The homeless, Iraq and others

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The Independent Online

'Street retreats' are an insult to the homeless and desperate

'Street retreats' are an insult to the homeless and desperate

Sir: I read your report on "street retreats" (4 May) with a mixture of horror and disbelief. Mimicking the plight of street homeless people in this way is an insult verging on the obscene.

Street homelessness is a tragedy for everyone who experiences it. It's a dangerous life and one that becomes increasingly hard to escape the longer it lasts. Agencies working to end street homelessness know how seriously life on the street compromises an individual's life chances and self-respect, and how much skill and effort is needed to restore the well-being and dignity of former street homeless people. They come from all walks of life and could be any one of us, a fact that the organisers and participants of "street retreats" might like to ponder before they go out and play homeless.

Perhaps they will also reflect on how they will further add to the poor image of street homeless people and potentially add to the burdens on London's services. If one of them is attacked on the street or falls ill, will they turn up at A&E expecting treatment? Outreach, rescue and support services exist to help homeless people come off the street and rebuild their lives. Will the "retreat" participants own up to their charade when they encounter an outreach worker? If the reference to collecting food from shelters is any guide, it seems not. Which adds the injury of wasting others' scarce time and resources to the insult to the people they are pretending to be. Shame on them.

London SW20

Sir: The Independent is right in its condemnation of the absurd "street retreat" weekends offered by the Peacemaker Centre, through which stressed out executives will have the opportunity of sleeping rough on the streets of London for £150.

Thames Reach Bondway works every night of the year with rough sleepers in London. Sleeping rough is unpleasant, dangerous and extremely bad for the health and mental well-being of people who do so through desperation rather than choice. To make money through exploiting this experience is crass and insulting to homeless people, especially when £150 could be spent helping someone get off the street and into accommodation.

Chief Executive, Thames Reach Bondway, London E1

Too late to repair our good name in Iraq

Sir: As an ex-serviceman, I believe the pictures printed in the Daily Mirror, purporting to show British soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, were fakes. I'm not condoning the behaviour if it happened, but with digital photography there are plenty of opportunities for bored squaddies or anyone else to mess about with images to produce pretty much what they want.

Having said that, I do believe there is always a loutish element to any organisation of blokes, and especially in the male-dominated, testosterone-fuelled confines of an organisation which is trained to be "physical" on a lot of different levels. Mannish competition, especially in rugby clubs and suchlike super-macho inner-circles, is ever-present.

Naturally, this kind of behaviour is tolerated, even encouraged, within certain limits, and it is only the superior training and discipline of mid-ranking NCOs (troop-level sergeants and staff-sergeants) which sets those limits. Most NCOs I ever knew were of the highest standard in terms of integrity and discipline; I only recall two or three who deviated grossly from this standard.

I only hope the MoD investigations do not turn into a quagmire like Deepcut. Although it is too late to repair the damage done in the Middle East to our image, a thorough investigation with some concrete answers may help to redress the balance in at least a small way.


Sir: One thing that emerges from the photographs of Iraqi prisoners, fake or otherwise, is that it seems to be an accepted practice by the British and US armies to hood them for long periods. I can think of nothing more frightening. I am sure that this is contrary to the Geneva and Hague conventions, and the sooner coalition leaders, military and political, are brought to justice the better.

London NW3

Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (opinion, 3 May) can tell this to her correspondents in the Muslim world disillusioned by the photographs of Iraqis being tortured. If they believed that in Western democratic societies there is no injustice and gross brutality in time of war cannot occur, then they would inevitably be disillusioned. However, they have much less chance of suffering abuse at the hands of those in authority than in their own societies, and much more chance of receiving recompense or at least public recognition of the crimes committed against them.

London W12

Sir: Are British soldiers trained to urinate with their legs together and with the left foot slightly in front of the right, or is this unnatural posture a result of the stresses of modern warfare ?


Price of a Caesarean

Sir: I refer to your editorial "Women have the right to choose a Caesarean" and the article "NHS in drive to restrict Caesarean births" (28 April).

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) guidelines do not state that the risks of the Caesarean operation are evenly balanced with those of a vaginal birth, as your articles claim. The guidelines quite clearly show that there are many more negative effects for the mother around the time of birth with a Caesarean than with a vaginal birth, the most worrying of these is the increased maternal death rate of 82.3 per million (Caesarean) against 16.9 per million (vaginal).

True, there is reduced perineal pain with a Caesarean (no surprise there), but that is the only advantage at that time. The implications for future pregnancies after Caesarean are all negative - Caesarean mothers are less likely to have more children, more likely to have a ruptured uterus and more likely to give birth to a stillborn child.

It's time to stop this nonsensical belief that Caesareans are pain-free, safe and the easy option.

London SW15

Sir: Vivien Clere (letter, 1 May) is a lucky woman to have enjoyed the benefits of natural childbirth, and I agree that unnecessary Caesareans for fickle reasons should not be encouraged.

However, for some of us there was no choice; without an emergency Caesarean, I and my unborn child would most likely have died. Not having had the luxury of a beautiful textbook natural birth, complete with aromatherapy candles and the music of my choice, I can just about cope with, but I will not tolerate being made to feel guilty for having "failed" as a woman and will not tolerate the suggestion that as a result of her birth my child has a diminished capacity to love. What nonsense.

Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire

Carry on working

Sir: William Fittall's arguments (letter, 30 April) for a retirement age of 60 or 65 highlight the stereotypes and muddled thinking that underpin the Archbishops' Council's opinion.

His argument about the "rights of employers" assumes that older people are bad for business. The EU directive clearly states that employers will not have to hire or retain employees who are not competent or qualified to do a job. Far from being "a sad outcome" this already applies across the board and enables companies to reject a 28- or 38-year-old for the same reasons. It is called the merit principle.

The moment there is a chronological retirement age, employers count backwards: five years before it, staff are too old to train, 10 years before it, too old to hire, 20 years before it, too old to educate. The law barring judges over 70 has prevented some of the finest legal minds in the country from continuing their superb work in the higher courts. Many of the world's best writers and film and theatre directors are over 70.

What is so remote from the experience of the Archbishops' Council, is that most people work beyond 65 because they have to pay the bills and save for an increasingly long and costly retirement. Will the Archbishops be willing to support the two million over-50s who cannot find work due to age discrimination, and hence will never be able to retire?

London NW3

Middle East future

Sir: Michael Halpern (letter, 26 April) is missing one of the most important lessons of Europe's immediate post-war history.

There were millions of displaced people throughout Europe after the war, including significant numbers of Jews, many of whom went to Palestine. All these people made a fresh start and rather than seeing themselves as victims, forever looking to the past, built a future for themselves in their new lands. One side of my family was dispossessed of its homes in Germany and those that survived went on to build new lives in Europe, Canada, Argentina and Brazil.

I have genuine sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians then and now, but the only way forward is for both sides to stop looking backwards and pledge a future together in shared lands.

London N2

Votes at 16

Sir: I'm delighted and fully supportive of the Government's plans to ignore the recent recommendations by the Electoral Commission on votes at 16. Lowering the voting age should be at the centre of Labour's plans for further constitutional reform and modernisation and it is quite right that they should push ahead with this policy.

If you can pay taxes at 16, can have children at 16 and can die for your country at 16, you should be given the right to vote in elections. The commission's report had far too much emphasis on votes at 16 as a measure to increase voter turnout in elections. It should have been much more constructive and recommended that, coupled with citizenship education in schools across the UK (which thanks to this government, is largely already in place), every 16-year-old should be entitled to the fundamental human right to vote and choose their country's political destiny, in a modern and forward-looking democracy.

London SE11

Sir: Now we know that Blair is really desperate if he will sink so low as to seek the votes of children to give him the power he craves. Sixteen-year-olds do not have the one essential commodity to ensure the validity of decision-making which would affect the state of the nation - experience.

Helston, Cornwall

Sir: Your editorial repeats the view that the participation of the young in the anti-war protests is in some way indicative of their political maturity.

Really? One of the deep thinkers who absented himself from my class to take part in the demonstration the day the war started told me that he didn't "think there should be a war" because, in his considered opinion, "it's pure gay". Not entirely representative perhaps, but you err if you underestimate the depth of ignorance that the average secondary teacher is confronted with daily.

My own counsel, then and now, is that 16-year olds would benefit from staying in class, rather than being encouraged - by well-meaning adults who clearly have had adolescents described to them - to involve themselves in premature political participation.


An atheist in awe

Sir: Like Michael McCarthy (Opinion, 1 May), I too will - and already have - during May "hear a bird, and see an insect, which provoke in me the feeling that I am suddenly in touch with something far greater than myself". For me, that something is the natural evolutionary life force, remarkable and far profounder than everyday life.

I am sorry Mr McCarthy feels it necessary, like many other believers in the supernatural, to belittle the views of humanists and atheists in suggesting that only those with religious faith can stand in awe, wonderment and joy at natural and human creation.

London W4

Eyes off the road

Sir: Yesterday I drove through a village of speed cameras and counted that I took my eyes off the road 10 times to check the speedometer. I could answer my mobile phone without taking my eyes off the road.

Westbury-sub-Mendip, Somerset

Sneering classes

Sir: Why does S Colley (letter 4 May) recognise "gibbering, barbaric, flaccid hordes" as a description of the working classes? Does he/she have such a low opinion of them? Is S Colley perhaps actually a member of the sneering middle classes?


Glowing fish

Sir: Bearing in mind the US Food and Drug Administration's arguments that GloFish would not enter the food chain ("Fluorescent fish spark GM row", 4 May), it's ironic that Finding Nemo, the film credited for robust sales of the fish, was the story of a fish escaping into the food chain. One wonders exactly what sort of cartoon characters work at the FDA.

London W3

Happy sausages

Sir: When searching for "happy, gambolling 'free-range sausages' " Gerard Benson (letter, 29 April) should remember they will be chipperlatas.

Tunbridge Wells, Kent