Letters: Perspectives on David Kelly's death

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This is far from 'a textbook case'

The pathologist who examined Dr David Kelly has been widely reported as saying that his death was a "textbook" case of suicide. This depends very much on the textbook.

In a textbook of physical pathology, Dr Kelly's injuries might well provide an exemplar of a suicide by wrist-cutting. But from a psychiatric epidemiological perspective, a different picture presents itself.

Wrist-cutting is such an unusual form of suicide that it is not recorded separately in national statistics, but is lumped together with other uncommon suicide methods involving self-stabbing.

In men of Dr Kelly's age in the UK who kill themselves, less than 3 per cent do so by using any sort of sharp implement. A much smaller number will therefore have actually cut their wrists. So, the physical pathological findings might be typical, but typical of a rare event.

Of course, Dr Kelly's death may still indeed have been a suicide. But, compared with most suicides, his case is neither representative nor characteristic. It is so unusual that it surely justifies a full and open public inquiry.

Dr Philip Timms FRCPsych, Consultant Psychiatrist, South London & Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust

Inquest is a legal right

Paul Vallely (21 August) gives a generally tranquillising overview of the unnatural death of David Kelly. The main concerns of medical doctors must be not about murder theories but the following. First, there is grave doubt that he could have died as decided by Hutton and as recorded on the death certificate. Second, the diagnosis of suicide is not proven in law; there is no evidence of intent.

And third, the system of inquiry used by Lord Falconer to investigate the death was not the proper way legally to investigate a single unnatural death. The proper procedure is a coroner's inquest, with or without a jury, with witnesses subpoenaed, giving evidence under oath and being fully interrogated.

Paul Vallely shows a very poor undertanding of and respect for the vital importance of the rule of law in suggesting that the decision about a coroner's inquest be left to the family and not to correct due legal process. John Locke stated, "Where law ends, tyranny begins". Just so.

Dr C J Burns-Cox, Consultant Physician, Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire

Language skills proved useless

Each August, hot on the heels of the annual grade-inflation outcry, comes the lament about the decline of modern languages ("The language crisis in schools", 24 August). In my view, the students who have put away their dictionaries since the abandoning of compulsory language GCSEs have made the right choice, and figures demonstrating a rise in maths and science uptake suggest many are using the freed time more usefully.

At school in the 1990s, I learnt French and Spanish to a high level, and GCSE German, and took night courses in Catalan and advanced Italian while at university, partly because of a media-influenced belief that these skills would help me secure a better job.

But my languages have never helped me in the world of work. Four jobs and dozens of job interviews later – in an international industry – not once have I been called on by an interviewer or employer to use or demonstrate language skills. The oft-heard assertion that the decline will "damage students' chances in the international jobs market" carries no weight in my experience.

Whenever I do communicate with European clients and colleagues in their own languages, it is received as a curious anomaly, with all of them more than comfortable in English, which is, after, all the default lingua franca of global commerce.

Spencer TAPIA, London NW6

We will, as a nation, always struggle to learn languages because we have no need of them. Many children go on holiday abroad with their parents, and find that everyone in their resort speaks English. British people retire abroad and 10 years later they can still barely string a sentence together in the local language other than to order a beer.

If you do make the effort – and I am fluent in Spanish – you will find that there are very few jobs available where another language is needed, and few of those pay anything like a reasonable amount of money for the skill. So most people are going to say, "Why bother?"

Paul Chambers, Southampton

In your leading article (25 August), you attribute the decline in foreign language learning to the decision to make language learning optional after the age of 14. I am convinced that the exact opposite is the case.

When language learning was compulsory, thousands of youngsters were forced to study a subject they often detested. To accommodate these unwilling learners syllabuses were made less challenging, and able pupils, who were not stretched, became bored and did not continue to A-level. Unfortunately, syllabuses have not become more rigorous and many able students abandon language learning at 16.

It is now possible to attain Grade A in GCSE languages with practically no knowledge of grammar. As a result, teachers of A-Level have to spend time teaching the basics to students who are perfectly capable of having learnt them much earlier. In this respect, we are doing our students a great disservice.

It is ironic that the head of Edexcel is calling for talks "to see what can be done about it". Instead of competing for more clients by making their exams less challenging, the boards should set more stimulating examinations.

One measure, which would help considerably, would be to abandon our antiquated A-Level system and move to the International Baccalaureate, where language learning at one of three levels, including basic, is compulsory. In this way, every student post-16 would have a chance to study a foreign language.

Eddie Ross, Colchester, Essex

When it comes to examination success in foreign languages such as French, students whose family members speak the language, or who have lived in the relevant country for an extended period, are at a great advantage. As there is now intense pressure on students to get good grades, this means that pupils who do not already have a grounding in a European language will be deterred from studying one, although it would benefit employers and the nation if they did.

Matters are made worse by persistent failure within the English education system to start teaching foreign languages early enough. Nursery-school children are ready to learn languages.

A generation ago, I studied French to A-level. I got a worse grade than I could have got in other subjects. I have never regretted this because of the value of knowing the language. I would not have considered studying a language beyond O-level, as it then was, in today's circumstances where employers and universities demand very high grades in public examinations.

Frederic Stansfield, Canterbury, Kent

Can I attribute my inability to master a second language to English speakers not having a second language to choose from that is anywhere near as useful as English itself?

Rather than focusing on foreign languages should we not as a priority focus on promoting the depth and diversity of the English language, for ourselves and as the second language of others?

The internet will ensure the ascendancy of English, so our aim should be that it is a richly expressive English with all the subtlety of thought that it can convey.

Jon Hawksley, London EC1

Surely the significant regret about our lack of language skills is not solely the reduction in studying the traditional languages but the failure to dramatically increase the studies of the three most important emerging languages, Arabic, Chinese and Spanish.

Dick Whittamore, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Here's Plan A* to balance books

Mary Ann Sieghart has highlighted the risks associated with the Coalition's plans to balance government spending ("Cuts are one thing, revenue another", 23 August) and questions the existence of a Plan B.

The initiatives already launched by Chris Huhne, as part of the Green Deal she refers to, include schemes for home insulation, permission for local authorities to produce and sell renewable electricity to the grid and for householders to get generous feed-in tariffs for any renewable electricity they generate.

In relation to the budget deficit, this is small beer, but points in the right direction. The electricity supply industry has to invest billions of pounds over the next few years to, at one and the same time, replace ageing coal- and nuclear-power stations and achieve the 20 per cent generation from renewables by 2020 that the Government is committed to.

All the Government has to do is set a level playing-field for the long term, one which is clear and everyone understands. The funds will be raised and spent by the industry and, unfortunately, the user will pay.

Other things the Government can do, which need only legislation and will not affect the budget reduction plan are: insist that water companies replace their pipelines so that we don't have so much leakage; force house-builders to construct only homes which are to zero-carbon standard; legislate to reduce emissions from cars and aircraft, and perhaps raise a bit of tax as a bonus from remaining gas-guzzlers.

These are all "good things" in themselves, will stimulate the economy and cost the Government very little. In fact, they are so good we could call them Plan A* rather than Plan B. Has the Coalition the political will to tackle the vested interests and stand up to the electors' complaints when prices start to go up?

Dr David Pollard, Blaby, Leicestershire

Hang on, Mary Ann Sieghart. You are worried that there isn't a "Plan B" to the Government's programme of public spending reductions. But this is the Plan B. Plan A was the programme of very big public spending increases that began in 1999-2000.

It aimed to solve the problems of public services and raise productivity, and was based on a view of the economy that over-emphasised consumption, debt and government activity. Not only did it fail, it failed on such an epic scale that all parties now support radical action on public spending (albeit at different speeds).

Plan A failed because the policy choices were bad. Good policies will have better results. A "newly energised private sector", a "public sector clean and lean", the "UK's financial credibility restored" is exactly what we need.

Andrew Haldenby, Director, Reform, London SW1

Consultants save jobs

Johann Hari provides a partial and poorly argued analysis of management consultancy ("The management consultancy scam", 20 August).

Consider some of the projects that triumphed in recent MCA awards: IBM's work with Brawn GP to improve operational performance; Atos Consulting's work to set up the Global Fund as an independent entity; Hay Group's work with Maidstone & Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust to improve infection control and tackle its underlying monthly deficit. These are the essence of modern management consulting, not the caricature deployed by Hari.

And a lot of work undertaken during this recession has been about saving jobs. By cutting other costs, increasing efficiency, reforming supply chains and improving productivity, management consultancies have helped many companies to stave off redundancies and to prepare themselves for recovery.

Our research with clients suggests that most clients value the contribution of their consultancies; in many cases they calculate that it is worth a high multiple of the fees that they pay. Contrary to Hari's assertion, payment by results is on the increase, often initiated by consultancies themselves.

Alan Leaman, Chief Executive, Management Consultancies Association, London WC2

Resort to management consultants is no recent development, nor is it confined to the world of business (Letters, 24 August). When I was a councillor on the local metropolitan borough council in 1992, such consultants were commonly employed (at great expense) in the case of transparently advisable but politically unpopular measures.

Councillors and executive officers could then defend them on the grounds that eminent experts considered them necessary.

Bob Heys, Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire

Iran encircled by nuclear weapons

Tom Sutcliffe's piece on the Iranian nuclear weapons threat (Comment, 24 August) prompts me to raise a rarely mentioned point. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Ahmadinejad is certainly a nightmare, but let us not pretend that attempts to avert this are based on moral principle rather than pragmatic realpolitik.

Iran is virtually encircled by nuclear-armed powers: Pakistan to the east, Russia to the north, Nato to the west, Israel to the south-west and the US Navy to the south. According to deterrence theory, it is thus, in principle, more justified in acquiring nuclear capability than any other country.

This theory remains central to US and British defence thinking, so much so that the phrase "Britain's nuclear deterrent" is now invariably used as simply a factual description, rather than begging the whole question at issue.

As a CND supporter since the late 1950s, I never found deterrence theory logically credible. The Iranian situation is but the latest instalment in the proliferation process which we foresaw back then. While deterrence theory prevails as official doctrine, principled ethical opposition to nuclear proliferation will remain stymied.

Graham Richards, Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Immigration is new colonialism

You state in your leading article (20 August) that "immigrants, with their skills and their labour, are essential to helping our economics return to health". So, it is our own selfishness that makes immigration a good thing?

It is our own selfishness that makes it right to bribe the cleverest people to leave their own poor countries to produce wealth for us rather than we assist them to develop their own struggling economies and social services?

And it is our own selfishness that encourages the young and the strong to leave their homes and loved ones behind and work for a pittance in some corner of a Lincolnshire field?

How sad that such a proud newspaper is marching in the vanguard of this new colonialism.

Stephen Collier, Greenford, Middlesex

Rail signals from the past

Some railway lines in North Lincolnshire and North and East Yorkshire still have semaphore signals to process train journeys, often installed during the Victorian era.

The other day, on a local line in this area, one of these signals was not working; so the signalman was reduced to waving a large piece of green cloth out of the signal box window to tell the driver that he could proceed.

And the Government wants to spend the best part of £20bn reducing the train journey time from London to Birmingham by about 20 minutes?

D Watson, Barrow upon Humber, North Lincolnshire

Check this out. They suit me

I'm compelled to write in defence of the much-maligned self-service supermarket checkouts. They're excellent for a basket of shopping.

You check the goods in the order you want to pack them, which often does not happen at a "normal" checkout despite your best efforts to load them logically, and the process of "select/swipe/drop" is fast.

Yes, they take a bit of getting used to and there are the glitches of unrecognised bags etc. Nevertheless, they're my "checkout of choice", and judging by the local Sainsbury's and Morrison's I'm far from alone.

Paula Jones, London SW20

Frosty words

I think Michael Bywater (Comment, 25 August) will find that when Margaret Thatcher did indeed say that "Home is where when you have to go there they have to take you in" she was quoting the American poet Robert Frost. I doubt it was the other way round.

Sue Clark, London W1

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