Sir: Dominic Lawson is right (Opinion, 18 May) to draw attention to the hilarious nature of some recent police arrests, such as that of a child for throwing a cream bun at a bus, and another for throwing a slice of cucumber.
However, the reality is no trivial matter. The act of arrest leads to the forced collection of a sample of DNA from the child and also fingerprints. These are entered into the police database and will remain there for the life of the individual, perhaps longer. The act of giving a caution involves the admission of guilt by the child to a criminal offence. This admission is placed in the Criminal Records Bureau and remains there for life. Offenders convicted by the courts have the right to have details of their criminality removed from their Criminal Records Bureau under the provisions of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, but this right does not apply to the admission of guilt in a caution.
Even more seriously, the arrest and caution for this childish act of throwing a bun or piece of cucumber has denied the individual the right for the rest of his or her life to be able to claim in a court of law or elsewhere to be a man or woman of good character. They will now have a criminal record and will have to explain to every future employer etc the details of the admission of assault or criminal damage. That it was only a piece of cucumber will not be recorded.
YR WYDDGRUG, CLWYD
The Information Bill puts MPs to shame
Sir: Mark Fisher (Opinion, 17 May) understates the effect of his fellow MPs' exempting themselves from the Freedom of Information Act: "the credibility of Parliament" is not merely "at risk"; it is in ruins. What a subject for a latter-day Gillray: a self-serving Bill, the complicity of the two front-benches, the questionable chairing of the proceedings, and the last-minute apparition in the "Aye" lobby of party hacks who had not troubled to sit through a "debate" in which a handful of honourable members sought to uphold openness and honesty. Welcome to New Corruption!
If anything good is to come from this shameful spectacle, let it be a final recognition by all those who would rescue our democracy from its present decadence that there is no credible prospect of the political class reforming itself: the only hope lies in a popular initiative to demand a citizens' assembly, chosen by random selection from members of the public, to draw up a written constitution which would then be put to a referendum.
Sir: I have, for the last two and a half years, had lead responsibility, within an NHS Primary Care Trust for responding to requests for Information under the Freedom of Information Act. Yes, at times I have sighed with exasperation, particularly when the request is from a company seeking information with which they will feed their own websites for financial gain. But, in the main, the requests for information from patients, pressure groups, trade unions, journalists and yes, even MPs, can be seen to contribute to developing an open and accountable public service.
In light of this experience, to hear that a Private Member's Bill to exempt Parliament from the FoI Act has been passed by 71 votes for a third reading leaves me with a feeling of complete disbelief (report, 19 May). As has already been said, any information that is of a personal nature is exempt from the Act as it will be covered by the Data Protection Act. It is noteworthy also that the majority of exemptions within the FoI Act are already only applicable, in practice, to government departments.
I'm sorry to say that there may be an edge of cynicism in my next training session when I try hard to encourage staff to be open and honest about the service we provide to patients and to be open and honest with the information we hold within the PCT. I believe the FoI Act really does help those of us who work in the public sector to be held to account by the public. It has to be asked: what are MPs really concerned about?
Sir: Only 121 MPs considered it important enough to stay on a Friday to vote on this appalling piece of legislation. And of those, 96 voted in favour of their own self-interest. Is this the democracy we are proud to export worldwide?
A junior Government minister found it difficult to hide the Government's support for what we were told was a free vote. The proposer of the Bill produced no evidence in support of his oft- repeated allegation that he was trying to protect confidential personal information. As one LibDem MP said: "One can only assume less worthy motives". And they wonder why very few respect either Parliament or politicians. One can only hope that their lordships will come, once more, to the rescue.
Sir: Nearly as disgraceful as the specious arguments, tabled by self-serving MPs, alleging that the confidentiality of constituents has been compromised by the FoI Act, is the general silence of the media. It is astonishing that the media, particularly the broadcasters, have not campaigned vigorously to expose the hypocrisy of this measure.
Had the Bill really been intended to achieve the objective of constituent confidentiality it would have been limited and specific in its scope. As it stands, it is a "catch-all" Bill which could allow MPs to back away into the shadows again, hiding the wilful extravagance of some Members and preventing the public from knowing what is being done with its money.
Perhaps it isn't too late for a concerted campaign intended to galvanise the Peers into doing what the Commons has just failed to do. That is, to dump this piece of squalid hypocrisy and bring in, if necessary, a limited measure which addresses the alleged issues raised.
Sir: MPs voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act - disgraceful, but by 96 votes to 25, less than 20 per cent of members. Is this democracy?
LISBURN, N. IRELAND
Give the dying care, not euthanasia
Sir: Why are the rights of the minority so often held to be more important than those of the majority ("The right to choose death", 8 May).
To change the law regarding assisted suicide/euthanasia would affect the old, the vulnerable and the sick, the vast majority of whom wish simply to be allowed to die in dignity with the best palliative care this country can provide. What about the pressure that these people may feel themselves under to save the country, and their relatives, money by ending their lives artificially?
Countries which pass laws to legalise euthansia/assisted suicide also largely cease to put money into palliative care. Our medical knowledge is growing ever more sophisticated; we spend larger and larger sums of money on caring for the newborn; what a sad reflection on our attitude to sickness and old age it would be for us to change the law and to move the ending of life into the realm of consumer choice, rather than to use our knowledge to give the best treatment possible to the dying.
(A RECENT CANCER SUFFERER) FRANT, EAST SUSSEX
Majority of doctors support animal tests
Sir: Why does the scientifically illiterate "Green Goddess" get a platform for animal-rights propaganda?
She claims that there is a scientific establishment of doctors and scientists who mistrust animal testing because it is ineffective and puts people in danger. But there is no credible scientific or medical organisation anywhere in the world that would agree with her. The World Medical Association, comprising more than 170 leading doctors' organisations, has recently confirmed its unanimous support for the carefully regulated use of animals in research.
In her column of 10 May, the Green Goddess claims that there is a link between the Thalidomide tragedy and animal testing. Nothing could be further from the truth. That medicine was never tested on pregnant animals before it was given to pregnant women. Had it been so, the disaster would almost certainly have been averted. Her comments on Tony Benn - another long advocate of animal rights - reveal pure hypocrisy. He has a pacemaker, which depended on animal research for its development.
Over 70 per cent of Nobel prizes in physiology or medicine have depended on the use of animals. It is time to put the record straight.
DR SIMON FESTING
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, RESEARCH DEFENCE SOCIETY, LONDON W1
Lover of metric, and proud to be British
Sir: I am amazed at the number of my countrymen who see the use of "old units" as essential to their national identity. Joe Page (letter, 17 May) brings out the tired old chestnut about metric being a "foreign intrusion". Curious how imperial-lovers feel so patriotic about using "avoirdupois" weights (French) and Fahrenheit temperature (Prussian).
We should not forget that Britain has made substantial contributions to the modern metric system. The idea of a coherent set of metric units came from the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in the 1860s. BAAS also proposed the prefixes mega- and micro-. Michael Faraday, Louis Gray, James Joule, Isaac Newton, James Watt and Lord Kelvin all have metric units named after them.
So when I read about a "Megawatt" I can feel proud of our British contribution to the international system of units!
Time to give smokers a break
Sir: Philip Hensher (Opinion, 15 May) hopes campaigners against smoking concede that it isn't reasonable to demand "that people be prevented from smoking in the open air", but station announcements by Southern Railway, for instance, seem quite definite that smoking will be banned anywhere on their premises. Most stations platforms are very much in the open air.
In Germany, smokers' zones are designated towards platform ends, even under an overall roof, as at Frankfurt Airport station; this suggests a more objective and civilised approach.
And for the record, I do not smoke; but some of the people I like in this world do.
Vive la French way of shopping
Sir: Phil Thornton, commenting on the effects of Sarkozy's win in France (Save & Spend, 19 May), writes as if the idea of a seven-day shopping cycle is a good thing.
Having moved to France from the UK a few years back, I would like to point out that it's pleasant having a day when most stores are shut, apart from the bread shop and possibly a market.
There is a genuine day off for the people who work in the stores, there is less traffic and less pollution, there is less chance to run up unsustainable debt (witness the gap between UK and French personal debt), and that's just for starters.
Frankly I think these things are far more important than the enrichment of those who just happen to hold retail stocks
Briefly... The bald facts
Sir: Your report "Wake-up call to genes may lead to cure for baldness" (17 May) uses the phrase "follicly challenged". I have sometimes seen "follically", too, but both are wrong. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the adjective is "follicular". Therefore, clumsy as it may sound, the adverb must be: "follicularly". Yours grammatically, (but not follicularly challenged),
Dracula rises again
Sir: Thanks for the "Cult Dracula" article (18 May). Alas, it was incorrect in two respects: Christopher Lee made another Dracula film for Hammer after the "disastrously trashy" (damn right) Dracula AD 1972; that was the 1973 classic, The Satanic Rites of Dracula. Second, fans of country and western music will be surprised to learn that one of the elder statesman of the form, George Hamilton IV, played the count in Love At First Bite; that was plain old George Hamilton - he of the perma-tan.
Sir: In the mesolithic era, Europe was covered by dense forests. During the neolithic we burned these down to create farmland. If we were to regrow those forests, this would reabsorb much of the carbon now being liberated in Brazil (Letters, 18 May). It would also give us a much loftier position from which to lecture the Brazilians.
Ireland's PD party
Sir: To describe Ireland's Progressive Democrats (PDs) as "right-wing" (report, 18 May) is simplistic. The party is free-market on economics and reformist on social issues. Indeed, it was formed in the mid-1980s by defectors from the Fianna Fail (FF) party uncomfortable with FF's opposition to legalising contraception. The likes of Kenneth Clarke and Alan Duncan would probably feel at home in the PDs (as would many Liberal Democrats such as Vince Cable and even Menzies Campbell), but Norman Tebbit, Michael Howard and Ann Widdecombe certainly would not.
Sir: I enjoyed the article on "The God squad" (17 May), though in the interest of balance, perhaps we also need an article on "The atheist squad". This could include characters such as Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Pol Pot and Idi Amin.
American TV evangelists are a great source if you are looking for buffoons, but if you want to find serious carnage on a mass scale, then atheistic governments are by far the best source.
DR DAVID MIDDLEMISS
Sir: Yesterday I passed an artificial nail salon and saw a notice in the window advertising "Trainee Nails, £10". I take it that these are nails which are not yet up to scratch.
S D DOWLING