Letters: Sickness benefit

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Blame this government for the millions claiming sickness benefit

Sir: The explosion of Incapacity Benefit that John Hutton blames on "Thatcher's legacy" (report, 25 January) actually came about by New Labour policies from the mid-Nineties onward toward those unemployed. Indeed, JobCentres actively encouraged long-term unemployed and those who stood up to their bullying tactics to seek "incapacity benefit".

Often, claimants, like myself, were threatened with homelessness and no income support and hence, under stress, sought out sympathetic doctors who, armed with new serotonin-enhancing drugs, brought unemployment statistics down. The Blairist party now wishes to ignore its policies that have led to an £18bn tax hole and attack, in the nicest possible way, once more, the underprivileged.

ROBIN MARCHESI

LONDON W10

Sir: John Hutton, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, was keen to focus on individual rights and responsibilities in the welfare reform Green Paper, yet all but silent on the responsibility of government to lift those disabled people that cannot work out of poverty ("Hutton blames 'Thatcher's legacy' for explosion of Incapacity Benefit", 25 January).

A recent Leonard Cheshire report found that many disabled people on benefits were trapped firmly below the poverty line, often forced to forgo basic necessities such as food and heating. Radical welfare reform is needed - not only to support disabled people wanting to work but also for those for whom work is not an option. Is it not their right to receive a benefit payment that takes account of their disability and lifts them out of poverty?

JOHN KNIGHT

HEAD OF EXTERNAL POLICY, LEONARD CHESHIRE LONDON SW1

Nuclear waste: we must act quickly

Sir: The Independent is right to highlight radioactive waste when new nuclear power stations are being considered (report, 24 January). However, it is important to manage existing waste safely, irrespective of any future nuclear build, and this is something that we have so far failed to do to a spectacular degree.

A meeting at the Geological Society on 9 January (see www. geolsoc.org.uk/template.cfm?name=Radwaste456546) highlighted how technical understanding of deep and permanent disposal of waste has advanced, with some other countries already moving ahead to build deep repositories for the most dangerous waste.

In most countries it is accepted that it is the responsibility of today's generation who have benefited from nuclear power, to dispose of it safely. In the UK this simple reasoning has been challenged from two sides. On the one hand, environmental groups fear that development of a safe and permanent repository will open up the option of new nuclear power stations; on the other, some in the nuclear industry are reluctant to see nuclear materials that might be reprocessed in the future put out of reach, or simply balk at the cost.

The cost of disposal need not be prohibitive. In Sweden, consumers already pay a very small supplement on the cost of nuclear electricity, which will meet the costs of the repository.

Although work towards a policy for dealing with radioactive waste in the UK is finally moving along through the work of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) we have lost considerable momentum and expertise. If the UK is to develop a coherent policy that will last the test of time (the first 400 years is the really critical period), it must do it on the basis of widespread public understanding.

Irrespective of the debate on future power generation, we should be moving rapidly towards permanent deep storage in geologically stable settings. The international community has recognised several combinations of rock type, landscape and encapsulation procedure which may be suitable, because groundwater flow through the rock mass is extremely limited, and the geochemical environment will inhibit transport of radionuclides. In the UK, there are many areas where the deep geology is broadly suitable, but the level of public understanding and trust remains woefully short of that required for a serious evaluation of the possibilities.

PROFESSOR BRUCE YARDLEY

SCIENCE SECRETARY PROFESSOR PETER STYLES PRESIDENT THE GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF LONDON, LONDON W1

Sir: There is a key piece of information missing from your reports on Professor Lovelock's position on climate change (16 January).

At a meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in January 2005, its chairman, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, announced that, although there had long been uncertainty as to the residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the IPCC had agreed on a figure of 40 years. As he explained, the implication is that "... the world is only now experiencing the result of pollution emitted in the 1960s, and much greater effects will occur as the increased pollution of later decades works its way through". It follows that there must be a 40-year delay before any action taken now takes effect.

Is it not time that measures are taken to begin to reduce our total emissions?

DR ARD STEBBING

PLYMOUTH MARINE LABORATORY, NATURAL ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH COUNCIL, PLYMOUTH

Euphemisms for mental handicap

Sir: Lord Rix objects to the term "mentally handicapped" and invites "people with a learning disability" to join in the correspondence (letter, 24 January). Unfortunately, his invitation can have no meaning for my 52-year-old son. He is severely mentally handicapped, with a mental age of around three years. Like many thousands of others, he has no understanding of terminology and has no speech or reading ability.

With the wider adoption of the euphemism "learning disability" and also "learning difficulty" (especially beloved by social workers), my wife and I, in common with many other parents, have noticed a decline in recognition of the special needs of those people with the more severe and profound mental handicaps. This seems to be because officials and service providers too readily allow organised groups of able and articulate people with disabilities (albeit susceptible to manipulation) the authority to speak also for such as my son and his peers.

A few years ago I took a member of a Community Health Council, who had been appointed because he was said to have a learning disability, to visit a number of homes caring mainly for people with severe and profound mental handicap. His intention, on behalf of the council, was to collect the views and wishes of the residents about their needs and future. Before the visits were over he became quiet and seemed to be unwell. He then said: "I had no idea that mentally handicapped people were like that."

DR MAURICE BROOK

DORKING, SURREY

Evidence against 'choice' of schools

Sir: It is quite right, as your leading article asserts (19 January), that we do not judge the success of the Government's freedom for schools and "choice" agendas by the very poor GCSE showing of some academies alone. Fortunately for those of us who oppose these agendas, and advocate an inclusive system of community schools, there is plenty of extra evidence available.

According to reports from Yorkshire, academies there are expelling far more pupils than average - hardly a service to their local communities. Then there is the fact that, according to Ofsted figures for 2004/5, a higher percentage of non-faith secondaries are found "highly effective" than faith secondaries, with the results for faith and non-faith primaries exactly equal - a reminder that we must not judge schools by their exam results alone.

Choice is rarely feasible in small communities, and even in larger ones choice for one group is usually at the expense of another. In the case of faith schools, these institutions choose their pupils, rather than the other way round, and a proliferation of such schools will decrease choice for the majority of parents, unless they are prepared to join, or pretend to join, a religion.

ANDREW COPSON

EDUCATION OFFICER BRITISH HUMANIST ASSOCIATION LONDON WC1

Drugs 'gateway' idea discredited

Sir: I am sorry to see that Rabbi Sufrin, who obviously means well, subscribes to the "gateway" or "stepping stone" hypothesis of drug use (Letters, 23 January). This hypothesis, which is now discredited, holds that taking cannabis leads inexorably on to the use of hard drugs.

There is no evidence to support this supposition, which relies on the belief that, because many people who have used cannabis have also used hard drugs, there must be some inexorable mechanism that leads from one to the other.

This is an "association" which is lacking any evidence of a causal connection; one might as well say that there is a very strong link between hard drug users and those who smoke tobacco, or drink alcohol, or eat corn flakes.

DR RICHARD CARTER

LONDON SW15

Defection is no crisis for the Lib Dems

Sir: I was interested to read of the defection of Adrian Graves from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives ("Lib Dem crisis deepens as candidate defects to Tories", 25 January). How does the defection of one unsuccessful candidate at the last general election compare with the numbers of those successful Tory politicians who have crossed the floor the other way?

Since 1995, when Emma Nicholson, an MP and vice-chairman of the Conservative Party left the Conservatives for the Liberal Democrats, there have been at least five further MPs, seven MEPs and 25 local councillors who have left their party. If Mr Graves truly believes in civil liberties, in the environment, and in social justice he will be sadly disappointed by the Conservative Party.

LORD DYKES

(LIB DEM) HOUSE OF LORDS

Sir: Like Adrian Graves, I am a twice-failed parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats (Hendon, 1997 and 2002). Like Adrian Graves, I too am virtually unknown in the party outside my own constituency. If I defect to the Tories, will The Independent cover my story on its home pages? It would no more indicate a deepening crisis in the party than the ratting of the obscure Mr Graves, but I could cut the piece out and send it to my Mum.

CLLR WAYNE CASEY

DEPUTY LEADER, LIB DEM GROUP, LONDON BOROUGH OF BARNET LONDON NW7

Secret weapons of the Civil War

Sir: Explosive "coal" is almost eighty years older than your article on espionage devices implies (24 January). It was developed by Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay (born Belfast, 1822; died Jordan Springs, Virginia, 1875) and used by the Confederate Secret Service during the American Civil War.

Known as the "coal torpedo" it consisted of a hollow cast iron casing shaped like a lump of coal, coated with a mixture of tar, beeswax and coal dust, containing about 1.5 ounces of black powder. Upon being shovelled into the firebox of a locomotive or steamship it would explode, ideally piercing the boiler, causing an even larger explosion.

Coal torpedoes are credited with destroying the Greyhound, General Benjamin F Butler's headquarters, and the gunboat Chenango and may have been the cause of other unexplained explosions on Union riverboats and blockade ships. Following the Civil War, Courtenay tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the coal torpedo to both the Royal Navy and the War Office.

ROBERT GORDON

GUELPH, ONTARIO, CANADA

Whale warning

Sir: The London whale appeared over the same weekend that the international three year lectionary used by Catholics and Protestants throughout the world prescribed Jonah chapter 3 for the Old Testament reading. This is where Jonah says Nineveh, the London or New York of his day, will be overthrown in 40 days.

The people cut consumption by fasting and wearing the simplest possible garments and renounced violence. With the oil running out and global warming beginning to gallop and the continuing hideous aggression of the USA, perhaps the poor creature was giving us a hint.

THE REV DAVID PERRY

HULL

Sir: I don't wish to appear naive, but could Jun Koda of the Japanese embassy (letter, 23 January) enlighten us as to what exactly is the scientific research which necessitates the annual slaughter of hundreds of whales, and when this research will be completed and its results published?

DOMINIC KIRKHAM

MANCHESTER

Cost of flying food

Sir: Raymond Blanc says we should stop buying foods which originate more than two hours' flight time away (Opinion, 23 January). Yet 80 per cent of the environmental cost of air transport occurs in take-off and landing, because that is where fuel consumption is high. Once at cruise altitude the fuel consumption is low, so it is almost irrelevant to put a flight time limit on foods. Far more relevant is to stop buying foods which have moved at all by air.

JIM QUINN

STROUD, GLOUCESTERSHIRE

Tories and the poor

Sir: Mark Steel seems in need of a history lesson. He claimed in his column (25 January) that the Conservative Party "opposed the abolition of slavery, opposed the Factory Acts, and everything that helped the poor at the slight expense of the rich..."

I always thought the abolition of slavery in 1833 and the Factory Act of the same year that made strides towards abolishing child labour were the result of campaigns by Anthony Ashley Cooper (later Lord Shaftesbury) who was, er, a Tory MP. In addition, the Factory Acts of 1842, 1844 and 1878 were all passed by Conservative governments.

ALEX JACOB

LONDON SW17

Rat immigration

Sir: I am afraid that even our "native vermin" are not quite what Yasmin Alibhai-Brown thinks (23 January). The brown or "Hanover" rat (Rattus norvegicus) - by far the commonest rat - seems to be a comparatively recent incomer. Even the so-called "English" or black rat (Rattus rattus) - in fact, quite rare now - appears not to have a clearly established native origin. As in so many other matters, it is not easy to identify true "natives" of this country.

EDWARD COULSON

KEIGHLEY, WEST YORKSHIRE

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