Letters: Big Society

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US senators smear Scotland

Scotland's reputation has been dragged through the mud on a world stage, this time by a combination of American politicians struggling to boost their home popularity ahead of elections, a British Prime Minister keen to protect the reputation of BP, and some home politicians opposed to the SNP on any issue, trying to play local politics on an international stage.

It was wrong, a mistake, and profoundly misguided of the four US senators to use the world's media to try to summon Scotland's First Minister and Justice Secretary to account before its Foreign Affairs Committee, although we hope that the Scottish Government will be as open as possible in its exchange of information with Washington.

To many, it displayed a gross misunderstanding of the Scottish Government's role and limited powers under devolution, but it is also a very real slap in the face to the Scottish people, tied to America by bonds of blood, and whose men and women have died and continue to sacrifice their lives supporting the USA in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

No one with half a brain believes the Scottish Government had any involvement with oil deals in the desert. It would be a fantastical leap, even for the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, to be brokering international oil deals while deciding the fate of Mr al-Megrahi.

Mr MacAskill rejected the prisoner transfer request (the basis of the oil-deal claims), but was bound by precedent set by previous Scottish Governments and Scottish Office Ministers to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds; it's that simple.

Scotland can be proud that First Minister Alex Salmond and Mr MacAskill were diplomatic but firm in their responses to the US Senate committee, but the appalling spectacle of the UK Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and ambassador in Washington falling over themselves in a clumsy effort to rubbish a legitimate decision of the Scottish Government while defending BP must leave everyone in the UK dumbfounded.

Kevin Donnelly


Fears for child asylum-seekers

The case of Rabar Hamad is a stark example of the flaws in the process for assessing the age of young asylum-seekers arriving in the UK ("Iraqi pupil to be thrown out of Britain over age dispute", 23 July).

An unacceptably large proportion of unaccompanied young asylum-seekers we have assisted have been wrongly judged to be adults. As a result, often their safety is disregarded. They are sent to live in unsupervised accommodation as adults, and face detention and removal.

Although we are pleased that the government has recognised detention is harmful for children, we believe it is unacceptable that this group will still be detained until officially judged to be children. This is no way to treat a child who has fled conflict and violence, is here without their parents, has committed no crime, and is seeking safety in our country.

Age assessment is not an exact science and those making judgements about a person's age must give them the benefit of the doubt. There is a serious need for an independent body to conduct age assessments and, at the very least, to review controversial decisions made by local authorities supporting these children.

As part of the government's welcome review into the asylum system, we would urge them to review this process and ensure that these children are given the proper protection any other child in Britain would expect.

Donna Covey

Chief Executive, Refugee Council, London SW9

Buzzards are wrongly blamed

Tom Jeanes says buzzards were a rarity in most of England 20 years ago (letters, 23 July). But I don't think that the decline of the kestrel is due to the success of the buzzard. Kestrels are hunters who mostly swoop and kill their prey, and buzzards are similar to kites and crows in that they feed mainly on carrion, including road-kill.

With the abundance of animals now being killed by our vehicles it is little wonder that the buzzard is doing so well and less likely that the buzzard needs to compete with the kestrel for its food.

The answer, I believe, lies elsewhere, and although it is sometimes a knee-jerk reaction to blame farmers for the demise of certain species the fact remains that over the past decades modern farming practice has led to the loss of wildlife habitats across large swaths of England and subsequently a decline of many rodents which are a large part of the kestrels' diet. Yes, some farmers have started to farm their land in an environmentally friendly way but it will take a long time to reverse the damage that has already been done.

Kestrels can see ultra-violet light and they are masters in locating the urine trails of rodents, so even with the decline of the rodents they should be able to hunt successfully. This suggests that the decline of the kestrel and the rodents is even more serious than we think.

Owen Evans

Uttoxeter, Staffordshire

To suggest that Tom Jeanes is wildly off the mark with his extraordinary accusations is an understatement.

First, buzzards were not a rarity in Devon 20 years ago. In fact, it has been the stronghold for buzzards in southern England for nearly a century. As for competing with kestrels for food, they have totally different food requirements. He should try looking at man's activities regarding their decline.

Peter Brown

Brighton, East Sussex

Change for the summer-born

Jean Hopkin (letters, 15 July) may be surprised to learn of a new policy on summer-born children; many local authorities have only recently introduced one intake a year entry and some schools still do not offer this. The statutory age to start school is at the beginning of the term after the child's fifth birthday and this will remain so, but from September 2011 parents will have the right to request that their child starts school in the September after their fourth birthday. This can be full or part-time attendance in accordance with the parent's wishes until their child reaches the statutory age.

It has long been recognised that some summer-born children have lower attainment than their older classmates at age 11 but generally this gap closes by the age of 16. Giving younger children weighted test results at the end of Key Stage 2 may be a more positive approach than admitting four-year-olds into reception classes.

Although teachers make every effort to help the children settle in and although many thrive in this environment others do not and can have their confidence sapped and development hindered. For these children, access to the foundation stage curriculum through pre-schools, nurseries, childminders or home education would be a more positive alternative.

Most of our European neighbours achieve better test results than us and appear to have fewer behaviour problems in schools, but have starting ages of six or seven years old.

Sue Lawson

Colchester, Essex

Sikhs have their own Big Society

David Cameron's Big Society idea (letters, 22 July) may be new to the Tories, but to the Asian community, this has always been a way of life.

Take, for example, the Sikh community. Since the early 1960s, it has managed to build more than 200 Sikh temples-cum-community centres without asking for a single penny from the British state.

The centres provide free education facilities, such as the teaching of Punjabi languages, help with the GCSE and A-level maths and science, sport and martial art facilities and above all, free kitchens seven days a week. Some centres, though not all, have libraries, which house newspapers and a good selection of books on Sikh faith and Sikh history. The centres are financed by public donations. The Big Society idea can work only if people are prepared to organise themselves without being too much dependent on state.

Randhir Singh Bains

Gants Hill, Essex

One can almost see the envy and class hatred dripping off Stanley Knill's pen (letters, 22 July) as he writes his mean-spirited attack on David Cameron, not for being incompetent or dishonest, but for being from a different socio-economic demographic.

Cameron is trying to address the sorry mess that this country got itself into and he is attempting to do it, not by edict, but by engaging the people. That no one seems to want to be bothered to help is a sad indictment of how a once-great country has become selfish, lazy and "spoilt rotten" by years of welfare and the empty promises of spendthrift governments.

I wish David Cameron and his team every success, and I wish the Stanley Knills of this world would stop whining about class.

Katherine Scholfield

Roborough, Devon

Hard to imagine that David Cameron's philosophy of the Big Society is so soon sprouting shoots in Ealing. On an early evening walk, I had an encounter which should warm his heart.

I watched an elderly gentleman walk along with his shopping trolley, pull out secateurs and prune overhanging bits of a hedge along Northfield Avenue. He said he often brings shears since the council no longer cuts back hedges along pathways, "So I do it meself because I walk here every day and it bothers me".

It seems that the message of "cutting back" has struck a chord with this gentleman. I wonder whether he would also be willing to help with a bit of moat or duck house cleaning?

Annemarie Fugger

London W13

We prefer the Royal Family

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (Comment, 19 July) is advocating republicanism based on the failings of our constitutional monarchy without considering whether or not it would resolve these weaknesses. The deficiencies of the individuals who personify the monarchy are not deficiencies in the institution of monarchy, and can be found in all individuals who hold office throughout the world, elected or not.

I believe our system is in many ways more democratic than a presidential system would be. Election encourages the deficient and sometimes plutocratic governance exhibited by the presidencies of the United States or Russia.

Our Armed Forces, police and judiciary are loyal to Queen and not government, yet she cannot control them. The contradictions within our constitution are our protection against tyranny, and more pertinently against "executive privilege".

I have yet to see the Royal Family exhibit character flaws not seen among elected politicians, nor have I seen any evidence that our system has led to an unfairer or more unjust nation than those with elected heads of state.

Republicanism is not without its merits, and has been seen to work well in many countries. But our system has served us well for centuries, and done far more good than harm.

L Harris

Newmarket, Suffolk

Cheques really not necessary

John Whitton and the staff at his Exeter bank might think there is as yet no practical alternative way of paying tradesmen without a cheque (letters, 22 July). Can I suggest they try out one of three alternatives which have worked well in our household?

My gas engineer presented me with a machine powered by his mobile phone signal, on which I swiped my debit card. My builder handed me his business bank account card to take down to the bank, when I asked whether he preferred an electronic transfer instead of a cheque. The third possibility is for the tradesman to send an invoice including his business bank account details, enabling the customer to make an electronic payment at the bank counter.

Payment could even be made using that new-fangled invention, internet banking, though that is, as yet, a step too far for me, and I guess for Mr Whitton too. The tradesman had payment cleared the same working day. It seemed practical and simple for the customer.

Fiona Woodfield

Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Try buses, trains or get on a bike

I have little sympathy for my fellow Chingford resident who bemoans the high cost of car insurance for young people (report, 19 July; letters, 26 July).

I suggest that if anyone cannot afford to insure his car he should take one of the many buses which serve this area. Alternatively, he could take the train from Chingford (Liverpool Street in 25 minutes, and change at Walthamstow for the Victoria line).

Finally, for a fraction of the cost of car insurance he could buy a bicycle, thus providing himself with a cheap and quick form of transport, and a means of keeping fit.

Derrick Hibbett

London E4

Keep food safe

Contrary to your leading article, "A capitulation to vested interest" (13 July), we understand that no decision has been made about the Food Standards Agency. The Food and Drink Federation has consistently supported the need for an independent, well-funded food-safety regulator. The FSA has been highly effective in regulating food safety in the 10 years since its creation. Were its independent role abolished, no one would be the winner.

Melanie Leech

Director General, Food and Drink Federation, London WC2

Cross words

I estimate that only about one in four or five of people using pedestrian crossings acknowledges the drivers who have stopped for them. Is this the national average, or are people in our area particularly discourteous?

Julien Evans

Chesham, Buckinghamshire

Perspectives on National Service

My Army years were no waste

Chris Youett is wrong in implying that those who did their National Service had wasted two years of their life (letters, 23 July).

The youth then had experienced very different lives to those of the present generation. If Mr Youett had been brought up in Coventry in time for National Service, he would survived an IRA campaign, 350 air-raids and probably left school at 14 or 15 without any qualifications and started an apprenticeship, earning pocket money for working a five-and-a-half-day week.

If he had continued his education, he probably would have gone to the same bomb-damaged secondary school that I did, and studied in a three-shift system, starting at 7am and finishing at 7pm.

National Service gave such youngsters a chance to escape their daily grind. It was a rite of passage, an adventure and an experience not to be lost. True, it could be avoided, but generally was not.

Then, only about 12 per cent of the population qualified for university entrance and these few found it was very hard to get into university prior to National Service, because they were full of ex-Servicemen.

National Service gave people many of the benefits that a university education gives now. The difference is that National Service was compulsory and gave its benefits to all, and university education is voluntary and its benefits go only to those chosen.

Both required leaving home for a prolonged period and mixing with people who would not otherwise be met. The Services had a wider range of entrant – thus one might have an illiterate labourer on the bed one side and a titled aristocrat on the other.

The first three months were hell, in a platoon of strangers, who were home-sick and possibly wondering if their girlfriends or even wives would remain true, but in this period one became very fit and a reasonably competent soldier. The management tool used to do this was "bull". It was initially used to stop people thinking about their home and later to bring them together to make them co-operate and become a close team.

During this period, one was carefully assessed and after very little consideration of your wishes, you were selected for specialist training. It was only then that the real benefits came.

You had the chance of sports that you had never experienced. You might be taught to drive motorcycles and HG vehicles and use or repair all sorts of equipment. You might learn Russian, German or electronics.

There was also a strong chance of overseas travel and the opportunity to catch up on or extend your education. And it was then that the illiterate were taught to read.

Everyone had some type of excitement even if it was the queer feeling of holding a hand grenade after pulling out the pin.

One left the Armed Services feeling a fitter, more developed person, with new skills, who could mix with all types of people and deal with situations that had never previously been envisaged. One was proud to have been a Serviceman.

These feelings are not very different to those of the modern graduate.

A L Soper

Congleton, Cheshire