Oil companies on human rights, Inheritance and others

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Oil companies must be made to follow UN on human rights

Oil companies must be made to follow UN on human rights

Sir: As oil prices reach new heights it would be as well to realise that stability of price and security of supply will be achieved not by the geographical diversification of sources, but by political justice and economic equity in the producing countries. Unfortunately it is the former course that consuming countries, with the US in the lead, appear to be pursuing.

Nearly 70 per cent of the world's proven reserves of oil and gas lie in countries with poor human rights records. The growth of oil wealth has fuelled the ability of governments to invest in armaments and to transform small-scale corruption into personal or political gain on a scale hitherto undreamt of. The contrast between oil wealth and national poverty is nowhere more evident than in Angola and Equatorial Guinea, countries which may be considered secure from the turbulence of the Middle East.

While governments which have a responsibility for the protection of human rights under international law, companies have an inalienable responsibility for their impact on the human rights of their employees and of the communities in which they operate. This has now been recognised by some oil companies, with Shell and BP the leaders in building a human rights responsibility into their business principles and recognising that explicit adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is necessary to avoid the accusation of complicity with oppressive governments. These companies, however, remain the in minority and market forces do little to increase their number by rewarding the better performers.

The recently developed United Nations Norms for the human rights responsibilities of companies now offer an opportunity to extend the influence of market forces by providing criteria against which company policies and performance can be judged. They set out principles, based on the Universal Declaration and allied instruments, which any civilised society can expect its companies to observe.

The Norms fall short of the regulatory framework which will ultimately be needed to make trans-national business adequately accountable, but this is many years away. The current version also requires its language and purpose to be clarified. But as a clear set of principles, visible to investors, consumers and the public at large, against which company performance can be judged, the Norms could have an immensely beneficial impact in assisting the creation of a level playing field for good companies and improving the performance of the bad. The formal endorsement of such principles by the UN will now depend on governments' and companies' capacity for statesmanship in supporting them.

Dorking, Surrey
The writer, a former director of Shell International, was Founder-Chair of the Amnesty International UK Business Group 1991-2001

Let the community inherit your property

Sir: Can't Michael Brown think of anything more to say than repeating the old saws about "passing on the fruits of a lifetime's achievement"? His children should be just as able to make their way in life as he. The "passing on fruits" he advocates has produced a situation where 85 per cent of the land in this country is still controlled by 5 per cent of the population.

Yes, everyone needs the freedom to build, express themselves and accumulate during their lifetime. But when they're in their box, let the resources go back into the bucket and be re-distributed so everyone else can have a new equal opportunity. That's how you generate dynamism and creativity.

I and my wife have used our entire pension savings to buy a five-storey house containing four dwellings, and turned it into a housing co-operative. We have a flat with a wonderful view to retire to; we share the garden, the laundry utility services, the gas bill, the council tax with the other residents; and when we die, instead of our pension pot being sucked onto some swamp in the city, it will go on providing housing at a realistic rate (about 25 per cent of income) to the occupants. The co-op won't have to pay any inheritance tax. And it has rescued a beautiful house from the hysterical speculative market generated by estate agents and money-lenders.

Witney, Oxfordshire

Sir: Michael Brown asks whether it is right for the state to have any claim on the lifetime wealth built up by people. Surely an equally relevant question would be: "why should anyone be able to consume wealth he has done nothing whatsoever to earn simply because of his inheritance?"

It is especially relevant if the greater part of that inheritance is the result of the capital gain on his parents' house which will have been unearned and totally the creation of society. The wealth of my wife and I has been made liable to the inheritance tax solely due to the ten-fold increase in the value of our house.


Sir: The value of my home has increased considerably and is now worth somewhat more than the inheritance tax threshold. I've done nothing to deserve this - it's just my children's good fortune. They'll probably inherit £263,000 tax-free and 60 per cent of the rest. I love my family, but why should they have more? I'm happy to contribute the rest to the common wealth.

Wallingford, Oxfordshire

Sir: Michael Brown's principle (24 August) that we should be permitted to pass on free of tax "the fruits of a lifetime's achievement" that has arisen "solely because of the recent property boom" is bizarre.

More serious is that he misleads by suggesting that recourse to inheritance trusts is restricted to the really rich. That is not so. He would have served his readers better by pointing out that we all have the same right to create a nil rate band discretionary trust. It's simple to do and easy to explain. The right to pass on £263,000 exists even when all passes to a spouse. Create a trust and that sum still benefits the survivor but is outside the estate on the spouse's death. Thus a couple wishing to pass on "the fruits of their achievement" can create an effective tax threshold of £526,000.

London SW17

Motorway madness

Sir: As an 18-year-old who has recently spent six months and hundreds of pounds learning to drive I find it infuriating to read that people cruise in the overtaking lane (as I was taught), or middle lane, because "it can be very intimidating ... to find a large wagon 6ft from the rear of your vehicle" (letter, 25 August).

If these people are unable to drive on a motorway with other vehicles without moving "to the centre lane where they feel safer", perhaps their licences should be taken away and they should spend £25 an hour learning to drive and put themselves on a three-waiting list before taking another test? Why do they think they are excused from following the rules of the Highway Code, rule 238 of which states: "You should drive in the left-hand lane if the road ahead is clear. If you are overtaking a number of slower-moving vehicles it may be safer to remain in the centre or outer lanes until the manoeuvre is completed rather than continually changing lanes. Return to the left-hand lane once you have overtaken all the vehicles or if you are delaying traffic behind you."

Coldharbour, Surrey

Sir: Many people participating in the "middle lane" debate have seemed to blame HGVs. I can understand that the way HGVs overtake each other with hardly any speed differential is frustrating and they can seem intimidating; but I am also aware of the motorists who decide to leave the middle lane and the motorway at the same time, driving across the front of an HGV, or motorists who drive along a slip road onto a motorway oblivious of the HGV on the main carriageway.

The people who drive like this are probably very normal, nice people who do not seem to realise they could kill themselves and others. I observe these scary people everyday whilst I drive an articulated lorry.

Aldershot, Hampshire

Sir: How to free up 700 miles of motorway? Easy: introduce undertaking on all stretches of motorway with three or more lanes. This no-cost option would concentrate wonderfully the minds of the map-readers, mobile-phone users, newspaper readers and the "I am doing 60mph and that's fast enough for anybody behind me" brigade. It might even save money by creating shorter journey times, particularly for HGVs.

Saffron Walden, Essex

Homeless solutions

Sir: Johann Hari is right to highlight all that New Labour has done for the homeless ("Where did all the homeless people go?", 20 August). Fewer people are forced to sleep rough, more supported housing is available and the young people Centrepoint sees now have an improved chance of moving on to independent lives. All aided by government policy.

He also says of those now housed in B&B and not on the street that "it's far better than sleeping under a bridge". Again, this is hard to argue against. But what about the increasing number of 16- and 17-year-olds that Centrepoint is seeing, trapped in B&B accommodation with older and often chaotic residents, subject to squalid conditions and without support from local authorities? Better than sleeping under a bridge it may be, but still a frightening situation for a child that has just been forced to leave home.

The Government is doing much to remove families with children from B&B, as Hari points out. So why allow local authorities to house young people aged 16 and 17 in their place? After all, they are vulnerable children too.

Director, Policy and Communications
London E1

Language learning

Sir: Your opinion (editorial, 26 August) that the curriculum and style of language teaching need substantial reform to give French and German relevance and appeal unwittingly perpetuates the pernicious idea, responsible for the continuing drop in the number of language learners in our schools, that language learning is a purely utilitarian training in communication with our nearest neighbours, not particularly useful because they all understand English anyway.

It is, on the contrary, a basic component of education which enhances the learner's cognitive skills, as has been amply proved over the centuries by the mind-expanding role of classical languages, which are of minimal communicative purpose. In this perspective French and German are no more important that, say, Latin, Italian, Old Icelandic, Russian, Mandarin or Japanese, which should also be vigorously taught and promoted within our educational system.


Dotty habit

Sir: The information that Alan Sillitoe uses the Morse code as a creative aid (report, 24 August) does not surprise me, as an OWL (operator wireless and line) of even older vintage.

As a member of a special communications unit, I transmitted and received coded Morse at high speeds in four-hour shifts, working direct to Bletchley Park from Germany (1945), Egypt (1946) and Palestine (1947). We never get the cursed dots and dashes completely out of our system, and even now I find myself running through the alphabet, using a ballpoint pen as an improvised Morse key.

St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex

Blistering barnacles!

Sir: Whilst studying zoology and genetics at the University of Sheffield I was told that the record for penis length ("Survival of the biggest", 25 August) goes to a group of small crustaceans studied intensively by Charles Darwin, the barnacle, some species of which have penises that are up to 20 times their body length, a consequence of their sedentary lifestyle.


Liturgical language

Sir: While I appreciate Robert Matijasic's letter (26 August) on the subject of Eastern Europe, I wonder if he is not being slightly simplistic. Where, for example, would he place Romania, whose language is Latinate, but whose religion is Orthodox, having been evangelised by Slavs? Interestingly, the Lord's Prayer in Romanian displays fewer signs of Slavic influence than the Creed. Latin, as the language of the church and therefore of the administration, was much more dominant in the Western Christian world than Greek in the Eastern, where each autocephalous church used its own language in its liturgy.


To Athens and back

Sir: The story of the run from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC (letter: "The first marathon", 24 August) does have a respectable antiquity. Herodotus (fifth century BC) only mentions Pheidippides' run from Athens to Sparta before the battle, but Plutarch (first century AD) writes of the fatal run to Athens ("in full armour") with news after the battle, and Lucian (second century AD) gives the runner the name Pheidippides. The name for the Olympic race may rely less on history than on a later, less sound tradition, but it has a long pedigree as a myth to admire, and a continuing message of endurance and dedication, as we see.

Chichester, West Sussex

Sir: A famous American football coach, Bear Bryant, would admonish his players to give their very best in playing the game; then after, win or lose, they could look people in the eye without shame. Paula Radcliffe should think of that advice. If she tried as hard as she could to win her marathon, then no apologies from her are necessary, and you Brits should appreciate her efforts.

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