The tidal wave of revelations from Wikileaks demonstrates once again the impossibility of securing large, centralised government databases. Just as Wikileaks' source is said to be one of the thousands of people with access to the US government Sipdis database, so in 2007 just one junior civil servant was responsible for losing the entire HMRC child-benefit database, exposing every family in the UK to the risk of fraud.
The Coalition deserves praise for dismantling some of the previous Government's ill-judged central databases. ContactPoint would have made information about every child in England available to at least 400,000 people, but was switched off in August. Legislation scrapping Labour's identity card scheme and the highly intrusive National Identity Register should be passed soon.
But the Coalition has yet to take action on other unwarranted data-gathering schemes. Around 1 million innocent people's DNA is still stored on the criminal DNA database without their permission; everyone's flights are logged on the eBorders database for 10 years; and information on car movements from automatic number-plate recognition cameras is stored for at least two years. In each case, the rationale for storing this data seems to be "because we can".
As senior politicians read their unguarded private comments splashed across the front pages, will they finally make the connection, and take concerted action to stop all unjustified centralised data-hoarding?
Nearly 40 years ago, when I was a Royal Navy recruit, the first signature required of me was on my acknowledgement of my responsibilities under the Official Secrets Act (1911 version). Soon after, we were gathered together to be read the Naval Discipline Act (1957 version). A significant proportion of the crimes covered had "death or any lesser penalty" as the consequence of any transgression. Remember this was some time after the death penalty had been abolished for mere murder.
The difference at that time was that classified documents had a real military value to an enemy. They covered technical and operational details in succinct documents that were only viewed under controlled conditions. Each page was accounted for and even the procedures for destruction of obsolete documents were carefully detailed and supervised.
The mountains of junk being stored by the USA and others and classed as "secret" amounts to no more than the slanderous comments of loose-tongued diplomats that should never have been committed to paper or electronic storage. They have no more merit than the idle tittle-tattle of the worst water-cooler gossip.
Wikileaks has provided a great service by highlighting this misuse of the term "secret" for documents of scant importance.
What a load of tosh from Terry Duncan (letters, 30 November). Does he think the private communications between British diplomats and Whitehall consist of messages saying what splendid chaps the natives are?
The US follows its own interests, as do all other countries. I would imagine communications between Chinese diplomats and Beijing are similarly robust. But the Chinese are not so reckless as to allow their publication.
How many people think that the potentially damaging "Wikileaks" documents were released as a matter of noble political purpose, and how many believe that they were released in order to bask in the avalanche of free publicity guaranteed by the media?
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
"Lives will be put at risk"? For "lives", read "careers". This explains why those who exalt themselves above the rest of us are now squirming.
Put a cap on the highest salaries
Two and a half years ago a woman named Carol Brown led a deputation to Leeds City Council to deliver the results of research she had done into the excessive salaries paid to council managers and directors. She revealed that while cuts in front-line care services were taking place, elsewhere the council was paying excessive salaries to bureaucrats.
Now the Government has announced its intention to limit the salary of the highest-paid public servants to 20 times that of the lowest paid, presumably to safeguard taxpayers, but also to diminish inequality. Carol's efforts are at last being listened to. For, although councillors were aghast at the salaries they were paying on our behalf to bureaucrats, nothing was done; it seems the credit crunch was the necessary catalyst.
But this must be only the beginning. For a start the 20 times salary divide is too great; it should be no more than 10. Second, income limits should apply to both the public and private sector if inequality is to be crushed.
It will now be interesting to see if this promise is actually carried out and is not just political spin to calm the growing discontent in society occasioned by the profligate and arrogant behaviour of bankers and their establishment friends.
Otley, West yorkshire
Why voting reform is vital
Steve Richards (30 November) displays once again the pessimism about electoral reform that is a regular feature of his columns. "Probably [the Lib Dems] will lose the referendum on the Alternative Vote next May" he writes.
If the referendum is lost, it will not be the Lib Dems who will have lost it. It will have been pessimistic columnists like Richards, who, with no justification, make sweeping statements that ignore the hard work of electoral-reform campaigners over the past few months.
The campaign for the Alternative Vote is not a yellow (Lib Dem) campaign, and the people who think it is are severely mistaken. It is a purple campaign: a campaign for a better democracy, by people from all parties and none. Labour's campaign machine may not back reform (because it is run by the distinctly tribalist Andy Burnham), but prominent progressives are uniting behind a Labour "yes" campaign – the likes of Neil Lawson and Sunder Katwala.
The benefits of AV to the voters are substantial: it will increase voter power, reduce safe seats and make for more positive politics. In sum, it is a better voting system.
Bring back Ancient History
Joan Smith ("Every child deserves the classics", 2 December) strikes home; what is missing from our current educational system is the opportunity to learn subjects that inspire. The closed and restrictive demands of the school curriculum are at the heart of our problems.
As a sixth former in a small independent school in Tasmania, I found the establishment of our democratic system by the Greeks fascinating and I wanted to learn more. Ancient History was not on the timetable so I asked my schoolmates if they, too, would like to study the subject and we approached the school head. Ancient History was introduced as a new A-level subject and our class never looked back.
From that year onwards I have studied a variety of subjects that have fascinated me. The ideas introduced to me in that short period of my life were the foundation of my future career in education. Plato's Republic and the ideas relating to "philosopher rulers" were not only pertinent to me as a trainee teacher, but remain pertinent today, in fields that go well beyond education.
Dr Rosemary Westwell
Why should those who admire the classics, like Joan Smith and the Schools Minister, be alarmed to find a decimation of Latin teaching in schools? They should be pleased with a mere 10 per cent reduction.
W B McBride
Tackle TB to eradicate Aids
You report that Britain has pledged a funding boost for poor countries in the fight against Aids (1 December).
It is estimated that a quarter of all Aids-related deaths are caused by TB, a curable disease, but one that requires new drugs to properly control infection. While there is certainly a need to continue the expansion of access to antiretroviral drugs for HIV, investment in TB drugs is also necessary to save the lives of people living with HIV. A lack of investment by pharmaceutical companies in TB means that control of the disease is near impossible.
It can cost up to £1bn to develop a new drug. With a limited time for patent protection and the average cost of a course of TB drugs around £10, there is little commercial incentive to invest in these life-saving treatments. It has never been more vital for governments to increase investment in, and work alongside, the academic science base to form public- private partnerships to develop new drugs which will save the lives of millions.
Dr Geoffrey Coxon
University of Strathclyde
deputy leader, TB drug discovery UK
Thank you for the World Aids Day edition (1 December), with so much interesting information, from so many different sources. Particularly inspirational was the emphasis on enabling women, through education, to take control of their lives.
Gove's elitist assumptions
In a recent statement in Parliament, Michael Gove cited the small number of pupils receiving free school meals who win places at Oxbridge as an indicator of a lack of social mobility and aspiration in disadvantaged children. Using places at Oxbridge as such a measure is similar, although even more elitist, to that used by the previous government to indicate the lack of aspiration. There, the call seemed to be for all disadvantaged pupils to aim to be doctors or solicitors.
This approach to aspiration is far too elitist, will appeal to few children, and be counterproductive overall. Why not see as suitable the aspiration to be a good plumber, hairdresser, bricklayer, waiter, artist or car mechanic, as well to follow an academic path?
"We need to differentiate much more robustly between mediocre graduates in questionable subjects and courses of direct benefit to the student and the country", claims John Birkett (letter, 1 December) an utterly typical piece of "utilitarian" silliness.
Note the veiled implication: that if a course isn't of "direct benefit", it's questionable. Thank goodness that most people understand the practical, moral and intellectual poverty of such reasoning – witness the massive and passionate opposition to the savaging of our lifelong learning institutions by John Denham, who now so hypocritically dares to critique his Coalition successors, who are only seeking to complete the revolution he began.
Little sympathy for mental illness
After another successful Children In Need campaign, I am prompted again to think of charitable giving trends in the UK. The overwhelming share of money raised goes to animal, cancer and children's charities. Overseas aid also fares well. And the Cinderella category? Adult mental health. Could it be that those who have depression, schizophrenia or dementia don't present the kind of TV profile to induce tears and sympathy in quite the same way?
Whither the weather?
Britain's weather systems usually only last four days. The snow has now been with us for eight days with no sign of a break in the weather or these freezing temperatures. We have to take seriously now the argument for climate change. If the melting Greenland ice sheet and polar ice caps have changed the course of the warm North Atlantic current known as the Gulf Stream, we in Britain and Ireland are going to get colder, longer winters like this one.
We are going to have to invest in our railways again and need to re-open our suburban railway stations as a matter of urgency. Our blocked roads show us just how much we need them.
Peterlee, Co. Durham
My father died on 6 October and he also received the winter fuel payment (letters, 2 December). I intend to split the sum between his two undergraduate grandsons as a small, but I am sure welcome, contribution to their mounting higher-education costs. What the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills won't provide, the Department for Work and Pensions can.
Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
In saying that the Liberal Democrats will be "the party of principle" on tuition fees whether their MPs vote for, against, not at all or all differently, John Nicholson (letters, 2 December) seems to be adopting Groucho Marx's interpretation of the word: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."
Perspectives on banking practices
I never agreed to this 'usage fee'
David Helliwell's letter (1 December) regarding overdraft charges chimes with an "overdraft usage fee" being charged to my current bank account. It has always, as provident practice, been recognised that borrowed money will attract interest, which must be paid. Yet here the bank imposes this punitive levy for no stated reason, despite my diligence in paying all due interest as needed.
When I opened an account at this bank some 57 years ago, there was never any suggestion that the money in my account was anybody's but my own; yet here they are, helping themselves unbidden, without my permission, nor with any promise that the "usage fee" will not climb in a few months to £50 or some other exorbitant sum.
I have not agreed to this fee, I have signed no debit authorisation, and during an exchange of letters with my bank, I have been unable to establish just why this fee is being imposed. The bank's letters have been evasive and uninformative. The most helpful suggestion has been to give me – several times – details of how to get on to the Ombudsman.
Mr Helliwell suggests greed and profiteering as the reasons for this cavalier treatment. He's right, I'm sure, and the more people who complain, the greater the likelihood of a policy reversal.
A no-frills service is what we need
What's this I read? "Banking organisations calling on the Government to think again [about regulation] and avoid systemic reduction in bank profitability" (22 November). Oh deary-me! Regulation? A reduction in their profitability? That's just soooooo unfair!
But my sympathy for the banks evaporated a few sentences later when I read that some in the industry have talked of a "mortgage famine" This sounds to me very much like blackmail: "You impose regulation and we will stop giving mortgages."
What I don't understand is why the Government doesn't take complete control of just one bank and, similar to the old Giro-Bank, offer a simple, no-frills "bottom-line" bank in the market. This would provide a bulwark against such blackmail because the banks would know that, if they withdrew services, there would still be the boring, ugly-duckling, government-controlled bank there waiting to take up those customers.
But of course the UK no longer has direct control of a bank, so this option is not available and the public is at the mercy of greedy, speculating, blackmailing "banksters".
Customers confused and deceived
Energy suppliers multiplying tariffs and manufacturers surreptitiously reducing contents. There are many other examples of such machinations: banks drastically reducing interest rates on old savings accounts spring to mind. It seems that businesses' main aim is now to confuse consumers and thus increase their profits.
When did deception and dishonesty become the guiding principle of British business?