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Tuesday 15 June 2010
Coalition's cuts fall on the poor
I would not wish to prejudge the Budget, but it would appear from the current wave of cost-cutting measures that this government intends to make the lowest paid bear the brunt of balancing the books.
The Child Trust Fund and Becta have already been axed, both of which had programmes heavily weighted to the advantage of the poorest and those with disabilities. Mr Cameron's latest brainwave is the appointment of Frank Field. This new "poverty supremo" is considering axing child benefit once a child attains 13 years of age.
How is that going to help a poor, working family with three or four teenage children who are studying to attain qualifications? What about such families in areas where there is no work? Mr Field will penalise them by removing more than £50 a week from their income with this measure.
As Mr Cameron entered office with soothing promises to protect the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, could I now ask him to tell me if he thinks he is succeeding in that aim?
Newhaven, East Sussex
When talking about reforming child benefit, does nobody remember the principles behind it? I've heard and read so much ignorant discussion about this lately. Child benefit is paid to the mother and is not means-tested. This is meant to ensure that it will support the child and is not stigmatised.
Means-testing is complex, costly and divisive. The Tories' suggestions about targeting benefits to the poorest sound so reasonable and fair, but they are ideologically driven.
The more means-testing there is, the less the middle classes are in receipt of benefits and the more stigmatising it becomes to be in receipt of them. After a time it becomes easy for the press to regard benefit recipients as "scroungers". Thus the welfare state is made unpopular and can be undermined.
If we need to save on benefits better to keep them universal and taxable, or to have a system of negative income tax.
At last you carry an article about the over-population of this country – and the world (Steve Connor, Lab Notes, 14 June). Publicity and recognition of the facts is long overdue.
The Government is surely aware of the situation and yet while the population grows our welfare state continues to encourage families by paying child benefit and offering fertility treatment. Are we crazy?
Hydrogen won't save the planet
Tony Lodge's assertion that the UK "can meet its ambitious carbon reduction and renewable energy targets" by development of hydrogen technology (letter, 11 June) is far too optimistic.
Indeed, it is not at all surprising that in May 2009 the Obama administration cut off funds for developing hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles, for there are many problems with hydrogen fuel-cell technology that seem incapable of being resolved in the near future. When the Bush administration put $1bn into development of hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles, enthusiasts were predicting a breakthrough in five to 10 years. It is instructive to ask why this failed to materialise.
To begin with, the proposed method of obtaining hydrogen fuel by the electrolysis of water using solar, wind or wave power is a very energy-intensive process. At present, the easiest way to produce hydrogen fuel is to react natural gas with steam. This process not only depends on a non-renewable resource, but also leads to the production of carbon dioxide, meaning that hydrogen is not in general a carbon-neutral fuel.
In any case, transporting stored liquid hydrogen is extremely expensive and inefficient, owing to hydrogen's low boiling point, such that the overall hydrogen fuel chain has only 25 per cent efficiency on average, as Dr Gary Kendall, a former chemist for ExxonMobil, has calculated.
Finally, hydrogen fuel cells still depend on precious metal catalysts such as platinum, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. To cope with growing energy demands, a wholesale shift to hydrogen fuel cells would require a sixfold increase in mining of platinum and related metals. This would exhaust global reserves of such minerals in about 70 years.
With so many evident drawbacks, is it any wonder that hydrogen technology is, in the words of a New Scientist article back in November 2008, on "the long road to nowhere"?
Like Robert Chalmers and his son (Independent Traveller, 12 June), I have recently returned from a short stay in Llandudno, and, also like them, enjoyed it greatly. The sweep of the bay, bounded by the wide promenade, is a wonderful sight, but I strongly disagree with his view that the wind farm is "a rip in an otherwise perfect oil painting".
These elegant structures are almost on the horizon, so one can only just see the blades turning slowly and calmly. I think that they are more beautiful than some of the old wind grain mills that we assiduously preserve. But even if you do not agree with that, they are a much better sight than an oil tanker, with the added bonus that there is no danger of an oil spill to ruin the lovely beach.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill to date accounts for about the same amount of oil that caught fire at Buncefield in 2005, or about six hours of UK fossil fuel consumption and atmospheric pollution.
We need to stop this rapidly, not just by developing low-carbon energy supplies, but with individuals choosing to make major reductions in their demand. Can we in the UK rise to the challenge?
Football makes the soul soar
You wouldn't dream of publishing a letter expressing such prejudice against ethnic minorities, gays or women as James Rush expresses against football fans (letter, 14 June).
Football is by a long way the most popular sport on the planet simply because the only equipment you need is a ball of something kickable; and for about 90 per cent of players, it represents their only chance of escape from grinding poverty.
Anyone whose soul didn't soar if they witnessed the utter joy of the black South Africans when their side scored the (beautiful) first goal of this World Cup has a heart of stone. Furthermore, the consequences of any English success will not be "truly awful". The happenings in Afghanistan, Somalia, Cumbria and the Gulf of Mexico are truly awful. Mr Rush needs to lighten up and get some perspective.
Has not the "blame culture" contingent missed a great opportunity to apportion as much blame as possible for the recent failure to defeat the USA at football? One man (reputably a sound player) has been chastised for his mistake. What about the other 10 who failed to get the necessary goals to win?
A peer into the future
If we must have a second chamber (letter, 11 June), why not choose the members by lot, a democratic tradition that goes back to the ancient Greeks? It is also the way that Britain has chosen trial juries and that has served us well for many centuries.
The chamber should not be able to directly modify legislation, only make suggestions for the Commons to consider. It would be far more representative than the most complicated election process could manage, and it could bring very valuable everyday experience to government.
The chamber should have about 300-400 members, to get a good representative sample, and be chosen every two years or so. Citizens over the age of 35 (to guarantee real-life experience) would be eligible.
Just imagine a chamber where half the members were previously earning £23,000 a year or less (the median income) and 8 per cent had been unemployed; there would be no need for massive "consultations" – they would have their say every day.
The name should be changed to "the House of Peers" and each peer would have a good salary (say £50,000) and would receive free accommodation in London for the period of their office. In exchange, they would be required to show up in the chamber every day.
The traditions of Britain are important and contribute to the attractiveness of our country as a tourist destination, so all members would be required to attend in their full ermine robes, just as the Beefeaters at the Tower do, and tickets should be sold for the public gallery (free to UK citizens). The House of Peers might even pay for itself in this way as well as introducing some new ideas into our tired old system.
Port Solent, Hampshire
More operations for epilepsy
Your piece on epilepsy demonstrates the life-changing potential of surgical interventions ("Brain surgery gave me my life back", 8 June). Unfortunately, the majority of people with epilepsy who could benefit from surgery are not referred. According to Nice guidelines, anyone whose epilepsy has not been controlled with medication within two years should be considered for surgery. However, this rarely happens, and far fewer operations take place than are required.
In 2008 only 108 operations were carried out on children with epilepsy in the UK. Current expert opinion calculates as many as 400 paediatric surgical operations are required each year. It is estimated that only 200-300 adults have surgery to treat epilepsy each year in the UK; at least 1,000 operations are required.
Surgery is the only known cure for a condition that can have a huge impact on people's quality of life. While surgery may be an expensive treatment, the cost of a lifetime of taking anti-epileptic medication, possible A&E admissions and consultant appointments could be significantly higher.
Epilepsy Action would like to see neurologists encouraged to make more referrals, more resources for surgical assessment and health service commissioners providing the service that is needed.
Chief Executive, Epilepsy Action
Farmers care for wildlife
Michael McCarthy laments extinctions over the past 400 years ("The tragic loss of British wildlife", 11 June). So too do farmers and growers in this country, who take their custodianship of the countryside very seriously.
Many of the species and habitats that we take for granted would not be there if it wasn't for farming. That we have a more limited range of species than other parts of Europe (or the Mississippi delta) is a feature of our geography and climate, not our attitude to wildlife. But he is correct in saying that we must care for what we have.
There are currently more than six million hectares of land under an agri-environmental scheme across England. There are around 188,000km of hedgerows under environmental management and more than 17,000 skylark plots on farms.
The launch of the industry-led Campaign for the Farmed Environment last November, supported by organisations like the RSPB and Natural England, will aim to build on these successes. In fact, it has already been a major stimulus for spurring farmers on to achieve key farmland environmental targets. And as new Defra Secretary of State Caroline Spelman said recently "The Campaign for the Farmed Environment is an initiative which genuinely has the potential to transform our countryside, protect local ecosystems and increase our native biodiversity."
This is the true colour of the farming industry; one that works hard to feed a growing population but understands the need to care for and actively manage the land.
Head of policy services
National Farmers Union
Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire
I see from your article "The end of the world as we know it" (14 June) that, in just over a 1,000 years, a number of disconcerting things will happen: from planets detaching from their dead stars (1,015 years) to black holes evaporating "on the inconceivable time scale of 1,098 years". I'm rather hoping you mean 1015 and 1098 respectively. Of course, if you can't typeset superscripts, this letter will make as little sense as "The end of the world as we know it" did.
Pace Joan McTigue (letter, 10 June), "oppositional defiant disorder" is hardly a new diagnosis. It was a condition widely suffered by dissidents in the former USSR. No doubt, like the parents of Middlesbrough, the Soviet State and Party had failed to apply sufficient "discipline" in order for these citizens to "do as they were told".
Perspectives on drug prohibition
A destructive and immoral policy
As a retired police detective from the USA, I thank you for publishing Johann Hari's analysis of drug prohibition (11 June).
During my 18 years in the trenches of this destructive, dysfunctional and immoral policy, I witnessed part of the one trillion dollars spent so far to make my country "drug-free". As my colleagues spent their shifts in pursuit of a baggie of cannabis, drunk drivers were freer to slaughter tens of thousands of innocents. When detectives are flying around in helicopters looking for green plants, the paedophiles in the chat room have an easier time of making contact with our 13-year-olds.
Privately many police officers will admit that drug prohibition increases crime and reduces public safety. Scotland Yard's Detective Chief Superintendent Eddie Ellison (RIP) was among the first UK "top cops" to speak plainly in public. It is past time for them to follow his courageous lead.
Social pressure is the 'signal' that works
I write to congratulate Johann Hari on his fine article advocating the legalisation of currently proscribed drugs. The only argument I have ever heard against this is that "it will send the wrong signal"; well, the signal we are sending now is being ignored.
Drugs should be treated like cigarettes – taxed and controlled. The decrease in smoking in the last 20 years is entirely due to social pressure; surely the same thing would work for drugs. It's high time there was a serious call for the legalisation of drugs and I hope The Independent will pursue this.
Swiss show the way forward
There is a middle ground between drug prohibition and blanket legalisation. The heroin maintenance programme in Switzerland has been shown to reduce disease, death and crime among chronic users. Providing addicts with standardised doses in a clinical setting eliminates many of the problems associated with illicit heroin use.
The success of the Swiss programme has inspired heroin maintenance pilot projects in Canada, Germany, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands. If expanded, prescription heroin maintenance would deprive organised crime of a core client base. This would render illegal heroin trafficking unprofitable and spare future generations addiction.
Cannabis should be taxed and regulated like alcohol, only without the ubiquitous advertising. Separating the hard and soft drug markets is critical. As long as organised crime controls cannabis distribution, consumers will continue to come into contact with sellers of addictive drugs such as cocaine.
Given that cannabis is arguably safer than legal alcohol – the plant has never been shown to cause an overdose death – it makes no sense to waste tax revenue on failed policies that finance organised crime and facilitate hard drug use.
Policy Analyst, Common Sense for Drug Policy, Washington DC
Johann Hari's opinion piece on US drug prohibition connects the dots back to America's "noble experiment" to stamp out alcohol, and does it better than anything I've read in the US. Thanks to Mr Hari for that, and a belated thanks to the UK for smuggling good liquor to my grandparents' generation in the 1920s.
Someday this new prohibition too will pass, helped by Mr Hari's writing.
Palm Harbor, Florida, USA
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