Police aim to deter protest
Johann Hari (Opinion, 17 December) rightly highlights the increasing polarisation of people taking part in protest marches. As a 57-year-old veteran of many protests over the past 40 years, I would definitely hesitate before taking part in a protest in London.
There has been a major change; it used to be that the police would try to disperse crowds, and that trouble would only occur at focus points, like Grosvenor Square or Red Lion Square, when marchers continued to arrive at the target of the protest – US Embassy, Nation Front meeting or whatever.
I took my toddler on marches against the first Gulf War, and even the anti-poll tax rallies, alongside old Labour activists, many in their 80s, and people in wheelchairs. If things got a bit hot then the police would usually help older people and women with kids to get away quickly. Not any more, it seems. Now you risk being "kettled" for hours, denied access to toilets, food, drink and transport home, and even truncheoned if you try to get away.
I'm no wimp – I still want to make my views heard, and to support those young people who want the free education that I had the benefit of. I feel very strongly that these new police tactics are designed precisely to keep people like me away, and to limit protests to younger activists who they can then demonise as extremists and trouble-makers.
Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys
If I were to equip myself appropriately, including baton, and coerce a number of strangers into an enclosed space against their will, I'm sure I would be arrested and charged with "unlawful imprisonment", a criminal offence.
Is the Metropolitan Police above the law these days?
So the Metropolitan Police Commissioner is considering banning student protests altogether "if he thinks it is the right thing to do".
Why doesn't he just bring in the Army as well? Then we can watch Chinese television footage of students standing in front of a tank in Parliament Square.
Ministers take big, bold steps
Mary Dejevsky's article "A strong government refuses to countenance failure" (17 December) seems predicated on the notion that adhering to a single course of action (that may or may not be right) is more important than taking the correct and well-balanced course. This is highly contentious. There is a wealth of well-based argument against the speed and depth of the economic approach of the Coalition. Uncertainty on so many fronts underlines the need constantly to adjust to a changing domestic and world economic climate.
Following the global financial crisis, many economies are "off the known map" of recent experience. When wandering around in the dark in a fog, particularly if there are cliff-edges, the sensible, precautionary course of action is to take small steps and constantly reassess. Big bold steps are superficially attractive, but the downside cannot be ignored when it is borne by the population, not just the decision makers.
Governments like to claim "there is no alternative". It is however a trivial argument that attempts to avoid serious discussion of the merits of chosen courses. It is disappointing to find such a seasoned commentator making the case for TINA.
I support entirely the letter from Gladys Cummings (18 December) stating that Nick Clegg is brave and courageous. His attitude is exactly like that of Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, when they put aside their party differences to concentrate on winning the war, and very successful they were. We now have a different kind of war, because unless we all decide we have to make certain sacrifices we are never going to rid ourselves of the horrible debt that we find ourselves in.
Sheila P Leach
Peter and Audrey Bridgman (letters, 15 December) appear to dismiss the possibility of voting for the Green Party as an obvious non-starter. On what grounds?
There was a website during the general election ( www.voteforpolicies.com – it's still there) where visitors could choose the policies they most liked in various policy areas, without knowing which party's policies they were. The Green Party's policies won easily, yet at the polls everyone went along with the self-fulfilling mantra "the Greens can't win", held their noses and voted for whichever "big" party they disliked least.
There wouldn't have been ideologically driven cuts and riots on the streets (with worse to come) if people had voted for the party they liked best. The Bridgmans might like to take a closer look.
Green Party Parliamentary Candidate, Enfield North
Thanks to the previous Tory government the French own our water, the Germans own our public transport and the Chinese our motor industry. I'm wondering who will soon own our Coastguard Service, the NHS and our education system. The Con/Dems are the old establishment, so why should we be surprised at what they do?
No such thing as safe radiation
Jeremy Laurance asks, "Is it time we learnt to love radiation?" (25 November). In a word, no.
The so-called hormesis hypothesis relied on in the article posits that the body can repair the DNA damage caused by radiation, but this ignores the simple point that the problem is DNA misrepair.
Instead of the view that radiation is good for you, all the world's radiation authorities – the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, the International Commission on Radiological Protection, the UK Health Protection Agency and others – use the linear no-threshold theory to estimate risks at low radiation doses. This presumes that risks decline proportionately as you lower the dose all the way down to zero, and that the only dose with no effect is zero mSv. In other words, there is no safe dose of radiation: no matter how low it is, a small risk remains.
Is there evidence of risks at low doses? Yes. For example, powerful evidence exists that radiation exposures to residents near nuclear facilities cause harm. For example, a recent German government study found large increases in leukaemia (120 per cent) and embryonal cancer risks (60 per cent) among children living near all German nuclear reactors.
Dr Ian Fairlie
Thank you for publishing an article on the scientific effects of ionising radiation rather than the exaggerated reports that are published by other news media. For example, reports of childhood leukaemia are often linked to nearby nuclear-power stations. The number of cases is small and a statistical study needs to be bolstered by similar studies from several other areas of the country.
It is unfortunate that the effects of large doses of radiation were initially studied in connection with the atomic bombs on Japan and accidents in the military/civilian reactor at Chernobyl but these incidents should not provide a rationale for the exaggerated statements from self-appointed pressure groups.
Professor Charles Hughes
Give industry a sporting chance
Glenn Moore's recent article on the FA's approach to training coaches drew attention to the wide disparities between the skill base of football coaches in England and that in many continental European countries (10 December).
The findings he reports have a much wider resonance. As described by Moore, the type of skills acquired by holders of the Uefa level-B qualification appear to be somewhat analogous to the type of "intermediate" skills obtained in the wider economy through apprenticeship or occupational training schemes.
In the early 1980s, research at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) identified wide disparities between the UK and (West) Germany in the qualifications of the labour forces in the two countries. The UK had plenty of graduates, but the proportion of its labour force with intermediate-level skills was substantially lower than in Germany. The researchers linked this deficiency in intermediate skills to the substantially lower levels of productivity in the UK compared to Germany.
The Thatcherite labour-market reforms, and the greater ability of UK employers to access supplies of skilled labour from Eastern Europe, have contributed to the improvement in the UK's productivity since the 1980s. But a continuing failure to provide adequate intermediate-skills training opportunities to young people will impede the regeneration of the industrial sector in the UK.
This failure will not only continue to inhibit England's prospects in the international football arena, but, far more seriously, in the wider economy as well.
An odd sort of dictator
I was surprised to see the headline " 'Dictator' Chavez to rule by decree" (15 December), considering the President of Venezuela and his supporters have won the popular vote in 14 out of 15 national votes since 1998.
Furthermore, the piece itself only contained quotes from members of the opposition to the Venezuelan President; the same opposition movements of which leading figures have been behind numerous attempts to undermine democracy, not least in the attempted coup in April 2002.
While your report recognises the devastation caused by recent floods in Venezuela, it then goes on to only give one (negative) side of the story regarding the consequences of this.
Surely, the admirable efforts of the Venezuelan government to help the victims of this devastation – and indeed the ongoing popularity of President Chavez himself – deserve some mention alongside the latest claims of the country's conservative political opposition?
Chair, Venezuela Solidarity Campaign & Unite Assistant General Secretary, London WC2
At last, a rational prisons policy
Matthew Norman is right to see that sacking Ken Clarke would be a show of political weakness, not strength ("Ken's sacking must surely be on Cameron's Christmas list", 14 December). For too long any attempt at a sensible prison policy has been derailed by tabloid pressure, and therefore giving in to the predictable backlash would be both indecisive politics and illogical policy-making.
The benefit to society of a rational approach to short prison sentences is further underlined by the reduction in expenditure to the public purse – our research shows a £200,000 saving each time you treat a drug user in the community rather than holding them for a few months at the expense of all of us. If the Coalition can just hold its nerve we have the best chance in a long time of doing the smart thing with a criminal-justice system that is simply broken.
Director, Make Justice Work
Christopher Clayton (letters, 13 December) writes that new rules will "allow the very richest pensioners to hand on their pension pots to their heirs, tax free". This is wrong. At present such pension pots are taxed at a confiscatory composite rate up to 82 per cent. From April, the will be a single Recovery Charge of 55 per cent, which is more than Inheritance Tax.
Before readers rush to book cheap easyJet flights to Jordan ("Petra braced for tourist hordes as easyJet flies east", 16 December) they might like to check how much independent travellers are now charged to see Petra. Round-the-world camper-vanners in November were asked for £94 at the gate.
Perspectives on the weather
Why the obsession with airports?
Why is the current severe weather being reported almost exclusively in terms of the inconvenience it has caused to users of airports? This is, surely, a third- or fourth-order question compared with its effect on food production and distribution, the cost of energy, or even on old people struggling to keep warm on the meagre state pension.
Perhaps enraged consumers who feel cheated out of their right to "escape to the sun" – for which they have paid, after all – make better copy than the long-term suffering of the planet or the survival of the human race.
It would be good to see a comparison between the "misery", "agony" and "third-world conditions" reportedly suffered by those sleeping in airports with normal conditions for poor pensioners, or those housed in young offenders' institutions, say, or immigration detention centres. And some travellers might learn something about "third-world conditions" if they visited the staff quarters of the hotels they would have stayed in had their holidays taken place.
North Tamerton, Cornwall
Winning through in deepest Berkshire
After weekend snowfall of several inches, below-zero temperatures, and reports of crisis conditions gripping the nation, I should like to record that by 10am this morning we had received deliveries of milk, mail and newspaper, and our regular refuse collection had been made.
By 11am a local charity shop had called to collect a redundant item of furniture, they having received notification of its availability as recently as Saturday. The company supplying its replacement has confirmed delivery for tomorrow, the order having been placed on Sunday.
Our supermarket, who had cleared the snow from their car-park, had everything on our Christmas shopping list, except potatoes, which we managed to get elsewhere. No difficulties were encountered in driving the 12 miles to Reading, where all shops and businesses appeared to be functioning normally.
It seemed to me that everyone with whom I dealt today had a smile on their face and a spring in their step. There is surely nothing like a bit of adversity to rally the British spirit!
A big feeze in a different world
I, too remember 1947. I am older than Andy Campbell (letter, 21 December), so remember it more clearly. Any comparison with this year is misleading. For one thing, the cold spell did not start until late January.
Apart from five days in March when the Great Flood kept me at home, I got to school every day. The teachers, like us, could walk in, and no one was brought by car. Mothers were almost universally at home, so when a school declared a day off for a "burst boiler" it was fun for the children, but not an economic disaster for the parents or their employers.
If you want to know what that winter was like, look at the bleak situations that the immortal Giles used as settings for his cartoons in this period. It was the British capacity to moan about but cope with adversity that carried us through. There were snowdrifts and marooned trains and buses, but air travel was a luxury for the very few. I remember regular power cuts, coal shortages, and farmers unable to dig potatoes.
In 1947 it was a different world, as it was 1963, when, having to drive between Maidenhead and Henley, I did not miss a day's work. Why? Because there were so few cars on the road, and we all learned to drive on snow. That cold spell, incidentally, did not start until Boxing Day, so this one has had a month's start.
What is happening this year is unprecedented. Maybe we should look to our continental neighbours for lessons in coping with the problems, but certainly not to the past.
Clear the snow and save the Chilterns
Within a day we hear Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, telling us: 1) that we might have to spend more money on snow clearance, but only if a) it looks like being a long-term problem and b) he can grab the money from another part of his budget, and 2) that the HS2high-speed railway is a must for the country's future.
Many of us would argue that we really don't need to wreck the Chilterns to cut 50 minutes off the journey time from London to Birmingham but that we already need to do something about cutting hours of misery for people stuck at airports, on roads and on everyday railway lines when the snow tumbles down.
So, no HS2 but a few more snowploughs. There you are, Mr Hammond – problem solved!