Blair's absence from the Iraq debate was shameful and cowardly
Sir: Mr Blair must be the most irresponsible Prime Minister in British democratic history. Since the onset of the Iraq war, Parliament has been denied the opportunity of a full debate on this terrible issue. The Prime Minister's non-attendance showed a deplorable lack of judgment as well as profound disrespect for the House of Commons and electorate.
Either Mr Blair believes his physical absence during this crucial debate spared him any lasting damage on the basis of "I wasn't not there, so it won't hurt me", or he no longer cares about his reputation or the reputation of the country. His cynicism and arrogance have been exposed to all but his blindest apologists.
CBI Conferences are organised months ahead, as is Mr Blair's diary. Could not one of Blair's aides have noticed the clash and either rescheduled the debate, rescheduled the address, or provided an appropriate substitute speaker? Is Mr Blair now avoiding any situation which could cast him in a negative light?
Sir: I am disgusted at the constant sneering at the Prime Minister. Even one of your columnists found it necessary to describe Blair as "a quaking wretch".
Of course, Blair and his governments have made mistakes - bad, in the case of Iraq, although I suspect he was conned into participating on false promises of progress on the Palestine-Israel problem.
I know by experience (and contrary to saloon-bar tittle-tattle) of a great improvement in the NHS. The economy has performed well since 1997. Blair is right about Afghanistan, was right about Kosovo, and skilful in dealing with Northern Ireland, personally intervening to rescue the peace process from possible failure. What about 300,000 children lifted from relative poverty? Instead, our wonderful media concentrate on what Cherie said, or did Blair pay the right fare for his flight?
Sir: Tony Blair could not face a parliamentary debate on Iraq. Yet our servicemen are there, as also are aid workers, journalists and others, risking their lives every day. Several have received decorations for gallantry. A large number have been killed or mutilated.
All our Prime Minister can show is downright cowardice. I invite your readers to join me in sending a simple message. Go to a farmer or a butcher and ask for a couple of white feathers. Put them in a transparent plastic envelope and post them to 10 Downing Street.
Gay adoption: law must apply to all
Sir: I fail to see how Mary Dejevsky can argue that the introduction of a law which seeks to enforce the principles of equality and justice is "restrictive" ("Why I support the churches on gay adoption", 25 January).
Discrimination is wrong, in all forms, and the call for exemption on religious grounds is no excuse. Dejevsky's argument that churches resemble private clubs and therefore should be allowed to set their own rules does not hold water. Private clubs must also conform to the law; that is why they are not allowed to exclude black people on the grounds that they are black.
The bottom line is that if we grant any group the right to be exempt from the law on the grounds that - essentially - it does not agree with it, then we must extend that right to all groups and all laws. Therefore suicide bombers should be excused on the grounds that their interpretation of Islam is at odds with the laws against mass murder.
All institutions, public or private, must operate within the law without exception; that is why the law exists.
Sir: As chair of an adoption panel for the past three years, which has the task of recommending the approval of applicants to adopt children and also of recommending the placement of children with prospective adopters, I can state that denying children the opportunity of being considered for placement with gay couples would categorically not be in their best interests.
This is particularly the case with older children, some of whom would undoubtedly languish in residential care. The argument by the Catholic Church of children's best interest is therefore a false one. Some children who have experienced very damaging backgrounds would not be given the experience of a family life were it not for gay couples offering to care for these children.
Sir: Mary Dejevsky's claim that equal rights of access to adoption by gays can be legitimately denied because there is no church monopoly over adoption simply won't wash. No one would accept the argument that it would be acceptable for hoteliers to deny hospitality to black people because they could find accommodation elsewhere.
Sir: It is not the case that the exemption of Catholic adoption agencies from gay adoption should be a major impediment. Your own figures state they account for only 4 per cent of adoptions in the UK, leaving huge scope within the remainder to accommodate any divergent groups.
Does a service provider have any rights? As individuals within society, surely they do. Must a Jewish or Muslim butcher or restaurateur offer pork to their non-believing customers? An NHS doctor can exclude themselves from performing legal abortions. Should a doctor be forced to offer euthanasia, if it were legalised, or eye of newt and mistletoe juice for meningitis, because the patient wants it? I think we would scoff at such suggestions.
A society which applauds diversity must also accept that which might not be trendy or have the loudest voice; the rights of choice won by gay people should not be denied others.
SEAMUS MAC DERMOTT
Sir: You report that "Ruth Kelly has yet to inform us if she thinks homosexuality is a sin" (25 January). The Catholic church has no problem with homosexual people and indeed welcomes them into their church. However, the consummation of a homosexual relationship is fundamentally against the teachings of this church. Please understand this distinction.
DR PHILIP COLLIER
Sir: Never mind about Catholic doctrine; what about Freud? How will the boy with two fathers or two mothers manage his Oedipus complex?
P J STEWART
End the 'tough' posturing on crime
Sir: The Home Secretary has every right to ask courts to help him out of the prisons crisis, given that their increasing overuse of jail sentences has caused the crisis in the first place (leading article, 25 January). Whereas a decade ago courts imprisoned 18 per cent of offenders, now they jail 28 per cent and sentences have also lengthened.
However, there is an irony in ministers urging restraint on courts when the rise in prison numbers has been partly fuelled by political rhetoric. As government and opposition politicians have vied to appear "tougher than thou" on offenders, courts have responded to this harsher climate with more punitive sentencing.
Without a long-term policy to reduce imprisonment, new prison places could simply be filled with more and more prisoners and provide no relief for existing overcrowded jails. We need a sustained government campaign to "talk down" the use of imprisonment by arguing the positive case for community sentences. This should also stress that overcrowded prisons harm public protection because they are less able to prevent reoffending. While this would require political courage, the alternative of continuing tough posturing risks repeatedly backfiring on governments, as the last few days have strikingly demonstrated.
CHIEF EXECUTIVE, NACRO - THE CRIME REDUCTION CHARITY LONDON SW9
Sir: Yesterday I went to visit a young offenders' institution. I was visiting a 17-year-old boy who had been given a six-month detention and training order last Friday. He had never been to prison before. He told me that, despite having been sentenced before lunch on Friday, he did not arrive at the young offender's institution until the early hours of Saturday morning.
On the journey from the court to the prison he and the other inmates had been carted to a number of places. At one point they were off-loaded into one room, adult offenders and children together; they were kept there for hours. This was because there was difficulty finding prison places for everyone in the van.
Since he had arrived at the prison he had spent most of his time watching TV in his cell. He asked a guard if he could obtain some books to read and the guard had told him he wasn't allowed books, but he would be eligible for a Playstation in a month.
What future should we expect for him when he returns to society?
YOUTH ADVOCATE, JUST FOR KIDS LAW, LONDON NW5
Packaging is not just wasteful, but costly
Sir: Congratulations on putting waste on the front pages. One point which has not so far been mentioned is the cost of packaging. This is factored in to the price we pay for the goods, so we should never take it home with us. If shops want us to pay for excess packaging then they must pay the extra for having it removed. Why should we pay for it twice?
Sir: I bought Monday's Independent at a nearby store. On the front page was the absurd spectacle of a shrink-wrapped swede. I was offered a plastic carrier bag to carry The Independent in.
Tell women the truth about cancer tests
Sir: In his article on the decline in cervical smear rates (22 January) Jeremy Laurance states that cervical cancer is "100 per cent preventable". In reality, due to the limitations of the sensitivity of the smear-test technology, using either the old-style Pap test or newer liquid-based techniques, complete prevention in this way is not achievable, even if all of the population at risk were to be screened. Implying otherwise is wrong.
It is important that women are properly informed about the current smear tests so that they make an informed choice whether or not to have one. Talking up the benefits while ignoring the downsides, including false-negative results or unnecessary treatment due to false positives, does no one any favours, least of all the women themselves.
DR JOHN NOTTINGHAM
CONSULTANT HISTOPATHOLOGIST, NORTHAMPTON GENERAL HOSPITAL
A true thrifty guide to cooking chicken
Sir: Shock, horror! Thrift Mistress forced to cook chicken pie. Rosie Millard's column (20 January) again shows just how far she is from true thrift.
Homemade chicken pie and sausage casseroles are staples for people on real budgets, not just something you're forced to make when the fridge breaks down. Every chicken we buy has to make three family meals and sausages are almost always padded out with cheap (but nutritious) root vegetables and pasta to stretch them further. Delicious with fresh herbs grown on your windowsill, in compost made from your vegetable peelings.
If Rosie were truly thrifty this is what she would be doing every week, instead of telling us we can save money by not buying a £3,500 handbag.
The Islamic calendar
Sir: Robert Fisk refers to "the holy month of Ashura" (24 January). I am sure he knows it is the month of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar). "Ashura" is the 10th of Muharram which commemorates the Martyrdom of Hussein Ibn-e Ali (the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) and his followers at Karbala.
LAHORE CANTONMENT, PAKISTAN
Sir: Alan Pavelin's five-star reader film review of Into Great Silence (11 January) said it was "a pity that the film distributors thought it worthy of screening at only two London cinemas". As the distributor in question we would have been delighted to show this film in more than two venues. However, a film distributor is dictated to by the exhibitor. In the case of Into Great Silence only two cinemas decided to show the film.
HEAD OF PUBLICITY, SODA PICTURES LONDON WC2
One Olympic venue
Sir: One question occurs to me every time I read of the inevitable rocketing cost of the latest Olympics venue ("Warning over 'disturbing' state of Olympic funds", 24 January): why can't the Olympics have a permanent site in one country, say, Greece? We would all be spared the regular funding crises with all the consequent burden on national governments and taxpayers. If each country made a modest annual payment towards upgrading the facilities we would have one absolutely superlative venue that would be a joy for contestants and spectators alike.
Parakeets in the UK
Sir: While I sympathise with Gillian Bailey (letter, 24 January), I feel I should point out that rose-ringed or ring-necked parakeets have been with us since the 1960s. She is correct in suggesting that the first to "arrive" were almost certainly escapees, but they have adapted well to our climate, no doubt encouraged by bird-friendly gardens, and are thought to number in excess of 6,000 today. Global warming is of course a burning issue for all of us, but I don't think it can be held responsible for this particular phenomenon.
BOUGH BEECH, KENT
Oscars and actresses
Sir: These days we are all accustomed to using PC job titles such as "firefighters", "chairperson", even "fisherfolk". Perhaps the most common term is "actor" for a thespian of either sex. Has anyone else noticed how the latter disappears in no time when the Oscars hove in to view? It seems actresses everywhere can forget about being right-on for a few weeks when there's a chance to win prizes.