Saudi Arabia, data protection and others

The role of women is changing in Saudi Arabia today

Sir: Facts cannot be avoided ("Saudi has appalling image, Cherie tells envoy", 17 December). Cherie Blair was being honest not undiplomatic when she pointed out that the image of Saudi Arabia in the West is appalling. Mrs Blair was speaking at a dinner to raise funds for an initiative by Baroness Pola Uddin to encourage participation in public life by Muslim women. As Mrs Blair, Baroness Uddin and I pointed out, the perception of Muslim women is very stereotyped and a far cry from the reality. We are grateful to Mrs Blair for offering to help us change that perception. This was the clear message that we understood from her remarks.

However, there appears to be a determination to see evil where there is good, and to find misunderstanding when we are reaching for better understanding. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a fast growing and rapidly evolving society and the role of women is changing within that. We now have several female advisors to our Shura Council, there are more female undergraduates than male, and women own some 40 per cent of property in the Kingdom: women are powerful people within the business and social world. They now aspire, quite correctly, to other rights, particularly political and legal rights which have until now been a matter of honour rather than law.

I would wish to count Mrs Blair amongst our friends, amongst those who would like to see Saudi and Muslim women gain all the rights they deserve.

Ambassador, Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, London W1

Sir: Cherie Blair's comments about Saudi women were not offensive at all to me as a Saudi, however, her choice of words was not accurate.

Women's rights and empowerment are at the forefront of the reforms taking place in Saudi Arabia. Just a few days ago, the Saudi consultative council unanimously voted for the introduction of sports into women's schools in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi women, for the first time, have recently taken part in delegations representing Saudi Arabia in international events and gatherings, and many businesses are now completely owned and managed by Saudi women who have all shown exceptional success.

Researcher, University of Sussex, Falmer, East Sussex

Unbalanced law over data protection

Sir: You report that David Smith, the assistant Information Commissioner, said that Humberside Police's decision to remove information about Ian Huntley "defied common sense" (report, 19 December). Many of us who have had to implement systems affected by data protection legislation would argue that it is really much of this legislation that defies common sense.

This legislation gives the impression of having been driven by well-meaning but paranoid, self-appointed protectors of our civil liberties. It appears to be based on a belief that all organisations which need to store personal data are run by evil megalomaniacs who will use such information mainly for deeply sinister purposes.

A minority of people are unnecessarily obsessed by protecting their privacy and they seem to have had undue influence on our legislators. The balance between individual freedom and the protection of society seems too often to favour the former to the detriment of the latter.

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Sir : I would like to you congratulate you on your leading article ("Justice, police failings and the lessons that must be learned after these killings", 18 December) for retaining a balanced view of the issues raised around the employment of Ian Huntley. The Data Protection Act is just one example of legislation thrust upon the police with no guidance regarding application.

Just as with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of the same year it was put into place to protect the vulnerable from unchecked state interference. Sadly, it is inevitable that the guilty will be protected by the checks and balances contained within such laws and it is said that this is the price we pay for living in a free society.

If the sensationalist rantings of the tabloid press represent the true feeling in the country then it appears the legislators are out of touch. Is society ready to give up a small piece of freedom to protect our children from such reckless evil? Whatever the case may be, we need to ensure where to focus the blame in this case.

London SW1

Sir: While your editorial on the Soham case raised some important issues (18 December), there are two other issues that should be addressed. First, there is the question of how the police are organised.

Over the years, we have become used to hearing senior officers bemoan the fact that they cannot put more officers on the beat to deal with crime because they are too tied up in paperwork. Yet as this appalling case has shown, even when they are engaged in bureaucratic tasks their ability to deliver in a key area like child protection has been woefully inadequate. Searching questions need to be asked about the broader organisation of the police and where responsibility and accountability lie in this case.

The second issue relates to the treatment of women who make complaints of sexual assault. While the police and others in the criminal justice system have claimed that things have changed for such women, this case raises serious doubts about that claim.

On what basis were the previous cases against Ian Huntley dropped, and why did a number of the women not wish to proceed? These are serious questions which also need to be addressed.

Otherwise, the criminal justice system will close ranks, abstruse notions like "systems failure" will be mobilised to explain what happened, and nothing will get done to seriously challenge the official definition of events.

Professor JOE SIM
School of Social Science, Liverpool John Moores University

Sir: The Soham trial is over and only now do we learn of the catalogue of errors by police and other authorities that led to a serial sex offender like Ian Huntley being able to gain employment as a school caretaker. The murder of those two young girls was entirely preventable.

The Home Secretary has set up an independent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the failure of the system and we are told that "lessons will be learned". But we have heard this all before and with increasing frequency in recent years.

Every time a child is murdered or abused we see this public wringing of hands by the authorities, the cries of mea culpa - the setting up of investigations and the promises that lessons will be learned - yet a few months later another child is failed by the system.

The people who benefit most from these review bodies are the highly paid civil servants and lawyers who are appointed to them. In fact the fastest growing area of the economy must be public reviews and inquiries.

Those responsible for the blunders very rarely receive more than a token slap on the wrist - and many of them go on to bigger and better things. Witness Margaret Hodge who, as leader of Islington Council, for years ignored allegations of child abuse in its homes, yet is now Minister for Children.

Boscombe, Dorset

Sir: With my PhD in Hindsight now assured (Letters, 19 December), I would just like to ask one very brief and simple question. Were we really the only family in the land shrieking "arrest the caretaker" at our television whilst watching the copious news coverage of the disappearance of Holly and Jessica in the early days?

Milton Abbot, Tavistock

Grammar schools

Sir: Whilst applauding the undoubted success of his school in topping the Value Added League, I am utterly opposed to the call from Andrew Rigby, the Head of Skegness Grammar School, for the Government to allow the creation of more grammar schools ("Grammar pupils make faster progress", 17 December)

I live near to Lincoln, an island of non-selection in a county where selection still mostly prevails. As a former teacher I chose to work here and had both my sons educated here and see no valid reason to introduce a grammar school, whose very existence would alter the character of the half dozen or so extremely successful comprehensive schools that serve the needs of the secondary school population of Greater Lincoln.

It is not possible for truly comprehensive schools to survive alongside selective schools. They become secondary moderns, many of whom struggle to attractive specialist staff because of their status.

I doubt whether Mr Rigby will be very popular with some of his headteacher colleagues in Lincolnshire following his ill-informed and misguided remarks.

Lib Dem Education Spokesperson, Lincolnshire County Council, Lincoln

Nutty challenge

Sir: Your leader (19 December) raises the question of alternative uses for nutcrackers, now that the Brazil nut has joined the list of endangered species.

I recommend them for opening those boxes of juice with the kind of screw-cap that even fairly small hands like mine find difficult to grip firmly enough to break the plastic bit inside on first opening.

Harrow, Middlesex

Ballot box voting

Sir: It appears that the Russian Government is probably more democratic than our own (Mary Dejevsky, 10 December), since they have a box marked "against all candidates" which attracted significant support.

Bearing in mind the apathy of the British voter, and given our long tradition of democracy, (contrary to that of Russia) would it not be, to use the Chancellor's words, "prudent" to adopt the same policy here? Within our tradition to write across your ballot paper "I register my right to vote but none of the candidates represents my view" is considered to be a spoiled ballot paper.

Kentchurch, Herefordshire

Pedigree pooches

Sir: Surely there is an animal rights element to the breeding of pedigree dogs, whether they be native or foreign ("Canine cleansing: how Britain's bulldog breeds are being squeezed out by fashionable foreigners", 18 December). Can anyone in the dog breeding community persuade me that the so-called pedigree dogs are anything other than inbred freaks?

Some characteristics in dogs like squashed noses or extreme size can cause distress in these animals, distress that is purely the result of human intervention for dubious pleasure.

It seems to me that there is a case for public intervention if there is no obvious sign of self regulation in this community.