Sir: A recent report by the Sutton Trust found that most of the variation in key stage test scores could be explained by pupil background (report, 13 December). Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust thinks it "appalling that young people's life chances are still so tied to the fortunes of their parents and that this situation has not improved over the past three decades". He claims that he would like to know how we can break down this class barrier, but is likely to find the only effective remedy to this situation as unpalatable as most educated speakers of English do.
Nothing but a reduction in the unpredictability of English spelling is likely to make much difference. The way English is now spelt makes learning to read and write uniquely difficult and exceptionally dependent on one-to-one help from articulate and literate adults. Educated parents start preparing their children for coping with this difficult literacy acquisition almost from the moment they are born, by playing with them and talking and reading to them.
In languages like Finnish and Korean which have especially logical and learner-friendly spelling systems, even children from very deprived backgrounds can learn to read and write quickly once they start school. The worse the spelling system, the more lack of parental help and interest mars children's educational prospects. The fact that English has the worst alphabetic spelling system in the world leaves poor English-speaking children the most disadvantaged of all. Benjamin Franklin thought it made true democracy impossible as well.
Legal aid 'reforms' will create injustice
Sir: Thank you for Johann Hari's article on legal aid (13 December). We are trainee solicitors working in legal aid. Our worst fear is that "reformed" legal aid will confer a veneer of legitimacy on an unjust system.
Effective representation of people living in poverty and insecurity is often about conveying complex reality against stereotypes imposed by courts, bureaucrats, landlords and police. It is time-consuming work carried out against the odds. Anything less reinforces injustice. The fixed-fee system and price-competitive tendering will do precisely that, by encouraging token legal representation.
Many of our clients are in battles with the state, which has almost limitless legal resources. We are committed to legal aid. We will earn a fraction of the salaries of our counterparts in the City. We have incurred debts of up to 30,000 each to study law, debts which would have been paid for us had we chosen to work in the City. However, we may be forced to stop co-operating with a legal-aid system that increasingly rubber-stamps injustice.
Sir: Johann Hari's article misses the basic point of the Government's legal-aid reform programme. The costs per case in many areas of legal aid have been rising in recent years, which limits how many people we can help. We already spend far more per head on legal aid, which helps 2 million people a year, than anywhere else. The key is to ensure we use the 2bn a year as effectively as possible, so we get more help to the people who need it.
The Government believes that part of the answer is through paying legal-aid lawyers by a system of best-value tendering. Quality will remain central to legal aid under the proposals: only firms that pass a rigorous system of peer review will be able to tender. Price would be a factor in deciding winning bids, but the nature of the service that firms can provide would be equally, if not more, important. Fixed fees are a prelude to any new system, while consultation on the principles of Best Value Tendering takes place.
Fixed fees take account of the complexity of cases, as lengthier cases will still be paid under hourly rates. Some 60 per cent of civil and family legal-aid firms will see their income rise under these fees. Since fixed fees have been introduced in some civil areas, the Legal Services Commission has been able to fund over a third more acts of assistance in just two years reaching a record high of 800,000. The LSC recently made more civil legal-aid cases available. Nearly 400 legal-aid providers bid for these cases evidence that they are keen to take on more work in the reformed legal-aid system.
The reasons for rising costs are complex. We are looking at the whole justice system as well as the way lawyers are paid, so that the whole system operates more efficiently. Legal aid is fundamental to a fair and decent society. My aim is to bring the various pieces of the puzzle together, so that we have a sustainable legal-aid system for the 21st century.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice London SW1
Sir: In his otherwise excellent article on legal aid Johann Hari misunderstood our reasons for giving up immigration work.
It was nothing to do with fixed fees. In April 2004 the Legal Services Commission reduced the work solicitors could do in immigration cases without advance authority. Many good practitioners decided to get out at that point. We decided to give it a go. A week into the new system, the LSC refused to pay for work to stop the deportation of three South American children who had arrived quite legally to join their parents. They said a private client would not spend the money (344.10). We worked without legal-aid cover and kept the children here.
Over the following year we saw no improvement in the LSC's decision making. So in 2005 we stopped immigration work.
Ole Hansen & Partners,London SE11
Sir: Johann Hari is quite right that government cuts to legal-aid services will be disastrous for poor and socially excluded people. Legal aid and access to justice were key components of the Welfare State, which New Labour is now so busy dismantling. To implement these changes to legal aid at the same time that they claim to be increasingly concerned about poverty, inequality and social cohesion shows breathtaking hypocrisy.
Chief Executive,London Advice Services Alliance, London E1
Afghanistan: a sorry tale of US errors
Sir: Your leading article of 11 December says that the US was justified in taking military action to depose the Taliban. What it forgets is that the Taliban would never have come to power in Afghanistan but for the US policy of seeking to destabilise a succession of governments of which the US disapproved, by financing the most fanatical opponents they could find including one Osama bin Laden.
That particular US policy was initiated by President Carter in 1979. Five months later the Afghan government of the day requested Soviet help to suppress the destabilisation. In 1985, by National Security Directive 166, the destablisation was racheted up. Eventually 65,000 tons of arms were being shipped into Afghanistan every year with covert CIA finance through proxies in Pakistan. As Patrick Cockburn points out on the same day, the US is now repeating the same mistake in Iraq.
Factoring in the US's Afghan policy of 20 years ago, justification for the US/Nato invasion vanishes into dust.
Sir: You raise some important issues about Afghanistan's opium crisis and the Senlis Council's Poppy for Medicine proposal. However, buying up the Afghan opium crop to make medical supplies has never been part of this proposal; it is simply not viable.
Unlike the buying up of the crop, the Senlis Council's Poppy for Medicine initiative, which involves licensing the cultivation of poppies for morphine, would offer a financial incentive to the farmers, giving them the opportunity to diversify their crop, while at the same time filling a gap in the affordable painkiller market. Already well-established village control systems would harness the entire production process and keep the profits from being expatriated.
Resolving Afghanistan's opium crisis is the key to the international community's stabilisation and development of the country. The current poppy-crop eradication campaigns are risking the international community's entire mission, but until the poppy crisis is positively and sustainably addressed, the country's security and development crises cannot be resolved.
Poppy for Medicine has been endorsed by the European Parliament and could transform a black-market economy into a competitor in the international pharmaceutical market, going a long way to quelling the current insurgency in Afghanistan.
Head of Policy Analysis, The Senlis Council, London WC1
Alberta's record on the environment
Sir: I would like to correct the distorted information in "The biggest environmental crime in history" (10 December), regarding tar sands development in the Canadian provide of Alberta.
First, nowhere near five barrels of water are needed to produce a single barrel of crude. Since 80 to 90 per cent of the water is recycled, the net amount of water per barrel of oil is actually 0.5 to 1.0 barrel. The Alberta Government has issued licences to extract 350m cubic metres of water from the Athabasca River every year, however, actual usage by the industry is only one third of the allocated amount and 7.2 per cent of the total water allocated in Alberta.
Second, the amount of natural gas used in the extraction of oil from the tar sands is declining. Overall, it was 0.6 bef of gas per barrel in 1994-1997. This declined to 0.5 per barrel from 1999-2000 and to about 0.46 bef from 2001-2003.
Finally, tar-sands development currently accounts for 4 per cent of Canada's total CO2 emissions and 0.06 percent of total world CO2 emissions, hardly "the biggest environmental crime in history".
The province of Alberta has always been a leader on environmental issues and is continuing to lead Canada with concrete action to deal with climate change. Alberta was the first province in Canada to require large emitters to report on greenhouse-gas emissions and the first to legislate mandatory greenhouse-gas reductions. This commitment to protecting the environment will continue to ensure the province remains clean and sustainable.
Managing Director, United Kingdom Office,Alberta Government, London w1
A history of golf in Aberdeenshire
Sir: There's a glum history lesson for Alex Salmond and other perfervid supporters of Donald Trump's preposterous scheme to create a "Golfopolis" on beautiful dunes north of Aberdeen (report, 13 December).
In 1899, at Cruden Bay a few miles north of the proposed development a railway company built a vast luxury hotel, designed to complement the neighbouring golf links. The course still exists, but the hotel never attracted sufficient visitors, soon closed, and was demolished in the 1940s.
The golfing element of the present scheme could only be attractive for a limited season (has Mr Trump tried playing golf alongside the North Sea in the middle of an Aberdeenshire winter?) and the end result may well be simply a huge housing development, inappropriately sited, and causing irreparable damage to the coastline.
Individual care budgets
Sir: Mary Dejevsky (13 December) rightly raises the potential hazards for people employing personal assistants using one of the new individual care budgets. It is essential that the same protection is afforded to them as to those who currently use a registered homecare agency, including criminal-record checks and safety training for workers. The Health Secretary's suggestion that competition between agencies will improve services misses the point that the real competition will be between robustly regulated agencies and cheap, untrained individuals working without adequate oversight.
Head of Policy and Communication, United Kingdom Homecare Association Ltd, Sutton, Surrey
Jesus's birth place
Sir: By moving the nativity of Jesus from a stable in Bethlehem to a house in Nazareth ("Holy Family moves from stable to house for Pope's nativity crib", 15 December), the Pope has astonishingly drawn attention to the fact that we have no idea where Jesus was born. May we now hope for similar rationality over how he was conceived and what happened to his body after he died?
P J Stewart
Migration in the 1950s
Sir: R Thomson (Letters, 15 December) clearly does not remember that the the late 1940s and 1950s was a period of "uncontrolled" Commonwealth migration to the UK; a period that helped to create the diverse society that the United Kingdom is today. If he has forgotten that he may well have imagined the rest.
Bali own goal?
Sir: I wonder if the effects of the rather nebulous decisions taken at the Bali conference even compensate for the carbon footprint of those who attended.
Police pay dispute
Sir: I take issue with the point made in your leading article (14 December) "that both the police and the government have some right on their side".
What "right" is there in the government's side in totally ignoring a (meagre) pay award that has been determined by a purpose-built negotiating body?
The government's arguments, which you reiterated, were ones to be put forward during negotiations, not used as a lame excuse for failing to honour a final settlement.
Police Sergeant, Greater Manchester Police,Manchester
Sir: Of course had the Post Office wished to reflect the material world (Letters, 12 December) then its Christmas stamps could have depicted Madonna and her latest child.