Your leading article of 11 March says "Lord Hutton's notion of a 59-year-old firefighter is problematic" – but since 2006, all new entrants to the operational side of the fire service have to work until they are 60.
I have been a London firefighter since 1987 and I signed up to a pension which meant I could retire at 50 or after 30 years, whichever came first. When I joined, as a young woman of 27, I could not imagine being 40, let alone 50, and certainly not 60. I am almost 51 and because I joined so late I will have to work until I am 55 to get my full pension, but this fills me with dread.
To cynically employ someone too young to imagine the physical degeneration that occurs between 40 and 60 in one of the most physically demanding professions in the public sector is not only disgraceful but dangerous to the public.
I am grateful that I have a pension, but I feel sick at the thought of trying to stay fit enough, until I am 60, to prevent permanent or fatal injury to myself or others in order to collect it.
I love being a firefighter, I love helping the public 42.5 hours a week (averaged out over a year), in exchange for a little over £10 per hour, net, but I have never been more depressed than I am now.
Public-sector staff work hard to provide essential services to their local communities and so should be appropriately remunerated.
But we are facing a demographic time-bomb in the public sector, where our future life expectancy in retirement has nearly doubled in the last 50 years.
The current system of public-sector pensions is unsustainable. If we do nothing we risk seeing the balance of contribution to payouts shift significantly over the next decade, which will ultimately make it harder for us as a council to meet our pension commitments.
The system is also fundamentally unfair by benefiting those at the top with the highest levels of pay. Introducing a new scheme based on the career average will not only help to curb future funding problems, but also ensure that it's fairer to the majority of staff.
Cllr Melvyn Caplan
Cabinet Member for Finance,
Westminster City Council
I sympathise with the feelings of the ordinary career workers whose expectations have been dashed by the latest government pronouncements. Final-salary schemes were always a disaster waiting to happen for the same reason as most other financial calamities in recent decades – the greed and voracious appetites of the country's biggest earners.
The arithmetic is simple. It has become the custom for senior officers in public institutions to find ways to boost their salaries in the last year or so before retirement. For instance, you recently highlighted the fact that the number of fat-cat council officers earning more than £100,000 per annum had doubled during the past eight years. Let us assume that one such officer was able to enjoy an increase in his salary of just £20,000 in his last year. With 20 years' service this would increase his pension by about £8,000, say. To purchase such a pension at today's unfavourable annuity rates would cost his pension fund about £136,000.
No wonder there's no cash left for the ordinary workers. The Government's plans to calculate on the basis of average salaries goes some way towards addressing the problem, but still risks salaries escalating in the last years even more as a "compensation".
Better by far to take the last five years out of the calculation altogether and average their salaries up to that point. This would give the rank-and-file employees whose pay increases are much more linear a degree of hope.
There is an important link between Lord Hutton's recommendations and the recent abandonment of a statutory-retirement age. Many more people are working part-time into their late 60s and 70s, some from financial necessity, others because they wish to continue contributing to society and they value the social contact.
Unfortunately, many middle-aged people in the public sector find themselves under pressure to aspire to that next promotion solely for the benefit of an enhanced final-salary pension, even though many would rather not take on extra responsibilities, and the extra workload and stress that accompany them. I have seen many people facing this dilemma.
By moving to an average-earnings basis for calculating pensions, and by increasing the number of part-time opportunities available, people in these situations could work reduced hours for a few years prior to pensionable age, obviously earning less, but then continuing to work part-time after pensionable age and earning more than their pension alone. This would also create opportunities for younger high-fliers with more energy and greater motivation.
Ten years ago, in my fifties, I would have jumped at the chance to downsize my job with no long-term financial detriment. I had paid off my mortgage, seen my children through higher education, bought all the possessions I wanted, and didn't really require the level of salary I was on. Instead I soldiered on in a job that I loathed.
I was eventually fortunate enough to get out earlier than full term after an astonishingly expensive review of the quango I worked for. The pay-outs resulting from that could have been largely avoided if employees had been on average-salary pension schemes and had been offered the opportunity of moving to lower-paid but longer-lasting work.
UK visa rules that shame us all
Mr O'Malley is right to be annoyed about the UK visa rules (letter, 10 March). The United Kingdom Border Agency does indeed have some strange and illogical ways. When my wife and I married in Manila in 2006, the best that the UKBA would offer her to permit her to come with me to the UK was a three-year visitor's visa. When this expired, we applied to the UKBA for a visa for her to stay in the UK as a spouse. In order to do this, we were told, she would need to travel back to the Philippines.
Once she had applied for it in Manila, the extensive dossier of documentation she had to supply would then be sent back to England for processing and the visa, if awarded, would then be sent back to Manila for her to pick up from the British Embassy there. The cost of this visa alone was £665 and, the UKBA website warned us, the whole process could take up to four months so she would need to stay there for that length of time.
We asked our MP to intervene to short-circuit this ridiculous waste of time and money but all she got back was a form letter from an official telling her not to bother as rules are rules.
We have dealt with many embassies around the world in the pursuit of visas and we are used to business-like courtesy. The French are charming, the Spanish friendly, the Germans officious but helpful and so on. Never, elsewhere, have we encountered, the rudeness, the stupidity and the arrogance of the UKBA, not to mention its fee structure which is, by a very long chalk, the most exorbitant in the world. Their public manner is shameful: I frequently find myself apologising to visitors leaving airport immigration control white-faced while I try to tell them that we are not all like that. And I am always angry when, often in my presence, my wife is aggressively questioned as if she were a terrorist, instead of a harmless housewife.
The UKBA has become a law unto itself with its arbitrary rules, its racist attitudes, its intimidating public manner and its contemptuous attitude to our elected representatives.
Lessons in frugality
I was shocked by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority spending £300,000 on an office refurbishment (report, 8 March). I'm head of a very small primary school and that's double our entire budget, including salaries.
The governors of the school and I have to sign a "best value" statement each year to ensure that we run the school as economically as possible. During the previous Conservative administration's cuts, teachers became very skilled at managing with very little, and scrounging where we could. Those skills haven't been lost. Perhaps we should organise seminars on saving money for the benefit of IPSA, and other government departments such as the Ministry of Defence.
In the meantime, here are some suggestions, given freely. Try mail order. There are some extremely good catalogues which offer very competitive prices. Admittedly some of the furniture involves self-assembly, but with practice it's relatively easy. My secretary and I can now assemble a cupboard in a trice. Do take care to keep an eye on delivery charges though, because sometimes these can add £20 or more to your bill.
Inquire what happened to the furniture used by the previous occupants of the office. In my area there are a number of businesses which offer "pre-owned" office furniture at a very competitive rate, but you may need to hire a van to collect it. We're fortunate in having parents who will transport things for us. Try to find someone in the office who'll help out.
Hold a jumble sale. They're good fun and can raise quite a bit towards your costs. Also, you sometimes find useful materials among the donations.
Hulme End, Derbyshire
Ukip: proud to be intolerant
John Lichfield (10 March) describes Ukip as moderately intolerant; how quaint. We are intolerant, but not in the way he suggests. We are intolerant of the way successive governments have sold this country down the river without ever asking our permission. We are intolerant of foreign-born judges overturning British law. We are intolerant of an elite who care not a jot for the views and wishes of a majority of the electorate. We are not however intolerant of people, whoever they are, and wherever they are from.
I suppose we should be just happy that he no longer thinks we are ignorant.
UK Independence Party,
Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group,
Newton Abbot, Devon
Royals are the soul of our nation
I think it is Alistair Wood and not our royal family who should be put out of their misery (letter, 10 March). What he seems to have forgotten in his rather adolescent republican attack on our monarchy is that the Queen and her children do a monumental amount of work and at great personal sacrifice. Her Majesty's indefatigable sense of duty to her country for 60 years is awesome, and deserves the utmost admiration and respect.
More than their endless charity work, business and political influence, the royal family enshrine the soul of our country. Without them, we simply wouldn't be British.
Global warming causing quakes?
The Earth is flattened at its poles by the sheer mass of ice resting on them. Since global warming is causing reduction of this mass, can we assume that the crust beneath the poles is rising? If this is the case, perhaps the rest of the Earth's surface is reacting and adjusting. Could this be the cause of the growing violence of earthquakes?
In his analysis of the events surrounding the Japanese earthquake, Richard Gordon (12 March) asks why ships attempted to sail out to sea as the wave approached. The answer is simply – good seamanship. A ship's natural environment is the sea; therefore, in times of tempest with an onshore gale – or in this instance a tsunami – ships head out to sea as it is a generally safer option than being caught alongside, or in an anchorage where the dangers of being driven aground are extensive.
Sadly, in this instance, it appears the tsunami approached so rapidly there was insufficient time for some vessels to reach the relative safety of the open ocean. But some did make it, as witness the dramatic TV pictures of a ship riding the wave as it clawed its way out to sea.
Terence Roy Smith
Your leading article "Lives are saved by stubbing out this addiction" (10 March) mentions that smoking "costs the NHS £50m a week". But the revenue from excise duty and VAT on tobacco products in the UK is currently about £10.5bn per year or about £200m per week. There are many excellent reasons for "stubbing out" smoking, but the effect on the public purse is not one of them.
Your article "After the violence, the grief for Egypt's Christians" (11 March) referred to the "Coptic Orthodox faith". The Coptic Church is not one of the Orthodox Churches. Along with some other eastern churches it broke with the main body of Christendom in the fifth century some 500 years before the Great Schism divided Christianity into eastern "Orthodox" and western "Catholic". These ancient independent churches are thus neither Orthodox nor Catholic.
David N Taylor
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire
Perspectives on oil supplies
The West's fateful dependency
I was surprised that John Hemming MP (letters, 9 March) took the article by Dominic Lawson ("They haven't got us over a barrel at all", 8 March) so seriously. Western society is as dependent on the suppliers of oil as drug addicts are on their suppliers. As Lawson admits himself, the merest hint of an increase in oil supply by Saudi Arabia sends the oil price down, and if, as happened in 1973, Saudi Arabia went as far as ceasing production altogether, then the West would be in real trouble, though Lawson takes comfort from the fact that society as we know it will survive for three months, even if the worst were to happen.
The big unknown in the oil equation is that the Saudi oil reserves have not properly been independently verified, which is why stories about peak oil are so persistent and why oil companies are prospecting in more and more inhospitable regions of the world.
Finally, Mr Lawson is very disparaging about Chris Huhne, but Mr Huhne is working steadily to wean us off our dependence on fossil fuels and just this week he has had some success at the EU, when the Commission increased the target for cutting emissions from 20 per cent to 25 per cent by 2020, a victory against strong business lobbying.
Dr David Pollard
Pernicious role of futures traders
I was delighted to see Dominic Lawson's perceptive piece on the availability and price of crude oil. Mr Lawson notes that International Energy Agency stocks in OECD countries are high. I wonder why those who predict Armageddon, as soon as anything occurs which could jeopardise supplies, overlook these substantial stocks. Do they have a vested interest in higher oil prices?
Of course, disruption in a major oil-producing nation can cause severe difficulties but Mr Lawson rightly reminds us that new regimes, dependent on oil revenue, must maintain production levels for financial reasons. He cites the Iran-Iraq war and the eventual realisation that the overall impact on supply would not be significant.
But the big difference between then and now is the rise of the futures markets. Today, gambling in crude oil is rampant. Crucially, the turnover of futures exceeds daily global consumption by a margin yet, reportedly, less than 1 per cent of this massive volume results in physical delivery. Consequently, traders can gamble on the price of crude oil without any responsibility for the impact on national economies.
Those who bet on prices have a very significant role in determining their level. They can add dollars every time some ignorant comment is made. The market no longer reacts only to genuine and current problems, but to publicised words from those who speculate and who, in some cases, would not recognise a barrel of crude if they tripped over it.
The artificially high prices benefit some oil-producing nations with whose foreign policies the West disagrees. Additionally, our imports cost more than they otherwise would and even a few dollars more on the price has a negative impact on currency values, the trade balance and the economy.
In July 2009, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy were, seemingly, determined to curb speculation in this crucial commodity but the political appetite for action has waned with serious implications for our economies. It is time that the speculators' role was acknowledged and their activities curbed.
Ottery St Mary, Devon