclays alone!
We can only deal in broad generalities, before the banks and their PR experts dissolve our sense of reality and fair-play in front of the public's eyes. However, if we extrapolated the same level of corporation tax avoidance to other major London and international banks, then the levy, far from being a penal supertax for bailing out the banks, could be seen rather as a (one-off) cheap and cheerful substitute for a genuine bank profits tax. It disingenuously appears designed simply to allow both Government and banks off the "blame and remorse" hook, and return the Infallible Industry to bank-bonus "business as usual".
Given that the reported profits for the four largest banks was about £22bn for 2009, and the corporation tax take was £4bn, the effective rate of profit tax was 18 per cent (against the nominal 28 per cent); even adding the Government's current levy rate of £2.5bn gives a total government corporate bank-profit tax take of £6.5bn, suggesting an effective 2009 total tax rate of 29.5 per cent. The Government's heavily promoted "tough" banking levy and Merlin regime thus offers an increase to the real tax rate of a derisory 1.5 per cent, for one year; the risible taxpayer return for saving the bankers' necks.
John S Warren
Fairer votes or no vote at all
Your report on the possible results of previous elections, if they had been run under the alternative vote (21 February) may explain why Cameron offered this instead of the proportional version, AV-plus, as recommended by Roy Jenkins.
The No camp can now claim that AV can sometimes produce even less representative results than first-past-the-post. And if it is voted down, in favour of retaining FPTP, then there will be no prospect of proportional representation being considered again.
I have cast my vote in every election since 1970, because I regard it as my civic duty to do so. Although I have voted for each of the major parties, I have not once been rewarded with a government that I had voted for, and only once with an MP of my choice. If the public do decide to retain FPTP, then I shall cease this charade, as I suspect many others will, thus reducing the turn-out even further. It only seems to legitimise minority governments.
A common theme of your correspondents arguing for a retention of FPTP is that electors know from the parties' manifestos exactly what they are voting for.
Come off it! Once in office, every government feels able to ignore bits of its manifesto as reality intrudes. The stronger oppositions, or even coalitions, resulting from AV should mean that this inevitable compromise between manifesto and practicality is – to the benefit of the electorate and the discomfort of career politicians – managed much more openly.
A problem with the argument that voting for AV in the referendum would be a step towards PR is the assumption that AV-plus must involve party lists to provide the top-up MPs. Many PR supporters dislike party lists and so prefer the single transferable vote.
The "Yes" campaign should therefore make it clear that we could have AV-plus without party lists. For example, the top-up MPs for each party could be its candidates who had polled the highest numbers (or percentages) of first preferences but had not been elected as constituency MPs.
Your article about voting reform (18 February) shows the pictures of seven supporters and seven opponents of change. Those supporting change are all public figures outside of political life, but six of the seven supporting the status quo are politicians. Talk about turkeys not voting for Christmas.
A 'Doctor Who' fanatic owns up
While I accept that there's little worse than a Doctor Who pedant, I'm pretty certain that the episode to which Andy McSmith refers in which the Doctor is locked into a repeating cycle of events starting aboard a steamship ("Can a father and son share Doctor Who fun?" 19 February) is "Carnival of Monsters", not "The Celestial Toymaker" as the artifacts manager at the new Olympia exhibition suggested.
"Carnival of Monsters", broadcast in 1973, features Jon Pertwee as the Doctor and Katy Manning as his companion Jo Grant, and both are trapped inside a Miniscope which miniaturises various frightening and exotic species for easy transportation around the galaxy while allowing public viewing of them in their natural habitats. The giveaway is the opening aboard the ship, the SS Bernice in the TV programme – this did not occur in "The Celestial Toymaker".
I hang my head in shame.
A big idea that makes sense
Phillip Blond's view of the Big Society (9 February) as being a "public-sector mutualisation and budgetary takeover by citizens of the state" sounds a good one.
As I see it, we find people who are willing to give up their time to organise this and, with a finite budget, to decide on priorities. It would be fairest if we elect them to avoid self-selection by "one issue" groups. It is doubtful that they would have the practical skills to carry out their ideas so obviously they would need to employ trained staff to implement those decisions.
Brilliant! I think I will call my idea "local government".
South Nutfield, Surrey
How right you are to give the John Soane Museum two pages (14 February), but do give it its full due. In any common or garden museum or gallery up and down the country Hogarth prints are two a penny, but only here can you see such a unique gathering of tip-top Hogarth paintings: the four canvases of The Election and the six of The Rake's Progress. They alone would be worth a visit, even were not the rest of this beloved building and collection the extraordinary and eccentric glory that it is.
We need bishops
The Bishop of Leicester may be right in correcting Johann Hari's historical error (letter, 19 February), but he writes nothing to justify the right of bishops of just one form of Christianity to sit in the House of Lords. His closing paragraph seems to imply that secularists might suppress inconvenient religious voices, but brings no evidence to suggest why British secular thinkers would wish to do this. Most of us delight in arguing with the religious; suppressing their voices would deprive us of an agreeable discourse.
Perspectives on NHS care
Too few staff for elderly patients
Surely the most important reason for the poor care of elderly patients, highlighted in your recent reports, is under-staffing. Being attentive to the needs and comfort of totally dependent people takes more time than anyone working on a hospital ward ever has these days.
The last time my husband was in the stroke unit of a local hospital, he complained of feeling cold. Since I was by his bed, I went off in search of an extra blanket. No staff in the ward, none in the corridor, no one in the three adjoining wards. Not a soul to be seen.
I eventually found someone who looked like a maintenance man, who pointed me to the cupboard where the blankets were. How lucky I was that my husband was not bleeding, choking or simply needing a bedpan.
Unsurprisingly, he left hospital with an MRSA infection. I have vowed that, if he has another stroke, I will do all in my power to keep him out of hospital – at least there is someone to care for him at home.
Leadership is lacking
I disagree with Anne O'Neil (letter, 16 February), who blames falling standards on an over-reliance on care assistants. I have been on the receiving end of rather a lot of NHS care in recent years and I have worked as a nurse and psychologist in the health service for 40 years.
My experience is that health care assistants are often brilliant, and the ones who show genuine kindness and humanity. The many overseas nurses whom I have seen in action have also been extremely good. My experience of UK-trained nurses has far too often been disappointing.
Paradoxically it seems that a nursing uniform can too often create a barrier preventing the wearer from showing usual care and humanity. The psychological issues identified by Ablack and Samuels in the same letters page are important. However it is telling that when a genuinely caring nursing environment is created the most emotionally charged medical settings such as terminal care are happy and rewarding places to work.
Accountability and leadership are the core issues. UK nurses have fought to improve their status, now the profession needs to take responsibility and sort themselves out. There has been too much blaming of others.
Psychology has lessons to teach
How refreshing to read Carmen Joanne Ablack and Andrew Samuels' letter (16 February). As they wrote, depth psychology has a lot to offer in trying to understand how nurses can be sadistic, parents can abuse their children, and in fact every act of kindness and caring has within it the potential for its opposite.
Psychotherapists and counsellors go through self-awareness training, and throughout their working lives are required to be in regular supervision, one purpose of which is to enable the therapist to become aware of his or her negative as well as positive feelings aroused in their work.
If nurses could undergo more self-awareness training and be given regular supervision of the kind used in the psychotherapy profession, our elderly and vulnerable might rest more securely in their NHS beds.
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
Where were the doctors?
Six of your cases of ill-treatment of the elderly, quoted in your report of 15 February, were presumably authorised by a qualified doctor. The other two should have been known to the doctor on duty.
The nurses take their lead from the doctors; and the care assistants from the nurses. Until the profession is prepared to participate in responsibility for the total experience of patients in health care, as well as treating their ailments, nothing will improve. The problem is cultural, not financial.
Robert Blair, Former Chairman, Grimsby Health Authority
Mannings Heath, West Sussex
Christina Patterson's article "Nasty nurses? Tell me something new" (16 February) was both moving and shocking.
She is obviously an intelligent, confident woman. Her stock-in-trade is getting her opinions across to all manner of people. If she is left feeling vulnerable and neglected during her hospital treatment for cancer, what hope for the rest of us?
Stockport, Greater Manchester
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