INDEPENDENT 2024-02-21 10:33:53

Ex-Post Office chairman told not to ‘rip off band aid’ with payments

A top civil servant told the ex-Post Office chairman to “hobble” into the general election and not “rip off the band aid” in terms of compensation payments to subpostmasters, it has been revealed.

After business secretary Kemi Badenoch accused Henry Staunton of lying for saying he had been told to stall compensation payouts for postmasters affected by the Horizon scandal, he unearthed a memo in which he recorded the instruction.

It revealed that Sarah Munby, who was then the business department’s permanent secretary, warned Mr Staunton that “politicians do not necessarily like to confront reality” and that “now was not the time for dealing with long-term issues”.

The contemporaneous note of their first meeting on January 5 last year, revealed by The Times, raises questions about Ms Badenoch’s denial of Mr Staunton’s claim, as well as her decision to accuse him of lying.

It emerged after she told the Commons there was “no evidence whatsoever” of his account and branded it “a blatant attempt to seek revenge” for his sacking.

The note will also add to pressure on the government to set a deadline date for payments to wronged postmasters, which business and trade committee chairman Liam Byrne has called for.

It came as Ms Badenoch was plunged into a separate political row over a claim she is engaged in trade talks with Canada, which the country says do not exist.

The business secretary told MPs “explicitly” last month that talks with Canada were “ongoing”, as a March cliff-edge for British carmakers approaches.

But the Canadian high commissioner to the UK, Ralph Goodale, wrote to the House of Commons business select committee to insist the talks have not happened, the Financial Times reported.

The row between Mr Staunton and Ms Badenoch erupted when he gave an explosive interview to the Sunday Times in which he said he was told to “stall” on compensation for subpostmasters ahead of the general election.

Staunton, who was ousted last month after less than a year in the role, said he had been told to allow the Tories to “limp into” the vote.

But Ms Badenoch hit back accusing him of “lies” and said he had been removed from his post because of “concerns over his conduct”.

She also claimed he was being investigated over bullying allegations before he was fired as chairman, and that concerns were raised about his willingness to co-operate with the probe.

The Horizon scandal saw more than 700 postmasters handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Mr Staunton’s note, as reported by The Times, recounts him telling Ms Munby a month after taking his post that he “had been on over a dozen public company boards and not seen one with so many challenges”.

She was “sympathetic” with his arguments, but said that “politicians do not necessarily like to confront reality” and in the run up to a general election “ there was no appetite to ‘rip off the band aid’”.

The note suggests Ms Munby was referring to the overall finances of the Post Office, but Mr Staunton said the two biggest spending items were compensation payments and replacing the Horizon system.

The Liberal Democrats demanded an investigation by the government’s ethics advisor, suggesting Ms Badenoch may have breached the ministerial code.

Deputy leader Daisy Cooper said: “Time and again Conservative ministers have undermined the integrity of our politics. Now, this row embroiling Kemi Badenoch raises a whole series of new questions to which we urgently need answers.

“If Badenoch misled Parliament then she clearly breached the Ministerial Code.

“Subpostmasters – who are at the heart of this whole scandal – deserve justice, financial redress and the truth.”

Ms Munby reportedly denies telling Mr Staunton to hold back on compensation for sub-postmasters.

The Office star Ewen MacIntosh dies aged 50

Ewen MacIntosh, who played Keith Bishop in The Office, has died aged 50.

Tributes are pouring in for the star, who was known by many for his role in the British sitcom created by Ricky Gervais.

News of MacIntosh’s death was confirmed by his close friend Ed Scott, who wrote: “I am completely devastated by the loss of my very good friend Ewen MacIntosh.

“He may have had a famous face known by millions as Keith from The Office but the person inside is what I will most remember.”

Gervais has paid tribute to MacIntosh, calling his co-star “an absolute original”.

The comedian wrote on X/Twitter: “Extremely sad news. The very funny and very lovely Ewen Macintosh, known to many as ‘Big Keith’ from The Office, has passed away. An absolute original. RIP.”

MacIntosh’s big break came after being cast as oddball Keith in The Office in 2001, a role he played in 14 episodes until the show’s conclusion in 2003. Thanks to the character’s DJ’ing skills and Ali G impersonation, he became a cult favourite.

His other sitcom credits included Little Britain, Lead Balloon, Miranda and Mongrels and, in 2022, he reunited with Gervais on Netflix series After Life.

MacIntosh also had a small role in Yorgos Lanthimos’s film The Lobster (2015), playing a waiter opposite Colin Farrell and Olivia Colman.

As a comedian, MacIntosh had a double act with Tim FitzHigham , with whom he performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007.

But it was as Keith that MacIntosh remained best remembered – something the actor had no problem with.

Speaking about being accidentally called by his character’s name when he first encountered people, including his fellow actors, MacIntosh told Vice in 2021: “I wouldn’t say it’s common, but it’s recurring. It’s even happened on sets, which is the last place you’d expect.

“They feel awful about it as well, which is amusing, because I’m not really that bothered.”

He also said he “can’t really complain” about Keith’s enduring popularity as “it’s made me money”. The actor, who would regularly send videos in character on the app Cameo, told the outlet that the sitcom “holds up well”, adding: “Long may it continue”.

Speaking about the demand on Cameo, MacIntosh said: “People always want a message from Keith, never from me. He’s still getting me work, which is quite amazing when you think about it. When the lockdowns started, I was doing about 30 a week. Now it’s down to maybe 10 or 20.”

Putin denies plan to put nuclear weapons in space – live

Russia has denied US claims that they are developing a space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapon.

The United States believes Russia is developing a space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapon whose detonation could disrupt everything from military communications to phone-based ride services, a source familiar with the matter said on Tuesday.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was his understanding the system would involve a nuclear explosive device placed into orbit.

“Our position is clear and transparent: We have always been categorically against and are now against the deployment of nuclear weapons in space,” Putin told Sergei Shoigu, his defence minister at a televised meeting in the Kremlin.

“We urge not only compliance with all agreements that exist in this area, but also offered to strengthen this joint work many times,” Putin said.

It comes as Kyiv dismisses Russian claims they have captured a key village on the east bank of Dnipro.

Sergei Shou said the village of Krynky had been taken by Moscow however Ukraine’s minister called Mr Shogiu’s statement a “falsification of the facts.

Joe Lycett vs Sewage is a potent mix of silliness and righteous anger

“Have you seen Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet?” asks Joe Lycett, as he makes awkward eye contact with a sewage scientist through a murky brown tank. This, well, crappy version of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes’s iconic meet-cute, where they first lock eyes through an aquarium, sets the tone for Lycett’s latest campaigning documentary, Channel 4’s Joe Lycett vs Sewage, in which the comedian tackles a subject that’s both very serious and really quite gross with chaotic humour.

After confronting oil companies over greenwashing and calling out David Beckham for his support of the Qatar World Cup despite the country’s laws against homosexuality, Lycett has now turned his attention to the vast amount of untreated sewage that is being released into Britain’s waterways. It’s “one of the worst environmental scandals in decades”, he says – and of course, it’s the perfect opportunity for some toilet jokes.

First, Lycett heads off to a lab to learn about how sewage is processed, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with pictures of You Are What You Eat’s Gillian McKeith, presumably in a tribute to Channel 4’s reigning queen of poo. Between the quips (“I went to an Airbnb on a stag do, it had a hot tub that looked just like that,” he remarks while observing a bubbling vat of greeny-brown water), he provides us with a quick primer on our broken sewage system. This network of underground tunnels was built by the Victorians, and although it has expanded since then, it hasn’t kept up with the UK’s population growth; add in excess rainwater and there’s simply too much to handle. Cue billions of litres of sewage ending up in the rivers and the sea.

After a quick jaunt to Aldwick, a beach in Bognor Regis where the local swimming club regularly braves the not-so-inviting sea (residents have branded the beach “S***wick”), it’s time for a handful of fever-dream sequences spelling out exactly how Britain’s waterways became overwhelmed with waste. First, journalist Jon Sopel appears in a bathtub in order to explain the legalities, as if in a very low-budget recreation of Margot Robbie’s The Big Short scenes. Then, for some reason, Dragons’ Den’s Deborah Meaden crops up in the back of a limo to tell Lycett about the UK’s water regulators (perhaps she just needed to escape from listening to Steven Bartlett talking about Huel).

Particularly enlightening (and infuriating) are two more serious moments. In the first, Lycett speaks to a water industry whistleblower, who claims that companies aren’t being transparent about spills because they’ll get fined, so “the more spills reported, the less bonus you’re likely to get”. And in the second, he shows the close relationship between the water companies and the regulators, with high-up executives often moving between both: it’s an industry, it seems, full of poachers turned gamekeepers: “Cosier than a pyjama party at Mary Berry’s house,” as the comic puts it.

Lycett being Lycett, it’s not long before he starts masterminding a mad headline-grabbing stunt, acting as a Trojan horse for his more serious message. This time, the convoluted plan includes pretending to do what every single other celebrity has already done: launch a podcast. This one’s called “Turdcast”, and it’s all about poo. The first “guest” is Gary Lineker, who gamely appears to chat about that infamous on-pitch accident during the 1990 World Cup. Every good podcast needs a launch event, so Lycett travels up to the Albert Dock in Liverpool for an extravaganza involving a massive toilet and some fake sewage.

However you feel about scatological humour, it’s hard not to nod in agreement with Lycett’s bigger point: that water companies should invest in better infrastructure, rather than focusing on paying dividends to their investors. Of course, it shouldn’t be up to Lycett alone to hold them to account. But his trademark mixture of silliness and righteous anger is a powerful one – hopefully it’ll get everyone talking s***.

How to help create a smokefree generation

“Some people can just stop and then never smoke again, but for most it’s hard,” says Tim Eves a 45-year-old father of three from West Sussex.

“It’s just getting through those initial tough few months. Once you do the benefits hugely outweigh the stress of giving it up.”

Tim was a smoker for around 12 years, but gave up with help from a local support group who introduced him to nicotine patches and gum.

“I won’t pretend it isn’t hard,” he adds. “The first few months, you have it in your head that you’d love to have just one cigarette. But now, if we happen to be in the pub it doesn’t even enter my head.”

Taking the first step to go smokefree may sound daunting, but quitting smoking offers significant health benefits – and can save you money.

Tobacco is the single most important entirely preventable cause of ill health, disability and death in this country, responsible for 80,000 deaths in the UK each year.

It causes around 1-in-4 cancer deaths in the UK and is responsible for just over 70 per cent of all lung cancer cases.

Smoking also substantially increases the risk of many major health conditions throughout people’s lives, such as strokes, diabetes, heart disease, stillbirth, dementia and asthma.

Smoking increases the chance of stillbirth by almost half and makes children twice as likely to be hospitalised for asthma from second-hand smoking.

And a typical addicted smoker spends £2,400 a year.

Jo Howarth, 52, from St Helens, Merseyside, finally kicked her addiction after 20 years of on-and-off smoking.

“I was quite anti-smoking as a young teenager, but I started when I was 16 because I wanted to fit in with the cool crowd,” she says.

“I knew it was bad for me, but it was so hard to give up. I tried cold turkey, hypnotherapy and at one point I had a staple in my ear, but I never lasted more than about six months.

“After I got married, I wanted to conceive so I cut down to one a day but the moment I found out I was pregnant with my daughter, I stopped.

“As soon as the reason outweighed the addiction, I found a reason to stop and as a hypnotherapist I know that pinpointing why you’re addicted is the key to stopping.

“I used to think that smoking calmed me down, but now I realise that’s a myth – it was just the deep breaths I was taking while I did it. Without it I’m so much healthier and I’m determined to stay smokefree for my kids.”

Smokers lose an average of 10 years life expectancy – around one year for every four smoking years.

Smokers also need care on average 10 years earlier than they would otherwise have – often while still of working age.

‘’Smoking is based on addiction and most people wish they had never taken it up,” says Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer.

“They try to stop and they cannot. Their choice has been taken away. As a doctor I have seen many people in hospital desperate to stop smoking but they cannot.”

The government is now working on creating a smokefree generation.

The new proposals give citizens more freedom. Smoking is not a choice, it is an addiction, and the large majority of smokers and ex-smokers regret ever starting in the first place.

Creating a smokefree generation will be one of the most significant public health measures in a generation, saving thousands of lives and billions of pounds for our NHS and the economy, and levelling up the UK by tackling one of the most important preventable drivers of inequality in health outcomes.

New laws will protect future generations from ever taking up smoking as well as tackling youth vaping by:

Alongside the Bill, there will be new funding to support current smokers to quit by doubling the funding of local ‘stop smoking services’ (to nearly £140 million) as well as £30m of new funding to crack down on illicit tobacco and underage sale of tobacco and vapes.

Stop the blame games and put the Post Office scandal victims first

A new drama is being staged at the Westminster Palace of Varieties, which we may call “Ms Badenoch vs the Post Office (Chairman)”. It is likely to play out for a few days at least, and will – for those who follow these political dramas closely – be entertaining.

Kemi Badenoch, the combative business secretary, is never short of self-confidence but some observers wonder if the pretty flat assertions she’s made in the Commons about the former chair of the Post Office, Henry Staunton, might have been a little rash.

She sacked Mr Staunton only three weeks ago, and her decision continues to be controversial, not least so far as Mr Staunton is concerned. He has had a distinguished career in business and does not accept Ms Badenoch’s reasons for dismissing him, nor the way in which it was done. She, in response, accuses him of spreading falsehoods – a serious allegation, made via social media and amplified under parliamentary privilege in the Commons.

What does the SNP’s motion and vote on Gaza mean for Labour?

Since the Hamas atrocities in Israel on 7 October and the war that followed, the Labour Party has found itself in a series of dilemmas about what its policy on the conflict should be. The need to recognise Israel’s right to defend itself and condemn terror has had to be reconciled increasingly uneasily with Israel’s response – one that has led to the charge of genocide being considered at the International Court of Justice.

Some Muslim Labour supporters, including MPs, councillors and candidates, have found Keir Starmer’s past reluctance to call for an immediate ceasefire difficult to accept, and many others, not just on the left, share that view. In trying to root out antisemitism in his party as well as resist Islamophobia, he has found himself losing two of his party’s parliamentary candidates.

Now the SNP, Labour’s main rival north of the border, has tabled another Commons motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, with a debate and vote on Wednesday. Starmer has had to react – and hold his party together…