Sir: I was delighted to read the article by Johann Hari on legal aid (13 December). While I am fortunate enough to be on the prosperous side of the legal profession, my wife is a legal-aid solicitor dealing with mental-health issues. She has worked in the field for over a decade, has a specialist mental-health qualification in addition to her legal qualifications (eight years of study in all) and yet, even under the current legal-aid regime, earns significantly less than, say, a doctor.
It is particularly difficult and time-consuming to represent such clients who, besides being very vulnerable, are among the least able in our society to defend their interests. However, the clear intention of the Legal Services Commission is to introduce a fixed-fee system. It is possible that the proposals may be delayed because the Legal Services Commission has just lost a court challenge over its attempt to have a "contract" with legal-aid lawyers which would allow the commission a more or less unrestricted right to vary the terms of the contract. However, there seems to be little doubt that the issue will come back on the table when a new contract is drafted.
This can only lead to a further diminution in the service offered and it is profoundly depressing to witness how a Labour government has systematically weakened such an essential part of our democratic system.
Sir: Well done Johann Hari for highlighting the not so gradual dismantling of legal aid, a further government betrayal of the principles on which the modern welfare state was established.
Universal education and health care may have established themselves more firmly in the popular consciousness, but the role legal aid has played in addressing injustices, protecting rights and making this a more civilised country to live in is unequalled. For many, it represents the last bulwark against a government that cannot be trusted to make fair or competent decisions affecting the lives of the most vulnerable.
Perhaps it is that long record of holding the powerful to account that is at the heart of the Government's determination to see off this dwindling number of committed public defenders.
After Bali, we need bold leadership
Sir: "If you are not going to lead, please get out of the way." With this phrase, a delegate from Papua New Guinea shamed the USA into signing at Bali. But what about the UK government, whose rhetoric on the international stage is not matched by its recent actions at home?
Why isn't low carbon an explicit strategic objective for all the UK's activities? We seem to have a government in denial. Its 2012 emissions targets have been abandoned. It wants to expand airports, something we will regret "investing" in before the work is even complete. To pay for nuclear power, it robs investment in energy-saving and renewable energy, which together would save more carbon, more quickly. It divides its responsibilities hopelessly between different departments, each now busy developing incompatible sets of hoops for us to jump through backwards, in pursuit of what should be a single policy objective.
After Bali, can the Prime Minister provide the leadership required to kick-start a low-carbon economic miracle in the UK? Can he inspire us to save energy and carbon in a hurry? It can be done: there is much waste to be avoided and many opportunities for profitable investment.
With a clear lead and the simplest set of integrated policy incentives, everybody's energy and imagination could be fired up - at the individual, family, community and organisational levels. What an example for the UK to export to the world at this critical point in human history!
Sir: Like many of my peers, I live my life in a most inconsistent way. On the one hand, I have just returned from the supermarket carrying my goods in my hand in an effort to save on plastic carrier bags. I do this every day. On the other hand, I am flying easyJet to Stockholm tonight for a weekend Christmas break with my girlfriend. The flights cost me just 80 inclusive of full taxes in both directions.
Neither I nor my family members undervalue or underestimate the causes and effects of global warming. We try to minimise the contributions we make to CO2 emissions, but there is only so much we can do. Brave and clear legislative steps must be taken by central government. Tell me what my air mile allowances are for any given year and prevent me from exceeding them. Tell me that there will be comprehensive tax advantages for taking the bus to work rather than my car.
Regardless of my guilt, I will not change my lifestyle to the extent that is needed unless the Government forces my hand.
I have been a smoker for some years. While smoking in public houses I would often feel bad that my smoke was negatively affecting those around me. How many times did this cause me to put the ciggies away? Not once. Then along came a bold and clear piece of legislation actively preventing me from smoking in public places. How many times have I got the ciggies out since? Not once. I feel better for it now and I respect the legislature for its decision.
Sir: I despair at the Americans' attitude at the Bali summit. Yet again we seem to have bowed to their pressure in the face of the overwhelming evidence of catastrophic climate change.
Anyone viewing Dr Iain Stewart's series on television recently cannot help but be impressed and convinced by his demonstration of the Greenland ice cap melting before our eyes. We are sleepwalking towards the sixth extinction. Surely it is time to take individual action to protest against anything American, to make that country wake up to our collective disapproval.
Defer that shopping trip to New York; cancel that trip to Florida and holiday at home or in Europe. And write to the White House and tell them what you have done. If George Bush's main argument is that he won't do anything to hurt his economy then demonstrate to him that is precisely what he is doing. We can individually make a difference.
How lives are lost in the boxing ring
Sir: Congratulations to your Health Editor Jeremy Laurance, on a well-researched and balanced article on the dangers inherent to boxing (The Big Question, 7 December). He correctly draws attention to the fact that there have been relatively few acute fatalities in boxing.
In the Watson-Eubank contest in 1991, delays in instituting resuscitation at the ringside, and in getting him to a neurosurgical unit, ultimately led to permanent neurological disability.
When it does occur, death is most commonly attributed to intracranial haemorrhage, although abnormal stimulation of the autonomous nervous system can occur as a direct result from blows to the neck or solar plexus, resulting in sudden death. The Royal College of Physicians in its Report on the Medical Aspects of Boxing (1969) concluded that there was "no justification for including boxing as a competitive sport". Against this view, there are those who maintain that organised boxing is a controlled method by which normal violence can find a positive outlet, and thus reduce violent crime.
There is the inescapable reality of the long-term effects of boxing, namely traumatic encephalopathy or "punch-drunkenness". The condition appears to be related to the persistent repetition of severe injury to the head. There is also some evidence that the condition is associated with the length of each bout: the longer the bout, the less chance the brain has to recover. Where serious injury does occur, it is crucial that resuscitation is commenced at the ringside, and no time lost in conveying the boxer to the nearest neurological unit. This is a matter of life or death.
Dr David Holding
Forensic Consultant, Chorley, Lancashire
The British Council's work in Russia
Sir: Your accounts of the British Council's English-language activities in Russia (The Big Question, 13 December) do not give due prominence to the Council's work within the Russian educational system, carried out with delicate sensitivity to Russian needs and aspirations.
From 2000 to 2005, the Council responded to Russian requests by developing projects which led to the further professional development of more than 2,000 English teachers, the writing by Russian teacher-authors of primary and secondary English textbooks that married the best of British and Russian teaching approaches, and the development of a standardised university entrance English examination.
These projects have left Russia with groups of skilled educational authors and assessors who are now being recruited to work in other subject areas, a network for teacher development which is supported by local and regional authorities, and thousands of teachers who are skilled in project management and team building. Whatever happens next, much of this will remain.
In attacking the British Council, Mr Putin is attacking a prime source of educational excellence and cooperation within his own country. Let us hope that he will stop before it is too late.
Lecturer in Education, University of London
Waterboarding puts our troops in peril
Sir: John Kiriakou shot himself in the foot and our troops in the back with his claim that CIA waterboarding "broke suspect after 35 seconds" (report, 12 December).
Attempting to justify this technique in terms of its effectiveness ensures that it will be employed by our adversaries against our captured troops and hostages. Only by acknowledging its barbarity and illegality can we later bring to justice in a court of law those using this technique against our people.
This failure fully to think through the consequences of actions or policies seems particularly common in political policy. They seem only to be able to see the "first order" effects. Some of the information obtained may be valuable, much will be rubbish provided by a desperate human being trying to preserve themselves from further torture.
To better protect our troops, our government must distance itself from this policy and call for its cessation and the punishment of its instigators.
Cameron's fresh ideas are welcome
Sir: So there is hope. Steve Richards' Opinion (13 December) on Cameron's fresh approach to governance offers an effective alternative to the vast unwieldy centralised machine that swallows ever more money (ours) and yields such poor returns.
Locally accountable management will have teething troubles, but is bound to respond more rapidly to local needs. The opportunity to fire the incompetent will be a great influence on performance.
Sir: Steve Richards is wrong to suggest that the voluntary sector is nervous about the Conservative approach to charities. Local groups welcome support from any quarter. Funding for neighbourhood work on our most deprived estates, grants for preventative work by children's organisations, European funding for training schemes for unemployed young people, support from the NHS for rape crisis centres all these are in sharp decline. If the Conservatives come forward with serious policies to address these needs, they will find a receptive audience.
Local charities which campaign for better services or which meet the needs of people whom the state cannot easily reach can only be effective if the public sector is strong and well resourced. People's needs cannot be met unless the public and voluntary sectors are both properly funded and enabled to work together.
Chief Executive, National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, Sheffield
Sir: Your front page (17 December) offers us "Up in smoke", but the smoke from a power station comes out of the chimney, not the cooling towers (which you have shown). I'm sure that many of your scientifically aware readers will be getting steamed up.
Faith vs compassion
Sir: S Pullan (Letters, 15 December) says pure science is "merely" a construct of the human brain. It would be more accurate to say that it is the greatest co-operative achievement of human minds. The faith S Pullan appears to revere is one of the greatest creations of the human imagination, characterised by its huge variation throughout humanity and its propensity for generating discord. While I respect the efforts of faith-driven individuals who carry out humanitarian work, I find nobler the similar efforts of those motivated solely by human compassion.
New Labour language
Sir: David Miliband says he does not "resile" from his vote on the Iraq war ("You ask the questions", 17 December). That is now an authentic part of New Labour argot. The era of Foreign Secretaries like Ernest Bevin is a long way behind us now. In those plain-speaking days you could clearly understand what Labour ministers wanted to say.
Sir: Schools are stuck with weak teachers because that is all they can get (Letters, 15 December). It is simply a question of supply and demand. Weeding out such people will solve nothing. Better teachers cannot be recruited because pay and conditions are appalling and talented individuals who would make good teachers are not attracted to the profession. Education needs a profound reappraisal, with radical and courageous solutions. I hope David Cameron is on the case, as nothing has improved under Labour and they have had their chances.
Uckfield, East Sussex
Sir: I read that NHS hospital food is getting worse again. It's not palatable, it's not healthy, and it's not eaten. There is a solution. Stop providing it. Stick to tea and coffee and otherwise supply crockery and cutlery for meals delivered from the local take-away of choice. It would cheer up the wards no end.