The Government need not be too free with its information
The Government need not be too free with its information
Sir: While I share your view that the Freedom of Information Act is nothing of the kind, ("Is this freedom of information?", 2 February), and that the Government is not entitled to pat itself on the back, I do not share your outrage.
I think you greatly underestimate the difficulty busy people have in finding extra time to deal with this great volume of requests (362 on the first day, you report). Which of their important duties do you suggest they neglect in order to satisfy your own wish to know more about 70 different subjects? We should wait until the volume of requests settles down before making a judgment.
As for the refusals to supply information, I think some of those highlighted on your front page are reasonable enough. Why on earth should the Department of Education and Skills be expected to know how many primary schools had outside lavatories? I would not wish them to compile and maintain records of such a thing, which is clearly a matter for local authorities.
And why should the Department of Culture, Media and Sport release the minutes of meetings with executives of gaming companies? If people cannot talk to a government department in confidence that department will find that nobody is willing to talk to it and it has no access to information it needs to do its job. Alternatively, of course, the really important stuff will never be committed to paper, either in minutes or in correspondence.
On the refusal to disclose the legal advice given on the invasion of Iraq, there are two things to be said. First, in my experience it is never any use looking at a legal opinion unless you look also at the request for that opinion. Legal opinions rest on the facts supplied to the person giving them, and until we know what "facts" were supplied to the Attorney-General we cannot know whether his opinion is worth the paper it is written on.
Secondly, most of us believe that the Government's determination to refuse access to it reflects the fact that the opinion was something less than conclusive - in other words, that just as Blair misread and misrepresented the 45-minute claim, so he misread and misrepresented the legal advice. By persisting in its refusal the Government confirms our suspicions. We need no more.
Troops must stay in Iraq to keep peace
Sir: Charles Kennedy suggests that we should seek ways to bring our troops home as soon as possible ("British troops must now prepare to leave Iraq", 1 February), and offers as encouragement the fact that other nations have done so, or are about to do so, or are unwilling to commit troops at all. Rather than being a reason for us to follow suit this fact is a hindrance to his laudable objective.
We got ourselves into this. At the time, and based on the history of lies and deceit on the part of Saddam's regime, many thought it was justified. However mistaken those beliefs we are where we are, and must begin from there; history cannot be rewritten. That history carries with it a responsibility to ensure that a proper transfer of authority from the old deposed regime to a new one takes place as peaceably as possible. If others will not step in then we cannot step out.
It is a strange predicament, and the insurgents, who claim to want us to leave are the very people who are preventing us from doing so. If Iraq was peaceful then it would be a simple matter to set a short timescale for withdrawal and carry it through. In the present circumstance the only troops apparently available are coalition ones, and they are necessary to maintain any form of order. I know it is a pretty lousy form of order, but if the coalition forces withdrew the open civil war which would follow would be very bloody indeed.
Sir: Democrats around the world have achieved a hat-trick; better still, four in a row: Georgia, Ukraine, Palestine and Iraq. This should be a signal to British democrats to reject apathy and to vote in elections; also to prevent the tyranny of governments backed only by a minority of voters. Parliament should seriously consider providing a second round of voting in all constituencies where no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes cast.
House of Lords
Sir: If only we had listened to the anti-war left. We could have killed another 90,000 Iraqi civilians with UN sanctions whilst keeping a genocidal dictator in place. Instead, we have killed around 30,000, replacing a brutal regime with free elections, democratic beginnings and a despot facing trial.
Sir: Your report "Death in the wilderness" (2 February), quotes me as saying: "If the al-Jazeera footage is genuine, it shows that an aircraft flying at altitude has been shot down by what looks like some sort of spliced-together weapons system. This would be an unprecedented and catastrophic event. Hitherto we have not seen the insurgents capable of launching such an attack."
What I actually said is that the footage looks as if it is "spliced together". Time will tell, but I doubt the insurgents have the capability to engage coalition aircraft flying at altitude. The wreckage, however, does seem to show the remnants of a Rolls-Royce Allison T56 turboprop engine as used in the C-130.
Editor, Jane's Defence Weekly
Sir: After all the horrors and destruction of the last 15 years imposed on the Iraqi people, George Bush, assisted by Tony Blair, has compensated them with an election based on proportional representation. I have wanted PR for the people of the United Kingdom for decades, but if that is what you have to undergo to get it from our own government, then maybe I will try something easier, like silent apathy.
Stockton on Tees
Sir: As the Race Equality Minister from 1997-2001, who worked to launch the first Holocaust Memorial Day, I little expected to have to defend myself a few years later against claims of anti-Semitism by your columnist Stephen Pollard ("Pigs on a poster are the least of our worries", 31 January). Politicians are supposed to be thick-skinned but given my commitment to combating racism and anti-Semitism, the column deeply pains me.
Not only has the CRE dismissed the original claims by the Conservative Party but most people who have read the article I wrote - and I ask people to do so before commenting - have rejected them too.
I have a strong record in fighting racism and anti-Semitism. As a junior minister I drafted the new laws to tackle racial violence and harassment. I worked to get closer links between the Jewish Community Security Trust (CST) and the police to tackle anti-Semitism and in recent years I have worked closely with Muslims as well as Jews on a range of issues, including the Middle East.
Mr Pollard makes much of the fact that I mentioned in the article the Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris. My article also mentions Charles Kennedy. Dr Harris was referred to in passing because he has been a vocal opponent of a proposed new law on incitement to religious hatred. When I wrote the article I had no idea Dr Harris was Jewish and I doubt that most Muslim readers would know that either.
My article referred to Michael Howard only as leader of the Conservative Party. I suppose in retrospect I could have made the comments at the end of my article by talking more generically about the Conservative Party rather than referring to Mr Howard by name, but it is ridiculous to say that in an election year criticism of the Leader of the Opposition is off-limits.
A fair reading of my article will show that I neither said nor thought the things that Stephen Pollard ascribed to me.
MIKE O'BRIEN MP
Minister for Energy
Departmentt of Trade and Industry
Sir: As someone with Jewish ancestors who has often been subjected to racial abuse for my non-English appearance, I didn't for a moment think there was a trace of anti-Semitism in the flying pig poster, and the idea that Howard in the second poster resembles Shylock or Fagin is ludicrous: he's clearly intended to be a hypnotist trying to mesmerise his audience (hence the green and wavy words attributed to him). I think a few people are trying very hard to be offended by this stuff.
How to fight burglars
Sir: As a martial arts instructor, I fully endorse the right to use weapons in defence of the home ("Home owners can kill burglars in self-defence", 2 February). However, the decision to take up a weapon should not be based on legal permission but on a considered analysis of the practicalities of the situation. In this analysis the type of weapon is crucial.
A weapon is as likely to escalate violence as it is to deter it. Taking up a weapon signals to your opponent that you are prepared to use it. A stick or metal bar can be used to disarm or incapacitate by striking the joints and muscles of the hands, arms, and legs without causing permanent harm. A knife can only be used to maim or kill.
Holding a knife signals your intent to maim or kill. If you pick up a knife you must be prepared to stick it into the body of another human being. If you are not prepared to do this don't pick the knife up, because it will be taken from you and used against you.
TOM M BAYLEY
Sir: Whether "those doodles" are attributable to Mr Blair or Mr Gates, I cannot be the only member of the clergy to have been irritated intensely by a comment made by Nina Ashby, reported in your article on 29 January. She states that the author of the doodles "is not a natural leader. It is a person of a religious nature, perhaps a vicar, not sure of his priorities."
The days of the stereotypical clergyman, confused but kindly, are long over, and clergy these days, whether in a parish or chaplaincy setting, often head up a large team of professional colleagues and lay volunteers, manage significant budgets and building projects, and provide, on a daily basis, religious, moral and pastoral leadership to those in their care. This would be impossible without leadership flair, and the ability to set, and maintain, clear priorities.
Spirituality and "frontline playing", in whatever profession, are not mutually exclusive, as Mr Blair himself often seeks to demonstrate.
The Rev SHARON GRENHAM -TOZE
Sir: I wonder at those politicians who condemn Dick and Dom In Da Bungalow as irresponsible and not within the BBC's public service remit ("Morning Sickness", Review, 1 February).
My sister and I are both in our mid-20s and are responsible citizens who work in the NHS (I'm a scientist, and my sister is a nurse). Yet, like many of our peers, for a few hours on Saturday morning, both of us kick back and enjoy the mindless escapism of Dick and Dom. So it isn't "educational" or "worthy". If I wanted that I could watch the BBC on almost any other day of the week. Dick and Dom still fulfil a public service in providing enjoyment and relaxation to swaths of hard-working people. It should be something we celebrate, not condemn. To those critics of the Dick and Dom I say: Bogeys!
Sir: Doesn't Citizeness Boote (letter, 28 Jan) know that we have a republic, a crowned republic? The hereditary monarchy is simply a constitutional convenience which works well because it is free of political contamination and beyond the reach of power-brokers. A British subject is not the forelock tugging serf of radical caricature but a free man or free woman, subject, like the Queen herself, to the law, and not to the arbitrary will of a monarch or minister.
D G SWINDELLS
Hero of Waterloo
Sir: Churchill's funeral did not end with "a homely chuffer pulling out of Paddington" ("Churchill the hero", 29 January), even though Paddington is the natural station for travel to Bladon, where Churchill is buried. The cortège crossed the river from St Paul's to Waterloo and travelled the long way, via Richmond and Ascot, joining the western line at Reading. Why was this? The likely sounding legend is that Churchill had decided upon Paddington if de Gaulle predeceased him, but if he predeceased de Gaulle the funeral train was to leave from Waterloo.
Sir: In the light of recent correspondence, latterly from Harvey Cole (letter, 2 February), I looked up the difference between "fort" and "fortress" in the Concise Oxford Dictionary to discover that while a fort is a fortified building or position, a fortress is a strongly fortified town. Vive la différence!
Chichester, West Sussex
Sir: Your report about identity cards (3 February) is illustrated with a sample card, which shows a young woman smiling happily. Presumably this is to encourage us all to feel that identity cards are something to be pleased about. Such a cheerful expression is not acceptable for a passport photograph and is unlikely to be useable for an identity card. My identity card portrait, if I ever have one, will carry no such sunny expression, I assure you.
DAVID F SMITH
Sir: If Kilroy-Silk needs a motto for his new party he need look no further than the Latin author Terence: "Veritas odium parit" - "Truth begets hatred".