It's not often that a political decision is made that seems certain to disappoint almost everyone but, given the overwhelming level of public support for an end to the exploitation of wild animals in circuses, it's no exaggeration to say that news that No 10 may have deliberately sabotaged the long-awaited plans for a ban will leave the vast majority of the British public rightly outraged (report, 6 May).
Concerns for the welfare of animals in circuses have been voiced publicly and in Parliament for decades. Finally, when the Animal Welfare Act became a reality in 2007, it seemed that, at last, there was a prospect of real closure on this troubling issue – indeed that's what ministers have promised. But what have we got? Hot air and empty promises.
And throughout all the years of talk, wild animals continued to be subjected to wasted lives in travelling circuses – shunted from pillar to post, living in temporary accommodation, trained using undisclosed methods, and, as evidenced most recently by the case of Anne the elephant, subjected to brutal and prolonged abuse.
Now, instead of listening to the people, it seems that as a result of the personal intervention of the Prime Minister's office – over-ruling advice from Defra – this wholly unacceptable, deeply unpopular and exploitative use of wild animals is set to continue.
No. In the grand scheme of things, ending the use of wild animals in circuses isn't the most pressing political priority. It won't change the world – but it will change the world for each and every wild animal in a circus by replacing compulsion, coercion and cruelty with compassion. I urge everyone to take action by signing The Independent's petition.
CEO, Born Free Foundation,
Horsham, West Sussex
As former chairman of the group of circus people whose discussions with Defra resulted in a pretty positive report on the welfare of circus animals, I read Martin Hickman's article with interest.
It includes a good deal of the misinformation which has been propagated in recent years by the "animal welfare" industry – organisations which do little or nothing for the welfare of animals, but which appear to spend a vast proportion of the donations teased out of a gullible public on political campaigning and executive salaries.
Conditions are not cramped. Animals travel short distances once or twice each week, and their lack of stress is verified by scientific studies. Loud crowds? Just like Police and Army horses; they're used to it, and trust their trainers.
The Bristol University report you quote, which was funded by animal-activist groups, was condemned by a leading scientist, who wrote to the then government Minister: "When I first heard of the report, I was flattered that its authors considered me to be a sufficient authority on the subject that they cited my studies at least six times. However, after reading the report, I am shocked that the authors misrepresented my research and that of my colleagues in such an egregious manner."
Why on earth should grazing animals such as zebras and camels be banned? They are not confined; they are treated in parallel with equines. Is it because they are "foreign"? If so, you are treading dangerous ground in making the suggestion.
The previous government's "public consultation" was carried out online, with no attempt to prevent multiple responses – a field day for activists, a disaster for truth. Between them, two small circuses collected 10,000 very positive responses in a three-month period earlier this year – genuine public opinion, whose results have been with Defra for some time but which are never quoted in the media.
Ben Bradshaw did say he was "minded" to bring in a ban, but only on the basis of scientific evidence. The subsequent Defra report concluded there is no scientific justification for such a ban. Subsequent Defra inspections have confirmed that welfare is good overall.
If The Independent's poll is to be fair, it should present these balancing facts to its readers to allow them to consider both sides of the argument.
c/o The Great British Circus
Lazy students want less work
As a university lecturer, I am tired of hearing that "students want more contact time" (letters, 29 April). Many students can't be bothered to turn up for the lectures and seminars currently provided and would rather stay in bed than get up for a 9am lecture. Many seem to spend their days texting each other, or writing "Just skipped a lecture. LOL!" on Facebook. They seem to lack intellectual curiosity or a desire for knowledge; a consequence of our celebrity culture, perhaps, in which intelligence is sneered at and ignorance is applauded.
But as universities are becoming obsessed, like schools, with league tables and good results in student "customer questionnaires", academics feel the need to give the students higher grades and more 2.1/1st-class degrees, in order to get "good marks" from them in the National Student Survey.
Politely admonish a student for poor attendance, or give a low grade to an unintelligible, semi-literate essay, and you will be told indignantly, "I'm paying your salary, and don't you forget it, Prof". You'll then be slagged off in the student surveys, or subject to malicious comments on social-networking sites.
If paying higher fees puts students in the driving seat, then say goodbye to maintaining academic standards – we are already dumbing down coursework, or making everything "sexy" to keep them interested.
Cue employers increasingly complaining about the unemployability of future graduates – and then we academics will be blamed, not the insane market-driven system being imposed upon us by government.
Name and address supplied
The schemes being proposed by those universities intending to charge above £6,000pa will be scrutinised by Offa, which has a small staff. Those schemes are generally based on the idea that all students have parents for whom the concept of an annual parental income is meaningful. Unfortunately a significant fraction of present students have parents who are divorced, or never married, and any legal responsibility might be difficult, if not impossible, to determine. Pity the genuine orphan.
Whose responsibility will it be to determine whether someone claiming concessionary fees is eligible for the scheme a particular university has proposed and been accepted by Offa? It clearly is not Offa, so it falls to the university or college concerned. But in making their determination it is not clear that they will have sufficiently reliable information, and that could lead to legal action, souring future alumni relations.
"Parental income" can be arranged over a few years by those engaged in variable activities such as acting, painting, writing, and those with their own businesses.
If it is intended that HMRC will provide information that is verifiable, that can be done only in retrospect, which in practice will amount to a delay of two years and add to the burden of a service whose recent record is not covered in glory.
I foresee avoidance schemes proliferating as rational human beings exercise their own economic choices while seeking advantage.
Proud history of Canada's NDP
I have to take issue with Rupert Cornwell (4 May) when he describes the New Democratic Party as the "upstart" in Canadian politics. A party that can trace its roots to Woodsworth, Caldwell and Douglas (Kiefer Sutherland's grandfather) and has a history going back over 75 years is hardly an upstart. The problem the Liberals found themselves in is of their own creation – having been long seen as the "natural party of government" they began to convince themselves of their own invincibility while rarely taking seriously the pledges they made to the electorate.
By contrast the NDP and its predecessor brought the first socialised medicine to North America and recently has had a strong record of securing concessions from minority governments to help some of the most needy in society.
For peat's sake
The use of peat is an ongoing controversy. ("Titchmarsh named and shamed as peat compost row cuts up rough", 23 April.)
Many years ago we went to Ireland on a family holiday. While there, we were asked if we'd like to visit a peat bog.
The photograph you used to accompany your article was disappointing. It shows the traditional method of cutting turf with its low impact on the environment, which allows bog plants, insects and animals to thrive. But as we discovered, modern methods have a much more detrimental impact. While the children played and explored the traditional worked area, the adults were taken to see the commercial site. There, after machines were used to strip the peat for the commercial market, nothing was left.
Alan Titchmarsh and the other gardeners who try to justify using peat should visit such an area and see the massive damage it does to the environment.
Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan
Day to celebrate
Mary Dejevsky (29 April) is absolutely right. We do need a national day of celebration every year, like Bastille Day and Independence Day. I propose Republic Day. There's just the small matter of the prerequisite.
Perspectives on the safety of cyclists
Let's do it like the Dutch and Danish
As much as I support your Save our Cyclists campaign, could you please stop focusing on utter red herrings such as the kind of equipment used on HGVs? HGV drivers do not set out to kill and maim cyclists on UK roads; they do so because our roads create unnecessary conflict where, inevitably, cyclists come off worst.
The Dutch, Danish and many others do not suffer these fatalities, not because their HGVs voluntarily go above and beyond the requirements of EU law, but because these conflicts do not exist. Cycle lanes are separated from the main road so that an eight-year-old on his or her way to school does not compete for road space with 20-ton lorries and 4x4s. As a consequence, mass cycling is a daily reality, not the 2 per cent young male niche it is here.
We don't need pie-in-the-sky nonsense from Europe, we need our municipal authorities to allocate more space for bikes and pedestrians. Giving cars exclusive use of inner-city boulevards like London's Essex or Euston roads creates congestion, pollution and deaths. It's time we woke up to this basic reality and took it upon ourselves to do something about it.
Watch out for the deadly 'artic'
Simon Usborne, in his investigation into the hazards faced by cyclists (4 May), would have done better to climb aboard an articulated vehicle rather than Lee Ruggles's 32-ton "rigid". Many accidents to cyclists occur when "artics" are turning corners or negotiating sharp bends. When the tractor and semi-trailer portions of such a rig are no longer in a straight line, the nether regions of the trailer, notably its axles at the extreme rear, are beyond the field of view of the widest-angle convex ordinary mirrors.
Compounding the problem on most semi-trailers is the cut-in phenomenon, whereby the trailer wheels on the inside of the corner follow a much tighter radius than the tractor unit wheels. It is common to see trailer wheels mounting the pavement as drivers of artics, many up to 16.5m long, strive to negotiate tight corners in congested urban areas.
A major step forward in overcoming the artic hazard problem for cyclists and indeed pedestrians came with the availability of mirrors which automatically pivot outwards in response to camera-based sensors which detect the vehicle's angle of articulation. But such mirrors are not yet a legal requirement; they remain a fairly costly retrofit option.