Letters: Don't give bigots a platform

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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's anger is entirely justified ("Racism will go on rearing its ugly head until we shout stop", 6 June). In my view however she is missing the point by using her article to vent her ire. Though it gets my dander up just as it does Ms Alibhai-Brown's, petty thoughtless racist nonsense is best ignored on an individual level.

Those individuals subject to discrimination who have attained the highest positions in society seem to be those who refer the least to any racism they might have experienced. One example is Barack Obama. One could also justifiably claim that he has done the most in recent times to combat racism against black people, yet he rarely refers to it, and when he does it is not with anger, but with a weariness that this ugly business is intruding into his life.

Racism itself is multi-cultural. A minority of white Scottish and Welsh individuals spout similar bile about white English people, with just as little justification. Is it not a prejudiced putdown when a Muslim refers to non-Muslims as "infidels"?

To engage with people who are so ready to discriminate against others is to give them a platform.

Robin Spreckley, Corwen, Denbighshire

Britain's blind spot

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's article on the racism in Britain that nobody wants to acknowledge certainly struck a chord with me.

For the past five years, armed with a British passport and an Australian accent, I have been teaching in London and Birmingham, and the Australian side of me is perpetually shocked, not by apparent racism but by the inability to see that it exists.

In spite of multicultural school classes, "history" means British white history (few of my pupils were aware that black and Asian soldiers fought for Empire in two world wars). Unlike the US, you won't find too many non-white faces on breakfast television or news and current affairs. The royal wedding was a white wedding in more than one sense – all the participants as well as all the television presenters were white. Black and Asian contestants appear on talent shows in front of all-white judging panels.

One memory I have is of making a phone call in the Home Counties about a room for rent. I was asked by the landlord about my skin colour. I didn't know whether to laugh at the ignorance of the landlord or despair at his implied prejudice. I chose the former: I needed a good laugh at the time.

Michael Rolfe, Sutton Coldfield

Mosque tirade

I read the article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown with interest because I had a similar experience recently. I was looking at the papers in a Brentwood supermarket when a man came up to me and, commenting on an article in the local paper about the possibility of a mosque being built in Brentwood, subjected me to a torrent of racial abuse. I am white, so it was not directed at me personally, but nevertheless it was a disturbing incident.

Racism is a perfectly natural human vice, like greed. It is common to most, if not all, societies. Like other vices, it is not considered respectable but can rise to the surface under certain conditions. In Britain, I am convinced it is because of the population density combined with the sheer number of newcomers.

Successive governments have welcomed immigrants as sources of cheap labour or to fill skill gaps, while at the same time talking toughly about controls on entry. This has led to complete cynicism about any pronouncement on this subject.

What to do about it? We can't close the stable door because the horse has now bolted and is two counties away. Apart from having laws which discourage overt racism, we should do the most difficult thing to do – which is nothing. Young people are being brought up in a multi-racial environment and eventually racism will decline.

L A Brooks, Ongar, Essex

Race or class

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown claims I have said "racism was yesterday's issue and the focus should now be only on the white dispossessed"; and she declared: "Why not both?" Quite.

What I said as Secretary of State for Communities was: "We are committed to tackling inequality and disadvantage wherever it exists. If the cause is racism and discrimination we will challenge racism and discrimination. If the cause of disadvantage is social class, we will promote opportunity. And if the cause is a combination of racism and social class we will tackle both together."

John Denham MP, House of Commons

David Cameron's promised changes to the Health and Social Care Bill are to be welcomed, if with a large pinch of Epsom salts. His plan to involve a broader range of health professionals alongside GPs in commissioning health services is certainly an enlightened shift in the right direction. The Prime Minister's vow not to throw the NHS to the dogs of the private sector is also to be cautiously applauded.

The main flaw in this revised vision is that it is breeding too many boards and committees to replace the two layers of NHS administration it abolishes. On top of the central NHS Commissioning Board, local commissioners and local authorities, we have Health and Well-being Boards and now Health Senates. If this muddled bureaucratic structure could be streamlined into a single local health board and the much-lamented Community Health Councils restored, the new plan might just break the impasse.

The outcome of this emergency surgery had better be a healthy one for both the NHS and the patient or the Coalition will be placed on the critical list. We will soon see if Dr Cameron's "five pledges" are an exercise in political charlatanism or offer a clean bill of health for the future of our NHS.

Anthony Rodriguez, Staines, Middlesex

Mr Cameron's "five pledges" and his invitation to the public to "back me or sack me" at the next general election, if he does not protect our NHS from privatisation, is a delayed opportunity too risky to entertain. In four years the damage will be beyond repair.

Privatisation does not work in favour of the patients. It is a gamble we cannot take.

Reg Hansell, Shepherdswell, Kent

I agree with the Kings Fund (report, 1 June) that we need to improve governance arrangements in the NHS and make local health services more accountable. The current system simply doesn't work. Our reforms aim to tackle this, overhauling accountability across the NHS and introducing more democratic controls than ever before.

Decisions about local services will be taken by local clinicians – including GPs, nurses and specialist doctors – rather than the remote and obscure network of primary care trusts and strategic health authorities. We are strengthening the role of local councils; through new Health and Wellbeing Boards they will have more say over how the NHS is shaped, as well as greater scrutiny powers so that, for the first time, they will have the power to scrutinise any NHS-funded services, regardless of who provides them.

New local HealthWatch organisations will act as a patient champion locally, ensuring the patient's voice is not lost in the system. By creating a new independent NHS Commissioning Board and setting expectations of the NHS through a mandate, we are limiting the ability of ministers to intervene in the day-to-day running of services. Gone will be the days when politicians dictated how clinicians ought to treat their patients.

Under our modernisation plans, local health services will be held to account for the outcomes they achieve, ensuring a relentless focus on what really matters to all of us – how quickly and effectively patients recover.

The independent NHS Future Forum is looking at proposals for strengthening NHS accountability and will present its findings to the Government shortly. The Government is absolutely clear that there will be substantive changes to the Health and Social Care Bill, including on accountability, if they deliver improvements for patients.

Andrew Lansley, Secretary of State, Department of Health, London SW1

The NHS, ever since its inception, has been underfunded, a fact reflected in the appalling treatment of old people subjected to disgraceful conditions in "geriatric wards". The fact that health is funded from general taxation is a temptation to governments to raid the NHS – particularly Tory governments seeking to reduce taxes or make general public-sector cuts.

From time to time it has been suggested that the NHS should be paid for from a hypothecated fund. In particular in 2000 the Fabian Society's Commission on Taxation and Citizenship put forward the idea in an interesting report. This attracted both media and ministerial attention but was dismissed by the Treasury.

In pressing the Government to abandon their present proposals, and make a fresh start, the Opposition should again raise the possibility of a hypothecated fund, by law contributed to by everybody living in the UK progressively according to ability to pay.

Joe Patterson, London SE19

Now we need those Harriers

Less than eight months after making the sweeping assumption that it didn't need aircraft carriers for a whole decade, the Government has now been forced to draft one in (HMS Ocean) as the only practical way of getting its hi-tech Apache helicopters airborne over Libya.

Although the Government is trying to put a positive spin on things, you can read this turn of events as a tacit admission that the close-quarters ground attack capabilities of the Harrier are being sorely missed, and that the RAF's Tornado and Typhoon simply do not cut the mustard over Libya, not least because of their sluggish response times from the European mainland.

Like most British people, I am no fan of Britain's involvement in what amounts to a Libyan civil war. However, if our armed forces are to continue their engagement there, then the gloves need to come off and they need to do things quickly and effectively, without limp and low-cost half-measures that will prolong the suffering of the Libyan people.

So, having now accepted that a carrier is required off Libya, there is a compelling case for the Government to reactivate a couple of squadrons of Harriers (at minimal cost) to operate alongside the Apaches.

HMS Illustrious (our last proper carrier; Ocean is just a cheap imitation) is now just coming out of refit in Rosyth, all ship-shape for another five years' service, fully-equipped to operated Harriers if the Government has the courage to admit it made a mistake, or at least acknowledge that military needs have changed.

Harriers and Apaches operating off the deck of Illustrious, 20 miles or so offshore, combined with its use as a floating special forces base, would be an awesome combination, with lightning-fast response times, that would soon sort the mess out in Libya and drive Gadaffi's forces into headlong retreat.

Dr Mark Campbell-Roddis, Dunblane, Perthshire

The value of bees and bankers

Defra's new National Ecosystem Assessment, which attempts to put a value on nature, is a very important document, but not for anything remotely close to its intended purpose. (Terence Blacker, 7 June). Are we really to believe its conclusion that the pollination carried out by bees and other insects is worth £430m, or just one seventeenth of the £7.3bn in bonuses paid to British bankers last year?

The wonderful bees operate in a completely open, competitive environment, through which they make a vast, unpaid long-term contribution to the economy, beauty and ecology of the balanced world we share with them. In contrast, the banks operate in a blind voracious, selfish and parasitic world much more akin to that of maggots and tapeworms. Bees really are far, far more vital to us than bankers.

Without the complexity of pollinators, forests, healthy seas and other ecosystems humanity will die. At a time of soaring overpopulation, overconsumption, resource limitations, rocketing prices for food and energy, along with climate change, the grotesque values of this report could not demonstrate more clearly how far an idiotic, outdated economic dogma has taken us away from the reality of our situation.

Aidan Harrison, Rothbury, Northumberland

St Paul argues against drug ban

Christian theology may give a solution to the dilemma of whether to legalise hitherto banned drugs (letters, 8 June). St Paul believed the law (the law of Moses, but by extension all legal codes) acts like a schoolmaster in telling us what is right and wrong, but doesn't conquer evil, and even provokes it. "If righteousness come by the law, Christ is dead in vain." (Galatians 2, 21.) Furthermore, "The strength of sin is the law." (I Corinthians 15, 56.) Our minds are transformed instead by freedom and the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Therefore it is possible for us to be utterly clear-eyed about the adverse consequences of drug-taking, yet still argue against legal sanctions, and the above explains why they fail. If we did legalise banned drugs, the Government could still warn sternly about their dangers, and could ban advertising, as it does with that other dangerous drug, nicotine. I find no contradiction between a Government officially disapproving of taking some substances and it permitting people to do so.

Jonathan Goll, Birmingham

One-to-one teaching

Dominic Lawson, commenting on A C Grayling's planned New College of the Humanities ("A private sector Oxbridge? Not Exactly", 7 June) rightly celebrates the one-to-one tutorial system, offered by Oxford and Cambridge, which he describes as "the single most valuable aspect of their educational offering".

But Lawson is wrong to say the system is offered only by Oxford and Cambridge. It is also offered by Heythrop College, University of London for undergraduate degrees in philosophy and theology.

Stephen Law, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Heythrop College, University of London

What currently happens to those unfortunates who are refused entry to Oxbridge? Is there anything for them other than the Services, the priesthood, working their way up in the family business or being sent to govern New South Wales?

Professor Chris Barton, Stoke-on-Trent

Abortion and eugenics

In his opposition to medical abortion, Luke de Pulford (letter, 8 June) uses false arguments.

While it is true that in the early 20th century, when eugenics was fashionable, its proponents favoured abortion, I defy him to prove that because I believe individual women should have access to safe medical abortion, I must therefore be a eugenicist.

He blames the availability of abortion in India for the appalling rise in gender-selected abortion. Self-evidently, the practice is possible only because of the availability of foetal scanning. Will he call for a ban on all prenatal scans because the technique is being misused?

If he put his energy into combating the cultural perception of girl-children as a liability, and specifically the tradition of dowries, he would do more good than by campaigning against abortion.

Sarah Thursfield, Llanymynech, Powys

World of perils

The World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified mobile phones as "possibly carcinogenic to humans". To put this in context, the WHO has only ever classified one thing (caprolactam) as "probably not cancer risk". Phones join such dangerous things as coffee, carpentry and pickled vegetables as possible carcinogens. So, to quote the famous Second World War poster: "Keep Calm and Carry On".

Jo Selwood, Thatcham, Berkshire

Wah was that?

Not only did Charles Nevin (6 June) get the release date of "Only the Lonely" wrong, he also omitted the second fundamentally important "ooh" before the final "wah" in the intro. Now then, all together ...

Peter Spilman, Snitterfield, Warwickshire