Letters: Child protection

Stifling bureaucracy impedes child-protection work
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We are all reeling at the awful story of Baby P. One cannot usefully say more on the specific case until the results of the inquiries are known. But a warning bell rang with me when it was reported that social workers were saying that the children's department is under-resourced and understaffed, and that they have to spend 60 per cent of their time writing reports and filling in forms. They were just not able to get out and do their job.

I recognise that basic recording is part of the job and IT has made it easier to multiply the demands for documentation, but one wonders if things have got completely out of proportion.

I am a local councillor and our hard-pressed clerk is often at her desk till 8pm trying to cope with the mountains of paperwork. Just last week we learned (we had not been notified) that new Freedom of Information Regulations require a revised Publication Scheme to be adopted from 1 January 2009, with dire penalties if this is not done. This requires additional work by the clerk and the calling of a special council meeting.

I am all for accountability, but when we want something from the bureaucracy we wait months: when they want something from us, we all have to drop the real work to comply. People in public service are struggling. New rules and requirements are promulgated every 10 minutes, while resources decline inexorably.

Wearing another hat I am responsible for "risk management" procedures for various church and charitable organisations. We have constantly to review and monitor heath and security issues, which in the past were managed with the use of common sense. It takes an enormous amount of time and energy for staff and governing bodies.

The resources of public agencies are being eroded and people made redundant because of the economic situation. Might we not be approaching the time when maybe half of the pen-pushers and, dare I say it, MPs and civil servants, who spend their lives inventing new controls and targets might be made redundant and the savings invested instead in proper staffing for social services and all the other hands-on public services?

Cllr the Rev Michael J Davies


Shut out by Israel's Gaza blockade

In the past week, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson has spoken out again about a "whole civilisation destroyed" in Gaza, just as Israel again squeezes the flow of fuel for power stations. To these two latest reminders that Israel is maintaining a state of siege of gaza's 1.5 million people, we would add our own experience.

We are some of the 100 academics and health professionals who were booked to participate in a WHO co-sponsored conference in Gaza, "Seige and Mental Health" two weeks ago. Israel requires those wishing to enter Gaza to apply for permits, and the WHO itself made the applications well in advance. Israel turned them all down en bloc just one week before the conference was due to start, clearly a political decision intended to wreck it. We demonstrated in protest at the Gaza Erez crossing, but to no avail.

Those opposing calls for an academic boycott of Israel regularly cite "academic freedom", yet there has been not a murmur of protest from Israeli universities and medical establishment at this latest violation.

Dr Derek Summerfield (UK)
Dr Ghada Karmi (UK)
Dr Alice Rothchild (USA)
Prof Elsa First (USA
Prof Federico Allodi (Canada)
Dr Alan Meyers (USA)
Dr Ben Alofs (UK)
Dr William Slaughter (USA)
and 22 others
Kings College London

Donald Macintyre's report "Chronic malnutrition in Gaza blamed on Israel" (15 November) detailing the contents of an "explosive" report by the Red Cross attributing the totality of Israel's responsibility for malnutrition in Gaza should come as no surprise to those who have followed this brutal and immoral siege.

Dov Weissglass, an aide to the Israeli Prime Minister, stated at its inception: "It is like an appointment with a dietician. We will make them thin and lose weight but will not want them to die". This chilling statement of intent to starve 1.5 million people trapped in the ghetto that Gaza has become elicited no response or criticism from the EU or US. In fact both became complicit with Israel's actions of blockade. The enforced ghettoisation and attempt to wear down a people by starvation have historical overtones which should have raised alarm bells ringing around the world. The political elites remained mute.

The starving of a civilian population as a political weapon is not only a breach of international law but a moral crime against humanity. Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, whose government continues to perpetrate this atrocity, addresses the House of Commons this week. How long will our parliamentarians continue this moral blindness to Israeli inhumanity and barbarism?

Paul Timperley

Bracknell, Berkshire

Why Britain must join the euro

The pound is now suffering a collapse and these damaging fluctuations in exchange rates will increase as the financial crisis worsens. Capital has become so easy to transfer between currencies, and in the last two months £100bn has flowed out of the pound into other currencies.

Britain has already seen the effect of this in the strength of the pound from 1998-2002, which hurt many exporting and import-competing companies.

A separate currency is becoming an increasing disadvantage for a medium-sized country such as Britain, which is too dependent on international trade to be able to neglect its exchange rate as the US can.

Caught between two large currency blocs, the only predictable thing about sterling is that it is likely to head off in unpredictable directions.

Only by joining the euro can Britain protect itself against the dangers of these damaging fluctuations.

Ian Foley

Fareham, Hampshire

When the future looks bleak and uncertain, when recession is looming and it seems as though it cannot get any worse, what is needed is a strong leader, someone to bring stability and confidence to the world, someone able to pull us back from the brink.

Fortunately we now have such a leader; Harry Redknapp must immediately assume control of the UK's Economy and save us from the nightmare of relegation.

Michael Ford

Bocking, Essex

Somali 'pirates' are misunderstood

Daniel Howden describes well the dilemma facing northern Somalia's fishermen who have been powerless to stop fleets from distant states fishing their waters with impunity (report, 14 November). At last, the international community is paying attention, although it has yet to define its strategy. The best immediate solution to this continuing piracy lies with the EU, not Nato. By combining an offshore policing role with a commitment to development in the North Somali coast region, it can kick-start its existing, stuttering programmes.

The EU's new UN-granted mandate should reassure Somali fishermen that their territorial waters are no-go areas to foreign fishing fleets. This will encourage local Sultans and other leaders to counsel rejection of pirate activities. Second, it must involve Somalis in the effective surveillance of this programme. Third, it must direct allocated but unused ECHO funding towards rebuilding piers, docks and freezing plants in Laasqoray and along the northern coast. This will encourage these leaders, along with international agencies, to release unused post-Tsunami grants to these same ends. Fourth, it must set up, equip and train an East African Community littoral patrol fleet. There are indications that the worldwide Northern Somalia diaspora, who mostly support development, not conflict, would then commit funds to such local programmes.

In summary, the UN's mandate to the EU should be one which seeks to engage the coastal inhabitants of northern Somalia, not one which knocks their fishermen-turned-pirates out of the water.

David Wardrop

Strategies for Peace

London SW6

Heart transplant dilemma

In 1999 I was the solicitor acting in the leading case Re: M for Newcastle-upon-Tyne Hospitals NHS Trust in securing a court order permitting a heart transplant to be given to a 16-year- old girl against her wishes. The girl had what she considered to be valid reasons for her objections. Unlike the Hannah Jones case, the girl's mother was in favour of the transplant.

I have no doubt that Hannah has her own valid reasons. However, I think it unfair to suggest that the "authorities" have been heavy-handed (Deborah Orr, 12 November). These "authorities" will have comprised medical, nursing and legal staff who will have agonised over the decision, which was presumably made in what they felt to be the girl's best interests. That is the primary motivation for the medical and nursing professions.

The good news in Re M was that the girl made a good recovery and wrote to the hospital staff thanking them for the care.

Rod Findlay


The incidence of semantic error

Guy Keleny is wrong in his definition of "incidence" as "the scope of something, the amount of it there is about" (Errors and Omissions, 15 November). The word is most used in medical epidemiology: the incidence of a disease is the number of new cases diagnosed within a specified time, typically one year. The "amount of it there is about", i.e. the proportion of a population that has the disease at any given time, is the prevalence of that disease, not its incidence. For example, the prevalence of diabetes in the UK population is currently about 3 per cent, but far fewer than three citizens per 100 develop diabetes in one year (its incidence).

Professor George Haycock

London SE3

Yes, we have some bananas

Mike Hillard is the first to grow bananas in a UK home, and a plant belonging to Graham and Daphne Bath from Hampshire has borne fruit for the first time (report, 7 November).

So what? I have been growing a banana in my garden for approximately 10 years now. It has over 20 stems and has, unfortunately, fruited on four occasions in that time; I say unfortunately as when a stem fruits that is the end of it. At present I have three stems fruiting, so that will leave rather a hole in the middle of the clump for next year.

Jane Wells

Tollesbury, Essex

Adversarial politics

Gordon Brown "regret[s] the Opposition's 'partisan talk'," i.e. their opposition. I fear 10 years of Tony Blair has encouraged him in the view that Parliament is accountable to the Government, not the other way round.

Thomas Tallon


Living with illness

The article " He lights up any room" (11 November) states that children with cystic fibrosis are often in a wheelchair. This is not the case. Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an illness that affects the lungs and digestive system and not the limbs. Most children with CF are very active. Occasionally in adulthood a wheelchair may be needed to help with mobility because of reduced lung function.

Gemma Foy

Cystic Fibrosis Trust

Bromley, Kent

Flexible railways

It's sad the UK's railway system takes half a decade to achieve what the French system can in half a day. It has been reported that French railway authorities will be adding extra carriages to its express services to cities around France to help stranded travellers during a strike by Air France pilots. As, at my local rail station, we are to wait a further four-plus years, after years of negotiations, for additional carriages on our Virgin Trains Pendolinos, could an appeal for UK pilots to strike for a few days achieve a miracle here too?

Donald Tether

Milton Keynes

Women with big ideas

As a footnote to Katy Guest's excellent piece, "Why don't women write Big Ideas books?" (14 November), may I point out that I edit a series called "Big Ideas" for Profile Books and several of the upcoming titles are – yes – by women who think and do so very well on the page: Susie Orbach, Jenny Diski, and Eva Hoffman just for starters? Watch this space.

Lisa Appignanesi

President English PEN

London N19

Meaning of Barack

B-R-K is an ancient Semitic root, the basic meaning of which is "knee" or "kneel". The sense of a "blessing" presumably came because the recipient should give thanks on bended knees. In Arabic baraka is the special quality of a saint which enables him or her to work wonders. Barack will certainly need it.

P J Stewart