Letters: Deaths of children in custody

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The Independent Online

Sir: While it is admirable of the Howard League to launch a campaign seeking to highlight prison deaths ("More children locked up as politicians score points on crime", 26 September) the danger is that their effort will become just one more piece in an already fragmented call for reform. From our unique viewpoint as the mothers of children who have died in prison, we fear it may actually detract from what we believe to be the most pressing issue, the urgent need for a full public inquiry into the death of children in prison.

We would wish to see the combined efforts of penal reform groups, children's charities, human rights organisations, MPs and peers focused on calling for and participating in a full public inquiry into the death of our children; such an inquiry would provide an opportunity for all the issues of concern to be scrutinised, lessons learned and action taken.

Only through a public inquiry into our children's deaths will the complete horrors suffered by children in prison be exposed; appallingly inadequate responses by the Home Office have already cost the lives of many children, including the tragic death of 17-year-old Sam Elphick this month. There can be no more delay: to delay is to condone further abuse.

Each time a child dies we hear the same sickening, empty statement: "One death is a death too many". But the death toll continues to rise, and the responsibility for the death of each child lies squarely on the shoulders of government. It is beyond belief that despite 29 children dying in custody since 1990, ministers have failed to order a public inquiry; we call upon Charles Clarke to overrule immediately the decision to deny a public inquiry into the death of Joseph Scholes.

Our children have been stolen from us, and the pain we bear is unimaginable; we will never again see their faces or hear their voices. There can be no true justice for us; but a measure of justice could be achieved if their deaths were not in vain, but rather that in their names, the tragedy of their deaths was used to force through urgent and radical reform of our criminally neglectful penal regime.



Universities given an impossible task

Sir: As the fifth child of a printer's warehouseman, I shall always be grateful that the taxpayers were prepared to fully fund my university education, and I strongly believe that a similar level of support should still be available to academically minded children from low income backgrounds.

However, when Bill Rammell refers to "everyone with the ability to participate" (letter, 24 September ), obviously if half of all school-leavers go on to university then even in the ideal case they would just be those with above average ability. But as there will always be a proportion of the brightest who choose other career paths, in practice universities will be compelled to admit some candidates whose academic ability is actually below average - clearly a nonsensical outcome.

By setting an unrealistically high and evidently unaffordable target for the participation rate, the Government is in effect returning to the days when the dull sons of wealthy families could walk on to a university course from which neither they nor society obtained any real benefit, while the bright children of poor families were excluded and their precious talents wasted.



Sir: This government has presided over the worst decline that the education system has ever experienced: record truancy levels, rock-bottom morale among teachers, appalling levels of indiscipline within schools and rampant grade inflation. Yet the failure of universities to attract larger numbers of state pupils is all the fault of naughty university admissions tutors and wicked independent schools - and nothing, heaven forbid, to do with the state education system.

Peter Spring (letter, 23 September) had it exactly right when he wrote: "The answer to raising state school entrance to elite universities is simple if unpalatable: raising state school standards and results". How hard can it be to understand this simple truth? Or do we need to emplace a national understandingness policy initiative first?



Sir: The problem behind two of your front page headlines ("Universities failing to attract state school pupils" and "Soaring numbers of students drop out of university", 22 September) rests simply with the ridiculous decision to increase university places until there is little academic competition for many courses and then load students with fees which deter those from modest backgrounds who may well be very able.

In the 1970s when students were fully funded, including living costs for those of poor and average families, there were far fewer places so academic competition was higher and the proportion of undergraduates from state schools and from working class backgrounds were both higher. The dropout rate was also very low.

Fewer places, competed for academically, with less debt to put off the poor and indeed average, would at a stroke reduce dropout rates and replace academically mediocre children from well-off families with brighter children of poorer families. If mass higher education is still desired an alternative mode of delivery, such as units delivered locally in FE colleges might be more appropriate.



Sir: Criticism of top universities over the fall in the percentage of students coming from maintained schools hardly seems fair. The universities are making great efforts to widen access. The problems lie in maintained sector schools where, in a number of key areas, provision is rapidly contracting. Numbers of mathematicians, scientists and linguists are in free fall. So, in disciplines critical to the country's economic future there are, inevitably, greater proportions of independent school candidates, and universities naturally make them offers for want of an alternative. The Government urgently needs to address the root cause of this damaging decline, not seek to blame others.



Sir: In his review of Chris Patten's new book, Not Quite the Diplomat (Arts & Books Review, 23 September), Denis MacShane states that Mr Patten's next "great task" as Chancellor at Oxford, is to "make universities in Britain world-class". Not so, Mr MacShane, we are that already. What we are not, however, is well-funded, in the way that other "world-class" universities, largely American, are endowed. Just think: if we can be this good on a shoestring, how much better could we be if we had the resources to concentrate on work rather than fund-raising?



'Don't care' vote blocks green action

Sir: Brian Blandford (letter, 21 September) says that the cost to governments of taking the kind of "green" action advocated by The Independent would be "too high in terms of their economy and their electorate". This is true: a powerful democratic brake restrains any environmental action that would require individuals to moderate, to any great extent, their consumption.

People differ hugely in what they are prepared to do, or sacrifice, for their own or anyone else's future. Some care very much about the planet, while others care not at all so long as nothing too disagreeable happens until their own lives have ended. In a democracy in which each citizen has an equal vote, who is to prevail? If the "don't-cares" win, who is entitled to overrule them? A finger-wagging "ought-to-care" from the opposite camp becomes mere hot air.

All this assumes, moreover, that we can predict exactly how useful any particular individual action may be. Inveterate "don't-cares" will use any confident prediction which afterwards turns out to have been false as a reason to ignore all predictions.

The biggest question that future politicians will have to answer is: how do we make the "don't-cares" care and, if they still don't, what are we entitled to force them to do?



King David and the Jewish identity

Sir: As impressive and worthy as a condensation of the Bible (report, 22 September) is I was also saddened that Mr Budd and the Rev Hinton were unable to find space for the Book of Ruth.

Your report suggests that the Book of Ruth implies that King David "was not 100 per cent Jewish".

However, as that book makes clear, and certainly as traditional Jewish commentary on it makes clear, after specific studies and practices and the testing of intent, proselytes joining the Jewish people are "100 per cent Jewish". Their children and descendants are also "100 per cent Jewish". King David, therefore, despite the best efforts of many, was "100 per cent Jewish".

Undermining the tradition of Jewish conversion suits many (within and outside the Jewish community) who prefer an exclusively racial or ethnic identity rather than one based on an overlap between birth, culture and practices. The ethnic view seems to me a bit simple, whereas history and reality are complex.



Jailed for defying an iniquitous tax

Sir: So there we have it. The law of this land has determined that a 73-year-old pensioner should be sent to prison for withholding £53.71 as a protest against the iniquity of the council tax. Are the pensioners of this country happy to sit back and let this injustice pass unchallenged?

That council tax particularly hits pensioners is well understood and has often been debated in these columns, but perhaps it is appropriate to remind people that the poorest 20 per cent of pensioners pay, as a proportion of their income, nearly six times as much council tax as the richest 20 per cent of non-pensioners. Council tax is a naked example of the rich being subsidised by the poor and both the Labour and Conservative parties apparently consider this to be a perfectly reasonable state of affairs.

Every pensioner in the land should, as result of the Exeter magistrates' decision, resolve to withhold £53.71 from next year's council tax bill. If the courts want to jail us all, the Government had better start building prisons fast.



Rampant racism against the Scots

Sir: Oh dear - the outrage expressed by your correspondent Mr Bealing (letter 19 September) that a future Scottish Prime Minister of the UK might bestow congratulations upon an English cricket team. In fact, such an event has occurred before, from the opposite perspective. Scottish Commonwealth medallists have frequently been congratulated by English Prime Ministers of the UK - despite Scotland and England being rivals in the same competition.

There is a rampant, anti-Scottish racism which seems to be acceptable in England these days. Yes, it is wrong that the UK Labour Party exploits Scottish and Welsh party member votes to maintain its dominance of English affairs. The democratic deficit attached to this cynical policy is outrageous. The people of England should be offered their own Parliament on the same terms as the Scots Parliament: limited jurisdiction and no control whatsoever over their country's natural assets.

The people of Scotland have as little interest in deciding what happens in English shires as they have in English cricket. Moreover, parties supporting independence for Scotland abstain from voting in English affairs, and in doing so show more concern for England than than the English did for Scotland when it was ruled from London for eighteen years by the Tories (despite the country being overwhelmingly socialist), and was experimented upon for the poll tax.



Going for a record

Sir "Prescott tells Blair: Name the day" (26 September). My sixpence is on 2 July 2008 - one day longer than Maggie.



Loyalist mistrust

Sir: The IRA has decommissioned its arms but the loyalists do not believe it. They still request photographs of the process. Why do the loyalists not trust General de Chastelain and the two independent clerical witnesses? Do they believe that these people were hoodwinked and that the weapons are still useable? How would photographs have helped? Do the loyalists have reliable information about the full extent of IRA weaponry so that photographs of those that have been destroyed would help them determine whether there were any left? Will the loyalists every be satisfied?



Unique words

Sir: The subtitle to John Walsh's "A world in your ear" (26 September) errs in stating "only German has a word for 'a person who leaves without paying the bill' (Zechpreller)". Even our local plod know the transitive verb "bilk", which Chambers defines as "to avoid paying someone what is due". I know that they know because we've used the term on occasion reporting a bilker from our restaurant.



Sir: While in no way detracting from what sounds like an excellent idea by Adam Jacot de Boinod (The Meaning of Tingo) I would like to remind readers of Douglas Adams & John Lloyd's similar book The Meaning of Liff. The authors took real place names and used them to describe feelings and situations for which there is no exact English word. My favourites include Abilene: the cool underside of the pillow; Peoria: the fear of peeling too few potatoes and Ahenny: the way people stand when examining other people's bookshelves.



Too old for homework

Sir: "Ministers have urged grandparents to go back to school because research has found half of them lacked the maths skills to do their grandchildren's homework" (report, 24 September). And I'd always thought it was the children that did the homework.