INDEPENDENT 2024-03-07 10:04:10


Deadly Russian airstrike slams into Odesa port just 500 metres from Zelensky

At least five people were killed in a Russian missile strike that nearly hit Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s motorcade.

The president was in Odesa to meet Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, on Wednesday when the missile hit infrastructure close enough for the leaders to see the strike.

It is estimated that the attack took place a mere 500 to 800-metre distance from the delegations.

It comes after Ukrainian drones struck one of Russia’s largest iron ore plants, with the attack claimed by Ukraine’s military intelligence agency.

A source in Ukraine’s GUR military intelligence agency said it was responsible for the attack. Ukraine has stepped up long-range drones to strike targets deep inside Russia.

Russia also carried out an overnight attack on Ukrainian regions on Wednesday with 42 drones, Ukrainian officials said. At least seven people were injured.

Meanwhile, Germany’s ambassador to the UK has said there is “no need to apologise” for the security breaches which led to a call between top military officials being leaked by Russian sources.

Miguel Berger told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme one of the participants had likely dialled in via an insecure line.

Dramatic takeover by Nationwide of Virgin Money by Britain’s top woman banker

Nationwide is set to buy Virgin Money in a dramatic £2.9bn takeover deal.

It is the largest deal ever made by a female banker after Nationwide chief executive Debbie Crosbie announced the planned acquisition in the stock market on Thursday morning.

The takeover, announced on the eve of International Women’s Day, means the new company will have assets of more than £370bn.

Both brands will still work separately in the short term and no Virgin Money branch closures are expected.

Nationwide said it does not intend to make any material changes to the size of Virgin Money’s 7,300-strong workforce “in the near term”. But it revealed it plans to rebrand the Virgin Money business as Nationwide within six years, though it will keep the two brands initially.

As well as total assets of £366.6bn – Nationwide’s £274.5bn and Virgin Money’s £91.8bn – the takeover will mean a combined 24.5 million customers and 696 branches.

Nationwide has the largest single-brand network in the UK and the combined group will have the second-largest group branch network behind Lloyds HBOS.

The combined group will also be the second-largest mortgage provider in the UK, overtaking NatWest.

Nationwide will extend its “Branch Promise” to Virgin Money – to retain a branch everywhere where the combined group is present until at least the start of 2026, adding that it “values Virgin Money’s ongoing presence in Glasgow and Newcastle”.

One personal finance accountant said: “The good news for consumers is that Virgin Money has a terrible customer relations reputation while Nationwide has won awards for exactly that.”

Ms Crosbie said: “Importantly, Nationwide will remain a building society, and a combined group would bring the benefits of fairer banking and mutual ownership to more people in the UK, including our continuing commitment to retain existing branches, as part of our ‘Branch Promise’ and leading levels of customer service.

“We believe the combination would create a stronger and more diverse business that will be better placed to deliver value to our members and customers, both now and in the future.”

Nationwide has put forward a 220p-a-share approach for Virgin Money, including a planned 2p-per-share dividend payout, which it said is a 38 per cent increase on Virgin Money’s closing share price on Wednesday.

Shares in the lender soared 36 per cent in Thursday morning trading.

The companies have reached a preliminary agreement on the deal, with Nationwide now looking through Virgin Money’s books before making a firm offer. Virgin Group Holdings, which has a stake of around 14.5 per cent in Virgin Money, said it would also back a deal on the same terms as the current proposal.

Virgin Money said the planned deal comes after a series of proposals from Nationwide and, if a firm offer is made on the same terms as those so far agreed, its board would “be minded to recommend it to Virgin Money shareholders”, adding that the firm would benefit from Nationwide’s “scale and pace of investment”.

Virgin Money chief executive David Duffy said: “This potential transaction with Nationwide represents an exciting opportunity to build on the significant progress we have made in becoming the only new Tier 1 bank in recent history.

“The combined scale and strength would expand our customer offering and complete our journey in the banking sector as a national competitor.”

Virgin Money is the UK’s sixth largest retail bank, with around 6.6 million customers and total lending of £72.8bn. It has a £57.1bn mortgage portfolio and deposits of around £67.3bn.

The group has 91 branches, which has been scaled back significantly in recent years after a series of closures due to the shift towards online banking. Virgin Money was formerly the Clydesdale and Yorkshire bank group CYBG and rebranded after a £1.6bn takeover of Sir Richard Branson’s banking group in 2018.

Nationwide said the acquisition would mean a wider range of products and services would be available to its members, including the well-established business banking services provided by Virgin Money.

“A combination with Virgin Money would accelerate Nationwide’s strategy and create a stronger, and more diverse, modern mutual,” said Nationwide chair Kevin Parry.

“The combination would increase Nationwide’s scale and financial strength, put us in a stronger position to continue to provide Fairer Share Payments to eligible Nationwide members, and offer rates for mortgages and savings that are, on average, better than the market average.”

Banking analyst Joseph Dickerson at Jefferies said: “The deal looks to make a lot of strategic sense for Nationwide in terms of extension into cards and business current accounts and scale in core lending and deposits.”

Additional reporting by PA

Electric Jaguar rammed off road by police after brakes fail at 90mph

A driver of an £80,000 electric Jaguar has spoken of his terror as police were forced to ram him off the road when the brakes on the luxury car failed.

Nathan Owen was trapped inside the speeding Jaguar I-Pace as it tore down the busy M62 without any working brakes after it suffered an “electrical fault”.

Police used specialist pursuit tactics to ram the out-of-control vehicle, eventually bringing it to a safe stop on Wednesday.

Terrified and trapped inside as is travelled at nearly 100mph, crisis support worker Mr Owen told MailOnline: “In the back of my mind, I was thinking I’m going to end up crashing the car, I’m going to kill myself or I’m going to kill an innocent person on the roads.”

Mr Owen added: “The car was in its own world – it just had no brakes. The worst thing about it is that it’s happened before.”

“The car literally just started speeding up. I couldn’t press the brakes. The speed was going towards about 100mph in the high 90s, going to 100. I thought this was a bit wrong.

“It came up on the dashboard saying there was a battery malfunction in my car. I kept trying to press the brakes but nothing was happening. So the next thing I thought I should do was call 999 and tell them what was happening.”

North West Motorway Police revealed what had happened on social media, writing: “Police currently have a lane 3 and 4 closure on M62 EB J11 to 12.

“This is following the use of tactics to stop an electric vehicle with an electric fault where the driver was unable to brake.

“Motorway officers from Merseyside, Cheshire and GMP brought the vehicle to a safe stop.”

The Jaguar I-Pace is set to be discontinued before the company’s relaunch in 2025, with JLR CEO Adrian Mardell admitting to Autocar the model is mainly sold in the UK to help ensure the company complies with emission targets.

In May 2023 Jaguar recalled more than 6,000 I-Pace electric SUVs in the US due to the risk of the high-voltage battery catching fire.

In an email, Jaguar told drivers they should park away from structures until recall repairs have been completed, and where possible, they should charge outdoors.

Jaguar also removed the audible vehicle alert system (AVAS), designed to warn visually impaired pedestrians from the same model as the cars are almost silent when operating at lower speeds.

The car manufacturing giants had originally planned to make the I-Pace sound like a “sci-fi spacecraft”, but in testing they found that the sound caused pedestrians to look up at the sky, instead of in the direction of the vehicle.

A Jaguar Land Rover spokeswoman told The Independent: “We are aware of an incident involving a Jaguar I-PACE on the M62 on the afternoon of March 6. An investigation is underway into the cause of the incident.”

Fern Britton takes swipe at Phillip Schofield on Celebrity Big Brother

Fern Britton has alluded to her rivalry with former This Morning colleague Phillip Schofield on Celebrity Big Brother.

The reality show has returned for its first all-star run since ITV rebooted the series, and Britton is one of the housemates alongside X Factor judge Louis Walsh – who has already shocked viewers with an “incredibly rude” comment, Love Island winner Ekin-Su and Kate Middleton’s uncle. Gary Goldsmith

Since the series launched on Monday (3 March), the celebrities have not held back from sharing their straight-shooting opinions, with Sharon Osbourne sharing candid views on James Corden and Ellen DeGeneres.

Britton, who hosted ITV daytime series This Morning from 1999 to 2009, followed suit after saying that she “might have to leave” the house if Schofield entered the house as a surprise housemate.

When Goldsmith said he thought the host, who dramatically quit the series in May 2023 after admitting to lying about an affair with a younger male colleague, might be a late entrant in the house, Britton looked alarmed.

She replied: “That didn’t happen – yet, Maybe he’s coming in as a surprise? I might have to leave at that point.”

When prompted to reveal her true feelings on This Morning, whose behind-the-scenes tensions made headlines in 2023, Britton continued: “Genuinely, I haven’t been there for 15 years – I got off the train and it’s way over the horizon now, so I honestly don’t know.

“I can’t say anything. It was tricky at times. I think Ben [Shephard] and Cat [Deeley] are going to do a great job.”

Britton presented This Morning alongside Schofield, who dramatically quit the series in May 2023 after admitting to lying about an affair with a younger male colleague.

During their working relationship, Britton clashed with Schofield, with the latter revealing in his 2012 memoir Life is What You Make It that Britton once accused him of “meddling” with the daytime show’s content, forcing him to “calmly” tell her: “Please don’t do that to me again.”

When Britton quit the show, being replaced by Holly Willoughby, she released a statement addressing the show’s team in general – but did not specifically name Schofield.

Schofield also claimed in his book that their previous row “was the point she decided she didn’t want” to be on the show any more.

In 2013, Schofield told Heat that he and Britton are “not really” in touch any more, with Brittontelling MailOnline: “Like Morecambe and Wise, we chose not to live in each other’s pockets. We were a great professional partnership but we never went on holiday together.”

Rumours of a rivalry between the pair resurfaced when, during This Morning’s 30th anniversary episode, the latter claimed she wasn’t invited to a ceremony honouring the series.

“Congrats on the Bafta,” she said, adding: “That was absolutely wonderful and brilliant. I would have loved to have been there but I didn’t get an invitation.”

When Schofield pointed out that she was on stage in Scotland at the time of the event, Britton replied: “I wasn’t on Monday night – I would have come but I wasn’t invited.” Schofield told his social media followers that Britton had “memory loss” and would have been welcome to attend.

Celebrity Big Brother, hosted by AJ Odudu and Will Best, airs on ITV1 and ITVX nightly.

Woman gives birth on the No27 bus on the way to Truro

A drama teacher who helped safely deliver a baby on a rural bus said she used all the medical knowledge she had learned from watching the TV show Casualty.

The real-life drama unfolded when a young mother suddenly went into labour on her way to the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro on Tuesday morning.

Susan Lay, 41, a freelance actor and youth theatre teacher, was sat on the top deck when the driver suddenly stopped the number 27 by a row of cottages 20 minutes outside of the city.

“The bus driver was outside on the phone,” Ms Lay told The Independent. “The mother looked like she was in some distress but I couldn’t tell she was pregnant until she rubbed her stomach.”

The driver told passengers another bus was coming behind to pick them up as a passenger had gone into labour.

“I must admit I thought about doing the British thing and not interfering”, Ms Lay said. “But I went up to the bus driver and said ‘Look I’m not medically trained in the slightest but do you need any help?’

“So I approached the young woman and introduced myself, I said she could squeeze my hand or lean on me. I started to comfort her and told her to breathe. She kept saying ‘I can’t, I can’t’ and I said ‘I know how that’s how you feel but you can and you are doing it’.

“I did what I could to help with the very limited knowledge I have,” the teacher continued. “I sort of channelled every film I ever watched or every episode of Casualty I have seen. It did come in handy after all.

“We moved inside the bus but her body was doing all of the work. Nature was taking its course.”

Ms Lay said the ambulance seemed to take a long time as the bus driver got instructions from paramedics on the phone and tried to direct them to their location.

“My maternal instinct just took over,” she said. “I thought I could give her support and the ambulance would arrive and that would be it, but I didn’t imagine I would be the one catching the baby. She was standing up and I caught it.

“I was so aware of how small the baby was. It was a feeling of being honoured to be there at the very first beginnings of life and then holding that in my hands was so incredible.

“I was watching him like a hawk because he was so tiny and I know nothing of delivering a baby. I was looking at him just willing him to be ok, checking his breathing and his eyes were opening.

“I thought if I took my eyes off him for a second something would change. They both seemed healthy if not shocked.

“A lady came out with towels and she wrapped him up. The bus driver was brilliant; the thing he was concerned about was her dignity. He was coordinating everyone, getting buses diverted and getting the ambulance there.”

Ms Lay said paramedics helped guide the birth over the phone, before the new mother’s stepmother arrived on the scene.

“Then an ambulance came and then the helicopter and then another ambulance. I left the umbilical cord to them,” she added.

The actress and filmmaker hailed the strength of the young mother who was taken to hospital in an ambulance.

“I think she’s amazing and I wish her love and luck and I was glad to be able to help and be there for her in that moment,” she said. “To be able to do that without pain relief was truly incredible.

“It’s a bus journey I will remember for a long time. It was incredible to witness that moment as intense and terrifying as it was.”

Ms Lay was slightly late to work at the Hall for Cornwall theatre when someone told her she had blood on her shoulder. Quickly her colleagues made her a cup of tea, brought her a change of jumper and offered her a shower in the changing rooms.

She added: “It’s just a massive relief that everything went ok.”

A spokesperson for the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SWASFT) said: “We were called at 8.38am on Tuesday 5 March to an incident near Truro.

“We sent two double-crewed land ambulances and an air ambulance and conveyed a patient by land ambulance to Royal Cornwall Hospital.”

The truth about the £100k gender pension gap

It can be easy to bury your head in the sand when it comes to retirement, especially when it seems a long way off. But if you want to live comfortably when the time comes to stop working, planning ahead is vital. It’s even more important for women, who are on track to have significantly less money than men in later life.

Just as there’s a gender pay-gap, there’s also a discrepancy between how much income men and women have in retirement, too – and it’s even bigger. Research from Scottish Widows shows there is a massive 39% gender pension gap*. This gap grows wider over the course of an average woman’s working life – at 22, there is a £100 difference in pension savings between men and women. By 65, this has grown to a shocking £100,000 difference. For the average woman to level this out, she would have to pay an additional £96 every month over her working life.

Scottish Widows latest ‘Women and Retirement’ report shows that a third of women are not on track to achieve even a basic lifestyle in retirement, covering essential needs, with only a small amount left over for anything else. It means many women won’t have the money to live comfortably, let alone do the things they hope to in retirement, such as travel, socialise and pursue hobbies. The average woman is set to receive £12k per year of income in today’s money during retirement, after paying for any expected housing expenses, compared to £19k for the average man. This includes private pension, other long-term savings, inheritance and the state pension or pension credits.

This gender pension gap is largely driven by deep-seated structural issues. The gender pay/wage gap is a factor, as, naturally, when women earn less, they have less to save. Women are also more likely to work part-time and to take career breaks due to caring responsibilities and a lack of affordable childcare. “Childcare is a huge contributing factor for women, often resulting in them giving up work or reducing their working hours to look after their family,” says Jill Henderson, Scottish Widows’ Head of Business Development. “After women have children the gap between their pension and that of a typical man’s starts to widen. This is because women tend to take on the lion’s share of childcare and employment breaks or part time working – all of which are big drivers of the gender pension gap.” Research found 63% of mothers have either reduced the number of days they worked per week when returning from parental leave or have not yet returned, compared to just over 16% of men.

Some women bear the brunt more than others. “The inability to save has a devastating impact on women’s income and ability to thrive in later life,” says Henderson. “Those women who are in a relationship fare better, but those who are single, divorced or are single mothers are most vulnerable.”

Two-thirds of single women and 60% of divorced women aren’t on track for a minimum lifestyle in retirement, while for single mothers the figures are even starker, at 75%. Working part time, coupled with other financial pressures, makes it much more difficult for single mothers to save for retirement. To make things even more difficult, gaps in work for raising children can also affect eligibility for the state pension. It means that single mothers are almost twice as likely to live in poverty in retirement than the average UK woman.

The overall picture is worrying, but there is some room for optimism. Auto enrolment – where an employer must automatically enrol eligible employees into their pension programme – has nearly doubled the number of females saving into a workplace pension in the last decade. For most people, the state pension will not provide enough income to live comfortably in retirement, so it’s vital to invest in private pension pots.

Recent legislation is set to make two key changes to auto-enrolment; reducing the age requirement from 22 to 18, and removing the lower earnings limit (currently £6,240) which means helps people qualify for auto enrolment and get employer contributions and tax relief from the first ound they earn. “These changes will be most valuable to the young and lower paid, including those who work part-time, most of whom are women,” says Henderson.

The ideal amount to be putting away is 15% of your salary (a combination of what you and your employer pay in, plus any tax relief), but even if you can’t manage that, every little bit makes a difference, especially if you get started today. “People can only save what they can afford to, but we suggest people check in on their pension regularly especially if their situation changes,” says Henderson. Young women are now more likely to start saving earlier in life than men — and the sooner you start, the better the position you’ll be in when you retire.

When it comes to planning for retirement, knowledge is power. Scottish Widows have created a new Beat The Gap tool (www.BeatTheGap.com) to help simplify how people engage with pensions, and make it easier for women (and men) to understand how things like working pattern, and childcare can affect their pension. By inputting some simple information, including gender, age and salary, it plots the user against the UK average pension across their lifetime. You can then see where the gap is most likely to emerge and get tailored tips on how to boost your pension and close the gap.

It’s part of a range of free educational support to help women plan for their retirement.

There’s a long way to go to close the gender pension gap, with many societal changes that need to happen. Until then, being aware of the factors that can affect their pension can help empower women to take the steps they need to ensure a more comfortable retirement, while they wait for the bigger picture to shift.

Find out more about the gender pension gap, plus expert tips and free tools to help you save for your retirement at Scottishwidows.co.uk/yourfuture

*2023 RR and 2023 W&R reports (based on the National Retirement Forecast)

The Budget is far too little, too late to save the Conservative Party

Well within living memory, a pre-Budget leak would be a resignation matter for a chancellor of the Exchequer – and Treasury ministers were placed in a state of strict pre-Budget “purdah”, during which media appearances were strictly forbidden. Times change, and now they’ve altered to the extent that Jeremy Hunt’s latest package of measures has been so widely and comprehensively floated, briefed and analysed that when he got to his feet he had nothing to add of any substance.

The cuts in national insurance, adjustments to child benefit thresholds, the freeze in fuel duty, and the “full expensing” on leased assets were so well-trailed that the announcements, all significant, were met only with a collective national shrug. Another tradition was broken because the Commons chamber was continuously noisy, and the deputy speaker made only token attempts to impose the sepulchral silence in which Budgets used to be heard, aside from rare moments of gross disorder.

The overall effect was to make the Budget less of an event than the government surely wished for. Indeed the lack of a final rabbit out of the hat – which in reality the press were fully expecting – left Mr Hunt presiding over something of an anti-climax. Rather than the crack of a starting pistol on a frantic period of electioneering, it was a bit boring. It may therefore be just as well that the supposed “early” election (in reality very close to the end of the parliament in any case) seems to have been abandoned. It certainly did not feel like a Budget that might be the game-changer the Tories so desperately need. On balance, Mr Hunt would have been better off keeping schtum.

Five Budgets that left their mark on history – for good and bad

It remains to be seen if Jeremy Hunt’s last spring Budget before the election makes much impact on his party’s chances of winning a fifth term. In truth, Budgets tend to be ephemeral things with measures reversed by successive administrations – or even by the same chancellor. However, a few Budgets did make their mark in history, for good and bad reasons…

This budget, coupled with a very tough spending settlement in the 1981 Autumn statement, marked an ideological as well as a political break with post-war traditions. Despite some moves in this direction during the previous Labour government, this was the first truly monetarist budget, placing money supply and targets for public borrowing and inflation ahead of considerations about unemployment. Previously, almost every government of both parties since the Second World War believed that achieving very low joblessness – “full employment” – was the overriding aim of government policy, even if it was getting more difficult to achieve amid bouts of inflation and price and wage controls that broke down.