Sir: My recent experience in several refugee camps in Sri Lanka confirms that a year after the tsunami "the picture is still bleak for hundreds of thousands of survivors" (Christmas Charity Appeal, 5 December ). The situation preventing sufficient aid from reaching those in need of basic housing and community services has yet to be addressed fully for victims, especially young children.
I was in Galle, Sri Lanka, recently to help assess the effectiveness of a local foundation to provide pre-school programmes for children. Almost a year on from the disaster, I was most struck by conditions in a pre-school attended by 65 children under five, located in an open pavilion, in the middle of a refugee camp. Many are orphans. None of them have a permanent home. Their "school" borders a rubbish dump where animals scavenge.
Many of these children continue to suffer from trauma, not helped by the ongoing lack of permanency in their lives. It is unconscionable that, this long after the disaster, children's basic rights to safety and protection from further damage are not assured, particularly when so much aid was pledged from around the world.
I met a number of people who had been on holiday in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck. They had gone home, raised money and returned to deliver the funds directly to the project they had "adopted". It may not be strategic but it appears to be the best way, at this time, of ensuring people, especially children, who continue to suffer, get remedy and relief. However, although extremely worthwhile for particular situations, it leads to inequity and inefficiency. We must do better.
Well done for your collaborative initiative in this essential campaign.
Brown destroys faith in pensions
Sir: I listened to the Chancellor's pre-budget speech with incredulity. Here is a man who, over eight years, has destroyed the public's faith in pensions. The tax raid on pension dividends, destroying final salary schemes by over-regulation, undermining the value of financial advice, overstating the mis-selling issue, giving the FSA unlimited and undemocratic powers and presiding over a stock market crash the like of which had not been seen for 30 years.
For the first time since 1997 we had some positive news in respect of the freeing up of pensions to diversify investment into residential property, works of art and other previously disallowed assets. This has sparked a genuine and renewed interest in pensions and, for the first time in years, people were being proactive in organising their affairs to take advantage of these new freedoms. Now, just four months before these new rules were to take effect, the Chancellor announces without any warning that he has changed his mind.
Up until 1997 we had one of the most advanced and successful private pension systems in the world. This Chancellor has consistently undermined the system to the point where we have the Turner report recommending that individuals be compelled to make pension provision. All the while the Chancellor and his colleagues can rest easy in the knowledge that they have a Rolls-Royce pension scheme that nobody else in the country is allowed to have.
Sir: In the Turner report and the debate about pensions, little attention seems to have been given to the abysmal performance of the pensions industry itself.
Among other things, we've had mis-selling, massive reductions in the returns to pensioners, and a life and pensions industry in turmoil. Meanwhile, the fund managers in the City continue to pay themselves huge incomes and bonuses (don't mention pay for performance). All this in parallel with the pressure on people to move to personal rather than company schemes.
Is it any wonder that people are reluctant to depend on the pensions industry for their future? A snap survey of half a dozen "friends in the pub", all of them approaching retirement and all with experience in and around in the City, found none of them relying on a pension from the usual suspects.
People are not as stupid as Turner and Co may think. They know that they will live longer. They know that they have to save. And they know that putting the money into pensions run by today's industry does not look like a good way of reducing their risks.
WEST CLANDON, SURREY
Sir: Readers' sympathy will have gone out to the Bournemouth pensioner paying £50 a month towards council tax out of a state pension of £150 a week (Pre-budget Report, 6 December). Surely in a decent society we should be aiming at a state pension of around £600 a month with outgoings on council tax pegged down to about £12.50 a week.
Tory squabbles over Europe are not over
Sir: The Tories in the European Parliament have also been electing a leader. When the votes stack up, they will reveal the stark divide that will rip open the Tory party once leadership honeymoons are over.
A critical issue for generations of Tories, their position over Europe, is still unclear. Cameron has promised to take the 27 Tory MEPs out of their European Conservative grouping, resulting in the loss of all their influence: chairs of committees, delegations and even the post of Vice President for one Europhile, who will be deeply upset.
Voters need to know a few things about the Tories in Europe: they are prepared to forfeit all their influence to move to the right; they are prepared to sit alongside timewasters like UKIP, fascists, homophobic and anti-abortion parties; and when it comes to crunch decisions on European policy like enlargement and budget reform, they will spend more time squabbling about where they sit rather than setting out the right conditions for jobs, prosperity and social protection in a rapidly globalising world.
GARY TITLEY MEP
LEADER OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENTARY LABOUR PARTY BRUSSELS
Sir: David Cameron's common ancestry with the Queen is no big deal. I don't know a Scot who won't claim descent from Rob Roy. Taking into account large families and children out of wedlock, it is likely that, over six generations, Mr Cameron shares his relationship to Queen Elizabeth with quite a few thousand others of her subjects. The Conservative Party can breathe again: he's really just like one of us.
Writer who shaped modern drama
Sir: I expect that Harold Pinter's reputation will just about survive Johann Hari's pipsqueak attack on it (Opinion, 6 December). Might it not have been more generous at this time, when Pinter is ill, for Hari to celebrate the rare achievement that has brought the Nobel Prize for Literature back to Britain for only the ninth time in over a hundred years?
It is accepted throughout western theatre that Pinter has been a formative influence on its post-war development, probably more so than Samuel Beckett. The political passion of his public statements and in his poetry, which so offends Hari, is balanced by the unique technical control of his plays, for this is a writer of many facets.
For the organisation from which I write, English Pen, Pinter's espousal of unjustly imprisoned writers around the world has been inspiring. Could not the press, just for once, stop cutting down any tall poppy it sees and join in praising a great writer, one who many people believe will be proved right on the great political issues of the day, but whose shaping of modern drama is already beyond dispute?
DR ALASTAIR NIVEN
PRESIDENT, ENGLISH PEN LONDON EC1
South Africa's catastrophe
Sir: Your article on the ruling by Justice Albie Sachs ("South African court clears way for gay marriage", 2 December) is misleading in stating that post-apartheid South Africa "has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world".
R W Johnson is much more accurate in South Africa: the First Man, the Last Nation, describing the 1994 constitution as a "scandalous political bosses' charter... unique in the world's electoral history". As Johnson says, under the constitution there are "no constituencies at all and no possibility for local communities to have any control over their representatives or to choose who they might be. Even when MPs resigned or died, there were to be no by-elections... Instead, 400 MPs were to be elected on a purely proportional basis from party lists. Any MP who disagreed with his party could be thrown out of parliament by the party bosses." These party bosses - in the case of the ANC, the group around President Thabo Mbeki - even have the power "to move people at will into and out of seats in parliament and the provincial assemblies".
Given President Mbeki's policy on Aids, the inhibition on free debate by elected representatives in South Africa has brought about a situation where, as you reported earlier ("South Africa urged to consider 'HIV tax' as disease hits the economy", 1 December), "roughly 11 per cent of its 45 million people are infected" with the virus and "hundreds of thousands" are in need of anti-retroviral drugs.
This is a catastrophe. The "progressive" constitution, so different from what we take for granted in Britain, is deadly.
AYLESBURY, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE THE WRITER WAS A POLITICAL PRISONER IN PRETORIA AND JOHANNESBURG, 1964-67
'Rendition' evades the rule of law
Sir: In today's Independent (6 December) a number of questions are posed for Condoleezza Rice on the allegations that the US has been flying terrorist suspects across Europe for interrogation, with or without torture.
But there is one other very simple question which cries out for answer: why does the US government not arrange to question these suspects on US territory? The US is not short of prisons or other suitable places in which suspects could be interrogated.
The true answer is equally simple: the US government will not use dubious and possibly illegal interrogation techniques on US soil because they would then become open to investigation and challenge in the American courts.
So this US government which flies the banner of the rule of law as a justification for much of what it does in Iraq and other foreign lands is unwilling to subject itself to the rule of law as laid down by its own courts. What does this say to the world about the reality of the US commitment to the rule of law?
P S ATIYAH
HAYLING ISLAND, HAMPSHIRE
Sir: The Ministry of Truth in Orwell's 1984 would have been hard pressed to come up with a more obscene coinage than the use of "rendition" to denote the clandestine transporting of terror suspects from one country to another for the purposes of torture. The applicable meaning of the verb "to render" would appear to be "to extract ... by melting" (Chambers).
PROFESSOR D MAUGHAN BROWN
Sir: So the CIA admit to jetting suspected detainees to different parts of the world, but deny that it was for the purpose of torture. Are we therefore expected to conclude they have been sending them on vacation?
Gay couples are finally accepted
Sir: Your editorial on 5 December underestimates the impact of the Civil Partnerships Act when comparing it to equalisation of the age of consent. The latter did little for the gay community except to stop certain prosecutions, grateful as we were for this tolerance.
Civil partnership is a change that sends out a much stronger message to not just gay but lesbian couples too. It is an active measure in which government employees provide a service. The subtle but important message is not mere tolerance, but acceptance. When the first legal UK partnership ceremonies take place in Scotland on 20th of this month, we will bask in the official acceptance of our relationships.
Ignore this 'reality'
Sir: I'm not suggesting censorship but do you think you could limit the amount of attention you pay to Space Cadets over the coming weeks (report, 3 December)? The deceitful humiliation is of no conceivable social use; keeping the programme's ratings down is about the only thing ordinary people can do.
Best's bad example
Sir: I disagree with I B Holloway's assessment (Letters, 3 December). Had a talented sportswoman led the dissolute life of George Best the probability is that, rather than attracting blame, this would have gone totally unreported, along with her achievements. Take a look at the sports section in the same edition. In 25 pages of sports reporting there is not one mention of a sportswoman.
Sir: Roger Martin (letter, 3 December) makes the most relevant contribution to the environmental debate. Every government needs right now to pass legislation making it financially advantageous for people not to have children. This is problematic for the Green movement, because anything which smacks of eugenics has historically been associated with the far right. No doubt they will still be arguing passionately about this when the ecosystem finally and irrevocably collapses under the weight of too many human beings.
Matter of timing
Sir: I find Guy Keleny's Errors & Omissions both entertaining and educational. Therefore, it is with some trepidation that I venture to suggest he may not be quite right in his analysis (3 December) of the "I'm a Celebrity..." headline. I doubt any accident happened when Kimberley Davies jumped; surely it is more likely that she was injured when she hit the ground after she jumped.
Sir: Jeremy Corbyn writes (letter, 6 December) that Constance Markiewicz was the first woman MP though as a member of Sinn Féin she did not take her seat. Does he know if she claimed her expenses?