Letters: Whitehall culture

Why the Whitehall culture cannot cope with IT
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It isn't just Labour that is responsible for computer blunders ("Labour's computer blunders cost £26bn", 19 January). England's obsession with academic status and professional dignity has given us a Civil Service full of people who have never had a proper technical education.

Arrogant incompetence means that we do not have a managerial class capable of running the country in a modern hi-tech age; and it is certain that if the Conservatives get in, nothing will be done to provide one. We'll get a traditional Eton mess.

Tony Crofts

Stonesfield, Oxfordshire

I think there are two underlying weaknesses behind the computer blunders on which you report.

First, civil servants and their political masters are often ill equipped to assess the technical merits of any decision, be that the procurement of a computer system or the war in Iraq. This is because in our political culture specialists are often frowned upon, and politically minded people without technical backgrounds make decisions, either without adequate technical advice or on the basis of technical advice which they do not understand.

Second, the obsession with outsourcing means that an ever-increasing catalogue of services and expertise which are considered not to be a part of "core business" are bought from entrepreneurs who are all too keen to make easy profits at the taxpayer's expense.

Outsourcing seems particularly inappropriate when the service concerned is substantial, specialised and developed for one government client only, such as the IT scheme of the NHS. It would be more cost-effective for the taxpayer directly to employ the developers involved: if they are properly managed and made fully aware of the day-to-day operational needs, this would save the profits paid to middlemen, and make IT development far more flexible and fit for service.

Nicholas Deliyanakis

Brussels

Your analysis of the cost of "database state" IT projects is very timely. However, it is over-optimistic to say that the catastrophic ID cards scheme has been watered down. Despite misleading ministerial announcements that ID cards are now "voluntary", the Home Office plans to force everyone renewing their passport to register on the ID database from next year. Spending on this project is running at £230,000 per day.

It's high time all plans for ID cards and unneeded fingerprint passports were completely scrapped; this would save the public purse at least £5bn.

Andrew Watson

Cambridge

Lessons of the Haiti airlift

It is becoming obvious in Haiti that the real problem was airport discharge capability. I served in the RAF for 12 years, part of my time unloading and loading military cargo aircraft.

For any disaster the local airport discharge capability should be assessed and, if necessary, classed as nil. If this is the case, the aircraft that are landing must carry complete discharge capability. Rapid unloading facilities should be part of the aircraft. The only aircraft capable of doing this are rear-loading cargo aircraft with sloping ramps – no other aircraft should be allowed to land until the situation has stabilised. The ramps allow skid-based pallets to be pulled off quickly using ropes. The aircraft can then depart, carrying injured if possible. The objective is a short turnaround, ideally 20 minutes.

Air traffic control is imperative. Without firm ATC, chaos ensues. The best people for this task are the military, who already have secure communications and equipment for inhospitable terrain. The military of most nations also have men trained in survival and communications in very difficult circumstances and can be moved at very short notice to any point in the world.

There must be international planning for disasters before any disaster occurs.

A P Lyall

Norwich

The idea that Haiti's long-term problems could be solved by removing trade barriers (Ian Birrell, 16 January) seems enlightened. But inviting third-world countries to join some kind of neoliberal world trade utopia is a bit like asking someone to join a Monopoly game halfway through, when you've already got hotels on all the best squares.

What Haiti needs is some good old-fashioned protectionism of the sort enjoyed by the developed world, including the UK and US, at different stages in their own economic development. Ha-Joon Chang has exposed the hypocrisy of the mantra of free trade; countries like Haiti can't be expected to compete on the kind of level playing field that such simplistic liberalisation implies.

Charles Hopkins

Norwich

TV debates bad for our democracy

The proposed television "debates" among the leaders of the main political parties during the general election campaign are set to pervert the constitution and drive a further wedge between Parliament and the people.

Government in Britain has become increasingly presidential. Margaret Thatcher was intolerant of opposition within her Cabinet. Tony Blair's sofa government simply bypassed his Cabinet. Gordon Brown feels compelled to comment on everything from the health of Susan Boyle to the motoring prowess of Jenson Button in an effort to curry a populist image.

In Britain we have a parliamentary system in which the executive is collectively represented by the Cabinet. Members of the Cabinet should play an active role in determining government strategy and tactics. The Prime-Minister-in-Cabinet is first among equals. Ministers participate, contribute and decide.

Our parliamentary system is already blighted by the enslavement of parliamentary candidates to party – the chances of being elected without the support of one of the major parties are slim. Members of Parliament are in thrall to the party whip. Supine Cabinets fawning on the celebrity of the Prime Minister make for bad government, eroding the checks and balances that limit the corrupting power of personality and charisma.

A "presidential campaign", while suiting the media, will further emasculate the already feeble Cabinet system and promote a cult of personality. Television "debates" will be great entertainment but they will be the triumph of frippery over policy, spin over substance. They will further impoverish a constitution that has been corroded by a centralisation and concentration of power.

Henry Harington

Ashburton, Devon

The politics of health care

The dysfunctional US medical system deprives 50 million Americans of proper healthcare, and 18,000 of them die unnecessarily every year as a result. Yet Bruce Anderson describes it as "not as inhumane as European Liberals allege" and asserts that a future Republican administration may have to "reform" anything President Obama achieves in the teeth of their hysterical ideological opposition funded by health-insurance companies.

He then proceeds to deride Senator George Mitchell, the peacebroker in Northern Ireland, along with Tony Blair, who reached the 1998 Good Friday agreement, as deserving a Nobel Prize for ineffectuality. Presumably, rather than a decade of peace in Ulster, Mr Anderson takes the Tory ultra view that a decade of militaristic getting tough on terrorism would have been preferable.

And in just 18 weeks' time, Mr Anderson could be crowing that at last Britain has the government he wants. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Christopher Clayton

Waverton, Cheshire

I suppose we cannot expect politicians not to play politics, but their recent pronouncements beggar belief. Both the Labour and Conservative parties promise that spending on the NHS will be ring-fenced and savings will have to be made by other departments.

What a ridiculous stance. An organisation formed in 1948 which now has to cope with treatments unheard of then is a bureaucrat's dream and in too many cases a patient's nightmare. Reform is long overdue.

William W Scott

North Berwick, East Lothian

Under the thumb of diversity police

I am in total agreement with Diana O'Bryen (letter, 19 January). The amount of personal information requested by various jobsworths and bureaucrats in the name of ethnic and gender monitoring is now out of all proportion to any benefits supposedly gained by society in terms of equality. I have no idea why any state or private organisation would be interested in one's religious beliefs or sexuality anyway.

Since the 1980s, when managers started aping US-style political correctness, diversity seems to have become a religion. The high priests of the diversity industry, and every HR department, lecture us constantly about how it is only they who know how to tackle prejudice and discrimination, and, therefore, we must accept all this form-filling nonsense without complaint. Or else.

If we do complain, that "proves" that we are racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic bigots. The absurd, wasteful, expensive, pointless and counter-productive diversity industry allows unaccountable and self-righteous mediocrities to grab the moral high ground.

A couple of years ago, when applying for a job, I had become so fed up with these intrusive and pointless monitoring forms that I made the decision to tick the box marked "Other" when it asked about my race; then, when the form asked "If other, please specify", I wrote "Human being". I didn't get the job. I wonder why.

Edwin Webb

London SE10

Gay refugees are in real danger

How encouraging to see a leading political figure standing up for the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers ("Clegg lays down law to Cameron on gay rights", 13 January). It is high time that refugees fleeing their countries because of persecution over their sexuality are acknowledged as being legitimately in need of safety here, in line with those fleeing other human-rights abuses.

It is absurd that the Home Office currently refuses asylum to many gay refugees on the basis that they can "hide" their homosexuality on return to their home country. Returning gay refugees to countries where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment or death is unacceptable.

We urge the UK government to ensure that the rights of gay refugees and asylum-seekers are upheld, and that a staunch commitment is made to guarantee that all refugees in need of safety in our country are properly protected.

Donna Covey

Refugee Council, London SW9

Briefly...

Shock and awe

Amid the stone-walling and back-stabbing that is the Chilcot inquiry, one important question goes unasked. Why was it felt necessary to kill innocent thousands, wipe out crucial infrastructure and brutalise an entire society as the curtain-raiser to an invasion that we were assured would be welcomed with flowers, flag-waving and dancing in the street?

Francis Good

London W1

Benign neglect

What an appalling waste of taxpayers' money that grit should be swept from an icy street by Bridlington council only 20 minutes after being laid (letter, 18 January). Thankfully, there's little danger of Central Bedfordshire doing likewise in our neck of the woods, as most of the streets are rarely if ever gritted and seldom if ever swept.

Terence Roy Smith

Biggleswade, Bedfordshire

Under the weather

Why is binge-drinking an almost uniquely British problem, asks Ian K Watson (letter, 18 January). As we stare at yet another grey blanket called "the weather", a solar deficit means disgruntlement and yearning for the few bright days we get each year. Hence the northern (rather than Mediterranean) attitude to alcohol, as developed among Celtic and German tribes, exacerbated by our pub culture.

Mike Bor

London,W2

Voter's dilemma

Keith O'Neill's letter (19 January) cites the future of life on our planet as a fundamental issue to vote about. He is of course correct, but our "democracy" doesn't work that way. There is only one party for whom the environment is the fundamental issue. I shall vote Green again, but with the knowledge that there is little reason to expect them to be any more successful in the next election than in the last. If you want your vote to have any effect you have only a choice between stupidity and idiocy.

Steve Mainwaring

Bath

Forgotten skill

You report that "Mobile phones may improve memory and protect against Alzheimer's" (7 January). If so, how is it that whereas before the advent of mobile phones I could remember lots of telephone numbers, now I can barely recall my own?

Joseph Mattey

London W1

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