Letters: Killing seal pups

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The Independent Online

Sir: The Canadian authorities have long played fast and loose with the facts of their cruel slaughter of Newfoundland seals (report, 16 March).

They claim the hunt is humane, despite clear evidence that baby seals are skinned alive. They also misrepresent the real scale of the slaughter and greatly exaggerate the economic necessity of the hunt.

Over the past three years, one million seals have been slaughtered in the name of fashion, 97 per cent of them under three months, most only a few weeks old. My late husband Tony Banks, like Sir Paul and Heather Mills McCartney who recently visited the site of the hunt, was sickened by this slaughter.

He believed, as I do, there was no justification for this cruelty and that it was a stain on Canada's reputation.

That is why we seek a trade ban on Canadian products and will seek to convince British supermarkets and shoppers to boycott Canadian fish products in protest at Canada's continuation of this unnecessary, inexcusable and morally repugnant hunt.

The last time a supermarket boycott was conducted here in the 1980s, the Canadian government was forced to think again about the hunt.

It is clear that only external pressure again will bring the hunt to an end once and for all.



Neglected Aids orphans of Zambia

Sir: Congratulations on James Nesbitt's article (11 March) on the plight of Aids orphans in Zambia, a scandalously neglected tragedy. Zambia has a population of some 11 million, according to Unaids, including 1.1 million children who have lost one or both parents.

International action to combat HIV/Aids focuses on caring for the infected or the search for a vaccine and does almost nothing to enable the orphans created by the pandemic to become productive citizens. Bureaucratically, they are orphans too. They are not the responsibility of the ministries of health or education, who, though miserably underfunded in Zambia, do have international backing.

The article stressed the importance of education. In theory, primary education in Zambia is free. In practice, it is not. Shamefully, the European Union has wound up a scheme through local NGOs which enabled some 48,000 orphans to go to school. The EU now adds those resources to its pooled funding for the ministry of education. I made representations to the then minister of education on behalf of the 1,100 orphans whom the EU had supported through our main Zambian partner NGO. He was charming but unhelpful; he had many other calls on his resources.

Indeed, but there is something drastically wrong when Cecily's Fund, our small family-based charity, is probably enabling more orphans to go to school than any other single organisation in Zambia.

Last year, the Commission for Africa predicted that by 2010 every third child in Zambia would be an orphan. If governments and international organisations are serious about the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education they must do much more for the orphans. Above all, they must ensure they go to school.



An insane system of mental health

Sir: The case of Daniel Gonzalez (reports, 17 March) shows that we have an insane system which cannot respond to the warnings of families and others before a tragedy happens. The very people most desperately in need of help, despite clear signs that they may present a risk to themselves or others, can easily disappear into a "Bermuda Triangle" between the psychiatric and other services in which no one takes responsibility for further action.

Daniel Gonzalez's family, like others known to us, sought help in the days immediately before the violence started. In our experience, families in crisis find themselves in a Catch-22. They are told to contact the crisis team if they need help, but when they phone saying a person has walked out in a disturbed state, they are told the team will not visit until the patient returns, when the crisis or tragedy is over.

We need a red-alert system whereby the mental health services and the police respond immediately when families report concerns about the safety of a psychiatric patient.



Sir: The tragic case of Daniel Gonzalez again shows the nation's mental health services to be failing dismally.

Mr Gonzalez and his mother begged repeatedly for help and support, but were dismissed, although he had had extensive contact previously with mental health services and had incurred a diagnosis of schizophrenia more than once.

He also made many attempts to convey how desperate he felt. In what is now becoming a depressingly familiar scenario, the health care authorities that failed to assist this young man and his mother have fallen back on the over-used argument that he suffered from a "personality disorder". They are now robustly defending their lack of action, although four people are dead.

This type of scenario, although thankfully not always resulting in such terrible consequences but still involving much suffering, is being played out with appalling regularity all over the country.

The discourse of personality disorder is being employed more and more by mental health professionals, and seems to be particularly useful when they are dealing with difficult patients of whom they would like to wash their hands.

Alongside this, there is an increase in the assertion that such individuals should "take responsibility", which is what desperate, distressed people and their carers now seem to be frequently told by mental health services.

In many cases it would seem obvious that the patient's clinical condition renders it impossible for them to take responsibility and their carers are too exhausted to do so. We know of cases where this seems to have been said as a substitute for any care at all.

The nation's psychiatric services are a shambles, and we wonder when society is going to realise absolving ourselves of our responsibilities to care for mentally ill people by telling them they have a "personality disorder" and they should "take responsibility" is not going to work.



Could voluntary abstention work?

Sir: Many people in Scotland are concerned about Scottish constituent MPs voting on purely English matters at Westminster. That Labour Scottish MPs voted for English NHS foundation trusts while Labour MSPs voted against them is a travesty.

But there are few debates in Westminster that affect solely England. The SNP do seem to abstain if they are convinced Westminster decisions have no effect on Scotland. Pragmatic self-governance is appropriate.

Voluntary abstention can allow Westminster to be used as an English parliament. If legal enforcement is used to prohibit non-English representatives, this will lead to second-class MPs.

How can a Scottish/Welsh constituent MP, who happens to be a government minister, be prevented from voting on his/her own policy legislation? It would be a ludicrous situation. The choice is between voluntary abstention or a separate English chamber.



Sir: Despite Lord Falconer's assertions to the contrary, I suspect that there are many people throughout the UK who would agree with Mary Dejevsky's article "Why we need an English parliament" (14 March).

Does Lord Falconer and the rest of the Government really believe the people of England do not want their own devolved parliament? If so, why do they not ask us by holding a referendum as they did for Scotland and Wales?

I suspect their real reason for opposing an English parliament is that because England has more than 80 per cent of the UK population, devolution for England (unlike Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland) would mean a huge loss of centralised power and control for the Westminster Government, a sacrifice they are not willing to make.

It would appear this Government is doing everything it can to maintain its tight grip on centralised power rather than genuinely serving the needs of the UK and its component nations.



Happiness is clean copy

Sir: The Independent extra for 17 March is entitled "The secret of happiness". I think the secret of happiness is clear, easy-to-read copy on anything I peruse.



Repairing damage that we caused

Sir: Hilary Benn's statement, (letters 18 March) that " ... UK aid has helped to seal 4,880 leaks in water pipelines across the south-east of Iraq and has repaired electricity transmission lines from Hartha power station to Basra city, securing electricity supplies for 1.5 million residents", is received by most people in the full knowledge that British and US air attacks caused the damage to power stations and water systems in the first place, which was worsened by the "insurgents" (or, "freedom fighters") the illegal invasion provoked.

We are just repairing some of the damage the UK and US did while providing huge profits to US and UK companies, to be paid for by Iraqi oil which will be in the possession of US companies. Mr Benn's claim that, "decisions about Iraq's future and its development are being made by the Iraqi people. To whom they go for help, advice and expertise is a matter for them" is not factual either.

Before Paul Bremer, the "Pro-Consul", left Iraq, he pushed through legislation which shapes Iraq's economy as a neoconservative model, committing state-owned industry and its banking system to be privatised and opened up to foreign takeover.

Import tariffs were to be set at 5 per cent, which would severely hamper local production, and even the maximum personal and corporate tax rates were to be set at 15 per cent, which would not allow the Iraqis to have a publicly owned health or education service.



Sir: Hilary Benn notes that "UK aid has helped to seal 4,880 leaks in water pipelines across the south-east of Iraq". It is a great shame that similar aid has not been made available for leaking water pipelines across the south-east of England.



Keep peerages for the worthy

Sir: The rationale for the existence of the House of Lords is that people of wisdom, intelligence, moral character and political experience, who have contributed much to the nation, may be elevated to contribute to national political life. That an individual loans a million or so to the Labour Party is not evidence that he/she meets the above criteria.

During my life as an active Liberal Democrat, I have met several Labour councillors who have given their lives to serving the Labour Party and who meet the above criteria far more than those who have lent Labour large sums of money do. So can I expect to see their names in the list of those proposed for a peerage? We live in hope.