INDEPENDENT 2024-04-01 16:04:15


Rishi Sunak facing Tory revolt over plan to criminalise rough sleeping

Rishi Sunak is facing a Tory revolt over plans to criminalise homelessness in a key crime bill this year.

The prime minister risks a backbench rebellion when MPs vote on the Criminal Justice Bill, which would give police the power to fine or move “nuisance” rough sleepers.

Dozens of MPs from the left and right of the Conservative Party are said to have warned Tory whips they will vote against measures in the bill.

Senior government sources told The Times they had “paused” the legislation while ministers negotiated with more than 40 expected rebels.

“The government is panicking about the scale of the rebellion because they know if it gets pushed to a vote they will lose,” one said.

The rebel added: “But we’re not backing down or giving way. The ball is in the government’s court. They need to listen or it will be desperate for them.”

A minister on Monday refused to say whether he would support the plans to criminalise rough sleeping.

Asked by Times Radio whether he would back the bill as it stands, business minister Kevin Hollinrake said: “Those things are not within my auspices. I will be interested to see the legislation as it goes through and what the prime minister has planned.”

Asked if it was right to arrest someone for so-called nuisance rough sleeping, Mr Hollinrake said: “What is the most important thing is we provide the resources to get people off the streets and there should be those places where people can go to.

“I don’t think that should be… that shouldn’t be optional for people, if there are places that people can go to off the streets then those people should be off the streets, they shouldn’t be lying on the streets. It is not fair to other people in our town and city centres.”

The plans as they stand would grant police and local authority workers new powers to order beggars to move on while encouraging them to make use of accommodation services and mental health support.

Another new offence will be created for criminal gangs organising begging networks, and a government release said people causing “nuisance on the street” would be moved on, pointing in particular at those “obstructing shop doorways and begging by cash points”.

Homelessness charities have warned the government measures intended to replace the 200-year-old Vagrancy Act which criminalised all rough sleeping will instead result in the “further criminalisation” of homeless people.

Polly Neate, chief executive of the charity Shelter, said: “Parliament must not enact this legislation. Instead of punishing people for being homeless, politicians should be trying to prevent them from ending up on the streets.

“Everyone at risk of sleeping rough should have a right to suitable emergency accommodation, and to end homelessness for good it must invest in genuinely affordable social homes – we need 90,000 a year.”

Fiona Colley, director of social change at Homeless Link, said she was “disappointed” by the plan.

“Homelessness is not a crime,” she said. “When the government committed to repealing the Vagrancy Act it was done with an understanding that people sleeping on our streets need to be supported, not criminalised.

“Therefore, we are extremely disappointed to see that this new plan will result in further criminalisation of vulnerable people, rather than offering the constructive solutions that work in helping people off the streets for good.”

The Liberal Democrats called on the government to back down on the plans to criminalise homelessness. MP Layla Moran, who led a cross-party campaign to scrap the Vagrancy Act, said: “The heartless proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill risk bringing back the Vacancy Act by the back door.

“The government should listen to their own backbenchers and take a compassionate approach to tackling homelessness, instead of stigmatising and criminalising rough sleepers.

“Sleeping rough is not a lifestyle choice. Ministers should focus on tackling the root causes of this crisis, not scapegoating the victims of it.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are determined to end rough sleeping and prevent people from ending up on the streets in the first place. That is why last year we published our strategy to end rough sleeping for good, backed by an unprecedented £2bn commitment.

“No one should be criminalised for simply having nowhere to live, which is why we committed to repealing the outdated Vagrancy Act, which was passed in 1824.

“These provisions provide a civil route to engage with rough sleepers to help them to take up offers of support and only criminalise any non-compliance with a lawfully made direction, notice or order.”

What would a Labour landslide mean for Starmer – and for Britain?

If the latest opinion polls are correct, the general election is already in the bag for Keir Starmer. He hasn’t just got one foot in No 10 – he is so far ahead he can start measuring up the curtains.

That’s because Labour is on course to win 468 seats with the Conservatives reduced to fewer than 100, according to Survation’s new survey of more than 15,000 people. That would mean a Commons majority of nearly 300. Yes, you read that correctly – 300.

If it turns out to be right, Starmer could do almost anything he wanted. He wouldn’t have to worry about what the Labour manifesto said. He could say voters had given him carte blanche. And if they give him 468 out of the 650 MPs in Westminster, who could argue?

Mystery as skull of toddler who went missing eight months ago found near grandparents’ home

The remains of a two-year-old boy were found just half a mile away from the family home from where he vanished eight months ago.

Emile Soleil, 2, disappeared from a family reunion at his grandparents’ house in Le Vernet – a small village in the Alpes-des-Haute-Provence with around 125 residents– on 8 July last year, sparking a huge manhunt involving drones, sniffer dogs and helicopters.

Ramblers in the Alps on Saturday discovered bones belonging to the toddler, including his skull, close to the isolated property. Lead prosecutor Rémy Avon, who is heading the judicial inquiry into his disappearance, said the possibilities that Emile had been murdered, kidnapped, or got involved in an accident were all being looked at.

A statement released by prosecutors in Aix-en-Provence on Sunday said genetic analysis identified the bones as belonging to Emile but that police were continuing to investigate the scene.

The search site is roughly one kilometre from the house in Haut-Vernet where the toddler was last seen with his grandfather, Philippe Vedovini, Le Figaro reports. The mayor of Vernet, François Balique, told the French newspaper the child’s remains were found on a path between the church and chapel of the village.

Emile’s family lives in Marseille and he was on holiday at his maternal grandparents’ home at the time of his disappearance. Police said at least 10 people were present at the property for a family reunion.

The boy was officially in the care of Mr Vedovini on the day of his disappearance, as his parents took a break. A witness saw Mr Vedovini, a physiotherapist-osteopath, cutting wood outside his house around the time Emile is thought to have wandered off.

The family was due to leave for a hiking outing, and Emile’s grandparents noticed he was missing when they went to put him in the car.

Emile was reportedly seen by two people when he left their home but they lost sight of him. Described as 3ft tall, with brown eyes and blond hair, Emile was wearing a yellow T-shirt, white shorts with a green pattern and walking shoes when he disappeared.

Police issued an appeal for information about Emile on 9 July and launched an extensive search operation in Le Vernet, aided by nearly 500 volunteers.

On 13 July, the search was called off and investigators admitted they had “no clue” what had happened to Emile.

There had been no trace of Emile since the day he vanished, with investigators refusing to rule out any theory for the tragedy, including abduction and murder.

There was no immediate comment about the discovery of the bones from Emile’s family, who were all at Easter Sunday mass when told.

José Morale, mayor of La Bouilladisse, the town near Marseille where Emile’s family live for most of the year, said: “We will do our best to support them. For the parents, it’s very complicated. There is no relief, the sadness is infinite, we are all dejected.”

Mr Vedovini is a devout Catholic who gave up a vocation to become a monk, in order to marry his wife, Anne Vedovini.

They brought up 10 children, including Emile’s mother, who is now known by her married name of Marie Soleil after she married Emile’s father, Colomban Soleil, 26.

Lead prosecutor Mr Avon confirmed that Emile’s parents’ home, in the southern town of La Bouilladisse, was searched back in July, while the grandparents homes nearby, and in the Alps, were also investigated. The house from which Emile went missing is an Alpine holiday home, one regularly used by the whole family.

The disappearance is reminiscent of the BBC series The Missing, in which a young boy vanishes while on holiday with his family in France, only to be killed in a hit-and-run accident after chasing a fox.

On Sunday, the Aix-en-Provence public prosecutor announced the development in a statement. It read: “On March 30, 2024, the national gendarmerie was informed of the discovery of bones near the hamlet Vernet.

“The investigators took possession of the bones and immediately transported them to the IRCGN in order to carry out genetic identification analyses which made it possible to conclude on March 31 that they were the bones of the child Emile Soleil.

“Under the direction of the investigating magistrates, the IRCGN is continuing criminalistic analyses of the bones and the national gendarmerie is dedicated to deploying resources to undertake additional research in the geographical area where they were found.”

The Facebook group “Pray for Emile” where Emile’s mother regularly posted calls for prayer to find her little boy – was flooded with tributes for the boy.

One wrote: “Thinking of you in this painful ordeal. May God welcome your little Émile in his paradise where love and kindness reign. May he support you in these times, lots of courage and love for you, and your entire family.”

Another added: “My prayers are with you on this day and those that follow.”

JK Rowling could be investigated for misgendering trans people, Minister says

JK Rowling could be investigated by police for misgendering trans people under Scotland’s new hate crime law, an SNP minister has said.

The party’s community safety minister, Siobhian Brown, had previously claimed that misgendering – for example, using the pronoun “he” when talking about a trans woman – would not count as a hate crime, but she has now said it would be a police decision.

Speaking as the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act came into force on Monday 1 April, Ms Brown told Radio 4’s Today programme: “It could be reported and it could be investigated. Whether or not the police would think it was criminal is up to Police Scotland for that.”

The legislation was passed in 2021, while Humza Yousaf was serving as justice secretary in Nicola Sturgeon’s government. It is only now being implemented after Police Scotland spent time training its officers.

The new law covers hatred on the basis of age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity.

Women were not listed as a protected group in the legislation, in a move that has been described as “astonishing” by human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

On this point, Ms Brown admitted that “more work needs to be done” and said a misogyny bill would be introduced.

But the legislation has raised concerns that the definition of a hate crime is too ambiguous, and could threaten free speech, with prominent critics including Rowling, podcaster Joe Rogan and Elon Musk, the owner of X.

Harry Potter author Rowling has frequently argued online that trans women are not women and last week vowed to continue “calling a man a man” despite what she called the “ludicrous law”. She said she would not delete social media posts that could breach hate crime laws.

In response to the new law coming into force on Monday, Rowling posted a series of tweets about trans women who are convicted paedophiles and rapists, writing: “The new legislation is wide open to abuse by activists who wish to silence those of us speaking out about the dangers of eliminating women’s and girls’ single-sex spaces, the nonsense made of crime data if violent and sexual assaults committed by men are recorded as female crimes, the grotesque unfairness of allowing males to compete in female sports, the injustice of women’s jobs, honours and opportunities being taken by trans-identified men, and the reality and immutability of biological sex…

“The re-definition of ‘woman’ to include every man who declares himself one has already had serious consequences for women’s and girls’ rights and safety in Scotland, with the strongest impact felt, as ever, by the most vulnerable, including female prisoners and rape survivors.”

The writer, who lives in Edinburgh, added: “I’m currently out of the country, but if what I’ve written here qualifies as an offence under the terms of the new act, I look forward to being arrested when I return to the birthplace of the Scottish Enlightenment… #ArrestMe.”

Rowling has long been a fierce critic of the Scottish Government’s gender reform plans, arguing the proposals infringe on women’s safety.

She has previously stated that she would rather go to jail than refer to a trans person by their preferred pronouns.

Her latest public row was with trans activist India Willoughby, whom she deliberately misgendered.

“India didn’t become a woman,” she wrote on X. “India is cosplaying a misogynistic male fantasy of what a woman is.”

Willoughby responded to Rowling’s comments, writing: “Genuinely disgusted by this. Grotesque transphobia, which is upsetting. I am every bit as much a woman as JK Rowling. Recognised in law, and by everyone I interact with every day. The debate about whether JK Rowling is a transphobe is over.”

Heavy rain set to end bank holiday in washout with 100 flood alerts in place

Parts of the UK are set to be battered by downpours as travellers return home with 106 flood alerts in place.

Rain is expected to sweep across the country after an Easter weekend of varied weather, including heavy downpours and gusty winds on Good Friday followed by warm sunny spells and 15C highs on Saturday.

Two million cars are set to hit the road on Monday to return home from the bank holiday break, with many facing wet journeys as up to 15mm of rain falls.

The lengthiest delays are expected to be between 10am and 12pm, and drivers have been advised to wait until later in the day and travel in the evening.

Drivers have been urged to take caution on the roads with downpours increasing the risk of hazards with reduced visibility and longer breaking times.

The Environment Agency has issued three flood warnings, across Dorset on the south coast of England, and 106 flood alerts are active across the south.

Greg Dewhurst, Met Office meteorologist said: “Today brings a new month but more of the same weather we’re looking at low-pressure systems over the week ahead dominating the weather across the UK.”

Rain will continue to travel northwards this afternoon with heavier downpours developing in the south.

Dewhurst added: “Into the afternoon, a scattering of showers developing, some as these will be heavy as we move throughout the day with some hail and thunder.”

As the week progresses, Britons can expect to see more wet and windy weather due to the Atlantic system.

Despite wet weather, temperatures are mild with the best of the sunshine across the south with highs of 14C in London.

Liam Eslick, a forecaster at the Met Office, said there is a risk of localised flooding in some areas.

Mr Eslick said: “Being the bank holiday weekend, people are travelling around at this time, so we’d recommend checking road coverage if people are driving or any bus and train timetables to see if there are any cancellations.”

Drivers are urged to reduce their speeds, as rain can reduce visibility, and give themselves more time to brake on slippery road surfaces – suggesting a gap of at least four seconds between traffic. The showers could bring between 5mm and 15mm of rainfall, forecasters said.

Scotland and Northern Ireland are likely to see much brighter spells. The outlook will remain unsettled after the long weekend, with low pressure dominating and spells of heavy rain likely.

Largely dry in the north with sunnier spells in the northwest. Cloudier elsewhere with rain, heavy at times, pushing northwards. Heavier showers developing in the south with a risk of hail and thunder, though feeling rather warm in any sunshine.

Remaining cloudy in the north with outbreaks of rain persisting overnight. Showers continuing in the far south, but drier elsewhere with clear spells, allowing patchy mist and fog by dawn.

Rather cloudy on Tuesday with outbreaks of rain in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Sunny spells and showers for much of England and Wales, these turning heavy during the afternoon.

Largely unsettled and cloudy with showers and longer spells of rain on Wednesday, but drier in the far north. Further rain from the west on Thursday and Friday. Average temperatures.

Children’s NHS waiting lists must be a priority, not an afterthought

If the National Health Service is turning a corner – and it is a big “if” – then children should be the first to benefit. Instead, while waiting lists for adults have started to fall in England, those for children are still rising.

“If a child is waiting 52 weeks for treatment and they’re three years old, 52 weeks is a third of their life. I think it’s a disgrace,” Dr Camilla Kingdon, the outgoing president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told The Independent. “Children have to be prioritised in a way they haven’t been.”

The prime minister should listen to her, and Sir Keir Starmer, who could be in 10 Downing Street by the end of the year, should do so too. There is “a lot of work to do”, she said, in drumming up the political will to cut waiting lists – and to reorder priorities within that drive for change.

Why has Labour lost so many members?

Labour has suffered a significant dip in its membership – in a short period of time. The fall coincides with pressure on the party’s leadership over its stance on the war in Gaza and a significant downgrading of its pledge to spend billions of pounds on green investment if it gets into power.

But what impact do party membership numbers have in the modern age and how worried should Labour be?