Democracy, Prince Charles and others

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The Independent Online

Do MPs really need to hunt for something worthwhile to debate?

Sir: British politicians, especially on the right, talk a lot about how the UK is giving up powers to Brussels. It is vital, they say, that democratic control stays in Westminster.

Let's look at how the MPs have spent their time recently: resolving to wage war in Iraq (100,000 dead at the most recent estimate) - 10 hours; discussing the sixfold growth in the Chinese economy since 1984 and the challenge it poses to the UK and Europe - two written questions, one on the illegal importation of cat and dog fur, one on Chinese inward investment into the UK.

Instead we learn that some 700 hours of parliamentary debate has been spent on arguing about whether to ban hunting. The Government has grown used to dangling this childish bauble in front of MPs whenever they need distracting. And the MPs have fallen for it every time.

There is more than one way for democracy to die. You can have phoney parliaments and bogus elections (à la Stalin), you can arrest and kill your opponents (à la Hitler), or the political class can quietly demonstrate their incompetence.

London SE11

Sir: Given all the hysteria about the use of the Parliament Act to push through the anti-hunting legislation, I thought I would have a look at the Act to see what all the fuss was about.

The preamble to the Act makes interesting reading. In explaining why it was thought necessary in 1911 to introduce legislation limiting the powers of the Lords it says "whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation".

Newport-on-Tay, Fife

Sir: I take it that now that the unelectable in pursuit of the trivial have had their way, PC influences will now be in force over the word "fox". The "foxtrot" will now be renamed the "dragtrot"; being "foxed" (puzzled) will now result in being "dragged". I'm not sure how many "foxy" women will want to become "draggy", though ...

Alresford, Hampshire

Charles is the one in touch with reality

Sir: A casual reader might infer from Cahal Milmo's article (18 November) that the Prince of Wales's views on employment are old-fashioned.

The Prince's memo was understandable and quite proper in the context. It was in reaction to a suggestion from Miss Day that personal assistants be able to seek promotion to private secretary positions. The Prince of Wales's office is run like any government department. It would be completely impractical for a typist to be promoted direct to a policy analyst position.

The Prince has for long campaigned to give young people the opportunity to achieve their goals, particularly through the Prince's Trust, which he founded nearly 30 years ago. But these goals must be realistic, which Miss Day's wasn't.

Auckland, New Zealand

Sir: How ironic that on the same day that Charles Clarke says that Prince Charles is out of touch for commenting that children want to be pop stars and the like without having to do anything to earn it, he chooses to announce that "every school must take its fair share of unruly pupils". As a supply teacher in this country for the past two years, I think that, at least in this instance, it is Mr Clarke who seems more out of touch than the Prince.

When was the last time Mr Clarke was in a classroom? There are many disruptive students who ruin it for the good children. From my experience, these disruptive ones fit the description given by the Prince, thinking that they don't need an education as they will make it as pop stars or footballers in their teens and early twenties.

Here's a novel idea: isolate the disruptive students from the others so that no school - state or otherwise - should have to deal with them until they've learned to change their ways. Whether that means being educated at home, sent to a reform school or something else is open to debate. The indisputable fact, though, is that the education of many a child is being hurt by the unmitigated rudeness of many a disruptive student.

It's time for the Education Secretary to start standing up for teachers who put up with this behaviour constantly (hence the high burnout rate and huge sums being spent on supply teachers) and also for those students who want nothing more than a quality education. Spreading the unruly students farther afield does nothing to deal with the issues causing the behaviour.

London SE17

Sir: Being constrained by protocol, Prince Charles has to revert to the use of coded messages. His memo surely means, "What is it that makes everybody seem to think they are qualified to do things far above their technical capabilities... and be heads of state without ever putting in the necessary effort or having abilities?" It seems to be a statement of his own concerns about his suitability to be head of state; concerns which, I am sure, are widely shared. We should applaud the fact that he has, at long last, expressed a sensible opinion.

Sittingbourne, Kent

Smoking ban

Sir: Congratulations to John Reid on resisting the siren calls for a ban on smoking in every single pub. As a non-smoker, but one who has no objection to socialising or sharing a bar with people who do smoke, I was dismayed at the haughty nature of the Irish ban and the Dail's refusal to listen to the genuine (and realistic, as it turned out) concerns of publicans before the ban was implemented.

I hoped that the British inclination to compromise would preserve some premises where smokers and their friends could choose to go, and I believe that Mr Reid has got it spot on. Nobody will drink in these "smoke-easies", or work in them, unless they wish to.

Scarborough, North Yorkshire

Sir: Your leader of 17 November is wrong to praise the wisdom of John Reid's decision "to stop short of an Irish-style ban" and "to allow smokers somewhere they can still socialise". The Irish legislation has nothing to do with smokers' rights and everything to do with workers' rights to work in an environment which will not eventually cause them to die.

If secondary smoking is not dangerous to health, there is no need for legislation; but if, as scientists suggest, it is dangerous, it is a nonsense to permit employees in one establishment to face such dangers, whilst protecting those in others - and no doubt Dr Reid knows that the courts, either British or European, will eventually rule thus.


Sir: Tim Luckhurst's attack on anti-smoking campaigners for misuse of statistics ("Smoke screen", 16 November) might be more convincing if he had got the statistics right himself. ASH has not claimed, as he asserts, that 140,000 people a year die from smoking-related disease. At the time that he rang us for information, the correct figure was 114,000. And this is rounded down not, as he appears to think, up.

Nor is Mr Luckhurst's attempt to deny the scientific evidence on passive smoking any more convincing. He seems to think that ASH has made this evidence up. In fact, the Government's own Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health, which consists of the most eminent medical scientists in this field, advised in April this year that passive smoking is a serious risk, particularly to bar staff and others regularly exposed.

Research Manager, ASH
London EC2

Sir: I'd like to add a few more modern British ills to the litany on your front page: paranoia, intolerance, scare-mongering, sanctimony, blaming, whining, nannying, a deluded desire for scapegoats and panaceas, and above all an addiction to highly questionable statistics. Thank God for Tim Luckhurst's article pointing out some of the devious tactics of the anti-smoking lobby. At a time when we're actually living longer, healthier lives than ever, the media mostly seems eager to turn us all into uptight hypochondriacs.

London SW1

Sir: I say live and let live. Ban smoking in public places!


Aid for Africa

Sir: It's always easy for Mark Steel (Opinion, 18 November) and others to carp about Band Aid. Criticising the lyrics and rather syrupy sentiments of "Do they know it's Christmas" makes some good copy, but sadly it's of the sort that gives us lefty liberals a bad name!

The lyrics are indeed inconsistent, in places meaningless and hugely overly emotional. But that reflects the mood of the people who wrote the song. Faced with an overwhelming feeling that something was wrong they could have just stood back and thought, "It's too big, nothing we can do can make a difference." Instead they thought, "At least we can try to do something."

The great moral of Band Aid is that even when faced with a situation that appears overwhelmingly wrong and hopeless a committed individual can make massive achievements.

Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Sir: The Band Aid single "Do they know it's Christmas?" promotes a negative and inaccurate picture of Africa and its problems. Lyrics such as, "Nothing ever grows" and "No rain nor river flows" perpetuate the myth that Africa's problems can somehow be blamed on lack of rainfall and failed harvests - despite Ethiopia being the source of the Nile!

African poverty is not an unfortunate accident of geography and climate. It is largely the result of Third World debt, exploitation of resources by unregulated multinational companies and free-trade policies imposed by rich countries as conditions for receiving aid and debt relief. Africans are not passive victims of circumstance waiting for our handouts, in fact, every year Africa pays us back as much money in debt repayments as it receives in aid (about £11bn). While we do not discourage people from buying this record, we ask that people take real action and call on our government to change the policies that keep people poor.

World Development Movement
London SW9

Ulster segregation

Sir: David McKittrick is right (Opinion, 18 November) that "the sword of Damocles has gone from Northern Ireland". There is no menacing "or else" implicit in parties' pronouncements.

However, as peace comes dropping slow, we should recognise that segregation remains deep and bitter with, for instance, only 5 per cent of pupils attending integrated schools, where understanding is promoted. So an urgent priority is to reduce such segregation to help build trust so that Northern Ireland can realise the full fruits of its long overdue peace. All we ask is that parents should have the option of sending their children to an integrated school.

Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Integrated Education in Northern Ireland
House of Lords

Political playground  

Sir: When I was at school, there was a top bully. The other children either greased up to him and joined his gang, or they kept out of his way as much as possible. Are these the Blair and Chirac reactions to President Bush?


Spanish apology

Sir: I would like to take advantage of the opportunity your newspaper brings me to apologise, as a Spaniard, on behalf of the millions of Spaniards who are against racism (whether in sports or in any other part of our society), for the occurrences at Wednesday's football game against England. It was really shameful, and that minority does not represent the whole of the Spanish people. If it were so, I would be forced to think that all England's supporters are violent hooligans and that isn't true either.


Dutch miniatures

Sir: Antony van Leeuwenhoek, born in Delft in 1623, could well have featured in your list of "genuine Dutch greats" (17 November). He is now unsung and scarce remembered, but through microscopes mounted with his own accurately ground lenses he was probably the first man to see bacteria (in the tartar from his teeth), human spermatozoa and the microscopic animal and vegetable life of pond water, and to watch the circulation of blood through the capillaries. Together with Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle he was among the most famous names of the Royal Society.

Hawkhurst, Kent

Identity parade

Sir: Jack Straw may be able to spot a Trot at 50 yards (letter, 16 November). But he can't seem to spot a Mugabe in a dark corner.

Milton Keynes