Blunkett's populist pandering to selfish bigots is a disgrace
Sir: Johann Hari is to be congratulated on his article "Why is David Blunkett bullying and terrifying asylum-seekers?" (3 December).
The answer is populism. Judging by the steady stream of letters on the subject in my local paper and snatches of casually heard conversations, we have become a nation of selfish bigots and the responsibility for this lies in the main with the right-wing press.
Unfortunately, the supreme consideration of Blair, Blunkett and the others is to secure their re-election for a third term, and to this end they are apparently prepared to go to whatever lengths they deem necessary, regardless of the strengthening of support for right-wing extremists which is an outcome of Blunkett's disgraceful pronouncements.
A more sensible course of action for the Government would be to counter the gutter press and ensure that the facts around the whole question of immigration and asylum are widely known and understood, but of course that would be a less sure route to a third term in office than populist pandering.
I am a life-long Labour supporter with nothing but contempt for the present unprincipled leadership.
GEORGE F YOUNG
Sir: Proposals to limit the right to trial by jury are facing much opposition, though Mr Blunkett seems determined to force the proposals into law.
The Home Office has also put forward proposals to reduce the number of inquests held with a jury. The recent review recommends that juries, which now sit in 3 per cent of cases in England and Wales, should be used only in cases where someone compulsorily in the care of the state has died in unclear circumstances, where a death has been caused by agents of the state, or other cases where the issue is whether the state has fulfilled its duty to safeguard the right to life.
At present, a jury is always summoned when someone dies in custody, and that should continue to be the case, especially as the number of prison deaths has shown a disturbing increase. To suggest that, in future, a jury should only be used when someone has died in "unclear circumstances" is unacceptable. How can anyone decide, ahead of the inquest, and before hearing the evidence, whether or not a death in custody has occurred in "unclear circumstances"?
I write as the mother of the late Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, aged 18, who died in January 2003, whilst in Styal Prison, Cheshire. No date has been set for my daughter's inquest, but it is imperative that the inquest is held with a jury if there is to be any semblance of justice.
PAULINE B CAMPBELL
Too many students on wrong courses
Sir: I was disappointed with your leader on university top-up fees (3 December) as you seem to have fallen into the same trap as the Government. The crisis in university funding has been created by an obsession with increasing numbers. It's as if propelling more students onto a university course, any course, was the only thing that mattered.
Shouldn't we be more concerned about the balance of the courses on offer, with the number of students attending media studies courses increasing by 16 per cent last year while those on maths courses fell by 4 per cent? Shouldn't we be more concerned about distinguishing between applicants who are motivated to study and those who see university as a pleasant way to postpone the awful necessity of starting a career? Shouldn't we be giving equal emphasis to the alternatives to the university route, such as a structured commercial or industrial training scheme? The Government is faced with the top-up fee predicament because of a lopsided approach to higher education over the last 20 years.
Sir: The impending showdown over tuition fees will do nothing to address the real issue: how can young people with no income live away from home for at least three years while they study?
The answer must be a combination of work and study. A part-time degree, sponsored and supported by an industry or a state employer offering part-time paid work experience, would be more balanced and economically viable. Students would not incur the debts that have now become commonplace, and they would find the transition to work easier.
I took a part-time OU degree whilst working full-time in a demanding IT job earning £35,000 per annum, and managed to get a 2:1. If I can do it, anyone else can.
Sir: While it is quite fun to see the Government on the back foot over university tuition fees, those of us who work in universities are in a no-win situation.
If the Government wins, we will be faced with disgruntled students who regard themselves as having "paid" for a degree and so will complain about every average mark they receive, while we will still not get any extra funding (many no-fee students, and all those bursaries to pay for).
If the rebels win, we will be faced with a disgruntled government who will continue to starve universities of funds, and will tell us that is our fault for egging the rebels (our vice-chancellors notwithstanding).
Sir: While a university education may no longer be the preserve of the rich, it is still the children of more affluent parents, who can afford private schools and tuition or can find the best state schools, who stand the best chance of a university place. University tends to be where the activities of the better-off are paid for by the rest of us, including the poor.
While it is right for the state to pay to educate people in much-needed skills, such as medicine and engineering, it is morally wrong for it to be expected to subsidise courses, such as Picasso and poetry, which will more than likely end up being no more than a student's hobby. A school-leaver aged 16 or 17 working on a building site during the week and playing Sunday league football meets the full cost of his leisure activities himself. Can we really justify sending someone on a three-year course to study sociology when there is a shortage of plumbers and electricians?
Who do those who oppose tuition fees expect to foot this bill? Or does the money come from the health service and public transport budgets? What is really wrong with asking students on certain courses, particularly non-vocational ones, to meet the full cost of it and to pay for it up-front?
Sir: The more Mr Blair makes acceptance of top-up fees a matter of social justice (oddly conceived), of the whole future of the UK economy (really!) and of confidence in his judgement (joke), the more I feel impelled to prick the bubble and not just to abstain from voting next time, but actually to vote Tory.
COLIN V SMITH
Errors in Georgia
Sir: Patrick Cockburn is to be commended for his analysis (24 November) of recent events in Georgia. However, the chronology alongside needs comment.
When Georgia's first post-communist elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was overthrown in 1992, he found refuge in Chechenia. His native region of Mingrelia in western Georgia continued to support him against the leader invited home from Moscow, Eduard Shevardnadze, igniting a bitter civil war. It was Mingrelian, not (as implied) Abkhazian, activists who kidnapped the Georgian minister. The shooting down of the UN helicopter (October 2001) and the kidnappings of UN observers (latterly in June 2003) happened in a part of Abkhazia still controlled by Tbilisi.
Anyone who has the wellbeing of multi-ethnic Georgia at heart must concur with your leading article's opinion that the US, EU and Russia should co-operate in helping the new government to build a viable state. But lessons must be learned from the mistakes of 1992. Then, keen to shower benefits upon their favoured individual, the West squandered a golden opportunity to exert a positive influence and turned a blind eye as Shevardnadze fell prey to the pervasive nationalism and cynically embroiled his forces in the disastrous war in Abkhazia.
The new leader must be encouraged to think of restructuring the country on meaningful federal lines and peacefully resolving the long-festering ulcers of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with a consequent reopening of the severed rail link to Russia, which will ease the economic problems not only of Georgia (and Abkhazia) but isolated Armenia too.
Professor of Caucasian Languages, School of Oriental and African Studies
Sir: Your suggestion (leading article, 28 November) that 30mph is unrealistically slow on many urban through roads displays the usual selfishness of so many motorists. Has it not occurred to you that many people live adjacent to these roads and have to suffer the resultant noise? On many roads this is now a 24-hour nuisance. Increased speed would result in even higher noise levels from engine, wind and tyre friction. A bit of consideration please!
Sir: Your paper has had some genuinely radical, exciting story leads over the last year, particularly in your challenging details about the death toll in Iraq and the civil chaos within that country. This made yesterday's main story (2 December) particularly disappointing. The lengthy transcription of the Ian Huntley testimony was gratuitous and depressing, and seemed aimed only at satisfying prurient interest.
Sir: Brain Viner's peasant/paysan cognates ("A history of mutual incomprehension", 2 December) are solved with a little sociolinguistics. Sure, both mean country folk, but your French bourgeois - city dweller - boasts of his recent paysan origins, whereas your English townie, unmindful of his more distant lineage, has only scorn for the country bumpkin. So north of the Channel peasant becomes pejorative. But there are still plenty of shibboleths to spice up France/England clashes for years yet. How about the Lost Property Office in Dover, and the Bureau des objets trouvés in Calais?
North Chailey, East Sussex
Sir: Simon Carr (Sketch, 2 December) is surprised at Jack Straw's apparent understanding of the word "permanent" in the EC's draft constitution. Jack and I originate from the same town in Essex, where I once asked the local dry cleaner what the word meant as part of the term "permanent crease". He replied, "Six months, sir."