Drugs: sanity in short supply
Mary Ann Sieghart's persuasive argument under the headline: "Restore sanity in the debate on drugs" (1 November) is unlikely to cut much ice with the British government. Nor, I fear, will the article in The Lancet co-authored by former chief adviser on drugs, Professor David Nutt, which argues that alcohol is more harmful to society than heroin or crack cocaine.
I wrote to Nick Clegg shortly after the election in the hope that if the Coalition was sincere about a "new form of politics" it would look at cannabis use with more rationality than Alan Johnson, who, as Home Secretary in 2009, fired Professor Nutt for having the audacity to question the government approach.
A Home Office official replied to my letter: "The Government has no intention of legalising the recreational use of any currently controlled drug." After a paragraph about how such an act would send the wrong message to young people, the letter continued: "The Government's objective is to reduce the use of all illegal drugs substantially. The Government acknowledges that alcohol and tobacco account for more health problems and deaths than illegal drugs ... However, the means by which these substances are regulated is embedded in historical tradition and tolerance of responsible consumption."
I can't decide whether Home Office officials live in a different world from the rest of us, or ministers are just too afraid of sections of the tabloid press to open up an honest debate.
Responding to David Nutt's report, which has found alcohol to be more damaging than both heroin and crack, I would ask what legal change he would like to see.
There are two options: to make alcohol illegal, or to make the other drugs legal. The former has been tried before, and failed. Making alcohol illegal would only serve to give criminal organisations a new market to fight over. People will drink, regardless of the legality of alcohol. It is too much a part of our culture, for better or for worse, to be taken away.
Making other drugs legal would surely only add to society's problems with drugs. Given how many problems are caused by drunken behaviour, is it really likely we would see a reduction in crime rates and anti-social behaviour by adding heroin, crack, and others to the list?
May I express disgust at the manner in which the American army systematically destroys the poppy crops of Afghan farmers? Recently a drugs factory was also destroyed.
Yes, the crops will be sold to others who will attempt to export drugs to the United States and Europe. But it is the responsibility of these Western states to control their own borders. The Afghan farmer should remain free to grow whatever crop will provide him with a livelihood.
Planet drowning in people
One can only welcome the outcome of the Nagoya biodiversity meeting ("A giant leap for the natural world", 30 October). Yes, we must create world heritage sites and protected areas; create corridors between reserves; craft treaties which attempt to limit exploitation of once abundant natural resources such as cod, pacific salmon, whales and European migrant songbirds. There are numerous ways we can tinker with the leftovers of a once magnificent biosphere, but are we really able to stop the decline in biodiversity?
All the evidence suggests that at best the rate of loss can only be slowed slightly. Relict populations remain vulnerable to accidents such as oil spills; diseases such as chytrid fungus (amphibians), foot-and-mouth disease (Saiga antelopes) and morbilliviruses (wild ungulates, cetaceans and seals); civil strife (mountain gorillas in Rwanda); climate change; and human greed which dictates that roads and safari lodges shall be built across the Serengeti plains, that soya bean and cattle farms shall replace the Amazon rain forest and that oil palms shall supplant the rain forests of south-east Asia.
We are heading rapidly for a planet uniformly inhabited only by man, industrial scale monocultures of animal and plant crops, and plague species such as grey squirrels, ring-necked parakeets, brown rats, locusts, feral swine, cats and dogs, cane toads, signal crayfish, lantana, prickly pear, Himalayan balsam, water hyacinth and Japanese knotweed, to name only a few – the very antithesis of natural biodiversity. Conservation areas, old and new alike, are being plundered by the burgeoning human populations which surround them, because the people lack any other options to provide for their families.
One driver of the problems we face is consistently missing from the agenda of virtually all high-level meetings on biodiversity, world food production and climate change: that of human over-population. Our planet is drowning in people. The peoples of the world have to take responsibility for reducing their populations, not just curbing growth.
Dr Peter Roeder FRCVS
Headley Down, Hampshire
Don't treat NHS like a business
John Appleby (letter, 30 October ) calls for higher productivity in the NHS. His view from the Kings Fund has surely shown him how flawed official calculations of productivity in the NHS are – vastly underestimating its current level and recent growth.
To most people, if my GP spends eight minutes instead of six on a consultation he is less productive. But if his diagnosis is then better and treatment quicker and more effective, there is actually improvement. While normal commercial standards regard reducing the number of hospital beds and the space they occupy as boosting productivity, this has been shown to make cleaning less effective; to increase the danger of serious infections; and to ensure that there is no spare capacity to cover major disasters or serious epidemics.
While official statistics include virtually all the costs falling on the NHS, most of the benefits that accrue outside it are ignored. Where are the credits for the steady increase in longevity; the rapid increase in survival rates for heart disease and cancer; the time and suffering saved form greater use of more effective drugs, and shorter stays in hospital?
The social return on the near-£100bn spent on the NHS can be conservatively calculated as producing a return of around 9 per cent a year to the country.
'Last shot' for firms in trouble
In response to your article "A blow to the CVA as Suits You goes down" (Outlook, 28 October), it is my view that an unfair reflection of company voluntary arrangements (CVAs) has been portrayed. Over the past two years, we have worked with distressed companies and their creditors to develop CVAs as a "last shot" for businesses, their creditors and employees on the brink of administration. Many businesses have gone on to see a successful turnaround and a return to profit after going through a CVA.
For the CVA to take effect the company and its creditors must agree a compromise; CVAs are effectively social welfare for businesses in distress. In the case of Suits You, the employees and landlords were given a stay of execution, receiving another six months' money; if the CVA had not been agreed, the company would have gone into administration in February, with 300 job losses immediately.
CVAs are not the only tool insolvency practitioners are developing to provide more constructive options. "Pre-pack" administrations – tarred by the brush of so-called phoenix companies, where unscrupulous managers use the pre-pack to cut off creditor debts – are also being developed for good. The East London Bus Company is one recent example where a pre-pack of the parent company allowed us to sell the shares of the business to Stagecoach, while ensuring it was business as usual for the operation, the company's 4,800 employees and the passengers using its bus services.
Many people in the insolvency profession, management teams, the property industry and beyond are working hard to find better solutions to resolving corporate distress; their efforts should be supported in these tough times.
UK Head of Restructuring
KPMG, London E14
The sad death of council housing
Can we please stop using the term "social housing"?
I grew up in the 1960s very happily on a huge Birmingham council estate. My parents, like hundreds of thousands of others, were rehoused after the Second World War by Birmingham Corporation in new council homes.
Renting your house from the council was then a normal, decent, pleasant and rational lifestyle choice, as it still is across Europe for millions of families from all walks of life. Council housing's relentless decay into social housing was a direct result of Margaret Thatcher's right to buy.
This reduced the municipal housing stock, stoked a raging private housing market and drove thousands of families into private renting, creating the inflated market for both renting and owner occupation that has blighted the UK for the past 30 years and is directly responsible for the present housing shortage and the cost of housing benefit (letters, 1 November). The problem is not too-generous benefits but too-high rents.
The solution is an end to the right to buy and renewed council house building, not depriving families of the basic right to security of housing.
Traitor to Iraq's Christians
Jennifer Butterfield's claim that Tariq Aziz is an "educated man of integrity" (letter, 30 October) could not be farther from the truth.
This was an Assyrian Christian man (whose real name was Mikhail Yuhanna) who abandoned his marginalised community and threw his lot in with the nationalist Ba'ath party from an early age. Yes, he was a secularist, but secularism is a brutal weapon if married to ruthless nationalism.
The Assyrians of Iraq, who are the oldest Christian community in the world, are politically isolated and religiously persecuted and have been fleeing for their lives to neighbouring countries and abroad for a century. My own family left Iraq in the early 1970s for these very reasons. It is an affront to their sensibilities and experiences to label this great traitor, who ordered the torturing and murder of scores of people and employed spies within his own community to weed out Ba'ath party dissenters, as a man who has an exemplary moral compass.
Wind farms won't help
All across this country, and abroad, vast wind farms (letters, 1 November) and solar arrays are being built and ruining the countryside. We imagine their purpose is to combat climate change by reducing CO2. All the evidence so far is that they will do nothing of the kind. They will simply be supplementary sources of energy to oil and gas, which are being exploited to the last drop.
The only ways I have heard of to reduce CO2 is by carbon capture and a reduction in demand, mainly by population reduction.
East Preston, Sussex
Assuming every wind farm is extracting energy from this natural source, as it passes by, then how many UK wind farms before we have extracted all the energy – and the wind just stops?
Sorry, we're all below average
Francis Kirkham (letter, 1 November) fears that the general public won't understand about Ofsted's labels because "half of them are of below average intelligence". It might be worse than that: in the same way that a few Rooneys move the average salary above the median, having a few really clever people in the country means more than half the rest of us are below average.
Is it instructive that Francis Kirkham, commenting on the ability of the general public to understand a complicated issue, writes that "half of them", rather than "half of us" are of below average intelligence?
St Andrews, Fife
Laurie Penny (Opinion, 1 November) accuses J K Rowling of celebrating class privilege. She seems to have ignored the fact that the last four Harry Potter books are about a resistance movement, led by Harry, the muggle-loving Weasleys, and the muggle Hermione Granger. They have been in deadly combat with the pure-blood wizarding families, who are as Laurie Penny describes, elitist, reactionary, supporters of Voldemort, and implicitly Brown-Shirt fascists. Lots of things you can dislike about the Potter roman-fleuve, just not that.
Hurrah for Deborah Ross's entertaining demolition of "water fascists" (1 November). Shame, though, that she didn't have space for a brief rant against those who sip out of bottles of mineral water every few minutes as they go about their daily round. They wind me up something chronic. Have a decent glug of the stuff before going out, why don't you?
Perspectives on airline bombs
US attacks in Yemen
The discovery of explosive materials in two planes en route from Yemen comes just a few months after the Washington Post reported that CIA sources believe al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — based in Yemen — now represents a greater threat to the US security than al-Qa'ida in Pakistan.
Since the attempt by a Yemen-trained terrorist to destroy a US-bound plane last Christmas there has been a major crackdown in Yemen. An air strike against suspected militants in December killed 41 civilians, including 14 women and 21 children, and a US cruise missile attack in May mistakenly killed a Yemeni government official. A recent Amnesty International report expresses concern about unlawful killings, arbitrary arrest, torture, unfair trials and disappearances in Yemen and says the distinction has been blurred between AQAP terrorists and Houthi fighters – separatists who have waged a rebellion against the state since 2004.
The role of the US military in air strikes in Yemen has never been acknowledged, but according to the New York Times the US "provided firepower, intelligence and other support" in raids across the country last December, and ABC News reported that this support has included cruise missile strikes.
While extremists in Yemen represent a growing danger to Western countries, it is important that this real threat is not used as an excuse to act unlawfully or to breach human rights. If Western countries become complicit in allowing arbitrary arrest, torture and extra-judicial killings they will lose the moral high ground in the battle against extremist violence.
The great Chicago printer famine
Am I the only one just a teeny bit surprised that it needed a tip-off for the authorities to become just the weeniest bit suspicious of computer printers being sent from Yemen to synagogues in Chicago? I guess that the local HP, Dell, Epson, Apple and Brother stores must have had a bit of a run on printers over the weekend and Yemen was offering such a good deal that even the local rabbis had to overcome their understandable reluctance to purchase from such a source.
But thanks to our ever-vigilant "intelligence" community we are now safe to introduce even more crackpot and useless security measures. John Reid gave us the ban on water, what knee-jerk response is dear Theresa May going to come up with?
Security too tight? Not any more
A British Airways executive stands up and calls for a big rethink on over-draconian airport security. But a few days later, the US and UK governments announce a huge security coup, foiling a plot to blow up planes with bombs in cargo. Hmmm.
And the US thanks the UK and the airwaves fill with security "experts" calling for even tougher security measures surrounding air travel.
I am terrified – but not for the reasons the BBC and others want me to be. I used to fear it was all George Bush and Tony Blair, but it seems this will be the policy whoever is in power. The dark days, it seems, are here for good.
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