Letters: Cycle of social ills

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The Independent Online

Blair should get out more - the cycle of social ills is plain to see

Sir: Tony Blair clearly does not go supermarket shopping. If he were to go to any bog-standard supermarket he would see what produces children destined for Asbos: parents who shout at, swear at, threaten their misbehaving offspring with physical violence, and then buy them off with some junk or other. These parents usually look harassed and deprived; they appear to be lacking in money and a good diet (a look into the trolley will confirm this); they are certainly lacking in parenting skills. Their tiny children are already a problem and will probably continue to be a problem at school and in adult life and repeat the cycle.

As a member of a teaching dynasty stretching back over a hundred years, still going strong, I know that teachers can provide what such children need, but should they have to? I was struck by the recent report that levels of antisocial behaviour in Germany are low, and reminded of a comment by my counterpart in a German college of further education: surprised at our pastoral system, she said that that was the business of the family. Home is the most important factor in a child's life. Deprivation, whether of necessary material things or of love and attention, leads to resentment and anger and antisocial behaviour.

At its extreme, antisocial behaviour leads to prison. Most prisoners come from families lacking in either education, money or social skills - usually all of these. Interestingly (I am writing from the experience of one, men's, prison), when they take the opportunity of attending classes in parentcraft, family relationships or diet and nutrition, they speak enthusiastically of putting what they have learned into practice. Can we not break the cycle by teaching such subjects in school?



Dawkins and the Martian teapot

Sir: Johann Hari's contempt for religion clearly knows no bounds ("Why Richard Dawkins is heroic", 10 January). If only the same could be said for his understanding.

Quite apart from his dubious broad-brush treatment of "religion" and his ready resort to caricature and misrepresentation (in which respect he rather resembles his hero Professor Dawkins), his use of Bertrand Russell's Martian teapot analogy is bizarre. I have never heard any rational basis for belief in a teapot orbiting Mars. There are, however, rational, historical and philosophical grounds for belief in Christianity, and the Catholic Church has a long and distinguished tradition of rigorous philosophical inquiry - see the 1998 papal encyclical Faith and Reason. One of the reasons for which the Catholic Church is reviled by some Protestant extremists is that it has "embraced evolution"!

Concerning Aids: the Catholic Church teaches sexual abstinence before marriage, and fidelity during marriage. It hardly needs stating that the rejection of this teaching is the main cause of the spread of sexual disease (I am not saying that Aids is a "punishment" for this rejection - merely a consequence). And before we hear the cry that the Church is heartless, 25 per cent of all medical care given to Aids sufferers worldwide is provided by the Catholic Church and Catholic NGOs.



Sir: Jonathan Fairclough writes (Letter, 11 January): "For Professor Dawkins to argue that we should not teach children about religion on the basis that we do not teach them about politics and economics is nonsense." Nonsense indeed, and I didn't argue it. I am strongly in favour of teaching children about religion: the more religions, and the more mutually contradictory, the merrier.

My argument was against labelling children with particular religions, and segregating them in faith schools accordingly. I satirised both by imagining separate schools for "Tory children" and "Labour children", or "Monetarist children" and "Keynesian children". Since we don't label or segregate children by parental politics or economics, faith schools would seem to represent yet another example of our society's gratuitous privileging of religion.



Sir: Can we please nail this idea that faith schools segregate people of different religions? I was recently shown around a faith school by a Muslim pupil who proudly showed me his prayer mat. This was a Church of England school. One of the things he liked about the school was how it examined all faiths.



Sir: Steven Richmond makes what may be the valid point that much of the industrial-scale slaughter which occurred in the 20th century was unrelated to organised religion (letter, 9 January). He seems to have failed to notice the obvious reason for the scale of the carnage in the last century, which is the existence of modern "industrial" methods of killing.

Hitler and Stalin would have not achieved so many deaths without modern weaponry. We can only imagine how the Crusaders, as only one example, would have prosecuted their wars in the "Holy Land" with the benefit of machine guns, high explosive, poison gas and aeroplanes (oh, and nuclear weapons?)



US-style lobbyists besiege Brussels

Sir: Raffaello Pantucci (Letters, 7 January) is right, but his timescale is wrong. It is important that Europe acts to control US-style predatory lobbying- but it's already here.

Industry knows that the European Parliament plays a vital role in the legislative process. More than 80 per cent of Parliament's amendments to legislation are accepted in whole or part by Commission and Council. It's here in the dots, commas and full-stops that the fate of hundreds of millions of pounds of corporate profits lie.

If in doubt follow the money. There are over 3,000 registered lobbyists trying to influence 700 MEPs. We had in the last Parliament predatory lobbying to vote down a scientific report that small inedible objects (toys) in chocolate pose a danger of choking in small children; or on the other side the costly green success of the End of Vehicle Life Directive that benefits the environment to the extent of £100m while costing £400m per annum. Dodgy lobbying and cowardly politicians lead to bad laws.

It's going to get worse. In the US we've seeing the consequences of predatory lobbying and the abuse of science by big business and fundamentalist groups over climate change, condom safety and creation science. The signs are it's speeding across the Atlantic - Europe needs to prepare for the onslaught of the mad and the bad.



Underground strike is no joke

Sir: Mark Steel's Independent columns are always an entertaining read.

However, while tackling the recent Tube strike (12 January), he has been misled. Not a single member of staff will lose their job. The deal agreed with the RMT over a year ago, hailed by the union as "groundbreaking" and backed overwhelmingly by union members, gives staff a 35-hour working week and 52 days' holiday a year.

The deal, which comes at no extra cost to farepayers, is in return for flexibility. The success of Oyster means some staff will move out of ticket offices on to stations and platforms. London Underground would never - and has never - compromised on safety. The deal will mean no reduction in staff but a more visible staff presence - much more reassuring for passengers. This is a fair deal for all concerned.

Mark is a funny man. The union's demand for strikes against a deal they themselves wholeheartedly supported is not.



Canoeists disturb nesting birds

Sir: You report on the canoeists' drive to open up all rivers for their own selfish interests (31 December). One said that they won't affect nesting swans or kingfishers.

Along the Wye at Glasbury, the huge increase in the number of canoeists has had a massive impact on wildlife. I have seen some canoeists, sit on the shingle and discard beer cans near nesting birds. Many shout to each other while canoeing and disturb wildlife as well as the peace of the river banks.

The number of common sandpipers has halved and many little ringed plovers have failed to breed. Even in the winter, where there used to be large numbers of wildfowl 15 years ago, today there are few and those that remain have survived by seeking out small pools on adjacent farmland. Other rivers in the area where canoeists aren't allowed have changed very little in the same period.



Iraq: how to bring ministers to justice

Sir: Given the tribal loyalties of MPs, their widespread complicity in Tony Blair's illegal invasion of Iraq, and their zero career prospects if they supported a failed attempt, a parliamentary impeachment of Blair, as suggested by General Sir Michael Rose, is a pipe-dream.

The victims of this war must look elsewhere for justice, so stand up Luis Moreno Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at the Hague, and explain why, after innocent Iraqis have been killed and maimed in their tens of thousands, no prosecutions on war crimes charges or the Nuremberg charge of crimes against peace have been brought against Blair and his Cabinet.



Take education out of party politics

Sir: Your leading article of 11 January rightly draws attention to the about-to-be-missed opportunity which is David Cameron's espousal of the Government's proposals on education reform. This degree of consensus must signal the moment when all sides agree to establish a permanent cross-party commission to determine education policy. Matters of such seminal and long-term national concern cannot be allowed to be the means by which individual parties ensure their own futures. Our children deserve more.



Sir: Very funny! At Prime Minister's question time on Wednesday, Mr Blair manages to turn a serious question on education into a cheap smart-arse joke. Not a shining example of parliamentary democracy at work. But the children of this country - our future - deserve an answer. Why does one in five schools lack a permanent headteacher?



Brown's task in Africa

Sir: The Chancellor highlights the woeful lack of access to education for millions of vulnerable children in developing countries (Opinion, 4 January). We welcome his focus on the issue and will be following progress intently. But the UK can do more to get money to those who most need it.

Progress has been made in 2005, and it's a credit to world leaders that they showed some willingness to act. However the giant leap forward demanded by campaigners has not been delivered. Of the $20bn aid per year by 2010 that was newly committed at the G8, half is intended for Africa, where 40 million children don't go to school. If spent on education, this new money could send all children in sub-Saharan Africa to school (at a cost of $4.6bn).

The Chancellor is not helped by the continuing policies of those organisations at the heart of the international development system. The Fast Track Initiative run by the World Bank does not work in places in most need - fragile states and those in conflict - and the IMF often places such restrictive macroeconomic conditions on countries that they are forced to cut back on social spending and limit their ambitions. The challenge for the Chancellor in 2006 to use his position in the World Bank and IMF to deliver real change for vulnerable children.



End of the tail

Sir: Parliament doesn't need to outlaw the docking of dogs' tails (report, 10 January). All it needs is for the Kennel Club to change its breed standards and the practice would stop immediately.



Apathy at the centre

Sir: New Labour claims to be the party of the "centre", while David Cameron is trying to reposition the Tories on the same ground. But the electorate is less and less impressed. The fall in electoral turnout from 77 per cent in 1992 to 61 per cent in 2005 is hardly a ringing endorsement of centrist policies.



Question of priorities

Sir: On pages one and two of Monday's edition you announce a government plan to axe three world-renowned ecological research centres, in order to save £1m. On page eight you announce a government plan to spend exactly the same amount on a website to find an icon for England; we are to choose between, a cup of tea, Zippy and a Routemaster bus. This is worthy of Monty Python; it truly beggars belief.



Right of the road

Sir: The letter from Gerry Wolfe (12 January) on the Rhyl tragedy demonstrates a distasteful tendency to shift blame on to the victims of road accidents. The car in this case crossed grass verges and bounced back onto the road. Cyclists in a cycle lane would still have been hit. Arguments about cycle paths serve merely to divert attention from the underlying cause of most accidents, which remains unsafe driving. Cyclists have a right to use the highway that precedes that of car drivers, and we will not be driven off the roads.



Peanuts in peril

Sir: Merrick Godhaven should be careful (letter, 12 January). Peanuts are banned on major airlines because of their potential to cause injury to a few passengers. The airlines led the way in banning smoking, soon to be ubiquitous. Peanuts may be next.