INDEPENDENT 2024-03-16 10:03:53


Sham election ‘hit by cyber attack’ as Kyiv targets refineries – live

Russia has been hit by a cyberattack amid the country’s sham election as Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of seeking to sabotage the polls, the Kremlin claimed.

United Russia said it was facing a widespread denial of service attack – a form of cyberattack that snarls internet use – against its online presence, and it had suspended non-essential services to repel the interruption.

It comes as Ukrainian drones struck two Russian oil refineries belonging to state-owned oil giant Rosneft in the Samara region.

The Syzran refinery was on fire but an attack on the Novokubyshev refinery was thwarted, the governor of Russia’s Samara region, Dmitry Azarov said. Workers at both plants were evacuated with no casualties reported, he added.

Meanwhile, in Russia, at least half a dozen cases of vandalism at polling stations were reported, including a firebombing, as citizens voted in a three-day presidential election that will extend Vladimir Putin’s rule by six more years after he stifled dissent.

The election takes place against the backdrop of a crackdown that has crippled independent media and prominent rights groups and given Putin full control of the political system.

Sunak on the brink after dismal polls and ministerial resignations

Rishi Sunak has faced yet another testing week of resignations, warning shots and poor polling results as he continues to avoid setting a date for a general election.

The prime minister is increasingly losing his grip on the Conservative Party with a senior Tory minister announcing his decision to leave politics and a former deputy chair defecting to Nigel Farage’s right-wing challenger party Reform UK.

Now, Mr Sunak faces fresh scrutiny following the publication of an explosive poll that has revealed how he is haemorrhaging popularity.

The survey conducted by JL Partners polling paints a damning portrait of the beleaguered Tory leader, as it revealed that voters see him as a “weak, useless, rich idiot” – as the party trail Labour by 20 per cent.

In a devastating blow for the prime minister, voters picked Boris Johnson, followed by Margaret Thatcher – who died 11 years ago – and Nigel Farage ahead of Mr Sunak.

The bruising analysis comes as armed forces minister James Heappey announced plans to leave his role in government and quit as an MP at the next general election, joining 61 other Conservative MPs who have said they plan to leave politics before the next election.

The future of Mr Sunak’s premiership now hangs in the balance as the prime minister was forced to rule out a May general election amid mounting speculation that he would be forced to call a snap vote to avoid a disastrous set of local election results and stave off a Conservative rebellion.

The Independent now understands No 10 has pencilled in an election for Thursday 10 October, according to Downing Street sources. No 10 did not deny the claims.

According to the new poll focusing on Mr Sunak, the top 10 words most commonly chosen by all voters to describe him, in order of popularity, are: “Weak, useless, rich, untrustworthy, incompetent, bad, idiot, rubbish, liar, smarmy”.

Those who voted Tory in the 2019 election were nearly as insulting, struggling to find a single good thing to say about him.

James Johnson, director of JL Partners polling, said the word cloud survey conducted last weekend explained “the serious slide in Rishi Sunak’s ratings” among the electorate since he became prime minister nearly 18 months ago.

Meanwhile, Mr Heappey’s resignation has given credence to the view that even Mr Sunak’s ministerial team are accepting defeat.

The minister said that “now is the time… to pursue a different career”, adding that he would continue to support Mr Sunak in his leadership of the Conservatives “until such time as he wishes me to step down, and then from the backbenches”.

The beginning of the week saw former deputy party chair and red-wall firebrand, Lee Anderson, join Reform UK after being kicked out of the Tories for his Islamophobic comments about mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

Reform UK are taking chunks out of the Conservative vote share in recent polls with many speculating that the party could harm the Tories chances of re-election.

Mr Anderson’s decision to defect triggered further speculation that more Tories could jump ship, particularly among those not happy with the prime minister’s direction.

Colleagues from the right-wing New Conservative group fired a warning shot to Mr Sunak. Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger said in a joint statement: “The responsibility for Lee’s defection sits with the Conservative Party. We have failed to hold together the coalition of voters who gave us an 80-seat majority in 2019.

“Those voters – in our traditional heartlands and in the red-wall seats like Ashfield – backed us because we offered an optimistic, patriotic, no-nonsense Conservatism.”

They added: “Our poll numbers show what the public think of our record since 2019. We cannot pretend any longer that ‘the plan is working’. We need to change course urgently.”

Kate mocked as Piers Morgan says Palace may be ‘hiding something’

The King of Netherlands has poked fun at Kate Middleton in the wake of the Mother’s Day photo editing scandal.

The Dutch monarch, Willem-Alexander, appeared to make fun of the Princess of Wales while meeting a group of school children.

King Willem-Alexander was speaking to members of the public in Zutphen when a girl proudly said she had seen a photo of him with his whole family.

The monarch replied “At least I didn’t photoshop it,” prompting laughter from the crowd.

Five days after the saga, the royal family continue to face a backlash, Piers Morgan now weighing in on the debate.

The controversial TV presenter said he had heard “alarming “ whispers relating to the Princess of Wales on his Uncensored show.

Morgan said: “‘I’ve been told some stuff that, if even half of it is true, it’s pretty alarming what is happening. I don’t know what to believe, nor do any of us – we’re not there.”

The presenter clarified he could not confirm if what he had been informed was true.

Belly button piercings should have been left in the Noughties

It was an unremarkable afternoon in the Noughties, and I was working a slow shift at my Saturday job. There I was, behind the tills at Matalan, waiting for my next customer to appear, when I felt it. My body was interrupted by a sharp, sudden pain. A pain that seemed, upon closer inspection, to be coming from my midriff. “Ow!” I yelped. When I looked down, it became clear: the magnet that I used to remove security tags from blouses and bikinis was dragging me towards it by my belly button piercing.

I’m relieved to tell you that all was well. I did the rest of my shift with my body pointed at a slight 45-degree angle, and never wore the belly bar with the dangly heart on it to work again. No navels were harmed on that day. But imagine if a family with a large trolley had turned up before I’d realised what was happening – it could have been so different. Anyway, I thought the danger was over, in the past, but it turns out I was wrong. Because belly button piercings, it seems, are back. This week, Vogue heralded their return, while in last weekend’s Sunday Times, a mother lamented her 15-year-old daughter’s desire for one. “I don’t sleep very well the night before,” she wrote after agreeing to the procedure. I don’t blame her because, dear god, if we’re going to revive any of our questionable choices from the Nineties and Noughties, let’s not make it the belly button piercing.

That the humble belly bar has risen like a saline-solutioned phoenix from the flames is clear. Gen Z pop queen Billie Eilish has a belly button piercing, as do her fellow born-in-2000-and-onwards peers, Ice Spice and Addison Rae. On a recent red carpet, Margot Robbie wore a dress with a navel piercing jewel sewn on – nodding to the trend without risking infection – while Vanessa Hudgens appeared at the Oscars on Sunday night doing the thing that all belly button piercees contemplate with fear (but are generally too young to actually worry about): she kept hers in despite being heavily pregnant. Help! They’re everywhere.

Of course, fashion is cyclical; not much, quoth Taylor Swift, “come[s] back stronger than a Nineties trend”. And the reason practically every millennial woman once got a belly button piercing is only because we were also copying our cool pop stars. Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, the female members of S Club 7 – they all had twinkly, glittery navels, the lot of them.

Also, it’s probably fair to say that piercings are an undeniable rite of passage, destinations on a coming-of-age mission in which we feel the urge to have shiny jewellery dangling from different parts of our bodies. Growing up, you choose your fighter. To signal you are individually minded – but not in an intimidating way – there’s the nose stud (I got mine when I was 15). For the grungy older boy, an eyebrow or a lip piercing. For those who take it a bit too far, the tongue or septum piercing. And, of course, for the wannabe pop star, now and then, the belly button piercing.

Now, I don’t want to sound like an Old, but if there’s one thing from which the elder generation can take some satisfaction – perhaps even pride – it’s this: they made mistakes so that the younger generation could learn from them. For example, women in the Eighties got perms. Women in the Nineties had crushes on Tony Blair. In the Noughties, all hair was excessively backcombed. This was all fine, no one was hurt, but I wouldn’t recommend reviving any of these things. And that’s how I feel about the belly button piercing. Plus, of course, you might get hurt, if you are working on a till at your Saturday job.

Strangely, other than my magnetic near miss, I don’t have many specific memories about my own belly button piercing. I don’t remember when I got it done, or when I decided to take it out. Probably when it became clear that I wasn’t going to become an international pop star who needed to expose my midriff on a daily basis, so therefore all the unenjoyable chafing against my waistline was quite pointless and unnecessary. The one thing I do remember, though, is how much I wanted one, and for how long. So although it slightly pains me to see a new generation go through the faff and rigmarole of attending to a bit of sparkly metal in their navels, I think I understand. Questionable choices – the kind no one can talk you out of – must and will be made.

The mothers whose paedophile ex’s retain parental rights

A mother is desperate to change her child’s surname – so they no longer share it with their criminal father.

But Emily* is being blocked by her ex, despite the fact he is a convicted child sex offender. Her predicament is not unique.

Under English and Welsh law, child sex abusers are able to keep their parental rights in the UK, even if they target their own children. This allows them to still have influence over where the child lives, as well as their healthcare and education.

Getting parental responsibility revoked is an intensely protracted process that requires going through the family courts and can cost as much as £30,000 to £50,000.

But London’s Victims’ Commissioner Claire Waxman is tabling an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill that would mean child sex abusers who target their own children or step-children have their parental responsibility revoked.

“Sexual abuse by a parent or step-parent is one of the most psychologically damaging crimes that children can endure,” Ms Waxman toldThe Independent. “It is an abhorrent gap in our justice system that when these offenders are convicted, they maintain their parental responsibility over their victims.

“The children in these cases and the adults caring for them should not be subjected to additional psychological and potential financial suffering by having to make applications to family courts to have this parental responsibility revoked.”

Have you been affected by this? Email maya.oppenheim@independent.co.uk

The Independent understands that Labour is expected to call for measures which go even further and will be supporting an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill tabled by their own MP Harriet Harman which will mean anyone who sexually abuses any child will have their parental responsibility suspended. The only caveat is that they were a parent when they committed the offence.

“I was 16 when I met him,” Emily, who is in her 20s, said. “He was over twice my age when we met. He was abusive.”

Emily, who has one child with her ex, said he has a conviction for downloading hundreds of indecent images of children.

“He was doing this before I was with him, while I was with him and after I was with him,” she explained. “He never went to prison but was placed on the sex offenders register for five years but is due to come off soon.”

Until recently, he was permitted contact with their child which was ordered through the courts but supervised by one of his family members.

He is currently on bail facing charges of rape and sexual abuse against her, taking indecent images of her when she was 16 and potentially coercive control too, she says. For now, the family courts have ordered he has no contact with their child.

“My child has his surname and I can’t change it because he has parental responsibility,” Emily said. “He has refused to let me change it. I have spent £15,000 up to this point in the family courts. My whole life is on hold. My wages go on my solicitor’s bill. I don’t get to do anything nice for me or my child.”

She says she wishes she could get her ex-partner’s parental responsibility revoked but doing so is “impossible”, adding that many professionals have told her it is not achievable.

“They basically said the worst of the worst – murderers and rapists – still manage to keep it,” Emily adds. “I do believe it should be an automatic thing. People like him pose too much of a risk. He has no self-awareness and shows no remorse – he is not going to change as he doesn’t realise he has done anything wrong.”

Ms Waxman explains the government has decided murderers should have their parental responsibility removed at sentencing in cases of domestic homicide and is changing this by introducing “Jade’s Law” into the Victims and Prisoners Bill – an issue The Independent has reported on previously.

“The legislation must go further to protect children sexually abused by their own parent,” the commissioner adds. “Unfortunately, the criminal justice system has a long way to go in addressing these crimes and only a minority of child sexual abuse cases ever reach court – 11 per cent of all child sex abuse reports to police in England and Wales in 2020/21 were charged. In my experience, even fewer are charged when a parent or stepparent is the perpetrator.”

But some cases do lead to a conviction, and in those instances, victims must be safeguarded from their abusers who currently maintain parental responsibility and subsequently play a role in their key life decisions, Ms Waxman says.

“Protecting children from parents who have committed the heinous crime of abusing children – is absolutely crucial,” Shabana Mahmood, Shadow Justice Secretary, said. “The Labour Party is committed to ensuring that the law steps in with these terrible cases, to ensure that an abuser’s own children are not put in harm’s way.”

Another mother, Frankie*, also wants to get her ex’s parental responsibility for their child revoked.

“He was very abusive to me,” the 30-year-old told The Independent. “Physical, psychological, financial and sexual. He was controlling, manipulative, and unpredictable.

“My child came home and disclosed child sex abuse he perpetrated against her, which then led to going to the family courts but this led to nothing. I was very failed by the police system – nothing was found to happen because of how the police mishandled the situation.”

Frankie says her daughter sees her ex, who has a conviction for downloading indecent images of children, regularly in supervised visits but she often cries afterwards because he has been emotionally abusive and controlling towards her.

Research has found there are known links between coercive control, physical abuse and child sexual abuse, Dr Elizabeth Dalgarno, director of SHERA Research Group, which conducts research on domestic abuse and the family courts, said.

“We are calling for parental responsibility to be suspended for convicted child sex offenders,” she added. “It should not be incumbent upon victim-survivors to seek and pay for their own protection from these offenders via the civil courts. This is state-sanctioned abuse.”

Dr Dalgarno said mothers tell them the courts ignore child sex abuse convictions, adding it is increasingly common for mothers to try to curtail an ex’s parental responsibility.

At the end of January, victims and safeguarding minister Laura Farris told MPs: “In cases in which a parent has been convicted of a child sexual offence, the family court has the power to strip out parental responsibility.”

The Tory MP later warned choices about “suspending or restricting” parental rights hold substantial consequences for children, adding this is “why judges prefer to consider each case on its individual merits and make a decision that is specific to the best interests of that child.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The safety of a child is absolutely paramount. Family court judges will always put the welfare of children first and can already make orders limiting the parental rights of those found guilty of such offences. We are also carefully reviewing the approach to parental access to make sure all children are kept from harm.”

*Names changed to protect identities

Island-hopping in the Ionian sea: a guide to Greece’s idyllic islands

Mamma Mia! It’s time to start thinking about a summer holiday, and there’s nowhere more picturesque and dreamy than a Greek island. With an estimated 1,600 isles, although not all are inhabited, there’s plenty to choose from that guarantee sparkling seas, golden sands, rugged nature, delicious food, and a warm welcome.

To help you find your ideal Greek island holiday this summer, travel experts Jet2holidays offer great-value breaks in more than 50 amazing destinations, including 21 in Greece. Hotspots and hidden gems, all boards and budgets, flexible stays and fab flight times – there’s something for everyone. With just a £60pp deposit*, 22kg baggage included and flexible monthly payments** to help spread the cost of your well-deserved holiday, it’s never been easier to get your next Greek getaway booked. 

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Here’s our pick of some of the best islands Greece has to offer…

Stunning beaches are a given in Greece, and in Corfu, the most beautiful include Agios Georgios, a long, horseshoe-shaped bay with a mix of sand and pebbles fringing calm, clear waters. Down the northwest coast is the pretty village of Palaiokastritsa which boasts six sheltered bays and offers boat trips to the fascinating Blue Caves. For a beach as romantic as its name, head to the Canal d’Amour, where a series of unique rock formations create intimate, narrow channels; legend has it that couples who swim between the sea walls together, stay together!

Explore the cobbled streets of Corfu Old Town, and take in pastel-coloured Venetian architecture while looking out for the new and old Fortresses which loom over the harbour. Base yourself at the swish Olivar Suites on the southeastern coast, a restful haven set in olive groves, away from the bustle.

Lefkas, also known as Lefkada, is an island connected to the Greek mainland by a causeway. Head to the beach at Porto Katsiki, located below a set of huge, looming cliffs which create a unique and dramatic landscape. Another gem is nearby Egremni, a classic, Caribbean-style stretch of white sand, fringing crystal-clear turquoise water, while if you fancy windsurfing, head to Vasiliki. On the east coast, check into the four-star, beachfront Porto Galini Sea Side Resort and Spa; handily, it’s just 15 minutes’ drive from Lefkada Town.

Also formerly under Venetian rule, landmarks including Church of the Pantokrator and the ruins of Agia Mavra Castle are worth a look. Escape to a pretty coastal village, such as Agios Nikitas or Nikiana, where you can take a table at a seafront taverna, and tuck into local speciality Englouvi lentils served with riganada (bread with olive oil, vinegar, and oregano). For a foray into nature, head to the spectacular waterfalls of Dimossari, near Nydri village.

Also known as Zakynthos, Zante is a popular island in the Ionian Sea, with a plethora of alluring beaches. The most famous is Navagio, which is surrounded by dramatic, honey-coloured cliffs and often called ‘Shipwreck Beach’ after the cargo boat which ran aground there in 1980, another must-visit is Agios Nikolaos, a serene pebbly stretch on Zante’s northern shore.

Stay at the luxury Domes Aulus Zante Autograph Collection, a laidback beachfront paradise on the south coast, near the quiet resort town of Kalamaki, where you can spot endangered loggerhead turtles. Zante has its own Blue Caves, a set of geological formations turned azure by the reflections of the sea, while its capital, Zakynthos Town, offers architecture influenced by its former Venetian, French and English rulers. Don’t miss the imposing Church of Agios Dionysios with its signature bell tower, and the ruins of the old Venetian Castle.

Sprinkled with Hollywood stardust, scenic Kefalonia was the location for the Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz movie, Captain Correlli’s Mandolin. Key scenes were shot in the harbour town of Sami, the stunning Antisamos beach and in the picturesque fishing village of Fiscardo. Kefalonia’s jagged coastline is made up of limestone cliffs, bays and strips of dazzling white sand, like Myrtos Beach in the north. Other standout beaches include Skala, bordered by thick trees and rocky outcrops, and the unusually named Xi beach, where white cliffs contrast with rare, rust-coloured sand.

Stay at the luxurious, contemporary, adults-only Thalassa Boutique Hotel Kefalonia on the southwest coast, a short drive from capital, Argostoli, where you can explore the Archaeological Museum, Municipal Theatre and historic castles and monasteries. For something more adventurous, explore the vast azure lake inside Melissani cave or hike Mount Ainos, the island’s highest peak, covered in pine forests and home to wild horses. Visit a winery such as Robola or Haritatos for a tasting.

Jet2holidays, the UK’s number one tour operator, offers package holidays you can trust where everything’s included. With you every step of the way, Jet2holidays has an incredible range of great-value, expert-rated getaways for all types of holidaymakers, across more than 50 stunning destinations. From the five-star luxury of Indulgent Escapes by Jet2holidays® to the compelling cities of Jet2CityBreaksVIBE by Jet2holidays for Insta-worthy stays that suit your style to family-friendly Jet2Villas, the boxes are ticked for every age, budget and interest. What’s more, with holidays secured for just £60pp deposit* and flexible payment options**, plus a host of perks like 22kg baggage and return transfers included††, it’s easy from start to finish. It’s all ABTA and ATOL-protected too, so you can enjoy sunshine with peace of mind. To find out more and book with the best, head here.

*On bookings made ten weeks or more before departure. **Terms and conditions apply. Please visit www.jet2holidays.com/part-payment for details. †Based on 4 people. On all holiday departures until 31 October 2025. . T&Cs apply. £60pp discount does not apply to Free Child Places. See http://Jet2holidays.com/promotions#60OFFMYJET2SALE ††Transfers are not included as standard on Jet2CityBreaks. Jet2Villas packages include car hire instead of transfers.

This re-election of Putin is a shameless charade

It does not take the psephological skills of Professor Sir John Curtice to divine the winner of the Russian presidential election of 2024. Any considerations of swing, differential turnout or the impact of new campaigning techniques may be safely dispensed with. Vladimir Putin’s victory will be achieved – indeed, for all intents and purposes, it is already in the bag – thanks to playing politics the Putin way.

Vote-rigging, fraud, suppression of the opposition, such as it is, control of the media and, above all, intimidation are means by which Putin has maintained himself in power for a quarter of a century. He has caused or permitted the deaths of his main rivals such as Alexei Navalny and, albeit not an electoral opponent, Yevgeny Prigozhin, boss of the Wagner private militia.

It does not take a sophisticated social media offensive to persuade anyone with pretensions to replace President Putin to quietly put the nomination papers away. His main surviving opponent, an anti-war activist, Boris Nadezhdin, has found himself disbarred on a trumped-up technicality and attributes the fact that he is still alive to never crossing “red lines”, such as attacking Putin personally. That is the state of “democracy”.

What will the House of Commons look like after the general election?

We don’t know when the general election will come, or who will win, albeit we can make some fairly safe guesses. However, what is as near to certain as can be is that the next House of Commons will look, sound and behave very differently from the present one.

The preponderance of mostly male Conservatives standing down or facing likely defeat – and the sheer scale of that defeat, coupled with an influx of more gender-balanced and diverse Labour candidates – means that the next House will have a record number of female MPs, and more people from an ethnic minority background than ever before. It will also be younger, feature more members from LGBT+ communities, and, dare one say it, be more “woke” and open to newer ways of running parliamentary debates, dress codes, hours of work and much else. We are on the brink of a dramatic change