Sir: As I have the privilege of staying at an English university for a couple of months, I write in support Lord Dearing's comments about foreign-language teaching in the UK discussed in your leading article of 13 March.
As in most departments concerned with international relations, European studies etc, the department I am visiting arranges travels to Brussels once in a while. A recent excursion caused some anxiety among some of the student participants. The reason was that the meetings with British people employed by the European institutions, law firms, lobbyists and so on, had convinced the students that they had a serious handicap in only speaking English. As one student expressed it, they had been "let down by the system" in that the educational system had not tried eagerly enough to convince the students of the importance of learning foreign languages.
Without a second or third language one does not get employed in the EU. The English language is incredibly important, but one does not speak it always, everywhere. If young English graduates are going to stand a chance in Europe, it is paramount that they speak at least one (!) other European language.
But it is not only a question of getting a job in Brussels. It is also a question of basic education. Madame de Stäel put it excellently 200 ago: "Learning another language means getting an additional soul".
Sir: British ignorance about, and lack of interest in, science and technology is exemplified by your failure to include the very substantial long-term benefits to the UK of participation in multi-million-euro trans-EU research and development projects and in university student-exchange programmes (front page, 21 March).
EMERITUS PROFESSOR FRANK FAHY
INSTITUTE OF SOUND AND VIBRATION RESEARCH, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHAMPTON
Appalling treatment of junior doctors
Sir: As a teenager my husband made the decision to become a doctor, out of a vocation to use his obvious academic talent to help others. He has studied hard for five years (building up considerable debt in the process) and has worked for five years after that. Despite recent improvements, the hours of a junior doctor are some of the longest and most anti-social of any profession. He has also spent considerable time studying for further qualifications, attending additional clinics outside his contracted hours, carrying out audits, attending training courses etc in the belief that these would help him to progress in his chosen field. All of this adds up to almost slavish devotion to his career, meaning that outside interests, family and social life have been sadly neglected; he was happy to do this however out of dedication to the NHS and his chosen career.
Then along came Modernising Medical Careers and Medical Training Application Service (The Sketch, 20 March), and we now find that after thousands of hours of work and study my husband, along with over 30,000 others, will be allowed to attend only one half-hour interview for one job. He will either get that job or face the scrapheap. We will have to take a huge gamble with selecting which job he asks to be considered for - choosing the job he actually wants is too big a risk as there are only two positions available. Suddenly gone is the basic freedom enjoyed by workers in every other profession - to apply, and be considered for, any job for which one is adequately qualified.
This is an appalling way to treat some of the most talented and most dedicated young people working in the UK today. Each of those junior doctors represents over £250,000 of public money spent on training but these reforms will lead to many of them being unemployed.
This poor workforce planning within the NHS comes at great financial cost to the tax payer, and great personal cost to those who have dedicated their lives to caring for others, only to find after several years that they are surplus to requirements.
This system must be abandoned immediately and the architects of it must be held accountable.
Sir: Ten years ago the NHS was on its knees, with historic staff shortages, recruitment difficulties, and widespread vacancies ("NHS 'recklessly' hired staff to meet its targets", 23 March). We've been able to eliminate these recruitment difficulties and reward hard-working professionals with the pay they deserve.
Staff are now getting paid more for doing more. The NHS now has 300,000 more staff, with vacancy rates at an all-time low, and we've trained more than ever before so that the need for staff is matched by the numbers of high-quality applicants.
While any redundancy is regrettable, there were only 1,446 compulsory redundancies in Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities by December 2006, and eight out of 10 of those were non-clinical staff. As we promised, where we can cut the number of admin jobs, we have done, releasing money to frontline services.
RT HON PATRICIA HEWITT MP
SECRETARY OF STATE FOR HEALTH, WHITEHALL, LONDON SW1
Sir: The news that it costs more to run a high-quality, out-of-hours primary-care service than expected is not news to me, as a GP who provided that care for 15 years (report, 14 March).
GPs have historically spent considerable time and energy developing highly efficient, cost-effective small businesses that provide high-quality care considerably more cheaply than any other organisation has yet to achieve. However, we can't do it day and night.
Instead of focusing on how much money GPs take home we should be celebrating the excellent care they continue to provide in-hours and be thankful, as taxpayers, how much less it costs us than it would if the government had its way and allowed the PCTs to run the services using alternative providers.
DR HARRIET TULLBERG
Sir: Dr Ross's letter (23 March ) recalls for me those halcyon days in the early 1960s when junior hospital doctors were compulsorily resident, and board-and-lodging charges were deducted at source from their meagre salary of well under £1,000pa. Perhaps we should be grateful for this government's well-known historical amnesia?
(RETIRED NEUROSURGEON), WOODSTOCK, OXFORDSHIRE
Air travel that makes sense
Sir: Short-haul flights are obviously environmentally questionable, but your leading article ("The absurd economics of a protected industry", 23 March) followed a misleading trail from Greenpeace. The Newquay-Gatwick route is a bad example, because at least two-thirds of the passengers travelling to and from Cornwall are connecting with international flights. They do not want to go anywhere near London itself. To travel by train from Cornwall to Gatwick (even Heathrow) is tortuous and time-consuming, and will remain so until long-planned direct links from the Great Western mainline become a reality.
The minority who do wish to find their way into central London are a different matter. I used the train twice a week every week (when Parliament was sitting) for many years and I would not dream of wasting time accessing or waiting in airports. However, I acknowledge that train fares, since privatisation, have become prohibitively expensive, and it is this that has encouraged short-haul operators like Ryanair. They should be your target, not international networks like BA's.
(FORMER MP FOR NORTH CORNWALL) CALLINGTON, CORNWALL
Full disclosure of war casualties
Sir: Your article "Ministers finally admit full scale of war casualties" (23 March) is misleading. We are committed to providing accurate casualty statistics for Iraq and Afghanistan. For several months now we have been putting casualty statistics on our website (www.mod.uk) every fortnight.
We have also reviewed the historical figures which have now been published on the website. Where possible, we had already published estimates based on the best data we have. For example on Iraq, the website stated that between March 2003 and December 2005 "records from Notification of Casualty Reporting show that some 40 UK military and civilian personnel have been categorised as Very Seriously Injured (VSI) from all causes, and that some 70 personnel have been categorised as Seriously Injured (SI) from all causes". This estimate adds up to 110, which is very near to the actual number, 111, that we have published today.
I have personally been trying since last summer to make sure that we are completely transparent about the number of casualties suffered in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But this is a sensitive issue and we have to get it right - records have been kept in different ways at different times and it takes time to work this out. To imply that this equates to an attempt to disguise the overall picture is unfair and inaccurate.
SECRETARY OF STATE FOR DEFENCE, LONDON SW1
Budget hits the poorest hardest
Sir: Gordon Brown claims tax credits will prevent low income earners suffering from having their income tax doubled back up to 20 per cent from 10.
Yet even on the treasury's own (very conservative) estimates between 7 per cent and 20 per cent of people entitled to tax credits don't claim them. No wonder. The tax-credits system is so complicated many don't know whether they're entitled to them - so billions of pounds worth go unclaimed each year. (The estimate for this year is £2.3bn). The Public Accounts Committee called the system "frustratingly arcane".
Even the treasury doesn't know who's entitled to what and writes off £1bn-worth of overpayments and "fraudulent claims" annually. Most overpayments, though, are reclaimed from people struggling on low incomes who had been told they were entitled to the money - who then suffer hardship.
The solution is obvious - scrap tax credits and cut taxes on people earning below average income. Abolish it entirely for those on the lowest incomes. Instead, Brown tries another PFI-style accounting fiddle - and the poorest suffer. No wonder John McDonnell keeps becoming a more popular candidate for Labour leader.
CARLUKE, SOUTH LANCASHIRE
An invitation to tea beside the Nile
Sir: While travelling independently in Egypt 20 years ago I wanted to avoid the tourist groups with their umbrella-waving guides. So in Luxor I opted for pedal power, hired a bike and took it by ferry across the Nile to the west bank.
I spent a wonderful day visiting the Valley of the Kings, Hatshepsut's mortuary temple and other splendours. On the way back I stopped at Qurna ("Death on the Nile", 20 March) to visit a tomb and was laying down the bike when a group of children came up and offered to guard it for a fee. What do you do in those circumstances? You acquiesce, of course, after some token haggling.
Coming back from the tomb I found them waiting for me, the bike intact. The fee was duly paid, exactly the amount agreed. They then invited me back to one of their houses in the village.
I spent a wonderful half hour sipping tea, provided by a rather shy mother, while father sat in silent observation. The children plied me with questions, keen to practise their English. Unsurprisingly, this experience totally eclipses my memory of the tomb.
What a shame that future travellers will not get the opportunity to meet the living of Qurna.
An Austen revival
Sir: Surprise, surprise! Howard Jacobson doesn't approve of Billie Piper's portrayal of Fanny Price in ITV's recent adaptation of Mansfield Park (24 March). However, I am sure the old curmudgeon will be happy to know that copies of Miss Austen's novels, which have long languished unlooked-at on the shelves of my classroom library, were borrowed by pupils in the days following the broadcast of Mansfield Park because they had seen and enjoyed it. Good enough reason, I should think, for today's broadcasters to continue their adaptations of literary classics, with or without Mr Jacobson's approval.
ALLAN D FORRESTER
Sir: And what about the first Welsh Oscar winner (Letters, 23 March), for Best Actor in The Lost Weekend, 1945? Ray Milland, born Reginald Alfred Truscott-Jones, in Neath, Wales, in 1905.
In praise of parakeets
Sir: Flocks of rose-ringed parakeets (report, 22 March) have been welcome visitors to our garden for at least 25 years. Despite being dubbed "the Messerschmitts of the bird world", they do not seem to have prevented the native birds from thriving. We regularly see and hear woodpeckers in the area. The antics of the parakeets on our bird feeders provide endless entertainment. The brilliant plumage of these colourful characters provides an exotic addition to bougainvillaea in the conservatory and orange bushes on the patio in these days of climate change.
Sir: Poor old Olney! This pleasant (ex-)Buckinghamshire market town, where former slave-trader John Newton wrote "Amazing Grace", is now doubly disorientated. It had just got used to being part of Milton Keynes, only to find that it is actually in north-east London ("The big question", 23 March). How long before Milton Keynes itself is absorbed by the Great Wen (or vice-versa)?
CHAIR OF TRUSTEES, THE COWPER AND NEWTON MUSEUM, OLNEY, SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND
Sir: Further to your correspondence on dodgy signs (Letters, 24 March): several years ago, I was navigating my way round an unfamiliar building looking for the toilets. In an area being refurbished, I found the "Temporary Gentlemen". I wasn't sure if I qualified, so looked elsewhere.
HORNCHURCH, ESSEXReuse content