Letters: Where are the influential securalists?

The power and influence of secularists is over-exaggerated
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Sir: I have been looking for examples of the "disproportionate influence" of "vocal secularists" referred to by Anjum Anwar and Chris Chivers in their letter "Christmas is under attack from secularists and political correctness" (10 December).

I looked in the Government, but all I could find was a deeply religious prime minister, a Chancellor who is a son of the manse and an education secretary who is a member of a fanatical Catholic cult. I could only find policies, such as faith-based welfare programmes and faith-based education, that promote the Christian and other religions, and which are highly discriminatory against those with no belief. I also found government committees engaging with faith groups, with non-faith groups denied such access to the corridors of power.

The BBC is also busy holding discussions under its Charter renewal with religious groups as to how it can engage more with them and show more religion on TV, with secular groups not accorded similar access to its blue-sky thinkers. Secularists are still denied access to Radio 4's Thought for the Day, with the BBC maintaining that those without belief can have no say in its daily discussion of ethics with its listeners.

I looked in schools, where I found Christians trying to force Creationism and ID into science classes, but no scientists trying to force Big Bang theory or Darwinism into RE lessons. I looked in the high street, that traditional usurper of Christmas, but found only supermarkets agreeing to let vicars patrol the aisles on Sundays, or bowing to militant Christian pressure by banning the sale of the DVD of Jerry Springer the Opera. I couldn't find a secularist pressure group trying to ban The Passion of the Christ.

Secular voices don't seem to have anything like the degree of influence your correspondents suggest.



The European cause needs promoting

Sir: Adrian Hamilton wishes to come out fighting for the cause of Europe ("Anti-Europeanism has become the new consensus", 16 December). Fine; but he must then explain what the European cause actually is. I agree with him that the British public is not against Europe, but equally it is not likely to support a project whose purpose and objectives are so unclear and whose programme of action is so unfocused.

The reasons for "anti-Europeanism" are not emotional, as Mr Hamilton believes, but intellectual. The British public sees an organisation, which keeps on wishing to increase its powers without a rational basis, continues to protect special interests without confronting them, and cannot manage its own budget. These problems have existed for years, without any action. Naturally, support for the European cause has withered away.

There is indeed a European cause worth promoting, but it must be formulated and expressed clearly. In his column, Mr Hamilton suggests a few elements, but they need to be built into a coherent picture. My view is that it is to do with globalisation, the integration of the European countries into the world community. Until the pro-Europeans get to grips with this task, they will continue to be ignored.



Sir: Tony Blair's abject surrender of Britain's position on the EU budget, with no reform, just empty promises, is a national humiliation (report, 17 December).

These negotiations have shown that Britain is unable to change the structure of the EU, and our role as a financier. We will always have to argue over the budget, because we are there to pay. The EU is not designed to benefit Britain, which is why we don't belong in it.

The French will never reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The damage that it does to world trade is a moral obscenity, which spreads poverty and death in the Third World. Britain's international image is sullied through its complicity in this economic crime against humanity.

While Tony Blair was forfeiting British money to benefit the French, Peter Mandelson, was defending the CAP in Hong Kong, compounding the degradation of Britain's reputation. Tony Blair's sanctimonious preaching about Africa is just macabre sarcasm while we belong to an organisation that actively prevents African countries from improving their prosperity by their own efforts.

We should restore our dignity and leave the EU. We need an immediate referendum on Britain's membership.



Sir: Because Europe only ever managed to create one common policy (agriculture), the surprise is that the CAP only absorbs 40 per cent of the EU budget (report, 12 December). The UK contribution to the EU is set at 1.06 per cent of GNP, so EU farm subsidies therefore cost the UK just 0.42 per cent of GNP.

When the CAP began, food absorbed more than a third of average UK income. Today it only takes one eighth. But the prices received by farmers have fallen even more precipitously because of the bullying power exerted by the massive retailers which, as Tony Blair admits, hold farmers in an armlock. So why is he happy with this? Farmers would infinitely prefer a fair price than to be handed 1970s prices and have their pathetic incomes topped up by the taxpayer.

A policy of allowing European agriculture with its priceless sustainable base of agricultural land and skills to wither in the face of imports from, for example, the devastated rainforests of Amazonia or the rapidly drying agricultural base of Australia is utterly illogical and irresponsible. This "cheap" food is obtained at immense and very real costs in terms of environmental devastation, social disruption, labour exploitation, pollution, animal welfare and unsustainability.



Sir: Johann Hari is wrong in thinking that scrapping the CAP will help poor farmers in Uganda. The chief beneficiaries of free trade in agriculture will be the aggressive exporters - US, Australia and Brazil, employing the latest scientific techniques backed by multi-national companies.

In a world where animal and plant diseases are a greater threat than ever, and there is the additional threat of terrorism, it is foolish not to protect European agriculture. Our highly regulated farming produces a secure supply of food from the highest animal welfare standards, and the least damage to the environment.



Cattle, TB and intensive farming

Sir: I read with concern George Davidson's letter regarding control of TB, and his view that cattle are factory farmed (17 December). Firstly, dairy farmers are hardly "factory farmers" in the strict sense. Dairy cows spend half the year outside, eating good quality fresh grass - exactly what they would do "in the wild".

Although we have bred cows for high milk yield, the process of reproduction and milk production is itself relatively natural. In winter months, cows are kept well fed and warm instead of having to endure nature's harsh season.

Anyone who knows a livestock (particularly dairy) farmer, will know that they really do care about their animals, and they usually know them individually. They also work tremendously hard, all year round.

Dairy farmers get a very poor price for their milk, particularly considering how hard they work. The health and productivity of the herd therefore makes the difference between survival and failure. Farmers make conditions as good as possible for welfare and productivity reasons.

And finally, the idea of introducing a fine for every cow with TB is absolutely absurd. This will add to financial hardship and will further reduce the money available for improving conditions and welfare. It will simply increase the number of farmers giving up dairying. It may also increase TB incidence by encouraging farmers to cover up cases.



Sir: Having been involved in ecological research on badgers for many years, I am reminded in the current debate about management of the TB problem of a number of well-established ecological points that are worth bringing to attention.

Badger densities in the problem areas are higher than anywhere else in the world, and TB in British cattle occurs where badger densities are highest. Badgers in Britain eat mostly earthworms, of one species ( Lumbricus terrestris), and it has been shown that badger densities are directly correlated with earthworm biomass, suggesting that badger numbers are limited by earthworms.

Badgers catch their worms in pasture, and in these same pastures they also contact cattle; transmission of TB can take place through sputum and urine. Earthworm biomass in English pastures is enormous (about equivalent to the biomass of cattle that can be grazed).

Taken together, these relationships suggest that to control badger numbers and TB transmission to cattle, one needs to reduce earthworm numbers in pastures in the problem areas.



An end to dentistry on the NHS

Sir: I recently received from my dentist a letter stating "it is the intention of the primary care trust to deregister you from our list on 1 April 2006; this is not of our choosing... we have tried to maintain a strong commitment to the NHS, but it now seems the only way to maintain and improve standards is to fund dentistry independently".

I was among the crowd of mainly elderly and anxious patients who flocked to the practice to find out what was happening. I was told that in future if I need a dentist I should ring a helpline and be told where to go and when. This is unlikely to be the same place twice and there is no indication of how long I may have to wait. Public transport links for those without cars are clearly irrelevant to the plan.

In addition, dentists will no longer decide what is the right treatment; they will be incentivised financially to provide the treatment which the Government regards as the most suitable and to meet targets laid down by government.

If we want proper and speedy care with a dentist who knows us in a location convenient to us, we must all sign on as private patients. There will be no NHS patient lists to sign on to: no lists equals no waiting lists. Is this part of a new government policy to secure the death by stealth of the NHS?



Why are poetry critics so catty?

Sir: What is it about poetry that brings out the most snobbish, catty criticism? Why can music, visual art, film and prose writing be such varied art forms whilst poetry ("Arts & Books Review; Poetry", 16 December) can only be one thing, one style, "real poetry" ?

I too admire the work of Carol Ann Duffy and Roger McGough but was it really necessary to be so dismissive about Jenny Joseph? Yes, her poem "Warning " appeals to a large audience and yes, many of them are over 25, but is that really such a terrible thing? Wouldn't many poets swap good reviews in the posh press for that kind of connection with a wider audience? And if they say no, aren't they lying... just a little bit?

Pam Ayres, a very different poet, gets dismissed too. I think it's fascinating that Pam Ayres is still in the bestselling lists. In fact I'd like to know more - has she never stopped selling or is she, like Bruce Forsyth and the two Ronnies, a 1970s favourite now back in fashion?

Your writer would probably have looked down on Roger McGough in the past as too popular but now he is an accepted part of the very small poetry family.



Ailing NHS

Sir: Your leader (13 December) characterises the NHS as "profligate, monolithic and inefficient" - but in comparison with what? The US system, that consumes 15 per cent of GDP (25 per cent going on administration), or the French and German models that have been consistently better funded? Many of the problems in our health service result from decades of underfunding. Prescribing market solutions would be akin to applying leeches to an ailing patient.



Mice movements

Sir: So, Alana Michael of West Malvern bemoans the scarcity of sugar mice (Letters, 17 December)? How hard did she look? Up to two years ago she would have had no trouble finding these in her excellent local village shop - West Malvern Village Stores. Unfortunately, due to lack of local support the shop was forced to close.

However, if she should care to make the short trip to the nearby local shop, Provisions of Colwall (three minutes by car) she will find sugar mice on sale at 36p each.



Sir: Please tell Alana Michael that sweet mice are ready and waiting for purchase at Nima Delicatessen, Moseley, Birmingham. I will gladly send her a few. Happy Christmas!



Sir: Alana Michael might be interested to know that the sweet shop in the centre of the Guildhall Market, in Bath, is infested with the little pink and white blighters. CHRIS PHILLIPS COLERNE, WILTSHIRE

Sir: Re Alana Michael's missing sugar mice -on page 71 of the Third Book of Blue Peter (1965 edition) Valerie Singleton shows, step-by-step, how to raise your own pink sugar mice, complete with fetching liquorice tails!



Mexican president

Sir: When you say ("In the footsteps of Che Guevara", 16 December) that the election of Evo Morales would produce "the first full-blooded indigenous president in Latin America", you are forgeting Benito Juarez of Mexico.



Dubious decorations

Sir: While we heartily applaud the general sentiment of your Green Christmas feature (12 December), some of the details were distinctly dubious.

The suggestion to use lichens and mosses as decorations fails to recognise that many species in these groups are locally rare, endangered or at best slow-growing. Their wholesale picking could have a devastating effect - best to stick to UK-grown mistletoe.