Now the PM must turn key to Lords reform, Terror debate and others

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The Independent Online

Now the Prime Minister must turn the key to Lords reform

Sir: In recent days Tony Blair and his ministers have been parroting the chorus "the elected House of Parliament must prevail against the unelected". As your report of 11 March ("MPs will be given new opportunity to vote for elected House of Lords") makes clear, it is the Government - and the Prime Minister himself - who have denied the second chamber this democratic legitimacy.

If he and his Cabinet have had a change of heart, there is an immediate opportunity for them to put their words into action. I brought together a cross-party group, comprising Kenneth Clarke, Robin Cook, Tony Wright and Sir George Young, to see if we could secure a consensus on reform of the Lords. Our report, and draft Bill, have been endorsed by a substantial group of MPs and peers of all parties and across the political spectrum from William Hague to Neil Kinnock. This initiative, focusing on a 70 per cent directly-elected chamber, has been welcomed by many more. Even some ministers have acknowledged the quality of our analysis and the validity of our proposals.

Mr Blair has told me, and the Commons, that he wants to put this issue to MPs on a free vote. If he really is so anxious about the unelected status of the Lords let him now give time for our Bill to be debated. Our group believes that we can break the deadlock, but first the Prime Minister must turn the key.

Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House
House of Commons

Terror debate reveals perils of pragmatism

Sir: Andreas Whittam Smith accuses Tony Blair of being a threat to our constitution (Opinion, 14 March). But this inevitably raises the question of what the constitution is.

In most other democracies, legislation such as the new terrorism Act would be subject to judicial review. If the courts declared the Act unconstitutional, the executive could not treat the judgment as purely advisory (as this Government has done with the Lords' ruling on foreign detainees). It would have to modify the Act or seek a constitutional amendment.

Here, parliamentary sovereignty, plus the absence of a document defining our basic law, means politicians can accuse each other of unconstitutional conduct while acting as they choose once elected. It is like a children's game with imperfectly understood rules, where the players constantly accuse each other of cheating.

Those who defend the present system in the interests of pragmatism should reflect on recent events. British pragmatism can easily be carried to excess and so ends up threatening democratic principles. We urgently need a written constitution.

Solihull, West Midlands

Sir: Andrew Stunell MP, the Liberal Democratic Chief Whip, got the most important basic fact wrong when accusing Steve Richards of getting a few basic facts wrong in his column (letter, 11 March).

Mr Stunell claims that the Home Secretary had already said he intended to accept my amendment forcing him to apply to the court before he could implement an order which restricted a person's liberty but did not include "house arrest". If the Home Secretary had accepted my amendment then I would not have had to request the vote which was only lost by 14.

Perhaps it's not surprising Mr Stunell got this fact wrong. He wasn't in the House of Commons for the vote he refers to so dismissively.

(Bridgend, Lab)
House of Commons

Sir: Like Howard Jacobson (Opinion, 12 March) I cherish the tale of Adolf Eichmann and Peter Malkin. I cherish it because, however technically illegal the action, it was an arrest, not an assassination. And when Eichmann was brought to Israel, he was not consigned to some oubliette in the Gaza strip on the pretext that, because he was not in Israeli, the laws of Israel could be ignored. Instead, he was informed of the charges against him and allowed to defend himself against them. And when they were shown to be true, he was sentenced by a court.

Howard rightly anguishes over the Holocaust. What he ignores is that what happened to the victims did not begin with gas chambers. It began with a little chipping away, here and there, at their human rights. Doubtless if Howard had been living safely in England at the time, he would, in the words of the title of his article, have put his own safety before "the next man's" civil liberties.

Kington, Herefordshire

Sir: Each time a controversial government measure hangs in the balance, we are treated to some piece of sensational scaremongering, such as tanks trundling round Heathrow.

And now, lo and behold, Sir John Stevens has claimed that there are hundreds of al-Qa'ida fanatics walking the streets of Britain, just itching to blow us all to kingdom come. Yet for some reason the combined talents of the police and the intelligence agencies can't manage to come up with enough evidence to bang up even a single one of them. If that is so, I hereby demand a refund of that portion of my tax bill which pays for the security services. Obviously the money would be far better spent increasing my life assurance.

Cockermouth, Cumbria

Sir: What is the Government's current attitude to the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi? I think we should be told.

Rotherfield, East Sussex

Sir: If there are any Independent readers like me without enough brain cells to form a quorum they will share my sense of gratitude towards Stephen Parkin (IQ of 148) for taking a day-return from Mount Olympus to put us right on the anti-terror laws (letter, 14 March).


Black boys' schooling

Sir: Trevor Phillips' recent suggestion that some black boys would benefit from being taught together in separate classes has prompted a lot of debate in the media. It is worth pointing out that there are already circumstances where black boys often find themselves taught together - in bottom sets and in Pupil Referral Units (PRUs). More than 80 per cent of pupils excluded from school are boys and more than 80 per cent of these boys are black.

I train teachers on how to motivate boys in school. Last week I was working with teachers from Manchester PRUs. One told me about a boy who looked round the class and asked: "Why are we all black, Miss?"

A black teacher in a home counties comprehensive offers advice to black boys on how to succeed in the school. She warns them of the three problems they will face: "You are male, you are black, you are tall."

We need to address two problems: why schools are failing boys, and why schools are failing black boys. Many disaffected boys, both black and white, do not relate to the National Curriculum and the way it is being taught. To engage boys in school, lessons need to be interesting and fun and relate to boys' interests; dance, music, drama and sport should be offered during or after school; boundaries need to be firm and applied respectfully; schools need to provide a community that boys feel they belong to; and boys need good male role models both in and out of school.

Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

Nuclear option

Sir: The speaker for the Green Party, Chit Chong, is hopelessly wrong (letter, 11 March). Globalisation is here to stay - love it or not. Consumerism cannot be stopped, as this is the basis for economic development and expansion. How would the Green Party expect underdeveloped countries in Africa or South America to improve the standard of living of their peoples without acknowledging globalisation?

There will be an increased demand for energy worldwide. Building ugly windmills is not sufficient, certainly not for the UK. As an interim measure, the world must go nuclear. Nuclear fission power generation is the only answer to preventing climate change from carbon dioxide emissions, until nuclear fusion replaces it in some 50 years from now.

The Green Party wants to protect the environment, but has no concern whatever for its beauty. It would rather pollute this country, and the world, with windmills. It's a nonsense.

Stoke on Trent

Africa's health

Sir: As someone privileged to have spent two years living and working in Kenya, I am beginning to get excited and dream that in 2005 we really can start to "make poverty history".

Sir Bob Geldof rightly says in his article (11 March) that the Africa Commission needs strong backing from us in the rich world. Africa needs to train 1 million extra doctors, but we also need to support existing health professionals across the continent. The emigration of health professionals from Africa is having a devastating effect on HIV and TB treatment. As we approach 24 March, which is World TB Day, 2 million people are dying annually from this disease which is also the cause of up to half of Aids-related deaths in Africa.

In order to stop TB, which can be treated and cured for $10 per patient, the provision of improved salaries, training and benefits such as housing will allow African health professionals to stay in Africa, where they are most needed.


Lively libraries

Sir: Having read Terence Blacker's article "The nation's libraries are dying from neglect" (11 March) we felt we had to reply in praise of our local libraries in south Gloucestershire and the Bristol Central Library, which we both visit on a regular basis.

They are a delight to use, the staff are friendly and helpful, and they have a wide range of books, videos and CDs and also excellent computer facilities with free access to the internet. The central library, as well as having a very good reference section also has a coffee bar and is very welcoming. We take our grandchildren, aged 10 and 13, whenever they stay with us and they really do see it as a treat.

Libraries we have visited on our travels have struck us as being of a similar standard. We would like to know which ones Mr Blacker has been to to form his opinion.



Mothers' vital work

Sir: Sadie Smith, in her letter of 11 March, misses the most important point of that heartening article "Desperate housewives: young women yearn for 1950s role as stay-at-home mums" (10 March).

The women interviewed for this article have recognised that bringing up their own children, rather than dumping them in a full-time nursery from the age of about four months, is a rewarding, fascinating and very worthwhile job. To compare these women to the Stepford wives is beneath contempt.

Some feminists have done a great deal of good in certain respects but the arch-feminists - the man-haters, those who undermine family life and who denigrate the vitally important work of bringing up the next generation in a secure, loving and consistent environment - have done a great deal of harm.

Stockport, Greater Manchester

Poor pensioners

Sir: Shirley Pritchard is right when she states that there are rich pensioners (Letters, 11 March), but there are also very many poor ones. In fact the situation regarding pensioners has become a complete shambles and needs rethinking. I believe if we scrapped means testing (which costs more than it saves) and the tax relief on private pensions, we could then increase the state pension to a more realistic level.


Penalties of speed

Sir: I am happy for Brian Viner to bang on about the injustice of penalties for speeding (Country Life, 9 March). However I resent his implication that only "88-year-old myopic vicars" observe speed limits. I strive to do so for two reasons: it is the duty of every citizen to uphold the law, irrespective of his own opinions; and second, if we all drive within the speed limits there will be fewer collisions, fewer deaths, fewer serious injuries and less human misery.

(69-year-old non-myopic volunteer driver), Longfield, Kent

Cannabis dangers

Sir: Your New York correspondent Robert Newman MD (Letters, 11 March) ignores the serious and proven risk of psychotic episodes connected with cannabis use in vulnerable or predisposed individuals. Three of my friends have been admitted to hospital because of major breakdowns triggered by this drug. Freedom of choice must go with awareness of the real dangers.

Bridport, Dorset

Saddam the progressive

Sir: On the strength of its domestic record, Johann Hari is advising us to vote for the first British government in my lifetime to make it official policy to accept evidence obtained under torture (Opinion, 11 March). Well, Johann, before the first Gulf War Saddam Hussein's Iraq was among the most advanced Arab nations in terms of health care and education, and rights for women. Still in favour of that war? Or is your thinking just a tad confused?

London SW9


Sir: Steve Connor writes that people who suffer damage to the so-called "Wernicke's area" of the brain can often speak fluently with correct grammar, but what they say is often nonsense ("Making sense of the last great mystery of biology", 11 March). The House of Commons should immediately be renamed Wernicke's Area. Those inhabiting the place should be termed Wernickarians, tagged electronically and placed under curfew, by day and by night.

London SW19