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Tuesday 22 June 2010
Letters: Energy and austerity
New age of austerity
While people may recognise a need for reductions in public spending and increases in taxation in the forthcoming Budget, at a personal level the response is "Not in my back pocket. Yes, of course spending needs to be reduced but not by cutting my job or my hospital."
In the post-war period of austerity there might at least have been the consolation of the need to pay for the war that had just been won, with the bonus of the newly established welfare state. There is currently no such incentive to reduce our standard of living. The only conflict leading to the current financial disaster was the unequal struggle between bankers and regulators, and we don't appear to have won that one.
Before and during the war most people had very little beyond the necessities of life. Over the intervening decades we have come to expect not merely enough but more and increasing amounts of more, which will make our sensitivity to cutting back all the more acute. This expectation of plenty may well be the cause of much political and industrial strife in the next few years.
George Osborne's claim that, as far as Budget cuts are concerned, "We are all in this together" is wearing thin. The obvious truth is that we are not. Some had more responsibility for this crisis than others, and some benefited more from the boom that preceded it. Those who enjoyed the largest benefits must pay the highest price.
In a new Green Party report published this week, tax expert Richard Murphy and I make the case that there is nothing "unavoidable" about the spending cuts. Any efforts that are needed to reduce the deficit, once the economy is back to better health, can be paid for by fairer taxes, rather than forcing those on low incomes to pay most for the excesses of the bankers.
Progressive tax reform, increasing the tax take from those most able to pay it, and helping lower earners by reintroducing the 10 per cent tax band, would be a good start, both in raising revenue, and addressing inequality.
Moreover, the extent of tax avoidance, tax evasion and unpaid tax in the UK economy is truly staggering. HM Revenue and Customs admit that tax evasion and avoidance together come to at least £40bn a year, and that £28bn of unpaid tax is also owing to them. Some experts have suggested that the total target for necessary action to collect tax due and owing could be more than £100bn a year.
Our report sets out options for changing the tax rules so that more than £40bn of additional taxes could be raised each year by the end of the life of this parliament. That, together with the tax collecting efficiency savings, would together deliver more than £60bn of tax revenues for the UK – so preventing the need for any cuts at all.
Caroline Lucas MP
Leader, Green Party
House of Commons
The coalition government, and George Osborne in particular, have a simple means of demonstrating that we are all in this together. By increasing income tax for all those bankers, CEOs, footballers and other high-rollers, they can counter the accusation that the new government is protecting the rich.
The news that the free swimming for over 60s will be cancelled in the Government's £2bn savings plan will have been greeted with dismay by thousands of pensioners. Is there any sign that Sir Fred Goodwin and the cohorts of bankers who got us into this mess will be curtailing any of their leisure activities?
Don't rely on hydrogen
Aymenn Jawad's down-to-earth letter (15 June) is a welcome change from the naive stuff about energy which is so often appears in your pages. I think that he is a trifle too pessimistic about "hydrogen technology", but only a trifle. The urgent need is to reduce energy consumption – not easy or popular.
The unique chemistry of carbon is at the root of the matter. It gives us a range of fuels, from biofuels to natural gas, to power anything from a moped to a jumbo jet, from a barbecue to a power station, which can be stored and transported reasonably safely and conveniently. Nothing comparable is in prospect other than in science fiction.
Some kind of hydrogen-based industrial society is the only conceivable alternative, but will be very much more expensive and less convenient than carbon fuels. It will not be achieved by leaving it to "the market". It is much more convenient and popular, and therefore profitable, to carry on pumping oil – so long as it lasts.
John R Catch
Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire
There is plenty of uranium in Australia. Problem is the Australians see it as the "new asbestos". So much so that Aussie unions have banned their members on ethical and safety grounds from working in all aspects of the nuclear industry, from mining to power plants.
The Electrical Trade Union is equivalent to our Unite (representing members in the electrical, communications, power, manufacturing, education, hospitality, aerospace and food industries). The unprecedented stand taken this summer by the ETU has been shied away from by the British press despite the ethical and practical implications for the future of the nuclear industry.
There are plenty of ways to produce sustainable electricity and energy efficiency while leaving the uranium in the ground. The line drawn in the sand by the ETU is of great significance to all our futures.
The rich wild flora of Germany
Driving from the river Rhine at Offenburg up the valley to Triberg and Villengen I saw the range of wild flower blossom in the uncut hay meadows. Now, with time to catch up with The Independent I have read Michael McCarthy's article (Nature studies, 18 June). In it he refers to "flower-rich meadows giving way to monoculture grasslands".
To anyone walking the footpaths in this area of the Black Forest, the colour and plant diversity in the adjacent fields is remarkable. Quick plant counts consistently range from six to 12 species. From the margins of one floriferous hay meadow one can see 19 different species in bloom.
If the farmers in this area of Germany are able to maintain such a biodiversity working within the Common Agricultural Policy what prevents British farmers from having a similar wide range of flora in their meadows to support insect and bird life?
East Grinstead, West Sussex
As always, Mike McCarthy cuts straight to the point when he highlights the absurdity of cutting vital funding to support greener farming. But the sums are even more modest than he suggests – of the total £2bn per year in farm payments only a quarter requires farmers to improve the environment.
Yet it is a safe bet that wasteful direct farm subsidies will survive the cuts completely unscathed while the cash for green farming will be slashed. It's a shame that there wasn't space in the long letter the NFU sent to The Independent (15 June) to explain why they aren't backing the campaign against cuts to the agri-environment budget.
Director of conservation
RSPB Sandy, Bedfordshire
Lockerbie play gets it right
Last night I went to see Michael Eaton's play The Families of Lockerbie at the Nottingham Playhouse. When I got home, I found that a supporter had sent me a copy of Rachel Shields' article (7 June), where adverse comments from me about the way in which the play had been created without reference to the relatives had been accurately quoted.
Could it be that multiple efforts by those wielding the power of the modern stage will be an instrument of waking the public up to the appalling fiction that has been deliberately woven round the Lockerbie tragedy?
Michael Eaton evidently came to the same conclusion as so many others: that the story of Megrahi's conviction is no more than the nailing up of a scapegoat to conceal something else. I now see why Michael did not talk to relatives beforehand. His "take" had to be independent of the beliefs of relatives. That he obviously came to conclusions similar to ours without our having had any chance to "bend his ear" is another shot in the arm in the search for the truth.
So Rachel Shields has taught me not to comment on the making of a work I have not had the chance to see beforehand. For me, Mr Eaton has done good, not harm.
Dr Jim Swire
Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire
Do we really need the Lords?
"If we must have a second chamber ...", writes John Day (letter, 15 June), and seems to conclude that we should, if only for the tourists. But there does now seem to be a new willingness to consider whether any useful purpose is served by a second chamber.
It is 99 years since Parliament Act of 1911 removed from the Lords any significant law-making functions. That Act prevented the Lords from vetoing any legislation which has passed the Commons and allowed a suspensory veto only, of one month for money bills and two years (since reduced to one year by Parliament Act 1949) for other bills. The 1911 Act has been invoked on seven occasions only. So it is difficult to argue that the Lords provides anything but a lightweight counterbalance to the Commons.
There is a gathering campaign, exemplified by Geoffrey Robertson's admirable article published in this paper on 1 June, for a Bill of Rights. In popular imagination, the Lords provide a bulwark against encroachments on our liberty, but in fact this is little more than an illusion. Far better that we should have legally enforceable rights.
If the Deputy Prime Minister can persuade his coalition partners to think seriously about a Bill of Rights then he may find that there is now no need for the continued existence of the House of Lords. He will meet opposition from MPs who, looking ahead, fancy the title and trimmings of a life peerage, but as the Government seeks to cut out waste and abolish quangos, what better place to start?
John Day's plan to reform the Lords to contain members chosen by lot from the ordinary citizens is the best yet to emerge from this debate, and would make for a much more representative body than elections to create a second chamber filled with yet more political hacks.
However a house created in this manner would lose the only good thing that the current House of Lords has, which is the presence of a wealth of experts who are able to provide knowledge on any issue that may come before the house without fear of losing political favour.
In addition to peers drawn from the people of the UK, the reformed House should have a proportion of "expert" peers appointed by an independent commission and draw from the best scientists, doctors, lawyers, diplomats, academics, leaders of NGOs and so on.
Not only would this allow the citizen peers to be given the most up to date and unpoliticised information on an issue, so that they can provide the best oversight of the political elite, but being appointed as an expert peer would be a better recognition of these individuals' contributions to the UK than any award given out in the name of a long-dead empire.
Wrong sand in the playpit
Following Alex James's article "Sand, an essential ingredient of family life" (Notebook, 16 June) can I caution any of your readers who follow his advice and go for the cheap option of builder's sand for their children's playpit that there is a good reason why there is a British Standard for the proper stuff, and why it appears so expensive.
Builders' sand is dug directly from the ground and over 30 years of selling the product I have had the misfortune of coming across every item you would least want your little ones to come into contact with, from syringes to shards of glass and other unmentionables that I wouldn't expect you to print.
On the other hand playpit sand is screened and sieved and magnets are run through it to extract any metal objects. Alex would also do well to stock up on washing machine tablets as his twins' clothes are likely to be badly stained by builders' sand.
Exotic Ford cars of 1972
The past may well be another country, as the front page of the Viewspaper of 16 June, introducing David Lister's excellent piece on the United Kingdom of 1972, suggests. However, the "other country" from which the car shown on the page came was not 1972 Britain, but Germany; it is the Ford Taunus 20M, a rare visitor to these shores even at the time, not the best-selling UK Cortina referred to in the piece.
Sadly, the separate German and British Ford model ranges, with their endearing national quirks, were swept away in an inevitable process of pan-European rationalisation. Now all Ford cars sold in Britain are built in "another country".
Arguments over circumcision
Jeremy Laurance's article "Is this the start of the backlash against circumcision?" (15 June) misses the essential points.
Whatever evidence is shown for or against circumcision is irrelevant; children are not sexually active, therefore they can derive no benefit from the protective effects Mr Laurance refers to. Children can be left to mature and evaluate the claims for and against excision of the foreskin; then they can decide for themselves how they want to manage their sex lives. Doctors may well respect parents "strong feelings" but they should remember that the child is their patient, not the parents.
According to your 18 June article on food labelling lobbying, "Unilever, Mars and Danone were unavailable for comment." Huh? – were they all out to lunch? Since these firms engage many people in large departments to make comments, perhaps the sentence should have read "Unilever, Mars and Danone refused to comment."
Perspectives on drink and driving
Lower limits won't help
Reducing the drink-drive limit (report, 17 June) will not save a single life, because there is no tangible link between the legal requirement and the accident rate. All this will do is penalise people who behave responsibly; it will have no effect on the drivers who cause the accidents.
I have been closely monitoring fatal accidents in Scotland where the driver was over the current limit, and found that in 90 per cent of these fatal accidents the driver was two to three times over the limit. Now, the limit is fairly easy to understand: three units of alcohol maximum, not six or nine. These drivers are not over the limit because they miscounted; they are over the limit because they chose to ignore the law. All that will happen if the limit is reduced is that these drivers will be four or six times over the limit.
What we have to do is increase the likelihood of being caught before there is an accident, and punish the drivers more severely. The report mentions the success in France and Australia. In both countries it was not the reduction in the limit that reduced the accidents but the introduction of random breath-testing. In Australia they have mobile units that can pull you over at any time.
What is required in this country is to leave the limit where it is but introduce random testing on the Australian model. A punishment tariff should be set for drivers who are on or slightly over the limit and that tariff should be multiplied by the number of times drivers are over the limit.
Newport on Tay, Fife
In France, they do things differently
Your leader on 17 July was most thoughtful about the implications of lowering the legal limit for driving.
You mention the high level of drink-related deaths in France in spite of their lower limit. It could be because of their lower limit. In places the effect on the culture of wiping out half their restaurants is too great to contemplate. The police dare not do it. The result is that few are tested and the deterrent is lost.
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