Sir: Helen Phillips is absolutely right that the natural world gives us the basic necessities of life ("Nature is a necessity, not a luxury", 19 May). But the natural world is greatly at the mercy of farming, given the amount of England which is farmed. And farming is at the mercy of the markets for its products.
The countryside around me here changes colour with the shifts in the market. Pay silly prices for milk and the cows give way to sheep. Pay silly prices for wool, and the grazing land gives way to polytunnels and potatoes. Panic about the shortage of oil and the potatoes give way to miscanthus.
Many farmers live on the knife-edge of profitability. "A sheep is not a sheep until it's in the bank," they say. When the rooks eat the seed out of the ground as soon as it's sown, and the pigeons eat the shoots as soon as they appear, it becomes hard to think kindly about wildlife, and all credit to the farmers who nevertheless do.
Yet the markets assume that they need to pay nothing but lip service for the natural world. Pretty pictures of landscapes and ripe fruit on commercials cost them little. No doubt official policy-makers can influence the markets to some extent, by subsidy and regulation, but the influence is only marginal. We need to find ways to stop the markets saving money by destroying the necessities of our life.
Evil weapons shame UK's 'ethical policy'
Sir: Your headline "Britain obstructs global ban on use of cluster bombs" (19 May) reminded me of something that happened in Laos in the mid-1990s, when I was working there as an aid worker.
In a joint Lao/American initiative to find remains of American soldiers missing in action from the Vietnam war, groups of young American soldiers were sent out to jungle villages to help build schools in areas where American identity tags had been found. As one group stepped off a plane there was a series of explosions and cries of pain. They ran to where the sound was coming from and found half a dozen children covered in blood, with limbs blown off. The soldiers administered first aid. Some of the children died.
On their return to Vientiane the soldiers burst into the American ambassador's office and, with tears in their eyes, demanded that the American government "do something now" to clear the cluster bombs with which the US forces had carpeted Laos during the Vietnam war.
These young men had barely been born when the Vietnam war was going on, but they saw with their own eyes the effects of such evil weapons 20 years later.
The British government's claim to be implementing an "ethical foreign policy" is utterly discredited by the latest news. If some of our ministers took the time to visit hospitals in areas which had experienced the effects of cluster bombing, and had seen children with bloody stumps where arms or legs had been (as I have), perhaps they might find the moral courage to influence the Ministry of Defence to change its policy.
Wootton Bridge, Isle of Wight
Sir: Once more the "special relationship" has borne its poisonous fruit. The US (in common with Russia and China) does not want these civilian-killing weapons banned by the international conference on the subject, now opening in Dublin. The US is not even going to attend, but the UK is set to perform its poodle role by scuppering agreement.
So cluster bombs are about to join nuclear weapons, participation in US Star Wars (making us a prime nuclear target), participation in two major illegal and unwinnable wars and a leading role in the absurd "War on Terror" as the outstanding outcome of our very questionable closeness to the US.
A Foreign Office source is reported as saying the matter of a complete ban is "non-negotiable"; this in spite of the fact that 98 per cent of deaths are civilian and a third of those are children, and in spite of opposition to these weapons from Lord Malloch Brown, Hilary Benn, Lord Ramsbotham, General Sir Rupert Smith, General Patrick Cordingley, Field Marshal Lord Bramall, Pope Benedict XVI and very many others. What does it take to have sanity prevail?
Schools in a contest no one must lose
Sir: Last week saw the end of the football season just as most 16-year-olds started their GCSE exams. If the Premier League were subject to the same annual analysis that schools face, the result would be as follows.
"This season, half the teams in the league finished in the lower half of the table. This is unacceptable. They were in a "below average" position and thus below the expected achievement level for all teams. Shockingly the figures show that 15 per cent of the teams in the league were relegated because they "failed to meet the required standards". It is a source of huge disappointment that the same thing happened last year, proving that standards of football are not rising as they should be.
"To improve matters next season the Government have set targets. No team must finish in the bottom 15 per cent and be relegated. Every team must reach the expected standard and therefore must finish in a mid-table or higher position."
Put in these terms, the nature of school targets becomes clear. No school must be below average in a norm-based school league table system. If it is impossible for all premier league football teams to be above average, what hope for schools?
Headteacher Summerhill School, Kingswinford, West Midlands
Sir: It is true that many schools are in desperate need of more technical experts to become teachers (letters, 13 May). The independent sector has responded to this challenge in an interesting and successful way. Independent schools have recruited teachers from industry for many years and continue to do so successfully. Latest figures from the Independent Schools Council annual census show an increase of 16.7 per cent in the number of teachers in ISC schools joining the sector from industry in the last year.
This is likely to reflect the fact that at independent schools many teachers can concentrate on the subjects that they love, rather than teach combined subjects. This is particularly the case in science, where many independent schools continue to offer individual science qualifications, rather than combined awards.
Independent schools also provide flexibility, with management and supervision, for schools to employ teachers who may not have been trained as teachers. Indeed independent research shows that teachers in independent schools are not only more likely to hold degrees that relate to the subjects they teach, but they are also likely to hold higher awards and qualifications in these subjects.
The wealth of experience these teachers bring to the classroom enriches learning and brings a diversity of skills to school life.
Head of Research, Independent Schools Council, London WC2
Sir: James Kellar (letter, 13 May) argues that good teachers should be paid highly, whilst bad ones should be dismissed.
If I have a class of well-behaved children in front of me, I can achieve better than expected results from the class as a whole. This makes me a good teacher. If I have a class of badly motivated children in front of me, I will achieve very little with them. This makes me a bad teacher. So, should I be paid more or dismissed?
In reality, the question is academic, since I left the profession two years ago – probably one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Population holds key to cutting emissions
Sir: If anything, Roger Martin (letter, 19 May), understates the impact of growing population.
He claims that "the total human impact on the planet equals the average impact per person multiplied by the number of people". This ignores the fact that population growth will normally also entail an expansion in the public and private infrastructure needed: housing, roads, schools, hospitals, shops, cars, household equipment, leisure facilities, employment workplaces, you name it.
An increase in population thus does not simply mean a pro rata increase in global day-to-day consumption, with the increase in CO2 emissions (and other environmental pollutants) that that represents. It will represent a disproportionate increase in such impacts. This in turn implies that, in seeking to contain environment damage, measures to contain population will be far more effective than a direct reduction in per capita consumption.
Tolerant haven for Iraqi Christians
Sir: Like Christina Patterson ("Patterns in the marble, and a lesson in history", 17 May) we have recently visited Syria, and although we went to see the antiquities, which were wonderful, we also got an insight into the Islamic faith of ordinary people rather than the fundamentalism highlighted by our news media. Her article reiterated our experiences.
However, she did not mention how Syria is struggling to cope with vast numbers of Iraqi refugees, many of them Christian, taking refuge in a country that is friendly to them. This is corroborated by my neighbour at home. Her Baptist church has received requests for help from the church in Syria.
Newport, South Wales
Of course all Tories are Etonian toffs
Sir: Joan Bakewell ("No wonder the toffs are back with a vengeance", 16 May ) would be well advised to use an internet search engine rather than fanning New Labour's crude class warfare approach at the Crewe and Nantwich by-election.
In Crewe, New Labour exhorts the voters: "Don't vote for the posh toff." In The Independent, Ms Bakewell expresses mild disapproval of Labour's approach in Crewe but then goes on: "When a group of such people of similar background and interests cluster together . . . in the Shadow Cabinet – it does matter. The three top Tory jobs, leader, shadow Chancellor and London Mayor, are still Etonian-held."
Ms Bakewell needed only to use a search engine and type in "George Osborne biography", and up comes "He attended St Paul's School, London." So, the shadow Chancellor is not an old Etonian.
But that is a minor and nitpicking detail. Better that New Labour in Crewe and Ms Bakewell in The Independent ignore competence and ability, philosophy and commitment, and label every prominent Tory politician as an old Etonian toff. That should do nicely and will surely rouse the masses to man the barricades.
Gerald de Lacey
The shame of being anybody
Sir: We are accustomed to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's displays of breast-beating related to her identity as a Muslim, which is of course a matter of her own choice, but her newly vaunted shame at being a woman, a pure accident of birth, as a response to certain doings of Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair, is hard to follow ("This week, I've been ashamed to be a woman", 19 May).
It would be equally inappropriate for any black person, say, to suffer shame on account of Robert Mugabe's behaviour. When Clinton and Blair say they speak on behalf of women as a whole, all that is needed is that they be ridiculed and refuted. But Alibhai-Brown clearly believes that higher standards should be expected from female politicians. That, I'm afraid, sounds rather more like old-fashioned chauvinism than gender parity.
Sir: I can only hope that the collective responsibility of half the world's population for the deeds of all and any given person of the same sex, as espoused by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, doesn't extend to men. We'd choke with the bilious shame of it all.
Feral beasts were right
Sir: With the publication of her memoirs, Cherie Blair has seriously undermined her husband's attack upon the "feral beasts" of the press by showing them to in fact have been both objective and reasonable in their attitude to her. As she heads to a malignant footnote in the history of the self-righteous hypocrisy of the Blair premiership, this is no mean achievement.
Oil without vandalism
Sir: Some twenty years ago I supervised a well drilled on Ditchling Beacon inside the National Trust area; then, as now, there were fierce objections ("Permit for oil well in South Downs is 'act of vandalism' ", 15 May) but I venture to say that a visitor to Ditchling Beacon today would not ever know such oil-well drilling had taken place. Use your eyes not your emotions in evaluating the impact of oil-well drilling activity.
Plenty of houses
Sir: Your leading article of 19 May says: "There is a social case for new development to ease the chronic shortage of housing supply in the south of the country." My local Hertfordshire paper, The Mercury, has about 45 pages of properties for sale week after week. At least half are small flats and two-bedroom terraced homes. Where's the shortage?
Sir: Thank you Matthew Norman (16 May) for reminding us of how the petty New Labour politicians squandered a marvellous opportunity. In 1997 the whole country was ready for a shake-up, and with their huge majority in Parliament Labour could have provided it. Instead we had a government that seemed afraid of its own shadow, forever pandering to the Murdoch press, and continuing Tory policies. Somehow we in Wales, and of course Scotland, were given a measure of independence, but in the end what a waste, what a let-down.
Seems like for ever
Sir: "The Bush administration has been insisting for more than 20 years on building a nuclear shield," writes Johann Hari (19 May). Twenty years of Bush? Has it really been that long?