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Wednesday 27 October 2010
Pensions with no means test
It was surprising to hear the Tory government proposing universal pensions without means-testing, something I have advocated for many years. It would however be more convincing if the principle of universality was applied to all benefits in conjunction with a maximum income to balance a minimum wage.
Why not abolish means-testing altogether, in areas such as care for the elderly and disabled, education and children's allowances? The only means testing that is required is the one that is already tried and tested: income tax.
The sincerity of the Tory proposal has also to be judged against the timing of its possible implementation: right next to the next election. Will it happen at all, and is this not just another vote-grabbing ploy?
But it is still something to which the public should give its wholehearted support.
Otley, West Yorkshire
The Government is not being honest about its proposals to simplify the pension scheme. It has been said that it will be partly funded by eliminating means-testing and the bureaucracy this involves. In fact it will be paid for by taking money from people who paid additional contributions into the state earnings related pension scheme (Serps) for many years in order to top up their pension entitlement.
The Serps scheme was voluntary and those people who chose to opt out of the scheme were able to put their money into a private pension scheme, which they may still have. Older people who chose to stay in the scheme will now lose any benefits and may be left with a very much reduced pension.
While I understand the need to simplify the scheme, the proposal as it stands is a breach of an implied contract. I hope the Government will think again.
West Lydford, Somerset
Our busy new Coalition Government is planning to raise the state pension to a generous £140 per week in a few undisclosed years' time. Is this not another example of smoke and mirrors at work, bearing in mind the possibility that if and when the time comes to implement the change, inflation will have made it the equivalent of today's state pension, which is among the lowest in Europe?
Political cuts? Of course they are
Steve Richards (26 October) is right to underscore the ideological nature of the Comprehensive Spending Review. That the scale and speed of the announced public spending cuts are ideologically driven is clear when one looks back to the National Debt's inception in 1692.
For most of the UK's economic history, the National Debt has been two to three times the current level. So appeals to "inter-generational fairness" are unconvincing – like saying it is unfair that we are still paying for the Napoleonic Wars or the Great Depression, which in a sense we are, since the National Debt has only been below 40 per cent of GDP a few times since 1914, and most of these were recorded under New Labour from 1999 to 2008. The National Debt has never returned to zero.
The Coalition Government is attempting to convince the public that the current deficit is historically unprecedented when it isn't, thati t is the largest in the industrialised world, which it isn't, and that the only viable reduction plan is to cut services and benefits to the poorest, which isn't historically true.
Previous deficit reductions were achieved through a more judicious mix of economic growth, investment and increasing employment, alongside some marginal and incremental public service reductions. The current hasty approach will slow economic growth, see unemployment reach 1980s levels and undo the recent public services and infrastructure investment.
Director, Human City Institute
The Con Dem government has taken leave of its senses by intending to cut expenditure on policing.
Do they not realise that a much thicker "thin blue line" will be needed to keep the lid on all the social unrest and crime caused by the high unemployment levels which will be a natural consequence of their other policies? This is something that Mrs Thatcher well understood.
John Eoin Douglas
Horrors of the Iraq war
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claims that the documents released by WikiLeaks reveal "the deaths of 66,000 Iraqi civilians at the hands of US and British soldiers and Iraqi personnel who had joined the allies" ("A record worse than Saddam's", 25 October). In fact, that figure of 66,000 in the files is the total recorded number of civilian deaths owing to violent causes, whether at the hands of the coalition forces, their allies or insurgents. To determine exactly how many were killed by coalition troops and Iraqi security personnel will require months of thorough investigation of the documents in question.
However, the main point is that these documents do not reveal "previously untold horrors of the Iraq war". For example, it has been amply documented over the years by human rights groups such as Freedom House and Amnesty International (the latter of which released only a month ago an extensive report on the subject) that torture of detainees in Iraqi prisons is commonplace and that coalition forces decided not to investigate allegations of abuse by Iraqi security forces.
Indeed, widespread torture always occurs in places whose judicial systems primarily depend on confession as a means of securing convictions, and given that the coalition forces' priority was counter-insurgency, it would have been a mammoth task for them to investigate just a fraction of the claims of torture by Iraqi personnel. Similarly, it will always be true that in a time of war there will be unreported cases of civilian deaths.
If anything, the reaction of surprise to these documents only illustrates the level of public apathy that has existed towards the war. A general apathetic attitude should be expected, since unlike in Vietnam or the two world wars there was no military conscription to make people care about the situation in Iraq.
Brasenose College, Oxford
The WikiLeaks revelations must lead to an independent investigation in the United States into how much US officials knew about the torture of detainees held by Iraqi security forces.
When details of waterboarding and abusive interrogations carried out in secret by the CIA came to light last year, the US authorities all but closed the door on prosecutions of the perpetrators or of officials who authorised the abuse. This is totally unacceptable. The WikiLeaks logs provide compelling grounds for a full investigation into US conduct in Iraq and the wider mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Amnesty's own research has found evidence of endemic torture in Iraq, abuse that continues beyond the period covered by the WikiLeaks war logs. This includes the reported torture of a British man, Ramze Shihab Ahmed.
The Iraqi authorities must also face up to the challenge of rooting out this cancer.
Amnesty International UK
Targeted help for poorer students
I chaired the inquiry in 1999 which David Blunkett set up when he was Secretary of State for Education over how to help poorer students remain in education after the age of 16.
We recommended the introduction of Education Maintenance Awards, which were paid to poorer students on a sliding scale depending on their parents' income. Looked-after children would receive them in full. The awards were already then targeted, so it is misleading for the Government to say it is replacing them with targeted support.
The conditions that the students had to fulfil each week to receive the money were to attend on time and hand in their assignments. These measures resulted in more poorer students choosing to remain in education after the age of 16, and helped them successfully complete their courses.
Further education colleges in particular have seen many 16-18 year olds benefit from the scheme, since young people can concentrate on their studies instead of having to rely on part-time jobs to pay for their travel, books and equipment.
The new education ministers clearly have made no attempt to discuss their policy with either headteachers or college principals or even find out how successful this modest reform has been. Now the numbers of young people who are not in education or training will increase and such students will remain unemployed, especially as the number of unskilled jobs continues to fall.
The Government will be remembered for lowering educational standards among the poorer 16-19 year olds in England.
(Former Chair of the Local Government Association Education Committee)
Curb predatory takeovers
We should not allow the decision of the Takeover Panel Rules Committee to reject the suggestions of the Cadbury directors to go unnoticed ("Takeover panel plans to make hostile bids more difficult", 21 October)
After the Kraft takeover of Cadbury these directors suggested that the panel should introduce two new rules. First to require shares to be held for more than six months before there is a right to vote the shares. Second that the majority for a resolution approving a takeover be increased to 60 per cent.
These new rules sought to control the rapacious activities of hedge funds, the equity trading arms of the major banks and others whose sole aim is to make a "quick buck".
These "short-term" activities are profoundly damaging to our successful companies. Companies need to plan for long-term growth if our economy is to be more successful. Yet this "quick buck" mentality dominates so much of the activity of the City in its relationship to our manufacturing and industrial companies. The Cadbury directors' proposals would have been small step towards constraining this behaviour.
We must hope that Vince Cable's review of corporate governance and economic short-termism will grasp the nettle and come forward with strict new rules to address the issue.
Professor Ian Grigg-Spall
Kent Law School, Canterbury
Monarchs of the screen
Philip Hensher (Notebook, 25 October) remarks that some monarchs, including Edward VII and Queen Anne, have been neglected by film-makers.
Mr Hensher was probably not of an age to appreciate ATV's series on Edward VII, which was first screened in 1975 on ITV, with a star-studded cast including Timothy West as the mature Edward, Robert Hardy as Prince Albert, John Gielgud as Disraeli, Michael Hordern as Gladstone, and Francesca Annis as Lillie Langtry.
I also have vague memories of a BBC television series called The First Churchills, which was screened a few years earlier and dealt with the friendship between Queen Anne and Sarah Jennings (the first Duchess of Marlborough), the turbulent politics of Anne's reign, and the War of the Spanish Succession, in which John Churchill (Sarah's husband) was involved. Susan Hampshire played Sarah, Margaret Tyzack Queen Anne.
Embarrassment to football
Dare we hope that Rooney W's three week lay-off follows a doctor's diagnosis of "congenital embarrassment"? Might we further hope that, on his return, he is locked in a dressing room with management and fellow players so that he can identify, face-to-face, which of them don't match his ambitions for the club?
Lyme Regis, Dorset
It takes two to tango. If Rooney is obscenely greedy in demanding such personal financial reward, then Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United board, must be equally wrong for agreeing to such ludicrous demands. Football is rapidly being destroyed by money.
Ian R Elliott
Warming to a renewable fuel
Harry Pritchard has a very funny world-view in his letter about the problems of burning wood on stoves (letter, 21 October). Yes, wood creates some pollutants, but it is a renewable resource, whereas gas is not and electricity uses gas, coal or nuclear energy to create steam to turn turbines. Nuclear energy creates a waste that takes 240,000 years to diminish in its devastatingly dangerous properties.
We import electricity from France, where they use a lot of nuclear energy, regardless of the fact that nobody has ever worked out how to get rid of the waste, but are prepared to endanger a lot of humanity while governments pretend that it is a safe renewable.
In my book wood is good.
End of the line
As a frequent rail user I have become accustomed to trains which "terminate here" – a kind of self-destruction, I assume. But arriving in London at Paddington station yesterday I was somewhat alarmed to hear that "the train will be terminated here" – are the Daleks about to return in a new and dastardly form?
I see that the woman who put the cat in the wheelie bin had to pay a £15 victim surcharge. Will somebody let us know what the cat spent the £15 on?
Perspectives on Crown finances
Time for Queen to step aside
The Crown Estate's 150-year commitment to providing affordable rented homes, now primarily for London's "key workers", as a contribution to communities and the fabric of society in general, is to be abandoned. That is, if their proposed sale is completed.
The Crown Estate is an anachronistic organisation, unaccountable to the public, developed over the 250 years since George III handed over an estate of Crown lands to Parliament for the collection of revenue in return for an annual payment for the maintenance of the monarchy.
The Crown Estate owns thousands of acres of agricultural land, with hundreds of farms, the seabed and some 50 per cent of the UK's foreshore. Properties built on the lands as a result of the grandiose plans of the Prince Regent are now the jewels in the Crown Estate's London property portfolio: Regent Street, mansions in Regent's Park, Kensington Palace Gardens and St James's.
The Queen is the "nominal owner" of the Crown Estate, but has no right to the revenues produced. Nor can the Queen interfere with the management or influence Parliament. Thus the Queen as the nominal owner is now a charade.
Energy producing companies now need the use of the seabed and foreshore, as do those producing seaweed products, engaged in the fisheries, or needing the use of the foreshore for other purpose. Claims of excessive increases in rents charged for such usage are now being made, thus affecting future developments, production, and costs to energy consumers.
Surely the time has come for Parliament to abolish the Crown Estate and relieve the Queen from the charade of nominal ownership, transferring assets to appropriate government departments and providing public accountability to the people.
Hidden tax on energy users
The fact that the Queen may profit hugely from offshore wind power suggests that this is an enormously profitable and therefore nationally valuable business ("Queen set to earn millions from windfarm expansion", 25 October).
What the article does not say is that wind power on- or offshore is not viable without the gigantic covert subsidy of the Renewables Obligation. This arrangement doubles the value of electricity on-shore and, for currently constructed offshore wind farms, trebles it.
Who pays for this? All consumers, not just green tariff subscribers, as the extra cost is passed down the supply chain, finally reaching domestic bills as an unaccounted increase in electricity price.
The Queen is directly benefiting from an arrangement about which the Committee of Public Accounts said: "Requiring users to source supplies from uneconomic providers has the same affect as taxing users to subsidise the providers, but is not as transparent or amenable to parliamentary control."
Dr John Etherington
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