Prisons, council tax and others

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The Independent Online

Society must not turn a blind eye to what goes on in our prisons

Society must not turn a blind eye to what goes on in our prisons

Sir: I am also a recent convert to your newspaper, in common with your correspondent David McManus, but do not share his views on prisons ("Criminals deserve jail", 20 February).

Your front page article (18 February) rightly drew attention to the jails crisis, now that Britain's prison population has reached an all-time high. Overcrowded, underfunded, and understaffed prisons are failing to deliver an acceptable regime, and rehabilitation is closer to myth than reality. In addition, there are well documented cases of physical violence, psychological abuse, and racism, which are completely unacceptable. Is it any surprise that most prisoners reoffend following release from prison?

At a cost of £36,000 to keep one person in prison for a year, the British taxpayer is not getting good value for money. The recent £120,000 settlement for seven youths who experienced alleged violence at Portland Young Offender Institution also comes out of the taxpayer's purse. There are alternatives to prison. Community sentences cost less, and are usually more effective.

Your correspondent states that "society" is not responsible, and that these prisoners "chose to break the law". Society is responsible, though, for turning a blind eye to what goes on in our prisons. The "out of sight, out of mind" attitude is not acceptable. Surely, the aim should be to treat prisoners with respect, in a decent prison regime, and return them to society as rehabilitated citizens, with a view to reducing the reoffending rate.

It is an unacceptable generalisation to state that all prisoners choose to break the law. Your correspondent has overlooked the fact that around one in six of the overall prison population are on remand (i.e. innocent until proven guilty); some are acquitted when their trial is held.

My experience of prisons results from having been a frequent visitor to Styal Prison, Cheshire, in 2002, when my 18-year-old daughter, Sarah, was on remand. Tragically, she was one of the 14 women who died in 2003 whilst in the so-called care of HM Prison Service.

Malpas, Cheshire

Can't pay council tax? Get on your bike!

Sir: Your report about the IsItFair anti-council-tax campaign ("Revealed: grey masterminds of tax protest", 21 February) reinforces the impression that this movement is spearheaded by comfortably-off pensioners from the shires. They seem keen to shift the burden of paying for local services onto income-tax payers, or perhaps they still believe the Thatcherite myth that we can all get something for nothing.

The low tax rates of the 1980s were achieved by stealth. The windfall proceeds of North Sea oil revenues and privatisations, instead of being used to invest for the nation's future or to repay national debt, were squandered to appease the middle-classes. Quite apart from the impact on our infrastructure, this crazy economic strategy has left a generation with the belief that they can enjoy good services at little cost. Our local authorities are not now awash with saleable assets or mineral rights and must therefore raise revenues through taxation.

Sean O'Grady (Private Investor, 21 February) demonstrates that he understands the problems only of comparatively wealthy pensioners when he writes that "pensioners across the land are having their lives made miserable" by council tax. Vast numbers of pensioners in fact pay little or no council tax because the Government pays it for them through the Pension Credit and other benefit schemes.

Many of the elderly protesters are natural Conservative voters and probably fans of Norman Tebbit. Perhaps they should get on their bikes and move to somewhere cheaper rather than rioting. Similar advice from him was apparently good enough for the unemployed back in the 1980s.

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Sir: We should all support Mrs Elizabeth Winkfield's stand on council tax ("Pensioner chooses jail over council tax", 20 February). Not because the lady in question is 83 years old, but because the time has come to say enough is enough. All the town councils of England and Wales must become as competitive as the UK's private industry if they want to survive. Private businesses have to swim or sink on the strength of their business acumen but councils have a captive audience. People will have to pay no matter what.

Local councils and health bodies squander vast public sums every day, and there is little accountability. I know this for a fact as I worked within them. I have seen at first hand the absurd things that these bodies fritter the taxpayer's money away on.

If we do not support Mr Winkfield now, councils will continue to ride roughshod over us.

Huddersfield, West Yorkshire

Sir: Those advocating a local income tax have not thought through the most simple and predictable problems ("Council tax to be replaced by double levy", 16 February). With about 500 different local authorities throughout the UK, employers would have to operate over 500 different tax rates for each current band of taxation. Who is going to advise the employers who lives in which authority? What about the administration of people moving during the tax year?

During the poll tax hundreds of thousands of people "disappeared"- what is going to stop large numbers of income tax payers declaring they live with friends and relatives in cheaper income tax zones? What about the mega rich who never pay any income tax?

We need to look at taxing the concentration of wealth and land values. We must reduce the income tax burden, particularly on the low paid, not make it worse.

Chairman of The Liberal Party

Sir: The suggestion that pensioner home owners should have their council tax deferred is best described as utterly bonkers. It would result in an immediate and considerable shortfall in council tax revenue which would be bridged by - guess what? - higher council tax.

It would also create two classes of pensioner: home owners and the others. The others, generally the poorest pensioners, would of course have to pay the higher council tax caused by the immediate shortfall. The administration of such a system would also be very expensive.

London NW1

Kafka's Guantanamo

Sir: D R Gayler (letters, 21 February) casts about in search of a legal way in which to deal with the Guantanamo prisoners. It is not possible: there is no way. There was and is nothing legal about the manner of their capture and treatment. The US saves itself a lot of tiresome irritation by refusing to submit itself or its citizens to any international jurisdiction. Gayler tells us: "We have evidence that some of these individuals will take every future opportunity to attack the US". Have we? Will they? They may well now be more disposed than two years ago to fulfil his confident assertion.

He continues: "I agree that Guantanamo is bad. However, the UN is stuck in 1945 and unable to come up with rules that fit modern terrorist warfare." What evidence makes him think it matters to the US whatever the UN comes up with? Yes, the US would marginally prefer to act within the UN, but that only happens when the UN agrees with the US.

Some hundreds of people were arrested over two years ago "on suspicion" of fitting a new tailor-made category, that of "illegal enemy combatants" before being transported, contrary to generally accepted international law, halfway across the world to be held incommunicado and subjected to unlimited detention in inhumane conditions. The realpolitik is that the US will always please itself because it can.

Revealing his belief in the infallible justice of the process, the Guantanamo camp commander explained the basis of the detainees' guilt because (I paraphrase) they are all suspected of being involved in acts of terrorism or suspected of being associated with those involved in acts of terrorism. The crime that is Guantanamo comes straight off the pages of Kafka.

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Bombing signal

Sir: Stanley Saddington is quite wrong in his claim that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were decisive in forcing the Japanese surrender (letter, 21 February). At the time I was serving aboard the light cruiser HMS Argonaut in that theatre. Evidence of enemy activity was scarce and at one large island in that zone we once spotted a huge American merchant ship unloading commercial (not military) supplies. The ship's name was American Victory - all the talk at that time was of "when"?

Quite soon afterwards our captain, Samuel McCarthy, announced that the Americans had dropped a new type of weapon on Hiroshima. He said it was believed to have been a "magnesium bomb". There followed the bombing of Nagasaki and soon afterwards the "surrender".

In February 1946 we paid a visit to the Port of Kure where we went ashore in groups over several days for the short train journey to witness the destruction of Hiroshima. On that day I, and most of my shipmates, became opponents of nuclear weapons. Our view was that the bombings were carried out not to force the surrender of Japan but as a signal to the world of America's exclusive new capability.

For more on this subject I recommend Mr Saddington or any other readers who agree with his comments, to read John Hersey's Hiroshima.

Salford, Manchester

Farewell to real toys

Sir: Your report about the threat to Pollock's Toy Museum (report, 20 February) struck a chord with our family. During this half term we took a train trip to Cambridge for a day's shopping and sight-seeing. The principal objective for my two youngest was to spend their pocket money. The journey was full of speculation about what exciting toys they might find in the streets of this, as yet, unexplored city.

We toured the many streets looking for a toy shop, but to no avail. Eventually we inquired at the Tourist Information Centre to be told that there was no toy shop, although there was an Early Learning Centre and a small toy section at the back of a department store. However, we were told that there was a choice of several computer gaming stores.

My daughters may be unusual but at the ages of 13 and 11 they still "play" with toys. They create elaborate make-believe games which involve days of planning and role-playing and they still enjoy saving or earning money to collect sets of toys.

During the last years, I've watched toy shops in a number of market towns and cities close to be replaced with leisure sporting shops or outlets selling CDs, computer games and DVDs, and I can't be the only parent with a twinge of regret about this trend.

Perhaps we should all support Pollock's Toy Museum because I fear that shortly museums will be the only place we can show our children what real toys and real playing are about.


Boston beans

Sir: Robert Blood (letter, 20 February) is confused when he says that "Baked beans were invented as a way of using up molasses left over from the fermenting of sugar cane into rum". Baked beans were "invented" by native Americans (using maple syrup as the sweetener) long before the settlers arrived.

Bostonians, however, adapted the recipe and used molasses as the sweetener simply because of the cheapness resulting from the immense quantities that were imported. Molasses is not a by-product of making rum. It is the parent of most rums, rather than the child.

Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Small and beautiful

Sir: Jay Merrick's article on large public sculptures (Review, 20 February) drew our attention to the amounts of money spent on them. I would like to focus some attention on the smaller works which relate more directly to local people, and give great pleasure.

Two examples are that of the man drawing on a sock in Loughborough market place (it was a hosiery knitwear centre), and the sculpture of a young man planting out his flowers at the junction of London Wall and Moorgate in the City. I know neither sculptor I'm afraid, but I bet these smaller works give as much daily pleasure as big ones.

Diss, Norfolk

Money matters

Sir: Well, blow me down! Who'd have thought it? A company director earning £100,000 a year has more cash left over for luxuries after meeting all his living expenses than does a humble labourer on an annual screw of £10,000! ("Worst-paid take a month to earn as much as rich spend in a week", 20 February).

How much do we pay the statisticians of the ONS for stating the obvious?


'Next up, we head off'

Sir: Further to Miles Kington's glossary of television terms (20 February): "Next up" for "next"; "Head off" for "go". I haven't yet smashed the television set as a result of these two moronicisms but I will before long.

Tavistock, Devon

Cafe culture

Sir: If more academics follow the career change of Dr Karl Gensberg to gas fitter ("Academics fight back", 21 February) will this mean that transport cafes will no longer be "greasy spoons" but will become "museli bowls"?

Lewes, East Sussex