Letters: Perspectives on defence cuts

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Waste of lives in Afghanistan

My heart went out to Christina Schmid, the widow of the brave bomb disposal expert Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, as she had to endure the recent inquest into her husband's death in Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence failed to take responsibility for the fact that there is a desperate shortage of soldiers to deal with improvised explosive devices, and that the unit at the time of Olaf Schmid's death was 50 per cent undermanned. His mental and physical exhaustion must have contributed to the tragedy.

We hear now that 30 soldiers have just been made redundant by e-mail. Over 352 have died. This war has now gone on longer than the Vietnam war. Afghan civilians are dying in large numbers, but they are not afforded respectful funeral corteges through Wootton Bassett and their deaths pass largely unreported by our media.

At a time of cuts to elderly, disabled, homeless and children's care services, can the Government really justify the annual expenditure on Afghanistan of £4bn? Money and precious lives are being wasted.

Mrs A Watson, Truro, Cornwall

Too few planes, too many air marshals

A quarter of Royal Air Force trainee pilots will be axed before completion of training, but there are already more pilots in the RAF than necessary. Every aspect of defence certainly needs further scrutiny, so that waste is minimised, but the large numbers of RAF aircraft and people here in the UK must be questioned.

A look at the RAF website shows that there is a Chinook Display Team, a Falcons Parachute Display Team, a Hawk Display Team, a Tucano Display Team and a Typhoon Display Team.

There are, of course, the Red Arrows as well – a non-combat sacred cow which consists of 13 aircraft, nine pilots and 134 management, engineering and support staff.

Indeed, were there not all these display teams, and their supporting ground crew and administrative staff, there might still be Harriers available to the RAF and Fleet Air Arm; their withdrawal last December was a serious blow to operational capability.

There is no Air Marshal Display Team but there seems to be a lot of that aircraft type as well. How the top brass of the RAF – more than 30 air marshals and countless air commodores – continues to justify RAF manning numbers, when fewer than 10 per cent of its people actually fly, is extraordinary.

There are still huge savings in RAF manpower to be made in addition to the 5,000 already announced. The RAF could maintain present operational capability with half its current manpower.

As to aircraft display teams, most are a luxury for peacetime, for times when Whitehall's coffers are full, not for wartime, when aircraft types and ships are being withdrawn early from service and when uniformed personnel face redundancy. There is no possible justification for aircraft display teams when, for example, we can no longer provide a West Indies guardship during the hurricane season; our overseas territories deserve better from us.

Lester May, London NW1

Heads should roll in NHS care scandal

Yet another damning report on gross neglect of old people in hospital is met with a largely platitudinous response from both care providers and professional bodies. We hear about "educating" staff to understand that elderly patients in their care are "people", when they know this full well and know what they are supposed to do ("Hungry, thirsty, unwashed: NHS treatment of the elderly condemned", 15 February).

The reasons for the neglect are indeed complex, and do have their roots in social attitudes to age and frailty, but nevertheless, professional carers and their managers are paid to care, whoever the patient and whatever their condition. If they don't then they should be disciplined and even dismissed, yet we rarely hear of this. Instead, the archives show the many whistleblowers who have suffered for their efforts to right the wrongs they've witnessed.

Paula Jones, London SW20

There is widespread agreement with Johann Hari's recent powerful article on care of the elderly, reinforced by the Health Service Ombudsman's report . But one point should be looked at again: Hari's call for tougher penalties as a solution.

The Australian academic John Braithwaite, who was one of the Australian government's main consultants for nursing home regulation, oversaw the rejection of old rule books with hundreds of rules, and their replacement with just 31 rules settled consensually between the nursing home industry, consumer groups, unions and aged care interests.

Inspectors spent more time talking to residents and staff about how the quality of care could be improved. Performance against each of the 31 standards was discussed by the inspection team, management, staff, residents and relatives. Higher compliance was found when inspectors treated nursing homes with trust, used praise when improvements were achieved, and avoided stigmatisation. When inspectors adopted a stigmatising approach, compliance dropped.

A restorative approach of this kind could be more effective than proliferating regulations and penalties.

Martin Wright, London SW2

As someone who is in awe of the care given to my elderly parents over the past three years in the NHS system in one of the UK's poorest boroughs (Newham), I admit to some disbelief at the Health Service Omsbudsman's report on care for the elderly.

I am sure there are instances of appalling practice in our health service, as I am sure there are plentiful examples of excellence. The report (or your newspaper's presentation of it) focuses on 10 examples, each stomach-churning.

I read that these are "not isolated examples" but when I look for data to support this assertion, I become even more suspicious that this is an exercise in headline-grabbing.

We are told that of the 9,000 complaints to the Omsbudsman, 18 per cent were about care of the elderly. In the very next paragraph we are told that the elderly occupy about 66 per cent of the nation's hospital beds. This means that the elderly are about 72 per cent under-represented in complaints to the Omsbudsman.

This suggests that a disproportionate amount of the Omsbudsman's resources has gone into investigating care for the elderly, and that far from proving that the level of care is appalling, is suggestive that it is one of the least disastrous sectors of our health service.

Chris Forse, Snitterfield, Warwickshire

Jeremy Laurance feels the NHS is failing in its mission to deliver the quality of care that all its patients require ("A service that can't care", 15 February).

Perhaps he is unaware of the financial burden of providing universal healthcare in the face of a growing, longer-lived population and more expensive treatments. Perhaps he feels that constant pressure on wage bills and staffing levels will not affect staff morale. Perhaps he feels the NHS should follow the example of private healthcare providers and pick and choose who it treats, based on their ability to pay.

I have an answer that I think would please him. We could sack all the staff and ask them to come back as unpaid volunteers. We could call it the "Big NHS".

Des Senior, Ware, Hertfordshire

US universities get state money

The piece by Terence Kealey, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham (16 February), is historically and conceptually ill-informed.

There has never been institutional independence of US private universities on the basis of funding via fees and donations. When I was a graduate student in the 1970s at the (Ivy League) University of Pennsylvania, the university published information on the annual federal and state funds it attracted, which were over $10m in each category. The great US universities have always been adept at playing both sides of the street. There has always been a mixed market for students to choose from, with a range of fees to match, with particularly attractive fees for in-state students at their state university system.

Perhaps the most egregiously misleading claim by Dr Kealey is that during the 19th century "every university in America fell out with its state government and in each case was cut off without a cent".

The 19th century was the great period of US higher education institution building, with a mix of founding and funding by private, religious and state sources (most notably in the latter case via the Land Grant colleges from the 1860s on). Whereas in 1800 there were perhaps 30 small colleges, none with an enrolment of more than a few hundred, by 1900 that mix of investment and vision had produced almost 1,000 universities, enrolling some 4 per cent of the college age population. That gave the competitive edge to US higher education that no one to date has been able to match.

The neo-liberal disaster that has since the 1970s (as here) dominated government in the US, at both federal and state levels, has now put institutions such as the state system in California under threat as never before. But so far higher education in the US has not become the visionary nightmare that Dr Kealey paints.

Keith Hoskin, Professor of Strategy and Accounting, Warwick Business School

In his article on university expansion (14 February), Amol Rajan suggests that for many students, their university experience is about acquiring STDs, listening to acid house music and smoking. This is totally untrue; few of today's students have time for such dubious activities. They are far too busy texting each other or informing their 850 "friends" on Facebook that they have "just skipped a lecture. LOL!"

Pete Dorey, Bath

Checks on volunteers

The emotive language and tone of Mary Ann Sieghart's article (14 February) around the role of CRB checks for volunteers involved with children is unhelpful to all those of us trying to offer help and support through personal involvement, but aware of our responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure that children are safe.

Her premise that "a default position of trust tempered by common sense is all we need to rub along together" is both naive and dangerous; there are too many examples where children have been seriously abused or harmed by people they trust, including relatives, carers, teachers and priests.

As trustees of a small family charity I and my colleagues would be rightly castigated if we followed the practice advocated in the article. Experience suggests that most people recognise that there has to be a system of practical checks to vet volunteers, as evidenced by the care and responsibility exercised by friends, neighbours and colleagues in writing references as to someone's suitability for a volunteer role.

Richard Coode, Charminster, Dorset

I was delighted to read the article by Mary Ann Sieghart in which she talks about the way we have allowed the awful headlines about terrible events to be regarded as the usual rather than the extraordinary.

How many football teams for children and under-16s have folded because organisers are expected to jump through so many hoops? I know of examples. Many of these people would only be offering to help because a member of their family is playing in the team.

Cllr John Grant, Manchester LibDem Spokesman on Adult Services

Confused by the Big Society

My family is a little confused by David Cameron's assertion that volunteers and charities pulling together in local communities can rebuild Britain's "broken society".

Since my daughter graduated from university to take up a position as a barmaid, the only job available, she has been a willing volunteer with the Probation Service. She has mentored young offenders and helped to teach key skills to vulnerable teenagers. Unfortunately, because of budget cuts, this initiative has been discontinued and those who ran it made redundant.

Meanwhile, my daughter-in-law has been informed that the family support centre where she works is to be closed. This is a front-line service for families in crisis and provides safe residential care for children at risk.

Hull is a city with many problems but services such as these have helped prevent it becoming "broken". Thanks to the present government this is unlikely to be the case for much longer.

Angie Smith, Hull

David Cameron says that the "Big Society" is not a cover for cuts and that he has always believed in it. He wants to "roll back the state" and encourage charities and volunteers to step in.

So, a local library is closed down and the trained, experienced, professional, paid staff are sacked. Maybe local unpaid volunteers might take it on and run it instead. Or maybe they won't. This is Mr Cameron's "passion".

Kevin Halon, Whitstable, Kent

It is pleasing to hear that David Cameron is passionate about the Big Society. I am, though, still none the wiser about the unpaid community activities that he and his government colleagues carry out.

Surely now is the time for ministers to tell us once and for all about the unpaid community activity they have undertaken in the past week, the past month the past year and at any point in their life.

Phillip Shaw, Derby

Steve Richards is correct (15 February) when he says that Cameron's "Big Society" will do him no harm. Neither will it affect the other 14 multi-millionaires in the Cabinet.

The Big Society is increasingly being recognised as the final heave in the privatisation and sell-off of the remnants of our civil society and our welfare state.

John Pinkerton, Milton Keynes

Chris Webster asks what kind of "Big Society" closes libraries to pay for bankers (letter, 15 February). The answer is one that esteems money more than knowledge – which I'm afraid includes pretty much all of us, if we're honest.

David Negus, Nottingham

How about renaming the new Downing Street cat Society? He looks Big enough and is expected to work for no pay and be fed by staff who might feel charitable towards him.

Neil Cooke, London E9

Muslims see a role for bishops

Tom Sutcliffe (8 February) writes that "secularism is the word that Cameron is looking for" and asks "how can any Muslim citizen of Britain feel truly incorporated into a society which grants Church of England bishops privileged and protected access to the House of Lords which their own spiritual leaders don't share?"

In the past, a number of Muslim, Jewish and other religious leaders have expressed satisfaction that Church of England bishops have a place in the House of Lords. The bishops do not speak for the doctrines of their faiths. Nevertheless these leaders were glad to see this structural acknowledgement that human societies live in a spiritual context, and that states are accountable to God as well as to their citizens.

Enforced secularism will not make the followers of minority faiths happy; it will make us all equally unhappy.

Paddy Benson, Archdeacon of Hereford

PM's illness

You have reported David Cameron saying that the idea of giving prisoners the vote made him feel "physically ill", and that he is "appalled" by the Supreme Court ruling which will allow sex offenders to appeal against lifetime registration. May I express in less sensational terms a profound sadness that we should be governed by a man of so little imagination and humanity?

Susan Hamlyn, London W5

Record challenge

I do not wish to belittle John Cobb's achievement in 1947 in what was a pre-war designed and built car (letter, 16 February). However, the world land speed record for wheel-driven cars is held by Donald Campbell at 403.1 mph, achieved in his Bluebird car on 17 July 1964 at Lake Eyre. Both Campbell and Cobb also held water speed records.

Mervyn Pritchard, Marchamley, Shropshire

Too old

Should not Berlusconi have been charged with over-age sex?

Philip Goldenberg, Woking, Surrey