INDEPENDENT 2024-05-15 16:07:13


Backlash over Sunak’s ‘irresponsible’ children’s sex education plan

Rishi Sunak is facing a backlash over “irresponsible” plans to ban sex education for children under nine while limiting it for children under 13.

The prime minister has been accused of using children as a “political football” over plans to ban all sex education in primary schools until year five. Lessons would then focus simply on conception and birth, with no explicit discussions of sexual acts until they are 13 and over, according to reports.

Domestic violence, coercive control and sexual violence would also not be discussed until children reach 13 under the guidance, due to be announced by education secretary Gillian Keegan. Children would also not be taught about contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and abortion until age 13.

Critics of the plans told The Independent it would lead to a rise in sexual and homophobic bullying and leave young people at risk of being sexually abused by their peers.

The National Education Union said the guidance failed to account for the fact children and young people already get information about sex and relationships from the internet and on the playground.

General secretary Daniel Kebede said they need the opportunity to discuss puberty and relationships with trusted adults.

He said: “Issues such as domestic violence can affect children from a young age and it is irresponsible to shut out this conversation until teenage years. We must also challenge widespread patterns like sexual bullying and homophobic bullying which start in primary school.”

The Gemini Project, a charity campaigning to end sexual violence, told The Independent mandatory consent lessons should be taught in all primary and secondary schools “as a matter of safeguarding”.

Policy director Verity Nevitt said the guidance was “short-sighted, particularly for the current generation of children who are even more exposed to graphic sexual content than older Gen Zs and millennials”.

“This, coupled with exposure to influencers like Andrew Tate, mean young people are at risk of harmful sexual abuse perpetrated by their peers,” she said.

Ms Nevitt added: “I cannot understand why this government would want to make life worse for young people by failing to ensure they receive effective, age-appropriate sex and relationships education. The prevention of a lifelong trauma of sexual abuse should be prioritised.”

The new guidance will also make clear that gender identity is seen as a contested subject by ministers and teachers should focus on “biological” facts about sex.

Mr Sunak was accused of stoking a culture war after the leaked plans showed ministers were to tell teachers not to teach children about gender identity.

This latest foray into the culture wars followed a major speech on Monday by the common sense minister Esther McVey unveiling new civil service rules to end so-called “woke activism” in Whitehall and other departments.

Pollsters warned the PM that stoking culture wars would “not save the Tories”, while Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer mocked Mr Sunak’s attempts to ban “rainbow lanyards”.

Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Pupils are being placed in the middle of a highly sensitive subject and being used as a political football for the sake of headlines when we should be focusing on their wellbeing.”

Existing guidance for schools outlines broad lesson modules stating that primary-aged children should be taught about different types of families and healthy relationships.

Secondary pupils aged children meanwhile are taught more complex topics, including puberty, sexual relationships, consent, unsafe relationships and online harms. RSHE (relationship, health and sex education) was made mandatory in all schools in England from September 2020.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said good sex education is “vital to help safeguard young people and prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life”.

He added: “We have serious concerns about how potential ‘limits’ would work in practice. Schools already work hard to ensure that the curriculum and teaching is age-appropriate based on the current government guidance and have the vital flexibility to respond to their own community and the needs of pupils in their schools. Curriculum content is also shared and discussed with parents.”

The End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) said RHSE for children is the “cornerstone of preventing violence against women and girls”.

EVAW director Andrea Simon said: “They must be given the tools to understand the foundations of consent and healthy relationships. Empowering children with this information can help reduce violence and abuse as they go on to form romantic relationships.”

A study by the government’s Office of the Children’s Commissioner found that the average age children first see pornography is 13, while almost a third of children had seen it by age 11. Before the age of 18, eight in 10 people had encountered pornography depicting coercive, degrading or pain-inducing sex acts.

The prime minister commissioned a review into the curriculum after hearing concerns, including from Conservative MPs, that children were receiving sex education lessons at too young an age.

Other measures set to be announced by Ms Keegan after the review include a requirement for schools to provide parents with samples of the material their children will be taught to quell these fears.

The Department for Education said it could not confirm the newspaper reports and it would not speculate on leaks. However, sources stressed that the full guidance would have dedicated sections dealing with sexual violence.

Two men appear in court over felling of Sycamore Gap tree

Two men have appeared in court on Wednesday in connection with the felling of the Sycamore Gap tree – which has been valued at £620,000 in criminal damage.

Daniel Graham, 38, and Adam Carruthers, 31, have been charged with causing the damage, the Crown Prosecution Service said. They are on bail.

Graham entered pleas of not guilty, while Carruthers entered no plea.

There was a national outcry in September when the much-loved, centuries-old tree in rural Northumberland was found to have been cut down.

The tree, believed to have been one of the most photographed in the country, used to sit in a gap along Hadrian’s Wall – a Unesco world heritage site – and a popular hotspot for tourists and walkers.

Its origins are believed to have dated back to medieval times and it has been excavated on two previous occasions – between 1908 and 1911 and again between 1982 and 1987 – when Roman remains linked to Hadrian’s Wall were found.

Northumberland National Park (NNP) said it had received 2,000 “heartfelt” messages from people from all around the world expressing sadness and that it had been inundated with offers of help.

Russia-Ukraine: Putin’s forces ‘pushed back’ in key Kharkiv town

Ukraine has “partially pushed back” Russian forces in the key frontier town of Vovchansk just a few miles from the border, the military has reported.

The town has become Ukraine’s primary defensive line against Russia’s advancing forces in the Kharkiv region since the Kremlin launched an assault last Friday, opening up a second front after more than two years of war.

In its latest update, Ukraine’s general staff claimed on Facebook that their forces had fought back against the Kremlin’s troops, who recently entered the north and northwest sectors of the town. The claim came after a local police official from Vovchansk said Russia was “taking positions on the streets” of the town.

It comes as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s press secretary announced that the leader had cancelled all his foreign trips to concentrate on the developing situation on the frontline.

“Volodymyr Zelensky has instructed that all international events scheduled for the coming days be postponed and new dates coordinated,” said Sergii Nykyforov, Mr Zelensky’s press secretary, on Facebook.

Mr Zelensky was due to visit Spain and Portugal later this week to discuss bilateral agreements.

International arrest warrant issued for The Fly in ‘unprecedented’ manhunt

An international arrest warrant has been issued in the “unprecedented” manhunt for the escaped French inmate nicknamed ‘The Fly’.

Interpol said in a statement on Wednesday that it has issued a ‘Red Notice’ search warrant for fugitive Mohamed Amra, 30, at the request of France’s authorities.

The suspected drug boss was being transported from a court hearing in Rouen to a secure jail in Evreux when his prison van was ambushed by four gunmen shortly after 11am on Tuesday.

Fabrice Moello, a 52-year-old father of two, and Arnaud Garcia, a 35-year-old whose wife was five months pregnant, were killed in machine gun fire on the A154 motorway in Val-de-Reuil in Normandy, while three more guards were left seriously injured.

French justice minister Éric Dupond-Moretti said the two prison officers – who both came from Caen – were “slaughtered like dogs by men for whom life means nothing”.

Amra – who is believed to be well known to the police as the boss of a narcotics network and has a total of 13 convictions to his name – fled alongside the attackers in two vehicles, which were abandoned and found burned a short while later.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told RTL radio around 450 officers had been mobilised in the area of the attack in the “unprecedented” search. Expressing hope that Amra could be caught “in the coming days”, he said: “We are progressing a lot.”

‘Millions of litres’ of raw sewage pumped into Lake Windermere

Millions of litres of untreated sewage were illegally discharged into one of Britain’s most scenic lakes, Windermere, according to a report that only adds to concerns about levels of pollution in England’s natural waterbodies.

Raw sewage was pumped into the lake for nearly 10 hours in February after a telecommunication failure at a pumping station operated by United Utilities, a major water and wastewater services provider in the North West.

The discharge happened at the company’s pumping station at Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria on the night of 28 February and intermittently the following day.

The emergency pumps discharged more than 10 million litres of raw sewage into the lake after the main pumps abruptly stopped due to a telecom fault, insiders at the firm told BBC News, whose report also internal cited documents from the company.

Windermere, a Unesco World Heritage site, is one of the country’s most popular natural attractions.

The incident was not reported to the Environment Agency until around 13 hours later. Failure to promptly notify the agency about such an incident constitutes a criminal offence.

United Utilities said in a statement to The Independent that it took “urgent steps to resolve the issue” and said it informed the Environment Agency within an hour after pollution of the lake was confirmed.

“This incident was caused by an unexpected fault on the third-party telecoms cable network in the area, which United Utilities was not notified about and which affected both the primary system and United Utilities’ backup,” the company said.

“As soon as we discovered this fault was affecting the Glebe Road pumping station, our engineers took urgent steps to resolve the situation and we informed the Environment Agency within an hour of the pollution being confirmed.”

The company told the BBC that the scale of the discharge was not recorded and described the broadcaster’s estimate as “unreliable”.

A similar incident occurred at the pumping station in 2022.

The latest incident comes amid warnings from environmental agencies that swimming and other activities in and around some of the country’s rivers and lakes could be hazardous due to high levels of sewage pollution.

More than 440,000 hours of sewage was released along England’s coastline in 2023, campaign group Friends of the Earth said on Wednesday after analysing Environment Agency data.

It found there were 68,481 incidents of sewage released into England’s seas last year, totalling 440,446 hours.

In a statement to The Independent, the Environment Agency said an officer “attended the scene to confirm with UU [United Utilities] that the discharge had ceased and to carry out water sampling in areas affected”.

“We are undertaking a thorough investigation into the incident which involves examining further evidence from United Utilities,” it added.

“If we determine a permit breach has taken place, we will not hesitate to take enforcement action. If any water company is found to be in breach of an environmental permit, the Environment Agency will take the appropriate enforcement action up to and including a criminal prosecution.”

Off the beaten track in Costa Dorada

Blessed with swathes of golden sandy beaches between sea and mountains, Costa Dorada has an abundance of landscape to explore.

Jet2holidays makes it even easier to land your perfect active trip to Costa Dorada. Flying from 10 UK airports in 2024 and 11 in 2025, they provide package holidays you can trust and look after you every step of the way, with hotel, flights, free return transfers, 22kg baggage and 10kg hand luggage included – giving plenty of space to pack in the hiking boots and water shoes.

Here, we round up some of the best ways to immerse yourself in the region’s grand nature.

With roads being smooth and often car-free, Costa Dorada is an ideal destination for biking. There’s the Serra del Montsant mountain range for pushing those uphill challenges or coastal paths for smooth-sailing along the rugged cliff edges and golden sand beaches. The route from Falset can take in the lush wineries and rolling vineyards the area is known for. Start from this mountainous village and follow the road to the village of Margalef near the mountain edge before heading back to Falset. Or to take in the sea and mountains, start in the coastal resort of Salou before winding up the steep hairpin bends of La Mussara mountain. Make your way back to the sea at the coastal resort of Cambrils – known as the gastronomic hub of this region – for some well-deserved tapas.

There’s an abundance of coastal paths that navigate around the more secluded parts of the shores here. Camino de Ronda in Salou stretches for 6.5 km, curving in a U-shape along rocky coast and over golden sand beaches. The route can be stretched out to around 9km to cover the coastal path of Salou by starting in Vila-seca, La Pineda. The route runs between sea and mountains, with 23 viewpoints dotted along the way. It passes by plenty of places to stop for a spot of lunch with views over the Mediterranean Sea, too. If you want active pit stops along your walk, there are places along the route that offer up water sports.

Take a day trip out to the coastal city of Tarragona to explore its Roman ruins. The city was once a popular destination for Roman emperors, with the Amphitheatre dating back almost 2,000 years. There are other ruins along the coast to explore, with Roman, Spanish, Arabic and Moorish history weaved into the architecture. While in the port city, check out the Roman tombs and walled Medieval Old Town, before strolling along the harbour with its small fishing boats and pastel-hued houses.

Costa Dorada has an impressive total of 26 Blue Flag beaches, recognised for their calm, safe waters, cleanliness and environmental management. They’re particularly family-friendly, with resorts Salou, Cambrils and La Pineda being ‘Certified Family Destinations’ with dedicated facilities for families during the summer. Yet there are still many beaches that remain quiet and more secluded. Playa de la Pineda Platja is the main beach in the coastal resort of Vila-seca, La Pineda, yet remains fairly quiet. It also benefits from being close to Aquopolis Water Park with its giant slides and pools. While not being Blue Flag-accredited, Playa Llarga in Salou is outside of the city centre (but close enough to attractions like PortAventura amusement park), surrounded by a small pine forest that immerses you in nature.

The towering peaks of Montserrat National Park are one of the greatest symbols of Catalonia. The mountainous landscape is peppered with grottos and caves, while birds of prey soar above in the sky. While offering untouched nature, it overlooks one of the best wine regions in the area, with vineyards and wine cellars to visit. Head here for a full day hike or visit one of the four mountain villages in the area for a gentle walk. Elsewhere closer to ground level, Parc Sama Botanical Gardens in the coastal resort of Cambrils has an abundance of forest and foliage, with 1,500 species of flora and fauna. There’s also a lake with a canal and waterfall to stroll around.

It’s time we gave Ukraine the tools it needs to finish the job

The presence in Kyiv of the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, at what is becoming a critical juncture in Ukraine’s war of survival against Russia, is, of course, extremely welcome.

Were they being undiplomatically honest, however, the Ukrainians would admit that they would far rather have received a bumper consignment of Patriot missile defence systems, F-16 fighters and Abrams armoured vehicles than the distinguished statesman. That way, they might have a better chance of preventing the Russians from destroying their second city, Kharkiv. Such a denouement is unlikely – but the possibility of it cannot be dismissed.

Like Mr Blinken, Joe Biden has obviously been preoccupied with the Middle East in recent months – and, while a superpower has more than sufficient political and diplomatic “bandwidth” to cope with multiple crises, the decision to send America’s most senior diplomat to Ukraine is an important visible signal that the West is not entirely distracted by the war in Gaza.

Can Labour’s new deal for workers satisfy the unions and business?

For a movement literally founded to promote the interests of working people, the Labour Party has found itself troubled by the question of workers’ rights and the power of trade unions to a remarkable degree. Today, as they will doubtless continue to do over the coming months in the run-up to the general election, the party’s leaders in parliament are negotiating with the Labour Trade Union Organisation (LTUO) in an effort to decide what Labour’s next manifesto should say about employment and industrial relations law.

The LTUO is the umbrella body that represents the 11 trade unions that are affiliated with the party and fund much of its activities. It is led by Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the train drivers’ union, Aslef.