Letters: government spending

Corrupt charities: a proper perspective is vital
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The Independent Online

The UK taxpayer should not tolerate any fraud in the spending of public money ("Taxpayers' money given to corrupt charities", 7 April). But your story needs some perspective. You report that "the Department for International Development has lost nearly £720,000 over the past five years as a result of 'fraud, corruption and abuse' by governments in the developing world or NGOs using British funds".

This is £720,000 too much (and is probably an underestimate), but it amounts to 0.0045 per cent of the DfID budget over the past five years, or £1 in £22,000. How does this compare to other UK government departments? According to the 2010 inaugural National Fraud Authority report, £260m of housing benefit was lost to fraud in 2008-09 alone. That is 1.5 per cent of the housing-benefit budget to fraud, or £1 in £65. For income support, the corresponding figures are 2.9 per cent and £1 in £34.

In the current politicised debate over government spending, please give your readers some perspective – without it they will be no better informed, whether or not DfID disclose the details of the £720,000.

Professor Lawrence Haddad

Director, Institute of Development Studies, Brighton

Politicians ignore the real issues

As our unloved politicians charge frenetically around the country vomiting soundbites into microphones, I find myself wondering what it would be like to live in a real democracy. Admittedly, we do have the vote, which is better than nothing, but how do we get to exercise any kind of serious choice?

Where is the party that will engage in debate about the futility of the "war on drugs"? What about the ineffectiveness of prisons, or the pointlessness of a nuclear deterrent? Where is the cogent exploration of global warming and how to address it? Who dares to explore whether we are better off as a religious state or a secular one? How about a challenge to the morality of the British arms industry, or an intelligent examination of the iron grip in which pharmaceutical giants hold our National Health Service? In foreign policy, when will a politician have the courage to say that "punching above our weight" is unnecessary and possibly undesirable?

And when it comes to the central theme of this election – the economy – when are we going to hear an admission that in a highly developed nation which consumes three times its share of world resources, economic growth is a worn-out idea that needs to be seriously challenged rather than mindlessly pursued? How about some real debate please, rather than the phoney, narrow, point-scoring of career politicians too terrified to address the real issues of the day?

Chris Marshall

Forest Row, East Sussex

The coverage of the election so far has totally ignored women MPs, candidates and opinion-formers. You don't ask female business people what they want out of the election and you don't treat women as an electoral force.

The only women covered are the two leaders' wives, during their irrelevant visits, and what they are wearing. Women have views on the economy, business, foreign policy and running this country. Ask them.

Janet Salmon

Richmond, Surrey

So Lord Adonis wants Lib-Dem voters to support Labour to keep the Tories out. Well, he would, wouldn't he? But what he doesn't seem to understand is that a lot of people are turned off politics and politicians not just because of moats and duck-houses, but because they feel that their vote is meaningless unless they live in a marginal constituency.

We don't want to have to second-guess our fellow constituents and vote tactically; we would like a democratic electoral system which would allow us to express our preferences. And that is what the two largest parties have, in effect, conspired to prevent for the past 100 years. As long as we have first-past-the-post, they each get their turn at having a large majority with a minority of the vote.

If our voice is to be heard we need electoral reform, and whatever they say now, that is only likely to happen if we get a hung parliament. So we must all go out and vote for almost any party except Labour or Conservative.

Susan Alexander

Frampton Cotterell, South Gloucestershire

A wasted vote is when you vote for a party you hate because you detest another party even more. Calling it "tactical voting" doesn't make it any better.

John Day

Port Solent, Hampshire

Social problems caused by spelling

Our devotion to our highly irregular spelling system has consequences other than students' boredom and resentment (letters, 10 April). Our high levels of illiteracy are a chronic problem and are strongly associated with income inequality: 23 per cent of our working population scored at the lowest level in the International Adult Literacy Survey, while the figure for Germany and Sweden was about 6 per cent.

There is a strong correlation (80 per cent) between low levels of literacy and low income levels; countries that have modernised their writing systems are more competitive and are likely to have fewer problems with social exclusion.

N J Hilton

London SE19

Many of our current spellings are only a few hundred years old; before that, many were simpler. For example, frend, bisy, ernest, fether, garanty, gest, highte, huni, iland, lorel, lether, parlement, stomak and tunge were all Middle English spellings.

It is ignorance of history to believe that our spelling does not change. It is not "dumbing down" to remove recent spelling anomalies that trip up the educationally disadvantaged, and to incorporate new spellings into our dictionaries. More people would be able to read, and reading raises IQ through more general knowledge. It would also render more people employable.

Dr Valerie Yule

Mount Waverley, Victoria, Australia

Breast-cancer treatment options

Like Lisa Markwell (Opinion, 9 April) I am a breast-cancer patient, but unlike her I do not find the debate on screening confusing. The bottom line is that only with hindsight can we say whether treatment was necessary or unnecessary. Treatment is indeed debilitating and deeply unpleasant, but, if one's objective is to do one's best to stay alive, undergoing treatment which may in fact be unnecessary is a better option than dying through lack of necessary treatment.

As to the involvement of patients in such decisions, I found this anything but a "curse". When the choices made affect my chance of survival and the quality of remaining life, why on earth would I wish to allow anyone to make them without my full involvement and informed agreement?

Christine Howarth

Maidstone, Kent

The minister for busybodies

You report an obscure apparatchik who is apparently the "charities minister" debating with a governmental nonentity described as an "animal welfare minister" over whether or not zoos are a good thing (5 April). Elsewhere there is political grandstanding over a B&B owner who took exception to gays staying at his establishment.

Most of us were unaware that we required ministers paid (by us) to preside over charities, animal rights or B&Bs. Do we need these ministerial busybodies? Would we not be better off with half the number of ministers concentrating twice as hard on what part, if any, government can usefully play in resolving serious problems?

Ralph Windsor

Ramsey, Isle of Man

Knowledge versus practical ability

In a report on proposed technical colleges (5 April), Claire Mills, a teacher from Leicestershire, is quoted as saying: "The practical people are separated from the clever people".

May a plague of cowboy builders descend upon her! She assumes (along with many, especially in careers guidance) that all stupid people are practical, a notion I have been fighting for my 20 years of teaching woodwork.

The reverse is also true; many clever people are completely handless, with no practical skills or any of the problem-solving abilities required by good tradesmen.

Knowledge vs ability? It's a close call, and each has their place, but one is no better than the other. But at the end of a working day, to stand back and look at what has been created during a hard day's graft is surely more satisfying than an empty in-tray.

Heather MacLennan

ELGIN, Moray

Once again, the leadership of the NUT has demonstrated that it is unfit to play any part in the education of our children. Their knee-jerk opposition to the technical-college initiative you report on is classic left-wing dogma in response to an idea which could improve the outcome for teenagers who are failed by the present system.

Many teenagers in the later school years become disillusioned, especially if their academic interests or abilities are limited. It is important that such children are offered a chance to succeed, rather than face a future without marketable skills.

Les Walton

Soham, Cambridgeshire

One aspect of A-levels little discussed is the role they played in the decline of British engineering and the disappearance of our manufacturing industry. When A-levels were invented in the 1950s, British manufacturing was flourishing. We made all sorts of things, including typewriters in Leicester.

Now we make next to nothing and this is largely because A-levels have wiped out engineering and technology. The A-level system directs students either into the science stream, or into the arts stream. The result of this dichotomy is that the mathematically talented, creative people who would have made good engineers do not have an obvious path to follow; the mathematicians are lost to science, and the creatives to the arts.

We have ended up with A-level physics and A-level English Literature – and the Germans have ended up with a great engineering industry.

Professor Ian Smalley



Reader's Digest

Is Reader's Digest really still "the staple diet of doctor's waiting rooms around the UK" (Business, 10 April)? In this part of south-east London all we get are Hello! and OK! magazines, with the occasional Homes and Gardens, supplied, perhaps, by a patient from Dulwich.

Professor Brian Everitt

London SE19

Children's views

Barbara Hearn, Deputy Chief Executive of the National Children's Bureau (letters, 8 April) advocates giving children an influential voice in the appointment of their teachers. Just to give her views some sort of credibility, could she tell us about the influence of children in decisions about appointments to the staff of the National Children's Bureau? Anecdotes about the sort of questions she was asked at her interview by child members of the panel would be of particular interest.

Tom Dale

Carnforth, Lancashire

Cow madness

Aidan Harrison (letters, 8 April) writes that farmers were made scapegoats for "the 'mad cow' and foot-and-mouth fiascos". If farmers weren't responsible, who was? The thousands of people who keep cows as domestic pets?

Gordon Whitehead

Ripon, North Yorkshire

Swallow sighting

On 5 April my family and I saw our first swallow of 2010 above Dauntsey Park in Wiltshire. I understand it is customary to make such announcements in The Times, but then if we wanted to be hidebound by convention we would not be reading The Independent, would we?

Robert Watson

Devizes, Wiltshire

Olympic tower

I totally agree with both Tom Sutcliffe's (6 April) and Paul Priestley-Leach's (10 April) sentiments about the proposed Olympic tower design for 2012. Far better would be to erect a wind turbine on the site, thus providing free, clean, green electricity for the Olympic Village and saving millions which could be used to sponsor our athletes. It would also send out a message at a time when the eyes of the world are upon us.

Jimmy Bates


Boy Scout rescue

I read in World in Brief (10 April) about the decision by the US state of New Hampshire not to reclaim the cost of a rescue from the teenager they plucked off Mount Washington. Officials reportedly "praised him for using his Boy Scout skills to stay alive, but criticised him for being unprepared". Surely this statement is incongruous with the Scouts' motto?

John Schluter