Sir: I was saddened to read reports that the number of women in Scotland who are convicted of drink driving has gone up by over 50 per cent since 1999. Among the reasons given for this rise is Scotland's binge-drinking culture. This, coupled with Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt's suggestion that alcohol receive heavier taxation (report, 27 October) shows this worrying problem has reached crisis level.
Our town and city centres suffer from the effects of binge-drinking. Anti-social behaviour and violence create a burden on local police and hospitals. Growing alcohol abuse across the European Union should concern us all. The cost to local communities, to families and the burden on health services is growing. With more women binge-drinking than ever before, foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is now a greater concern.
Many people fail to recognise binge-drinking at the weekend as an alcohol problem. Alcohol is estimated to be behind one in three road-traffic deaths. It is also linked to two-fifths of domestic violence inflicted on women; this is the reason that Sweden banned the sale of alcohol at weekends.
The European Commission has now published its alcohol strategy. Health campaigners have already expressed disappointment and accused the Commission of caving in to industry pressure. I would like to see labelling of alcohol products with FAS warnings similar to those used in the United States. Member states should also ensure stricter controls on selling alcohol to minors. There is no one solution, but we must work together to tackle this serious problem.
CATHERINE STIHLER MEP
(LABOUR) DUNFERMLINE, FIFE
Sir: Patricia Hewitt suggests that increasing tax on alcohol will reduce binge drinking. If this occurs, those publicans who still rely on alcohol for their profit will have to sell an awful lot of it to make any money, as a large proportion of the price is already tax.
Youngsters are given to drinking in environments which encourage excessive consumption. Paradoxically, increasing taxes on alcohol may increase publicans' incentive to encourage or pressurise the youngsters to buy more alcohol to recoup profits.
If taxes on alcohol were reduced, publicans might compete to offer more civilised, less-pressurised drinking environments.
Face it: all schools are faith schools
Sir: In response to Joan Bakewell ("We should not tolerate any faith schools", 27 October), I would like to say that all schools are faith schools. All state schools have an ethos that is informed by an ideology or philosophy of life. For most state schools the philosophy consists of secular humanism with materialism, both of which are as much unprovable metaphysical belief systems as religious systems are. The difference is that secular humanism is more acceptable to the prevailing culture of capitalist consumerism, with its self-indulgent and hedonistic individualism.
Even J S Mill, the great advocate of individual liberty (who, in any case, rejected the whole idea of state-funded schools), championed the need for diversity in society, especially in the provision of education. The issue is more whether a school is educating its students to be part of a diverse and tolerant community, rather than whether it has a religious faith behind it, and Ofsted is the body that judges such matters.
If Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious taxpayers are willing to pay their hard-earned cash to support the majority of state schools with no specific religious affiliation and a secular bias, then surely non-religious taxpayers ought to be willing to support the minority of faith schools, provided they produce well-educated and participative citizens.
Sir: The decision by the Government to retreat from legislation to force quotas of non-believers, or believers of other faiths, on single faith schools is no surprise, given this Government's record on bending its knee before organised religion (report, 27 October).
However, some faith spokesmen are portraying the Government climbdown as affirming that faith schools break down walls within communities rather than segregate them. This is a distortion of the true position.
In suggesting a quota system in the first place, the Government clearly admitted that the religious apartheid caused by faith schools was real and a contributory factor in segregating communities. The fact that the Government has now backed away from a compulsory quota to a voluntary one (that the various religious authorities can cheerfully ignore with impunity) does nothing to change that acknowledgement.
This latest Government fudge has effectively rubber-stamped segregated schooling in the UK. Its mantra of Education, Education, Education should now officially be changed to Education, Discrimination, Indoctrination.
NATIONAL SECULAR SOCIETY LONDON WC1
Sir: The opponents of faith schools in England and Wales are acting on an underlying assumption that faith schools are causes of social division. The only "evidence" produced by the critics to support this is the conflict in Northern Ireland. However, the religious character of Northern Irish schools is more an effect than the cause of a society deeply divided, and not just by religion. Despite these divisions, schools there have been important influences in reducing the severity of the conflict precisely because of their religious, ethical and moral values.
A better comparator for England and Wales is the Netherlands, where about 70 per cent of all pre-university schools have a religious character: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Islamic. There is no evidence that such a high percentage of faith schools in the Netherlands has caused social division; on the contrary, the highest political value of that country is probably tolerance. This is a direct result of the historic compromise reached in the first decades of the last century, mainly over the issue of who controlled the educational system, arrived at by the leaders of the main pillars of Dutch society: Protestants, Catholics, Liberals and Socialists.
It is true that the famed Dutch tolerance is today under strain because of the rise of militant Islam in that country and incidents such as the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh. There is a problem with a certain kind of Islamic school that might be a breeding ground for radical Islamists, although not all Islamic schools will fall into this category.
But it is unfortunate that a small group of radical secularists are using this as the pretext for an attack on religious schools in general when these schools have been important providers not just of very high-quality education, but one which is actually more socially inclusive than that of the state sector.
PROFESSOR JOHN LOUGHLIN
PROFESSOR OF EUROPEAN POLITICS, CARDIFF UNIVERSITY
Economic horrors of climate change
Sir: Am I to understand from your article on the Stern report (27 October) that climate change matters to our leaders, not because of the potential suffering (and possible extinction) of living beings, human and animal, but because there might be "a recession as big as the Wall Street Crash" - as if a problem only becomes real when it can be expressed as a percentage of GDP?
Sir: Tony Blair says any Climate Change Bill must be "fully compatible with the interests of businesses and consumers as well". Words can scarcely express my relief that our PM is not going to be bullied by some sinister cabal of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. He might like to reflect though, that consumers (just like other people), have interests that are not fully expressed by their consumption decisions, which I think is sort of why we have governments.
Sir: One of the 4x4 drivers you interviewed in your report of 26 October had a string of risible excuses for not driving a less environmentally damaging car. Yet, the most damaging thing for climate change about his lifestyle is not his choice of car at all; it is the fact that he has had four children. That represents a personal population increase of 100 per cent in a single generation.
This is the most serious challenge, and one that all but the deepest of green campaigners run away from. The recycling, bicycling family may despise the 4x4 driver, but if that driver has only one child, and the bicycling family has three or four, the 4x4 driver is probably the one leaving the better legacy for the planet in the long run.
MARKET RASEN, LINCOLNSHIRE
Poor hygiene and hospital infections
Sir: I was disappointed to see Dominic Lawson perpetuate the myth that hospital-acquired infections are the result of poor hygiene (Opinion, 23 October). Good infection-control practices play a vital role in reducing the risk of certain infections but obesity, pre-existing malnutrition, immobility and antibiotic use (treating one infection but predisposing to another) are usually more important.
There is, however, one little gem of information that will please him. Although smokers do get more post-operative complications overall, they are actually less likely than non-smokers to develop a deep vein thrombosis. It appears that the desire to smoke again provides the all -important incentive to get out of bed as fast as possible.
DR HUGO WELLESLEY
Sir: Although I agree with Dominic Lawson's sentiments regarding treatment policies in NHS hospitals I'm rather surprised that his starting point was that the NHS should fund a smoking habit by providing replacement nicotine at the taxpayers' expense. Surely the patient in question would not have expected the hospital to provide replacement cigarettes, so why replacement patches? The patient is saving by not smoking in hospital, and should expect to have to buy his own patches or gum, not supplied at the taxpayers' expense.
'Porgy and Bess' had a predecessor
Sir: While agreeing wholeheartedly with Michael Coveney that Porgy and Bess is a work of musical genius (Arts & Books Review, 27 October), I would challenge his statement that it was the first original black opera, as it was preceded three decades earlier by Delius's Koanga , which has also received lamentably few London performances and is even less well known.
Like Gershwin, Delius had reason to identify with a distinctive ethnic cultural tradition, having encountered black music while growing oranges on the plantation his father had acquired for him in Florida in a vain attempt to steer him away from a career as a composer.
The late Christopher Palmer, in a radio essay first broadcast in 1969, drew a parallel between the work of the two composers, including some remarkable technical similarities in Porgy and Bess and some of Delius's most expressive music. There can be no doubt that the same influences, and maybe that of Delius's opera itself, informed Gershwin's great triumph some 31 years later.
Sir: Your headline "Boost for Blair as academy school wins building award" (27 October) suggests that the academies programme is boosted by winning architecture awards. Academy schools are supposed to be improving results in areas where old schools have failed. The only real boost there can be to the academy programme is better records on GCSE passes, which have hardly been forthcoming yet. An award for the building is no more than praising the wrapper of an unwanted gift.
A simpler car tax
Sir: Steven Ford's suggestion for a variable car tax (letter, 28 October) is sensible but unnecessarily complicated. Carbon emissions (which cover weight and fuel consumption) and area occupied (rather than volume) would be sufficient.
Power vs energy
Sir: In the business section (25 October) Nic Fildes wrote that UK data-centres each use more power in a year than the city of Leicester. They do not. The data-centres are probably using more energy in a year. Power is the rate of using energy, thus a Porsche uses more power than a Mini but if the Porsche is only driven for a few hours in a year its energy consumption is less than the Mini driven daily.
The great divide
Sir: Europe suffered the Berlin Wall for nearly half a century. How long will the American continent have to contend with George W Bush's Mexican fence (report, 27 October)?
CARRICK~ON~SHANNON, CO. LEITRIM, IRELAND
Sir: The scandal of reparations is rightly condemned by your leading article of 27 October. It exposes yet again the hypocrisy of western powers - in particular the US. It was agreed under article 21 of the Paris negotiations that ended the Vietnam War, that the US would pay $3.5bn in compensation. To date, not one cent has been paid.
New aquatic sport
Sir: I am intrigued by an activity referred to in your article "Councils gain power to fine the public under reform package" (27 October) in which you say that councils are to be given the right "... to impose rules about where it is permissible to ride horses or fish".
Please could you tell me where can I find out more about fish-riding? It will be a useful skill to cope with climate-change-induced flooding.
Sir: If, as you report on 27 October, gun use is getting out of control, surely we need more targets?