Letters: Serious questions for the Lib Dems

For the Lib Dems it's time for serious questions and open debate
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Sir: With the vacancy for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, it is time for some serious questions to be asked, as Charles Kennedy's dignified resignation statement made clear.

It is clear that much will be required of the eventual winner so the party can quickly recover from the damage done to it in recent weeks. An important policy debate has to be held, publicly, on the balance between social and economic Liberalism. This has immediate impacts on the party's policy reviews, but also on its future strategy.

It should also - once and for all - scotch the attempts of a small minority to drift towards an indistinctive strategy designed to ride on the coat-tails of other, new political players. Such a strategy would be a fast road to oblivion. For those reasons, it is essential that an open, contested election takes place between the best prospects the party has to offer the country.

CLLR GARETH EPPS

(MEMBER OF THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS' FEDERAL POLICY COMMITTEE) OXFORD

Sir: Now that alcohol has damaged the leadership of the only parliamentary party opposed to Blair's disastrous foreign policy, is it not time for government to recognise that it is by far the most dangerous drug in British society? We should greatly increase the derisory £95m a year spent on treating alcohol dependency. And isn't it time to close the House of Commons bar? It is a crime to be drunk in charge of a vehicle, so how can it be acceptable to be sozzled in charge of a country?

P J STEWART

OXFORD

Drastic cuts to UK ecological research

Sir: Last year the Global Millennium Assessment spelled out that life on Earth faces a major extinction event and that the human population is exerting unprecedented pressure on our planet's ecosystems. The UK's research in this area is led by British scientists at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH). As reported on your front page on 9 January, it has been announced that CEH faces drastic cuts - five of its nine research stations are to close, including all three of its key biodiversity research centres.

CEH is globally respected for its long-term environmental studies, especially its vital work on wildlife, climate change and assessing the health of the countryside. Governments, including our own, need to make some tough choices on environmental policies. It is essential such decisions are underpinned by sound scientific research. We urge the Natural Environment Research Council to reconsider its highly damaging decision and ensure that its crucial wildlife research continues.

DR MARTIN WARREN CHIEF EXECUTIVE, BUTTERFLY CONSERVATION

AMY COYTE, CHIEF EXECUTIVE BAT CONSERVATION TRUST

PROFESSOR JEREMY GREENWOOD, DIRECTOR

BRITISH TRUST FOR ORNITHOLOGY MATT SHARDLOW, DIRECTOR BUGLIFE, THE INVERTEBRATE CONSERVATION TRUST TONY JUNIPER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, FRIENDS OF THE EARTH DR TONY GENT, CHIEF EXECUTIVE HERPETOLOGICAL CONSERVATION TRUST SAM FANSHAWE DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION MARINE CONSERVATION SOCIETY PETER NIXON, DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION, NATIONAL TRUST DR JAYNE MANLEY DIRECTOR, PLANTLIFE DR MARK AVERY, DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION, RSPB MARTIN SPRAY, DIRECTOR WILDFOWL AND WETLANDS TRUST STEPHANIE HILBORNE, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, THE WILDLIFE TRUSTS WAREHAM, DORSET

Sir: Your front page of 9 January provides another example of the malaise that has been threatening the quality of environmental research in the UK in recent years. It was apparently government-driven policy to tell the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to save money by concentrating its scientists into a smaller number of central laboratories. This took the scientists away from intimate contact with the environments and organisms that they were studying, as well as forcing them to drive many miles to their study sites.

This policy is another example of government and bureaucrats trying to manage and control basic and strategic research. As I remember it, Lord Balfour, when charged by the government to advise them on how to improve British research just after the end of the First World War, recommended the foundation of "research councils" that would be financed by government but run by scientists. He wisely stressed that government must provide the money but not interfere with how the money was spent.

The rot started when the then government decided that some of the research councils' income must come from contracts from government departments. Governmental influence and control has gradually increased. One cannot give a scientist a contract to make an original discovery. Most, if not all, the major environmental problems that have occurred in recent decades were first discovered by scientists working on their own initiatives, and sometimes under official discouragement. Small, informal laboratories are often the most productive.

Research administrators should devote their efforts to trust and practical support, not management or control. This is what NERC headquarters tried to do during its early years - to the benefit of all kinds of environmental research. Very sadly, policies have changed.

DAVID LE CREN

APPLEBY-IN-WESTMORLAND CUMBRIA THE WRITER WAS DIRECTOR OF THE FRESHWATER BIOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION, 1973-83

Sir: Butterflies are not the only casualty of the National Environment Research Council (NERC). The UK is the only major nation not supporting greenhouse gas monitoring by the Global Atmosphere Watch, co-ordinated by the UN's World Meteorological Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Most greenhouse monitoring is American. Despite White House denial of climate change risk, US monitoring is superb, including on UK islands such as Ascension. For years, Australia helped by monitoring Shetland, now done by Germany since Australian cutbacks. The UK's own effort is small. Defra, to its credit, supports high-quality work backing up France and NASA in Ireland. Our London University programme monitors carbon-gas isotopes and co-ordinates the EU methane effort. But overall the UK does less than New Zealand, Finland or South Africa.

The problem is managerial. Long-term monitoring is poorly regarded in the UK's top-down funding structure, bringing neither research glory nor commercial money. NERC focuses on hypothesis-testing process studies, not long-term monitoring. Regular government departments treat science needs as they do defence procurement, put out to tender (for periods of a few years). The Global Atmosphere Watch demands long-term commitment and high quality: unfortunately the UK system can neither identify monitoring needs, nor sustain long-term commitment.

PROFESSOR E G NISBET

DEPARTMENT OF GEOLOGY ROYAL HOLLOWAY, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON

Prostitutes need help, not 'toleration'

Sir: Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, in her letter criticising zero tolerance towards prostitution (5 January), omits the fact that Sweden's policy of criminalising buyers of sex has been unprecedented in its success at virtually eradicating sex trafficking. The issue is tackled at the root: the demand is criminalised, rather than the women. The public is educated about the realities of the sex industry.

Perhaps it means those few well-adjusted Oxbridge graduates you occasionally hear of can't ply their trade freely, but surely the upshot of these laws - protecting women and children from trafficking and helping women out of prostitution - is more valuable.

There is a common misconception that tolerance zones serve to contain prostitution, and reduce associated criminal activity, making it safer for women. Yet in the state of Victoria, Australia, the number of brothels increased so rapidly after legalisation that it overwhelmed the system's ability to regulate them, and these brothels became a mire of organised crime and corruption. Prostitution multiplies when it is legalised, or "managed". It becomes more socially acceptable to pay for sex. In Australia, some surveys report 23 per cent of men have paid for sex; more than double the number in the UK.

After a stint of voluntary work at a charity that helps women working on the streets to leave prostitution, it is clear to me that these women end up selling sex as a direct result of the disadvantaged lives they have led. Street sex-workers invariably grew up without love or affection, and without the usual limits and routines that provide children, and then adults, with a sense of self-worth and structure for coping with life. Some studies suggest that 75 per cent of sex-workers in this country were drawn into prostitution before their 18th birthday, some starting as young as 12 or 13.

Drugs and coercion help keep women on the street. As one young woman explained to me: "The heroin helps me through the work I do; it makes you feel numb and cold."

The Government's desire to help sex workers leave the industry is justified.

LUCY TAUSSIG

CHRISTCHURCH, DORSET

Darwin's ideas used to justify evil deeds

Sir: Professor Richard Dawkins argues that religion is divisive (6 January). However, he fails to acknowledge those evils that were justified by citing Darwinian ideas. For example Thomas Huxley, in Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews, stated "No rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man".

While racism existed before Darwin, the notion of "the survival of the fittest" provided scientific respectability for racism, colonialism and eugenics in the 19th and 20th centuries. A key Nazi justification for their racism was the claim that the Aryans were at the peak of evolution.

Both Professor Dawkins' and my examples of man's inhumanity to man sadly all point more to man's original sin rather than to civilising progress.

RODDY URQUHART

ANDOVER, HAMPSHIRE

Sir: The real root of our social evils is not religion, but fundamentalism, both political and religious. Far from being a product of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason and evidence (letter, 9 January), Stalinism was an ideology based on a simplistic interpretation of Marx. Like all fundamentalist doctrines, it brooked no questioning.

The real question is why is fundamentalism advancing so rapidly in the modern world? Above all, why has fundamentalism, both political and religious, such a grip on America?

STEPHEN COTGROVE

WOODBRIDGE, SUFFOLK

Sir: A tiny point - but the ancient statues destroyed by the Taliban were built by Buddhists. I don't know of any great works of art built out of devotion to atheism.

ALEX PALMER

BRIGHTON

The IMF has acted to cancel debts

Sir: Your front page story on making poverty history (27 December) says that "six months after the Gleneagles G8 summit there is still no more information on how the debt cancellation is going to work and the International Monetary Fund has not given any details." This is quite untrue.

On 24 September 2005, ministers at the IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings called on the IMF to implement the debt relief initiative by the end of the year. On 8 December, the IMF published full details of how it would do so. And on 21 December the IMF executive board confirmed that 19 countries would receive unconditional debt relief from 1 January. The only eligible country not to qualify immediately was Mauritania, which is suffering from some governance problems.

TOM SCHOLAR

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR THE UK INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND WASHINGTON DC

The meaning of 'Haj'

Sir: Your headline "Collapse of hostel in Mecca kills 23 on Haj pilgrimage" (6 January) is incorrect: "Haj" itself means "pilgrimage".

ALI ABD AL-MALIK

LONDON W2

Trouble brewing

Sir: While it is commendable that British brewers have started putting the alcohol units on their bottles (letter, 9 January), I would rather they owned up to which additives they put in. Their exemption from the food-labelling laws means their use of chemical sweeteners is uncheckable. To avoid a nasty allergic reaction I have to stick to continental beers, which by law have to use only natural ingredients. At least they taste better!

MILES BAYNTON-WILLIAMS

LONDON SW13

The Welsh struggle

Sir: Colin Buckley's reference (letter, 6 January) to the 1847 Education report being described as "the Glencoe and the Amritsar of Welsh history" actually refers to p.16 of Wales in British Politics, my first book, published 43 years ago, but still in print. He has has totally misunderstood it. My phrase was deliberately ironic, showing that Welsh national feeling "was a struggle against contempt, rather than physical oppression". Indeed, the very term "Treachery of the Blue Books" in 1847 was an ironic reference to the violent "long knives" legend of the age of Vortigern.

KENNETH O MORGAN

LONG HANBOROUGH, OXFORDSHIRE

The American empire

Sir: In his perceptive article "The American Century that never was" (31 December) Rupert Cornwell writes: "Americans, of course, furiously resist any suggestion that are imperialists. They did not shake off British rule, they say, in order to build an empire of their own." I have never understood this attitude towards their history, when expansionist evidence is there for all to see. For instance, George Washington, in his circular letter of 1783, speaks openly and hopefully of "our Empire".

D G ANGELL

LONDON SW13

A taste of home

Sir: Despite what Christopher Hirst thinks (The Weasel, 7 January), I would like to defend taking Marmite on holiday. Marmite is a very singular foodstuff, not found in even a civilised (ha!) country such as the United States, and the thought of managing more than a few days without it is unthinkable. I fully embrace all kinds of "foreign muck", but I like to have a little extra something on my baguette/ciabatta/flatbread in the mornings.

HANNAH LICKERT

LONDON N8

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