Phone tap evidence in terrorism trials, Parental choice in schools and others

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How phone tap evidence could be used in terrorism trials

How phone tap evidence could be used in terrorism trials

Sir: The Home Secretary's refusal to consider the introduction of phone-tap evidence in court proceedings is another demonstration of a Government that is not at ease with the notion of judicial control. The basic argument for not bringing to justice the Belmarsh detainees was that the main evidence against them consisted in intercepted telephone communications that could not be used in court. A potential relaxation of the prohibition on using phone-taps could prevent the Government from relying on such grounds in the future.

In that direction, it is rightly argued that intercepted evidence is admissible in the vast majority of foreign jurisdictions. This comparative law argument should not be overstated; in these jurisdictions telephone interceptions are ordered and conducted under strict judicial control, which is not the case in Great Britain. Nevertheless, provided there was more judicial control of telephone interceptions and provided the principles of legality and proportionality were fully respected, comparative law could show the way forward towards the admissibility of telephone taps. Foreign states have learnt to live with the hypothetical risk that the use of phone-tap evidence in terrorism cases is alleged to have, namely a potential compromise of national security. Britain might have to learn to live with the same risk, rather than continue in the track of detentions without charge.

Lecturer, Criminal Law and Evidence,
Brunel University, Middlesex

Sir: I am pleased that there are indications that the Home Secretary wants to reconsider his proposals to impose control orders on terrorist suspects, without charge or trial. These proposals threaten the freedoms of us all.

One of the main concerns is that many people could find themselves falsely accused of terrorism, with no opportunity to prove their innocence. We saw in the campaign against IRA terrorism in the 1970s how many innocent people, such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, were given heavy sentences for crimes they had no part in. How much more likely is the Government to make such mistakes with these control orders, when they will not be required to present any evidence in a properly constituted court. The accused will not even be told of what they are accused - so they have no means to refute allegations. The consequences for the individuals concerned could be severe - possibly house arrest for life or restrictive orders which cause them to lose their livelihood.

The Government's grounds for imposing control orders will be "suspicion of involvement in terrorism". Suspicion, without having to submit evidence, is in the eye of the beholder. Anyone who is overheard making a misinterpreted remark, anyone collecting for a small charity working abroad, anyone who travels off the beaten track, could be accused of supporting terrorism and given a lifetime's house arrest. I find this far more worrying than the terrorism it is supposed to combat.


Parental choice may swamp good schools

Sir: I am amazed that The Independent has jumped on to the "expanding successful schools" bandwagon (leading article, 8 February). As a teacher for 34 years, in both large and small secondary schools, I can tell you that when it comes to effective education size does indeed matter.

A secondary school needs to be big enough to offer a full curriculum range and yet small enough to offer a friendly, caring environment. The danger of simply making popular schools bigger is that that this may destroy the very ethos that made them successful and therefore popular in the first place. The prospect of precious school playing fields being dotted with portable huts is certainly not conducive to effective education, as many who taught regularly in them will testify.

Your news report mentions the prospect of closing unpopular schools to allow their buildings to be taken over by their more successful neighbours. I thought we went through this in the 1970s, with fleets of taxis and buses ferrying teachers and students between split-site schools and realised what a logistical disaster it was.

Putting parental choice at the forefront of educational policy is not the answer to our problems in education. By all means, we should listen to what parents and, more importantly, students, say, but what we should be doing is ensuring that every school is a successful school and not allowing schools to enter a beauty contest to attract the "right" type of parents - sorry, students. The education of future generations is just too important to allow simply "market forces", by whatever criteria, to cloud our judgement.


Sir: The Government's reported plans to enlarge schools popular with parents and close the failing ones would mark a further step in the Labour Party's adoption of the former right-wing agenda. This would be a type of voucher system, to which Sir Keith Joseph announced he was "intellectually attracted" on becoming Education Secretary in the early 1980s.

I was one of the small Civil Service team who worked with him on the search for a practicable implementation, and can testify to the great determination and rigour that he brought to the task. However, even Sir Keith was defeated by the practicalities of a scheme in which, essentially, public funds would be squandered on enlarging parents' favourite schools to the point where they then ceased to be attractive.

Epsom, Surrey

Sir: A Saturday editorial (5 February) repeats the half-truth that problems of school indiscipline and truancy can be met by more interesting and relevant teaching. The truth's other half is that firstly, pupils may lack the maturity to know what teaching is relevant to their needs, and secondly, there remains a hard core of pupils who want to disrupt lessons regardless of how carefully they are prepared.

Schools are meant to prepare pupils for their future life. In the adult world, misdemeanours are punished. Teachers would be glad to prepare pupils for this principle, but unfortunately the rights culture has removed virtually all effective disciplinary sanctions from their control.

London E18

Protesters in peril

Sir: Your reaction to the Government's latest plan to restrict our liberties is strangely mealy-mouthed ("There is no place for intimidation in a democracy", 1 February).

We utterly oppose attacks on human beings by animal rights people; human beings are, after all, mammals too. But there are already sanctions in the law to deal with such crimes and to introduce a charge of "economic damage" will emasculate protest. Of course, protesters want to damage the economic interests of Huntingdon Life Sciences, just as many would like to damage the economic interests of arms manufacturers. That is what protests are largely about and, if it can also be done by persuading third parties that animal experimentation is wrong and that they should not be supporting such centres, then that is fair enough.

In any case, the extrapolation of results from animal research to human beings is extremely dubious. The likelihood of finding cures for Aids, cancer or Alzheimer's from animal experimentation is pretty remote. The reason for continuing with these experiments is presumably that the results persuade courts that pharmaceutical companies have taken care and, for that reason, there is money to be made. That is the bottom line and that is why our grubby little government is so concerned.

Professor R A SHARPE

Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire

Climate and food

Sir: Your reporting from the international conference on climate change held last week in Exeter plays down the impact of climate change on food supplies.

Yet all "civilisation" stems from the dawn of agriculture only 10,000 years ago, in the period of stable climate and sea levels which is now ending, and from the food surpluses that farming produced. Even this was subject to constant Malthusian control until the industrial revolution, funded by natural capital (fossil fuels), temporarily released some privileged countries from poverty only 250 years ago.

Now there are 80 million more mouths to feed each year; and soil erosion, freshwater depletion, salination of irrigation schemes, and submergence of fertile coastal areas are all accelerating. The irrelevance of conventional "indefinite growth" economics to this problem is shown by a new joke emerging last year at an American conference, when an economist said "Climate change will only have a small impact on the US, because it will only affect agriculture, which is only 3 per cent of GDP".

"Mr President, the people have no food!" "Well then, let them eat GDP - financial services, tourism, iPods ..."

Wells, Somerset

Middle East hopes

Sir: As your editorial (8 February) points out, the initiative of Condoleezza Rice is barely the start of a just peace process in the Middle East. When a recent poll has shown that over one-third of the US electorate believes in the literal truth of the Bible, which states that extensive areas of the Middle East were awarded by God to the Jews, it is hardly likely that the Americans will exercise strict impartiality. The Bible has much to commend it but it is hardly a title to real estate.

Felixstowe, Suffolk

Sir: The article by Rupert Cornwell (8 February) was very interesting. The maps and charts were particularly clear and informative but, surely, it would have been fairer if the large numbers of Jewish refugees from many Arab countries absorbed by Israel since 1948 had been included in the charts of refugees?

Northwood, Middlesex

Powers of the Lords

Sir: You are right to insist, with the Liberal Democrats, that the Upper House of Parliament must be mainly or wholly elected, and that the elections should be by proportional representation, on a quite different timetable from that for the Commons ("The Prime Minister must honour his promises and reform the House of Lords", 3 February).

But the wish of the Government to "curtail" the powers of the Lords or any future Upper House must be resisted. If we are to do a proper job of scrutinising and revising legislation, we have to have some clout. The power to delay new laws is only occasionally used as a backstop, but its existence is what makes the Government pay attention and agree to all manner of sensible improvements and compromises.

The Government already largely controls the House of Commons. Take away any more powers from the Lords, and the slippery slope towards "elective dictatorship" will be almost complete. The answer to the present "unsatisfactory half-way house" lies in democracy, not emasculation.

(Lord Greaves, Liberal Democrat)
House of Lords

Shot and eaten

Sir: I enjoyed Brian Viner's observations on his day's beating at the local pheasant shoot (Country Life, 2 February). Unfortunately, like many other journalists he has swallowed the line peddled by animal rights activists that pheasants are shot then buried.

They are indeed shot, which is disagreeable to some, but then they are eaten in many delicious ways, as are grouse, partridge, duck and deer. The shooting community would heartily condemn any selfish idiot that buries "thousands of birds", but we have asked Animal Aid and the League Against Cruel Sports for evidence to back their claims and it has not been forthcoming.

Editor, Shooting Times, London SE1

Let the Pope retire

Sir: As the Pope is ruler of an organisation with billions of members worldwide, I find it absurd that John Paul II is allowed to continue exercising power and influence. The poor man is a pathetically old and very frail individual, unfit for office. Are there any Catholics prepared to admit publicly that their pontiff should be retired? Or, perhaps they all simply believe that God will sort it out.


The point about migrants

Sir: I look forward to a points system for immigrants that will bring much-needed skilled people into this country. You know the kind of thing: cleaners, lavatory attendants and so forth, such as we cannot otherwise recruit. The trouble is that this sort of person insists on working all the hours that God sends, so that their children go to university and end up running the country. We then have to start all over again. Inconsiderate, but there you are.


Royal power

Sir: Doesn't D G Swindells (letter, 4 February) know that "a crowned republic" is an oxymoron? With her red boxes, her prime ministerial audiences, her "advising and warning", her Privy Council meetings, her choosing of Prime Minister after an indecisive election, the Queen is knee-deep in politics and power-broking. She is also above the law - as shown by the Burrell case - "the King (and Queen) can do no wrong". British monarchs are absolutely unaccountable to the British public: we remain subjects, and have no power to replace our head of state.

London N8

Popularity contest

Sir: For pity's sake let's get this ghastly election over before reintroducing hanging, flogging and transportation to Devil's Island.

Gwithian, Cornwall