Letters: Citizens advice bureaux

Cash switch threatens advice bureaux with closure
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I sit as a volunteer trustee on the board of a local citizens advice bureau. I have taken great pride over the years in supporting the work done in giving free, quality advice to anyone, on a wide range of problems including welfare benefits, debt, housing, employment, relationships, consumer rights and immigration.

Our bureau helps around one in 20 of the local population each year. Bureaux are minimally funded by local authorities and, I believe, save the taxpayer a fortune in limiting the pressures on social services, housing agencies, welfare benefits, mental-health services, the NHS and the courts through their well-trained and inexpensive, strongly volunteer, workforce. Demand for CAB services is beginning to rise sharply as the housing market falls, inflation rises and, with it, unemployment.

This whole edifice is under serious threat of wholesale bureau closure. The Government has allowed the Legal Services Commission to pressure local authorities into new arrangements which switch local-authority advice funding into tenders focusing on the provision of much more limited, legally-based advice services to the far narrower range of clients eligible for Legal Aid. Even when bureaux are successful in securing funding to provide legal services under this new structure, their overall advice services will be much further from local control and accountability. In practice many bureaux will lose funding needed for their wider non-legal aid work and will close.

Can I draw attention to this looming social catastrophe? In particular, MPs should react to this unintended (but foreseeable) consequence of the Legal Services Commission initiative. It may make legal sense but it does not make social sense. I suggest MPs visit their local bureaux and check on the situation with great urgency. Many of that one in 20 of the population, if their local bureau closes, are likely to be taking their problems to their local MP at constituency surgery.

Peter Croucher

Worthing, West Sussex

A judge stands up for true democracy

John Spellar, a Labour MP, accuses Sir Stephen Sedley of "breathtaking arrogance", saying he is unfit for the judicial role and should resign (letter, 3 July). All Sir Stephen had done was argue that the Government seriously invades judicial independence by legislatively preventing judges from fully considering breaches of basic rights in asylum cases, where false passports are involved. Spellar's theory of democracy is light-headedly straightforward. It is that democracy requires that "the legislature makes the law" and "the judiciary deals with cases in accordance with the law". Ergo, Sir Stephen should resign.

There are more intelligent accounts of democracy and the judicial role than this. There are limits to what a democratic legislature may do. How could anyone suppose that democracy could license the abolition of democracy, by legislation repealing the right to vote. Or, legislation that permits the systematic oppression of minorities, given the equality of "one person, one vote"? Asylum seekers are people, like John Spellar, and like you and me, and democracy came into being – miraculously, it sometimes seems – to put into effect certain basic rights of humanity. (As a result of the legislation, some asylum seekers will not have their case properly heard, and will end up back in their home states being tortured).

A genuine democracy in a large community needs an independent institution to make final decisions on our legal rights. In the UK, it is the judiciary. Of course, a large bulk of our legal rights can be read from the legislation, but there always lurks the possibility that legislation may exceed its democratic mandate. The more significant the rights people have – in this case, basic rights to humanity – the more legislative interference in the judicial role looks undemocratic. And so it is very reasonable – and very far from "arrogant" – for Sir Stephen to express his very serious and informed concern.

Stephen Guest

Professor of Legal Philosophy, University College London

The acknowledgement, by one of Britain's senior judges, that New Labour's asylum policies may have forced courts to send those seeking refuge back to "torture or death" ("Asylum-seekers put at risk by law, warns top judge", 2 July) resonates with our experiences working with some of the most vulnerable people in the country.

Here at Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers we see an increasing number of asylum-seekers, many of whom are destitute. In 2007 we had over 4,400 visits to our project. This year we are expecting to have over 5,000. Many of those who come to us have experienced first-hand the effect of a set of policies which have all but eliminated avenues of appeal.

As well as effectively criminalising those who enter with false travel documents, increasing numbers of people are left with no opportunity to appeal against negative decisions based on this.

As a result of a desire to process claims at rapid pace, appeals have to be submitted days after notification of refusal. By this point, because of restrictive funding arrangements, lawyers may well have simply had to withdraw their support. Prioritising speed over justice has created a system of injustice with devastating human costs.

Christine Majid

Jon Burnett


The letter from John Spellar MP shows precisely why Sir Stephen Sedley is right to comment on a piece of obviously bad legislation. Mr Spellar fails to mention that the legislation referred to is the rule that the asylum seeker's story is to be disbelieved if he or she has arrived using a false passport. As Amnesty International points out, this might be the only way to leave the country safely.

Surely it is the right and duty of judges to point out bad laws, particularly those that affect vulnerable people. MPs have no right to suggest that a judge is unfit to exercise his role as a judge because he draws attention to a bad law. There is no suggestion that the judge would disregard even a bad law.

Thank goodness politicians do not appoint judges.

Eric Rhodes


Fuel prices and ways to save energy

That fuel prices will rise in real terms, both as a result of international prices and of climate-change abatement policy, is undoubtedly true. But there is absolutely no need for the amount the average consumer pays to increase by anything like the £213 a year which Ernst & Young are forecasting (report, 30 June). The figure quoted is gross, as it appears to incorporate the cost of installing energy-saving measures such as insulation – but to make no acknowledgement that the primary objective of such investments is to reduce subsequent fuel bills. The average home can still reduce energy consumption by approaching one-half, with no loss in comfort, simply by being more energy efficient.

In the same story, the energy regulator Ofgem is quoted as stating that the cost to power companies of buying carbon credits, under the European emissions-trading scheme, adds £31 each year to the average household bill. This is a totally unnecessary increase. Power generators currently get all their carbon credits handed to them for free.

Despite this, the power companies subsequently factor into their prices amounts equivalent to the current traded cost of carbon: hence the addition of £31 to the average fuel bill. The only beneficiaries of this arrangement are the UK power companies, who consequently are reckoned to be scooping windfall profits between them of up to €15bn euros from the current trading scheme round.

Andrew Warren

Director, Association for the Conservation of Energy, London N1

In its early years the Government imposed a windfall tax on the water companies' excessive profits. Could we not encourage our government to take the same action with the main oil companies, who are making indecent profits on crude oil? To increase the tax on fuel while this option may be available will not be understood by the public.

Reg Hansell

Shepherdswell, Kent

Where will we find a champion?

The Wimbledon men's final was an epic: drama, athleticism, a spectacular confrontation of wills. The crowd scenes were quite interesting too – hardly a youngster in sight.

A local tennis club held a draw to decide who should get the two allotted tickets. They went to two retired septuagenarians. I wonder how many times this was repeated across the country. How can we take British tennis seriously ? We haven't produced a male champion since Fred Perry in 1936 and don't look likely to in the near future. Have we to consider the alarming possibility that the British just don't have the tennis gene?

J Vickers


I should like to say how much our household has enjoyed Nick Bollettieri's coverage of the Wimbledon tournament; but, come on now, 'fess up, the style gives it away – he is Cooper Brown, isn't he?

Ian Jefferson

London W6

Thrifty hit by attack on food waste

If the Government succeeds in persuading the supermarkets to withdraw multiple offers on food items, it will penalise those of us who buy them but have the sense to stick the surplus in the freezer. Please educate the wasteful customer rather than deprive the thrifty of a useful economy.

Janet Tinbergen


Surely the answer to the Government's campaign to stamp out food waste is obvious. Bring back wartime rationing. Nothing would be thrown away, we would all be fitter and it would solve the obesity problem at a stroke.

Robin Britcher

Ashford, Kent

Ten pounds will buy a bucket of fried, factory chicken with chips. Alternatively, £10 will buy a medium RSPCA welfare chicken, 2.5kg potatoes, 500g dried spaghetti, three tins of tomatoes, one small courgette, one can of chickpeas, three peppers, three red onions, 500g broccoli, one lemon, one tin of spinach and one garlic bulb. This is sufficient for three, healthy family meals. Ironically, the parents feeding their family in the fried-chicken outlet are the ones most likely to claim they are unable to afford a healthy or ethical diet.

S A Smith

Loughton, Milton Keynes

Cost of a night out at the cinema

Mark S Fishberg (letter, 3 July) attributes the reported downturn in cinema attendances to what he sees as the excessive cost of a night at the cinema.

It is far too soon to draw conclusions on 2008 attendances. While cinema admission figures in May were down on those for the same period in 2007, the latter represented a record-breaking month. Given recent figures, and the steady stream of diverse and high-quality films due for release over the rest of the year, it would be a brave person who predicted how the figures for 2008 will start to look in a few months' time.

While Mr Fishberg may resent the cost of a cinema ticket, he should consider how much more he would end up paying if he went instead to the theatre, a live concert or a sports event.

While ticket prices differ from location to location – cinema operators have varying overheads the same as any other business – the average cost for a standard cinema ticket in the UK is around £5.30, which compares favourably with the US average of just over $10.

Cinema continues to represent exceptional value for money, and a sector which we are confident the public will continue to support in huge numbers.

Phil Clapp

Chief Executive, The Cinema Exhibitors' Association, London W1


Two-way prejudice

So, homophobic and hypocritical Muslims think it's terrible that they are subject to prejudice ("Muslims feel like Jews of Europe", 4 July). Well if you don't like it coming in your direction, don't dish it out to other minority groups.

Michael Johnson

London N8

Kindness to dogs

I write in defence of Dachshunds, Jack Russell terriers and Rottweilers (Philip Hensher, 7 July). Over the years, having bred, owned or judged all three breeds, never once have I found temperament to be a problem. Aggression in any dog mainly stems from treatment received during early stages of development. Kindness begets kindness.

Priscilla Bingham

Ringwood, Hampshire

Measured greeting

The Post Office recently declined to deliver an ordinary birthday card to my house because it was oversize in each dimension by 5mm. I duly collected it from the sorting office and paid £1.06 for the privilege. Clearly the slimmed-down ,efficient Post Office employs people who have time to measure birthday cards very carefully. Has the world gone mad?

Richard Martin

Hawarden, Flintshire

Evil machines

John Naylor (letter, 5 July) asks if Independent readers can afford dishwashers. We Independent readers are hard-line eco-green-liberal-knit-your-own-muesli-save-the-gay-whales-for-Gaia types. We choose not to have dishwashers.

Manda Scott

Clungunford, Shropshire

I knew it wouldn't be long before we dishwasher owners became embroiled in the kitchen sink drama. A whole new division of roles. Evolution has it that my wife puts the dirty dishes in and it falls to me to empty them out.

John Cleave

Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire

The next ban

Banning smoking scenes from films because of their alleged influence on youngsters is ridiculous (report, July 7). Next it could be knives.

Robert Vincent

Wildhern, Hampshire