Letters: Safety in the North Sea

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The Independent Online

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has, perhaps with some justification, created a feverish backlash in Brussels. A similar disaster in the North Sea could potentially destroy the Scottish fishing industry.

That is why MEPs are now demanding some assurances from the European Commission. We must insist on the highest possible standards of safety and security being put in place without delay, while suitable compulsory EU-wide insurance schemes are designed to compensate fishermen and other affected businesses in the event of a spill.

But in the meantime they must also tell us what they intend to do to secure the safety and security of oil-extraction operations, and to insist on the highest level of environmental protection and disaster prevention in EU waters. The Commission has already announced that it will conduct "stress tests" on existing EU legislation in this area, to enable it to identify any gaps and weaknesses in the regulatory framework at EU level.

But some MEPs want to go even further and are calling for a moratorium on all drilling until such time as guarantees on safety can be given; I believe that this would be a step too far. We cannot simply close down the oil industry indefinitely. The UK would be the biggest loser in Europe with more than £6bn of investment and oil revenues at risk if such a ban was enforced.

British and European technology leads the world in safety and security processes for the oil sector. What sort of message would it send to our international competitors if we were to impose a drill ban, even on a temporary basis? Of course we need to learn lessons from the Gulf spill, but let's not over-react.

Struan Stevenson MEP (Con, Scotland) The European Parliament, Brussels

Agent Orange, 50 years on

While I would agree in general with Michael McCarthy ("This disaster teaches that technology is not infallible", 17 July) when he wrote of the BP oil leak, I find it strange that no mention was made of the 11 tragic deaths.

What is different from this disaster and the others he wrote of was that BP is paying compensation to the people affected by the leak, without being asked, very different to United Carbide and Dow Chemical after the tragic incident at Bhopal. But the use of depleted uranium (DU) in Iraq and Afghanistan also fails to be mentioned, and DU is far more dangerous than the Gulf oil leaks.

One more comparison is the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam where the US sprayed 80 million litres over 10 years. And the result 50 years later? Thousands of abnormal births, deaths and serious illnesses. The effects have gone into the third generation and near to four million are affected. Yet neither the US government nor the chemical companies will accept responsibility or have paid one cent in compensation.

What a change from President Barack Obama demanding that BP set aside $20bn – as a start – for payment of compensation to the American victims.

Len Aldis, Secretary, Britain-Vietnam Friendship Society, London E3

We don't want the academies

Everyone should sit up and take notice of the Academies Bill being thrust through the Commons (letters, 22 July). MPs of all political parties should be doing their damnedest not to let this through without giving it much more time and thought.

In Birmingham, we already have a multi-tiered system of education, among which are: comprehensive schools (which are inclusive); private schools, grammar schools and faith schools (all of which have some element of selection, and are exclusive and divisive).

We should not even want to risk any more tiers, with their divisiveness and negative impact on social equality. If academies go ahead, what will be the long-term effects on social cohesion, communities, crime rates, etc, etc? What will happen to our fast-diminishing sense of community?

The prospect of academies creates many areas for concern: the likelihood of there being more faith-based schools in future, the freedom to choose the curriculum, the exemption from national pay and conditions agreements, the lack of obligation to consult anyone (even parents), the lack of local accountability, the concentration of power in the Secretary of State, admissions, SEN provision, provision for excluded children, free school meals, transport, insurance, legal and other services, governors, or trustees, (will they be elected or selected? How will their duties and responsibilities change?), and on and on.

There seem to be so many questions and, so far, very few answers. I wrote to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, via my MP several weeks ago and we are still awaiting a reply. He is leading us down a very dangerous path.

Maggie LeMare, Harborne, Birmingham

Business needs public sector

Matthew Norman distastefully dismisses those who argue against Cameron's Big Society as the remnants of a "dunceocracy" (Comment, 21 July). I don't believe that Labour "cosseted" reckless bankers, any more than I believed that George Osborne would take the hard line with them that he promised. I do believe that Labour prevented people such as Mr Norman losing their life-savings and their jobs in a banking collapse. I also believe that Labour recognised that unemployment is the biggest threat to economic recovery.

That Mr Cameron acknowledges his policies will make hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers unemployed suggests that he does not recognise that danger. But even worse than that, his government appears to be blind to the myriad intricate ways in which private businesses, large and small, depend upon the public sector.

A spendthrift politician announces the biggest cuts in public spending for decades, and simultaneously outlines his vision of a society in which many public services are run by volunteers. Perhaps Mr Norman – normally clinical in his cynicism – genuinely doesn't believe the latter is merely a Blair-like re-imagining of the former. I'm not that big a dunce. But I'm so afraid of what's coming that I sincerely hope I never have to say I told you so.

David Woods, Hull, East Yorkshire

Not all did their National Service

Congratulations to Andy McSmith for his exposé of the myth that "everyone" had to waste two years of their lives doing selective military service (report, 19 July). Ever since I was in short trousers, I have had to listen to divisions of ex-conscripts claiming that they were superior to the rest of us because they had "all done" their two years.

I studied the First World War as part of my CSE in history. Conscription was introduced under the Lord Derby scheme. Employers were always allowed to keep back key members of staff in reserved occupations. The National Service know-alls have always denied this, and loads of people were miraculously exempt. Some of the worst offenders were members of the Institute of Journalists, civil servants, office staff and those who went to fee-paying schools. Exemptions were growing at such a fast rate in 1950s that had Dickie Mountbatten not abolished conscription in 1958 there would have been almost nobody to call up in the 1960s.

Peacetime conscription was probably the worst thing to happen to the UK post-war. The fault lies squarely with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery who fatuously believed that kicking the living daylights out of the nation's youth would make them subservient serfs "who knew their place". History has already shown that just the opposite is the case.

Chris Youett, Coventry

One well-known politician who evaded military service but is never mentioned is Margaret Thatcher. On 13 October 1943, she celebrated her 18th birthday. Britain had been at war with Germany for more than four years, an enemy by no means defeated, and still inflicting great harm on our people and country.

Tens of thousands of women of her age had volunteered for service, not only as ATS, Wrens and Waafs, but also in nursing, civil defence, the Land Army, munitions and many other vital services. The Queen herself, as Princess Elizabeth, heir to the throne, learned how to drive and service Army trucks.

Margaret Roberts went to Somerville College, Oxford to study chemistry. Nothing wrong with that; many other girls did the same. It was perfectly legal for college undergraduates to defer their service.

But is it not strange that a person who nearly 40 years later was to proclaim her patriotism and militarism wherever and whenever she could – "Rejoice" from the doorstep of No 10 – should have been so self-centred at the time of her country's greatest need?

John Scase, Andover, Hampshire

Kafka would have been proud

Your leading article "Literary legacy" (Viewspaper, 20 July) misses the point regarding the claim by Israel of ownership of Franz Kafka's archive because he was a Jew ("The bitter legacy of Franz Kafka", 20 July).

A law to be introduced in the Knesset will give extreme right-wing Orthodox rabbis of the coalition parties the authority to decide whether each of some 400,000 people granted Israeli citizenship under the "right of return", are "Jewish enough" to be married, or whether they will have to convert, many months living strictly as an Orthodox Jew.

Whether or not Kafka would have been sufficiently "Jewish" to be married without converting will have major implications for Israeli society, by setting a legal precedent, or if not, then Israel has no claim to his archive.

Peter Slessenger, Reading, Berkshire

I much appreciate the interest of your newspaper in the literary heritage of Franz Kafka, and the beauty of your Kafkaesque avoidance of mentioning that he was an Austrian author.

Emil Brix, Austrian Ambassador, London SW1

Burka ban a tragedy

It would be a tragedy if legislation were to ban the niqab or burka, another step towards turning this country into something I find hard to recognise.

That said, on a very hot day, I, a respectable male in late middle-age, was asked politely to remove my panama while queuing in a pub for a drink. Security, one supposes. By inclination, I'm a naturist, believing that clothes should only ever be considered functional or decorative and that the human body is a beautiful thing.

The law prevents me from enjoying the extremely natural right to go naked, but even if it did not my behaviour would be constrained because I am aware that a great many people would find my behaviour offensive or threatening. Age having been unkind to my features, covering my face so I can be judged only as I am and not for what I look like, has a distinct appeal to me, but it is an appeal which I, as a man, cannot take advantage of.

I would ask intelligent Muslims to urge fellow Muslims to show some forbearance, tolerance and understanding and get rid of something which is not a requirement of their faith but which does frighten and inhibit many of their fellow citizens, and for perfectly logical reasons.

Richard M Thompson, Sutton, Surrey

OAPs should pay for passes

Tim Brook of Bristol (letters, 17 July) raises an interesting question in the debate about bus passes. Since the marginal cost of carrying every individual passenger is "vanishingly small", why should anybody have to pay fares at all, on any sort of transport?

I am afraid the argument does not work, because the operator's costs have to be covered. The concessionary fare money is, theoretically, to pay the passengers' fares for them, and is therefore not a "gift" to the operators at all, and should not come from the transport budget, but from the pensions budget.

The matter was not thought out properly when the scheme was started. It was not to help pensioners, but to save the government's face because the targets for increasing bus use were not being met.

There are many complications, one of which is that a huge allowance is made for journeys that would not be made if people had to pay, and the operators receive nothing like the amount of the fares for pass-holders. The question of who actually gets the £1bn from the Treasury is a different matter. The money is routed via the local authorities, who have to administer the scheme, so some is siphoned off to cover their administrative costs. Nobody is satisfied with the present arrangements.

The government should consider making a small flat-fare charge for each trip made with a concessionary pass.

John Wylde, Berwick-upon-Tweed

My wife and I save well over £1,000 a year using our concessionary passes. The beneficiaries of this concession are not the bus companies, but the cafés, restaurants and pubs where we spend this windfall. Very poor retirees may spend the money in a more humdrum way, but the retailers or energy suppliers get their money, not the bus companies.

The payment from the government is not a subsidy but compensation for the income the bus companies previously got from mostly willing fare-payers. But many of the bus companies suffer a shortfall compared with the fares they were receiving and have had to cut services or increase fares for ordinary passengers. It is true some companies have benefited by extra journeys but this has sometimes caused overcrowding, driving fare-paying passengers back to their cars.

The whole scheme reduces congestion and pollution in urban areas because retired people use their cars less. Many less well-off pensioners get out more and have had their lives considerably enhanced by the free travel.

Ray Wilkes, Shipley, West Yorkshire

Football was always rough

There's an element of selective memory in the rose-tinted view of football's Corinthian past in your letters pages (19 July). From its earliest origins, it's been a game dominated by the adage that you do what you can get away with.

Perhaps some readers are too young to remember Pele literally being kicked out of the 1966 World Cup by Portugal. When Norman "Bites Yer Legs" Hunter broke a leg, Leeds trainer Les Cocker was alleged to have asked, "Whose is it?", and the memory of "Chopper" Harris attempting to scythe George Best to the ground still brings a chill. Then we had Keegan and Bremner squaring up to each other in ... er ... the Charity Shield.

If anything, the amateur game, with its less than athletic or eagle-eyed officials, has been even more laissez-faire. In days of yore, the tacit rule for any centre-half was to "Let the striker know you're there", with a similar edict for the striker on the keeper (I write as one who was "kept honest" and haven't walked since).

Of course, every era has its heroes and villains (often interchangeable) and that's part of the appeal. Two Dutch players should have been sent off before half-time; but, no doubt, the referee would have been pilloried for killing the final. In the end, the "beautiful game" lived to fight another day, allowing us to hope that the cynicism of Bert Van Marwijk's comment that, "Total football is dead" proves premature, and that future Dutch teams will try to emulate Cruyff rather than Von Bommel. But let's not pretend that "ungentlemanly conduct" in football is anything new.

Charles Hopkins, Norwich, Norfolk

Blame buzzards

The National Farmers' Union need not look very far for the reason why kestrels are declining (letters, 22 July). It is largely due to the sharp increase in the number of buzzards. Twenty years ago, when buzzards were a rarity, kestrels would invariably hover overhead looking for field mice whenever I mowed a field. Nowadays, to have five or six much stronger buzzards in a field is commonplace. What kestrel can compete with those numbers for food?

Tom Jeanes, Taunton, Devon

To be brief ...

Shorter than the one about the Duchess (letters, 20 July), and somewhat more elegant, is the re-telling of the marriage feast in Cana, "The water saw its God and blushed".

Frank Case, Derby

That's perfidious

A republican priest in my Dublin school in the 1980s used to assure us, when we weren't on our knees saying decades of the rosary for the hunger-strikers, that the sun never set on the British Empire because God didn't trust them in the dark (letters, 21 July).

John Foyle, Dublin