INDEPENDENT 2024-02-27 10:34:30

Jeremy Hunt eyes ‘national insurance cut and vape tax’ for Budget

Jeremy Hunt is said to be looking at cutting national insurance and introducing a vape tax as part of his upcoming March Budget.

The chancellor is reportedly considering a 1 per cent NI reduction which will cost about £4.5 billion a year, in a bid to satiate calls within his party for tax cuts.

But Mr Hunt has considerably less headroom than previously thought after official forecasts downgraded the amount of money available to the government.

But the chancellor is still keen to push forward with some tax cuts, and is said to be looking at alternative sources of income to fund it

It is thought he may introduce a “vaping products levy” to be paid on imports and by manufacturers to try to make the habit unaffordable for children, The Times reports.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has pushed back against the chancellor’s plans to introduce tax cuts, warning it would be “very challenging” to achieve considering Britain’s ageing population and mounting debt pile.

It further cautioned the transition to net zero and protecting the UK’s public services like hospitals and schools would need higher spending in the medium term than current government plans.

The chancellor has already scaled back his plans after he was said to be considering a 2p cut in national insurance tax, but the £13.7 billion a year cost made it unaffordable with current figures.

Mr Hunt is also said to be considering only increasing public spending by 0.75 per cent rather than 1 per cent, a move that could save about £5 billion a year.

But economists have warned this would lead to considerable spending cuts for unprotected departments. The IFS said this could worsen already struggling public services, such as courts and prisons, higher education and the Home Office.

The IFS said during the Autumn statement the chancellor “ignored the impacts of higher inflation on public service budgets and instead used additional tax revenues to fund eye-catching tax cuts.”

It warned against doing the same this time, stating that “until the Government is willing to provide more detail on its spending plans in a spending review, it should refrain from providing detail on tax cuts.”

The plans to introduce a vaping duty are expected to raise more than £500 million a year by 2028 and 2029, and will be accompanied by a one-off increase in tobacco duty to ensure that vaping remains a cheaper alternative.

The scheme forms part of Rishi Sunak’s push to stop children taking up vaping while creating a “smoke-free generation”. The prime minister announced he would phase out the sale of cigarettes in his Autumn conference speech, in what he dubbed the “biggest public health intervention in a generation”.

The proposed vape tax is modelled on 15 similar schemes across Europe and will align the UK with the EU’s plans to introduce a bloc-wide vaping levy.

Last week the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) informed the government that it would have about £13 billion of fiscal headroom, of which Hunt will leave about £6 billion in reserve.

Typically, chancellors leave themselves £25 billion of headroom to cope with changes in interest rates and inflation without needing to change tax and spending policies, but Mr Hunt’s room for manoeuvre has been heavily impacted by inflation falling faster than expected, resulting in lower tax revenues, and increased borrowing costs.

The final forecasts before the budget are expected on Friday.

Police searching for boy in river call in Nicola Bulley diving expert

The diving expert who joined the hunt for missing mother Nicola Bulley has been called in to help find a missing toddler in Leicestershire.

A search was launched to find Xielo Maruziva after reports that the two year-old, who was with family at the time, fell into the water on February 18 in Aylestone Meadows, close to Marsden Lane, Leicester.

From Tuesday, experts from private company Specialist Group International (SGI), who were involved in the search for Ms Bulley in the River Wyre in Lancashire last year, will join the operation after “further conversations with search specialists and Xielo’s family”.

Mr Faulding, who founded SGI, previously helped with the search for Ms Bulley, 45, after she vanished on January 27 last year.

He claimed to have found the missing mother within a matter of minutes using advanced sonar, despite the search eventually taking 23 days until her body was recovered.

However, a police review into the handling of her disappearance found that he had created “challenges” during the operation, and he was critical of Lancashire Police’s search efforts.

The 61-year-old expert diver said that Xielo’s family had contacted him to request his help, but that his offer of support was “ignored” by Leicestershire police.

He said: “The request came in from the family on February 21 – they pleaded with me to help them search.

“I said I’d do it free of charge – my team is ready to roll straight away. We’ve got the best equipment in the world, and I’ve got an untarnished reputation for finding 10 drowning victims per year. We’re not some amateur team. But we’ve been ignored by the police.

“We’ve put constant requests in to help find Xielo since Wednesday – but we’ve heard nothing back. Or, they’ve said they’ve got enough resources. This isn’t about police hatred – it’s about finding a two-year-old boy, the same age as my own grandson.”

As of Tuesday however, his team will be involved in the search, with Assistant Chief Constable Michaela Kerr confirming: “We continue to be grateful to the support we’ve been shown by the public and colleagues from other forces and agencies.

“We’re in regular contact with Xielo’s family and are continuing to support them in what remains a very upsetting time.

“Our search operation to locate Xielo continues to widen as we know he may have travelled further from where he went into the water, and potentially outside our force area.

“I would like to reassure you that our operation is continuing and our teams will be carrying out co-ordinated searches at various points along the river.”

“Our decision to involve SGI in the search (is) in liaison with Xielo’s family and having spoken to both the company and independent specialists.

“I’d also like to remind the public that the river is dangerous and that they should not go into the water themselves.”

The search for the boy is in its second week, with the focus on the stretch of river around Watermead Park and Birstall over the weekend, police said.

After the little boy fell into the water, his father jumped in to rescue him and was later hospitalised as a precautionary measure. In a statement, his parents described their son as a “cheeky, funny” boy who is “a bundle of joy”, while sharing an image of him wearing a Spiderman outfit.

Search efforts have been hampered by the bad weather and local flooding, with members of the public urged not to attempt their own search efforts.

Taylor Swift’s father accused of assault in Sydney

Taylor Swift’s father Scott Swift has been accused of assaulting an Australian photographer on a wharf on the Sydney Harbour early on Tuesday after the singer’s final concert, according to the police.

Local media identified the paparazzo as Ben McDonald, the chief executive of Matrix Media Group, who was photographing Swift as she got off a yacht at the Neutral Bay wharf around 2am following a late-night cruise on the Sydney Harbour.

“Police have been told a 71-year-old man allegedly assaulted a 51-year-old man,” the New South Wales Police said in a statement, without naming Swift’s father, Scott.

“The younger man reported the incident and inquiries are now underway by officers attached to North Shore Police Area Command. The man did not require medical treatment,” according to the police.

Swift was with her father at the time but had entered a car when the alleged assault occurred, according to state broadcaster ABC. “He’s charged in and punched me in the face,” McDonald told the outlet.

“In 23 years of doing this I’ve never been assaulted, let alone been punched in the face by a father,” he said.

“I didn’t realise it was her dad at the time,” he told The Guardian. “It was a bit of a shock but I’ll leave the police to do their job.”

A spokesperson for Taylor Swift told the Rolling Stone two people were acting “aggressively” towards Swift and her entourage when the incident occurred.

“Two individuals were aggressively pushing their way towards Taylor, grabbing at her security personnel, and threatening to throw a female staff member into the water,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The ABC reported the photographer said Swift‘s entourage used umbrellas to try and prevent him taking photographs and in the alleged altercation Swift‘s father became involved.

Swift‘s Australian leg of her record-breaking Eras tour wrapped up on Monday evening.

Bodies found in search for missing TV presenter and partner

Police have found the bodies of former Australian TV presenter Jesse Baird and his flight attendant partner after the couple went missing last week.

Police believe Baird and his partner Luke Davies were murdered in Baird‘s Sydney home last week, and have arrested a New South Wales police officer who used to date the TV host.

Human remains were discovered at a property in the small town of Bungonia, about two hours drive southwest of Syndey, on Tuesday.

“We believe we have located two bodies,” said NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb. “The families have been informed. And crime scene detectives have just arrived on scene at that location now.”

New South Wales Police Force senior constable Beau Lamarre-Condon, who dated Baird until late last year, was charged on Friday with the murders of both men.

He “provided assistance” in locating the remains, said Detective Superintendent Daniel Doherty at a press conference on Tuesday. “This is a breakthrough for this investigation.”

“There were two surf bags that have been found. And some debris and other items of interest, of significance,” he said, adding that the bodies were “found upon a fence line, near the entrance to the property”.

Investigators suspect that the bodies were moved from Baird’s home in Paddington in surf bags, with a rented van used to bring them to the rural property in Bungonia.

“They were covered in debris and the state of the bodies won’t be known until we do a proper crime scene investigation, and from there we’ll be able to have a post-mortem conducted as well,” said Mr Doherty.

The case has gripped Australia and is believed to be the first suspected case of murder by a serving New South Wales police officer, prompting a review of access to firearms by an off-duty officer.

“It’s a failure if someone has used their service firearm in the manner that’s alleged, which is why it’s necessary to have a review,” Mr Webb had said last week.

Meanwhile, organisers of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras have asked police not to march at their annual parade this weekend, following the alleged murder of the couple.

The Mardi Gras’ board said LGBT+ communities across Australia had been devastated by the loss of the couple, who had planned to celebrate at the parade on Saturday.

“The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Board feels that having the NSW Police march this year could add to the distress within our communities, already deeply affected by recent events. The Board has taken the decision to request that the police do not march in the 2024 Parade,” the board said in a statement late on Monday.

“This decision was not made lightly, especially considering that many NSW Police members who participate in the parade are also members of the LGBTQIA+ community and are navigating the impact of this tragedy alongside us. However, we believe that their participation at this year’s event could intensify the current feelings of sorrow and distress,” the board added.

Ms Webb, who has taken part in the annual march since 2006, urged the board to reconsider its decision. “We’re not dealing with a gay hate crime here. We’re dealing with a domestic homicide and … I’m disappointed (by) the position that Mardi Gras board has taken on this issue,” she said adding that it is the “time to come together”.

She also received support from independent lawmakers. “It’s really important that the LGBTQ community know that the police are there to protect us, that we can report crime to them. That said, a lot of work needs to be done on the police’s side here,” said independent state lawmaker and gay activist Alex Greenwich.

Additional reporting by agencies

How many sexual partners is too many sexual partners?

Numbers define our lives. How many bedrooms we have in our homes. How many times it took us to pass our driving test. How many husbands we’ve had. And so on. One stat apparently means far more than any other, though: how many people we’ve slept with. To many, this may seem like a juvenile figure to monitor (even though plenty of grown adults keep a list on their phones). But regardless of whether it’s something you officially track, I’ll bet you’re familiar with your number. Because for many of us it’s a number to which we still attach a substantial degree of meaning.

Over the weekend, a woman wrote into “The Midults” advice column in The Daily Telegraph expressing concern at the number of men she’d been with. “I wish I hadn’t slept with so many men,” she wrote. “I am in my mid-forties and have been with a lovely man for many years and I am suddenly haunted by all the bodies I have encountered, particularly as most of the sex was very unsatisfying. I don’t know why I’m suddenly bothered by it.”

In the response, writers Annabel Rivkin and Emilie McMeekan ascertained that this woman had “partied hard” in her youth. They also assured the correspondent that societal expectations should not lead her to prescribe any amount of shame to her sexual past. Indeed, they shouldn’t. But it’s often not that simple, particularly for women. “We still have such an archaic view of how we approach this topic,” says Emma-Louise Boynton, founder and host of Sex Talks. “It feels like there’s so much judgement placed on women for having a so-called ‘higher body count’ whereas for men it’s a sense of pride as opposed to something to be ashamed of.”

This discrepancy is as old as time. It’s the Madonna-whore complex to a tee: women who have the audacity to have a sense of themselves as sexual beings fall into the latter category, while those pretending not to fit neatly in the former. It’s something we’ve seen play out most obviously on ITV2’s Love Island, the reality TV dating show. Season after season, the show has featured a variation of the same game that would see the male and female contestants guess how many people one another had slept with. In textbook fashion, the men who’d slept with many people were rewarded with laughs and jeers. The women with similar “body counts” were highly scrutinised, and often in those terms (“I can’t believe her body count”) – which served only to exacerbate the violence of their judgement.

“The feeling of shame associated with sleeping with too many people often stems from arguably outdated societal norms, cultural values, and gender stereotypes,” says psychologist Dr Louise Goddard-Crawley. “Historically, women have been more heavily stigmatised for engaging in multiple sexual relationships compared to men. This double standard perpetuates the notion that women should be sexually modest and reserved, while men are encouraged to pursue sexual conquests. Consequently, women who deviate from these expectations may internalise feelings of shame or judgement, impacting their self-worth and psychological wellbeing.”

It can take an inordinate amount of unlearning and self-development work to navigate through those feelings of shame, which inevitably will affect how we approach sex and dating more generally. “It’s such an arbitrary thing,” adds Boynton, “because if you’ve been single for most of your twenties, you’re going to have been with more people versus those who’ve been in a relationship. It’s not something that I would ever worry about, because I’ve done a lot of work to disconnect myself from the shame associated between women and sex. I do have a list on my phone but it’s mainly to jolt my memory.”

You’d think that in 2024, these would be cultural scripts we’d have long moved away from. But they persist, with people fixating on their respective “number” and wondering what it says about them. “As a clinical sexologist working with women, some of the key questions I get from my clients touch on this,” says sex coach Marie Morice. “How many times a month is considered ‘normal’? How many sexual partners is considered ‘normal’? This question may mean ‘Am I socially acceptable?’ or ‘conventional’? And my answer to them is always that, when it comes to sex and erotic pleasure, there is no ‘normal’.”

It’s not just women asking these questions, either, and feeling regret and shame when they don’t get the answers they want. “I think coming of age in the early Noughties – a time when, pop culturally, men were put on a pedestal for having lots of sex with multiple people – messed me up quite a bit,” says Mike*, 39. “I was at a school that was full of toxic masculinity and sleeping around suddenly got me status and validation.” Besides, he adds, it doesn’t exactly lead to that many memorable experiences. “I can’t name half the people I’ve slept with,” he explains. “It makes me feel gross and is off-putting for the people with whom I have proper, meaningful relationships.”

There are levels to all of this, too. Not only do some people fear that they’ve slept with too many people, others fear they’ve slept with too few. “I often worry about how little sexual experience I have,” says Mia*, 31. “Women my age are supposed to be entering their sexual prime. But I was in a relationship for most of my twenties and am still working out who I am, sexually speaking, outside of that. So, if anything, I feel ashamed that I’m not having enough sex with enough people.”

Perhaps the fixation on such an ostensibly meaningless matter speaks to a wider problem with how we talk and think about sex. Surely the fact that we place so much importance on something like this highlights just how warped societal perceptions around sex really are, and how little we still speak about the subject openly. “We have this perception that everyone else is having much better, more frequent sex than we are,” says Boynton. “It creates an unhealthy comparison culture.”

Regardless of how many sexual partners you have or haven’t had, comparing your sex life to others is only ever going to amount to unhelpful mental chatter, building a negative narrative that feeds into an underlying insecurity you’re harbouring – either about yourself, your body, or your sexuality. “It just shows how we aren’t speaking vulnerably enough about sex,” adds Boynton. “And until we are, we aren’t going to be able to counter these perceptions.”

*Names have been changed

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.

The Tory party must open its eyes to the Islamophobia within its ranks

Whatever they choose to call it, the Conservative Party has a problem with Islamophobia, or “anti-Muslim hate”, to use the apparently preferred term. Of course, there are Islamophobes in the Labour Party and, still, antisemitism; and no doubt some Conservatives also harbour some old-fashioned prejudices about Jews. But, at the moment, the focus is on what Lee Anderson’s remarks about Sadiq Khan, and the reaction to it, tells us about the anti-racist credentials of the Conservative Party – and it is not encouraging.

Mr Anderson notoriously said the capital was being “controlled” by Islamists and accused Mr Khan of handing the city over “to his mates”. The comments lost him the Tory whip.

In a slightly bizarre twist in this phobic tale, he has made a supplementary, and welcome, statement in which he declares that “the vast majority of our Muslim friends in the UK are decent, hard-working citizens who make an amazing contribution to our society and their religion should not be blamed for the actions of a tiny minority of extremists”.

What can the IFS warning tell us about the upcoming spring Budget?

Long before the estimable and independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) was set up by George Osborne, then chancellor, in 2010, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) acted as a kind of fiscal watchdog. Unlike the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the IFS can set its own remit and rules about what it concerns itself with. In the current climate of a post-war near-record high national debt and tax burden, and increasing demographic pressures on the public finances, the IFS is needed as much now as at any time in its near 55-year existence.

Its latest report sets out the options for the chancellor’s Budget on 6 March and contains a number of grim warnings. It seems clear that Jeremy Hunt’s political and economic options remain constrained…