INDEPENDENT 2024-03-29 10:04:08

Angela Rayner challenges Tory critics over her tax affairs

Angela Rayner has thrown down the gauntlet to prime minister Rishi Sunak, challenging him and two of his Conservative colleagues to publish their tax records if they want hers.

She refused to disclose advice she received amid claims she may have avoided capital gains tax on the 2015 sale of her council house.

The Labour deputy leader taunted her Tory critics, stressing that she has “done nothing wrong”, and saying: “If you show me yours, I will show you mine.”

Naming Mr Sunak, the chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Tory deputy chair James Daly, Ms Rayner said: “If [they] all want to say ‘I’ll give you the last 15 years of my tax details’, I’m happy to disclose all of mine as well at the same time.”

Her challenge came as she and Sir Keir Starmer launched Labour’s campaign for the 2 May local elections. Parking his party’s tanks squarely on the Conservatives’ lawn, Sir Keir promised to revive Boris Johnson’s failed levelling-up agenda.

Heaping praise on the ex-PM for having the right idea in investing outside the southeast of England, he sought to drive a wedge between Mr Johnson and his successor, accusing Mr Sunak of “strangling levelling up at birth”.

In a blow to Labour’s hope of the story petering out, Greater Manchester Police said it would review claims Ms Rayner may have broken electoral law over information she gave about her living situation a decade ago.

Bury North MP Mr Daly has alleged she may have made a false declaration about where she was living on the electoral register.

He says has been told a detective chief inspector is reassessing the force’s decision not to open an investigation into the claims.

Grilled about the development on Thursday, Ms Rayner said the police had been put under pressure by Mr Daly to launch an investigation and she was “confident I have done absolutely nothing wrong”.

“I have been very clear about the advice I have received,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I don’t need to publish all of my details, my child’s birth certificate was put out in the public domain and it is not fair on my family.”

Ms Rayner promised to comply with HMRC, the police and any authorities who want to see her tax advice and, in a challenge to Mr Daly and the Conservatives, she added: “If you show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”

She said: “If the deputy chairman, Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt all want to say I’ll give you the last 15 years of my tax details, I’m happy to disclose all of mine as well at the same time. I’m open to that if that’s what they want us to do.”

Sir Keir has said Ms Rayner has his “full support and full confidence, today and every day”, adding that she has “answered I don’t know how many questions about this… she has not broken any rules”.

The Labour leader said he has “faith in Angela Rayner’s answers”, and said his team, but not him personally, have looked at the tax advice Ms Rayner received about the council house. He said it is “a sign of how desperate the Tories have got, that they want to make this the issue in a local election, which should be about their failure in delivery”.

Sir Keir accused Mr Johnson and his successors of having “preyed on people’s hopes” with unfulfilled promises over levelling up.

He said: “People say to me, the worst thing you can do in politics is to prey on peoples’ fear.

“Yet in some ways, preying on their hopes is just as bad. And that’s what the Tories did with levelling up. Of course, it struck a chord. Of course – a town like Dudley [in the West Midlands] wanted that hope to be real. Not just the promise of a better future – we all need that.

“It’s also how that project knowingly spoke to what towns like this have lost, the way of life that disappeared when the factories or pits closed. The community, the security, the ‘chest-out’ pride that grows when you are certain your contribution is respected.”

In an appeal to disgruntled Tory 2019 voters, Ms Rayner also hailed Boris Johnson’s levelling-up agenda, saying the former PM was “onto something”.

She added: “The problem is that the Tories then decided not to do that, hollowed out and took money under the guise of austerity from those areas and then created this Dragon’s Den bidding process where councils spent millions of pounds bidding against each other for little pots of their own money back.”

Meanwhile, Sir Keir said the Tories have “beat the hope out of people over the last 14 years”.

He said: “We’ve got to give people hope. Hope that politics can change, that we can return to a place where promises matter, where values and standards in public life matter.”

“That is one reason why we came to Dudley to launch this campaign, because of course it was right here that the former prime minister, or former, former prime minister to be accurate, gave his big levelling-up speech.”

Ms Rayner has faced scrutiny about whether she paid the right amount of tax on the 2015 sale of her council house due to confusion over whether it was her principal residency.

She has rejected suggestions in a book by former Tory deputy chair Lord Ashcroft that she failed to properly declare her main home.

The unauthorised biography alleges that the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne bought her former council house, in Vicarage Road in Stockport, Greater Manchester, with a 25 per cent discount in 2007 under the right-to-buy scheme.

The former carer is said to have made a £48,500 profit when selling the house eight years later.

Government guidance says that a tenant can apply to buy their council home through the right-to-buy scheme if it is their “only or main home”.

Her husband was listed at another address in Lowndes Lane, about a mile away, which had also been bought under the right-to-buy scheme.

In the same year as her wedding, Ms Rayner is said to have re-registered the births of her two youngest children, giving her address as where her husband resided.

Ms Rayner has insisted that Vicarage Road was her “principal property” despite her husband living elsewhere at the time, but neighbours have reportedly disputed her claim that she lived apart from her husband.

Tax experts have estimated that, while Ms Rayner may not have owed anything in capital gains tax following the sale depending on her residency situation, there are circumstances in which she could have owed as much as £3,500 to the taxman.

Ukraine-Russia war live: Poland activates fighter jets

Polish and allied aircraft were scrambled this morning after Russia launched missile strikes on Ukraine, the Operational Command of the Polish armed forces said.

“Polish and allied aircraft are operating in Polish airspace, which may result in increased noise levels, especially in the southeastern part of the country,” the Command said on the social media platform X.

Russia attacked three thermal power plants of Ukraine’s largest private power firm DTEK on Friday, damaging facilities, the firm said.

“The equipment was severely damaged. After the attack ended, the power engineers promptly started to repair the damage,” the company said on the Telegram messaging app.

Meanwhile, Moscow has claimed it has evidence that the gunmen who killed more than 140 people in an attack on a concert hall last week were linked to “Ukrainian nationalists”.

While Russia did not present any evidence, the Russian Investigative Committee said the attackers had received significant amounts of cash and cryptocurrency from Ukraine.

Why William was not with Kate in her diagnosis video revealed

The reason the Princess of Wales did not have her husband by her side in the video revealing her cancer diagnosis has been revealed.

Sitting on a bench surrounded by greenery on the grounds of Windsor Castle, Kate cut a lone figure as she told the world that she is undergoing preventative chemotherapy.

As many wondered why Prince William was not in the emotional video, a palace source told People: “It is a message from the princess about her health, and she wanted to personally deliver the message on her own.”

However, Kate did refer to her husband in the two-minute address, as she said: “William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family.”

The palace insider said the Prince of Wales has been “supporting throughout,” adding: “William is extremely proud of his wife for the courage and strength she has shown not just this week but since her surgery in January.”

As a series of health scares rock the royal family, both the King and the Princess of Wales have stepped back from public duties.

The Queen represented King Charles on Thursday at the historic Royal Maundy service at Worcester Cathedral, which he missed with “great sadness” as he continues to undergo cancer treatment.

Thames Water customers face 40 per cent bill hike as investors refuse £500 million lifeline

Shareholders have backed out of plans to inject £500m of funding into troubled utility Thames Water, sparking concerns of a government bailout that could cost the taxpayer billions.

Chief executive Chris Weston, meanwhile, refused to rule out bill increases of up to 40 per cent for customers, as the firm struggles with increasing debts and huge interest payments.

The beleaguered utility company revealed its shareholders had withheld the vital money because they say demands by regulators left its business plan “uninvestable”.

Labour urged the government and regulators to “do everything in their power to stabilise” Thames Water, with Jeremy Hunt saying that the Treasury will monitor the situation “very carefully”.

While Mr Weston said that the company would be able to cover its operating costs until next year, he admitted there was a “possibility” of the firm going into special administration if extra money is not invested.

When asked on Sky News if bills could be hiked to fill the gap, Mr Weston replied: “I don’t think we have been at all secretive about that.

“But the plans that we have put forward – which are very much in accordance with what customers are asking us to do – require an investment of around £20bn in that 2025-2030 period, and that would result in a bill (increase) of around 40 per cent.”

Meanwhile, the GMB union accused shareholders of “essentially blackmailing customers and Ofwat” ahead of a meeting with Thames Water this morning.

GMB national officer Gary Carter said: “Assets and infrastructure are falling apart – instead of putting the money in to fix it, shareholders are refusing to pay a penny unless bills are allowed to rocket.

“Holding bill payers to ransom for costs after years of underinvestment is completely unacceptable.

Thames Water – the UK’s biggest water supplier with 15 million households across London and the South East – said the funding plan drawn up last July was subject to conditions, including a business plan supported by “appropriate regulatory arrangements”.

The company has been battling to secure its future since last summer, with a funding crisis leaving the debt-laden firm on the brink of emergency nationalisation.

Thames Water has been left with debts of nearly £15bn, while it has also missed sewage spill and leakage targets with the bosses coming under intense scrutiny over the firm’s performance.

Much of the debt was run up by previous owner Macquarie, which sold the utility to its present consortium of owners in 2017.

Macquarie, an Australian investment bank, took £1.2bn of dividend payments from the water company during its decade of ownership.

The debt has also been inflated by recent shareholder payouts, with Thames Water agreeing to pay a £37.5m dividend in October last year.

It has also paid out about £3.7m worth of bonuses, benefits and incentives to company executives over the last three years, while total executive pay, which includes base salaries, surpassed £10.6m over the last four financial years.

Steve Reed, the Labour shadow environment secretary, said: “The Conservatives weakened regulation, allowing water companies to get massively in debt while the sewage system crumbled and illegal sewage dumping hit record levels.

“The Conservatives’ negligence is why the country’s largest water company is now in this worrying position.”

Thames Water was privatised alongside all other water companies in England in 1989 under Margaret Thatcher, when she sold off the nationalised water and sewage industry for £7.6bn.

It has since proven controversial, with water quality improving but debts accumulating and the nine large companies paying out as much in dividends as they have made in profits.

Last summer, a rescue funding plan was agreed with shareholders, including a Canadian pension fund and China’s sovereign wealth fund, that would see them pump in £750m overall with the first £500m due by the end of this month.

But it is understood that industry watchdog Ofwat has refused to bow to the water giant’s demands for concessions, said to include a 40 per cent bill hike for customers, an easing of capital spending requirements as well as leniency on regulatory penalties.

The firm has now said these regulations make the plan “uninvestable”, and as a result the shareholder support letter from last July “has not been satisfied”.

“The first £500m of the new equity that had been anticipated will not be provided by Thames Water’s shareholders by 31 March 2024,” it revealed.

Thames Water said it was in ongoing talks with industry regulator Ofwat to secure regulations that are “affordable for customers, deliverable and financeable for Thames Water, as well as investible for equity investors”.

It said once the new regulatory plan is agreed with Ofwat, it “intends to pursue all options to secure the required equity investment from new or existing shareholders”.

Mr Weston said: “Our 8,000 staff remain committed to working with our partners in the supply chain to provide our services for the benefit of our customers, communities and the environment.”

He later told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If at the end of the day, probably well into the end of next year, we were in a situation where we had no equity then there is the prospect of special administration, but we are a long way from that point at the moment.”

Ofwat has said the water company must seek further funding for its turnaround plan, but sought to assure customers that “safeguards” were in place to protect services to households.

An Ofwat spokesperson said: “Safeguards are in place to ensure that services to customers are protected regardless of issues faced by shareholders of Thames Water.

“Today’s update from Thames Water means the company must now pursue all options to seek further equity for the business to turn around the performance of the company for customers.”

They added: “Thames Water is a business with a regulatory capital value of £19bn, with £2.4bn of cash/liquidity available, and an annual regulated revenue of £2bn and new leadership team.”

In a joint statement, Thames Water’s nine investors claimed that Ofwat had “not been prepared to provide the necessary regulatory support” for their funding and turnaround plan.

They insisted their funding agreement “was a solution which addresses the root cause of Thames Water’s challenges without the need for any taxpayer funding”.

They added: “However, after more than a year of negotiations with the regulator, Ofwat has not been prepared to provide the necessary regulatory support for a business plan which ultimately addresses the issues that Thames Water faces.

“As a result, shareholders are not in a position to provide further funding to Thames Water.”

45 killed after bus carrying Easter worshippers falls off bridge

An eight-year-old child emerged as the sole survivor after a bus carrying worshippers to an Easter festival, plunged off a bridge in South Africa, killing 45 people on Thursday.

The bus lost control on the Mmamatlakala bridge in the northern province of Limpopo and plunged 50m (164ft) into a ravine before bursting into flames. The driver was among the 45 dead.

The bus was transporting passengers from neighbouring Botswana to the town of Moria for an Easter pilgrimage, according to Limpopo authorities.

An 8-year-old girl, who was the only survivor, was receiving medical attention after sustaining severe injuries, authorities said.

Firefighters were working to hose down a fire and search operations ongoing until late night on Thursday, the provincial government said.

Many bodies still remained trapped inside the vehicle. However, rescuers were facing many challenges in identifying the bodies which were burned beyond recognition.

Minister of transport, Sindisiwe Chikunga, was in Limpopo province for a road safety campaign and changed plans to visit the crash scene, the National Department of Transport said.

She said there was an investigation underway into the cause of the crash and offered her condolences to the families of the victims.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa also sent his condolences to Botswana and pledged support to the country, his office said in a statement.

The Zionist Christian Church has its headquarters in Moria and its Easter pilgrimage attracts hundreds of thousands of people from across South Africa and neighbouring countries.

This year is the first time the Easter pilgrimage to Moria is set to go ahead since the Covid-19 pandemic.

The South African government often warns of the danger of road accidents during the Easter holidays, which is a particularly busy and dangerous time for road travel.

More than 200 people died in road crashes during the Easter weekend last year.

Additional reporting by agencies

It’s time to renationalise our failing water industry

Ever since the Conservative manifesto for the 1987 general election disingenuously promised to “return to the public the Water Authorities” – in other words, privatise the ones in England and Wales – there has been an on-off national debate about whether the supply of water, sewerage and associated services should, in fact, be owned and controlled by the state or in the hands of free enterprise. Soon, however, the issue, at least in the case of Thames Water, will be resolved not by a popular vote but through commercial pressures.

Thames Water, to put it bluntly, is going bust and will run out of money by May 2025. Given that its wide range of well-resourced shareholders, including major pension funds, are warning that the business is now uninvestible, it seems inevitable that Thames Water will before much longer pass into a special administrative regime, and, in effect, be nationalised. The alternative, which is that the taps run dry and the loos no longer flush in the capital of the United Kingdom is rightly an unthinkable consequence of subjecting what is, at base, a public service to the worst emanations of capitalism.

Thames Water has many problems, not all of them of its own making. Britain’s Victorian sewers and water pipes are crumbling, inadequate, prone to leaks and sewage dumps, and expensive to replace. The infrastructure was neglected under many decades of municipal ownership long before it was floated on the stock market in the exciting though transient era of mass share ownership promulgated by Margaret Thatcher. The regulators have also failed to be tough enough over water purity and pollution, to an unbelievable extent.

What are the Tories’ chances of winning the London mayoral election?

Local and mayoral elections on 2 May, combined with yet another parliamentary by-election in Blackpool South, will provide the best possible picture of the standing of the parties – in most of England and Wales, at least.

Millions of real votes in ballot boxes will either confirm or confound the opinion polls. It will be another important test of Rishi Sunak’s leadership; there is speculation that a truly disastrous result for his party might trigger a vote of confidence in him, with the possible consequence that he’d call an immediate general election and take his case to the British people as early as June. Of the many discouraging results the Conservatives seem to be headed for, perhaps the worst of all will be in London. It is fair to say that, even in a generally difficult period for the Tories, London stands out as an object lesson in how not to do politics…