Seabirds hold the key to change
You depict the marine food web which is bound to suffer the seismic shocks of the 40 per cent decline in global ocean phytoplankton attributed to global warming ("The dead sea", 29 July).
But apart from the obvious element of humankind, the "top predators" depicted in the graphic omits one of the most visible and best-understood links in the chain, the seabirds.
Around our own shores, key seabird populations are in freefall, strongly linked to the declining availability of their staple diet, the sand eel, a small plankton-eating fish. Evidence is growing that rising sea temperatures are the root cause, having caused the North Sea to flip since the 1960s from a cold-water plankton species to a warm-water one but at much lower overall abundance.
Two of our most sand eel-dependent seabirds – kittiwake and arctic tern – are faring worst, with kittiwake numbers suffering a 40 per cent decline in the past 10 years. On Orkney this year, kittiwake colonies are a scene of abandoned nests and dead chicks. Arctic terns throughout the Northern Isles have also struggled to raise young and many did not even risk breeding this summer in the RSPB's Mousa (Shetland) and North Hill (Orkney) reserves.
Profound changes are happening below the sea surface, amounting to what scientists call a "regime shift" in the North Sea. Now we have compelling evidence that the shift is global in extent, and we need to look to our seabirds as a bellwether of the rate of change and how best to mitigate it.
We urge the Government to establish the long-overdue network of marine Special Protection Areas under the European Birds Directive, bolstered by national Marine Conservation Zones necessary to build resilience into our beleaguered seabird populations.
Euan Dunn, Head of Marine Policy, RSPB, Sandy, Bedfordshire
Action must start now
I read with dismay the article on the global reduction of ocean phytoplankton and its possible link to global warming.
Marine biodiversity is declining globally at an alarming rate. In the past 100 years, we have seen global fish stocks devastated to a point where it is doubtful that they will ever recover. Entire ecosystems are in decline and there are now enormous areas of the world's oceans that are effectively dead.
We do not need to waste time arguing whether phytoplankton has reduced by 40 per cent or 50 per cent or whether fish stocks have declined by 70 per cent or 90 per cent; the hard fact is they are declining, fast.
We can no longer regard the oceans as an inexhaustible source of food, minerals and raw materials. Neither can we use them as a sink for our wasteful lifestyles and practices.
So we must take action now to stop the global decline in our ecosystems before they collapse and we are left to figure out how we feed the ever-growing population and how we replace all of the oxygen production, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling and climate buffering that marine ecosystems do for us.
Dr David Gibson, Managing Director, National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth
Quango vital to HIV treatment
We read with concern of the Government's plans to abolish the Health Protection Agency in its present form and merge its functions with that of other health bodies within a new Public Health Service directly accountable to the Secretary of State ("One by one, the quangos are abolished. But at what cost?" 27 July).
As the UK's HIV policy organisation, for years we have benefited from the HPA's surveillance of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. This information is vital in assessing the needs of the population and allowing effective targeting of resources, more important than ever in the present climate.
As plans for the future of the HPA functions develop, we call on the Government to promise that public health surveillance and analysis will remain independent of ministerial interference to ensure impartiality, and that there is no deterioration in the quality and scope of the HPA's key public health functions, so essential to an evidence-based response to HIV.
Deborah Jack, Chief Executive, NAT (National AIDS Trust), London EC1
Normally, I find myself in agreement with your admirable arts editor, David Lister, but I have to take issue with his statement that the soon-to-be-abolished UK Film Council is "one of the few quangos with commercial nous".
This is the organisation that brought us the egregious Sex Lives Of The Potato Men but refused funding of a film version of TV's Red Dwarf because it was "too commercial". Those must be the exceptions that prove the rule then.
Martyn P Jackson, Cramlington, Northumberland
Among the list of organisations apparently under threat from the coalition government's cuts is the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas).
As a key non-departmental public body that promotes best practice in the workplace and provides a service for dealing with disputes both collectively and individually, Acas performs a vital and cost-effective role for employers and employees alike, benefiting the economy.
While we have been assured by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills that there are no plans to abolish Acas, my union would fiercely oppose any attempt to undermine these functions.
Zita Holbourne, National Executive Committee, Public and Commercial Services Union, London SW11
Speed cameras cut road toll
I strongly object to your unfeeling headline, "The cuts decision that won't provoke any tears: speed cameras" (26 July). Since 1972, road casualties have declined by more than a half, in spite of the increase in road traffic.
It is clear that speed cameras have been one factor in this. Their removal, as a result of the Government's "saloon-bar" decision, will result in more accidents and more tears. In any case, is there not a flaw in the "saloon-bar" argument that cameras are there only to raise money? If that were so, surely the Government, keen as it is to reduce the deficit, would want more of them.
David Bell, Ware, Hertfordshire
The scrapping of speed cameras is a triumph of bigotry over reason. Speed is an important factor in most road traffic accidents which result in injury or death, as one might expect from simple physics. Cameras were an effective deterrent. The cost of their loss will be measured in blood and grief.
It would be one thing if the Conservatives had received an electoral mandate for this lunacy. But they didn't.
I voted Lib Dem to keep Grendel from the door, not to open it and invite her in. I have always voted Lib Dem, as my father did before me, but I swear by his very grave I shall never do so again. There has never been such a betrayal of trust, nor such a failure in our democracy.
Ian East, Islip, Oxfordshire
Many motorists will be pleased to hear that the Government is axeing the budget for speed cameras.
When positioned correctly, such as at accident black-spots, speed cameras clearly have a role. But there is very little evidence to show the benefit they offer outside these areas; drivers simply speed up and slow down to avoid getting caught, which can often be the cause of further accidents.
I believe the wider role of cameras is nothing more than a revenue-generation stream for the Government, which has led to other approaches to road safety being underused.
Instead, the government should spend the money saved from running speed cameras on a robust education programme for drivers – possibly as part of the driving-test – on how driving behaviour can impact other road users and the potential harm they can cause through speeding.
It also needs to ensure that the speed limits are appropriate, incorporating considerations such as time of day and weather conditions. Research shows that most drivers will observe speed limits they feel are appropriate, but ignore those that seem unnecessarily low. The use of variable speed limits should be more widespread.
Phil Peace, Newbury, Berkshire
Why banks don't want cheques
I have waited for months and still no one has raised the real reason the banks have for wishing to stop issuing cheques. Clearly, processing has its place, but the real reason is that when a customer issues a cheque the bank is bound by the law, not its own rules.
Simply, if someone gets possession of my cheque book fraudulently (say I am on holiday and they burgle my house and take the book), at least before I return, whatever the bank thinks, they must pay me back for any cheque drawn from my account because they were not drawn by me.
Broadly, if any cheque is drawn against my account and I have not signed it or been grossly negligent then the bank must repay me, and their "rules" do not come into it; it is the law of England. Banks do not like banking law, they want full control.
To make it worse from the bank's point of view, the bank which has had my accounts has for many years had the, in my opinion, negligent practice of putting overdraft limits on statements (which I have complained about), so a burglar seeing the statement which is, say, £50 in credit will not know whether any cheque for more than that will be met.
If the fools in my bank who decided this (and I use the word with 50 years of banking experience) include my overdraft limit, say £20,000, on the statement then the thief can reckon he can spend that as well.
Peter Croggon, Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Bankers, London SW1
Cheques really are necessary for various reasons but especially for charities. Like others, I have recently sent cheques to charities because we do not always wish to commit to regular donations by way of direct debit. Cheques are so simple and easy.
I would suggest that when the economic situation is desperate, charities are first to suffer, and with the withdrawal of cheques I forecast they will suffer again. Banks (and I was a bank employee) always tell us that changes are for the benefit of the customers.
Why can't they be honest and say the changes are to protect their profits. Can we have a response from the Payments Council, please?
Alec Hall, Margate, Kent
Rural young have to have cars
In rural areas, a car is not a luxury for the young, it is a necessity (letters, 26 July). No car usually means no job. Many homes are miles from the nearest bus stop, and buses are infrequent, with time-wasting changes often needed to reach one's destination.
Young people wanting jobs need cars to get there. Insurance premiums are high because some young people drive recklessly, often showing off to their mates, but plenty of young people are sensible drivers and there needs to be some way of recognising this, so that they are not penalised unnecessarily.
They need an insurance company to think laterally, and provide a Youth Group Insurance available for a group of, say, five young drivers, at a premium that would cost each subscriber the amount charged to a 25-year-old with a five-year NCD.
If one of them has an accident that is their fault, then the others would all have to cough up extra funds (then find someone else to make up their group).
This would stop showing-off-to-mates as a risk and would enable sensible drivers to get a reasonable rate of insurance with like-minded friends. It would allow young people in rural areas to get a job while still living at home.
Alison Willott, Coed Cefn, Monmouthshire
Age dilemma for asylum-seekers
The report by Jerome Taylor on Rabar Hamad (23 July) highlighted what many of us who routinely produce expert witness reports relating to young asylum-seekers from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan find very upsetting and unfair.
Age assessment is always impressionistic, even when a formal matrix or model is adopted, but it is almost always the case that assessments (whether by UKBA or social services personnel) over-estimate the age of the young person concerned by several years, often thereby preventing them from being considered as minors (under 18) for whom treatment is often different from that for adults.
When documents indicating actual birthdate are produced, they are commonly disregarded as "possible forgeries" or "given no weight".
Even the opinions of expert witnesses (who are, by definition, disinterested and neutral) are frequently dismissed as "biased" or "partisan" when they take issue with the assessment used by the UKBA and the courts on the basis of their own expertise and other evidence.
David Seddon, Norwich, Norfolk
Hot memories of Albert Hall
I should like to offer my sympathy to Jessica Duchen ("Not for the faint-hearted", 27 July). Regulars at the Proms in our youth, we long since ceased attending, because we can't stand the Albert Hall heat. And there's the vertiginous Circle. Instead, last weekend we watched Mahler's Eighth and Meistersinger live on television in comfort, albeit without the excitement of reality.
I thought Ms Duchen was unfairly critical of the Royal Opera House. Also she ignored the Coliseum, which is an exception to most of her complaints and maintains consistently outstanding operatic standards. I wonder if her musical London is confined to Mayfair and its immediate environs. (I also wonder why she had to damn Birmingham's wonderful Symphony Hall with faint praise.)
Anyway, why should we hope that owners might spend money on improving halls which are already full? Altruism, social conscience, forward thinking? And those which aren't? In today's climate, some hope.
Michael Wadsworth, Chislehurst, Kent
Why is Nato backing Karzai?
Alan Mitcham (letters, 26 July) suggests the Afghan war is being fought in anticipation of building pipeline(s) through Afghanistan and Pakistan to access Turkmenistan's oil and gas. But who would continue with the said objective when oil is already being shipped from Kazakhstan across the Caspian Sea to flow on to the West via the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, whose co-owners include BP, Chevron, Statoil and Total?
So a mystery remains. Why is Nato now propping up a corrupt dictatorship in Afghanistan, and why does it not demand new, free and fair Afghan elections if it is to stay there any longer?
Jim Roland, London NW11
US ignores the Bhopal disaster
The one salient factor about the US and its attempts to extract billions of pounds from BP in damages and the Senate calling for British politicians to submit to interrogation, can be summed up in one word: Bhopal.
The countless thousands of people who were maimed in 1984 by the world's worst industrial catastrophe or whose loved ones were killed are still waiting for adequate compensation. With the US, as usual, it's one law for them and precious little for anyone else.
Henry Page, Newhaven, East Sussex
John Hislop (letters, 28 July) wants to remind Gordon Brown that "he stood in Edinburgh South, where he was defeated by Tory Michael Ancram, before heading to a county that will always vote Labour, irrespective of the quality of the candidate". Content with this slur on the honest voters of Fife, and Gordon Brown's qualities, he then overlooks the fact that Michael Ancram later decamped to Devizes in England, for a safer seat.
John Boaler, Calne, Wiltshire
Birth of a notion
Reading your report "The 8,000-mile green voyage (by the seasick billionaire)" (27 July), I would have thought that seasickness would be the least of his worries after "he and his five crewmates birthed their unusual vessel ... after four months at sea...".
Greg Irvine, Oxford
Play up, Colonel
Having read Colonel Tim Collins's review of the Donmar production of The Prince of Homburg (27 July), I have to pose the question allegedly put to Abraham Lincoln's wife, "But what did you think of the play?"
Michael J J Day, Settle, North Yorkshire
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