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Friday 4 June 2010
Letters: Quangos take over policy
Stephen King's article (31 May) raises several interesting challenges for George Osborne's new Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), and refers to Gordon Brown's decision to give the Bank of England independence in 1997 and establish the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC).
They may well have merit, but they hive off to quangos those decisions which governments should have the guts to take themselves. Brown was lauded for setting up the MPC; but my inference then was that he could not trust himself to set interest rates in our medium-term national interest rather than for his short-term party advantage. Stephen King judges the OBR likewise : "The Treasury will no longer ... fiddle the economic forecasts to suit its own purposes."
But the MPC's status meant that Brown no longer had two weapons in his own armoury (monetary and fiscal) to deal with our economic needs, mirroring the German situation in the early 1990s.
There were no doubt good historical reasons for the Bundesbank's independence (the 1920s hyperinflation). But when the German government cravenly refused to adopt the correct policy of higher taxation to pay for reunification, the Bundesbank had no option but to maintain high interest rates. Conversely, the UK's interest rates were too low and taxes too high during most of the Brown era.
The Bundesbank's policy forced excessively high interest rates on the rest of the EU including the UK and led directly to the UK leaving the ERM in September 1992, from which the newly elected Conservative government never recovered – ironically, as it ushered in several years of genuine growth from which Labour benefited, before squandering its legacy.
Then, having deliberately fudged the ERM rules on economic convergence, the EU set up the euro on a similarly false prospectus and with inadequate European Central Bank control; the chickens have now come home to roost.
What will happen if and when the Treasury, MPC and OBR all disagree on the underlying assumptions of future economic growth implicit in Osborne's fiscal measures and expenditure plans? Which will take precedence in Osborne's decision-making? Will the result be fewer confused or unwise government policies?
John Birkett, St Andrews, Fife
Why the euro has a future
Bruce Anderson (31 May) concludes this entertaining article with "So it is hard to see how the euro can survive." So let me explain to him how it will. Countries such as Greece have a stark choice either to play their part in the European coalition or forfeit being able to use the euro as currency.
The Greek government realises that the austerity measures being imposed on them are modest compared with the suffering that would result from being kicked out of the euro. The question is whether or not the Greek people have got the message.
It is inevitable that those countries who wish to leech off strong countries such as Germany will be thrown out. Like Greece, they will be given a chance, but if they don't take it, that will be it. Then, far from entering its final phase, the euro will get stronger.
Our new government proclaims that we will not join the euro in the lifetime of this parliament. This is one of the few certainties in politics, because we could not join even if we wanted to. If we were in the euro we would be getting the Greek treatment. The reality is that unless our new government takes savage measures to balance the books, it will be the pound, not the euro, that is entering its final phase.
Malcolm Howard, Banstead, Surrey
Don't deny the poor a drink
Joan Smith ("The real cost of booze is rising fast", 3 June) makes the same mistakes that so many broadsheet commentators do when advocating minimum pricing for alcoholic drinks.
Many columnists express health concerns when it seems clear that what they are really worried about is unruly drunken behaviour in their back yards. Joan Smith specifically complains that the traditional working-class choices of lager and cider are too cheap. Middle-class tipples such as wine are also frequently drastically reduced in price, but apparently this does not merit condemnation.
Under the previous administration, the gap between rich and poor has widened significantly. This is unlikely to change under the Con-Dem coalition. Is bourgeois Middle England opinion really going to be allowed to take away the last pleasure of the urban poor?
As times get even tougher perhaps we should consider whether price hikes would actually stop drinking or simply increase debt, desperation and crime among the dispossessed.
Tim Matthews, Luton, Bedfordshire
The British Society of Gastroenterology strongly supports Nice's call for minimum unit pricing for alcohol. The damage caused by alcohol is increasing alarmingly. Liver deaths in the UK are directly related to the affordability of alcohol and have increased fivefold while death rates from all other diseases have fallen. Introducing minimum unit pricing will have a marked and beneficial impact.
At the same time, there is an unmet need in the provision of services for patients who already have an alcohol problem. A recent BSG report details the scope for considerably greater financial savings, as well as for provision of compassionate support services, desperately needed by those who have fallen prey to alcohol addiction. We believe that urgent action would rapidly repay the investment required.
Professor Jon Rhodes, President, British Society of Gastroenterology
Professor Chris Hawkey, Dr Kieran Moriarty, London NW1
I have enjoyed pubs most of my adult life but the changes made by large pub chains over the past decade have exacerbated the known link between gratuitous violence and heavy drinking.
There is a common thread with all these "pubs", besides cheap prices. They can no longer be described as pubs; they are simply drinking factories designed to move large stocks of drink as quickly as possible. Large open floor space is the norm – no intimate snugs or boothed tables for conversation, just high volume "music" which makes everyone hyper as well as making everyone shout; perfect relaxation!
Meanwhile a friend of mine's boyfriend lies in a coma in hospital following an unprovoked late-night attack.
Paul Garrod, Portsmouth
Joan Smith refers to "safe" limits. Scientific research shows that men who drink 21-30 units per week have the lowest mortality rate in Britain.
As moderate drinking is obviously so healthy, I wonder if I could persuade my GP to give me a repeat prescription for, say, four units a day that I could exchange at my usual dispensary, otherwise known as The Green Man? As an OAP entitled to free prescriptions, this would suit me very nicely.
The added daily exercise (it's a 15-minute walk from my home) would be of additional benefit to my health, and hence a cost-saving for the NHS.
Graham P Davis, Bracknell, Berkshire
David Laws and the gay mafia
It is clear, from the reactions of Philip Hensher (31 May) and others to the David Laws affair, that there is now in existence a sort of gay mafia that considers that gay people have an obligation to come out.
None of your letter writers, not even those sympathetic to David Laws, mentions the religious dimension. When I came out more than 30 years ago, many more gays than now came from some sort of religious background, which inhibited their being honest with themselves and others.
As a Quaker I was lucky in that my denomination was relatively accepting, though less so than today. However, the situation was, and remains, completely different for Catholics. The Church is officially hostile to homosexuality. What is someone from a Catholic background, like David Laws, to do? How would his parents and other family members react? This has to be taken into consideration.
Pace Narvel Annable (letter, 1 June), there is no such thing as "the LGBT community". Gay people are individuals like any others. Some are right-wing, others are left-wing; some are religious, others are secular in their outlook. How they cope with their sexuality is their own business, and not for others to dictate.
Nick Chadwick, Oxford
Like everyone, I am grossly offended when I hear of past or present MPs using unethical parliamentary rules to secure outrageous amounts of public money. David Laws did not do that. His "crime" was to tell a white lie in order to maintain his privacy while claiming perfectly reasonable living expenses. That does not bother me. The public is not significantly out of pocket as a result.
I hold no particular brief for Mr Laws, but I consider his resignation to be a national tragedy. By all accounts, he was especially well suited to the vital task he was given. Thus his resignation is likely to have harmed attempts to extract this country from what, we are told from all sides, is the financial equivalent of 1940.
Colin Henderson, Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire
Surely the reason Mr Laws should leave the Government altogether is that his partner is a professional lobbyist. An MP in bed with a lobbyist? Is this what the Government means by "integrity"?
Colin Tarn, Uckfield, East Sussex
Volunteers in the classroom
Johann Hari (28 May) gave an incisive critique of the Government's first cuts. But, in one instance – the withdrawal of one-to-one tuition for struggling young readers – I do not think the future need necessarily be as dire as he fears. This is because I believe there is an army of competent mothers who, if mobilised by the schools, could do this voluntarily.
Inspired by the "reading mothers" scheme in Dutch primary schools, and wishing to communicate my own love of reading to early learners, I provided this service free for the infants of the British School of Amsterdam (BSA) for eight years. Once a week, all the senior infants had individual attention, so that the weakest readers would not feel singled out.
Although I was not a qualified teacher, I tried to tune into their personal ways of learning – some preferred phonics, others absorbed new words at once. There were over 40 nationalities in the school, but this factor did not influence reading ability in English.
This kind of volunteering is one aspect of David Cameron's "Big Society" that could really work. It was a small group of parents who wished to provide a British-style education for their children who founded (in 1978) and managed the BSA without any government financial support.
It started as a primary school, then added a kindergarten, and eventually a secondary school. It now has about 700 pupils. It has become well established in the Dutch educational scene. It shows what successive generations of committed parents (many with full-time jobs) can achieve, although the board of governors has left the curriculum to the head and the teachers.
Patricia Ellman, Amsterdam
Science doesn't know it all
As someone who spent the best part of 30 years in university research, I think I can claim a certain understanding of the scientific method. It has many strengths, but I share Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's view (31 May) that it can lead to a confidence bordering on arrogance in the comprehensiveness of scientific knowledge.
The much praised peer-review system mentioned by David Carnegie (letter, 3 June) is one of the main culprits. It may open up ideas to scrutiny, but it does so within the context of the current conventional wisdom, and inevitably tends to perpetuate the status quo. Ideas that don't fit within the current physical view of the world tend to be dismissed or ignored.
This is nowhere better illustrated than in medicine. Research is not the simple value-free pursuit of knowledge but takes place in a world of human ambition and commercial interests. Medical literature is rich in promising treatments that are not taken up by the mainstream research and practice, often because there is not enough profit to be made for potential sponsors or because of the clash with vested interests. We cannot escape from the fact that bad health is good for business.
The multi-dimensional nature of human beings, with its emotional and spiritual sides, means that healing is not a simple physical process. This is ignored by the majority of medical research, which designs and analyses every experiment as if we were physiological machines.
Scientists need to learn that they don't have exclusive rights to knowledge, and open up their minds to the possibility that their model of the universe might not be all-inclusive.
Peter Lewis, Cardiff
That Grecian urn is loot
Alex James (2 June) describes his joy upon rediscovering an amphora his father and a friend found in the Mediterranean and subsequently brought to the UK. A responsible newspaper should make it clear that "poking around" to discover archaeological artefacts leads to the destruction of archaeological sites, and that taking ancient material in such a manner constitutes looting.
The looting of national heritage, even if it is "just" a bit of ancient pottery, is illegal in most Mediterranean countries and in many areas was illegal 50 years ago, when the incident is said to have taken place. Looting by tourists, "amateur archaeologists" and organised groups does irreversible damage to the world's heritage and constitutes a very serious global problem. Everybody should be aware that "archaeological souvenirs" are no more acceptable than those made from endangered species.
Dr Maria Pretzler, Lecturer in Ancient History, Swansea University
Vatican tries to convert atheists
Your report that the Vatican is "reaching out to atheists" (31 May) is misleading. It is not only Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that the Vatican is ruling out from its proposed dialogue. The move is in fact a response (as the Catholic News Agency reported in February) to Pope Benedict's call to "renew dialogue with men and women who don't believe but want to move towards God". So it is not a proposal for dialogue but an attempt at evangelisation.
The churches' rejection of true dialogue is plain from their refusal to allow the European Humanist Federation to join the annual meetings the EU holds jointly with senior bishops, rabbis and imams as part of the dialogue mandated by the Lisbon treaty. Instead, we are shuffled patronisingly into a "separate but equal" meeting with some secularist freemasonry lodges!
David Pollock, President, European Humanist Federation, Brussels
Insidious charm from Hopper
Tom Vallance's obituary of Dennis Hopper (31 May) doesn't mention Hopper's hypnotic, nuanced performance as Tom Ripley in Der amerikanische Freund ("The American Friend"), Wim Wenders's 1977 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game.
Playing opposite Bruno Ganz's terminally ill and highly exploitable picture framer, Jonathan Zimmermann, who is turned by Ripley into a hired assassin, Hopper was ideally cast as the insidiously charming and even endearing, but amoral and dangerous Ripley.
Hopper seemed to sum up why western Europe's relationship to the United States can never be anything other than ambivalent, which is the main message of this excellent film.
Furthermore, Hopper's performance was remarkable for someone who was supposed to have lost his way because of alcohol and drug abuse.
Professor David Head, Dean, Faculty of Business and Law, University of Lincoln
So John Prescott is now a lord; might one have the temerity to ask why? What a ridiculous spectacle we must present to most of the world, clinging on to our outmoded, archaic notions of superiority and class distinctions, the dressing-up, the silly rituals based on a shameful past. Tradition is important in a culture, but not this nonsense. And above all, and what needs instant abolition, is the application of the titles "Honourable" and "Right Honourable" to a bunch of politicians who are anything but.
Eileen Noakes, Totnes, Devon
Bearing in mind the problems caused by the rampant growth of Japanese knotweed, should we not be concerned at the increasing number of St George flags sprouting from car and van windows? If they aren't kept under control, these flags will spread their roots at an alarming rate and trap the unfortunate occupants inside the vehicles.
Ivor Yeloff, Norwich
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