EU sugar regime, Killing the planet and others

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The Independent Online

Sir: I was pleased to see that at last something is being done to reduce subsidies to beet sugar growers in the EU ("Bitter harvest", 22 June).

In 2002 I visited St Kitts in the Caribbean, a lovely island with a delightful population. We stayed in an old sugar plantation house that was still surrounded by fields of sugar cane although all the processing was now done in a central factory. There was evidence of the former plantation-based industry all over the island but the residents gloomily predicted the imminent closure of the sugar factory, the disappearance of the fields of sugar cane and major unemployment because of their inability to sell their sugar at an economic price because of subsidised EU beet sugar.

They were trying to replace the sugar industry with tourism as all other means of sustaining their economy are not open to them. Although the standard of living was better than some of the African countries your article refers to it will be hard to maintain what they have if they lose their sugar industry.



Sir: While the EU sugar regime is in need of adjustment, we should not let the rush to reform the Common Agricultural Policy blind us to the facts.

At present the UK only produces about half the sugar it consumes, and the cosy idea that in the world of free trade small African farmers would would make up any shortfall if less sugar is produced in Europe may be wildly optimistic.

While you state that Europe's sugar barons depress the world price by cheating in the world market, you take no account of the massive expansion in production of sugar on cleared rainforests in Brazil, a country which has has increased its sugar production tenfold over the last 15 years, effectively swamping world markets.

We need to guard against the worst case scenario of huge damage to the environment caused by increased industrial production on cleared rainforest, and a further depressed rural Britain.



'Choices' that are killing the planet

Sir: Charles Secrett writes ("We are killing the planet", 23 June) that climate change is the result of millions of people making the wrong choices rather than the fault of government and industry.

He says: "We can't escape the link between climate change and our individual daily behaviour: how much we drive ... whether we use public transport, walk or cycle whenever possible." This ignores the fact that employment has moved from locations on the public transport network to business parks and the like, generally accessible only by car.

He says that we should "try to find local producers for our food, so that it hasn't travelled halfway across the world". How do we do that, when 85 per cent of food is purchased from supermarkets, which operate international distribution chains? Where else do we go, since the alternatives have largely disappeared? The "choices" people can make are largely determined by corporate policy and government planning.

He suggests that environmental protection through increased regulation would lead to an "Orwellian nightmare", trampling on our civil liberties. The only alternative, he suggests, is for us to act as individuals. What rubbish! Since when did emissions regulations for cars, for example, lead to loss of individual freedom? Why should he reject the idea that co-ordinated action should spring from the collective expression that is democratic government? How else will it happen?



Sir: You report on the environmental cost of leaving appliances on standby ("Standby Britain", 23 June). I leave many home appliances on standby because the only way to turn them off is to fumble around behind them to try and find the socket and switch them off there. The Government and the EU should be working to oblige manufacturers to have a Power Off button on the front of all televisions, microwaves, VCRs etc. I do not need to have a glowing LED clock on every appliance in the house.



Sir: We need a feedback loop. If the country's daily energy use was displayed on television as part of the weather report, then people could see if their efforts to save energy were working.



New Zealand's experience of PR

Sir: Like Peter Tritt (letter, 20 June) I live in New Zealand, but unlike him I believe the Mixed Member Proportional voting system is working well.

Since its introduction the NZ parliament is much more broadly representative of the country, with more women and more Maori MPs, plus MPs of Chinese and Pacific Island origin. The election of nine Green MPs has provided a voice for the environment, critical at this time. There is still a bias towards the two established parties of the supposedly right and left, based on historical loyalty, but over time this distortion of democracy may fade.

If, as happens in most elections in NZ or the UK, the leading party has less than 50 per cent support of the electorate, usually less than 40 per cent, they cannot really be said to have "won". Surely a coalition government founded on co-operation is a much more democratic result than Tony Blair's disproportionate majority in the House of Commons, for which he really has no mandate.

In the end the issue is relatively simple: in a PR system every vote counts. That surely is the basis of democracy.



Sir: It is all very well for many of your correspondents to advocate PR as a way to encourage more of the electorate to vote, but consider its likely consequences.

Its advocates must expect PR will enable smaller parties to obtain some representation in Parliament. The electorate may believe that Parliament will reflect a wider spectrum of opinion. It is unlikely that any party will gain an overwhelming majority and governments will need to secure coalitions. Negotiating deals to form governments will give professional politicians more influence than ever and a key minority party in the coalition may enjoy influence quite detrimental to the interests of the majority.

The British Parliament, unlike most others, is not designed as a fan to represent various shades of opinion, but to confront the government of the day with an opposition. For three hundred years, British governments have needed to secure a parliamentary majority to justify remaining in power. The Opposition has dedicated itself to exposing the Government's weaknesses. If it succeeds in undermining the Government's parliamentary support it may bring down the Government.

What the electorate can do is to return a membership that is either clearly in favour of the government of the day, or uncompromisingly opposed to it. It is naive to suppose that the function of elections is to secure "fair" representation of public opinion rather than help Parliament to fulfil its main function of keeping the Government under critical scrutiny. Fair representation that leaves the formation of a new government so uncertain as to give professional politicians a freehand to manipulate the situation to their own advantage cannot possibly be in the general interest.



The freedom to curb population growth

Sir: David Nicholson Lord, in his column "The green issue that dare not speak its name" (20 June), correctly asserts that Interact Worldwide changed its name because as Population Concern we didn't have a "long-term survival rating"; more people than ever before have now joined us to dare to speak about sexual and reproductive rights.

Our name reflects our belief that the future of global sustainable development depends on acting to enable each individual to meet their needs. If we achieve this, population growth will no longer be an issue, though population decline may be. Does a woman in Bangladesh want 10 children, does she want unprotected sex with her HIV positive husband, and does she want to give birth on her own in insanitary conditions? If not, why does it happen?

To understand why an individual behaves as they do requires expert cultural, social and religious knowledge; only then can education and change be introduced. Interact Worldwide works with individuals, families, communities, marginalised and vulnerable groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America to provide services to address their sexual and reproductive health needs, and enable them to exercise their rights.



The girl with the golden ring

Sir: We visited Paris at the end of May and we, too, met the Girl with the Golden Ring, whilst strolling along the Rue de Rivoli.

It was our lucky day, apparently. Her parents were strictly religious and so would not condone the wearing of jewellery. What a wonderful souvenir of Paris for us to have. And the scam? So that we would not feel guilty about accepting the ring from her, she suggested we might, in exchange, give her a few euros for a drink.

It was a hot day. We decided to keep our euros and have a drink ourselves.



Branded sex offender for pat on the bottom

Sir: Yesterday afternoon I represented a young man who had made the stupid mistake of patting a woman on the bottom as she walked past him in a discotheque one Saturday night. The woman complained, with the result that my client was charged with an offence under the new Sexual Offences Act 2003 of a form of sexual touching without the woman's consent. To this matter my client co-operated completely and entered a plea of guilty.

Yesterday afternoon, in addition to an order of compensation and costs, my client was given a community sentence requiring him to do 60 hours' community service work. Because a community sentence was imposed on my client, he is now forced to register with the police as a sex offender and to inform the police of any change of name and address for the next five years.

While I would not wish to condone boorish behaviour of this kind, have we lost all and any sense of proportion? Is a young man who pats a woman on the bottom in the middle of a discotheque on a Saturday night really a dangerous sex offender who must be forced to register with the police?

When will this hysteria stop?



It's no fun on the High Court bench

Sir: John Walsh has some fun (23 June) with the resignation of Sir Hugh Laddie from the High Court because he missed the "fun" of his years as a barrister. In 1968 my father, Sir Henry Fisher, did the same thing, aged 49. Among his papers after his recent death I found the letter he wrote to friends at the time.

He said: "I am not resigning of the ground of ill health. I am not resigning in protest about anything. I have not been asked to resign. Nothing disreputable has occurred. I am resigning because I find judicial work uncongenial and I do not enjoy the life which Judges are expected to lead....

"I have been on the Bench for two and a half years. I have become increasingly restless and unhappy. It is not a role into which I find myself fitting. I find a Judge's life a dull life, and I have found myself becoming dull as a result. The art of advocacy is a fascinating one to practise, but to sit and listen day after day to other people's advocacy I find a wearisome ordeal." He added: "My example... is not likely to lead to a shortage of suitable people to do the judicial work."

He went into the City and then became President of Wolfson College, Oxford. You only have one life.



Blame for IT problems

Sir: Your report (22 June) on tax credits "chaos" should say who designed the awful IT system, and who ordered it; whose names are on the contract, whom they represent and how much it cost. The current penchant for dismissing problems as "IT", or "systems" secures anonymity for people who really should be well known.



No aid for guns

Sir: A photo caption in today's paper (22 June) states that critics claim that countries "such as Ethiopia" divert money provided for aid to pay for weapons. This is absolutely not the case. Aid is applied rigorously to development projects in Ethiopia and its distribution is strictly monitored. Ethiopia spends very little on arms; its defence budget amounts to 2 per cent of the country's GDP.



Tongue-tied fan

Sir: Pandora seems to think that David Schwimmer is an oddball for daring to question the diary's reporting standards (22 June). I can only salute Mr Schwimmer's gallantry. Having read Catherine Tate's light-hearted diary in the New Statesman, in which she jokingly referred to her tongue-tied nervousness in Mr Schwimmer's presence, I was bemused to see this presented by Pandora as evidence of apparent antagonism between the two co-stars.



Menace on the roads

Sir: Further to Trevor Cox's letter (23 june), yesterday evening I saw a man "driving" at approximately 40mph, lighting a cigarette with one hand while cupping the other round the flame, and staring intently at what he was doing. Although he was clearly obeying the hands-free driving regulation I'm afraid that I had to report him for failing to maim any of the small children playing in the park he was passing.



Unknown celebrities

Sir: "Celebrity watch: just one brain cell required" ran your headline (23 June), accompanied by the photographs of one male and two females. As I could not identify any of them I can only conclude that I am devoid of even one brain cell.