We're drinking too much, but a big tax increase would be wrong
Sir: The Chancellor's Budget this week may well include a massive rise in the tax on alcohol, to combat binge drinking.
There are likely to be two groups who will react to this. The moderate adult drinker will claim that they are being penalised for the irresponsible drinking of the under-30s. They probably don't realise that pensioners and older people are also drinking themselves to death. The second group will be the young, who have got used to two-for-one booze offers from supermarkets and off-licence.
All of us are drinking far too much, mainly because it is far too cheap. When I started my first job at the age of 15 in 1956, I would have had to save up my wages for four weeks to buy a bottle of spirits. Forty one years on, today's school-leaver, on unemployment benefits, can buy at least four bottles of spirits in a local supermarket on one week's wages.
Research shows a clear relationship between alcohol consumption and price. However, as a drugs and alcohol educationalist, I urge the Chancellor not to get greedy for tax, or go for a popular, quick-fix for complicated problems. If he does, he will drive the consumer of cheap booze straight into the hands of the thousands of illegal drug dealers. Drugs are already cheaper than booze.
He should slowly increase the cost of alcohol over the next decade. Then he can make a difference, but only if he uses the increased tax revenue to invest in real alcohol education and new and innovative approaches to alcohol rehabilitation.
Youth Worker & Health Issues TrainerHamilton, South Lanarkshire
Sir: Martin Hickman's analysis of why pubs are closing (The Big Question, 6 March) claimed that most people would not mind if taxes on alcoholic drinks were increased in the coming budget.
In fact, a detailed poll conducted by ICM last month found just the opposite, with 65 per cent of people rejecting the idea of raising taxes to deal with problem drinking. A further 61 per cent thought raising taxes would unfairly punish the majority of responsible drinkers. Also, when asked to rank a number of suggested solutions to problem drinking, respondents placed increasing the price of alcohol by raising taxes firmly at the bottom of the list.
What people would like to see is increased enforcement of the vast number of laws already available to tackle problem drinking. Targeted action against those who misuse alcohol is the popular and effective solution.
Chief Executive, Wine and Spirit Trade Association, LONDON SE1
Sir: In the debate about binge drinking, I am surprised that little analysis is made of the contribution of "vertical drinking", which has seen customers encouraged to stand up and drink straight out of the bottle. It was introduced to increase the speed with which drinkers could be served, to enable more people to be packed in and to reduce the costs of glass washing. Its effect has been to allow the easy swilling down of bottled booze as fast as possible.
Put faces of dead soldiers on stamps
Sir: Joan Bakewell is right to challenge Royal Mail for its hesitation and indecision over whether to adopt Steve McQueen's stamps for postal use ("Let's see these soldiers' faces on our stamps", 7 March). Royal Mail appears to have no problem with commemorative stamp issues for past wars and individual soldiers, but there appears to be a stumbling block when it comes to current conflicts.
During 2004, the faces of soldiers from the Crimean War appeared on stamps. This was repeated in 2006 with the faces of soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross from the First and Second World Wars. It can be argued that the precedent has already been made for soldiers who have died in battle to have their faces appear on stamps.
Battles themselves are also remembered in stamp design, most recently ones to mark the 90th anniversaries of the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, and the forthcoming Armistice stamps, all issued under the heading "Lest We Forget".
It appears that various departments and committees are unable to reach an agreement on the McQueen stamps, even with the backing of the bereaved families and general public. Mr McQueen should just bypass the correct procedure and send his designs straight to the Palace and perhaps a decision can finally be arrived at. After all, the display at the Imperial War Museum that features McQueen's stamp designs is called "Queen and Country". Lest we forget.
It's time to adopt national road pricing
Sir: The Government's decision to drop national road pricing in favour of local congestion charges is in direct contrast to its centralisation of concessionary bus fares in England from April ("The green betrayal", 5 March).
National road pricing would be simple and transparent and would pave the way for cheaper off-peak motoring in rural and suburban areas while encouraging the use of public transport in major urban areas where it is most cost effective to provide commercially at little or no cost to the tax payer. Local congestion charges will be confusing for motorists, especially those who stray outside of their local zone, and could suffer from political interference when the balance of power shifts in individual local authorities.
The £1bn committed in the period 2008-09 to support the National Concessionary Bus Fares Scheme in England could be much better targeted to meet the specific needs of their local communities and their most vulnerable residents. This could involve concessionary fares on buses, trams, trains or taxis; door-to-door community transport; and mobile libraries and post offices or a public bus service with reasonable fares for everyone.
Dr John Disney
Nottingham Business School Nottingham Trent University
Sir: While I agree with many of Steve Richards' views, I am afraid he has missed the point on road pricing (6 March).
It is unjust to ration road use by price. I am sure that the drivers of the most polluting cars will be quite happy to pay for the privilege of having the roads to themselves, but it would be the less well-off who would have to make sacrifices. This group would include those who contribute most to society, such as nurses, carers and firefighters.
There could be alternatives – for instance, different tax discs for permitted roads and times. Surely the technology that would have been used for charging would be capable of recognising breaches and issuing fines.
R E Hooper
Sir: Steve Richards is clearly unfamiliar with the case for lowering the national speed limits. In contrast to road pricing, a 55mph national speed limit could be introduced now, at virtually no public expense and with minimal reliance on IT. It would be equitable and non-intrusive, substantially reduce carbon and nitrous oxide emissions, and trigger a shift both to lighter, more efficient vehicles and, with an associated urban limit of 20mph, to walking, cycling and public transport.
GreenSpeed Abingdon, Oxfordshire
Sir: The London Assembly councillor Jenny Jones (Letters, 8 March) suggests giving cyclists priority at traffic lights. Has anyone ever seen a cyclist stop at a red light? They must be more disciplined in the capital than they are in Leicestershire.
Sir: Advance traffic lights for cyclists sounds all very fine on paper, but what is to stop motor vehicles using them? They've already appropriated advance stop lines and have turned cycle lanes into car parks.
Equip pupils with the tools to think
Sir: It is Thomas Wiggins (letter, 6 March) rather than Briony Adams who is missing the point.
He may be right that employers do not need people to discuss the Italian Renaissance or "recite" Newton's laws of physics, but the advantage of having properly studied subjects such as these (rather than learning to regurgitate parrot-fashion the "correct" answers to set tests) equips students to compare, understand and appreciate artistic achievement, and to reason, understand the principles of proof, make informed decisions, and generally function as a rational being in a complex society. These are the skills that employers need.
I suspect that today's descent into a "lowest common denominator" culture of junk food, reality TV and celebrity obsession is a clear reflection that a large part of society has lost the ability to truly think for themselves and would rather accept as "fact" what the junk media decides they should think.
Broughton Scottish Borders
Working-class life: a female perspective
Sir: Having watched the recent BBC programmes on the erosion of quality of life of the white working class, I find it interesting that most of the complainers are men. Bitter at the disempowerment of trade unions and the closure of working men's clubs, they feel their identity is being taken from them and that everyone, particularly those whose ethnic origin is not British and white, are being treated much better.
The story of working-class women is somewhat different. They can now engage with further education, employment, travel and family planning, and have freedom and independence, which did not exist for them when apparently life was fair and pride ubiquitous for working-class men. Such men complained years ago that women were taking their jobs; now they direct the accusations toward Eastern Europeans.
I am a woman, from a white working-class background, who is very grateful not to live as my mother and grandmothers did, subordinate to husbands who controlled the lives of all within their household as they saw fit.
Thankfully the individuals featured on the indulgent BBC programmes are a minority and do not represent the majority of people regarded as working class, particularly the female sector.
Improvements in NHS waiting times
Sir: You report ministerial sources describing as "misleading" figures that suggest an increase in NHS treatment waiting times (5 March), prompting the obvious response that it is not the data but how they are interpreted that is open to this charge. On this, both the Government and their critics may be guilty.
For example, from 1998-99 to 2005-06, the median time patients spent between a decision to admit and their admission rose from 45 to 51 days: however, the mean fell from 100 to 78 days.
This suggests that cuts in waiting times have not been evenly distributed, but have had their greatest positive impact on those patients previously waiting the longest. That this was achieved at the same time as the number of "finished episodes" rose from 12 million to 14.4 million can justifiably be claimed as a genuine and substantial improvement.
A potentially serious challenge to this would be if it led to any distortion in clinical decision-making, with less serious cases receiving priority over more serious ones to avoid longer waits. But these data cannot inform us either way on this; evidence of a different kind would be needed. It is a reminder that the quality of care cannot be measured simply by its quantity
Dr Mike Sheaff
School of Law & Social ScienceUniversity of Plymouth
On the money
Sir: Must the phrase "hard-earned" precede every mention of "cash" if the money comes from "housewives, widows, pensioners" and the like? ("Churchgoer conned fellow worshippers out of £3m", 8 March). Robert Maxwell was a pensioner, Lucrezia Borgia was a widow and Cynthia Payne was a housewife.
We have overcome
Sir: Contrary your front page report ("We shall (not) overcome", 8 March), Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp(aign) would like to assure Independent readers that the camp outside the Atomic Weapons Establishment is very much alive and kicking. We celebrated International Women's Day on Saturday at the camp, and we will be there to welcome the masses arriving on Easter Monday for CND's 50th birthday protest against the replacement of Trident. Despite Government attempts to limit our right to protest, the camp will continue to be a monthly visible protest outside AWE Aldermaston.
Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp(aign)
A premature death
Sir: In support of Doraine Potts's letter about the naivity of thinking computerised systems are foolproof (8 March), I note a statistic in this week's New Scientist that shows 35 people a day in the US are wrongly declared dead because of input errors by social security staff. An equivalent rate in the UK would be about seven a day. Some people are likely to suffer a higher risk than others simply because other people frequently spell their name wrongly.
(Not Shawn, Shaun, Jean, John Baker or Parker), Bristol
Up for the cup
Sir: Following another momentous exhibition of Roy of the Rovers-type football in this weekend's FA Cup, I would like to send a message to the here-today, gone-tomorrow football clubs and footballers who belittle the mother of all cup competitions. I would pay a king's ransom to see FA cup games such as that between Barnsley and Chelsea, but watch Reading or other also-rans in the Premiership? Forget it – you couldn't pay me enough.
Kingston upon Hull East Yorkshire
Sir: Copying sermons did not come in with the internet and it is not confined to Catholics ("Thou shalt not steal sermons from the internet, priests told", 8 March). Many years ago, I heard the story of a young curate who was urged to improve his sermon style by modelling it on that of a notable preacher of the day. Next Sunday, the congregation were startled when he began "When I was Bishop of Oxford..."!
The Rev Peter Mott
Keighley, West Yorkshire