Sir: I did not think it possible for the Ministry of Defence to plumb the depths of mendacity further, but Des Browne has managed this with his attempt to gag inquests into military deaths (report, 17 March). Armed Forces personnel are entitled to expect the country to send them to war properly equipped, honouring a duty of care and the oft-quoted Military Covenant.
It is staggering that the main concern of the MoD is the criticisms at inquests rather than the substance of the criticisms, and sums up the mindset that places budgets first and personnel last, regardless of human cost. It is difficult not to conclude that the MoD is expecting heavy criticism at the forthcoming inquests into the tragic losses of the RAF Hercules and Nimrod airframes, with repeated safety concerns in both. Des Browne and his fellow ministers have forfeited the trust of the Armed Forces and the people. We can only hope they are eventually held to account in court for institutional negligence.
Sir: I wish to register my utter disgust with Des Browne for his attempts to gag coroners from reporting the facts about the deaths of Service personnel in foreign conflicts. This follows an order by the MoD gagging troops from discussing personal experiences in theatre solely because they were exposing lies being told by ministers.
The judiciary must not be so easily controlled and, where the Government is culpable, those responsible should not be allowed to shirk the consequences of their decision-making and unrivalled mismanagement of our Armed Forces.
The lies of the Labour Party are finally catching up with them.
Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands
Embryo cells are not human beings
Sir: The embryos that are the subject of much dogmatic and emotive comment from Catholic bishops are not human beings (letters, 24 March). They are collections of cells, with few, if any, human attributes: they have no brain or body, no feelings or memories or hopes, no capacity for pain or pleasure, no ability to form relationships.
Many of the non-human animals used in scientific and edical research are more like people than these embryos, yet we rarely hear church leaders defending animal rights, and most people have, with varying degrees of reluctance, come to accept that the benefits to humanity outweigh the suffering of non-human animals.
When MPs are consulting their consciences on the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill, I hope they will consider consequences rather than religious dogma, and weigh the feelings and rights of real people against those of bundles of cells. Research on these bundles of cells could lead to cures for illnesses as well as fewer animal experiments, and should be supported by all reasonable people.
Kingston upon Thames
Sir: In all the discussion of the vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, why does nobody question the assumption that MPs should not normally be allowed to vote with their consciences? If a Bill is worth voting for, it should be able to win support without the efforts of the whips.
The present system presumably means MPs must sometimes vote against their better convictions, and that they cannot be held to account for their votes on particular issues, because they were forced to support their party line. The result is an elective dictatorship staffed with lobby cannon-fodder. In what way does this encourage faith in democracy or trust in politicians?
Sir: I find the arguments in support of research on human embryonic stem cells unconvincing. Although such research may yield important advances in medicine, the end doesn't justify the means. The Nazi doctor Josef Mengele made important advances in medicine through human experimentation, but no one in their right mind would now argue that this research was anything other than unspeakably wicked.
In my view, all of science and medicine point to the immorality of research on cells which, despite humble appearances, are the beginnings of human life.
Dr Daniel Emlyn-Jones
Sir: Deborah Orr is missing the point in her complaint (Comment, 22 March) that Catholic MPs who want to vote against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill do so to "parade how much more important their Catholic beliefs are to them than their parliamentary duties".
Catholic moral teaching is concerned with the overall, long-term good of society, rather than what may be immediately satisfying and politically convenient.
Thus, Catholics believe love and care for the unborn and for the aged are preferable to the easy but destructive expedients of abortion and euthanasia. They believe stable families with married parents are preferable to the unhappiness and instability which result from easy divorce and single parenthood.
With a belief in the sacredness of human life, they reject the damage which would be done to this concept by the creation of human/animal embryos. What sort of life would result from this if, as is inevitable, one of these embryos is allowed to mature to birth? Do not blame MPs if their beliefs impel them to take a more profound and spiritual view of human life. This is not merely a personal indulgence: they may actually be right.
South Creake, Norfolk
Sir: What Cardinal Murphy O'Connor means by a vote on the Embryology Bill not subject to the Labour whip is not, as he calls it, a "free vote". As least, in so far as Catholic MPs are concerned, it is simply a vote subject to a different whip, namely a Vatican one.
The sight of MPs who are members of a religious sect being urged on by their leader to blackmail the Government (by threatening resignation from the Cabinet unless ... etc) is one that should raise all sorts of alarm bells with voters. They will be asking who runs Britain, Westminster or Rome? Is Ruth Kelly the MP for Bolton West, or Vatican East?
National Secular Society, Edinburgh
Sir: The clergy, like anyone else, are free to express their views about embryo research but the whipping of MPs is an internal party matter. MPs are elected on a party ticket, not a church one, so it is reasonable for party leaders to demand loyalty.
It is also disengenuous for archbishops to call for a free vote and simultaneously pressure Catholic MPs to toe the line of church dogma. Cardinals would not take kindly to Gordon Brown telling them which way to vote in a Papal enclave, so they too should respect the boundaries between the different organisations, and render unto Gordon what is Gordon's.
Clara Vale, Tyne & Wear
The stress of being a funny man
Sir: Terence Blacker, writing about Tony Hancock and others (Comment, 19 March), asked: "What made men with the gift to bring happiness through laughter so miserable in their own lives?" later adding: "Why do we care?"
Tony, born in 1924, left school, with no qualifications, early in the Second World War to join the Forces. There he went into comedy, continuing when he was demobbed. He was married, in June 1950, to my wife's younger sister, Cicely Romanis, a Lanvin model. We saw a lot of him, and his colleagues, in the next 15 years. He told me that, if and when his audiences stopped laughing, he had no means of getting any income to support the two of them.
Salaries for comedians were not great then, and there were many after-tax payments to be made to supporting bands etc. That led him constantly to try new ways of keeping audiences laughing, a very stressful way to live. I was only too glad not to have been a comedian; 37 years in the Royal Air Force was much less stressful.
Sir Reginald E W Harland
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
We owe a moral duty to Gurkhas
Sir: The British Government is under a moral obligation to grant indefinite leave to remain, and equal pensions in the UK, to all those pre-1997 Gurkha servicemen and their families (letters, 24 March).
There have been a total of 26 VC holders since 1817 serving in Gurkha regiments. This unprecedented number of VC holders includes 13 British officers serving with Gurkha regiments and 13 Gurkha VCs in unparallelled personal human bravery and stalwart patriotic service, such as Havildar Bhabhagta Gurung who won his VC in the Second World War and who sadly died this year.
Patrick Smith-Higham Hill
Specialist healthcare not just in London
Sir: Jeremy Laurance's consumer guide to the best specialist hospitals ("Operation Freedom", 20 March) is almost nostalgically London-centred. Apart from the lack of criteria to inform us about how he made his judgements, this can't surely be what NHS "patient choice" really has in mind?
The Department of Health has been undertaking a major effort to rebalance historical patterns of research and development funding. The result of the first round of this process was that indeed the bulk of specialist and comprehensive clinical-research centres were justifiably won by the South-east (Oxford, Cambridge and London).
But there are notable exceptions: national specialist centres for old-age medicine in Newcastle, and tropical diseases in Liverpool. Additionally, a further comprehensive cross-speciality biomedical research centre has just been won by Manchester.
The NHS is dynamically changing: apart from the absurdity of his recommendation that everyone comes to London for specialist healthcare, there just wouldn't be the seats in the clinic. Let's spread it around a bit.
Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Manchester
Sir: While I agree that patients deserve better information about the outcomes of healthcare providers, the focus on very sub-specialist services in Jeremy Laurance's feature is unhelpful to the debate, particularly to the 80 per cent of the UK population who reside outside the Greater London area.
The article's over-emphasis on "Britain's best hospitals" creates implicit doubts about the quality of local hospitals. Yes, of course the small, specialised London hospitals are excellent at what they do: that is why they exist. Whether they continue to represent best value for taxpayers' money is a moot point. Health authorities in other UK cities are moving to bring such facilities together under one "superhospital" roof. It would have been more useful to focus on quality assurance in district general hospitals, where most NHS work is done.
The reason that "doctors don't like it" is not due to some sinister conspiracy to hide the corpses of failing surgeons' victims; it's that we've been here and seen it all before under the Tory policies of the former health secretary, Kenneth Clarke.
Competition creates winners and losers, and the losers will be the non- Independent-reading, non-mobile, socially disadvantaged patients who get stuck with a second-rate service. Healthcare quality assurance is a complex, multifactor process. Nor do doctors know best; it is a challenge to all concerned.
Dr Colin Begg
Sir: In "Antarctic explorers come face to face with sea giants" (report, 22 March), the writer refers to "the northern Antarctic coast". Unless Antarctica has shifted substantially in recent weeks, or an underground sea has been discovered beneath the South Pole, my globe shows that Antarctica's coast is entirely northern.
T J Honeybone
Sir: Bruce Morley claims that Iraqis "just couldn't wait to get at each other" (letters, 24 March). In fact, Saddam's Iraq was the most secular state in the Arab world, with many mixed communities and much intermarriage. Given time, it could have developed more representative forms of government. Instead, it was brutally decapitated, the Baath Party, its main secular institution, outlawed, its army disbanded, and its ancient monuments laid open to looters. Britain and America are deeply culpable. Against the advice of experts, we started a process that led inevitably to domination by Shia fundamentalist forces.
P J Stewart
Boars Hill, Oxford
Sir: Ellen Purton (letters, 21 March) correctly criticises The Independent for describing Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's children as "adopted children". May I also ask, in a similar vein, that you delete the obsolete and insulting "illegitimate" from your usage. I most recently came across it in the obituary of Julian Rathbone on 8 March, "Rathbone was illegitimate, a fact he discovered in his teens".
Power to the people
Sir: There have been suggestions of a windfall tax on the excess profits of energy companies. This would be popular with people but merely annoy the companies. Would it not be more politically advantageous to "encourage" them to make large subsidies to householders who install solar panels, with the right to sell surplus power back to the supplier and help offset the cost of the installation?
South Cadbury, Somerset
Sir: Patrick Powell's suggestion that commercial pressures may have affected Google's showing of Tibet as part of China is preposterous (letters, 22 March). Any contemporary map would show Tibet as part of China because, at present, it is. A map should reflect contemporary reality and not be based on ethical judgements. A 19th-century map would show Ireland as part of the UK and a map from the 1960s would show Estonia in the Soviet Union. This reflects the reality of the time.
Sir: The fixation with the fallacy of infinite growth in a finite world was nicely expressed in the article "Britains's chocolate connoisseurs" (22 March), in "There are signs shoppers are cutting back ... Easter egg sales grew only 9 per cent this year".
John D Anderson
Shipley, West Yorkshire