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Tuesday 29 July 2008
Letters: Oxbridge admissions
Oxbridge is a better preparation for Westminster than for real life
David Blunkett, discussing Oxbridge admissions (report, 21 July) falls into the same trap as most commentators in assuming that the problem of a high proportion of independent-school admissions to Oxbridge lies with the universities themselves.
The plain fact is that the better independent schools provide a far superior preparation for aspiring Oxbridge entrants to that available at most comprehensive schools. If you want top academic grades together with a well-rounded portfolio of activities and a self-confidence that will appeal to the adults who will be interviewing you, there is no contest.
The debate should be moving on to address the problem of why we have just two universities that are deemed to be in such a different league from the next tier (a situation unique in the world) and why we place such little value on the skills where the graduates of independent schools score poorly.
Comprehensive schools provide a better microcosm of the real world, and as such their output is better able to cope with life in general. Eton and Brasenose may admirably prepare you for the equally cloistered life of Westminster, but overall they are a poor grounding for anything other than employment in the most highly paid and prestigious professions.
We need to dilute the influence of Oxbridge graduates on the management of this country before parents will stop falling over themselves to push their children down that path.
Dumping Brown is Labour's only hope
It is time that the Cabinet members who came to Gordon Brown's defence last week stopped treating the electorate as if they were stupid: I know only too well, as do most voters, that the rising costs of food and fuel are affected by global factors and are not the fault of the Government.
I shall not withhold my vote from Labour because of the economy, but because we are being led by someone who was a competent Chancellor but who, as a Prime Minister, has lost any sense of direction. If Labour has any chance of a further term in office, or even of ensuring only a modest loss of seats at the next general election, a new leader is essential sooner rather than later.
Labour's by-election defeat in Glasgow East is the clearest example yet of how this New Labour government's right-wing policies are disenfranchising swathes of normal Labour voters.
Political commentators pin Labour's problems down to Gordon Brown, but in fact credit problems within the banking sector, global stagflation, house repossessions etc are all built into the very nature of capitalism itself and are attributable to the policies kicked off by Thatcher's Tory government in 1979 and shamefully continued by New Labour.
Labour undoubtedly needs a proper leadership contest, as a staging post for the party, both inside and outside Parliament, to rekindle the traditions and principles upon which it was founded.
There is something rather charming about hearing the debate about whether the Labour Party should alter the arrangement of deckchairs on the deck of the Titanic.
It is not to the credit of the great British public that they will tolerate the Labour Party taking us into an illegal war, allowing the wealth gap to grow wider, and sacrificing any historical principle for the purpose of retaining power, but when the price of petrol goes up and when "good inflation" (house-price inflation) falters, they switch allegiance.
The only issue now is whether we can get something less worse in place to follow them. Is there any chance of a Scot Nat candidate in West Dorset please?
Della Petch (letters, 26 July) is only partly correct in her observation that "Scotland is rejecting the Labour Party left, right and centre". Scotland is certainly rejecting "New" Labour to the uncaring right, and largely to the fudgy centre as well. The absence of any kind of coherent left in the party leaves Scots with nothing to reject in that area of the field.
Scots do, however, rightly or wrongly, perceive the party currently governing in Scotland as having a distinctly more social-democratic edge than that apparently failing to govern the UK.
Let the Labour Party encourage Gordon Brown to return to his roots, with policies reflecting something of that collectivist heritage, and they may find both Prime Minister and party reinvigorated.
Given Gordon Brown's relative success as Chancellor, can we take his decline as the most visible demonstration of the Peter Principle: "In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence"?
MPs need to know how business works
A ban on MPs having paid second jobs ("MPs face ban from lucrative second jobs", 24 July) would reduce even further the number of MPs having knowledge about the inner workings of business.
In research earlier this year, commissioned by the Industry and Parliament Trust (IPT), it was found that just 13 per cent of MPs have had 10 years' or more business experience and that 86 per cent of business leaders say that "too often, legislation is passed with insufficient regard to its impact on business".
Since 1977, the IPT has been working towards increasing understanding between Parliament and the worlds of business, industry and commerce. Through its Fellowship Scheme, the IPT gives MPs the opportunity to spend time in a business environment to experience at first hand the effects of legislation and regulation. Practical experience and insight into the way businesses function is crucial in the development of informed legislation.
Chief Executive, Industry and Parliament Trust, London SW1
Measuring the value of art
Diane Negra and Sue Holmes, of the School of Film and Television Studies, University of East Anglia (letters, 17 July) are trying to dodge the issue. Capitalism is good at selling rubbish to idiots, and academics also find culture a profitable resource. They are not paid to come to value judgements; indeed, their career scope is widened if they contest the validity of value.
Perhaps it is time to abandon academic critics to their own devices and leave them to wander off into the sunset of postmodern scholasticism. Scientists are now the people best fitted to come to judgements about the nature and value of art. From them we know that reading complex metaphorical poetry, such as Shakespeare's, increases brain function; the objective values of King Lear and Big Brother are measurable. Indeed, it would seem reasonable to suppose that art has an evolutionary function and that if we are to overcome the challenges of the future, it is time to start listening to Mozart and Charlie Parker before Britney and Snoop.
Ivory sale poses no threat to elephants
I can assure your readers that neither I nor the Government would agree anything that would encourage elephant poaching (letters, 18 July). My commitment to animal welfare is as strong as ever.
This one-off sale of ivory that China will take part in is from a legal stockpile from elephants that have not died from poaching. We hope the sale will have a similar effect to the last legal sale in 1999, which, according to the Director of Traffic (the well-respected wildlife trading monitoring organisation), showed a decline in the illicit ivory trade.
The decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to let China participate was taken only after careful consideration of all the evidence including from Cities secretariat visits, international visits, and reports from non-governmental organisations. China has shown itself willing to crack down on illegal ivory trading, and we expect them to continue to do so.
Minister for Wildlife, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Court ruling on same-sex marriage
Manda Scott asserts (letters, 18 July) that "the courts seem to have decided that a civil partnership is, after all, a marriage". On the contrary: in dismissing our application to have our marriage – legally made in Canada in 2003 – recognised as a marriage in the UK, Sir Mark Potter, President of the Family Division of the High Court, wrote in his July 2006 judgment that "as a matter of objective fact and common understanding, as well as under the present definition of marriage in English law", these are two "different" institutions.
A different-sex couple married in Canada would automatically have had their marriage recognised as a marriage in the UK. Ours is deemed to be a civil partnership instead. We look forward to the day when there is full equality under the law for same-sex and different-sex couples
Celia Kitzinger Sue Wilkinson
Gribthorpe, East Yorkshire
Welfare reform: too few jobs to go round
In your leading article of 22 July you say: "It is perfectly reasonable to expect those looking for a job and receiving benefits to... do full-time voluntary work after two years if they have not found a job."
But you forget that unemployment remains high, with the official Labour Force Survey showing 1.62 million out of work, a figure expected to rise as the recession takes hold. What's more, even the Government admits that many on Incapacity Benefit should really be on Job Seekers' Allowance. In other words, the true jobless level is a lot higher, especially in areas still suffering from the long-term collapse of a traditional industry such as coal-mining or deep-sea fishing.
So there just aren't the positions for everyone who wants one. That's why people like myself are going back for a third or fourth spell on New Deal, rather than getting a proper job. Making us do compulsory voluntary work, itself an oxymoron, will only leave a bitter taste in the mouth, especially if we are active within the voluntary sector already.
Steve Richards comments that the welfare reforms "must be the most previewed set of proposals since 1997" (22 July). Indeed, virtually all of the substantive measures contained in this Green Paper were in the 2006 Welfare Reform Bill, making people work for benefit, abolishing incapacity benefit, using private companies to interview claimants, etc.
Since then, there has been a succession of reports and briefings repeating the same details, along with David Freud's largely redundant and comically ignorant "review". All of which follows a 10-year drip-feed of headlines intended to convince the public that for eight out of 10 claimants disability is a lifestyle choice.
For those who have made that "choice" the degree of consensus over welfare reform is alarming. The fear of many is that they will be classified as "capable of work" by a poorly trained employment adviser with a couple of days' "disability awareness" training and a financial incentive to reduce claimant figures, and consigned to some sort of welfare limbo, denied benefit but effectively unemployable because of the severity or unpredictability of their symptoms.
It is instructive to note that an insurance provider which argued in its representations to the Select Committee on welfare reform that even the most functionally disabled should be expected to work is now using the draconian nature of the reforms in its advertising campaigns to encourage the take-up of private insurance.
Obama is his own man
I keep reading that Barack Obama "is often described as a new JFK". As far as I am aware, the main source of this comparison is newspapers such as yourselves searching for an angle on a story. The rest of us are quite happy to judge Mr Obama and his contemporaries on their own merits.
Mick Jagger's bus pass
John Walsh writes in his article "Sympathy for the old devil" (26 July) that "the grand old dinosaur of rock", Mick Jagger, has just become eligible for his bus pass. He has probably had one for the past five years, as they are available to both men and women from their 60th birthday.
Belchamp St Paul, Suffolk
It's always entertaining to find errors and omissions in your Errors and Omissions column. I'm beginning to wonder whether you're doing it deliberately, to keep us on our toes. Today's little gem (26 July) was French: "Je n'ai oublié pas", indeed! It should be "Je n'ai pas oublié". A veritable faux pas!
Andrew Grice (28 July) quotes Fiona Weir, Chief Executive of One Parent Families–Gingerbread, as saying that single parenthood is not a path lightly chosen. This statement is of course correct, but what the Tories (and any other sensible government) need to address is that the initial union is all too often lightly chosen. Too many women are left on their own to raise children whose conception was the result of irresponsible behaviour fuelled by alcohol, ignorance or the knowledge of a welfare safety net.
Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire
Rod Auton (letter, 28 July) may like to know of a firm in mid-Wales whose large red-and-white sign outside their premises reads "Evanss' ". A plucky try, I thought.
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