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Thursday 9 July 2009
Databases are here to stay, but who owns the data?
In the debate on identity cards, none of your correspondents have denied the need for passports, driving licences or National Insurance numbers, so there is a general acceptance that databases will exist and a realist will have to accept that they will proliferate.
Realists also have to accept that searching such databases to "join the dots" is going to be a valuable tool for the police, the security services, health research etc. The key issue is what will constitute abuse of the personal information they hold and how should that be prevented.
Technology will not prevent abuse because the human involvement will always be open to carelessness or corruption. Technology can though provide very clear audit trails on accesses to databases and deter snooping by the more officious official, tawdry journalist or insecure politician, because the abuse will be evident after the event.
However the databases need to be managed by an independent body responsible solely to the people whose data they hold. Each individual must have the right to know and correct the data held on them and to know who has accessed it, without any exceptions, even for "security".
Criminals and terrorists will not in practice draw attention to themselves by making inquiries, but if they do they should be told; it might tie the hands of the authorities but such compromises lie at the heart of the correct balance between the state and civil liberties. Sure, your identity will be closely documented – it already is – at least it will be in your ownership.
Doug Wilde's letter pointing out the requirement of supermarkets for proof of persons being over 25 (letter, 8 July) raises concerns not just about ID cards being introduced by stealth but also who actually makes the laws in this country.
In a Lake District pub I recently saw a notice requiring people to prove they were over 21 before buying alcohol. When I inquired of the landlord as to how the drinking age had gone up from 18 without me hearing about it, he advised that the local licensing authority and the police were insisting on it. I thought our elected representatives in Parliament, or, even worse, Brussels, made the law in this country rather than local bureaucrats and bobbies.
Hope for a quick and painless death
Dominic Lawson conjures up a vision of Britain teeming with potential granny-murderers ("Death, dignity and the darker side of family dynamics", 7 July)
I have never met anyone who has not expressed a wish to have a quick and painless death, or who has expressed a wish to live on to the bitter end, regardless of quality of life. Furthermore, in my experience families do indeed love their "loved ones" and find standing by while a "loved one" slowly dies one of the most distressing experiences possible.
Having seen my father slowly die from cancer and my mother's wit, intellect, memory and spirit shredded by a massive stroke, I know that I should do all that I could to avoid a similar fate. Given that most of the population know when enough is enough, it seems daft that our law is so opposed to the majority view.
Dominic Lawson asserts that it is "absolutely standard" for doctors to prescribe very powerful painkillers, such as diamorphine (heroin) when death is "imminent".
Unfortunately doctors often have very little or no contact with many "routinely" dying patients, such as nursing home residents, and even if they do are often reluctant to prescribe adequate pain relief (and sedation ). Let us hope that Mr Lawson and his family – whatever their particular dynamics – never end up in this situation.
Solihull, West Midlands
I hope that euthanasia will be available on the National Health by the time I come to need it. My only fear is that I shall be told there is a six-month waiting list, though "you could go to tomorrow if you went privately".
Quangos and the safety culture
David Cameron advocates a bonfire of the quangos and earlier this week on the Today programme, he suggested that only those with a technical function like the inspection of nuclear installations might be kept. He particularly poured scorn on those that make policy and endlessly lobby through their press departments.
The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is part of the Health and Safety Executive and one can only assume he has it in for the latter in his bonfire party. He is in good company with Max Hastings who recently raised a round of applause on Any Questions by saying he would abolish the HSE. Much of the nonsense aimed at the HSE should be directed to local authorities and schools who don't understand risk or are frightened of being sued by you and me if we cut our thumb at a village fete or trip on a pavement.
The HSE is there to protect people at work. In 2007/08, there were 229 people killed in the workplace and 6 million days lost to workplace injury. Goodness knows what these figures would be like in a Cameron and Hastings fantasy world.
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
I have spent the last fortnight in Canada. During that time I photographed policemen in the street without being challenged or shot. We ate several products with no advisory "sell by" dates on the packaging – and lived. At Ottawa airport I observed many plane-spotters pursuing their harmless hobby observing or photographing aircraft, both inside the terminal building and around the perimeter fence. At Gatwick this morning we entered the baggage reclaim area, and saw a sign saying "No photography" in a room full of . . . . luggage carousels.
Still a loophole for war criminals
Following the announcement of a proposed change in UK law to enable prosecution of those who may have committed war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, Gordon Brown declared that such suspects can no longer hide from justice. Actually it would appear that many of them can, because of loopholes within this law ("New powers to prosecute war criminals living in UK", 8 July).
The proposed change applies only to UK residents and ignores the numerous people living in the UK on student or spousal visas, work permits or those simply visiting. It would be a dismal failing on the part of the Government to let suspects slip through their fingers on account of a residency technicality.
Decisive action must now be taken to ensure that the UK can seek to prosecute anyone suspected of committing these horrid crimes as soon as they step foot on UK soil. Only then will such suspects no longer be able to hide from justice.
UK Director, Amnesty International, London EC2
Batteries not quite included
Your feature (29 June) on electric vehicles (EVs) carries the headline "Batteries included", which is misleading.
It is expected that for mainstream electric cars and vans to be competitive against their petrol- or diesel-engined counterparts, they will have to be offered at a similar up-front price. But in most cases that price will not include the battery pack. Because the hi-tech traction batteries are so costly and will have a shorter life than the rest of the vehicle, most buyers will be able to enter into a separate leasing agreement for the supply and replacement of the batteries.
That is expected to be a deterrent to many otherwise enthusiastic buyers, who see a leasing deal as an undesirable financial commitment which could hinder disposal of the vehicle should it not live up to the manufacturer's promises.
The trouble with voting reform
Alan Johnson makes a vigorous case in favour of electoral reform ("Labour must embrace voting reform", 8 July.) The imposition of a hurdle of 11 per cent support would certainly prevent extremist parties from gaining parliamentary representation.
However on the other key objection to proportional representation – that under such a system the leaders of the main minority parties could make or break governments by wheeling and dealing in smoke-filled rooms – he is strangely silent.
I might have found myself better disposed towards accepting some of Alan Johnson's points had he put greater effort into discussing the pros and cons of our present voting system and that which he advocates, and less into rubbishing the opposition. Will our politicians ever get the message that we have had enough of their attacks on each other and that we are capable of rational thought about well-argued options?
Alan Johnson rounds off his cogent argument with the statement, "I work for a leader who accepts the need for [constitutional] renewal, with electoral reform as an essential element."
Funny, I thought Gordon Brown was his leader. But reading it more closely I realised that you can accept the need for something, like the dentist or mowing the lawn, without in any way committing yourself to it.
Colin V Smith
St Helens, Merseyside
No Sharia courts in this country
Considerable confusion seems to have arisen. There are no "Sharia Courts" in Britain (The Big Question, 30 June). An arbitration tribunal is not a court. It derives its jurisdiction form the contract between the parties to submit their dispute to arbitration.
The tribunal applies the appropriate substantive law, which may be Sharia. This does not make the tribunal a "Sharia court". An award issued by such a tribunal would be enforced by the English court to the extent that it did not contain elements contrary to English public policy.
In his speech in February 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury did not advocate the creation of Sharia courts or a parallel system of law. In his answer to questions, he expressly denied any such concept.
William Morris Ballantyne
Professor of Arab Laws
School of Oriental & African Studies, London EC4
Turn for the better
Philip Mottram (letter, 7 July) asks for a suitably positive alternative to the term "U-turn". Should we not rather rehabilitate the U-turn? The feature of a U is that the pen, starting on a downward trajectory, ends on an upward one. A fine symbol of improved thinking.
Prestonpans, East Lothian
There is nothing dramatic or surprising about the Bishop of Rochester's call for homosexuals to repent. The Bible consistently speaks of homosexuality as sin and offers people the chance to change. This has always been the mainstream view of the church and remains the view of the vast majority of Christians worldwide today. A better subject for your editorial (6 July) would be to ask what will happen to churches that cut out large chunks of the Bible. History shows that they usually disappear.
The Rev Simon Falshaw
Lye, West Midlands
Leadership in schools
Contrary to John McHale's implication (letter, 6 July) most head teachers do not spend their time looking for teachers to dismiss. We were all class teachers once and understand the pressures. If there are "nods", "hints"and "veiled threats" towards dismissal without due process, this is workplace bullying. It should be challenged by courageous teachers with the support of their unions and all right-thinking members of the school leadership team.
Fear of heights
I'm sorry that Tom Sutcliffe (7 July) thought it was far-fetched when his friend suffered vertigo when viewing the Eiffel Tower from ground level. Some years ago I almost threw up when I drove round a corner and saw for the first time the church with the crooked spire in Chesterfield. I have never dared look at it again. I can't go up a ladder without feeling faint, yet the odd thing is, I've stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon and not been affected at all.
Heard the one about the old man, the old man and the old man? I refer to your article on 6 July about "the rabbi, the imam and the Buddhist monk" at the gathering of world religious leaders. Good article until you look at the picture. Not one woman. Not a young face. The modern image of religion? You must be joking.
The Rev Professor Graham Everest
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