The Guardian 2024-03-31 16:03:28


Second energy firm wrongly received money from welfare payments under Centrepay scheme

Services Australia is working with Ergon to return overpayments, prompting fears the issue first identified at AGL could be widespread

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A second Australian energy company wrongly received money from the welfare payments of former customers, prompting fears the issue identified at AGL could be widespread.

Guardian Australia revealed last week that $700,000 had been diverted via the government-run Centrepay debit system from the pockets of more than 500 welfare recipients to the energy giant AGL.

Court documents showed the Centrepay system, designed to give businesses early access to a person’s welfare money, continued to funnel payments to AGL for years after individuals ceased being AGL customers.

In one case, $6,800 was wrongly diverted from a welfare recipient’s payments in 74 separate deductions up to 11 December 2020. The welfare recipient had ceased being an AGL customer more than two years earlier.

Services Australia has now confirmed it is working with a second energy retailer, Queensland’s Ergon Energy Retail, to return overpayments made via Centrepay. It is unclear how much in overpayments was made to Ergon or over what period.

“The agency has supported the return of all overpayments to AGL customers,” spokesperson Hank Jongen said. “We have also commenced processes to support Ergon to return all funds to impacted customers.

“The agency supports the return of overpayments where businesses are unable to facilitate refunds themselves.”

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Ergon Energy Retail confirmed it was in discussions with Services Australia regarding Centrepay deductions.

A spokesperson said Centrepay deductions can remain in place for final bills and for services that had previously been supplied after a customer had their supply disconnected.

The spokesperson said the company had robust processes for billing and to ensure any accounts in credit were refunded.

The spokesperson said customers chose their methods of payment and set the amounts to be paid. The company noted Centrepay and other payment systems were managed externally to Ergon.

“If automatic payments are scheduled by the customer, they are unlikely to exactly match the billing amount, as electricity bills are highly variable depending on individual customer use,” the spokesperson said.

“If there is a credit on the account after an account has been closed, then Ergon Energy Retail will use best endeavours to return the excess CentrePay deduction to the customer or to Services Australia,” the spokesperson said.

“Ergon Energy Retail will first notify the customer via a message on their final bill that their account is in credit and request they make contact to organise a refund.

“After the issue of the final bill, Ergon Energy Retail will attempt to make contact as per its Services Australia agreement.”

A Guardian Australia investigation last week revealed deep problems with the Centrepay system, including its use to prop up a Christian rehabilitation centre practising gay conversion practices and exorcisms and by rent-to-buy companies previously sanctioned by the corporate regulator.

Documents tendered in the federal court, where the Australian Energy Regulator is suing AGL, allege that the energy giant also knew it was continuing to receive money from former customers via Centrepay but did nothing for years. That allowed more than $700,000 in welfare payments to be wrongly diverted from recipients to AGL, the documents allege.

AGL denies it had control over the deductions, saying that was a matter for Services Australia, and is defending the case.

AGL said it did not benefit from the diverted payments, which sat as credit in customers’ accounts and have now been refunded.

The Centrepay system is designed to give government-approved businesses early access to a person’s welfare payment, ensuring individuals can cover essentials such as rent, electricity and clothing. But customer advocates have warned for years that it is causing financial harm to welfare recipients.

The government says it is urgently pursuing reforms to the system, including to better prevent overpayments from occurring.

“It includes significant government, industry and customer consultation with a focus on safeguards and protections for customers to reduce financial harm, including Centrepay overpayments,” the spokesperson said.

A Services Australia spokesperson said Centrepay businesses are “made aware of their obligations to prevent overpayments from Centrepay customers” and that it investigates where any overpayments are identified.

But consumer advocates say both have a responsibility to ensure people do not overpay for services at all, particularly those on low incomes who are most likely experiencing financial hardship.

“If they’ve got one energy provider that they’ve left and they started with a new one, they’re actually double paying for energy, which means they’re sure to be in financial hardship,” the Mob Strong Debt Help financial counsellor and Boandik woman Bettina Cooper said.

“People on Centrelink are already on the lowest income possible. And to be in a situation because of either the business or Centrepay failings, then they are double paying for energy. We know it means they’ll have a greater reliability on emergency services and emergency relief. And they’ll certainly be in financial hardship and have trouble meeting other bills,” she said.

“We’ve seen this time and time again, not just with energy companies, but with consumer leases and other organisations. And it is time that Centrelink and Centrepay review and take steps to reform their systems and stop these overpayments and this harm to their most vulnerable customers.”

Cooper said it was not adequate for businesses and the government to assume all customers are able to access online accounts to cancel or change services, particularly those in remote communities.

“We know there’s a large level of digital exclusion amongst First Nations clients. And we know that there’s a large number of First Nations clients signed up to Centrepay. So if the only way for a person to cancel it is via an online portal, then we’re not considering the needs of the customer. We need to provide an inclusive service,” she said.

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‘We know the community is over it’: how self-regulation of gambling ads came unstuck minutes into an AFL game

Clubs and bookmakers have set their own restrictions as campaigners await a decision on a proposed ban

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Just minutes after the first bounce in a round one AFL game, families watching on free-to-air television were exposed to more than 70 gambling ads – and all before 8pm.

The fluorescent ads for gambling giant Tabcorp were splashed on digital billboards, despite the company previously declaring there was “too much advertising” and that change was necessary to protect vulnerable people.

“Australian families should be able to watch live sport without being bombarded by gambling advertising,” Tabcorp’s then chief executive, Adam Rytenskild, said in March last year.

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Tabcorp concedes it breached its policy of not advertising between the hours of 6.30am and 8.30pm – which is beyond what it is required to do by law. The company says displaying the ads during this time was a mistake.

“Our position on in-stadium advertising is the same as our position on free-to-air television advertising – we don’t advertise before 8.30pm and have not done so since an error was made in Round 1,” the spokesperson said.

“We know the community is over it and it’s the right thing to do.”

According to current rules and regulations, Tabcorp did nothing wrong. While ads cannot be broadcast during matches, bookmakers can pay for pitch-side ads within view of cameras. It’s a loophole that public health experts want tightened.

“This signage creates an impression for young people that gambling is embedded as part of the game,” said Samantha Thomas, a gambling researcher at Deakin University.

“Governments have a responsibility to close the range of channels that the gambling industry can use to promote its products and create brand awareness and loyalty – particularly with a view to protecting children and young people.”

‘Disappointing and frustrating’

Tabcorp’s “error” is the latest example of how, in the absence of a long-awaited regulatory crackdown, bookmakers and clubs have begun to self-regulate themselves to different standards. A conflict over gambling ads is one reason why the powerful wagering lobby splintered in recent months.

Five years ago, the Geelong Cats banned all gambling ads at its home ground. The Sydney Swans agreed to do so in 2021. Gambling ads remain at the MCG – although they have decreased in recent years – and there appears to be no limit at the Gabba in Brisbane.

All Victorian AFL clubs have turned their backs on gambling sponsorships, while the Brisbane Lions and the GWS Giants have a sponsorship deal with Tabcorp. The AFL itself continues to take a cut of every bet placed on the sport, and promotes bets for its official wagering partner, Sportsbet, that have a high failure rate.

These inconsistencies have frustrated AFL fans still waiting for regulation. A survey conducted by the AFL Fan Association found 79% of respondents supported a ban on gambling ads at stadiums. When that result was released more than a year ago, the association’s president, Ron Issko, hoped the government would act.

“It’s disappointing and frustrating,” Issko says. “Fans had clearly said that they want gambling ads significantly reduced, if not abolished, at grounds, on TV, on radio, on social media – and they are concerned we are normalising gambling.

“We are potentially grooming our kids to become gamblers. We get a number of parents writing to us saying, ‘my 11-year-old son knows the odds of who is going to kick the first goal’. What is going on?”

A proposed ban

The Albanese government is yet to respond to a parliamentary inquiry, led by the late Labor MP Peta Murphy, which called for a total ban on gambling ads, after a three-year transition period. While broadcasters don’t expect a total ban, the communications minister, Michelle Rowland, has said the “status quo” is untenable.

“The government is examining restrictions and engaging with stakeholders, including harm reduction advocates, health experts and industry, as we develop our policy,” Rowland said earlier this year.

A government response to the inquiry was due by the end of 2023.

Multiple gambling industry sources suggest the response was delayed after Murphy, 50, died.

Like Issko, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ president, Dr Elizabeth Moore, is also concerned by the delay. Moore is calling on the government to adopt the Murphy inquiry’s recommendation.

“There is a strong correlation between problem gambling and comorbid mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and personality disorders,” Moore says.

The shadow communications minister, David Coleman, also says action is overdue. More than a year ago, the federal opposition proposed a ban on all gambling advertising an hour either side of live sport matches.

“Had the government supported our bill the restrictions on gambling adverts during live sport would already be in place and running by now,” Coleman said.

The government has already introduced regulation to protect consumers from gambling harm, including a national self-exclusion register and more assertive public health warnings on broadcast ads. But Moore and others believe those changes don’t go far enough.

Tim Costello, the chief advocate for the Alliance for Gambling Reform, says the return of football has reminded many families of what they hate: “a tsunami of gambling and sports betting ads”.

“Fans hate it,” Costello says. “Parents hate it. But the AFL is unmoved. Do gambling interests now completely own our game?”

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Yes, women are in car accidents too – and the crash test dummy family is finally catching up

There has long been criticism that dummies do not properly test for the female body shape, putting women at higher risk of injury and death

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A smarter crash test dummy – with more female characteristics – is set to join Australia’s family.

The new female test device for human occupant restraint (also known as Thor) has a female-shaped pelvis, more sensors compared to previous models and breasts. She weighs 47.5kg, is 1.5m tall and has 150 sensors that will measure the impact of a crash on areas where women are particularly vulnerable.

There has long been criticism that crash test dummies, which were created in the 1970s when drivers were mainly men, do not properly test for the female body shape, putting women at higher risk of injury and death.

Men are more likely than women to be involved in a car crash, but women are more likely to be seriously injured. They are more vulnerable to whiplash, sit closer to the steering wheel, and may have less dense bones.

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Women also have different fat distribution, musculature and bone structure. Where “female” dummies exist, they tend to just be a shrunken version of the male.

The Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute announced last year it had created the first dummy modelled entirely on a female body.

But the chief technical officer of the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (Ancap), Mark Terrell, says the gender divide in crash test dummies is not binary.

Ancap uses a range of dummies to test and rate cars’ safety.

Terrell says there are some misunderstandings about how crash test dummies work. He says they have had dummies with female characteristics for a long time – and now plan to get a more advanced one.

From cadavers to dummies

In the early days of crash research, human volunteers, cadavers (corpses for scientific use) and animals were all used to measure the impacts of car crashes and inform the design of dummies.

However, the human volunteers proved “unfeasible”, not least because they could not be used in more serious crashes.

It has been revealed that as recently as 1993, university researchers in Germany were using adult and child cadavers in crash tests.

The use of cadavers was complicated by obvious moral and ethical reasons, but also by several practical considerations: they are not physically representative of live humans; they needed to have died non-violent deaths so the injuries could be clearly studied; and the experiments could not be replicated.

Chimpanzees, bears and pigs were also used to test the impact of accidents on organs but were phased out due to inadequate results as well as animal welfare concerns – although there are reports China was using pigs as recently as 2019.

The first artificial dummy, called Sierra Sam, was developed in the middle of last century and was a basic model used to test plane ejection seats. He was replaced in 1971 by the Hybrid 1, and since then the anthropomorphic test devices have continued to evolve.

Today dummies are made of steel, aluminium and plastics, and filled with sensors. There are different ones for frontal and side crashes. Terrell says they combine male and female characteristics so even the “male” dummy can be used to predict the injury of a female.

Statistics and software are used to model different crash scenarios, sized people and vulnerability profiles, and to make the dummies as human-like as possible, while able to withstand the enormous pressure of a crash.

New vehicles are put through a range of destructive tests – frontal impact, side impact, run-off-road, rear-end and pedestrian strikes – at Ancap’s testing facilities in Sydney and Melbourne.

The vehicles are on a tow skate, and a cable system pulls them and other equipment around, with the tow skate disconnecting just before impact so the car is free running when it hits the target.

The dummies survive many crashes and many years – up to 20. They are recalibrated after a set number of tests, and parts are replaced when necessary.

“If you have a set of cadaver tests, there’ll be a range of different ages, sizes and statures, and also different genders and you need to use statistics and so on over maybe 100 tests and work out the scale to work out how that relates to a real person,” Terrell says.

“It’s not the case you have a female dummy based on female volunteers and male on male.

“We’re obviously aware that people driving cars aren’t all the same size … we choose the most appropriate dummy for each one, then we broaden that out.

“You end up with a tool that has human characteristics and is as human like as you can get, but it’s still simplified.”

Ancap has had a male Thor since 2020, and Terrell says there’s a long “gestation time” for new dummies.

“It’s not an area that moves fast. But the next significant new dummy that we’ll see is a small female Thor,” he says.

The manufacturers, Humanetics, say the female Thor has 150 sensor channels “designed to help address those parts of the body where women have increased vulnerability to injury”.

They have also developed an obese male and an elderly female dummy.

Currently, Ancap has two fifth percentile Hybrid III females, meaning they weigh less than 95% of females. They are used to test airbags and seatbelts on smaller people who sit further forward, with the seatbelt in different positions.

A Hybrid III 50th percentile male dummy (meaning he is a median weight) is used to gather data on likely head, neck, chest, leg, knee and ankle injury risks.

There is a side impact dummy, and two children – representing a six-year-old and a 10-year-old.

Others represent pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.

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Andrew Giles faces years of litigation as he fights to prevent another disastrous defeat on immigration

Paul Karp

The immigration minister generally has a reputation as the most sued person in Australia. This year the legal terrain got even rockier

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Andrew Giles has a reputation as the most sued person in Australia.

A conscientious man in a controversial portfolio, for the immigration minister being the respondent to literally hundreds of cases a year just comes with the territory.

When the high court ruled in the NZYQ decision that indefinite detention is unlawful if it is not possible to deport the person, overturning a two-decade-old precedent, the legal terrain got even rockier.

The Albanese government concedes it is facing three years of litigation to determine the bounds of when a person has “no real prospect” of their removal from Australia “becoming practicable in the reasonably foreseeable future”.

The rushed legislation imposing ankle bracelets and curfews, and criminal penalties for breach of visa conditions, is also under challenge.

This is the pipeline of cases the government is facing and in some cases, aggressively managing, to prevent another disastrous defeat.

‘Uncooperative’ detainees

On 17 April the high court will hear the case of ASF17, an Iranian man detained for more than a decade who refuses to meet Iranian authorities because he fears for his life if he is removed to Iran because he is bisexual.

The case will test whether people in immigration detention must be released if their refusal to cooperate has prevented them being deported.

Leaked internal documents reveal the government believes more than 170 people might have to be released if it loses the case.

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In public and in private the government is confident of victory. Nevertheless, it is attempting to legislate powers to require people to cooperate in their deportation, a tool it can use to remove people from Australia if it loses.

Ned Kelly Emeralds, a former detainee freed by the federal court known by the pseudonym AZC20, has applied to intervene in the case. He is represented by barristers led by Craig Lenehan SC, who won the NZYQ case – a dream team that could become a nightmare for the government.

People owed protection

Lawyer Zia Zarifi told Guardian Australia that NZYQ meant that if the government is going to keep people in immigration detention “the sole reason must be deportation” or their application for a protection visa is still being considered.

But the government has kept some people who have already been found by the administrative appeals tribunal to be owed protection in detention.

One such person is JPPS, a man who faces the death penalty in Lebanon over terrorism accusations, which he denies. The government has kept him in detention while it appeals against the finding he is owed protection.

Some plaintiffs in this category have been granted protection visas and released from detention, but Zarifi said the claim for a declaration that their detention was unlawful can continue.

Compensation claims inevitable

In November the solicitor general, Stephen Donaghue, told the high court claims for compensation would be “inevitable” if it ruled indefinite detention was unlawful and “undefendable” in cases where it conceded the people had been detained while it was impossible to deport them.

In January a stateless Kurdish man, known as DVU18, released from immigration detention filed in the high court seeking “aggravated” and “compensatory” damages for alleged false imprisonment. The claim has been remitted to the federal court.

Guardian Australia is aware of other similar cases in the federal court seeking compensation, even though the government thought indefinite detention was lawful due to the 2004 Al Kateb high court decision.

Ankle bracelets and curfews

In addition to compensation for detention, DVU18 was also challenging the legality of the ankle bracelet and curfew conditions – but the conditions were lifted off him, resulting in him withdrawing this part of the claim.

Guardian Australia first revealed in December that Giles was quietly removing the ankle bracelets and curfew conditions from people challenging them in court. This resulted in cases being withdrawn – five in total by February, according to home affairs officials in Senate estimates.

Legal practitioners believe the government is aggressively managing the caseload to delay a ruling striking down the visa conditions, or at least to pick its preferred plaintiff and legal team to face off against.

When questioned, Giles has said conditions are determined on the advice of the community protection board. On Wednesday, officials revealed that 73 of the 152 people released as a result of NZYQ no longer need ankle bracelets – so it is not just those bringing legal challenges who are having them removed.

A stateless refugee born in Eritrea known as YBFZ is also challenging the ankle bracelets and curfews. The case is going ahead with negotiations to agree facts.

In December and January YBFZ was charged with offences related to failing to observe curfew and charge his ankle monitor, but these have been dropped.

Invalid bridging visas

In March the Albanese government admitted that the bridging visas granted to those released from detention after NZYQ were invalid due to a technicality. Some 10 people had already been charged with breaching visa conditions, and these charges were dropped.

Guardian Australia understands that the Human Rights Law Centre believes that a case for compensation for imposition of unlawful visa conditions before the technicality was corrected is “readily available” if and when former detainees want to bring a case.

A class action is being considered and is anticipated by the government, although it is unlikely to be launched until after the high court rules on validity of ankle bracelets and curfews generally.

Hannah Dickinson, principal solicitor at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said it is “appropriate that people have redress for the unlawful imposition of invasive” conditions.

Aggregate sentences bill

In December 2022 the commonwealth lost the Pearson case in the full federal court. The court ruled aggregate sentences do not trigger automatic visa cancellation, prompting the release of more than 100 people who had previously served aggregate sentences of 12 months or more in prison.

Labor and the Coalition teamed up to pass laws retrospectively authorising the cancellation of visas of people who had been released.

The legality of these laws has been upheld twice in the case of JZQQ, a man who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for offences of intentionally causing injury and threats to kill; and Kingston Tapiki, a New Zealander sentenced to an aggregate term of 12 months’ imprisonment for offences of affray and assault.

Both are now appealing to the high court, which has agreed to take the cases.

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Andrew Giles faces years of litigation as he fights to prevent another disastrous defeat on immigration

Paul Karp

The immigration minister generally has a reputation as the most sued person in Australia. This year the legal terrain got even rockier

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Andrew Giles has a reputation as the most sued person in Australia.

A conscientious man in a controversial portfolio, for the immigration minister being the respondent to literally hundreds of cases a year just comes with the territory.

When the high court ruled in the NZYQ decision that indefinite detention is unlawful if it is not possible to deport the person, overturning a two-decade-old precedent, the legal terrain got even rockier.

The Albanese government concedes it is facing three years of litigation to determine the bounds of when a person has “no real prospect” of their removal from Australia “becoming practicable in the reasonably foreseeable future”.

The rushed legislation imposing ankle bracelets and curfews, and criminal penalties for breach of visa conditions, is also under challenge.

This is the pipeline of cases the government is facing and in some cases, aggressively managing, to prevent another disastrous defeat.

‘Uncooperative’ detainees

On 17 April the high court will hear the case of ASF17, an Iranian man detained for more than a decade who refuses to meet Iranian authorities because he fears for his life if he is removed to Iran because he is bisexual.

The case will test whether people in immigration detention must be released if their refusal to cooperate has prevented them being deported.

Leaked internal documents reveal the government believes more than 170 people might have to be released if it loses the case.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

In public and in private the government is confident of victory. Nevertheless, it is attempting to legislate powers to require people to cooperate in their deportation, a tool it can use to remove people from Australia if it loses.

Ned Kelly Emeralds, a former detainee freed by the federal court known by the pseudonym AZC20, has applied to intervene in the case. He is represented by barristers led by Craig Lenehan SC, who won the NZYQ case – a dream team that could become a nightmare for the government.

People owed protection

Lawyer Zia Zarifi told Guardian Australia that NZYQ meant that if the government is going to keep people in immigration detention “the sole reason must be deportation” or their application for a protection visa is still being considered.

But the government has kept some people who have already been found by the administrative appeals tribunal to be owed protection in detention.

One such person is JPPS, a man who faces the death penalty in Lebanon over terrorism accusations, which he denies. The government has kept him in detention while it appeals against the finding he is owed protection.

Some plaintiffs in this category have been granted protection visas and released from detention, but Zarifi said the claim for a declaration that their detention was unlawful can continue.

Compensation claims inevitable

In November the solicitor general, Stephen Donaghue, told the high court claims for compensation would be “inevitable” if it ruled indefinite detention was unlawful and “undefendable” in cases where it conceded the people had been detained while it was impossible to deport them.

In January a stateless Kurdish man, known as DVU18, released from immigration detention filed in the high court seeking “aggravated” and “compensatory” damages for alleged false imprisonment. The claim has been remitted to the federal court.

Guardian Australia is aware of other similar cases in the federal court seeking compensation, even though the government thought indefinite detention was lawful due to the 2004 Al Kateb high court decision.

Ankle bracelets and curfews

In addition to compensation for detention, DVU18 was also challenging the legality of the ankle bracelet and curfew conditions – but the conditions were lifted off him, resulting in him withdrawing this part of the claim.

Guardian Australia first revealed in December that Giles was quietly removing the ankle bracelets and curfew conditions from people challenging them in court. This resulted in cases being withdrawn – five in total by February, according to home affairs officials in Senate estimates.

Legal practitioners believe the government is aggressively managing the caseload to delay a ruling striking down the visa conditions, or at least to pick its preferred plaintiff and legal team to face off against.

When questioned, Giles has said conditions are determined on the advice of the community protection board. On Wednesday, officials revealed that 73 of the 152 people released as a result of NZYQ no longer need ankle bracelets – so it is not just those bringing legal challenges who are having them removed.

A stateless refugee born in Eritrea known as YBFZ is also challenging the ankle bracelets and curfews. The case is going ahead with negotiations to agree facts.

In December and January YBFZ was charged with offences related to failing to observe curfew and charge his ankle monitor, but these have been dropped.

Invalid bridging visas

In March the Albanese government admitted that the bridging visas granted to those released from detention after NZYQ were invalid due to a technicality. Some 10 people had already been charged with breaching visa conditions, and these charges were dropped.

Guardian Australia understands that the Human Rights Law Centre believes that a case for compensation for imposition of unlawful visa conditions before the technicality was corrected is “readily available” if and when former detainees want to bring a case.

A class action is being considered and is anticipated by the government, although it is unlikely to be launched until after the high court rules on validity of ankle bracelets and curfews generally.

Hannah Dickinson, principal solicitor at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said it is “appropriate that people have redress for the unlawful imposition of invasive” conditions.

Aggregate sentences bill

In December 2022 the commonwealth lost the Pearson case in the full federal court. The court ruled aggregate sentences do not trigger automatic visa cancellation, prompting the release of more than 100 people who had previously served aggregate sentences of 12 months or more in prison.

Labor and the Coalition teamed up to pass laws retrospectively authorising the cancellation of visas of people who had been released.

The legality of these laws has been upheld twice in the case of JZQQ, a man who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for offences of intentionally causing injury and threats to kill; and Kingston Tapiki, a New Zealander sentenced to an aggregate term of 12 months’ imprisonment for offences of affray and assault.

Both are now appealing to the high court, which has agreed to take the cases.

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Thousands of Israeli protesters call for Netanyahu’s removal

Demonstrators join families of hostages in cities across country and vow to persist until he is ousted as PM

Thousands of people across Israel have joined families of hostages to protest against the government and call for the removal of Benjamin Netanyahu, as the Israeli prime minister grapples with one of the most serious threats yet to his coalition.

The protesters in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Be’er Sheva, Caesarea and other cities on Saturday demanded the release of those still held captive in Gaza and labelled the PM as an “obstacle to the deal”, vowing to persist until he leaves power.

A statement from his office on Sunday said the Israeli prime minister would undergo surgery for a hernia during a routine examination. Deputy prime minister and justice minister Yariv Levin will serve as acting prime minister while he is sedated.

The nationwide protests coincided with reports from the Egyptian TV station Al-Qahera, known for its ties to the country’s intelligence services, indicating that negotiations for a truce between Israel and Hamas were scheduled to resume in Cairo on Sunday.

“It’s been 176 days that I haven’t turned a blind eye to the thoughts and fear of what my son and the other abductees are going through,” said Shira Albag, the mother of the hostage Liri Albag. “The people of Israel won’t forget or forgive anyone who prevents a deal that would bring them [the hostages] back to us. After 176 days, 4,224 hours, the excuses have run out.”

Raz Ben-Ami, a former hostage freed nearly two months ago, said: “They [the hostages] won’t last there, no one can survive what they go through there, believe me.”

Protesters called out that they “will not stop until they’re all home”, chanting “enough killing, enough despair, the hostages are the most important thing”.

Police used water cannon to disperse protesters and arrested 16 people.

The families of hostages have urged ministers, including Netanyahu’s political rival and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, to unite with other Knesset members in removing Netanyahu from power, accusing the PM of deliberately sabotaging efforts to secure the release of their relatives.

Einav Zangauker, the mother of Matan Zangauker, who is still held in Gaza, said Netanyahu’s handling of the hostages situation had been “incomprehensible and criminal”.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu, after you abandoned our families on October 7, and after 176 days when you didn’t bring a deal [for their return], and because you are continually engaged in torpedoing a deal, we have realised that you are the obstacle to the deal. You are the obstacle. You are the one who stands between us and the return home of our loved ones,” she said.

“If we don’t immediately act to move you away from the steering wheel, we won’t get to see our loved ones returning home alive and fast, and we won’t get to see our dead returned for burial in Israel […] So today we are compelled to begin a new stage in our struggle.”

On Saturday evening hundreds gathered outside Netanyahu’s private residence in Jerusalem, and on Sunday another mass protest was expected in the city, with some planning to camp in tents near the Knesset.

“If the families knew how small the gap is, which Netanyahu is refusing to close in negotiations with Hamas, they would explode,” said Amos Malka, a former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ military intelligence directorate who was among the speakers at the rally in Tel Aviv. “This is more evidence of his unsuitability to serve.”

The war was triggered in October when Hamas killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in an attack in southern Israel. The militant Islamist organisation also abducted about 250 people. Israel believes about 130 of these remain in Gaza, including 34 who are presumed dead.

The military offensive launched by Israel after the October attack has so far killed about 32,705 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to local health authorities. A relentless bombardment has reduced swaths of the territory to rubble, displacing more than 80% of the population. At least 75 people were killed overnight in new Israeli strikes, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.

Netanyahu is grappling with another serious threat after Israel’s supreme court ordered an end to government subsidies from Monday for many ultra-Orthodox men who do not serve in the army – with his coalition split over their military enlistment.

The ruling follows a series of delays by the government in presenting a proposal to the court aimed at enhancing the military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox men, who have historically been exempt from conscription.

As Israel’s armed forces continue to wage a nearly six-month-old war in Gaza in which 500 soldiers have been killed, legislators from the government and the opposition have voiced a stance that places the onus of heightened military service obligations on the Haredi community, rather than imposing additional duties on those already in service.

The two ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition, United Torah Judaism and Shas, denounced the ruling as a “mark of Cain”.

If the ultra-Orthodox parties left the government, the country would be forced into new elections, with Netanyahu trailing significantly in the polls.

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Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial: Network Ten asks to reopen its defence, citing ‘fresh evidence’

Justice Michael Lee will hear an urgent application from Network Ten at 5pm on Tuesday

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Network Ten will ask the federal court to reopen its defence on Tuesday at an emergency hearing scheduled less than two days before the judgement in the Bruce Lehrmann defamation case is due to be handed down.

Justice Michael Lee was scheduled to deliver his judgment in the federal court in Sydney at 10.15am on Thursday 4 April in the defamation case Lehrmann brought against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson.

Now Lee will hear Ten’s argument for reopening its case in light of “fresh evidence”, according to the interlocutory application filed on Sunday afternoon.

Ten’s barrister, Dr Matt Collins KC, is seeking “leave to re-open the First Respondent’s case for the purpose of adducing fresh evidence”, the application said.

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Lee will hear the interlocutory application at 5pm on Tuesday when he will rule on whether to allow the fresh evidence to be presented by the defence.

The sensational development at the 11th hour comes more than three months after the five-week trial wrapped up in late December.

If Lee allows the fresh evidence to be adduced it will almost certainly see the judgement date rescheduled.

Lee will rule on whether the former Liberal staffer was defamed by Wilkinson and Ten when The Project broadcast an interview with Brittany Higgins in 2021 in which she alleged she was raped in Parliament House

The Project did not name Lehrmann as the Liberal staffer at the heart of the allegation, but he claims he was identifiable in the broadcast.

Lehrmann maintains his innocence. In a criminal trial in 2022 he pleaded not guilty to one charge of sexual intercourse without consent, denying that any sexual activity had occurred.

In December of that year, prosecutors dropped charges against him for the alleged rape of Higgins, saying a retrial would pose an “unacceptable risk” to her health.

Lee, who said he would begin writing the judgment the day after the trial ended, had to consider more than 15,000 pages of transcript and 1,000 separate exhibits, including hours of CCTV footage as well as audio and video recordings.

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British Museum investigated over Ethiopian artefacts hidden from view for 150 years

Watchdog examining claims key details have not been disclosed about altar tablets that museum is facing calls to return

The information watchdog is investigating the British Museum over claims it has been overly secretive about some of the most sensitive items in its collection – a group of sacred Ethiopian altar tablets that have been hidden from view at the museum for more than 150 years.

The 11 wood and stone tabots, which the museum acknowledges were looted by British soldiers after the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, have never been on public display and are considered to be so sacred that even the institution’s own curators and trustees are forbidden from examining them.

There have long been calls for them to be returned to Ethiopia. In 2019 the country’s culture minister, on a visit to the museum, requested their return.

Campaigners have now submitted a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) arguing that the museum has failed to disclose key details of internal discussions about the tabots in response to a freedom of information request.

Returning Heritage, a not-for-profit organisation that collates information on cultural restitution, submitted the FoI request in August 2023 and says the museum’s reply omitted relevant material, while other information was overly redacted. An internal museum review carried out at Returning Heritage’s request upheld its initial response.

The organisation argues that while the British Museum Act 1963, which bars the disposal of objects except in very limited circumstances, means the status of other disputed artefacts is ambiguous, the tabots could lawfully be returned now.

“The act is very explicit that the museum [can’t] return objects,” said Lewis McNaught, Returning Heritage’s managing editor. “But there are some legal exemptions within the act. And one of those exemptions allows the trustees to return certain items if they consider them ‘unfit to be retained’.”

Because the tabots will never be exhibited or studied – they are thought to be held in a sealed room that can only be entered by Ethiopian clergy – they fit this category, the organisation believes.

Returning Heritage requested information from meetings where trustees discussed the tabots, which it believes could provide insights into why they believe they cannot lawfully be returned. “It seems very strange that the museum would not wish to explain why they’re holding on to objects that they can return,” said McNaught, arguing there was “a genuine public interest – with this unique group of objects that can be returned – [in understanding] why the museum will not explain why they’re not returning them”.

Westminster Abbey said last month it had agreed “in principle” that a single tabot that has been sealed inside a cathedral altar should be returned to Ethiopia. Another was returned soon after it was discovered in a church cupboard in Edinburgh 23 years ago, leading to ecstatic celebrations in its home country.

Tom Short, of the law firm Leigh Day, who submitted the ICO complaint on Returning Heritage’s behalf, said it believed the museum wrongly relied on certain permitted exemptions to FoI as justification for withholding material. Leigh Day has previously drawn up a legal opinion that it says shows the items can be legally returned.

“Our client seeks information from the museum that many would argue should be in the public domain by default,” Short said. “[It] concerns decision-making by a major public institution on a matter of very significant public interest.”

The British Museum declined to comment. It has previously said its long-term ambition is to lend the tabots to an Ethiopian Orthodox church in the UK, though clerics have questioned the feasibility of this due to the insurance costs.

The ICO confirmed it had received the complaint.

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British Museum investigated over Ethiopian artefacts hidden from view for 150 years

Watchdog examining claims key details have not been disclosed about altar tablets that museum is facing calls to return

The information watchdog is investigating the British Museum over claims it has been overly secretive about some of the most sensitive items in its collection – a group of sacred Ethiopian altar tablets that have been hidden from view at the museum for more than 150 years.

The 11 wood and stone tabots, which the museum acknowledges were looted by British soldiers after the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, have never been on public display and are considered to be so sacred that even the institution’s own curators and trustees are forbidden from examining them.

There have long been calls for them to be returned to Ethiopia. In 2019 the country’s culture minister, on a visit to the museum, requested their return.

Campaigners have now submitted a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) arguing that the museum has failed to disclose key details of internal discussions about the tabots in response to a freedom of information request.

Returning Heritage, a not-for-profit organisation that collates information on cultural restitution, submitted the FoI request in August 2023 and says the museum’s reply omitted relevant material, while other information was overly redacted. An internal museum review carried out at Returning Heritage’s request upheld its initial response.

The organisation argues that while the British Museum Act 1963, which bars the disposal of objects except in very limited circumstances, means the status of other disputed artefacts is ambiguous, the tabots could lawfully be returned now.

“The act is very explicit that the museum [can’t] return objects,” said Lewis McNaught, Returning Heritage’s managing editor. “But there are some legal exemptions within the act. And one of those exemptions allows the trustees to return certain items if they consider them ‘unfit to be retained’.”

Because the tabots will never be exhibited or studied – they are thought to be held in a sealed room that can only be entered by Ethiopian clergy – they fit this category, the organisation believes.

Returning Heritage requested information from meetings where trustees discussed the tabots, which it believes could provide insights into why they believe they cannot lawfully be returned. “It seems very strange that the museum would not wish to explain why they’re holding on to objects that they can return,” said McNaught, arguing there was “a genuine public interest – with this unique group of objects that can be returned – [in understanding] why the museum will not explain why they’re not returning them”.

Westminster Abbey said last month it had agreed “in principle” that a single tabot that has been sealed inside a cathedral altar should be returned to Ethiopia. Another was returned soon after it was discovered in a church cupboard in Edinburgh 23 years ago, leading to ecstatic celebrations in its home country.

Tom Short, of the law firm Leigh Day, who submitted the ICO complaint on Returning Heritage’s behalf, said it believed the museum wrongly relied on certain permitted exemptions to FoI as justification for withholding material. Leigh Day has previously drawn up a legal opinion that it says shows the items can be legally returned.

“Our client seeks information from the museum that many would argue should be in the public domain by default,” Short said. “[It] concerns decision-making by a major public institution on a matter of very significant public interest.”

The British Museum declined to comment. It has previously said its long-term ambition is to lend the tabots to an Ethiopian Orthodox church in the UK, though clerics have questioned the feasibility of this due to the insurance costs.

The ICO confirmed it had received the complaint.

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Tehran denies involvement in London attack on TV presenter

Met police say investigation into stabbing of Iranian journalist near home in Wimbledon is being led by counter-terrorism officers

Iran’s most senior diplomat in Britain has denied claims that the Iranian government was behind a knife attack on a TV presenter in London amid growing fears over threats to dissidents.

The country’s charge d’affaires, Mehdi Hosseini Matin, said Iran “denies any link” to the stabbing of Pouria Zeraati, 36, a presenter at Iran International, outside his home in Wimbledon on Friday. He is in a stable condition and was looking forward to being discharged from hospital soon.

The Metropolitan police said a motive for the attack was not yet clear, but Zeraati’s job and recent threats to UK-based Iranian journalists meant the investigation was being led by counter-terrorism officers.

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, on Saturday, Matin said Iran had “no link to this story of this so-called journalist”. He wrote that it was “strange and questionable” that a newspaper had accused Iran of being behind the attack and said the claim was “without evidence”.

Iran’s denial comes amid growing concerns over the safety of Iranian dissidents in Britain. Staff at Iran International, which broadcasts in Persian and provides independent coverage of the country, have been reportedly subject to threats from the Iranian regime, which considers it a terrorist organisation.

Adam Baillie, spokesperson for the channel, said: “There are credible threats which are issued against individuals, then they receive visits from the counter-terror police and Met police and then they have to take precautions. It’s very alarming.”

He told the Observer that Zeraati was outside his home when he was attacked by two unidentified men who jumped into a waiting getaway car after stabbing the journalist multiple times.

The Met said it was called to the address just before 3pm on Friday and found a man in his 30s who had sustained an injury to his leg. No arrests have been made.

Baillie said previous threats to Iran International staff indicated a possible planned attack.

“The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) doesn’t leave fingerprints. Why would they? They operate through certain third parties which is an easy thing for them to do. They could operate via criminal gangs and in any city they want. They would never leave a paper trail between an attack and themselves,” he said. “It does appear on the surface to be a planned attack and they do have a motive to carry out the threat.”

One of Zeraati’s former colleagues at Iran International, Sima Sabet, told the Observer she had been advised by the Met to immediately leave her home after the attack on Zeraati.

In December 2023, an ITV investigation said Sabet and her colleague Fardad Farahzad were targets of a foiled assassination attempt planned for autumn 2022.

The report said an initial car bomb plan was changed at the last minute and a knife attack was considered by “leaders of the IRGC”.

Of the attack on Zeraati, Sabet said: “This is exactly how they wanted to kill me. With a knife.”

She accused the UK government of failing to respond decisively to threats against journalists in the UK from Iran. “When I heard about the attack on Pouria, it made me really angry. A few months ago there was a plot to assassinate me but it was foiled because the attacker revealed the plan. It was so close. Since then, nothing has been done to prevent any attack on any journalist,” she said. “We keep receiving threats … and no one is prepared to do anything to stop these threats.”

After the attempt to target Sabet and Farahzad, the UK and US announced sanctions to tackle domestic threats posed by the Iranian regime, which they said sought to “export repression, harassment and coercion against journalists and human rights defenders”.

The sanctioned Iranian officials, members of the IRGC Unit 840 were accused of coordinating a threat to Iran International. The UK government said the plot was the latest credible example of Iran’s attempts to kill or intimidate Britons or people with links to the UK, with at least 15 such threats since January 2022.

In a separate case, in December 2023 an IT worker was jailed for three-and-a-half years for spying on Iran International’s London headquarters before a “planned attack” on British soil. Magomed-Husejn Dovtaev , a Chechnya-born Austrian, was found guilty at the Old Bailey of trying to collect information for terrorist purposes.

Iranian dissidents living on UK soil have previously told the Observer they do not feel safe in the country and that the Iranian authorities are using transnational repression to silence them.

One UK-based Iranian student, Soudabeh, said she has received several threats after joining protests in Manchester after the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in suspicious circumstances in policy custody in Tehran after being arrested by the morality police for allegedly not wearing a hijab.

Reacting to the attack on Zeraati, Soudabeh said facing “harassment, intimidation, threats, physical attacks and character assassination, both virtually and in the real world”, was a reality for her and others who spoke out against the Iranian government. “In my case, despite complaints lodged with the UK police, effective action was never taken, even after experiencing physical assaults,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Met said the investigation into the attack on Zeraati remained in the “very early stages” and that it was working to establish the motive.

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Chance Perdomo, star of Gen V and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, dead at 27

Television star was killed in a motorcycle accident that involved no other parties, representatives say

Chance Perdomo, the British American actor who starred on the television shows Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Gen V, has died in a motorcycle accident. He was 27.

Nobody else was involved in the accident, his representatives said in a statement. No details on the location or date of the accident were shared.

“His passion for the arts and insatiable appetite for life was felt by all who knew him, and his warmth will carry on in those who he loved dearest,” a statement from his reps said. “We ask to please respect the family’s wish for privacy as they mourn the loss of their beloved son and brother.”

Perdomo’s most recent role was in Gen V, a spinoff of superhero parody-drama The Boys, and played one of the leads: Andre Anderson, a student who can use magnetic forces to manipulate the world around him.

The first season, which debuted during last year’s Hollywood strikes, was a hit with critics. Production on the second season, which was expected to begin principal photography in April, has been indefinitely delayed after Perdomo’s death.

“We can’t quite wrap our heads around this,” the Gen V producers wrote in a statement shared on X. “For those of us who knew him and worked with him, Chance was always charming and smiling, an enthusiastic force of nature, an incredibly talented performer, and more than anything else, just a very kind, lovely person. Even writing about him in the past tense doesn’t make sense. We are so sorry for Chance’s family, and we are grieving the loss of our friend and colleague. Hug your loved ones tonight.”

Amazon MGM Studios and Sony Pictures Television, which also produces Gen V, wrote, “The entire Gen V family is devastated by the sudden passing of Chance Perdomo. Amazon MGM Studios and Sony Pictures Television extend our heartfelt thoughts and support to Chance’s family and all who loved him at this difficult time.”

Perdomo also played Ambrose Spellman in all four seasons of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. In the show, based on the Archie comic that inspired the 90s sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Ambrose was the cousin Sabrina the witch, played by Kiernan Shipka, and often served as her guide and moral compass.

Perdomo was born in 1996 in Los Angeles, but was raised in Southampton, England. He moved to London and joined the National Youth Theatre.

He was nominated for a Bafta for best actor in a leading role in 2018 for his performance in the dramatisation Killed by My Debt, in which he played Jerome Rogers, a self-employed courier who killed himself aged 20 in 2016, after being overwhelmed by the cost of two traffic fines. The Guardian called Perdomo’s performance “beautiful [and] utterly believable” and said it “should be played, on a loop, in the offices of Camden council, which issued Jerome’s tickets”.

He also appeared in the After film series, Midsomer Murders and Hetty Feather.

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Cancer signs could be spotted years before symptoms, says new research institute

Tests that can identify early changes in cells would give doctors more time to offer treatment, say Cambridge researchers

Scientists at a recently opened cancer institute at Cambridge University have begun work that is pinpointing changes in cells many years before they develop into tumours. The research should help design radically new ways to treat cancer, they say.

The Early Cancer Institute – which has just received £11m from an anonymous donor – is focused on finding ways to tackle tumours before they produce symptoms. The research will exploit recent discoveries which have shown that many people develop precancerous conditions that lie in abeyance for long periods.

“The latency for a cancer to develop can go on for years, sometimes for a decade or two, before the condition abruptly manifests itself to patients,” said Prof Rebecca Fitzgerald, the institute’s director.

“Then doctors find they are struggling to treat a tumour which, by then, has spread through a patient’s body. We need a different approach, one that can detect a person at risk of cancer early on using tests that can be given to large numbers of people.”

One example of this is the cytosponge – a sponge on a string – which has been developed by Fitzgerald and her team. It is swallowed like a pill, expands in the stomach into a sponge and is then pulled up the gullet collecting oesophagus cells on the way. Those cells that contain a protein, called TFF3 – which is found only in precancerous cells – then provide an early warning that a patient is at risk of oesophageal cancer and needs to be monitored. Crucially, this test can be administered simply and on a wide scale.

This contrasts with current approaches to other cancers, added Fitzgerald. “At present, we are detecting many cancers late and are having to come up with medicines, which have become incrementally more expensive. We are often extending life by a few weeks at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. We need to look at this from a different perspective.”

One approach being taken by the institute – which is to be renamed the Li Ka-shing Early Cancer Institute after the Hong Kong philanthropist who has supported other Cambridge cancer research – focuses on blood samples. Provided by women as part of past screening services for ovarian cancer and kept in special stores, these samples have now been repurposed by the institute. “We have around 200,000 such samples and they are a goldmine,” said Jamie Blundell, a research group leader at the institute.

Using these samples, researchers have identified changes that differentiate those donors who have subsequently been diagnosed with a blood cancer 10 or even 20 years after they provided samples, with those who did not develop such conditions.

“We are finding that there are clear genetic changes in a person’s blood more than a decade before they start to display symptoms of leukaemia,” said Blundell. “That shows there is a long window of opportunity that you could use to intervene and give treatments that will reduce the odds of going on to get cancer.”

Cancers grow in stages and by spotting those with cells that have taken an early step on this ladder, it should be possible to block or hamper further developments. The crucial point is that at this early stage there is time for doctors to take action and avoid them having to deal with a cancer at a late stage when it has spread.

A similar strategy is being taken by Harveer Dev, another group leader, who has investigated men who have had their prostates removed. His team are now developing biomarkers that will provide better ways to pinpoint those who are likely to suffer poor outcomes from prostate cancer, one of the most common tumours in the UK.

“Our pilot data suggests that these tests may be much better than existing PSA tests and will be crucial in spotting those who with prostate cancer that is likely to progress,” said Dev.

Pinpointing those at risk of cancer – for example, people from families who have an inherited predisposition to tumours – will form a key part of the institute’s strategy. In addition, it will focus on finding ways to reduce cancer risks, as well as ensuring treatments can be widely administered.

A woman had, in her 80s, decided to leave the university £1m for cancer research, Fitzgerald said. “However, she lived until she was over 100 and only died recently, so we only just got that donation. We want to understand what makes some live into very old age while others get cancer, so more people can live as long as she did.”

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Photography bursary launched in memory of Guardian’s Eamonn McCabe

Royal Photographic Society says award reflects the support and encouragement McCabe showed for aspiring photographers

A bursary focusing on the theme of sporting endeavour and designed to help talented young photographers has been launched in memory of the award-winning Guardian and Observer photographer Eamonn McCabe.

The bursary, established by the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), the Guardian and Observer and McCabe’s family will give £3,000 to a photographer aged 25 or under to produce a project.

The RPS described McCabe, who died in 2022, as one of the outstanding photographers of his generation. It said he had produced “a swathe of memorable images that defined their era”.

McCabe started his career as a sports photographer, worked as an educator and broadcaster and was the Guardian’s picture editor for 13 years.

He won picture editor of the year six times and sports photographer of the year four times. He also won news photographer of the year in 1985 for his images of the Heysel stadium disaster in Brussels.

In the 2000s he pivoted to portraiture, photographing key figures from Tony Blair to Iris Murdoch, and Lou Reed to Desmond Tutu. Many of his images are displayed in the National Portrait Gallery.

The bursary recognises McCabe’s commitment to supporting other photographers, including those just setting out on their careers, said his wife, Rebecca Smithers, a former Guardian journalist who is supporting the award along with Ben and Mabel McCabe.

“Eamonn was always generous with advice and practical help to up-and-coming young photographers, whether on assembling a portfolio, choosing the right course or trying to secure work experience,” Smithers said. “He knew from personal experience how tough it was for people starting out who did not have any contacts in the business.”

Tom Jenkins, an award-winning Guardian sports photographer and videographer, said the mentoring he received from McCabe had been invaluable.

“The photographic world owes Eamonn McCabe a huge debt. He was an inspiration to a whole generation in this country and abroad,” he said. “Countless young photographers like me were given a first break and encouraged into the profession by him. Not only has he left a legacy of incredible images but he has also generously ensured that photographers following on behind him are set up to succeed.”

Those wishing to apply for the bursary can do so online before the start of August, the RPS said. The theme can be “interpreted as widely as the applicant wishes” but their work should be new and suitable for publication, it said. The chosen project will be published by the Guardian and brought to a wider audience. The winner is expected to be announced before the end of September, with the project given 12 months for completion.

A spokesperson for the RPS said: “Eamonn was incredibly encouraging of aspiring photographers and this bursary will continue that by producing new and exciting photography into the future.”

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