Keep Assange from the lynch mob
Johann Hari is right ("This case must not obscure what WikiLeaks has told us", 8 December). WikiLeaks has performed a valuable service in exposing the nasty underbelly of international politics, as controlled by the US. The public needs to know, if it is ever to succeed in calling governments to account.
The US wants to extradite Julian Assange from Sweden to try him for "espionage". Assange is not a terrorist, nor is he a spy. He is simply the founder of an organisation publishing information that not only embarrasses the US and its allies, but makes the public aware of how duplicitous our governments are. He cannot be charged or tried by any government on these grounds – unless of course we wish to see a return to Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany.
The hysterical reaction to WikiLeaks and its very careful release of information is worrying. More than one high-profile person in the US and elsewhere have voiced their desire to see Assange killed. One would hope that Britain does not support assassination. It certainly doesn't support the death penalty, but, that aside, this country should not and cannot legally be party to "rendering" Assange to Sweden in the knowledge that he will then be sent to the US, where he could face assassination or execution.
It has yet to be proved that any information released by WikiLeaks has resulted in someone's death or injury. I genuinely fear it may soon be all too easy to prove that Britain has Assange's blood on its hands.
Lesley Docksey, Buckland Newton, Dorset
If Julian Assange is unfortunately extradited to Sweden, it should only be with the most stringent and secure assurance on the part of the Swedish authorities that if the charges are dismissed, he is immediately returned safely to the UK and the protection of its courts.
It is highly likely that, in reviving charges already dismissed by her superior, the Swedish prosecutor is reacting to American pressure. We can no longer be complicit in the extrajudicial, extraterritorial application of Lex Americana around the world if we are to maintain any semblance of international credibility or moral authority.
Christopher Dawes, London W11
No room at the top for US diplomats
All large organisations which deny the top posts to the most able inevitably run the risk of being found wanting. The top posts in the US Diplomatic Corps have traditionally been reserved for political appointees and not trained career diplomats. This is a real disincentive to Americans who may consider it as a career option. The most talented in their society may look for other opportunities where their abilities will be fully recognised.
There is a knock-on effect down through the organisation. Perhaps some of the worst gaffes revealed by WikiLeaks stem from this inadequacy.
Matthew Martin, Swardeston, Norfolk
Why don't schools stay open when it snows?
Mary Dejevsky is right to question the necessity of complete school closures for snow (Notebook, 8 December). Why can't the schools announce an optional snow day instead of either a complete closure or normal opening?
Any parents that need to go to work and can get their children there safely can bring them to school. Parents who don't need childcare coverage are asked to keep their children at home. Some teachers may not be able to get there, but the ones who can could surely accommodate the proportion of children who will attend.
Parents who bring their children can be asked to send them with a packed lunch in case the dinner ladies can't get there, and extra clothes and outdoor gear so they can play in the snow, too. The children can do non-curricular activities, such as extra music, games, conversation, reading and art. I'm sure the teachers who get there could whip up a fun and useful day with all the resources of the school and only a small proportion of the students on hand.
This would minimise the problems of working parents and reduce both the danger on roads and the pressure on public transport. It would also make a pleasing novelty for both the children who attend and the children who don't.
Ellen Purton, Twickenham, Middlesex
I understand parents' frustration when schools close in bad weather, but, if you have worked in a school, particularly an infant or primary school, you will know that it's not only a matter of whether or not pupils can get to school. There is also the problem of what it is like if they do make it.
Schools have been starved of investment. Ancient heating usually struggles. Classrooms are often so-called mobile classrooms in the playground and, to go to the toilet or get to the dinner hall, children as young as six have to make their way through snow to another building, only to arrive wet and cold at an under-heated room or a malfunctioning toilet.
Once the hardy have arrived in the dinner hall, there may not be a meal for them. Deliveries to school kitchens are often unable to get through.
Since there is no means of getting them warm and dry, it is often not possible to provide children with an outside play time. Any parent can imagine the scene, then, where upwards of 25 children are cooped up in a classroom all day. Mary Dejevsky suggests that the timetable can be altered and, of course, this is done. But there is a point where attendance at school becomes child-minding and is of little value to anyone except working parents.
At the school where I was head, we made every effort to keep the school open. We kept the normal timetable going as far as possible and, if not, we moved classes into the school hall, which was warmer, and tried to organise group activities for excited children who had had too little food and no exercise.
On one occasion, we used school funds to buy sandwiches from the corner shop and performed a loaves-and-fishes miracle on them. On another occasion, a flood in our potholed playground this time, two teachers piggy-backed every one of their 60 children across the playground, as very few of them had wellies.
At the end of that day, many parents were delayed by road floods and arrived as late as 6pm to collect the children that staff had been looking after since school began.
Jean Gallafent, London NW1
A friend posted the following on Facebook: "One and a half hours to drive what usually takes 10-15 minutes.. Bloody bloody snow!!!" She lives in Canada. And we thought that all those countries that routinely have snow at this time of year have no problems.
Keith Tizzard, Ottery St Mary, Devon
John Eoin Douglas (letter, 7 December) claims that zero degrees Celsius is seen as a sign that civilisation as we know it must be suspended, whereas 32 Fahrenheit never had that effect. I would add that when we go below freezing, for example -7C, it does seem really cold, whereas the equivalent 20F has no feeling to it. If you resort to the clumsy American way of saying "it's twelve below", it still doesn't seem as cold as a minus sign.
John S Murray, Honley, West Yorkshire
Could I raise a simple question about the awful misery the weather in Scotland is causing? Whatever happened to the use of snow chains and winter tyres?
Barbara Smith, Chester
Stand by for the new brain drain
All MPs with a university education who vote for the higher tuition fees will presumably be happy to pay at least £27,000 (three years at £9,000) for the benefit of their personal university education – that is only fair isn't it?
By "taxing" all students rather than reducing capacity they are promoting another "brain drain". Universities in the US and Europe are already touting for business to cream off the best students, leaving the less able (or the privileged wealthy few) to fill the UK vacuum. Will sixth-form colleges be the next advantage students have to pay for?
Paul Gilbert, Solihull west Midlands
Nick Clegg states: "I believe in this policy. I really think we will look back in 10 or 15 years time and think that was quite a brave thing to do." I suggest that the Liberal Democrats will look back and think that this was the moment a generation of students resolved never to vote for them again.
Ellis Williams, Nantwich, Cheshire
While the Government is going to great pains to explain that tuition fees do not have to be paid upfront and that students can get a loan that they will have to pay off over 30 years, what it omits to mention is that if these tuition fees are paid upfront the student will not have to take out a 30-year loan.
Thus children of the rich will be able to avoid this loan by having their parents pay these fees for them, while the poorer children will have to suffer 30 years of debt for their education. Yet again the Tories and Lib Dems have designed another system designed to benefit the rich to the detriment of everyone else.
Thomas Wiggins, Wokingham, Berkshire
With youth unemployment running at record levels, and faced with the prospect of an imminent cut in maintenance allowance to students attending post-16 courses, not to mention the cutting of £4bn from the education budget and the corresponding rise in tuition fees, it is heartening that the Coalition is going to allow all these young people to carry knives without fear of censure on the streets of our towns and cities.
Simon G Gosden, Rayleigh, Essex
A Cambridge lecturer writes about the sit-in at his university (6 December). He says: "And a bunch of we academics turned up . . ." Most of we would agree, I think, that he needs some remedial English. Or perhaps he meant "a bunch of wee academics".
Bernard Smith, Hailsham, East Sussex
Poetry written for other poets
Sir Andrew Motion should be congratulated on his generous proposal to work for the revival of poetry at schools ("Poor teachers make poetry a bore for pupils, claims Motion", 6 December). He is totally right that poetry could be a healthy influence even for students of mathematics, to which I would like to add the sciences. His proposal to try to open the subject of poetry among school teachers is important because many are obviously not receptive to the treasures that contemporary poetry offers them.
If this is the case I would like to remind Sir Andrew of one of the few qualities that our often maligned politicians universally possess: an understanding that it is not right to blame the voters for not voting for them. It is not impossible that most of the poetry now produced is written by poets for poets and that a serious and objective study of why intelligent and sensitive people find very little for them in contemporary poetry has never been done.
One of the most distinguished poets in this country emailed me a few months ago saying that in a lecture at Cambridge trying to proselytise a scientists' audience one of them asked what poetry could offer them, to which this poet had no answer.
Sir Andrew might perhaps reflect that the extraordinary success of the Poetry Schools and poetry magazines in this country might have encased contemporary poetry in a self-imposed discipline that could perhaps reduce its attractiveness to non-practitioners.
Simon Altmann, Brasenose College, Oxford
Although I share some of Andrew Motion's concerns about poetry teaching, how depressing it was to see him mindlessly adopting the "poor teachers" mantra.
It is true that many English teachers lack confidence in teaching poetry, but then that is hardly surprising, considering that teachers nowadays have so few training opportunities. It is all right for Michael Gove to talk about training teachers "on the job", but unless they have opportunities to share ideas more widely with other practitioners, professional development will remain neglected.
I have been a senior English coursework moderator for over 20 years, during which time I have benefited massively from informed discussion with other experienced teachers. Nowadays, head teachers are extremely reluctant to let teachers out of school, lest A-C targets should be threatened by teacher absence from the classroom. How short-sighted.
Moreover, teachers have to operate within the boundaries imposed by bodies such as QCA, who set the agenda. If poetry is relatively sidelined in syllabuses, how surprising is it that teachers have less confidence in teaching it?
As the brother and father of published poets, I am well aware that the poetry scene is more vibrant now than it has ever been, partly because of the burgeoning of small presses (a parallel with the growth of microbreweries?). How that translates into the classroom may well depend on the will of politicians.
Andy Mort, Calow, Derbyshire
Free-for-all to poison the public
Margaret Thatcher did away with proper regulation of the financial services and the City of London. Less than a generation later, the UK suffered a catastrophic banking and financial crisis.
Now the Tory-led Coalition Government plans to do away with proper regulations that combat high consumption of junk food, alcohol and cigarettes ("Public health fears as Lansley retreats from regulation", 4 December). The Tories are again trying to con the British public that they are removing the shackles of a "nanny state". The truth is that the Tories are now repaying their paymasters, the unscrupulous big businesses who want to make mega-profits at the expense of the British public through unfettered advertisement, promotion and sales of their deadly products.
It will be interesting to see the reaction of the coalition junior partner, the Lib Dems, to this policy. If the Tories succeed, we will, in less than 10 years, see the disastrous effects of allowing big businesses to do as they please.
In the imperfect market, it is essential for proper commonsense law and regulations to prevent abuses and malpractices of unscrupulous big businesses.
Stephen Chang, Bickley, Kent
System keeps the poor poor
There is no better argument for universal benefits than the attacks on poor parents, first by Howard Flight, and now by Frank Field, following the withdrawal of child benefit from better-off parents.
Views like Flight's and Field's promote the myth that poverty results from personal inferiority in the form of laziness, bad genes, and/or low aspirations. In fact, "our" economic system requires large numbers of low-paid workers, kept in line by high unemployment. Equality of outcomes has no place in this system, so is sneered at as not only impossible but slightly immoral. The highest goal offered us is social mobility, or a fair start in a rat-race with a predetermined percentage of losers, whichever individuals go up or down.
Means-testing, piously defended as helping those most in need, plays a large part in upholding this ethos. It isolates the recipients, identifying them as failures and burdens, unfit (according to Field) to bring up adequately the children that (according to Flight) they shouldn't have had in the first place.
Katherine Perlo, Edinburgh
Proud history of void elections
Phil Woolas is the first person since Gladstone's day to be deprived of his seat for telling lies about an opponent. Since then, bribery, treating electors and financial irregularities have been the sins that led to elections being declared void on petition to the courts.
A bumper year was 1910: at the two exceptionally hard- fought general elections 100 years ago, the high-point of Lloyd George's radicalism, nine successful petitions were lodged. In Cheltenham there was double trouble. The Liberal victor was unseated for submitting phoney accounts; then it emerged that he was a convicted felon and so disqualified all along.
The last time an election was quashed by the courts because of a candidate's malpractice was in 1923, when the successful Liberal in Oxford put in a false expense return.
Alistair Cooke, London SW1
Your excellent new correspondent, Talbot Church, puts me in mind of that first-class journalist, Cooper Brown, who graced your pages a few years ago. They seem to come from the same stable. The same school perhaps? If so I do hope that Talbot Church can fill us in on what has been happening to dear old Coop, and whether Coop will be at the wedding. I seem to recall a royal connection of some kind.
Jan Cook, South Nutfield, Surrey