Letters: Justice Secretary's failure

Jack Straw's abject failure to help wrongly jailed Briton
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The Independent Online

Michael Shields (reports, 25 June and 2 July) was convicted in Bulgaria after a grossly unfair trial. It is a tragedy that the Justice Secretary has so far refused to use his power to free this innocent young man.

This shocking miscarriage of justice serves as a reminder of the huge variation in standards of justice across Europe. Ordinary people, like Michael Shields, are travelling in ever greater numbers for study, holidays, work or retirement. Increasing co-operation in criminal justice has led to hundreds of individuals being extradited each year to face trial or serve sentences in other European countries. Sadly, our own work at Fair Trials International leaves us in no doubt that more must be done to ensure basic fair-trial rights are protected in many EU member states.

This week the Swedish presidency of the European Union published a "roadmap", showing the way for basic rights to be protected in criminal proceedings throughout Europe. It was a huge disappointment that previous such attempts were vetoed by the UK, and we hope that this initiative will not suffer the same fate.

By supporting these measures Jack Straw could help to raise standards of justice across the Europe and, in so doing, protect against future cases like that of Michael Shields.

Jago Russell

Chief Executive, Fair Trials International,

London EC4

How refreshing to hear Nicolas Sarkozy standing up for the French student Clotilde Reiss, arrested by the Iranian authorities for spying. Mr Sarkozy said: "These accusations are the height of fantasy and should never have been brought."

Compare this to the mealy-mouthed treatment of Michael Shields by our "Justice Secretary", Jack Straw. It is generally accepted that Michael Shields is innocent of the charge for which he was imprisoned in Bulgaria. He has faced a battle to return to his home country, albeit still imprisoned. Jack Straw should take a leaf from Mr Sarkozy's book, behave like a real man and stand up for his own.

Bob Armstrong

London SE2

Nothing to fear in breast screening

Regarding the article, "Why I won't have a mammogram" (7 July), I fear that Dr Iona Heath is guilty of the very charge she aims at the leaflet "Breast Screening: the facts", namely, that of misleading people.

It would appear from the article that there is only one step from a suspicious mammogram to surgery. This is not the case. There are many steps of investigation. I speak from recent experience as I am recovering from breast-cancer treatment. In my case I detected a lump which did not present as cancer, neither did I fit an at-risk profile. Both my GP and I thought it was just a cyst, but I elected to be screened (aged 49) just in case. How glad I am.

At every stage of the investigation the situation was discussed and thoughtfully analysed and I was kept fully informed of what was happening and why. The initial mammogram was followed by a more magnified one, which was then followed by an ultrasound scan (I was shown the tumour on the screen) and finally a biopsy. It was explained that the purpose of the biopsy was to confirm suspicions and so avoid a "false positive" result.

Even when diagnosis was confirmed my consultant arranged an MRI to further confirm his clinical diagnosis because, in his words, "I don't want to perform mutilating surgery if it's not absolutely necessary".

The MRI showed that there were in fact three tumours and because of their position a mutual decision was regretfully made to remove the whole breast. I was informed of the pros and the cons at every step; my questions were answered in detail, and I was treated with care and respect by dedicated people.

Both my teenage daughters were able to express their anxieties privately with a cancer nurse at any time and get clear information. Neither of them feels they have been "infected with fear". I am extremely alarmed that this sort of inflammatory language will deter women from attending a mammography screening. I hope my letter will reassure others who are contemplating the procedure.

Colette Nurse


I'd like to give three hearty cheers to Dr Iona Heath for her excellent article on the risks of breast screening .

Why on earth are women not given this information? To make such an important decision one needs to have all the available information; it's not right that women should have to dig for it. Apart from all other implications, the NHS would be saved huge amounts of money by the general release of this material.

I stumbled on this quite a few years ago and immediately stopped having mammograms. I know friends and relatives thought it was reckless but I'm just thankful I found out about it and I don't regret the decision.

Arlene Lord

Brighouse, West Yorkshire

In the UK we have the best epidemiologists in the world. By consensus it has been agreed that breast screening offers, on the balance of probability, more good than harm. This is contrary to Iona Heath's ill-advised article which, like the MMR debacle, is likely to do more harm than good.

Kate Hedger



Equality quango takes no notice

Following your article on the Equality and Human Rights Commission (8 July), may I suggest that the much-needed cull of quangos starts with this exemplar of undemocratic, self-serving bureaucracy.

Age has been relegated to the back of the equalities queue. They have refused to endorse our campaigns for age audits of public-sector employees, which would show the institutionally ageist nature of the public sector and its quangos.

Neither have they supported any research proposals into the incidence of "worklessness" among older working-age people (50-65-plus), without which there can be no evaluation of whether any employment initiatives actually work. Nor have they commissioned research into the impact of double exclusion (such as age and ethnicity and/or gender) on unemployment.

The EHRC lacks democracy and accountability – there are no representatives of older working-age people on the EHRC board or other decision-making bodies – they just make appointments of the not very great and good, featuring, recently, fundamentalist religious leaders, while we are told that older workers are represented by pensioner organisations such as Help the Aged and Age Concern. Older workers are now defined as "pre-retirement", which is a bit like saying pensioners are pre-death.

The EHRC also suffers from unresponsive, top-down management and strategy. Its role is to repeat whatever is the current government line and to train organisations in what they have to do to meet each new government requirement, while taking no interest in listening to and responding to the requests and needs of frontline organisations

Chris Walsh

Director, Wise Owls, London E2

What's under the label?

Recently I went to buy a DVD. To my irritation the staff at the shop had stuck a security tag and labels all over the area of the container on which details of the story and the stars had been printed.

On another occasion, I became quite exasperated when I went to buy a book and found that the important details had been concealed by the security tag and a label informing me that I could buy three books for the price of one.

While suffering from hay-fever I purchased some tablets that were sold in a box on which a label had been stuck over the directions for use.

Would it be possible for shop managers to instruct their staff to stick any required labels on a part of the packet that does not contain important information?

Colin Bower


How to make MPs more effective

After weeks of reading about justifications for MPs' expenses we have now moved on to reasons for having a second job. Sally Muggeridge (letters, 3 July) believes this experience is essential.

Will we be reading next that MPs need direct experience of poverty, how to live on a state pensions, what it is like belong to a minority group or to be an illegal immigrant? Perhaps we need a new TV reality show – "I'm an MP get me out of here!" – to give them a feel for these situations.

It is not direct experience they need. It is the ability to be effective in situations where they have no experience. If they are to serve the public and the country, they need to be able to ask searching questions, and not be fobbed off with complex answers. They need to leave political dogma behind in assessing situations. The Iraq war, supported by both Labour and Conservative politicians, shows that the majority failed to analyse the information provided.

Alan Thorpe


I disagree with Chris Patten that MPs should be paid more (You ask the questions, 6 July). The positive thing about NoEU – Yes to Democracy, though they got hardly any publicity, was that some of their candidates pledged to take the salary of the average skilled worker, as Dave Nellist did while he was an MP.

Being an MP should not be a lucrative career move. People should become MPs because they want to represent their constituents. It is very difficult for MPs to represent and understand ordinary people struggling on low or middle incomes, when they themselves are living comfortably on high incomes.

Karl Osborne

Hounslow, Middlesex

Flaws in scheme for one-to-one tuition

Deborah Orr comments on government plans for one-to-one tuition (4 July). My husband is head of a school taking part in the pilot. A maximum of 22 of his 300-plus pupils will receive 10 hours' tuition; not 10 hours a month, nor a term, but a year.

My husband and his staff are spending lots of time working out the criteria to identify those lucky pupils, especially now that Mr Balls has suggested that parents can sue him if he gets it wrong.

I can't help but feel my husband and his staff could use their time more effectively – perhaps even by teaching pupils who could benefit from some extra tuition.

Maureen O'Sullivan

Loughborough, Leicestershire


Afghanistan deaths

Seven soldiers killed in seven days in Afghanistan, including a colonel, a major and a captain. The main reason for these high casualties is poor troop-transporting equipment. The British Army is very short of helicopters and armoured cars.

Steve Halden


Where are the bees?

Your correspondents have fretted over the absence of the swifts this summer, but I can report their joyous flight continues here in Oxfordshire. However, standing under a row of lime trees in full flower the other day, I found myself troubled. Instead of feeling the hum of hundreds of bees plundering the nectar above, I found myself craning my neck to spot and count the odd solitary visitor. I love that resonance of tree-bee hum in my chest; and I love my autumnal apples. Am I to be denied both?

Peter Martin

Bampton, Oxfordshire

Evolving language

It is strange that those who set themselves up as guardians of the language, and protest about words they take to be neologisms, seldom take the trouble to check the facts. To take the recent correspondence: "medal" as a verb is first recorded, according to the OED, in 1822, used by Byron, no less. An example by Thackeray in 1860 is also given. I suppose your more conservative readers might consider them reckless modernisers. But take "farewell" as a verb: it is recorded in 1580, in Sidney's Arcadia. Perhaps it has by now acquired some legitimacy.

Martin Smith


Giddy pleasures

Jill Buss's letter "Fear of heights" (9 July) touches on a technique for calming children which I sometimes employ as a guide at Canterbury cathedral. When I have a particularly boisterous school group I often take them out of the north-west door and ask if any of them want to feel giddy. The noisy ones often do, whereupon I show them a corner from which they can look directly up the wall of a high tower. The calming effect can be very marked.

Michael K Baldwin

Sittingbourne, Kent

Alcohol sales

Mr Wilde is wrong to state that it is now necessary to be over 25 to purchase alcohol or cigarettes. (letters, 8 July). Checkout assistants are instructed to ask for ID if the customer appears under that age. As long as their ID shows them to be over 18 there is no problem selling them alcohol or cigarettes.

Allan Friswell

Cowling, North Yorkshire