A plague of consultants
Johann Hari (20 August) is exactly right about management consultants. I used to work for a large British company. I'll be discreet and not mention the name, just the initials: BT. Every four years management consultants would arrive at the chairman's door to flog the latest management fad.
This would be percolated through the business at the cost of millions of pounds. Managers with an eye to their careers would report a business transformation. Everyone else would just keep their heads down until it went away.
Within two years the idea would be fading. Within three, it would have disappeared completely, and the decks would be cleared for the next plague of management consultants.
The fascinating questions is, with all these fabulous managers earning £150,000-plus these days, why we need management consultants at all.
Loved the article on management consultants, but you missed one very important aspect. In my experience, a substantial amount of management consultant time is hired by companies to legitimise actions that one or more of the senior staff were already wanting or planning.
Common examples are the shipping department who hire consultants to tell the company that they should be worrying about logistics in the entire supply chain, or new CEOs who want the cost saving of a 30 per cent reduction in staff but want to survive the process themselves ("You all realise that it wasn't what I wanted but it was recommended by the highly paid experts").
Such consultant assignments can be staffed by people straight out of school. Their role is to bless a "plan". They provide the name of the consulting house, not knowledge, experience or even intelligence (the last could be dangerous as it might get in the way).
In this scenario it is critical to pay too much for the advice. That offers further proof that the patient is in a critical condition and the medicine must be taken without argument.
Of course, if you were a management consultant you would not fight this system by proposing meaningful, original ideas to a management team that already knows what answer they want.
Johann Hari's article about management consultants is spot on. My employer sent me and some other engineers on a course run by a management consultancy firm that was advising the company on improving maintenance.
I imagined that the consultant giving the course was a graduate engineer, but not a bit of it. She had no previous experience in engineering, and before becoming a consultant she was a shop assistant. I was not surprised that the advice given by her firm was disastrous and resulted in a big increase in down-time on equipment.
In the ten years before retiring I worked alongside a number of management consultants. Only one really knew what he was doing and he was a professional engineer, but even he didn't tell us anything we didn't already know. We used to joke that a management consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time – and then keeps it.
Johann Hari's diatribe against the whole profession of management consultants was a great rant but doesn't represent the reality. I'm sure there are good and bad consultants, but in 15 years in the profession I have never done a project that fits his "cut 30 per cent of the workforce" formula.
I have helped small technology start-ups to grow and expand; I have helped big firms to manage their R&D more effectively (often by doing more); and I have helped the NHS make sure that patients with major trauma are treated by doctors with enough experience to improve their chances of survival.
Dr Stephen Black
Ordeal at the self-service till
It is hardly surprising that The Grocer reports that the average waiting time at manned tills has increased since the introduction of self-service tills (report, 23 August). There are at least two very obvious reasons for this. There will be a reduction in the number of manned tills and a higher proportion of customers with large baskets being processed through them (as the lightly laden will be more likely to use the self-service tills). It is also noticeable that many of the normal tills are left unmanned to force customers to the self-service lanes.
You have simply repeated the positive spin put by the industry on a retrogressive change. What we actually need to know is the average time to checkout for the whole store.
I recently tried to use Tesco's self-service for a small shop. I had to call for assistance five times: (1) refused to scan a normal item; (2) refused to scan a "reduced" item; (3) age verification for alcohol; (4) club card verification; (5) age verification for a sharp blade.
Trying to avoid remonstrating with the harassed member of staff (others were having similar problems too) and having been invited on the till receipt ("How did we do?") to tell them about my shopping trip, I did just that. Deafening silence.
Oh well – off to Aldi. Cheap and human.
Kelly: I believe it was suicide
As somebody who failed to commit suicide 30-odd years ago, may I comment on the renewed furore about Dr David Kelly's death?
Although a writer by trade (who subsequently had several more books published), I did not leave a note of explanation or apology for my action. I had been living with thoughts of killing myself for the best part of a year and I suspect that over the months Dr Kelly experienced similar emotions about his role as a weapons inspector.
His misjudged involvement with the BBC journalists, and the appearance before the House of Commons committee he only too obviously loathed, tipped the scales. From my own experience, I believe Dr Kelly intended to kill himself, and in his case succeeded.
High Peak, Derbyshire
The pathologist Nicholas Hunt asserts that Dr David Kelly's death is a textbook example of suicide. Might this be because the person responsible for making his death look like suicide simply followed the textbook?
Higham Ferrers, Northamptonshire
'Scandal' of NHS mixed-sex wards
Why exactly does Mary Dejevsky (Opinion, 17 August) see mixed-sex wards as a scandal?
In all other areas of life not controlled by the Taliban the difference between men and women is quite rightly becoming increasingly blurred. Why should a hospital ward be any different? People are in hospital because they need the best medical attention as human beings, not specifically as men or as women.
What is scandalous is that taxpayers' money is being spent on ending mixed-sex wards, a homage to political correctness which the Coalition should have buried as soon they had the chance. Shame on them for persisting with it.
Little Wittenham, Oxfordshire
We have paid for our pensions
Andreas Whittam Smith once again trots out the public pensions argument (Opinion, 18 August) – may I point out some facts?
As a retired librarian (local government officer) I paid a 60th of my salary into the pensions fund for 40 years. I had no choice in this, and when my family was young that 60th would have been very useful.
Anyone in the private sector could have paid this percentage into a private pension fund. When I use my bank, buy my Independent, when I buy at Tescos, when I take my Stagecoach bus, when I buy petrol, when I use my British Gas, am I not contributing to all of their pensions funds?
May I also point out what I never had when at work, even as a senior manager: performance bonus, company car, paid overtime, Christmas bonus, free Bupa membership, or free Christmas parties (with hotel stopover), all or some of which I knew were enjoyed by friends in the private sector.
Andreas Whittam Smith argues that it is right to question whether council tenants should have a "subsidised" home for life. While council homes are certainly let at lower than market rents, it is no longer true that there is a cash subsidy to council housing: in fact it currently makes a £100m surplus.
Two-thirds of tenants receive housing benefit, but so do private tenants. The average cost of housing benefit is £20 per week higher for private tenants. If social tenants are to be forced into private lettings, the cost to the Exchequer will grow accordingly. Perhaps Mr Whittam Smith thinks that with the average salary of £20,801, earned by one fifth of council tenants, they can buy a home? In much of Britain that is not the case.
He also points to under-occupation in council housing. Some 11 per cent of tenants have spare bedrooms, but so do 46 per cent of home-owners. Does he plan to downsize them, too?
Chartered Institute of Housing
Unfair contracts for electricity
In recent years we have heard a lot about the way the big banks are not helping small and medium enterprises. However, some companies are finding that the dominant electricity companies are proving to be a greater problem for them.
A style of contract known by the electricity industry as an "evergreen" contract is being used to increase profits for at least one of the electricity companies. This type of contract can be a commercially negotiated one-year contract that is agreed over the phone, and is confirmed later by the electricity company on a two-sided document entitled "Contract details".
However, embedded within the document is a reference to a larger 28-page web-based statement of terms and conditions, which includes a clause stating that cancellation will only be permitted between 90 and 120 days before the end of the contract. If a company fails to cancel in that "window" then the electricity supplier has the right to charge whatever rate they deem fit and for a period they wish, sometimes two further years. In some cases the prices are 50 per cent above the market rate or the previous contract rate.
The last government looked at the problem and walked away. The new Coalition needs to remove this unfair burden from small and medium-sized enterprises forthwith.
T C King
Campaign for real history
While I have much sympathy with Howard Jacobson ("Rage, rage against educational defeatism!", 21 August), he has been unfair on Edexcel.
It is essential that examination questions are unambiguous and avoid language that, however inadvertently, could confuse or mislead. The students are, of course, working under the pressure of time and examination conditions. Clearly worded questions do not need to be simple. The answers required may still demand the demonstration of skills of criticism and evaluation. It is very sad if an able student is misled, under the pressure of time, by ambiguous or confusing wording.
What concerned me more was Howard Jacobson's example – a history question on the trial of the Rosenbergs in the 1950s.
Christina Patterson ("Why our greatest export is the best cure for boredom we'll get", 21 August) reminds us of the wonderful treasures in the British Library and of the depth of our heritage. She mentions Henry V's letter of 1419 written in English and appears astonished to have discovered that French was the language of government for so many centuries.
It would be refreshing if the 16-18 history curriculum could be extended to embrace the riches of earlier times. Studying the 15th century, for example, would open students' understanding of national and international conflict, political ambition and military enterprise, leavened with insights into religious dissent, artistic excellence and architectural triumph.
It would ensure that students also considered in depth what was happening in Europe and, through the links with Shakespeare's history plays, open cross-curricular opportunities.
Surely all this would be much more enriching than the rather tedious Rosenbergs.
An alphabet of palaces
The cities in Southern Sudan with plans shaped like a rhinoceros and giraffe (report, 19 August) will certainly look spectacular from an aeroplane coming in to land.
Such a view would not be available in 18th-century Bavaria, except from a balloon. In 1773 the architect Johann David Steingruber published designs for palaces whose plans were based on the letters of the alphabet.
Elevations were included, and he exhibited considerable ingenuity in the layout of rooms with stoves and the means for stoking them, chapels, stables etc. The tail of the "Q" was specially clever, being a subterranean driveway coming up into the central courtyard.
He hoped that princes and other nobles might take up the scheme to base their palaces on their own initials. I doubt whether any designs were carried out.
Cross-in-Hand, East Sussex,
Muhammad Waraqah Williams (letter, 23 August) suggests that both Muslims and Christians worship the same God. However, since Muslims deny the deity of Christ and reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God is three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – sharing one divine nature or essence), this cannot possibly be the case. No: Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God at all and to pretend so both defies reason and goes against the long-held beliefs of true Muslims and true Christians.
It might help to reduce expectations generally if elephants were not used in the official road sign for a zoo. My grandchild was disappointed to find, after following all the elephant road signs for Bristol zoo from the motorway, that the zoo had none. When asked, an attendant disclosed that the zoo would have to be twice the size to have elephants. Perhaps a monkey sign could be used instead?
Dr Robert Redfern
Budworth Heath, Cheshire
Perspectives on public libraries
A vital service under threat
Terence Blacker is right to point out the huge loss to communities that a privatised library service would cause ("Hands off our public libraries", 20 August). More people visited their local library last year than went to the cinema or to a football match – they are a fantastic resource that we should all be proud of and support .
With predictions that up to 1,000 libraries are set to go and moves to transfer the running of libraries to community groups, supermarkets and pubs, we know that young people and the elderly in particular will be the losers – with no service, or a severely reduced one.
A good library can rejuvenate a whole area, so Ed Vaizey's library programme sets alarm bells ringing for many reasons. We need skilled staff and adequate resources to deliver a quality library service, including vital learning support.
Like Blacker, we know that libraries are a necessity and we owe it to future generations to protect their right to this free reading experience. They must be safeguarded, and the public must speak out, or see these vital hubs of local life disappear.
General Secretary, UNISON
Private sector has a place too
Terence Blacker is right to emphasise the need to keep public libraries in public hands, but independent libraries have a special role in complementing the public provision.
In the centre of Leeds we have the oldest continuous library in Britain, established in 1768. We make sure that it is neither an antique nor pickled in aspic, but is a modern library with a great history. Contrary to what appears to be the received truth generally, this library is thriving and is recruiting members every week. We need both – public and private.
Chair, The Leeds Library