Letters: Perspectives on Sharia law in Britain

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These 'zones' are a deliberate provocation

The ever-readable Christina Patterson in "Two legal systems, and two choices. Which do we want?" (3 August), conflates the issues of "Sharia courts, or Sharia law, or Sharia 'zones' " in a manner which does a disservice to the British Muslim community.

Shari'ah law is an indispensable part of the Islamic faith, providing guidelines for a Muslim lifestyle. Shari'ah councils are mandated under the Arbitration Act, which allows those who seek mediation and arbitration of an alternative, religious nature the freedom to do so under English law. They operate in much the same way as Beth Din courts used by those British Jews who seek their services. Shari'ah councils are authorised to deal with civil disputes and not criminal matters.

Shari'ah "zones" are the deliberately provocative idea of that extreme fringe element among British Muslims, Islam4UK and Muslims Against Crusades (MAC), who try to outdo themselves in dreaming up publicity stunts that are designed to incite mischief and polarise our communities. By exaggerating the influence of Islam4UK and MAC, Patterson provides them with just the publicity and profile they desperately crave.

To characterise the work of Shari'ah scholars in the UK as the "edicts of men schooled in a medieval interpretation of a 1,500-year-old religion" is to misrepresent their work. We profoundly agree that more needs to be known about the work of Shari'ah councils and those using this avenue of arbitration should be better informed of its modus operandi. Reducing the complexities of this area to the "zones" dreamt up by Islam4UK does little to advance that search for knowledge and transparency.

Mohammed Asif, CEO, Engage, Ilford, Essex

Children's welfare is in jeopardy

Christina Patterson is right to raise concerns about Sharia councils and tribunals operating in this country. Under the Arbitration Act 1996 their "judgements" can in fact acquire the force of law; a recent Bill introduced by Baroness Cox would have amended this situation.

Not only is Sharia law "gynophobic" as David Crawford's letter points out (4 August), but Sharia bodies should never be making decisions about children in "custody" cases. Their rulings are not in line with the Children Act 1989, which is supposed to protect all children in the country.

Sharia looks to fixed rules and arbitrary preferences on where the child shall live, according to her/his age; the Children Act, by contrast, seeks the welfare of each individual child, in his or her unique individual circumstances, as the guiding principle for settling where the child should live, and who should have contact with him/her.

There is a sophisticated formula in the Act for determining welfare, and it includes the ability to look at the child's own wishes, depending on age and understanding. The sensitivity of the approach is a million miles away from the rigid thinking of the elderly male imams.

Dr Lorraine Harding, Steeton, west Yorkshire

Yet another government IT fiasco . Why?

Your report on the cancellation of six public IT projects, at a cost of over £3.7bn to the taxpayer (3 August), is indicative of a widespread public-procurement malaise. As someone with some experience of the process, I suggest that for almost two decades public-sector procurement has suffered from two systemic flaws.

In the interests of "improved productivity", the public authorities which commission professional and technical services have largely dispensed with in-house expertise in key areas. As a consequence, they are invariably less well-informed than their suppliers, and lack the ability to control the procurement process on behalf of the taxpayer. Crucially, they do not have access to independent and impartial advice.

The distinction between "political" and "technical" views and opinions about procurement projects have been deliberately blurred. Political pressure is frequently brought to bear on those responsible for the delivery of professional and technical advice, particularly in respect of estimated costs and timescales. As a result, unrealistic and therefore unachievable outcomes are adopted in order to "sell" the project. In effect, each project spawns its own "dodgy dossier", and the reality must inevitably disappoint.

Michael Purdy, Esher, Surrey

In your article reporting the abandonment of a new NHS computer system on which £2.7bn has already been spent, you did not ask the most obvious question: exactly what was this huge amount of money spent on?

It is inconceivable that anything like this amount could have been spent on developing a central computer system to hold the health records of everyone in the country. Database technology has existed for decades; just look at the millions of personal records that sites such as Facebook can hold, and how easily they can be accessed. Surely a single moderately competent computer programmer could develop a database system for the NHS within a few hours.

£2.7bn over nine years equates to paying 6,000 programmers £50,000 each per year for that period. Has anything like that amount of manpower really been employed for this simple task? Where has this money gone? Nobody could be that incompetent.

Simon Tuffen, Norwich

Electronic patient records (EPR) are undoubtedly the way to go but the task is vastly more complex than parliamentarians or public may imagine. The manifold deficiencies of politicians, the empire-building of managers, the soi disant superiority of academics, the ambitions of commerce and the breakneck speed of technical developments may make the task insuperable. The vainglorious scheme that has just imploded is merely the most recent tilt at the problem, but lessons should be learnt.

An erstwhile patient of mine was considering bidding for a contract to digitise existing written health records, but a back-of-a-fag-packet calculation and a look at his own records convinced him to hold back. Primary-care records alone, we decided, may well exceed 20,000 tons, most of which would be illegible and/or on irregularly shaped and sized stationery. Add secondary-care records and the weight may exceed that of the Royal Navy's combined fleet. Less than 1 per cent may actually be ever accessed, but who can say which bit and how many lives might depend on it? Record summarising too, I know from experience of checking records against others' summaries, varies in its accuracy and completeness.

If you want a job done properly, start by asking those who actually do the work and ignore the whole fawning mass of managers, brown-nosers, consultants and cut-throat commerce.

Steve Ford, Haydon Bridge, Northumberland

To me, as an ex-employee in a large UK company IT department, the problems in the NHS come as no surprise. My top causes of failure of large IT systems are as follows.

Business ownership is inadequate, leading to factions, disruptive politics, and unclear funding which leaves the supplier unclear on what and to whom they are delivering.

Poor specification of what is required.

The project is simply too large, with long timescales, and is not broken down into manageable deliveries.

A poor tendering process leads to under-bidding by suppliers to win the contract. The supplier will never be able to make a profit on the deal, so they seek to cut back or re-negotiate, or try the old trick of upping charges for every change.

Changing requirements, reorganisations, cutbacks, changes of leadership, mean constant changes of direction.

Failing to gain the backing of the users, leading to arguments, resistance and delay.

Politics – interference by government, leading to delivery pressures and unrealistic timescales.

Inadequate technical leadership on both commissioner and supplier side. Funnily enough, the technical side always gets the blame.

Suppliers underestimating the complexity, scale, politics, leadership required, costs, timescales etc.

Steve Barnes, Orpington, Kent

It may be front-page news to The Independent ("NHS pulls the plug on its £11bn computer system", 3 August) but those of us from the private sector are simply reminded of what we have known for a long, long time – that the public sector doesn't understand IT, that its procurement systems cost more money than they save and that private companies whose income is beholden to the public sector are incapable of objective advice.

Colin Mitchell, Lisburn, Co Antrim

Cuts undermine Big Society

Your report "Threat to Cameron's Big Society as cuts take toll on charities" (2 August) highlights the financial pressures on Citizens Advice Bureaux as a result of local-authority grant reductions and changes to eligibility for legal aid. The latter is particularly important as many bureaux have contracts with the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to deliver a free specialist service to those who qualify for legal aid. These contracts were let on the basis that CABs can deliver a better, and cheaper, service because those who provide the service are volunteers.

The Big Society as a concept depends on volunteers, able, willing and hard-working, giving society their time and the benefit of their life experience. The Government has recognised the richness of this resource; what they have failed to acknowledge is the cost of the professional infrastructure required to recruit, train and support a "free" workforce.

With the changes to eligibility for legal aid, CAB income will be reduced. If local authorities are also forced to cut core funding many bureaux will be forced to close.

The Big Society concept depends on fairness. To deny those in need access to advice about housing, disability, debt, employment, family and children will only result, long term, in greater actual expense, and misery and hardship for the individuals and families concerned.

Whose Big Society – the strong or the weak?

Margaret Bamford, Worthing, West Sussex

I fully understand the necessity for cuts in public spending. I am appalled, however, by the decision to hit funding for legal aid and the Citizens Advice Bureau. Both these services are more important than ever in these tough times.

The richest members of society have been least affected by this recession, and in fact the top 1 per cent of earners are better off. I do not believe in punitive tax regimes for the successful, but it is a matter of common decency that should sacrifices be necessary, those who can afford to make them do so, rather than those on the breadline already. The burden of the global economic downturn has fallen unfairly on the poor.

David Cameron's administration had the perfect opportunity to show that the Conservative Party is the party of the whole nation, not just the rich. I welcomed the new government with an open mind, but it appears that the sceptics were right.

A R Wainwright, Halstead, Essex

Your Whitehall editor's view that the likely closure of Citizens Advice Bureaux around the country was a blow to the Big Society indicated a misunderstanding of Cameron's flagship policy.

The "Big" bit of it simply means that all of society, rich or poor, contribute equally to the solving of the deficit. Yes, that means the poor get poorer and the rich get richer – but that's the object of the exercise, surely? And so what if CABs cease to exist, hospitals have to sack staff, care homes close? That doesn't hurt Mr C's banker friends, and his mates in the private-hospital business will positively rejoice. Look on the bright side! He's got half of it right.

Derek Wharton, West Kirby, Merseyside

Poor reading is not an outrage

In your leading article of 3 August you refer to the "national disgrace" of one in 10 boys having the reading age of a seven-year-old. But such data needs to be put into context.

Some of these young people will have complex special-educational needs, and for them to strive for "expected" levels of attainment would cause major damage to their mental and emotional well-being. Others will be learning English as an additional language. Others will have home backgrounds that are as grim as grim can be. If your home life is in emotional turmoil, the ministerial desire for you to achieve a level 4 is not at the top of your agenda.

As with any distribution curve, most children will score near the average, but some score higher or lower. That is the reality of any testing regime. It is desirable for all students to achieve the best they can. However, expressions of outrage that do not take account of contextual factors are misguided.

Pete Crockett, Wootton Basset, Wiltshire

A sex strike can work – try it

Natalie Haynes (Opinion, 3 August) urges a sex strike by politicians' wives. Doubtless her article was intended light-heartedly – and the idea has been the butt of patriarchal humour at least since the days of Classical Greece. But the power of a women's sex and labour strike shouldn't be so easily dismissed.

On 24 October 1975, 90 per cent of Iceland's women refused sex while simultaneously refusing to work, cook or look after the children. This women's "day off" transformed the gender political landscape in Iceland, paving the way for the world's first democratically elected female president. Maybe there's a lesson here. Why leave it to politicians' wives?

Camilla Power, London SW11

Natalie Haynes is perpetuating a sexist stereotype in advocating that women should follow the example of the play Lysistrata and institute sex strikes to get what they want. The play is based on the assumption that sex is of overriding importance to men and of little or no interest to women. So the women are giving up something that does not matter to them but which men cannot do without.

There may be an imbalance in libido between the sexes, when they are studied as groups, but individual men and women will vary from the mean considerably. Generalisations merely reinforce the myth that women with a high sex drive are abnormal and should be frowned on.

Research by academics such as Daniel Bergner and Meredith Chivers has shown that female sexuality is far more complicated than was once assumed and is affected by cultural factors. Many women are subconsciously suppressing their natural sexuality because they think that this is what society demands. Peddling the Lysistrata myth does women, men and their relationships no favours.

Nigel Scott, London N22

Crick, Watson and who else?

It is bewildering still to read articles such as Steve Connor's "Rarefied world of the double helix" (29 July), about the unravelling of the structure of DNA, that omit the name of Rosalind Franklin. One can forgive a layman who makes the lazy attribution to "Crick and Watson" as being the central characters in this remarkable story. But Connor obviously knows his stuff – he includes Maurice Wilkins in his roll-call.

While it is true that only Crick, Watson and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize, the only reason the central role that Rosalind Franklin played in the story remained unrecognised by the committee was that she had died. Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously.

Philip Stephenson, Cambridge

Cricket and natural justice

Pity any poor soul who finds himself in the dock before the pedantic James Lawton or Bob O'Dwyer (article, 1 August, letters 2 August). They seem not to understand the concept of natural justice, which sometimes reveals the law as an ass.

MS Dhoni and his team realised that if they had insisted on their right to uphold the Laws of Cricket at the Trent Bridge Test, an injustice would have been done. Rahul Dravid put the case in a nutshell when he said that the team concluded that the run-out of Bell did not "feel right".

Natural justice trumped the Laws of the game and the Indian team showed that cricket has a lot of moral reserves still in its bank.

Glynne Williams, London E17

Stay out of it

Roger Schafir (letters, 3 August) asks whether Britain ought to have let things go their own way in Libya even if it meant a massacre in the east. I'm afraid my answer is a clear yes, however callous that may seem. Disgust is not a sound basis for foreign policy.

Jim Bowman, South Harrow, Middlesex

Stray emails

I trust that it will not be forgotten that while News International may have deleted hundreds of emails, they may have been sent to, or received from, others who will now be deciding whether it would be to their advantage or disadvantage to keep them.

Ian Turnbull, Carlisle

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