Letters: Debate on prisons

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The Independent Online

Lack of proper debate on prisons shames the Commons

Sir: There are times when the proceedings of the House of Commons are shameful.

The Government decided to abolish the Office of Chief Inspector of Prisons, notwithstanding the excellent work done by Judge Tumim, Lord Ramsbotham, and now Anne Owers. The independent Prisons Inspectorate has, among other things, discovered during its time pregnant women in chains in Holloway, assaults by prison staff in the segregation unit at Wormwood Scrubs, outrageous behaviour in the segregation unit at Wandsworth, and mental health treatment at Brixton that the Inspector described as "utterly disgraceful".

The Government gave no time at all for this change to be debated on the floor of the House of Commons at the report stage of the Police and Justice Bill. Under the guise of "modernisation", debate in Parliament is stifled. It was left to the House of Lords to undertake proper scrutiny.

In debates in which the Government could not find a single supporter, the House of Lords savaged the Government's proposals to abolish the independence of HM Inspectorate of Prisons, to the extent that Baroness Scotland, who had conduct of the Bill in the Lords, promised that the Chief Inspector of Prisons would remain. However, that concession was short-lived, because at the last possible moment on third reading in the Lords, the Government introduced some last-minute amendments which would have the effect of again undermining the independence of the Chief Inspector of Prisons by giving the Home Secretary powers to direct how inspections should be carried out.

The Prisons Inspectorate is highly acclaimed nationally and internationally. Why undermine the role and independence of the Prisons Inspectorate?

On 24 October this matter came back before the House of Commons in considering the Lords' amendments and the Government's amendments to the Lords' amendments. Again, because of the Government restricting time for debate, the House of Commons had precisely 20 minutes in which to discuss these issues - clearly totally insufficient to probe the effect and reason for the Government reneging on their concession to the House of Lords.

It is a disgraceful way for the House of Commons to conduct its business, but much more importantly, it is a disgrace that the House of Commons can so cavalierly deal with such important issues as the welfare of prisoners, the state and condition of our prisons and ensuring that there is an effective independent inspectorate to draw attention to what is happening in our prisons.



The longer we stay the worse Iraq gets

Sir: Steve Richards's article "We made a mistake going into Iraq, and we would make a mistake getting out now" (24 October) is, as usual, astute and intelligent. But the last two paragraphs are as flawed as the dodgy dossier that helped get us into Iraq in the first place.

He implies that there should be no withdrawal from Iraq until it has been made stable. He is ignoring the evidence. As each month has passed the situation has gradually worsened with increasing violence. Does Mr Richards think that if we stay six more months or another year or two that there will be any change in this degeneration?

At the time of the invasion I was predicting a bloody mess of unpredictable proportions and have said all along that whenever we leave there will be a vicious civil war due to the valuable oil prize, most likely followed by a ruthless leader taking control of the country with an iron fist. The longer we delay such an outcome, the longer we are subjecting the Iraqi people to a protracted bloodbath and the degradation of their infrastructure. Whatever reasons Mr Richards wishes to concoct to justify our withdrawal from Iraq I feel it would be better for him to come up with them now rather than three or four years down the line.

In any event isn't all this discussion academic? For surely we will not leave Iraq until the Americans decide to leave, not a day earlier or a day later.



Sir: Getting out now is the only solution if more troops are not sent to control the internal war that was unleashed by the initial coalition attack. Steve Richards needs to name the countries that he considers will make further contributions to troops in Iraq before he suggests that it is a mistake to get out now.

And yes, getting out now will lead to further carnage. But that carnage will have a clear end when a new dictator emerges or Iran, Syria and maybe others intervene. At the moment there is no end in sight and both major members of the coalition are looking for ways to escape from Iraq without too much loss of face.



Sir: The results of the survey of opinion which indicated a substantial lack of confidence in the Government's handling of the occupation of Iraq are hardly surprising ("Iraq: the people have their say", 24 October). Our Prime Minister has been compliant and complicit in a shambles. There was no plan for the administration of the country; the Iraqi army and bureaucratic structure were disbanded on doctrinaire grounds; electricity and water supplies have not returned to pre-invasion levels; there is endemic violence threatening the break-up of the country.

The more interesting answer might have been to the question which was not asked. In view of the fact that our Prime Minister presented misleading information to Parliament and the people in support of a possibly illegal war, which had not received explicit United Nations approval and to which it now seems he had already committed the country in private discussions with President Bush, how many now believe that Tony Blair should face the consequences of his actions through appropriate legal proceedings?



Sir: Bruce Anderson says, "Those of us who advocated this war have a duty to ask how it turned out so terribly" (Opinion, 23 October). Why? This is mere obfuscation; the real question for the likes of him to ask themselves is "Why did we advocate it?"



Sir: It is gratifying to note that Bruce Anderson is on the road to Damascus. Not sure how far he has got, though.



Sir: The Bush/Blair foreign policy: (a) get into a functioning country uninvited; (b) destroy the country from within; (c) then bid farewell, telling its citizens they are masters of their own destiny now. Clever?



A countryside neat, tidy - and sterile

Sir: It is true that there is currently a bumper crop of berries in the countryside, including holly berries ("Why the Indian summer may mean holly without berries this Christmas", 21 October). The odd holly bush may be loaded up with berries, but anyone searching for berry-laden sprigs, including wild birds, will have to look much further than they used to.

The sad fact is that there are thousands of miles of hedgerow in Britain that should be laden with berries and fruits but that bear none at all, because of over-zealous hedge trimming on farmland and along roads and lanes. The growing obsession with making the countryside look neat and tidy results in most hedges being cut back by September-October each year, leaving no berries for birds in winter.

This is just one example of the ways in which the trend of tarting up the countryside is bad for wildlife. Moreover, I'm sure most of us would agree that an autumn hedgerow laden with berries, fruits and late-flowering plants is much more attractive than one squared off like an imitation brick wall by the flail mower.



Census figures on religious affiliation

Sir: I was alarmed at the number of factual inaccuracies which appeared in your analysis of religious affiliation in your front-page feature of 6 October.

You state that your figures are based on the 2001 National Census, which was based on a careful breakdown of religion within political wards. In fact, I suspect that your figures may have come from a different source, the "Middle Layer Super Output Area" report, which takes an individual street and counts the numbers of, for example, Christians and Muslims in that street. This has produced a ludicrously distorted set of statistics for the West Midlands in general and Moseley (a suburb of Birmingham) in particular.

You state that "three-quarters of the population of Moseley follow Islam." The Moseley Ward figure in the Census was 4,119 out of 24,283. That is 17 per cent, not 75 per cent. You state that "only 13 per cent of people in Moseley describe themselves as Christian." The Census figure is 11,176 out of 24,282, or 46 per cent.

Dealing with cities as a whole, you state that "in some areas such as Birmingham three-quarters of the population are non-Christian." What you might have said of course is that in some streets in some cities, 75 per cent of the population is non-Christian. But the Census figure for Birmingham is that 577,783 out of 997,087 (59 per cent) are Christian, not 25 per cent.

You state that "one-third of all Muslims live in the West Midlands." The census figure is 216,184 out of a total (England only) of 1,524,887, which is 14 per cent, not 33.3 per cent.

I am not making any religious points here; my interest is only in the accurate statistical representation of Moseley in particular and the West Midlands in general.



Sex education must challenge stigma

Sir: Your article "Publicity campaigns fail to stop unsafe sex" (25 October) reveals the difficulty of addressing a growing culture of unsafe sex in the UK. But it is premature to claim awareness campaigns are failing to address this problem. Mass awareness campaigns can be extremely effective, but must be part of a larger effort to challenge the stigma and misconceptions around sexually transmitted infections and particularly HIV.

Many people's attitudes to sex are formed when they are teenagers and it is unacceptable that thousands of young people are leaving school without any comprehensive sex and relationships education, or awareness of the risks of unprotected sex. It is time the Government addressed this issue by requiring comprehensive sex and relationships education to be on the national curriculum.



A spelling lesson from Shakespeare

Sir: Peter Pavey (letter 20 October) is mistaken about Dickens and Shakespeare. It would help if everyone knew more about past spelling and how it has changed. Charles Dickens was a keen supporter of English spelling reform, and ridiculed the teaching of spelling in Nickolas Nickleby.

Here, as they were originally spelled in the First Folio, are the lines from Shakespeare's Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, that Mr Pavey imagines have not changed their spelling over the centuries:

"For in that sleepe of death, what dreames may come,

"When we hauve shufflel'd off this mortall coile,

"Must giue vs pawse ..."



What, no anguish at an empty cosmos?

Sir: Your correspondent Jean Hickson (Letters, 25 October) says there's a lapel pin from the Humanist Association that declares "Happy Humanist". I thought the whole point of being a humanist was that you were miserable, nothing to look forward to, solely responsible for your own wellbeing, answerable to your own conscience. Maybe this is why Blair is so nauseating to atheists. He has the believers' get-out card.



Sir: What should an atheist wear (letter, 20 October)? Nothing, of course. And an agnostic? It's absolutely impossible to know.



Forced to be efficient

Sir: Is it really necessary, as stated by David Miliband (letter, 24 October), for the Government to spend £27.6m promoting "household energy efficiency"? The price mechanism of soaring energy costs is surely doing this job for nothing.



City on the move

Sir: It is difficult enough being a Leeds United fan at the moment so I was surprised to read in Nick Harris's generally very good article ("New Era at Leeds", 25 October) that Leeds seems to have moved into South Yorkshire from its traditional home in the West Riding. Is this a clever plan by Ken Bates and Dennis Wise to relocate the club to west London in stages?



Round the world

Sir: Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was not the first man to sail around the world single-handed ("Stormy Waters", 25 October). That honour belongs to Sir Francis Chichester. Sir Robin was the first man to sail around the world single-handed non-stop. Sir Francis had stopped in Australia for repairs to his boat.



Green gesture

Sir: Richmond Council's extra residents' parking charge for 4x4s and other high-emission vehicles is gesture politics at its most unproductive. Most people who have big cars don't have to park on the street. If they do, they can well afford to pay the charge, so more money for Richmond, but no less big-car use. Meanwhile everyone else smugly believes the problem has been solved, whereas significant CO2 cuts really demand swingeing savings by all of us.



Enough is enough

Sir: I realise, as a smoker, I could be a burden on the NHS. I realise that, aged 60, I am no longer a contributor to the national wealth. I realise that my "skills" are no longer wanted or valued. I realise there are too many people in the world. So if the NHS, or NICE, won't provide treatment for the likes of me, can they please dole out suicide pills?