Letters: Feeding the homeless

Those who feed the homeless do them more harm than good
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The Independent Online

Sir: Your report "Westminster council wants 'nuisance' soup runs banned" (10 November) failed to set out Westminster City Council's case correctly.

Westminster knows the way to help rough sleepers is to meet their complex needs. Ex-rough-sleepers, including the founder of the Big Issue John Bird, tell us that soup runs keep people on the streets rather than helping them off.

Our partners, often charities, provide expert help that is both compassionate and challenging. It can take as little as two weeks for someone to become an entrenched rough sleeper and as much as two years for them to escape it.

Our externally validated counts tell us there are approximately 100 rough sleepers on the streets of Westminster on any given night. Westminster has helped more than 1,000 people towards independent living over the past year. Of the 50 or so soup runs which operate in Westminster, there are a handful which offer services that meet the complex needs of rough sleepers (most of whom are eligible to receive benefits, so soup runs are not their only means of support).

We are happy to work with responsible soup-run providers so they can understand the work that has to be done to effectively tackle rough-sleeping. However the majority of soup runs are failing rough sleepers by simply handing out food that ensures that people can remain on the streets.

Uncoordinated large-scale soup-run operations are damaging the health and life chances of rough sleepers and the proposal we are supporting for inclusion in the new London Local Authorities Bill would give councils the freedom to ask these soup runs to stop serving food.

Cllr Angela Harvey

Cabinet Member for Housing, Westminster City Council, London SW1

Rights for fathers will help to close pay gap

Sir: When the former Equal Opportunities Commission analysed the pay gap, it found that the biggest single factor driving it was the fact that women look after children more than men (report, 8 November). The pay gap will grow in the next years, driven by government policy.

The new leave entitlements currently being introduced have 52 weeks of leave for mothers and two weeks for fathers: this is the biggest difference between women and men in the world. Employers are getting the message loud and clear – mothers will take time off work for children, but men won't. So any mother – or potential mother (meaning every female graduate) – is a less attractive employment prospect than a man.

Scandinavian countries reached this enlightenment in the 1970s and have put in place leave policies that now mean the vast majority of fathers take substantial time off work for children – not as much as women, but enough to remove the economic incentive of employers to discriminate. Labour-market inequalities are less in those countries.

In the UK we hold deeply to the ideas of the maternal woman and the working man, and – as so perfectly represented in your article – we vigorously avoid acknowledging the inequalities in caring that are the foundation of the pay gap. The paradox is that the more we put in supports for women caring for children without challenging the culture of the full-time working man, the worse we make the pay gap.

Duncan Fisher

CEO, Fathers Direct,Abergavenny, Monmouthshire

'Autism' has all but lost its meaning

Sir: As the mother of an autistic five-year-old, for me the trouble with autism (Letters, 16 November) is that the elastic definition is now so stretched that the word has become meaningless.

The National Autistic Society has a massive task to try to raise public awareness as the condition varies dramatically in each child or adult diagnosed. I think it would help if those with Asperger's Syndrome (AS) were not included under the umbrella term.

I have found myself at NAS courses sitting next to parents of children who can communicate, can cope perfectly well at mainstream school but might have minor issues with tact or social behaviour. My daughter is at a special school with a one-to-one assistant, was in nappies until very recently and has yet to call me "Mummy" or meaningfully communicate at all. The parent of an AS child said to me with some sympathy: "Your daughter has full-blown autism."

I have lost count of the people who have kindly inquired if my daughter has a "special talent" (most have seen the film Rainman). This is a common misperception; in more than 20 years of teaching, my daughter's headmistress has never come across an autistic savant. It seems to me that if a child has any sort of learning/behavioural disability, a woolly diagnosis of being "on the autistic spectrum" is made. No wonder everyone is confused.

As for treatments, I think the NAS does well to steer clear. If you want to buy snake oil, thousands of "cures" can be found on the internet; I could have re-mortgaged my house many times in the hope of curing my daughter.

Angie Elliott

Welton le Marsh, Lincolnshire

Tax on fuel: you've rarely had it so good

Sir: As petrol prices reach £1 a litre there have been inevitable rumours of a repeat of the 2000 fuel protests and the predictable blaming the Government ("Duty hikes may drive farmers and hauliers to fuel protests", 9 November).

Yet tax as a percentage of the price of fuel has not been this low since 1993, due to the Government bending over backwards to the motoring and haulage lobby by not increasing fuel duty in line with inflation since 2000, keeping fuel prices and the cost of motoring artificially low. The Government is now belatedly raising fuel duty in line with inflation, although even with these small increases fuel-duty rates will still remain 11 per cent lower in real terms than they were in 1999.

The reality is that higher fuel prices are due to fuel scarcity, wars in oil-producing countries and global inflation – but certainly not to the Government raising fuel duty. The solution is not to "blame the Government" for higher fuel prices, but to campaign for more investment in sustainable alternatives to fuel- and carbon-intensive transport.

Since the Government came to power in 1997 the cost of motoring has fallen by 10 per cent in real terms, while the costs of buses and rail fares have gone up by 13 per cent and 6 per cent. It is no wonder road-transport emissions are rising. Any threats of protests should not be treated with any sympathy.

Rebecca Lush Blum

Campaign for Better Transport,London N1

China leads the way on global warming

Sir: How refreshing to see Clifford Coonan's positive report on China's environment (16 November). The baseline is that ordinary people in China live sustainable lives while Europeans and Americans don't, and that isn't going to change significantly. While Chinese CO2 emissions are rising, they will never come close to the per-capita level in the western world.

The schools in my own relatively impoverished Guizhou province have been refurbished recently: new buildings, all-weather surfaces for the playgrounds – but no heating has been installed. When classroom temperatures drop below 10 degrees in winter, everyone just wears more clothes and jumps around a bit more.

To borrow an epigram, US and European-induced climate change will be halfway round the world before the Chinese have got their fur-lined boots on.

Mike Shearing

Duyun, Guizhou Province, China

Sir: Your report on China contained a truly remarkable statistic: last year £17bn was invested worldwide in renewable energy – £17bn to save the Earth, while this year the British government forked out £40bn to save Northern Rock bank. Hasn't the world, particularly the British government, got its priorities in a twist?

terry Evans

Ely, Cambridgeshire

An Englishman's dilemma resolved

Sir: I must congratulate you. The big question (15 November) has resolved years of wrestling with the dilemma of, whether, as an Englishman, I should be in favour of Scottish independence.

Forget the Barnett formula, the West Lothian question, the economic arguments: you tell us that "England alone would struggle to retain the influence in the world that the UK has". Just think about it. If Scotland were independent England would not have had the wherewithal to go to war in Iraq. I say, bring on Scottish independence and save us from going to war in Iran. Here's to Alex Salmond, saviour of the English!

Michael Turnbull

Lanwathby, Cumbria

Art forger should not be in prison

Sir: In the same issue (16 November) you have two interesting reports. One concerns the Lord Chief Justice's comments on the jails being full to bursting point. So one thinks that the only room left must be for those violent convicts who pose a serious threat to the general public.

But then we encounter the second item, about the family of fraudsters which makes money from forgeries produced by the son. He has been sentenced to four years and eight months in jail. Is he really the sort of person that we all need to be protected from? Can the judge think of no more constructive sentence than that?

John Hall

Telford, shropshire

Sir: Shaun Greenhalgh, the hard-working forger, was sent to prison for four years and eight months. It would be better to give him a sentence of community service using his incredible self-taught skills in conserving antiquities, from which he would emerge into a useful permanent job.

Guy Ottewell

Lyme Regis, dorset

Sir: The learned judge who recently sentenced one of Britain's most multi-talented and imaginative artists to four years and eight months of mindless incarceration seems to have vindicated the long stated view that the law in an ass.

The art trade is renowned for its phonies. The Shaun Grenhalghs of that world do it a great service by providing a much-needed check on its propensity for excess, self-deception and avarice.

Tony Brooke

Hythe, Hampshire

Sir: Will the government, which pays scant attention to what those who work in prisons have been telling it, perhaps listen to Jonathan Aitken on the subject of our failing prison system (report, 12 November)? Mr Aitken's priorities for prison reform are unarguable.

First, mentally ill offenders should not be in prison. Second, prisoners should be rehabilitated while in custody, which means taught work skills and how to read and write – skills which many prisoners lack but without which it is very difficult to go straight; and third, they should be given proper support and guidance on release, a time when they are extremely vulnerable.

Both literacy teaching and mentoring can effectively be done by volunteers but they need to be trained. This should be done at government expense. It would cost nowhere near the £1,000 or so we pay per head, per week, to keep people banged up, idle and bored, to be released without skills, often homeless, sometimes friendless and always ripe for re-offending.

Diana Dunwoodie

Voluntary Literacy Tutor, Feltham Y.O.I, London W11

In praise of Frank Field

Sir: Your leading article "More time at school may not be the answer, (16 November) hits the nail on the head. Although I left Birkenhead more than 50 years ago, after seven years in a grammar school that took me to Cambridge, I have always been proud of the citizens of my old town for electing Frank Field as their MP. He is clear-thinking, rational, balanced and almost invariably right. Evidently not a man suited for ministerial office.

John Green

Milton Keynes

Reasons to go organic

Sir: Professor Anthony Trewavas claims that choosing organic food and drink is a "lifestyle" choice (Letter, 14 November). I disagree. I have been buying organic products for many years. My reason for doing so is not because I perceive any nutritional benefit over those that have been conventionally grown, but because they have been produced using organic farming methods that aim to operate in harmony with nature, whereas conventional farming aims to exploit it. This is not a lifestyle choice, but one that aims to ensure both the future of food production and the integrity of the environment.

Keith O'Neill

Shropshire Green Party,Shrewsbury

Asset-stripping football

Sir: Sean O'Leary accuses Steven Gerrard of jumping on "the racist bandwagon" (Letters, 17 November), and at the same time makes clear that the main priority must be to enrich the quality of the English Premier League.

Rich European countries take for granted their right, in every walk of life, to asset-strip poorer countries of any significant talent and resources they have to offer – a right that is too often reinforced now, without any sense either of irony or shame, by accusations of racism against anyone who stands in the way of their country's global gluttony.

Peter McKenna


Pronunciation of 'Peking'

Sir: Further to Errors & Omissions (10 November), "Peking" was meant to be pronounced "Beijing" all the time. The former form comes from the 19th-century Wade-Giles romanisation of Mandarin, which also gave us forms such as "Yang-tze Kiang" for Yangzi Jiang (the river). "T" was pronounced "D" and to get the "T" sound, you had to use an apostrophe: "T'", as in "T'ang Dynasty". It took the Chinese themselves, in the 1960s, to give us the "Pin yin" ("spell sound") romanisation and inject a bit of good old-fashioned Oriental common sense.

David Boggis

Matignon, France

Charge for plastic bags

Sir: My first experience of supermarket shopping was in the USA in 1965. Groceries were packed into brown paper bags, which were then used to line your pedal bin. It worked well, till the "Save a Tree" campaign banished paper bags. The only environmentally friendly solution to the waste problem is for us all to buy less, throw away less, and take our own re-usable bags to the supermarket. We are such a greedy, careless, lazy society, that I can't see this happening, so the only other solution is to make people pay handsomely for their plastic bags.

Doraine Potts


Sir: I thank Mark Hall for rightly trying to correct the Cl. difficile pronunciation error (Letters, 12 November). Many years ago when this microbe was classified with the customary Linnean Latin binomial, I found my microbiologist colleagues who did not remember, or perhaps had never learned Latin, frenchifying the name... which I still find horrid! My small efforts, which included part of a public address to recitfy the error, fell on deaf ears. Tant pis!

Dr James Hutchison.