Public spending, EU and others

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Spending review needs to tackle rising income inequality

Spending review needs to tackle rising income inequality

Sir: You report (28 June) that the former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, has set up a think tank to combat (inter alia) poverty. In this context it is interesting to note that the current Labour government has so far done little to reduce income inequality in the UK.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) measures the inequality of disposable income (ie, income after taking into account tax and social security benefits) by means of the so-called "Gini Co-efficient". This is an index from one to 100, and the higher the index figure at any time, the greater the degree of inequality of disposable income: 1 would represent total equality and 100 would represent total inequality.

The most recent ONS figures published in May 2004 cover the years 1979-80 to 2002-03 (the latest year for which figures are available). They show that the Gini Co-efficient figure in 2002-03 at 34.0 is the same as the figure that Labour inherited in 1997. In the meantime it drifted up to 36.0 in 2001-02.

Under Margaret Thatcher's administration the Gini Co-efficient averaged 29.9. Under Labour so far it has averaged 35.0. Income inequality under Labour so far, on the ONS measure, has thus averaged one sixth higher than it was under Mrs Thatcher.

It will be interesting to see whether the next Comprehensive Spending Review, due in around a week's time, addresses this issue further.

Head of Economics, Numerica
London W1

Only British ministers can make case for EU

Sir: Jim Dougal, explaining his resignation as head of the London Office of the European Commission (Opinion, 5 July), says he hopes he has a skill in communication. On this evidence, and from previous personal knowledge, I can assure him and your readers that he is a consummate communicator.

I can speak directly only for myself, but I am in touch with 400 former EU civil servants in this country as chairman of their pensioners' association. Jim's article puts concisely and very precisely some of the points that have increasingly worried us over the last four or five years. Bombarded as we are by volleys of straight bananas and bent cucumbers, we marvel that our Government seems unable (or is it unwilling?) to mount a counter-bombardment against these and a hundred other Euro-myths.

Jim correctly analyses why and how the Brussels authorities have become ever less capable of selling their product in this country. Our national leadership does not suffer from the same disabilities. If it does not begin to act soon it will, on this issue, near the point of meriting the criticism levelled against the Santer Commission - as having the leadership qualities of Little Bo-Peep and the moral courage of Little Miss Muffet. (Try translating that into any of twenty other European languages, and you will grasp Jim's point that only British politicians can persuade British audiences of the realities of Europe).

Chairman, AIACE-UK
Alresford, Hampshire

Sir: Jim Dougal doubts whether many people outside Portugal have heard of the next president of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barrosa. The problem is much wider than that. It would be very interesting to know in this country what proportion of the population can name their ward councillors or MP. We might be surprised, too, by the proportion who cannot pin-point where Brussels is on a map of Europe.

Lytham, Lancashire

Alternative NHS

Sir: While your report on the dangers of prescribed drugs ("Reactions to common medicines kill 10,000 each year", 2 July) is shocking, the experience of less severe adverse effects has become commonplace, especially for people with longstanding illness or multiple health problems. The desire to avoid or reduce medication is one of the main reasons for people choosing to use alternative and complementary therapies. Your report highlights that such a choice is not only rational, but also has the potential to save the NHS considerable amounts of money.

Why then are complementary therapies that are booming in the private sector so rarely provided within the NHS? How does this promote patient choice and equity? Is it acceptable for the rich to escape the dangers of adverse drug effects whilst the less advantaged end up in hospital?

Despite a few inspiring examples of combining complementary and orthodox approaches in, for example, cancer care and in deprived communities, most of these projects struggle to survive on a hotch-potch of short-term or charitable funding. Crucial organisations such as the Research Council for Complementary Medicine are still, after 20 years of work, having to launch new appeals for charitable support.

Ten thousand deaths and £466m a year represent some of the hidden costs of modern pharmaceuticals. It is time the Government funded a wider range of treatment options for patients to use, so that they can combine the best of conventional and alternative health care. Acupuncture on prescription? Why not?

Research Council for Complementary Medicine
London W1

World class

Sir: Arifa Akbar's article on how "immigrant children make learning a richer experience for [us] all" (26 June) goes a long way to redress the current tabloid media bias about the so-called uncontrolled influx of asylum seekers and the more relaxed rules of EU members' rights to work elsewhere.

I teach in an inner-London comprehensive, where the pupils' cultural backgrounds are wonderfully diverse. Ms Akbar wrote a thoroughly enlightening and uplifting report of how children from diverse cultures can enrich one another's understanding of our world. Pupils are not the only beneficiaries of a multi-ethnic community. Teachers, too, reap rich benefits.

I have been enriched by the linguistic skills of my pupils at Cardinal Hinsley High School. Our Portuguese pupils greet all teachers with a cheery "Bon Dia". The Sri Lankan pupils have taught us their traditional greeting: "Eberdee, Sir/Miss". I am happy to practise my schoolgirl French with our pupils from the Congo and the Ivory Coast. Recently, a year 10 pupil translated Frida Kahlo's Spanish messages for us all. A pupil (14-years-old), fluent in German, teaches us "Du bist wer Du bist", and I am still reflecting on this philosophy. I am now familiar with the distinctions between the national flags of the Caribbean islands and those of Egypt and the Philippines - thanks to a series of cultural exchanges during our GCSE art classes.

Thank you to Ms Akbar for her optimistic report.

Head of Art, Cardinal Hinsley Roman Catholic High School for Boys, London NW10

Film archive

Sir: As a frequent user of the British Film Institute, I have followed the recent correspondence about its archive with interest. As all your correspondents note, users are well aware of its heritage importance and of the challenges to that heritage. We should at least welcome the Institute's willingness to take a serious, critical look at these challenges, generating this overdue public debate.

Contrary to assertions by Mr Young and Mr Bell (letters, 23 June, 1 July), making tough, open, curatorial choices under resource constraints strikes me as less "arrogant" than abdicating responsibility for making such choices under the guise of a bogus cultural neutrality and pipe-dreams of increased public funding.

Mr Young refers to commercial companies "donating" their collections "in good faith" only to find years later that the archive is struggling to make these collections entirely available. May I suggest that this is because it takes a little more than "good faith" to preserve and maintain collections. Costs for maintaining individual collections can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, largely expected to come out of the public purse. What I have always failed to understand in my dealings with the Institute is why I pay a paltry access fee to the archive (which I know does not cover its costs in making its material available to me), yet I pay substantial copyright fees to third-party commercial companies who, I understand, generally make no financial contribution to the preservation of material which they stress that they "own".

Instead of simply pronouncing on what more we expect to take from the Institute and its archive (while taking its current services and achievements for granted) we should learn more about the realities of archiving, then concentrate on what we - its donors, users and beneficiaries - can contribute to it.

London E17

Headscarf ban

Sir: The recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights ("Human rights court upholds headscarf ban", 30 June) should alarm everyone. The ruling will reinforce the idea that the court has a very Eurocentric concept of human rights. Implicit in the ruling is the idea that, while it is wrong for Muslims to impose their will on others, it is alright for a secular state to impose its will on Muslims. The court is not qualified to decide what constitutes a religious obligation for Muslims.

Secularists can be as fanatical as misguided people of faith - Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Baathist Iraq are proof of this fact. The court is keen to protect the secularist principles of Turkey; the same secular Turkey that has an abysmal record on human rights. The ruling is ignorant at best and bigoted at worst.

London NW4

Sir: Your recent correspondent (25 June) was right to point out that the French word ostensible should not be translated by "ostensible" but wrong to render it as "ostentatious", which is ostentatoire. The religious symbols now banned in French schools are those that are "conspicuous".


Health accounting

Sir: The change to healthcare accounting methodology was not "snuck out" (Outlook, 2 July). National Accounts releases in April and May explained that it was likely to be introduced in June. On 30 June, the Office for National Statistics published an article detailing all of the changes to measuring health outputs. It outlines all of the revisions openly and transparently, shows both the old and new series, and sets out comprehensively the new basis for the figures and the reasons for moving to it from what was done before.

Whilst the new methodology is a significant advance, it does not represent a change in the principles of measurement. What has changed is the depth and breadth of the calculation, reflecting the improvements that have come about in the availability of detailed and more reliable data, particularly the cost of individual procedures.

Executive Director
Office for National Statistics
London SW1

Children's freedoms

Sir: My son attends A S Neill's Summerhill School (Deborah Orr, 3 July; letter, 5 July) and, far from being allowed to do as he likes, is subject to over 200 laws, all decided on democratically by the community (of which the large majority of its members are children) and enforced by the community. Transgression of the laws results in the offender being fined by the community. Neill advocated "freedom not licence". It would appear that Lucy, the mother in Wife Swap, is allowing her children to practice licence not freedom.

Wouldham, Kent

Terror support

Sir: I am an old, overweight, rather cowardly, law-abiding Englishman. Had I been imprisoned for months, or even years, without being charged and without access to the machinery of justice, or had I seen my family and friends slaughtered without warning or reason, then despite my enjoyment of comfort I would by now be a dedicated and active supporter of Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida.

New Barnet, Hertfordshire

Lost taxes

Sir: Concern for the nation's health and environment in respect of obesity, smoking and the use of motor vehicles may lead to greater hazards. The loss of taxation revenue from junk food, tobacco, petrol and diesel when we are all lean, non-polluting citizens will have to be made good. Does one expect a swingeing bicycle tax?

Andover, Hampshire

Smoking choices

Sir: Labour should ignore John Reid and push ahead with a smoking ban in public places. This could be offset with the proviso that pubs, clubs and restaurants could apply for smoking licences as they do for alcohol.

Licensing authorities could check up on premises ventilation, etc, and the criteria could be set so that only a minority would be successful. This would give customers and staff what politicians say we all want - choice.

Watford, Hertfordshire

Safe haven for swallows

Sir: The reason there are no swallows over Mottingham, SE9 (letter, 5 July) is probably because they have nested in the workshop in our barn at the Lizard in West Cornwall. It is a place where they, their eggs and their young are safe from marauding magpies.

Helston, Cornwall

Take no notice

Sir: Never mind running sheep in Derbyshire (letter 2, July), in Margate there are worse things to worry about. Martians have landed and we are required to show them respect. On one crossing pedestrians are reminded that they should "Wait for green man to cross".