Letters: Benefit cuts

Benefit cuts demolish our civil society
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The Independent Online

The new universal benefit strikes me as a reincarnation of the loathed Child Support Agency of the 1990s.

Instead of local solicitors working through with divorcees how best to work child support, it was to be run by a computerised central agency. That did untold damage to millions of families left in limbo months on end with unresolved cases.

And now here we go again: one universal benefit format to fit all, along with massive cutbacks in support, from housing to incapacity, at the very time unemployment is rising month-on-month. People on low incomes and unemployed single under-35s, including young women, to be forced to share housing with complete strangers.

How can a government get it more wrong? Not one minister has one day of experience of weekly pay rates, let alone hourly pay and all the huge stresses that causes low-income workers. The "Big Society" is the campaign banner for wholesale dismantling of British civil society. All that has been built up over generations being demolished at a breath-taking rate.

Jeff Williams

Pooled, Dorset

No one would seriously disagree with the idea of getting people off benefits and back into work. The trouble is we have almost 2.5 million jobless, according to recently published figures, with unemployment particularly high in towns still affected by the loss of their traditional heavy industries such as coal mining and deep-sea fishing. And among the Coalition plans there is no mention of any large-scale job-creation programme.

So the jobless will end up on the never-ending circle of cheap labour schemes, such as the unlamented New Deal that the last government had little success with.

Tim Mickleburgh

Grimsby, Lincolnshire

The current policy of housing benefit caps will be a running sore in the lives of the poorest citizens for years to come unless it is corrected in Clause 68 of the Welfare Reform Bill, where they are called the Appropriate Maximum Housing Benefit.

The injustice is rooted in the history of the housing market since the 1980s, when lending was deregulated and rent controls abolished. That resulted in a flood of money pouring into a housing market in short supply; inevitably prices and rents rose.

Housing benefit payments rose to over £21bn a year. At the same time there was no coherent housing policy to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing to buy or to rent. None of this was the fault of the tenants receiving housing benefit, but they are now paying a very severe price. If housing benefit is cut then the rent has to be found out of the remaining income. The single adult unemployment benefit for people of 25 and over is £65.45.

The Joseph Rowntree minimum income food standard for a week is £45.65; that has been put together by nutritionists, tested with the public for reasonableness and priced in supermarkets. Simple arithmetic shows that if housing benefit is cut then rent arrears are inevitable because the tenant cannot afford to pay the rent, food and other necessities.

There is absolutely nothing wrong, as the Government asserts, in the state funding unemployed people to live to a higher standard than those who do go out to work, because the state has persistently failed to implement a coherent policy for affordable housing.

The Rev Paul Nicolson

Chairman, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust

Peter Ambrose

Visiting Professor in Housing and Health, University of Brighton

Lynn Collingbourne

Housing Consultant

London SW1

Why can't the Conservative-led Coalition show nearly as much enthusiasm for tackling tax avoidance as social security fraud?

Dr Pete Dorey

Reader in British Politics

Cardiff University

NHS is run for the staff

Ed Miliband's speech on the NHS shows he is out of touch with both reality and the public, and consequently Labour will be in opposition for the foreseeable future.

Having spent some time in hospital recently it is clear to me that it is not just the elderly who are ignored by the NHS. There are some first-class people working flat-out, but these are the exception. The rule is staff standing around chatting or complaining about other staff and patients in front of patients – something that just would not be tolerated in any part of the private sector. It seems that the NHS is being run by the staff for the staff and those within it feel safe from the consequences of their poor performance and attitude.

The NHS is the third largest employer in the world. Only the Peoples Liberation Army in China and Wal-Mart employ more people. Given these numbers, one would expect to hear of people losing their jobs because of failure to perform, but have you ever heard of this happening?

We have placed the NHS on a pedestal beyond criticism, safe from collective, and more importantly individual, consequences of poor performance. Staff are aware that no one is fired either for poor performance or laziness.

When the NHS was founded over 60 years ago, it was a great leap forward and people were grateful and proud, but times have changed and clients or customers demand more from those who wish to be paid to supply them with goods or services. It is time for the NHS and other public-sector organisations to catch up with the rest of the economy and stop relying on past gratitude to justify present poor performance.

John Simpson

Ross on Wye, Herefordshire

The rot began in the nursing profession with the disastrous Project 2000. The aim was the "empowerment of nurses", an American import. The training which had worked for years was scrapped and a university course introduced instead. The results speak for themselves.

From being proud to say I was a nurse, I am now ashamed.

Felicity Shields

Reigate, Surrey

I was saddened when I read Christina Patterson's article describing her experiences in hospital after breast cancer surgery (16 February). For the record, it's not always like that.

My experience of post-operative care following a mastectomy at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, near Gateshead, was at the opposite end of the spectrum. I was treated with courtesy and kindness by all the staff I encountered, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and administrative staff alike.

I was encouraged to move and exercise as soon as I was able, which included getting my own breakfast. I will always be grateful for that, because it set me well on the road to recovery. I was back to my Morris dancing in about six weeks.

Shelagh Mitchell

New Brancepeth, Durham

Exam machines miss the point

Rachel Spedding is right to raise the question she does ("Are school students becoming spoon-fed exam machines?" 17 February).

To my mind, this is the most important question facing any incoming education minister. From my own previous teaching experience, I remember the sense of dismay when one of my sixth formers – a perfectly able economics student – asked me: "Should we underline that, sir?"

A similar wave of depression was prompted by an increasingly common question from the modern sixth former: "Is this on the syllabus, sir? Will we get a question on it?" I tended to reply (dishonestly) that I wasn't quite sure. The resultant look of terror was at least some sort of challenge to the prevailing mentality of teaching (and learning) to the test.

Instead of restructuring schools or changing the specified core content (Gove's championing of "facts", for instance), we need to focus on the skill-set required to become a good thinker and a good learner.

We cannot foresee the world which will exist 30 years hence, but we do know that life in the Google age is unlikely to place a high premium on the ability to copy down facts, remember them accurately and reproduce them on cue. It will place a premium on skills such as empathy, optimism, risk-management, collaboration, critical and reflective thinking, imagination and creativity. Above all, it will require adaptability and resilience. These traits, not those of "exam machines", will hold the key.

As the American social commentator Eric Hoffer put it: "In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

Martin Priestley

Headmaster, Warminster School, Wiltshire

No Anglican ayatollahs

Many of us may like a second fully elected second chamber, but some of Johann Hari's comments in his article "Get bishops out of our law-making" (18 February) are somewhat unfair.

We may have little sympathy with rambling Rowan Williams and his suggestion that somehow or other, some parts or other, of Sharia law could, or possibly should, be incorporated into British law. However, to use words such as "arrogant" of Bishops such as Rowan Williams is to malign him.

The purpose of the second chamber is to make the Commons "think again", and certainly it has made me "think again" over such issues as euthanasia and abortion. Some years ago an acquaintance had been seriously ill for a significant time, unable to feed himself and withering away to a slow death, confined to a hospital bed, hopelessly and painfully watched by his family. Euthanasia was talked about, but he is now home, ably and cheerfully cared for by his wife.

The most irrational part of Hari's article is to compare Britain with Iran. The bumbling British bishops are nothing like the arrogant ayatollahs of Iran. If Hari thinks they are, let him go and live there, and write this sort of article against them. He will rapidly return to Britain once he is out of jail, if he comes out alive.

Michael Penny


I agree with Johann Hari about bishops in the House of Lords. But he must not get away with the assertion that they owe their position to Henry VIII. They have been there since Parliament became a recognisable entity, some 250 years before Henry. Henry actually cut clerical representation by abolishing abbots who also sat in Parliament.

Cliff Davies

Wadham College, Oxford

Cross saved by Waterloo thief

One wonders if the Waterloo Crucifix, once in the chapel in the great farmhouse of Goumont, that appears to have been stolen (report, 8 February) could have been in worse hands than in those of a country without a government, on a battlefield situated along the fault-line of two ethnic groups so determined not to live in harmony with each other that one of the world's greatest historical sites has been allowed to remain in a state of decay for so many decades.

One only hopes the current possessor of the cross in question appreciates it more than those who allowed it to be stolen in the first place. If he could be convinced that the authorities about to allow the farmhouse at Quatre Bras to be obliterated rather than restored would treat Goumont any better, then maybe he would return it.

In history, much of what is lost is saved. Maybe the thief is doing more to preserve history than historians.

Peter Hofschröer

Gaishorn am See, Austria

Small queries on the Big Society

If the Big Society commences and volunteerism takes off, who is going to cover the indemnity insurance costs associated with accidents, fatal injuries, accidental damage to premises and so on?

Paul Livesey

Stockport, Cheshire.

How big are the bonuses to be in Mr Cameron's Big Society Bank?

George Huxley

Church Enstone, Oxfordshire

Cameron's cat

Of course no one told us whether the Downing Street rats were moving in or out, which I believe to be an important issue when dealing with rats. Now there is a cat. If the cat is really a Coalition cat, can we be surprised if it lies down with the rats and reaches an amicable division of responsibilities?

Morag Morrell


Perspectives on voting reform

Lords were just doing their job

It is sad that your leader of 18 February ignored the role of cross-bench peers in winning support to amend the Bill for the AV referendum and to cut the number of MPs by 50. Cross-benchers voted in unusual strength on several issues with what you dismiss as "the unholy alliance of Labour and Conservative peers".

This is the first time in recent history that government, rather than the independent Boundary Commission, has claimed to set the size of the Commons – and then without the usual public hearings.

There was no attempt to thwart the Bill, just an insistence that the Lords exercise its role in properly scrutinising legislation largely undebated in the Commons. Government threats to guillotine the time taken because they arbitrarily set a date for the referendum before it had been discussed and decided rankled with peers on all benches.

Robin Corbett

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

Chair, Labour Peers Group

House of Lords

Governments nobody voted for

Despite all the PR huff to the contrary, AV will increase the likelihood of coalition governments. Why, you may ask, is this a bad thing? Coalitions are bad because nobody votes for them. They are unelected and have no mandate for their policies.

Nobody voted for the current Coalition of the Clueless, and their policies and positions have all been decided after the election behind closed doors by men in suits. This has resulted in an embarrassingly long list of U-turns, reversals and abandoned promises. Thankfully FPTP rarely produces hung parliaments.

Democracy is not improved when a flawed system where 35 per cent of the voters elect a government gets replaced by a system where a government is elected by exactly 0 per cent of the voters.

Paul Harper

London E15

It can only get better

Alan Carcas writes (letter, 18 February) that "if we change to the alternative vote system, never again will the voters get the government they vote for". I have been voting for 30 years and have never got the government I voted for, and I have never seen a parliamentary majority that was justified by a majority of the vote. How could AV be any worse?

Chris Webster


Decisive victories

Mr Cameron asserts that the landslide victories of 1979 and 1997 were a result of first-past-the-post. This is misleading, since AV too would quite certainly have handed handsome overall majorities to Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair respectively. Does the Prime Minister not understand this, or is he deliberately trying to mislead the public?

Jonathan Phillips


Every vote counts

Mr Cameron is propounding the theory that AV is unfair because the votes of popular parties will be counted only once, whilst those of minorities will be counted "over and over again", every time a candidate is eliminated and votes redistributed. This is simply false; every vote continues to count at each stage of counting. If it were so obviously unfair it is unlikely the Electoral Reform Society would state "AV is the best system when you're out to elect a single winner".

Sven Blasc


Not that hard

My expensively educated and university-graduate MP has written telling me that he thinks the alternative vote is a "complicated system". I have no qualifications, am 72 years old and spent my working life in road haulage, yet I think it is simple. Perhaps one of us has been brainwashed or otherwise nobbled.

Steve Manning

Nantwich, Cheshire

As you were

Those who do not want the alternative vote could carry on with their own first-past-the-post system by voting for only one candidate.

Jeremy Axten

Addlestone, Surrey