The Telegraph 2024-03-09 16:00:33

Humza Yousaf gave £250k to Gaza after overruling his officials

Humza Yousaf has been accused of a conflict of interest after overriding officials to give £250,000 to a Gaza aid agency while members of his family were trapped in the warzone.

The First Minister stepped in after officials recommended a £100,000-£200,000 donation to Unicef, the United Nations agency which provides humanitarian aid to children, to fund water programmes in Gaza.

He overruled their advice, declaring that £250,000 of taxpayers’ money should instead be given to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the biggest international aid agency operating in Gaza, which has been criticised over alleged links to Hamas.

Mr Yousaf told officials that, since he was about to meet with UNRWA, “we should just announce an extra £250k to them”.

The Scottish Government’s £250,000 donation was publicly announced on Nov 2, the same day that Mr Yousaf met a delegation of senior UNRWA officials in Edinburgh. 

His mother-in-law and father-in-law were given safe passage out of Gaza via the Rafah crossing the following day, Nov 3.

On Friday, Mr Yousaf denied that the donation was in any way connected to the release of his family.

A spokesman said: “UNRWA had no role in the situation regarding the First Minister’s extended family, and any suggestion of a conflict of interest in this matter would be completely untrue.”

However, the First Minister is facing accusations that his interference in the allocation of aid process amounted to a conflict of interest, and questions over whether his actions breached the ministerial code.

A senior MSP who sits on Holyrood’s standards and procedures committee said that if Mr Yousaf was unable to give a satisfactory explanation for his actions, he should face an inquiry.

The Telegraph understands that a report has been made to the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terror hotline, and a submission is being prepared to send to Audit Scotland, the independent body that oversees how public money is spent in Scotland.

Stephen Kerr, a Conservative MSP who sits on Scotland’s standards, procedures and public appointments committee, said: “The First Minister has some serious explaining to do, starting with why he overrode officials to take money away from the vital Unicef water programme and assign it to UNRWA. 

“It looks as if the money was not budgeted and that the First Minister was prepared to bend the rules and not follow procedure.

“Humza Yousaf has a clear conflict of interest in the awarding of aid to Gaza. Clearly, the fact that so many members of his family are either living in Gaza or are involved with Palestinian organisations raises significant questions about what his motivation is for using taxpayers’ money in the area.”

Parents-in-law stranded

Mr Yousaf’s in-laws travelled to Gaza in early October to visit relatives but became stranded when the war began. Border crossings in and out of Gaza were shut after Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel on Oct 7, murdering some 1,200 people and taking more than 240 hostages.

The Scottish Ministerial Code states that ministers “must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise”.

Mr Kerr went on to say that the First Minister “may very well have broken the code by failing to recuse himself when he has family connections to Gaza and Palestinian organisations here in Scotland”.

He added: “If he cannot give a satisfactory answer to questions about the decision-making behind this payment by the Scottish Government, then Parliament must set up an independent investigation into this matter.”

Towards the end of November last year, reports began to emerge in Israeli media that a hostage had been held captive in the house of an UNRWA employee, where he was locked in the attic.

By the end of January, Britain, the United States and several other countries suspended their funding to UNRWA after 12 of its workers were sacked following accusations by Israel that they participated in the Oct 7 attacks. 

The UN has launched its own inquiry into the claims, which is ongoing.

In a statement at the time, the Foreign Office said the UK was “appalled” by the claims that UNRWA staff were involved in a “heinous act of terrorism”, adding that it would temporarily pause any future funding while it reviewed the allegations.

Last month, Israel’s defence minister said it had identified dozens more UNRWA workers who took part in the Oct 7 massacre.

Yoav Gallant also said more than 1,400 workers from the UNRWA were members of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The figure amounts to around 12 per cent of the agency’s workforce in Gaza, which numbers 13,000. Hamas has condemned Israel’s allegations against the UNRWA as “blackmail”.

Prior to the Oct 7 attack, UNRWA had faced criticism that anti-Israel material was taught in its schools in Gaza. During Donald Trump’s presidency, the US ended funding for the agency and described it as “irredeemably flawed”. The agency rejected the criticism, and aid was restored by Joe Biden in 2021.

In total, the Scottish Government has given £750,000 to UNRWA since the Oct 7 massacre.

The first donation, of £500,000, was announced on Oct 14, following an “urgent” internal submission, official documents show. 

Ten days later, a new “urgent” commission came from Mr Yousaf, this time for “funds/supplies for water supplies to a charity or aid organisation” in Gaza.

Official advice, provided by the minister for culture, Europe and international development, as well as the Cabinet secretary for constitution, external affairs and culture, stated that giving £100,000-£200,000 to Unicef was the “preferred option”.

This advice was sent to the First Minister, who was also told that there were no available funds for general humanitarian aid in Gaza.

Internal correspondence shows that he was told by officials: “We have considered various options to provide humanitarian support for civilians in Gaza, including access to wider SG [Scottish Government] budgets, but this is not currently available to us.”

In the same email, it was noted that Mr Yousaf had a meeting with UNRWA coming up, but it made it clear that the advice on funding Unicef still stood.

However, three days after receiving the advice, on Oct 30, Mr Yousaf wrote in an email: 

The following day, a new piece of advice was issued “in line with the First Minister’s suggestion” that the donation should be increased to £250,000 and sent to UNRWA instead of Unicef and that this “does not cause us any difficulties”.

On Nov 1, Mr Yousaf’s private secretary wrote to the minister for culture, Europe & international development:

The documents were obtained by Craig Houston, a Glasgow resident, following a Freedom of Information request, who discussed them on his YouTube channel “Craig Houston Talks To”.

It later emerged that the donation came from the International Development Fund, a £10 million fund that is meant to be ring-fenced for projects in four “partner” countries – Malawi, Rwanda, Zambia and Pakistan.

Mr Yousaf has previously faced questions over his handling of foreign policy, which is a reserved power for the Westminster government.

He sparked a furious row with ministers after holding face-to-face talks about the Gaza crisis with Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has called Israel a “terror state” and Hamas a “liberation group”. Mr Yousaf shared photos of the pair shaking hands on social media, declaring that he backed a ceasefire in Gaza – which was not UK Government policy.

It was one of five times Mr Yousaf flouted the rules during his meetings with foreign leaders during the Cop28 climate change summit in December, according to the Scottish Secretary.

Alister Jack disclosed that the First Minister ignored the requirement to have a UK Government official present during discussions with Najib Mikati, the Lebanese prime minister, and Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, the acting prime minister of Pakistan.

Mr Yousaf also held bilateral meetings with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, and Charles Michel, the president of the European Council.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, said Mr Yousaf had “questions to answer” over why he “went against official advice and chose to give public money to UNRWA rather than Unicef”.

He added: “It’s important the First Minister is fully transparent, especially given it appears that a Scottish Government fund ring-fenced for other charities was raided for this donation, and the allegations that have since emerged about UNRWA workers.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said: “Humza Yousaf seemingly stepping in to direct charity funding in the face of his official’s advice seems like an unusual step.

“He needs to explain why he thought this was appropriate when other charitable options were advised and his decisions required money to be diverted from other purposes.”

‘Rigorous process’

A spokesman for the First Minister said there was a “rigorous process to ensure complete transparency and accountability” in the allocation of money from the International Development Fund.

He said that while the fund “primarily” supports projects in partner countries, funding has been made available to address “urgent humanitarian needs” in several other countries in recent years.

The spokesman said: “UNRWA had no role in the situation regarding the First Minister’s extended family, and any suggestion of a conflict of interest in this matter would be completely untrue. The record shows the First Minister’s actions were consistent with his obligations towards openness and honesty in the Scottish Ministerial Code.

“The decision not to restrict funding to water supplies was based on advice from officials, following discussions with UNRWA, Unicef and the British Red Cross, who all stressed the importance of flexibility in providing humanitarian support according to changing needs on the ground.”

A spokesman for Scotland Yard said they could not comment on cases reported to its anti-terror hotline for security reasons but added: “All reports get reviewed by officers and, if it is assessed that further police action is required, then it will get passed to the relevant police force or counter-terrorism unit to carry this out.”

UNRWA was approached for comment.

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Pro-Palestinian protester damages portrait of Lord Balfour at University of Cambridge

A portrait of Lord Balfour, the former prime minister, at the University of Cambridge has been damaged by a pro-Palestinian protester.

In video posted on social media by Palestine Action, a member of the group is seen spray-painting and slashing the portrait at Trinity College. A woman can be seen defacing the work with red paint before slicing the canvas with a sharp object.

Balfour was one of the chief supporters of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine, cemented by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which gave British backing to the movement.

A nephew of Lord Salisbury, he succeeded his uncle as prime minister in 1902 and subsequently became foreign secretary.

The Instagram video was accompanied by a caption that read: “Palestine Action spray and slash a historic painting of ‘Lord’ Balfour in Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

“Written in 1917, Balfour’s declaration began the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by promising the land away – which the British never had the right to do.

“After the Declaration, until 1948, the British burnt down indigenous villages to prepare the way; with this came arbitrary killings, arrests, torture and sexual violence including rape.

“The British paved the way for the Nakba and trained the Zionist militia to ethnically cleansed over 750,000 Palestinians, destroy over 500 villages and massacre many families. The Nakba never stopped, and the genocide today is rooted and supported by British complicity.

“Now Elbit Systems, Israel’s biggest weapons manufacturer, uses Britain as a manufacturing outpost to build arms which are ‘battle-tested’ on Palestinians.”

A Trinity College spokesman said: “Trinity College regrets the damage caused to a portrait of Arthur James Balfour during public opening hours. The police have been informed. Support is available for any member of the College community affected.”

A spokesman for Cambridge Police said: “This afternoon we received an online report of criminal damage today to a painting at Trinity College, Cambridge.

“Officers are attending the scene to secure evidence and progress the investigation. No arrests have been made at this stage.”

Palestine Action were contacted for comment.

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‘Sweet and generous’ girl, 14, killed herself after NHS delays

A “jovial” 14-year-old girl who was bullied at school killed herself following delays in NHS help from mental health services, an inquest heard.

Blackpool Coroner’s Court heard Bella Greer was found by her mother, Sarah, on October 5 last year.

Bella had been left upset on the day of her death because of an undisclosed matter with a pupil at Saint Bede’s Catholic High School in Lytham, the court heard.

But a friend said she seemed to have “shrugged it off” as she was known to do and she was also noted as having a “jovial and happy” personality.

Coroner Louise Rae read out statements that painted Bella as a positive young person, who showed no obvious signs of depression.

But the coroner said she had been a victim of bullying from a young age and had moved from Lytham High School because of the way the pupils treated her.

The court heard that the unpleasant behaviour towards “sweet” and “generous” Bella started again at her new school.

She had then gone to see her doctor with her mother to get help with her mental health just under a month before her death.

The court heard Bella had been referred for an urgent mental health assessment by her GP on September 12, 2023. However, the referral had not been received as it had gone to the wrong email address.

On September 14, a member of the Adverse Childhood Experiences team helped Bella to complete a self-referral. This was again marked urgent, meaning it should have triggered a triage review within 48 hours and an assessment within two weeks.

However, it wasn’t triaged until October 3 because of “staff deficits”, the court heard.

A letter from Bella’s mother sent to police was read at the inquest, where she said her daughter had enjoyed a “really happy day” with her sister on October 4.

They had been out for food and Bella had been dancing around with no signs that she was planning to end her life the following day, it said.

Her mother stressed that she did not believe Bella’s actions were a deliberate attempt to end her life, but a cry for help.

A statement by Det Insp Montgomery, the senior investigating officer who took over the case on October 6, described how Bella had left a note that referred to “typical teenage girl” problems.

The officer said this included an incident with another pupil who had upset her.

Det Insp Montgomery added there was no evidence of any pre-planning. But the coroner ruled that as Bella left a note it was evidence that she had intended to end her life.

NHS: Bella’s death regrettable

Ursula Martin, chief strategy and improvement officer at Lancashire and South Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust, called Bella’s death “regrettable”.

She said: “We fully acknowledge the conclusion reached by HM Coroner into the death of Isabella Greer and I would like to extend our condolences to her family.

“The safety of those in our care is our utmost priority and the death of any patient while under any of our services will always be regrettable.

“Following Isabella’s death we carried out a detailed investigation into care delivery concerns, which identified triage and communication issues between teams.

“We take the findings very seriously, they offer us an opportunity to learn lessons so we can endeavour to do everything to try to prevent similar issues occurring.

“We have addressed the issues highlighted through enhanced training and reviewed communication protocols.

“Once again, our heartfelt sympathies go to Isabella’s loved ones during this incredibly difficult time.”

Last month a coroner warned that the school which teenager Mia Janin attended had failed to address gender-based bullying at the institution three years on from her suicide. 

“Creative and kind” Mia had taken her own life following “hostile” bullying from boys at the Jewish Free School (JFS) in London school in 2021.

Coroner Tony Murphy condemned the school for a lack of systemic changes after the 14-year-old’s suicide and warned that more girls at at the school are at risk of suicide as gender-based bullying has continued.

While JFS claimed it has implemented a “complete overhaul” following Mia’s death, Mr Murphy found the initiatives had not done enough to make female pupils feel safe.

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It’s official: The UK is the second-most miserable nation in the world

Well, there’s always someone else worse off, right? Here’s looking at you Uzbekistan, the only nation to rank lower than the UK in a global mental wellbeing index. Yup, we’re more miserable than Moldova. Bluer than Belarus. Even Yemen and Ukraine are in better spirits, apparently. First world problems just got real. 

Measuring mental wellbeing is a tricky business. But the US non-profit, Sapien Labs, has had a go with its Mental State of the World report, the latest edition of which has just landed. Using data from 500,000 respondents in 71 countries, it measures how people’s “inner state impacts their ability to function within their life context”. In other words, mental wellbeing relative to the setting. 

The results suggest that despite living through an unfolding humanitarian disaster, Yemenis are functioning better in relative terms than not only Brits, but the Aussies and Irish, too. 

Right. Forgive us for not relocating to downtown Sana’a just yet. Rich Western nations performed poorly overall, with researchers noting: “Greater wealth and economic development do not necessarily lead to greater mental wellbeing.”

Are things really that bad in Blighty? Is our stiff upper lip truly all a-quiver? The similarly dubious but slightly woollier World Happiness Report doesn’t think so. It ranks the UK 19th in its cheeriest nations index, between the Czech Republic and Lithuania. Still, you’d require weapons-grade patriotism to survey our land and conclude that all is well. The Office for National Statistics recorded an overall decline in personal wellbeing across the UK in 2023. Meanwhile, the charity Mind warns of an unfolding mental health crisis, particularly among men and young people. 

Little wonder, then, that wellness retreats are booming. I went on one last year in Cornwall, run by the ex-rugby pro Anthony Mullally. Mullally’s not your archetypal wellness guru. He doesn’t drink kale or hug you for too long. In fact, he’s 6ft 5, with a Scouse twang, bulging biceps, long ginger hair and the look of a man whose ancestors arrived in England on a longboat.

His retreats aim to equip the kind of men who are congenitally suspicious of kale with the techniques they need to “stay steady in a chaotic world”. I must say, it’s kept me calmer.  

But stresses abound. Money is tight. The health system is creaking. The sea is full of poo. Our Hogarthian town centres, with their boarded-up shops and rough sleepers, are yet further signs of a struggling nation.

“We have to find a new identity,” one Ilkeston resident told me recently in the down-at-heel Derbyshire town. It was once an engine room of the Industrial Revolution but is now best known for its cash point – currently the top-rated attraction on TripAdvisor. “Typical of Ilkeston humour,” another local told me. I suppose it’s reassuring that Britain’s sense of mischief limps on.     

Where, you might ask, did it go wrong? Pick your villain. Covid. Putin. Brexit. The wokerati. Austerity. Bojo. Ulez. The lettuce prime minister. The anti-growth coalition. Blair. The internet. Hmmm. The internet. 

Adding to a growing body of evidence, Sapien Labs identifies a link – not just in the UK, but globally – between poor mental wellbeing and the pervasiveness of smartphones and online comms. That young people are noted to have suffered the biggest drop in mental wellbeing appears to add heft to their argument. Ditto the fact that lower-tech countries, such as Sri Lanka and Tanzania, are among those recording better wellbeing scores. Stronger family ties in those nations were also linked to better mental health.  

The internet has a lot to answer for, then. It has, of course, facilitated the home-working phenomenon that hushed our cities post-Covid. It sent dating and retail online, fanned the culture wars, and distracted us, research shows, from having sex. No wonder we’re glum. Has it also robbed us of a soundtrack for these weird times? In the moribund early nineties, there was at least a musical movement to lift the nation. Scant chance of a unifying Britpop 2.0 in the streaming age, with its fragmented, fickle audiences. No wonder we’re in the midst of misty-eyed 1990s nostalgia – when mullets are back, you know you’re in trouble.  

“Everything’s online now, the shops have closed.” It’s a lament I’ve heard repeatedly on my travels across the land for this newspaper. Our sense of place, it seems, has gone. We are adrift in the digital ether. Lost and lonely in our screens. Barraged by bad news.

Perhaps that’s too convenient a narrative. Like the Mental State of the World report, it tells only part of the story. Another narrative is of resilient communities across the UK, which, like Ilkeston, have stepped up to start newspapers where theirs have folded, grow food in communal spaces, and even take over post offices.

 They have united, too, to save our cherished pubs, bringing these community hubs into the hands of the people who use them. The UK has lost six per cent of its pubs in the last six years – reason enough to be glum – according to the British Beer & Pub Association. In that same period the number of community-owned pubs has soared by 63 per cent. My local, the Ivy House in Nunhead, a lynchpin of our neighbourhood, was London’s first, but not its last. Even Britain’s most remote village, Inverie, has dug deep enough to save its local, The Old Forge, which is reached only by hiking 17 miles or taking a ferry. 

Bright spots amid the gloom. So, where next for beleaguered Brits? A fact-finding mission to the Dominican Republic? It topped the mental wellbeing index, perhaps it has tips. Alternatively, as one Ilkeston resident sagely suggested, how about summoning that much-vaunted Dunkirk spirit of ours and taking positive action? “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Someone pass the matches.

Five cheery places to visit in the UK

1. Richmond-on-Thames, London 

London, ground zero for misery, right? Err, no. In fact, for the first time, a suburb in the capital has topped Rightmove’s annual Happy at Home index, which asks people how they feel about their area. Straddling the Thames and sandwiched between Richmond Park and Kew Gardens, it’s no surprise that access to nature elevated Richmond’s score. Residents also cited a strong sense of belonging and thriving independent shops as reasons for loving the place. 

2. Hexham, Northumberland  

“We don’t know we’re born, living here,” Hexham resident Lindsey Birney told a Telegraph Travel reporter on a recent visit to the Northumberland town. Lindsey and husband Austin run children’s toyshop Mr Wolf. Independent shops like theirs – along with yoga classes and ornate pubs – are among the reasons cited for this pretty market town repeatedly topping the Happy at Home index.  

3. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire 

Parks, parapets and punts are among this university city’s various charms – and locals have more time than most to explore them. That’s according to the economic research team at Glassdoor, the recruitment site, which says Cambridge has the happiest employees in England. A good work-life balance was reported in its anonymous survey of workers. Beware, however, of the city’s former claim to fame as the UK’s most unequal. 

4. Galashiels, Scotland 

“After a few false starts, Gala is firmly back on the map.” So reckoned Galalean resident Debbie Paterson, when Telegraph Travel visited the Scottish textile town last year. After decades of decline, the local cashmere industry is buzzing again. Add to that the return of the railways, the opening of the Great Tapestry of Scotland visitor centre, and a “happiest town in Scotland” gong and you can see why locals have a spring in their step. 

5. Monmouth, Wales 

The happiest place in Wales? That’ll be Monmouthshire. According to the Office for National Statistics, it has the joint-highest score for life satisfaction in Wales (an honour it shares with Gwynedd in the north). This chimes with Rightmove’s Happy at Home index, which crowned Monmouth the cheeriest place in Wales. River walks, the castle, unpretentious pubs and a thriving high street are among the attributes lifting local spirits.

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UCL bans lecturer from China course to protect its ‘commercial interests’

A leading UK university has banned an academic from teaching a “provocative” course involving China to protect its commercial interests, The Telegraph can disclose.

Michelle Shipworth, an associate professor at University College London (UCL),  told The Telegraph she had “no choice” but to blow the whistle in order to “expose” how British universities were “conceding to the censorship demands of some Chinese students”.

Ms Shipworth, 58, was also accused of being anti-Chinese after she caught out two students from China who were cheating and they were subsequently expelled. One had used a body double in an attempt to hoodwink her during a supervision.

Her head of department at UCL told her he was taking action because “in order to be commercially viable”, the university’s courses “need to retain a good reputation amongst future Chinese applicants”.

UCL has the highest number of Chinese students in the UK, making up almost a quarter of its total student population. More than 10,000 Chinese students are at the university, typically paying two to three times the fees of home-grown students – up to £40,000 a year.  

Ms Shipworth, who teaches at UCL’s Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources, found herself under investigation after a seminar last October examining data from the Global Slavery Index 2014. The data claimed China had the second-highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world.

She asked small groups to discuss the question: “Why are there so many slaves in China?” in order to build their data assessment skills, leaving the methodology open to criticism.

Far from being anti-Chinese, Ms Shipworth said her use of the survey was only to highlight problems with it – not least that, because China has the world’s second-largest population, it would inevitably be close to the top of a modern slavery index.

‘Provocative in-class exercise’

She recalled that, at the end of the seminar, one of the Chinese students “stood up and said in a fairly cross tone – I wouldn’t even describe it as angry – something along the lines of: ‘Why are you using such a horrible provocation?’”

Prof Neil Strachan, Ms Shipworth’s boss, was alerted, culminating in her being told that another academic had been asked to “take over” the research module she had taught for the past 10 years.

She was also told to “not use teaching case studies or examples that only focus on one country”, and advised against posting “educational issues about only one country” on social media.

In an email, Prof Strachan also informed Ms Shipworth that she had been accused of “being biased against students from a single country – China”.

He cited as an example of a “specific instance of bias” that, having caught out Chinese students for cheating, she was now “overly suspicious” of students cheating “and these students are all from China”.

Prof Strachan said a further complaint had said that “you used a provocative in-class exercise – investigating data quality but using the subject of slavery – that focused only on China and that made Chinese students feel demeaned”.

He went on to say that “the result of this perceived bias is that Chinese students are not having a good experience at UCL, and that the reputation and future recruitment of our courses is being damaged”.

‘No choice but to make this public’

Ms Shipworth told The Telegraph she “was suicidal” after being subjected to restrictions on her teaching, academic freedom and use of social media on the basis of a class she had taught without any previous known complaint for a decade.

“I feel I have no choice but to make this matter public in order to expose the extent to which UK higher education is conceding to the censorship demands of some Chinese students,” she said.

“In my time at UCL, I have seen and exposed flagrant cheating, including falsified references used in student applications and some Chinese students using paid services to produce assessments for them, which they are then unable to discuss in class.

“Because so many universities are dependent on overseas student funding, university managers often do not want to hear these types of concerns being raised. This threatens to undermine the value of an academic degree.

“I am astonished that asking students a question about China, and my raising of cases of contract cheating, is being used to justify curtailing my academic freedom and freedom of speech.”

Ms Shipworth’s case has been taken up by the Free Speech Union, which has written to UCL’s provost to demand that all restrictions be lifted.

A Free Speech Union spokesman said: “The documents we have seen reveal an undue deference to the sensitivity of some Chinese students that is utterly incompatible with academic freedom.

“Academics and students have every right to discuss and even criticise China, even if it is inconvenient for institutions increasingly in hock to Chinese student fees, and we will defend that right.”

A UCL spokesman said: “We always follow up complaints received through our Report + Support tool. However, it would not be appropriate to discuss individual cases.

“UCL is proud to have a thriving and diverse student community, with the brightest minds from the UK and more than 150 other countries choosing to study and research here.

“We also have a long tradition of safeguarding freedom of speech, and are committed to upholding the rights of our staff and students to facilitate debate and exercise their academic freedom of enquiry.”

‘I didn’t see the point of living … I hadn’t done anything wrong’

Standing in a classroom in front of 80 students, of whom between 20 and 30 were Chinese, Michelle Shipworth showed them a slide in her Data Detectives course.

It was just after 3pm on Oct 25. Now, more than four months later, she is at the centre of a row over academic freedom.

The slide the associate professor had shown was taken from the Global Slavery Index 2014. She recalled: “I put the slide up and said: ‘Why are there so many slaves in China?’”

It was a question intended as a starting point for students to explore data and how it is used. In fact, she used the survey precisely because “there is a massive problem with it”, not least its ranking of China as the world’s second-worst country for modern slavery.

Further slides in the course describe the survey as “terribly inaccurate” and encourage students to think about how the data was compiled and the comparisons made.

But at the end of the hour-long seminar, one of the Chinese students, a man in his 20s, stood up to lodge a complaint.

“I wouldn’t even describe him as angry,” said Ms Shipworth, “He said something along the lines of: ‘Why are you using such a horrible provocation?’”

Sitting in the kitchen of her north London flat and reflecting on the events, she still appears bamboozled.

“It’s a great question. I was just slightly concerned he was asking it after I had already demonstrated the problem with the dataset. It signalled that he hadn’t been paying attention in class,” she said. “But I didn’t get the sense he had been stressed in any way. I certainly didn’t think anything of it.”

The next day, however, she received an email from a colleague. Another student, who was not Chinese, had flagged that they were upset the Chinese student had been made “cross” in class.

Ms Shipworth, who has been teaching at UCL since 2009, was exasperated. “To be honest, I rolled my eyes at this. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s a generational thing,” she said. 

“It was like a child at kindergarten fell over and yelled a little bit and then another child that observed this got upset and then went to the headmistress. And then the headmistress goes to the person in charge of the playground and says: ‘What’s this all about?’ It happens occasionally. So what? I couldn’t take it seriously. I didn’t bother to respond [to the email].”

But on Oct 30 – five days after her seminar – Prof Strachan, Ms Shipworth’s head of department, called her to say that a “bunch of Chinese students are very upset” and asking for an explanation of what had happened.

Ms Shipworth, whose husband is a professor in the same department, gave her version of events. Prof Strachan, she said, suggested she use India as an example too so that her Chinese students would not feel singled out.

She declined to alter a course she had taught for a decade with no previous complaints. “In fact, I have had loads of Chinese students thanking me over the years,” she said.

She has had Chinese research students who have previously assisted her in the same seminar. “I felt then as I still feel now – our obligation is to teach the very best we can,” she said. “It doesn’t mean making them [students] happy every day, but it does mean challenging them.”

Shut out of teaching module

Later that day, Ms Shipworth found herself unable to edit UCL’s internal learning hub, called Moodle, for her next seminar, or to email students their coursework. She had been shut out of her teaching module.

In an email sent by Prof Strachan at 3.29pm on Oct 31, he told Ms Shipworth: “While we respect your academic freedom to teach [and] to promote critical thinking… the teaching teams are really worried about how the students have taken this, and it’s important to respond to their concerns.

“Focusing on just one country and using a topic that is currently geopolitically controversial is a sensitive topic.”

When Ms Shipworth cited John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher, in her drive for academic freedom and her preference not to modify her teaching, Prof Strachan replied at 10.34pm: “I would be pleased to continue this discussion in person to continue this broader conversation – note that I am an economist and modeller and I have no idea who JS Mill is.”

He praised her seminar, saying he was “pleased that a set of your students really benefited from working through a challenging question that has poor data underpinning it”, but again stressed that the question “was phrased to be too controversial and difficult for them to understand”.

Ms Shipworth, an academic energy expert, said that response “p—ed me off massively”.

At that week’s seminar – seven days after the initial controversy – the students dutifully returned. The Chinese student who had complained sat at the front of the class. “He was smiling broadly, like really grinning,” said Ms Shipworth.

“I really genuinely don’t think any of this situation had distressed him or the other students. If they were really distressed by me, they wouldn’t have come to the class.”

‘Absolutely harangued me’

The following week, two colleagues – Ms Shipworth will not reveal their identities – “absolutely harangued me and insisted I completely remove this exercise for subsequent years”.

She admitted caving in to the request. After suffering from mental health issues in the past, she took a nosedive. “I was suicidal. This is one of the problems of somebody who suffers from depression. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t making plans [to kill myself] but I was telling my husband I didn’t see the point of living,” she said.

By now, it was mid-November. Ms Shipworth kept on teaching – and given her undertaking not to repeat the China slavery exercise, the problem had seemingly gone away.

In January, she attended a workshop with senior academics, among them Michael Spence, UCL’s provost, a man she describes as “fabulous” and hugely supportive.

She raised her case, and what she saw as the infringement of her academic freedom, at the workshop. “All the senior academics in the room agreed with me,” she said.

Ms Shipworth fired off an email to her departmental colleagues, informing them that senior staff at the workshop believed her academic freedom had been curtailed.

Three days afterwards, on Feb 6, she received an email from Prof Strachan informing her that two related complaints had been made against her under a UCL reporting system.

“The general issue made is that you are perceived as being biased against students from a single country – China. This perception of bias is from Chinese students and by a UCL staff member of Chinese heritage,” he wrote.

‘Getting other people to do all his work’

The professor cited specific instances that included her investigation into so-called contract cheating, where one student gets somebody else to do their work. Twice she had discovered cheating, in 2018 and 2022, and both times Chinese students had been expelled.

She has asked UCL how many students have been kicked out for cheating, and has been given no answer. She suspects she is the only academic who has dared to call out a Chinese student for “contract cheating”.

In one case, a student had used a body double to take part in a Zoom call, and Ms Shipworth had spotted the deceit.

“He was getting other people to do all his work and then using a body double in meetings. It was due to my investigative work that the student was expelled,” she said.

In another instance, she raised suspicions about a student’s poor performance in class and a “mismatch” with far superior submitted essays.

In the email, Prof Strachan again raised the issue of the Data Detective seminar using the slave labour example, and also accused Ms Shipworth of “making a Chinese student embarrassed in class and accusing them of lying when they made an excuse to leave”.

On that occasion, she said, she had asked a Chinese student for a response to a question and he had reached for another student’s laptop in search of the answer.

Finally, she was accused of posts on Twitter relating to academic freedom in China “when no similar posts are made about any other country”. Ms Shipworth said she repeatedly asked for any examples but has not received any from the university.

The result of her “perceived bias”, wrote Prof Strachan was that “Chinese students are not having a good experience at UCL and that the reputation and future recruitment of our courses is being damaged”.

‘Contributing to the perception of bias’

Two days later on Feb 8, Prof Strachan sent a follow-up email in which he expressed concern about Ms Shipworth’s mental health and told her she could “at any time… take sick leave”.

He said he was handling the complaints “informally” and had not concluded either way whether she had breached UCL policies.

But he added: “We have a collective duty to ensure all students have a good educational experience at UCL and, in order to be commercially viable, our MSc courses need to retain a good reputation amongst future Chinese applicants.

“I am therefore concerned that if there is a perception or misperception of bias that this could damage your own reputation as well as that of the course.”

He then listed a series of “requests” that included stopping Ms Shipworth from “teaching case studies or examples that only focus on one country” and to “find different ways” of encouraging Chinese students “perhaps with weaker English language skills… to engage more fully”.

Using China as an example, was, said Prof Strachan, “contributing to the perception of bias”.

He said the department was putting a different academic in charge of the module, effectively preventing Ms Shipworth from teaching a course she created, and also advised her not to post on social media “educational issues about only one country”.

Ms Shipworth was appalled at her treatment, shocked that she could be asked to stop using one country examples in her teaching. “I use examples from the UK all the time; I focus on India. This is just stupid,” she said.

The same went for preventing her from asking specific individuals for responses. “It’s a way for me to pick up on students who are struggling,” she said. “It would detract from their education.”

The furore her class in October has created has left her scarred, and Ms Shipworth is adamant she is not biased against her Chinese students.

“It is crazy. In my experience, Chinese students have been really robust because they are so focused on their studies,” she said. “That is what has startled me so much – this supposed distress when I know they are strong.”

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Abuse while I was pregnant was cruel, Meghan tells panel as Harry watches on

The Duchess of Sussex has criticised women who are “completely spewing hate” to other women online, calling on female executives in tech to do more to block it, as Prince Harry cheered her on. 

The Duchess, speaking at an event about women in the media in Austin, Texas, said she could not “wrap her head” around how people could have been “so hateful” towards her on social media. 

“It’s not catty, it’s cruel,” she said of comments written online while she was pregnant. “Why would you do that?”

“What I find the most disturbing frankly, especially as a supporter of women, is how much of the hate is women completely spewing that to other women,” she said. “I cannot make sense of that.”

She specifically criticised female executives at online platforms who host conspiracy theories, disturbing rhetoric and “very inciting comments”. 

“There are a lot of women at the highest executive level who are great champions of women and great philanthropists, and they are working in these spaces, and yet they’re allowing this kind of behaviour to run rampant.

“And at a certain point, they have got to put the do’s behind the say’s and really make some changes on a systemic level.”

The Duchess did not mention any specific topics, or name the platforms. 

She did not mention the Royal family or her sister-in-law, the Princess of Wales, who is currently the subject of worldwide conspiracy theories and extreme criticism during her recovery from surgery out of the public eye.

Calling on female viewers, Meghan added: “The systemic change has to come at the same time as the cultural change. If you’re reading something terrible about a woman, why are you sharing it with your friends?

“Why are you choosing to put that out into the world? What if it was your friend or your mom or your daughter?

“That’s the piece that’s so lost right now. In the digital space and in certain sections of the media, we have forgotten about our humanity and that has got to change.

“I understand there is a bottom line but even if it’s making dollars, it doesn’t make sense.”

Of her own experience of criticism online, she said: “It’s really interesting as I can reflect on it. I keep my distance from it right now for my own wellbeing

“But the bulk of the bullying and abuse I was experiencing on social media and online was when I was pregnant or with a newborn. And you just think about that and you really have to wrap your head around why people would be so hateful.”

Prince Harry watched from the audience. During a discussion of equality, the Duchess spoke of her good fortune to be married to a “hands-on dad”. 

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Princess of Wales’ uncle evicted from Celebrity Big Brother

The Princess of Wales’s uncle has become the first person to be evicted from Celebrity Big Brother.

The 58-year-old businessman was voted out by the public after just four nights. 

Kensington Palace aides were thought to be relieved that his time on the ITV1 show had ended after he used the platform to speak extensively about the Royal family

After leaving the house, Mr Goldsmith admitted it had taken him a while to acclimatise.

He said he felt as though he had been walking around with a target on his back after being nominated for eviction by fellow housemate Sharon Osborne. 

He also said he had been asked repeatedly about the Royal family because the housemates didn’t know what else to ask him. 

Mr Goldsmith, wearing a denim shirt, said in his first exit interview: “This is the first television programme that I have ever done, my comfort zone is back in Slough, it took me a while to acclimatise.”

He said he was “self-doubting” when he joined the ITV show, and he should have been “more authentic”. “I could have been way more gregarious,” he said.

Speaking about his many references to the royal family, he said: “People were asking me a lot of questions specifically about that because they didn’t know what to ask me. And I did volunteer it a lot.”

“First time on TV and I cried like a baby, twice,” he said about his experience.

Mr Goldsmith repeatedly praised his royal niece as being “simply perfect” and defended her decision not to speak publicly about her recent surgery. 

By contrast, he was vocal in his criticism of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, accusing Harry of “throwing his family under a bus” and Meghan of creating drama that did not exist to “rewrite history.”

The tattooed father of one, known to the Princess as Uncle G, came to prominence in 2009 when he was photographed by an undercover reporter from the now-defunct News of the World apparently cutting up cocaine on the kitchen worktop at his home in Ibiza.

Domestic violence controversy

In November 2017, he attacked his fourth and current wife, Julie-Ann, during an argument outside their home after she accused him of taking drugs.

Mr Goldsmith, who made his fortune in IT recruitment, pleaded guilty to one count of assault by beating. He narrowly escaped jail and was instead fined £5,000 and given a 12-month community order with 20 sessions of rehabilitation.

His eviction from the Big Brother house came after domestic abuse campaigners criticised his inclusion on the show.

Women’s Aid warned that the decision to allow him to take part suggested that his crime had not been taken seriously.

A spokeswoman said: “The decision to include a man who has been charged, and pleaded guilty to, assaulting his wife, in the Celebrity Big Brother house demonstrates the lack of awareness that the production team has when it comes to survivors of domestic abuse.  

“The producers should consider how Gary Goldsmith’s appearance will impact women who have survived domestic abuse and how they will feel watching him on TV every night.”

Refuge said it was “appalled” that ITV decided to include someone with a conviction for domestic assault.

The charity said: “It beggars belief that ITV thought this acceptable the day before launching a domestic abuse campaign on their flagship daytime women’s show Loose Women. A perpetrator convicted of domestic abuse should never be given a platform for entertainment value.”

A Big Brother spokesperson said: “All housemates undertake training in language and behaviour before entering the Big Brother house. All behaviour in the house is strictly monitored at all times.

In a statement from the show, Mr Goldsmith previously said: “I’m not perfect and I made a mistake, a personal row seven years ago which was publicly exposed that I’ve worked endlessly for seven years to put right.

“The offence is long since spent, however my regret continues.”

‘One day I’m Gary, the next I’m a national villain’

In the Friday episode, Mr Goldsmith said that he had not found “true peace” during one Big Brother task.

“I think peace is something always to be striving for,” he said.

“I thought I was having a really cool life until something hits you. One day I was Gary, a businessman having a laugh with a great family in a good place.

“And the next minute I’m a national villain. If any of you thought to Google me, it is just shit, but it’s not me.

“So, I don’t really know what true peace is if I’m honest.”

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