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Friday 25 May 2007
Letters: Financial services
Battered public trust in financial services must be restored
Sir: I was dismayed to read your report (22 May) that no one involved in the split capital investment trust scandal is to be charged or censured.
Many serious commentators agree that there were providers of "splits" who were recklessly incompetent in the design of their products, misled their customers as to risk and colluded with other providers. Yet, after five years, the FSA has found no regulatory breach. This brings the whole regulatory regime for retail financial services into disrepute in the eyes of the public.
The "splits" affair must be viewed in a wider context. This is because it is just one of the series of episodes, over many years, in which regulated companies in retail financial services have acted irresponsibly or with contempt for their customers - pensions mis-selling, "precipice" bonds and Equitable Life are some that come to mind. The cumulative effect has been to seriously damage the public's trust in the industry, with both good and bad players tarred, to some extent, by the same brush.
The loss of trust raises a major policy issue, because it comes at a time when, because of increased longevity and poorer pensions provision, most people should be investing more money to secure their future. Some people in this category are deterred from action by their doubts about the industry; others are reacting by putting heavy reliance on "bricks and mortar", with consequences which may yet prove to be unhappy.
A regulatory regime which is, and is seen to be, effective is essential to raising standards and rebuilding trust. It is in the interests not only of the public but also of responsible members of the industry. The Government and the industry should get together urgently to review the regime, for all our sakes.
Why ID cards will overturn civil liberty
Sir: The explanation by the Home Office minister Joan Ryan of how ID cards will protect civil liberties (letter, 24 May) is erroneous.
Civil liberties are based on the premise that the people of the country are sovereign, and that government must continually justify itself when this sovereignty is conceded to it through the expression of popular will in a free and fair election.
Identity cards reverse this basic democratic condition. It is no longer the state that must justify itself before the people, but the people that must justify themselves before the state.
Sir: Joan Ryan is guilty of deceptive precision when she tells us that "there is absolutely no question of an ID card holding sensitive personal information such as medical records".
Under plans laid by her department, that sensitive information will in fact be stored on a massive centralised database linked to the ID cards, not on the ID cards themselves. This "National Identity Register" would include a record of every use of the card to verify entitlement to services, and the fact that someone is using (say) an HIV clinic is certainly both "personal" and "sensitive".
The recent MTAS fiasco shows that government databases can be a huge threat to personal privacy. The National Identity Register threatens to be a privacy catastrophe for the entire nation.
Sir: The danger the ID card scheme poses is not in the data held on the chip, but the data collected in the central database. This will include a unique reference per individual, and all that is required is a cross-reference from that reference to a person's National Insurance number for it to include vast swathes of other government-held data. It is almost inconceivable that such cross-references will not be quickly established.
It is the compulsory nature of the scheme that provides a source of danger - it will not be possible for anyone to avoid registration. The huge investment that the scheme involves means that it will pose a threat to our individual right to go about our lawful business unmonitored for many decades to come. Who knows what kind of regime will run Britain in thirty or forty years time?
Typically, our political masters have chosen to visit the scheme on an unloved and powerless section of the population first - they know few will attend demonstrations to protest at the imposition of ID cards on new immigrants or refugees.
Recent advances in technology such as smart tags and video face recognition will make it practical to track an individual's every movement and action. How long before the capability to do this is justified on the grounds of "national security"?
The much-quoted cost of "identity fraud" is largely down to theft and misuse of credit card details. There are much simpler and more effective ways of tackling this, and given the plethora of credit card companies (who largely bear the cost of this crime) scrambling for business, I would suggest this is a complete red herring.
Sir: Joan Ryan is not in the least bit reassuring about ID cards and civil liberties. For a start where is the civil liberty not to have one? At present this is the right of all of us, but for how long? I am old enough to have seen Franco's secret police going along a train checking identity papers and still shudder at the memory. Other than repeated fines what plans are there for the conscientious objectors to this odious scheme?
How to cut CO
and help the poor
Sir: Alex Ward (letter, 17 May) is quite right that taxing air travel will hurt the poor while leaving the better off relatively unscathed. There is another way of tackling the issue, which would have the added advantage of transferring revenue from the more wealthy to the less well off.
Under the scheme, every adult would be issued with a fixed number of air miles. Those who did not need the air miles could sell them to those who wanted more than their ration. It would not be long before brokers would set themselves up to deal in this new business. Companies would have to buy their extra air miles on the open market, maybe even from their own employees.
Money would quickly trickle in to those needy families who are short of cash, to students to help with tuition costs, and to old-age pensioners who could do with the extra income to keep warm, or just pay for a holiday here in England.
A R BODDY
Sir: In your issue of 19 May, you show a photograph of large natural draught cooling towers. These cooling towers are meant to cool down the water that circulates to absorb the heat generated by the power station machinery. The water is discharged at the top and it sprinkles down over a grillage and is cooled by the natural draught of air sucked in at the bottom and accentuated by the specially designed curved walls. The cooled water is reused and re-circulated in the system for cooling down the machinery. The white clouds shown in the picture indicate water vapours and not any gas.
These structures really symbolise reduction in energy consumption and they are often preferred to mechanical draught cooling towers, which use fans for cooling down the water, consume substantial energy and require maintenance. It is unfair, therefore, to show a photograph that may give an impression that the natural draught cooling towers might be contributing to global warming or climate change.
PROFESSOR SATISH DESAI
KINGSTON UNIVERSITY, SURREY
One law for the friends of the US . . .
Sir: If your startling headline report (21 May) on a US attempt to kill Muqtadr al-Sadr is true, then it heralds yet another example of US double standards.
Only last week, the US Ambassador to the UN was arguing that "it's very important that people who have participated in political murder be brought to justice". Quite so, except here he was referring to the assassinations that took place in Lebanon and the need for a UN tribunal to try the perpetrators, whom the US believes to be Syrian. The US is strangely silent when Israel, its key ally in the Middle East, funded to the tune of billions every year, assassinates and imprisons Palestinian political leaders.
The "one law for our friends and one law for our enemies" approach only reinforces the anger against the US that is the backbone of Muqtadr al-Sadr's popularity.
DIRECTOR, COUNCIL FOR ARAB-BRITISH UNDERSTANDING LONDON EC4
Maths? First teach children to add up
Sir: Many are of the opinion that the teaching of mathematics and the standard of numeracy in school-leavers is in decline (Letter, 22 May). I once taught maths and believe now, as I did then, that the curriculum needs to make a distinction between numeracy and mathematics, concentrating on the former as a compulsory subject while offering the latter as an option for specialisation in the same category as, say, physics.
We need people who can add numbers, calculate percentages and areas, and cope with the other arithmetic and geometric operations necessary to everyday life. Trigonometry, calculus and higher algebra are best left to those who can appreciate their value and beauty.
To be numerate is not the same as being mathematically gifted. Some of the best mathematicians I know can't work out the cost of a round in a pub. Which might explain why many of them seem worried about buying one.
NEWPORT, SOUTH WALES
Surgical training cut puts patients at risk
Sir: It is not just junior doctors who are angry (leading article, 22 May). The entire profession is aggrieved and several hundred consultants and GPs attended the Remedy UK march in London.
The comment that doctors will be able to reapply for training next year is wrong and is one of the major grievances of junior doctors. On the contrary, the new "run through" training system will stop doctors reapplying because of its conveyor-belt nature - once it starts it hard to get on or off. Doctors who fail to get training posts this year will have virtually no chance of becoming consultants in the UK and this is particularly tragic because it is the most experienced and qualified junior doctors who are the most likely to lose out. This will be detrimental to patient care because these are doctors who look after their more junior colleagues whilst consultants are in clinics and in theatres. They also have a crucial role in medical teaching because they have passed their postgraduate examinations.
Doctors do not expect to be handed consultant posts. They thrive on competition, but not when it is unfair and subject to a completely flawed and possibly illegal selection process.
The other major issue is the concept of MMC (modernising medical careers) itself. This is a political tool designed to downgrade the medical profession. The Government wants to mass-produce cheaper "fit for purpose" subconsultants, who in the words of Professor Sir Alan Craft "will need to work in teams to ensure patient safety".
Surgical training time is being cut from 30,000 hours to 6,000 hours and although these surgeons will be able to manage selected procedures well, they will be ill-equipped to deal with unexpected serious intraoperative complications. Patient safety is therefore at risk and this is what the medical profession is really up in arms about.
DR CLIVE PEEDELL
CONSULTANT CLINICAL ONCOLOGIST, MIDDLESBROUGH
Sir: You refer to the option of staff grade posts in "non-teaching hospitals"; this is quite incorrect. I work as a very senior associate specialist in a major London teaching hospital, and I am involved in teaching and training of junior doctors, medical students and nurses, as are very many of my colleagues all over the country.
You also claim that "all doctors have been awarded very favourable pay deals in recent years". The staff grade and associate specialists as a group are the one remaining group of doctors who have not been awarded a new pay deal; indeed we have been waiting about two years for a new contract to be drawn up and now for over six months for the Department of Health to put the agreed contract out to ballot, let alone to implement it.
DR JOANNA RAEBURN
Russians in London
Sir: The UK should indeed demand the extradition of whoever was accused of killing Alexander Litvinenko; and in exchange the Russians should ask for the extradition of all the ex-KGB men and other criminals living in Londinistan on the money they have looted from the Russian people.
PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Sir: I bought a copy of your paper today (23 May). I am educated but not a classics scholar; the language of your newspaper is English and I resent being presented by a "clever" epistle written in another language. We should strive to ensure that the maxims of the Plain English Campaign are promoted so that our language becomes inclusive and not exclusive.
What Bush didn't say
Sir: In your 18 May reporting of the Bush/Blair farewell meeting in Washington ("Those Colgate moments"), you attribute to me the assertion that on 20 September 2001 at the White House "Bush told Blair at dinner that he would attack Iraq whatever the Prime Minister said." This is false. I have never said this for the simple reason that, at that dinner, Bush made no such remark in my hearing. An account of that dinner is to be found on page 204 of my book, DC Confidential.
SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER
Breeds of fat cat
Sir: Oh, come off it Mr Thornberry (letter, 23 May)! At least footballers provide entertainment. And some actors are better than others, but I doubt that the least of them hasn't given somebody some entertainment at some time or other, and thus justified his existence. On the other hand, if someone can provide a raison d'être for City financiers can they please pass it on?
R A HOLDEN
Take no notice
Sir: As I was leaving my Tai chi class, I noticed a sign stating "This door is alarmed." At what, I asked, as I personally was quite calm and chilled out.
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