Letters: Arab ordeal goes on as tyrants stand at bay

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The situation in Syria, with the end of the line for the Arab League intervention that tried to end the conflict there, is at critical. The situation in Homs, in particular, is now so desperate that it bears comparing to the situation of Benghazi as it came under attack from its local despot.

When I visited Homs, some years ago, it was a bustling and vigorous large town; it is now becoming a ghost town, under siege. Each day, there are new killings and acts of extreme brutality by the "government" there.

What can our government do about all this as part of the shared humanitarian "responsibility to protect", if it is not yet willing to contemplate armed action?

This: Britain is one of Syria's main trading partners. There needs to be a clear threat made to any and all Syrian businesses and individuals who do any business with or have any assets in Britain or the EU: stop supporting the Assad government now, or we will take out sanctions against you, and seize or freeze your assets.

Individuals and businesses from Syria need to understand that they will become pariahs, if they do not withdraw their support from the Assad regime.

For the right reasons, the Government in the end performed well in Libya. It did something with good consequences. It needs now to step up to the plate and do what is necessary to turn Syrians against a criminal regime that is butchering its own people.

Dr Rupert Read

School of Philosophy, University of East Anglia, Norwich

The international community needs to recognise that Yemen is unlike other countries in the Middle East ("Street fighting spreads in Sana'a as protesters seek to unseat Saleh", 21 September). It is in Yemen that al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula is at its strongest.

The Security Council needs to meet in emergency session to see what can be done to broker a deal between the government and opposition forces. Failure to do so will result in a civil war, the consequences of which will be felt not just in Sana'a but in London and Washington.

Keith Vaz MP

Leicester east, lab

House of Commons

On 7 September, 21 doctors at Bahrain's Salmaniya Hospital who went on hunger strike were released. But they return to the Military Court on 29 September for sentencing. The trials have been a farce, with only one opportunity for defence witnesses, evidence of torture and confessions signed under duress.

There is a real risk they will be sentenced to years in prison, or life. These doctors' offence was to treat wounded demonstrators and object to the Khalifa regime's attack on peaceful citizens.

While the British Foreign Office remains complacent, uninformed but "concerned", led by Alistair Burt, the Middle East minister, these doctors, women and men, face heavy sentences. The US/UK concern is for the Fifth Fleet, not human rights.

Janet Salmon

Twickenham, Middlesex

The city of Sirte is under siege from forces with a bizarre assortment of armoury, including tanks, rockets and anti-aircraft weapons mounted horizontally on pickup trucks. These missiles have little accuracy and in effect are virtually indiscriminate.

Sirte has a civilian population which, by the NTC's own admission, is opposed to them. It is a precise mirror-image of the situation that led to UN intervention. Yet now Nato, instead of abiding by their UN brief to protect those civilians, are in fact joining in the siege and the bombardment, with devastating consequences for civilians.

Is the UN incapable of acting to terminate this criminal and Orwellian abuse of Resolution 1973? Are the reluctant sponsors of this action – the taxpayers and voters of Britain, France and the US – also incapable of doing anything about it?

Peter McKenna


Law lets police tackle squatters

We are legal academics, solicitors and barristers who practise in housing law. We are concerned that recent media reports have stated that squatters who refuse to leave someone's home are not committing a criminal offence and that a change in the law—such as that proposed by the Government—is needed to rectify this situation. This is legally incorrect, as the guidance published by the Department for Communities and Local Government in March this year makes clear.

We are concerned that such repeated inaccurate reporting of this issue has created fear for homeowners, confusion for the police and ill-informed debate among both the public and politicians on reforming the law.

By making misleading statements and failing to challenge inaccurate reporting, ministers have furthered the myths being peddled around squatting.

It is already a criminal offence for a squatter to occupy someone's home, or a home that a person intends to occupy, under the Criminal Law Act 1977. A homeowner will be a displaced residential occupier, or if they are intending to move into the property, a protected intended occupier. In either case, it is a criminal offence for a squatter to remain in the property as soon as they have been told of the displaced occupier or a protected occupier. The police can arrest any trespasser who does not leave. The displaced or protected occupier can use force to enter the property and reasonable force to remove the trespassers.

Thus it seems that recent high-profile cases, such as those of Dr Oliver Cockerell and his wife or of Miss Julia High, could and should have been dealt with under existing criminal law. If they were not, it is likely that this was due to a lack of understanding of the law on the part of the homeowners or the police.

Squatting of vacant property that is not a home is not a criminal offence. The person with a right to the property who wants to recover possession should go to the civil courts for a possession order to protect their position. However, they can apply for an interim possession order, which typically takes a few days. Once the interim order is made and served, the squatters must leave within 24 hours or commit a criminal offence.

Andrew Arden QC

Justin Bates

Vice Chair, Executive Committee, Housing Law Practitioners' Association

And others

London WC1

GCSE moulds rigid minds

I found your article, "Too many schools are just coasting" (22 September) very interesting, particularly the comment on GCSE examinations and their relevance to the future of students.

GCSE examinations tend to represent the outcome of a rigid measurement procedure, which lays stress on "how, where and when". The schools are so preoccupied with the "league table" positions that there is little or no encouragement to explore the "why" of things.

The years leading to the GCSE could mould young minds into rigid forms and result in loss of any flexible development. They most certainly fail to encourage teachers to identify talents in different students and they prejudice chances of late developers, according to Tony Little, the headmaster at Eton College.

He has recommended abolition of GCSE altogether, in his Institution of Structural Engineers Maitland Lecture on 21 September at the Royal Society.

Furthermore, it is disappointing to note that many universities pay considerable attention to the GCSE results during their selection procedures. It is also disheartening to note that finding jobs depends heavily on GCSE grades and those with fewer than five A* to C grades are more harshly hit by the recession in the UK than in most other parts of the world.

This is perhaps one reason for slower technological progress in the UK than elsewhere in the world, where the young are encouraged to explore the "why of things" and search for the real answers.

Satish Desai

South Croydon, Surrey

What good news that private schools may shut as parents turn to the state sector because of the recession. Let them be turned into state schools. A good government would encourage this process by putting VAT on the socially divisive luxury expenditure on private school fees.

The proceeds from those who choose not to make the move could be used to reduce class sizes and improve sporting facilities in the state schools to which the great majority of our children are sent, thereby encouraging a virtuous circle.

The more wealthy, articulate and influential people opt into state schools, the more of them will be happy to pay their taxes to improve those schools still further, thereby greatly benefiting our dangerously divided country.

Dane Clouston

Stadhampton, Oxford

Stream of silver from India

Your article (26 September) on the silver in the wreck of the Gairsoppa of the British India Steam Navigation Company carries an interesting tale. Its 200 tons of silver was only one of the shipments from Calcutta and other Indian ports during the Second World War

The British were desperate for hard currency or precious metal to pay the Americans for war material. India at that time had a silver-based currency. Silver rupees were forcibly converted to paper ones, thus permitting silver to be shipped out of India. This also allowed for printing of more paper rupees for payment (on credit) for war material purchased in India and to pay for Indian Army operations outside India.

All this caused wartime inflation in India. At the end of the Second World War, the British Treasury owed the Indian one nearly £1.6bn.

Despite all this and more later, India has the largest hoard of silver and gold in the safe hands of its citizens, who will not trust any government to maintain the value of the currency.



U-boats over Somerset?

Somerset can beat Welsh dealings with the Kriegsmarine (letter, 22 September).

On 16 October 1940, a damaged Dornier bomber lost height, nearly cleared Maesbury hill, but scraped the earthworks of the ancient hilltop fort and crashed. All four fliers were killed.

This established two records. The Dornier is still known locally as "the only bomber bought down by the Ancient Britons". And because the Germans were short of navigators, the crew included a naval flier, Lieutenant Erwin Black, giving him the dubious distinction of being the only German naval officer killed in action in Somerset.

Donald Brown

Weston-super-Mare, Somerset

Perhaps we North Devonians are more moral than the Welsh, or simply less enterprising. We only supplied U-boats with water during the Second World War.

They would come ashore in rubber boats, at dead of night, to collect fresh water from the Sherricombe Falls, Holdstone Down, near Combe Martin. This has been verified by the son of one of the commanders, making a postwar visit.

The very soft North Devon water is not especially good for drinking but perfect for getting a good lather from ersatz soap.

David Huxtable

Chichester, West Sussex

Welsh dressers (letter, 26 September)? That's nothing. Those U-boat crews also started buying up our car industry and our public utilities and bidding to build our railway rolling-stock.

Eddie Dougall.

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Faster than the speed of light

I hadn't realised that there were so many theoretical physicists among readers of The Independent (letters, 26 September). My own contribution is far more modest. Shall we just wait until the experiment has been replicated, many times, before speculating about the end of physics as we know it?

Christopher Sterling

Harpenden, Hertfordshire

Regarding the correspondence about neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light, I agree that time travel is definitely possible, as I was only saying tomorrow.

Mark Thomas

Histon, Cambridgeshire

Recycled paper records

Gauging Ms Lamming's response (letter, 21 September) leads me to believe that recycling 1,500 newspapers by hand in one session is an impressive feat. Note the "by hand" aspect of the achievement. No petrol-guzzling carbon monoxide-producing machinery was involved in my personal record. Perhaps I should consider being even more green and recycle the remaining 7,500 papers in my mountain. Hypothetically, what volume of van would this require?

Nicholas E Gough

SWINDON, Wiltshire

Abbey clash

I think Tom Sutcliffe misses the point (19 September) when he suggests that most people would choose to watch Downton Abbey and record Spooks because both were broadcast at the same time. We enjoy both programmes and find the best solution to the "clash" is to record the ITV programme so that we can fast-forward the very annoying advertisements which interrupt and ruin a period drama.

Ione Lee


Line of fire

I'm astounded that the Irish coroner, Dr Ciaran McLoughlin, believes that a pensioner died of spontaneous human combustion with no apparent external source of ignition (24 September). Does he honestly believe that there is an internal source of ignition within all of us? How does he explain the fact that no animal has spontaneously combusted?

Kartar Uppal

West Bromwich, West Midlands

Perspectives on energy

Moving on from oil is the only way out of this crisis

Hamish McRae discusses the parlous state of the world economy, wonders about Britain's future prospects and is concerned about a possible "lost decade" (Business, 23 September). In doing so, he omits to mention an issue of fundamental importance: the price of oil.

In general, the developed countries are mired in colossal debt. It is widely held that we need to get back to significant economic growth in order to tackle this debt, although the Government's austerity measures are likely to have the exact opposite effect.

As things stand, oil is the absolute life-blood of our economies, but we appear to be at or near the peak of world crude-oil production. At this crucial time, demand from the developing countries is rapidly rising. Thus, there is upward pressure on the oil price.

This is a major problem for us, as any attempt significantly to increase economic activity in the developed world will add more upward pressure to the price. This, in turn, will result in economic slowdown. Thus, I believe we are in an intractable situation. This time we do not have access to cheap and abundant oil to burn in order to grow our way out of this mess. This time, it seems, it really is different.

As far as I can see, the only solution is to move as swiftly as possible towards a low-carbon, low-energy-use economy. At the same time, we need urgently to develop non-polluting energy sources. This, I believe, will be the major challenge of the next decade.

Keith O'Neill


Heavy price for shale gas

Your articles make clear the dangers connected with the mining of shale gas but there is another drawback to the present proposals to drill in Lancashire. A reserve which could provide a supply for 66 years (why exactly 66?) sounds attractive but when we learn that the amount likely to be accessible would last only 11 years (again why 11?) the prospect is much less attractive.

There is talk of prosperity being brought to the area and of course more jobs would be welcome, but this would be no Aberdeen. Eleven years go by so quickly that the development would be on a very small scale before being run down and finally abandoned, leaving desolation in its wake, both economic and probably environmental. It would be a big price for the local community to pay.

James Snowden


Taken for fools by wind tax

Hopefully the public will now awaken to how they are being taken for fools.

Surely, the latest increase in energy bills will concentrate minds realising that the annual addition of £300 which people have to pay (no choice) as "green taxes" on their energy bills also desecrates the landscape with unsightly wind generators, coupled with the unnecessary, scenery-destroying proliferation of pylons and overhead power cables. How many folk realise that approximately two-thirds of wind farms are foreign-owned? So much for the claim they are good for the UK economy.

Dave Haskell