Letters: Drug policies

Headline drug policies supported only by thin evidence
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The Independent Online

Sir: When the Home Secretary opened consultation last year on what should go into the new drug strategy, she assured us the Government had moved on to "a balanced strategy, based on evidence". As you report ("Hooked on headlines", 28 February), there is much in the new strategy that is based on good or promising evidence. However, for large parts of policy and especially the eye-catching headlines of bearing down on drug dealers' assets and addicts on benefits, the evidence is thin.

The recovery of assets from key criminals, including drug traffickers, has been fraught with problems. Performance targets have been regularly missed, leading to the dissolution of the Asset Recovery Agency and its work being subsumed into the Serious Organised Crime Agency. There is no published independent evidence we are aware of which suggests widening the goalposts to seize assets at arrest will be any easier or more successful.

On benefits, the Department for Work and Pensions recently published research which concluded that claimants with drug or alcohol problems were the most disadvantaged and most challenging to help. The researchers found that whilst financial penalties triggered greater attendance (at DWP interviews and programmes), they did not always lead to greater enthusiasm on the part of the claimant. In evaluations of the impact of withdrawal of benefits from drug offenders in the United States, it was found that the risks to families and children increased and that African-American women were particularly and disproportionately hard hit.

All this goes to show that some policies can actually increase harms through unintended consequences. The new drug strategy is disappointingly modest in its ambitions for building the evidence base to show which policies are effective and represent best value for the money spent.

Dame Ruth Runciman

Chair, UK Drug Policy Commission, London SW1

Sir: How many extra prison places have been planned for the drug addicts who drop out of their rehab, have their benefits stopped and seek other sources of income to support their habit?

Colin V Smith

St Helens, Merseyside

Black Americans welcome Obama

Sir: Senator Barack Obama will survive Trevor Phillips' attack ("Obama will only prolong America's racial divide", 28 February). But it is odd that Britain's leading race relations bureaucrat should so thoroughly misunderstand the significance of Obama's campaign.

Trevor argues that middle-class blacks do not support Obama and that his supporters are from the black underclass, to whom Obama has cynically promised the earth. There is no evidence for any of this. Obama has overwhelming support among all classes of black people. The tiny group of blacks who are still clinging to the shipwreck of Hillary Clinton's campaign are people who have built their careers on white patronage. And even some of them are jumping ship. Unlike Trevor they "have done the math".

The last black leader the Americans had with Obama's broad appeal was Martin Luther King. They shot him. By contrast, Obama is poised to be the Democratic presidential candidate. If Trevor does not think that constitutes progress, he needs to get out of the equality business fast.

Diane Abbott MP (Hackney N and Stoke Newington, Lab) London E8

Sir: The two most prominent examples of what Trevor Phillips derides as "bargainers" are Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the engineers of the truth and reconciliation process for former practitioners of apartheid. Black Americans, like their counterparts in South Africa, should be left to decide for themselves whether electing a black president is good for them or not. I gather they already have.

Arthur Lindley

Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire

Sir: I was a little surprised to see the front page of The Independent (28 February) and my somewhat apocalyptic claim that "Obama will do nothing for black Americans". Strangely, I don't recall saying that.

My article in Prospect, on which The Independent's coverage was based, was not a personal attack on Mr Obama or whether he would make a great president. The actual focus of my ire is those who are attempting to use Mr Obama's arrival as signalling the dawn of a post-racial Nirvana in America; those who would use his success to say "job well done" and ignore the hard work of tackling that country's deep divisions.

A high-profile black figure who gets the whole world talking about race, politics and the mix of the two should never be dismissed in the off-hand way yesterday's coverage suggested I had. Mr Obama may indeed be a worthy American president. What he won't be is a solution to that country's racial divide.

Trevor Phillips

Chair, Equality and Human Rights Commission, London SE1

City backing for a gritty charity

Sir: Will Self's dyspepsia at his treatment at the Euroweek leveraged loans dinner on 5 February (Psychogeography, 23 February) is understandable but misplaced.

Dinners like this are inevitably characterised by loutish behaviour. (In other circumstances he might well have been lucky to get out still wearing his trousers.) The fact is that these leveraged loans specialists did support, generously, War Child and War Child thoroughly deserves that support.

I have seen for myself in the Congo the vital importance of the good work which War Child are doing. They are at the gritty end of the charitable sector, but their eloquent advocacy about the plight of street children whose childhood is stolen by war, abuse and terror is of huge importance and we should be proud of them.

If every politician who did not hold an audience went off the deep end like Will, there would be an awful lot of us swimming around treading water.

Andrew Mitchell MP

Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, House of Commons

Sir: Will Self's doubt concerning whether or not organisations such as War Child should be helping children who are affected by war is a luxurious self-indulgence.

War Child works with children that are very difficult to access. So whether it should be us that works with them or not is purely academic to the child soldiers, street children and children in prison who would otherwise be living with terrifying abuse and little or no protection from it.

Will likened charities such as War Child to "vultures with sociology degrees, feeding off the carrion left behind on the battlefield". He accused us of alighting "for a few months or years, putting out celebrity-endorsed pop CDs back home to fund their endeavours, and then flap away again to feed on more humanism".

Being shot at, stoned and beaten; yes, these things do happen to vultures. But they have also happened to me and my colleagues. Human beings, not vultures, who will not stand by and see injustice done to those who have no recourse. Humanitarian workers have been killed performing their duty. They were not feeding on humanism. They were dying for it.

Will was asked in good faith to make a speech in support of War Child to raise money for child protection work in conflict-affected countries. He was clearly briefed about the audience he would be speaking to and knew very well what he was involving himself in. And he was fully aware that many of the donations we received on the night were from individuals giving their personal money; they were not from corporations.

Mark Waddington

CEO, War Child, London NW5

Maternity services facing a crisis

Sir: Your article "One in five hospital trusts found to be putting mothers and babies at risk" (25 January) highlights the north-south divide in maternity services and describes London as "the worst place in the country" to have a baby. Women should not be alarmed by this, but the standard of care that they are receiving needs addressing. It's ironic that the nation's capital's maternity hospitals are now polarised into the state-of- the- art private hospitals for the rich, favoured by celebrities, and the 19 London trusts that were rated as "least well performing".

I wonder if these 19 trusts being described as "least well performing" is really a euphemism for them lacking funding and resources. Ambitious guarantees were made last April in the Department of Health's new maternity services strategy, Maternity Matters. However, the Healthcare Commission's review of trusts highlights a shrinking maternity service and an overworked midwifery force.

We have calculated that England needs 5,000 more midwives to deliver the Government's strategy at the current birth rate, which is the highest since 1993. There are shortages across the board, especially in London. There are not enough midwives or beds. Midwives are concerned that they don't have time to give care and reassurance to pregnant women and their families. We are facing a crisis in maternity services. Women are being sent home too quickly, while antenatal appointments are rushed. Indeed, formal antenatal education is now at a nadir in some trusts.

Midwives want the Government to succeed in its ambitious plan for maternity services. We know that government, too, wants to succeed, But England needs 5,000 more NHS midwives now. Otherwise, maternity care in our capital is going to get worse.

Dame Karlene Davis

General Secretary, Royal College of MidwivesLondon, W1

Minds inspired by media studies

Sir: As a student who took an A-Level in media studies 10 years ago, I am familiar with being ridiculed. By both traditionalist academics and friends in bus queues, I've been taunted for having taken a "Mickey Mouse" subject.

I was glad that Andreas Whittam Smith (Opinion, 25 February) acknowledged that popular disdain toward media studies can in part be located on the trajectory of "snobbery against the new". But I found it sad that he regurgitated many negative stereotypes about the subject, saying he'd prefer to employ those who had undertaken a "demanding" course at university.

As someone who went on to take a course at university which would be defined as "traditional", my media studies A-Level equipped me with technical, analytical and writing skills that have helped me engage with the "real" world ever since. Learning how to use film cameras, an editing suite and radio equipment, and other practical skills like interviewing, was invaluable, as was the engagement with advertising, copyright and plagiarism laws.

And I found the history of the BBC and commercial TV, newspaper corporations, publishing firms and the sprawling history of the net a fascinating reflection of the changing contours of 20th-century Britain. It was media studies that inspired me to explore how the press has been historically used in human-rights campaigns in the last century and to study human-rights law.

Surely the best journalism is written by those with open, inquisitive minds who have a passion to break apart stereotypes, not simply those who regurgitate the sanctity and wisdom of the "old" over the "new".

Penny Croxson

Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Green vegetables across the world

Sir: Patrick Waites (letter, 28 February) displays rather charming naivety if he expects a national supermarket to stock local produce close to the point of production, when he expected Sainsbury's to stock watercress from Winchester.

One has to ask, however, if the local rivers really are choked with the stuff, why is he giving Lord Sainsbury money to provide it instead of foraging for his own? Or is he too posh to pick?

Edward Collier

Gotherington, Gloucestershire

Sir: According to Sean O'Grady ("A recipe for inflation", 27 February): "Oil price hikes raise the cost of . . . mange-tout flown in from East Africa." So things surely are getting serious; it can mean nothing less than the end of the world as we know it.

Dr R M Morris

Ellon, Aberdeenshire


Castro's interventions

Sir: Readers and editors are always quick to criticise countries, particularly the USA and EU, for sending armed forces into other countries. I was therefore surprised that none of your letters praising Fidel Castro mentioned him sending in troops to countries like Angola to assist Marxist armies to seize power – all paid for by the USSR.

Neil Noble

Harrogate, North Yorkshire

Bag madness

Sir: On the day that Marks & Spencer announced that they would charge customers 5p for every plastic bag from 1 May, I was offered a bag to hold my copy of The Independent in Sainsbury's, and another bag for one magazine in W H Smith. In each case the assistant said that she was carrying out instructions.

J Michael Walpole


Not fooled by Blair

Sir: I would like to dissociate myself from "the rest of us" who are claimed to have been fooled by Tony Blair's lies about Iraq's WMDs (letter, 26 February). At least a million of us marched against Blair's monstrous warmongering but many were betrayed by craven MPs, who did not believe him either but voted to go to war. With the death toll of Iraqi civilians and conscripts now around 1 million, none of those responsible for the slaughter and misery has apologised and Blair is still prancing on the world stage.

Julie Harrison


Driven to the roof

Sir: As protesters clamber over the battlements of the Palace of Westminster, Gordon Brown thumps the Despatch Box and declares: "Decisions should be made in this House and not on the roof of this House." He is unable to grasp that it is because of the decisions "made in this House" that people are driven in desperation to alternative means of making their voices heard. Perhaps MPs should consider holding some debates on the roof, where the stimulus of fresh air and the real world might instil some relevance into their proceedings.

Adrian Marlowe

The Hague, Netherlands

Depressing prospect

Sir: If Prezza is to be blamed for the earthquake (letter, 28 February), is it just a coincidence that it was researchers in Hull who found that anti-depressant drugs were not enough to raise their spirits.

Roger Foster

Scarborough, North Yorkshire