Letters: Prison crisis

Incompetent handling of deportations deepens prison crisis
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The Independent Online

Sir: One reason why prisons are overcrowded (report, 6 October) is Home Office incompetence in deportation cases. In Haslar there is a young man who finished a four-month prison sentence on 20 July this year. He is Nigerian and had a valid passport: there was no obstacle to him being deported on the day his case ended. However he was not deported - instead he was transferred to immigration detention.

The cost of this detention is £200 a day (National Audit Office figure). He is still detained so the financial cost to date is some £16,000. His passport expired at the end of September so there must now begin the lengthy process of re-documenting him which will entail yet more delay, expense, and bed-blocking.

More important is the fact that a man who has already served his sentence is having it extended by administrative incompetence. Given the considerable expense of detention it would be highly cost effective for the Home Office to invest in extra and better staff.



Sir: In today's global market, why isn't the Home Office looking overseas for the extra prison places it so urgently needs? It is surely within the spirit of the EC for us to rent spare capacity within our partners' facilities. If new prisons are required it would be more economic to locate them where land and labour costs are lower. The private sector has been only too eager to "offshore" some of its tasks. Why is the public sector lagging behind? Some may balk at sending prisoners so far from home, but that is no reason not to make a start with the 10,000 who aren't British.



Uneasy meetings with veiled women

Sir: In a liberal democracy we have the right to wear whatever we please, however odd, eccentric or even intimidating, but we should be aware of the effects of exercising that right on our personal and professional lives.

Muslim women have the right to choose to wear the veil but it is not obligatory, and Jack Straw was right to draw attention to the disadvantages that this choice brings, both to them and to others. We read character, emotions and reactions in people's faces and so they are a very important aspect of communication and understanding.

Those who choose to veil themselves, or for that matter wear sunglasses all the time, are depriving others of this element of personal communication while retaining it for themselves (thus creating an asymmetrical relationship) and that choice will inevitably rebound on them.

I can't be the only person who would not want to consult or advise or be taught by or teach someone whose face I could not see, and there must be many professions and situations where a veil (or sunglasses) would be highly inappropriate.



Sir: Last week, as a primary-school governor, I was shown round the latest addition to our school, the nursery classroom. The room had six learning areas, one of which was the "social" area.

On the wall were four large cut-out faces, to be "read" and talked about by the four-year-olds: a sad face, a smiley face, a cross face and a puzzled face.

The face is seen as vital for good communication and our children are learning this from their earliest years. I would therefore urge Muslim women who wear the niqab to think again and have consideration for us Europeans, who have an "uncovered face" culture, and the children who will be taught to "read" faces.



Sir: The memories of the Taliban's cultural vandalism in destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas led me to believe that invading Afghanistan would be a "good cause", but the image of veiled women is the sustaining reason why I believe Britain is right to be in there.

It isn't drugs - the Taliban did a much better job of eradicating that problem; it isn't because they are Muslim - I supported the action in Bosnia to protect Muslims; it isn't because they're harbouring terrorists - there are other countries in the region who do that; and it isn't rampant imperialism - my family joined the peace march against the invasion of Iraq.

For me Britain is in Afghanistan to prevent the brutal oppression of one half of the population by the other and this is symbolised by the veiling of women. No wonder then that, despite my strong support for individual freedoms to wear whatever one wants within the bounds of common decency, I find the increasing use of the veil in this country so disturbing.



Sir: Jack Straw's comments about Muslim women's use of the veil are interesting and worthy of consideration. He makes the point that it is not only the actual intention of an action that is important, but also how it and its effects are perceived by others.

Why then does the Government persist in repeating that its foreign policy, particularly in Iraq, has no bearing on the feelings that Muslims may have towards it? Whatever the reasons behind the invasion, some Muslims see the loss of thousands of innocent lives as a war against Islam, and that perception does lead a very small minority to violence.

It may indeed be time to debate how the veil affects relationships, but the Government also needs to look in the mirror at how its own actions are interpreted by Muslims.



Sir: When people from other nations and cultures are granted British citizenship, the inevitable result is a multicultural society that can and should lead to mutual cultural enrichment. Legally and morally there is no dominant culture in such a society, and if a British Muslim woman chooses not to show her full face then that is her decision, just as it is my decision, as a white British man, to decide whether I wear blue socks or black socks to work.

The barriers to intercultural dialogue are not physical, but lie in fear and prejudice. Political leaders have a responsibility to foster multiculturalism, not to incite prejudice and promote cultural imperialism.



Sir: Multiculturalism works when other social factors are balanced, but when they are not - in places such as Bradford - it cannot even take root. Even if every Muslim woman were to remove her veil in accordance with Jack Straw's ridiculous suggestion, this would not eradicate the problems of poverty, drugs, unemployment and lack of education which have far greater impact in areas of poor community relations. It would not improve "social cohesion" one iota.

By pointing the finger of blame at Muslim women, Mr Straw is attempting to draw attention away from his own party's failings in tackling the real demons in this matter.



Sir: I presume that, when Jack Straw finds sitting opposite him in his "surgery" a young female constituent with more than half her bosom exposed, a bare midriff and wearing a skirt so short that her underwear can be seen, he feels so uncomfortable that he asks her to put on a coat.



Doha delay worsens cycle of poverty

Sir: On the eve of the next WTO General Council we write to express deep concern about the Doha Round. We deplore the suspension of Doha Development Round Negotiations, and entirely agree with WTO Director General Pascal Lamy that this suspension creates no winners. We also fully endorse the statement issued at the recent Conference of the International Association of Agricultural Economists, which makes two practical proposals. The first is to provide the poorest countries with full and free access to the wealthiest countries' markets, as proposed by the European Union. The second is that all nations, rich and poor, should substantially reduce the number of "sensitive and special" products. These proposals would especially benefit both low- and middle-income developing countries.

We urge heads of governments to use this pause in formal negotiations to agree on mutually advantageous policy reforms that lead to less-protected and less-subsidised agricultural and food trade. Further delay condemns many to a continuing cycle of poverty, denying them the opportunities for further development and economic growth.

Delay also condemns those in advanced and large countries to continue their own cycle of inefficient and costly interventions to address rural development and farm restructuring. We echo Lamy's plea to the leaders of the major economies to give ministers more room to negotiate. They should consider, please, that their current positions may be partisan and parochial from a world perspective.

Countries have immense responsibilities for the external effects of their domestic policies. We look forward to an early resumption of negotiations and a progressive conclusion to the Doha Round.



The absurdities of English spelling

Sir: Julien Evans (letter, 7 October) makes the valid point that language is primarily for the purpose of communication and suggests we jettison the apostrophe as it is "not detectable in spoken language". On this principle my candidate for abolition would be the many unnecessary silent letters in English words. Provided, of course, that this does not undermine the primary purpose: clarity of expression. So limb, debt, have and receipt might change.

After that we might upgrade our chaotic writing system by simplifying the way we mark the long and short vowels. Words like head, bread, dead, thread and said could usefully be aligned with bed. Similarly, team, convene, sardine, protein, people, foetus, key, ski, debris and quay could be made consistent with see, seem and seen.

We have a language that takes a long time to master and are saddled with high levels of illiteracy and semiliteracy, all of which cost the taxpayer huge sums. We might take a leaf from all those world languages that have had successful reforms and upgrade our own creaking and dysfunctional orthography.



Sir Robert Peel, hero of Corn Laws' repeal

Sir: Mr Papworth (letter, 4 October) rejects George Osborne's statement that "it was the Tories who repealed the Corn Laws" on the grounds, firstly, that many Tories voted against repeal and the party subsequently split (although not quite as Mr Papworth described it); secondly, that repeal depended on Whig and Radical votes.

This ignores not only the votes for repeal cast by other Conservatives, but also the crucial role played by the Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel. It is arguable that without Peel's determination to force the issue repeal would not have happened in 1846.

The Radicals were too few and the Whig leader Russell had earlier "passed the poisoned chalice" to Peel after a decade in which the Whigs had been in power but made no attempt to repeal the Corn Laws. By taking a portion of his party with him, Peel was able to obtain sufficient cross-party votes to achieve repeal. Yes, Disraeli and Bentinck led vehement opposition, but Peel won the day.

Moreover, and very importantly, the repeal of the Corn Laws can be seen as the logical culmination of Peel's free trade policy and of his economic approach to the Condition of England Question, to try to make Britain, as Peel put it, a country cheap to live in. Thus, repeal should be seen as an inherently Conservative achievement. Good for Sir Robert is what I say, and give credit where credit's due.



Readers' racial profiles

Sir: "The race map of Britain" (6 October) proclaims: "If you bump into someone in the street in Easington, Co Durham, there is just a 2 per cent chance they will be from a different ethnic group." Thank you for this candid insight into how a liberal newspaper racially profiles its intended readership.



Blunkett under pressure

Sir: When David Blunkett had his troubles the line that political and private lives are separate was stated by friends and colleagues and he fought to keep his jobs. Now he says "I was under the most horrendous pressure. I was barely sleeping and yet I was asked to sign government warrants." A few months later his former department is described as "not fit for purpose" and the prisons are at capacity. Let's end the artificial public/private divide. We all only have one life.



The lookalike's tale

Sir: I was pleasantly surprised to feature in your 20th anniversary edition, albeit for the dubious "talent" of resembling Michael Howard. I can assure your readers (and the Inland Revenue) that I am not one of those celebrity lookalikes who is making "a killing", as my phone stopped ringing the day after last year's general election. I doubt if exposure in your pages will relaunch my career, as in the photo you used I was wearing the wrong glasses and in any case it may be cheaper to get the real thing these days.



Talentless at the top

Sir: In my long experience there has always been a "positive discrimination" policy towards "people who are rubbish" (letter, 4 October). The fools and idiots who are hired and, more astonishingly, keep their jobs do so because the alternative may be someone who - although experienced, qualified or with skills - has the bothersome tendency to be the "wrong" race, sex, religion, age or worse - has a disability. Worst of all though, they may just not be such "a nice chap".



Marmite on Piccadilly

Sir: When I started work in central London I used to go to for lunchtime sandwiches to a grocery emporium in Piccadilly, Jacksons. In the 1960s it had floor managers in formal attire and the sandwich counter made up sandwiches to order. My favourite was called "Jacksons' Special": grated strong Cheddar, finely grated raw carrot, and Marmite to taste. I still make up sandwiches to that recipe.