INDEPENDENT 2024-04-25 01:04:03


Rayner attacking the PM for being short? Ooh… how low can she go?

You know a joke has landed when even Penny Mordaunt comes off Wordle and struggles not to snigger. Mouth twitching, her poker face struggling not to collapse, the leader of the Commons almost needed oxygen after Angela Rayner’s jibe at the “pint-sized loser” she works for.

Attack, they say, is the best form of defence. Which is lucky because Rayner doesn’t do subtle. Verbal baseball bats are more her thing. Her insult of choice – “Tory scum!” – may have been decommissioned after the murder of David Amess MP, but the rage that drives Ange is undimmed.

And they were all out to get her: half the Conservative benches seemed to have prepared gags about capital gains tax.

Labour pledge to renationalise railways within five years

Labour will pledge to renationalise the railways if elected, in what the party will call the “biggest overhaul to our railways in a generation.”

A Labour government would expect to transfer rail networks to public ownership within its first term by folding existing private passenger rail contracts into a new body as they expire, shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh will say at a launch event on Thursday.

The plan will nationalise the network “without the taxpayer paying a penny in compensation costs”, the party will say.

The Government’s own proposals for rail reform, published in a draft Bill in February, include the creation of a new public sector body named Great British Railways (GBR) to hold responsibility for rail infrastructure and awarding contracts to operate trains.

But a Labour government would create a “unified, publicly owned, accountable and arm’s length” version of GBR led by rail experts rather than Whitehall, Ms Haigh will say.

Labour also plans to establish a watchdog, the Passenger Standards Authority, to hold GBR to account.

Ms Haigh will say: “With Labour’s bold reforms, a publicly owned railway will be single-mindedly focused on delivering for passengers and will be held to account on delivering reliable, safe, efficient, accessible, affordable and quality services.

“Labour’s detailed plans will get our railways back on track; driving up standards for passengers, bringing down costs for taxpayers, driving growth and getting Britain moving.”

The Government estimated in its 2021 reform plan that it could save £1.5 billion annually after five years by ending inefficiency and fragmentation.

Labour says, citing its own analysis, that transitioning to public ownership could save money by cutting out franchise bidding costs, reducing the duplication of resources and lessening friction between operators.

The party also plans to bring in automatic delay and cancellation refunds, make digital season tickets available on all networks, and make timetables, tickets and fares more integrated. It also proposes moving mobile service on trains towards 5G and improving the integration of rail travel with bus and cycle hire services.

The Government’s reform plans were based on recommendations from a review carried out by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams.

Mr Williams said of Labour’s plans: “I welcome Labour’s intention, if they are elected, to take forward the substance of my recommendations to deliver a better railway for passengers and freight by creating a rail body with an integrated profit and loss account, at arm’s length from government.”

Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, said: “We have seen more positivity in this stunning Labour Party vision for rail than anything at any time from the Tories during their failed privatisation and subsequent incoherent rail reform programme.

“The Labour commitment delivers for the economy, for the taxpayer, for passengers, and for staff.”

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union said: “Labour’s commitment to bring the train operating companies into a new unified and publicly owned rail network is in the best interests of railway workers, passengers and the taxpayer.”

He added: “This announcement however should be a first step to completely integrating all of our railway into public ownership.”

Andy Bagnall, chief executive at Rail Partners, an industry group of train operators and freight groups, said: “Train companies agree that change is needed for the railways, but nationalisation is a political rather than a practical solution which will increase costs over time.”

Rail minister Huw Merriman criticised Labour’s plans, claiming only the Tories had “a plan to continue investing record amounts in our rail network”.

He added: “Labour have confirmed they would push forward with their pointless, unfunded rail nationalisation that will do nothing to improve train reliability or affordability for passengers.

“Just like their unfunded £28 billion a year decarbonisation promise, they don’t have a plan to pay for the bill attached to their rail nationalisation. Without a plan to pay for this, it means one thing: taxes will rise on hard working people.”

Labour’s plans would still leave a role for the private sector on Britain’s railways.

Open access operators, like Hull Trains and Lumo, will be able to continue to compete to improve the offer to passengers, the party said.

Labour also hopes to “crowd in” private investment to stimulate innovation in the rail sector.

SNP transport spokesman Gavin Newlands said: “This is just the latest in a long list of U-turns from Sir Keir Starmer, this time on his commitment to nationalise the railways.

“Instead of putting the national railway service in the hands of the people, as the SNP Scottish Government have done, Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party will instead increase private investment into another public service, just like their plans for the NHS.”

Girl arrested over ‘attempted murder’ as three stabbed at Welsh school

A teenage girl has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after two teachers and a pupil were stabbed at a school in Wales.

The girl remains in custody, while the injured teachers and a teenage pupil at the secondary school in Ammanford, Carmarthenshire, have been taken to hospital with non-life-threatening knife wounds, police said on Wednesday evening.

Ysgol Dyffryn Aman school was put on lockdown on Wednesday morning as the violent incident and subsequent investigation unfolded shortly after 11am.

Two helicopters delivered “advanced critical care support” at the school, the Welsh Ambulance Service said, and the BBC was told that one was en route to the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff.

Concerned parents had been gathering outside the school gates, and hugged their children tearfully as pupils started to be released from 3:20pm onwards.

The family members of all those injured have been informed, police confirmed, with Carmarthenshire County Council saying at 2:40pm that the incident had been contained.

A Dyfed-Powys Police spokesperson said: “Just after 11.20am this morning we received a call advising us of an incident at Amman Valley School in Carmarthenshire. Emergency services immediately attended and the school was locked down for the safety of all on the premises.

“Three people – two teachers and a teenage pupil – have been taken to hospital with stab wounds. The family members of all those injured have been informed. A teenage girl has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and currently remains in police custody.

“I would like to reassure parents and the public that the incident has concluded, and pupils have now left the school. We are working with the school and other agencies to ensure appropriate support is available to all involved.

“This was a very distressing incident and our thoughts are with the victims, their family and everyone impacted by what has happened.”

In a press conference outside the school on Wednesday evening, Superintendent Ross Evans said the injuries of those wounded were not life-threatening, and that a knife had been recovered in evidence at the school.

Councillor Darren Price said the school would remain closed on Thursday and that lessons would take place online.

Emergency services remained at the scene as children were allowed to leave the school, four hours after ambulances were said to have been called at around 11:15am.

Police have also asked people to remove footage from social media circulating since the incident, to avoid contempt of court and distress to those affected.

“I would also ask that people do not speculate while there is a police investigation ongoing,” the force said, adding that local people would see more police in the area over the coming days as the investigation continues.

One mother, Lisa Barrett, earlier told BBC News that her daughter had texted her to say the school had been put on lockdown.

“It is really worrying,” she said. “You hear from your child saying someone has been stabbed you don’t know what to do for the best.

“You just don’t expect it, you send your children to school and think they will be safe.

Another mother waiting outside the gates, named Rebecca, had told ITV Cymru Wales that the school had been put on “code red”.

“Obviously I’ve seen the blue lights, and I know we don’t blue light unless we have to and I’ve seen the air ambulance leave,” she said.

“They’re keeping the school on lockdown – code red as they’re calling it – and the police will be speaking to the classes individually, then take them to get their lunch, then take them back to their classrooms.”

Wales’s first minister Vaughan Gething said it was a “deeply worrying” time for the school and local community.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak said he was “shocked at the news emerging from Ammanford” and said his “thoughts are with those all those affected”, while home secretary James Cleverly also thanked the emergency services for their ongoing response and said he was being kept informed about the incident.

“My thoughts are with the school and all those involved,” said Mr Cleverly, adding that it was important that police are given the space to carry out their investigations.

Amman Valley School, or Ysgol Dyffryn Aman, is a bilingual comprehensive school for those aged between 11 and 18. It is maintained by Carmarthenshire County Council and provides education to 1,450 school pupils and 270 sixth-form pupils.

Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price – a former pupil at the school – described it as a “centre point for the whole community” and said pupils and families have been “shocked and shaken”.

“It was shocking to so many of us, none of us would have thought for a moment that we would have faced this situation,” the Senedd member said.

Two Premier League players arrested over allegation of rape

Two Premier League players have been arrested in relation to an allegation of rape.

Police revealed two 19-year-old men were arrested at the weekend after a report of a rape was made to them last Friday (April 19).

The first man was arrested on Saturday on suspicion of aiding and abetting a rape, while a second man was arrested on Sunday on suspicion of rape, police said.

Reports claim one of the players was at his club’s football stadium when officers arrived. He is said to have been spoken to at the stadium before he was arrested later that night.

Both players, believed to be from the same club, have since been released on police bail.

“Officers have arrested two men following a report of a rape,” a police spokesperson told the BBC.

“A 19-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of assault and aiding and abetting a rape. A second 19-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of rape.

“Both men have since been released on police bail.”

It is not known if the two arrested players have been suspended over the alleged attack, which is said to have taken place on Friday.

A spokesman for the football club in question declined to comment on the police investigation.

A spokesman told The Sun: “As the matter is now in the hands of the police, the club will not be making further comment at this stage.”

The players and their club cannot be identified for legal reasons.

However Wolverhampton Wanderers issued a denial on X, formerly Twitter, amid “inappropriate online speculation” over the identities of the players under investigation.

“Whilst we would not typically comment on ongoing police matters, in order to protect the welfare of our young players, we feel it is necessary to confirm that the allegations do not relate to anyone at Wolves,” the club said.

‘Properly butchered’: Families of Nottingham attack victims condemn callous Whatsapps by police officers

The mother of one of the Nottingham attack victims has condemned police who described her son as being “properly butchered” in shocking Whatsapp messages.

The families of Barnaby Webber and Grace O’Malley-Kumar, who were killed alongside caretaker Ian Coates last summer, have spoken of their trauma after a police officer sent “barbaric” messages from the crime scene.

In a Whatsapp message referring to the deaths of the two students, the officer said emergency responders had ‘tried to hold their innards in’ after they were stabbed repeatedly on 13 June 2023.

Valdo Calocane, a paranoid schizophrenic who had been neglecting his medication, attacked the two 19-year-olds as they walked back from a night out, before going on to kill 65-year-old caretaker Ian Coates.

While responding to the incident, an office messaged colleagues: “So 2 students on Ilkeston road have been proper butchered, 4 section [officers] turned up and tried to hold their inners in. Suspects then made off and attacked a man in a car on magdala [road] and stabbed him to death.”

Emma Webber, Barnaby’s mother, has penned an open letter to members of the Whatsapp group after the families request to meet the officers were rejected.

“The callous, degrading and desensitised manner of your comments have caused more trauma than you can imagine,” she wrote.

“When you say ‘a couple of students have been properly butchered’ did you stop to think about the absolute terror that they felt in the moment when they were ambushed and repeatedly stabbed by a man who had planned his attack and lay waiting in the shadows for them?

“When you say ‘innards out and everything’ did you think about the agony they felt and the final thoughts that went through their minds as this vicious individual inflicted wounds so serious that they had no chance of surviving?”

She also called for tougher action for the officer involved. The officer did not face a misconduct hearing but received management intervention, while a second officer, PC Gell, was found guilty of gross misconduct after he forwarded the message to his wife and friends.

He was also given a final written warning after he searched for records relating to Calocane despite playing no part in the investigation.

“Anyone who can witness the details of such a horror as happened… and refer to lost children as butchered animals; should seriously consider their position,” Mrs Webber said.

“So, to the author of that message, who we understand has received a management warning. I pray you will read this and pause for a while.

“Dig a little deeper for compassion and care. Show the respect in the future that you did not afford Barney.”

Meanwhile, Grace’s father Dr Sanjoy Kumar said the message is “so disgusting” and said it brought him to tears everytime.

“Why have police in Nottinghamshire forgotten that these are our dear and beloved children they are referring to? I have tears in my eyes every time the message echoes in my head,” said Dr Kumar.

“The message is as barbaric as the crime for me.”

As well as those involved in the Whatsapp messages, a special constable was also sacked for viewing body-worn footage of the two students as they were dying, while almost 180 staff members were found to have viewed material relating to the case.

Nottinghamshire Police has referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct after the families raised a number of concerns, including their failure to inform them that officers were being investigated.

The College of Policing is also conducting a review of how the force handled the case.

A spokesman for Nottinghamshire Police said: “A member of police staff has been dismissed following a gross misconduct hearing on April 5 for the misuse of force systems and breaching data protection by accessing information relating to recent homicide investigations.

“The investigation showed that the police staff member used police systems to research the offender, Valdo Calocane.

“There was no evidence that she viewed body-worn video or CCTV in relation to the case.

“All hearings relating to police staff misconduct are held in private. It would be inappropriate to comment further due to the ongoing independent investigation by the IOPC and the review by the College of Policing.”

From reefs to rainforests: A nature-lover’s guide to Queensland

From the oldest tropical rainforest on the planet to iridescent everglades, striking marine life and dramatic mountain peaks, Queensland is a paradise for anyone into nature and wildlife. We’ve put together a guide to the best natural spots to visit in each region, with help from the experts at Travelbag, who are on hand to make your dream holiday happen.

Queensland’s vibrant capital, Brisbane offers plenty to lure urbanites with its galleries, museums and restaurants, and it doesn’t fall short on the nature front either.

For an especially tranquil spot, head to the city’s Botanic Gardens, set just outside the centre and home to the biggest collection of Australian native rainforest trees in the world (entry is free). If you fancy getting up close and personal with the local wildlife, swing by the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary – home to a koala research centre alongside various experiences, from wildlife encounters to a Nocturnal Twilight Tour.

Beyond the city itself, you’ll find plenty more to explore; for one of the most jaw-dropping spots, head to the Scenic Rim, a dramatic caldera landscape scattered with soaring peaks, lush valleys and scenic bushwalking trails.

The Gold Coast might be best-known for its beaches, nightlife and family-friendly fun, but as the gateway to several national parks, it’s also a dream for nature-lovers. It’s here you’ll find Lamington National Park and Springbrook National Park – both part of the Unesco-listed Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area, the biggest subtropical rainforest on the planet. Hiking trails lace these tree-carpeted landscapes, with waterfalls, mountains and lush flora for scenery.

Elsewhere, venture to Burleigh Heads National Park to amble between scenic coastline and emerald rainforest, and come between July and October to spot migrating whales as they pass the famous ‘Humpback Highway’.

Just north of Brisbane sits the Sunshine Coast – an idyllic stretch lined with sugary beaches and cerulean sea, and the home of laid-back surf town Noosa.

Among the myriad natural charms here you’ll find the Noosa Everglades – one of only two everglades systems in the world, tucked within a sprawling UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Nicknamed the ‘river of mirrors’, this network of waterways, tea tree forests and wetlands is home to 40% of Australia’s bird species, with canoe and kayak tours available if you want to see its wildlife from the water.

It’s not just the everglades worth a visit here, though. In the wider Great Sandy National Park, you’ll find hidden-away beaches, tumbling sand dunes and sprawling rainforests – best explored by 4×4 – while elsewhere in the hinterlands lie the Glass House Mountains, a cluster of volcanic, craggy peaks offering excellent hiking and exceptional views.

Much of Queensland’s charm lies beneath the surface, of course, and if you’re looking to explore the region’s colourful marine life, the Whitsunday Islands should be high on your list.

There are plenty of options for sailing trips here, with key spots including the talcum-sand Whitehaven Beach and paradise-worthy Hamilton Island. Book a Whitehaven Camira Sailing Adventure to explore the first, or if you fancy getting properly back to nature, opt for the two-day Reeflseep, which combines snorkelling and optional diving with dinner and a night sleeping under the stars.

There’s more in the way of world-class snorkelling and diving in Cairns – the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, where dwarf minke whales, manta rays, turtles and groupers inhabit the surrounding waters.

But it’s not only about the marine life here – two hours away sits the Daintree Rainforest; the oldest tropical rainforest in the world, believed to date back around 180 million years. Saltwater crocodiles, kaleidoscopic butterflies and an array of tropical birds inhabit this ancient landscape, with waterfalls, creeks and swimming holes hidden among the trees.

Head out on a riverboat cruise to take it all in, or book an indigenous-led tour to learn more about the Daintree’s Aboriginal people; this vast, heritage-filled wilderness is Australia at its most quintessential, and a perfect symbol of Queensland’s striking diversity.

Book it: Combine Queensland’s natural highlights on Travelbag’s Queensland Ocean & Rainforest Experience, or get in touch with Travelbag’s experts for a private, tailor-made trip to suit.

How did a Tory promise to end no-fault evictions become stalled?

Conservatives pledged in the 2019 manifesto to abolish Section 21 notices, which allow landlords to evict tenants without giving a reason. No-fault eviction, as it is called, has been one of the biggest complaints of tenants, and the abolition of Section 21 notices has long been a central demand of tenant and homelessness campaign groups, such as Shelter.

Now, almost five years after the first promise was given, and almost a year since the Renters (Reform) Bill was tabled, the commitment seems no closer to being honoured. The bill is now going through its report stage and third reading in the Commons before returning to the House of Lords, but the key sections are expected to be watered down or subject to delay.

Michael Gove, the housing secretary, also seems to be wavering. In a television interview in February, he insisted Section 21 orders would be abolished by the next election. On the eve of the bill’s third reading, he seemed less certain, saying to the BBC: “Everything depends on the House of Lords. My determination is to ensure that we get this bill on the statute book. But it’s up to the Lords to decide the rate of progress that we can make … It will be a judgement of the Lords as to how this bill progresses.”

Can Britain back up its bold defence pledge to Ukraine?

It has been a thin few months for Western assistance to Ukraine, but there are suddenly two pieces of positive news for Kyiv. After a six-month political stand-off, the US Congress has finally approved a $61bn (£49bn) package for Ukraine, as part of a $95bn foreign aid bill, with the first consignments – according to the Pentagon – starting to arrive within days. The US president Joe Biden said it was “ a good day for America … a good day for Europe”, and “for world peace”. He pledged it would “make the world safer”.

As the US Senate was preparing to vote, the UK prime minister said that this country’s aid to Ukraine was being increased to £3bn this financial year, to include boats, land vehicles and air defence missiles, as well as £500m in financial help. This was formally announced by Rishi Sunak in Warsaw, where he stood alongside the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk – and the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg – and also stated that the UK would up its defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2030, amounting to an extra £75bn over the next six years.

Together, these new commitments suggest a welcome outbreak of realism on both sides of the Atlantic, a sense of realism given a push perhaps by some desperate-sounding pleas from Volodymyr Zelensky and US intelligence briefings to the effect that without more military help, Ukraine’s chances against Russia were diminishing by the day.