General election 2019: Lib Dems and SNP in court over TV debate exclusion

Jo Swinson and Ian BlackfordImage copyright Getty Images/Reuters

The High Court will later consider separate legal challenges from the Lib Dems and SNP over their exclusion from ITV’s general election debate.

ITV’s head-to-head between Conservative leader Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is on Tuesday.

The SNP and Lib Dems say it is unfair not to invite them to take part.

The Lib Dems have also sent a legal letter to the BBC over its decision not to include their leader Jo Swinson in a debate on 6 December.

The SNP said it expected the High Court to decide on Monday whether the two legal challenges should be heard together and a ruling is expected later in the day.

Speaking ahead of the hearing, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, said: “This challenge is not just about the SNP, it’s about fairness for every voter and viewer across the country who have a right to see the real choice at this election on that debate stage.

“By excluding key parties from the debate, viewers are being deprived of the opportunity to make their own decisions, and voters in Scotland are not seeing their voting patterns reflected at all.

“People in Scotland voted Remain in 2016 and overwhelmingly backed the SNP as their party of choice in the European elections.”

He added that it was “simply false to tell viewers in Scotland that that is their choice when we know Scotland has repeatedly rejected both in recent elections and the SNP could well hold the balance of power on 13 December”.

He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show “we may be in a minority government situation” after the general election so it would be “right” to hear the views of smaller parties.

The Lib Dems say it is wrong to exclude “a voice of Remain” – and the only female candidate for prime minister – from the head-to-head debates.

When ITV announced its plans, the channel said it would hold a live interview-based programme alongside the leaders’ head-to-head to allow other parties to comment, as well as another multi-party debate ahead of the 12 December poll.

The Liberal Democrats have also criticised the BBC’s plan for a live head-to-head between Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn on Friday, 6 December, because Jo Swinson is not taking part.

The party’s lawyers have also sent a letter to the BBC’s director general Tony Hall, saying the exclusion of Ms Swinson is “clearly unlawful”.

“It also means that viewers will be denied the opportunity to hear the fresh and distinct perspective that the Liberal Democrats bring on the dominant issue of this election, namely Brexit,” the letter said.

The BBC declined to comment on the letter.

The broadcaster will host the live head-to-head debate between Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn in Southampton on 6 December, and will also broadcast a seven-way podium debate between senior figures from the UK’s major political parties on 29 November, live from Cardiff.

And BBC Scotland will stage a televised debate between the SNP, Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats on 10 December, although the Scottish Greens have criticised the decision not to include them.

General election 2019: Leaders woo business with tax and apprenticeship vows

apprentice construction ratesImage copyright Getty Images

Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson will all attempt to woo the UK’s business leaders with speeches to the CBI’s annual conference later.

Mr Johnson will vow to end Brexit “uncertainty” and unveil Tory plans to cut business rates if he is returned to power in next month’s general election.

Mr Corbyn will set out Labour’s plans for 320,000 apprenticeships in England.

And Ms Swinson will say the Lib Dems are the “natural party of business” because they want to cancel Brexit.

Mr Johnson is hoping to win a majority on 12 December, get his Brexit deal taking the UK out of the EU into law by 31 January and begin talks with Brussels on a permanent trading relationship.

The Tory leader is expected to tell the Confederation of British Industry’s conference: “Big business didn’t want Brexit. You made that clear in 2016 and this body said it louder than any other.

“But what is also clear is that what you want now – and have wanted for some time – is certainty.”

‘Climate apprenticeship’

The Conservative leader will announce policies to help businesses “make the most of Brexit”, including a review of business rates in England, with the aim of bringing the overall burden of the tax down.

The Conservatives also say they plan a cut in National Insurance contributions for employers.

They would increase the employment allowance from £3,000 to £4,000, which they say would amount to a tax cut of up to £1,000 for more than half a million businesses.

They would also increase the Research and Development tax credit rate from 12% to 13%, which the party says will boost manufacturing and the professional, scientific and technical services sectors.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Business rates have been blamed for hastening a decline in High Street stores

The party also proposes tax relief for landlords and builders and higher tax credits for companies that are involved in research.

“With a Conservative majority government you can be sure we will get Brexit done and leave with the new deal that is already agreed – ending the uncertainty and confusion that has paralysed our economy,” Mr Johnson is expected to say.

Business rates are a tax based on rental values of the property businesses occupy.

They are typically 50.4% of the market rent – but there are lots of complex reductions, and smaller businesses pay a bit less.

Business lobby groups – especially small businesses – often complain about the complex system, and that rates have gone up faster than inflation since the current regime was introduced in 1990.

A recent Parliamentary inquiry found the UK had the highest level of this kind of tax in the OECD group of wealthy nations, more than double the average.

However, it’s one of the biggest sources of government revenue, raising £31bn in England in the last financial year.

If the next government cut rates back to 1990 levels, it would cost about £10bn, says Jerry Schurder, head of business rates at property consultants Gerald Eve.

Retailers complain that business rates are a factor in the closure of small shops.

But economists at the Institute for Fiscal Studies have argued that cutting business rates would only give retailers short-term respite, as landlords would then increase rents.

Labour wants to tear up Mr Johnson’s Brexit agreement and negotiate a new deal with Brussels, including a customs union and a closer relationship with the EU single market, which it would then put to a public vote.

Jeremy Corbyn will set out Labour plans to train 80,000 people a year, as part of a “climate apprenticeship” programme, in his speech to the CBI, which is the UK’s largest business lobby group.

‘Party of business’

“Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution will be a central motor of the party’s plans to transform our country and economy, using public investment to create good, clean jobs, tackle the climate emergency and rebuild held back towns, cities and communities,” he is expected to say.

Labour’s plan would see 320,000 apprentices trained in jobs such as construction, manufacturing and design within renewable energy, transport, sustainable agriculture and forestry, in Labour’s first term in office.

It will be funded by diverting 25% of the funds employers already set aside through the Apprenticeship Levy and topped up by any dividends over the cap paid into Labour’s Inclusive Ownership Funds – the party’s plan to give workers a 10% stake in their employers.

The party said it also wanted to give employers more choice over how they spend Apprenticeship Levy Funds.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Labour wants more jobs in clean industries

Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson will tell business leaders that her party is the “natural party of business” as part of her case for the UK staying in the EU.

She will attack the other two parties’ plans to spend on big infrastructure projects, according to remarks circulated prior to the conference.

‘Political paralysis’

“Both the Conservatives and Labour will have to scramble around for projects to pour money into just to keep their word – regardless of whether they’re good projects and good use of public funds,” she will say.

The CBI said it wanted business rates – a tax on business premises collected by councils – to be reformed, as part of a number of recommendations it would like the parties to adopt.

It also asked for the Apprenticeship Levy to be overhauled. The tax has been unpopular with businesses since it was introduced in 2017.

The CBI also said it wanted stalled programmes such as the HS2 high-speed rail link between London and the north of England, and Heathrow’s third runway to be finished.

“We simply cannot afford another wasted year of political paralysis, indecision and distraction while productivity and investment suffer,” director general Carolyn Fairbairn is expected to say.

Business groups gave mixed reviews to the parties’ plans.

On the Conservatives’ proposals, Tej Parikh, chief economist at the Institute of Directors, one of the UK’s oldest business lobby groups, said tax breaks to spur growth were “a sensible move”.

“However, though a thorough review into business rates would be welcome, further reliefs are also needed for the here and now.”

Reacting to Labour’s proposals, Mr Parikh said businesses wanted to tackle climate change, “but will be concerned at the prospect of further strictures being placed on the Apprenticeship Levy, which has already gummed up the UK’s skills system.

“That said, the fact that Labour has combined its proposal with the promise of wider reform suggests it is aware of the challenges and willing to work with businesses to iron out the creases.”

Missing Leah Croucher’s brother Haydon dies

Leah CroucherImage copyright South Beds News Agency/BBC
Image caption A £5,000 reward has been offered for information about Ms Croucher’s disappearance

The brother of missing woman Leah Croucher has died, their father has said.

Ms Croucher, 20, was last seen in Milton Keynes on 15 February.

In a Facebook post, her father John said he had spoken to his son Haydon on Thursday to reassure him, almost nine months after Leah’s disappearance.

But he said hours later the 24-year-old was taken ill and he subsequently died with his father by his bedside.

Ms Croucher was last seen by her parents at their home in Quantock Crescent on the evening of 14 February.

She told her family she was meeting a friend but police said the meeting did not happen.

CCTV showed her walking about half a mile from her home at about 08:15 GMT the next day, but she has not been seen since.

Image caption Leah’s father John Croucher confirmed Haydon’s death in a Facebook post

Haydon had appeared in court earlier this year accused of making threats to a man he described as Leah’s ex-boyfriend.

He accepted a voluntary restraining order and the prosecution was dropped.

Mr Croucher said he had arranged to meet up with his son on Friday so they could spend the day that marked nine months since Leah’s disappearance together.

“Hours later police knock at the door and tell you that Haydon is fighting for life,” he posted on Facebook.

‘Be at peace’

“The doctors say the prognosis is bad. You sit by his bedside and watch him deteriorate by the minute. You have to say your goodbyes. What do you say in that situation?”

“You tell him you love him. You reminisce about funnier times. You beg him to come back to us. Finally you have to tell him to go and be at peace.

“You hold him as he slips away. To say our hearts and minds are broken is an understatement.”

Mr Croucher said his son was a “kind, generous, funny, witty and loving person”.

He added: “Be at peace Haydon. If Leah is up there with you look after each other as always, until we get there.

“We love and miss you both terribly. Our world could not be more broken than it is now.”

Prince Andrew stands by ‘car-crash’ Jeffrey Epstein BBC interview

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Media captionPrince Andrew on Epstein: ‘There was no indication, absolutely no indication’

The Duke of York stands by his decision to take part in an interview about his links to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, sources have told the BBC.

People close to Prince Andrew said he wanted to address the issues head-on and did so with “honesty and humility”.

It came after the prince’s interview with BBC Newsnight on Saturday was described as a “car crash”.

In the interview, the prince denied having sex with a then 17-year-old girl – Virginia Giuffre.

Former Buckingham Palace press officer Dickie Arbiter described the interview as “excruciating”.

The BBC’s royal correspondent Jonny Dymond said the prince was “very damaged” by the interview and the opportunity to clear his name had “failed, badly”.

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Media captionMr Arbiter says “questions will be asked” in the palace about the decision

For several months the Duke of York had been facing questions over his ties to Epstein – an American financier who, at the age of 66, took his own life while awaiting trial on sex-trafficking charges.

Prince Andrew “categorically” denied having any sexual contact with Virginia Giuffre known at the time as Virginia Roberts.

The first occasion, she said, took place when she was aged 17.

A lawyer for some of Epstein’s alleged victims urged the prince to talk under oath to the US authorities.

Asked about the prince’s decision to be interviewed by BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis, Mr Arbiter said he thought many questions would be asked in Buckingham Palace.

He said: “They will be wondering: Was this the right decision? Was the right decision made? Who made the decision to put him on? Did he make it himself or did he seek advice within the Palace?

“My guess is that he bulldozed his way in and decided he was going to do it himself without any advice.

“Any sensible-thinking person in the PR business would have thrown their hands up in horror at the very suggestion that he puts himself up in front of a television camera to explain away his actions and his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein.”

He added that the interview was “not so much a car crash but an articulated lorry crash”.

Mr Arbiter said he believed the interview would have an impact on the Duke of York’s relationships with various charities.

Ahead of Saturday’s interview, Prince Andrew’s ex-wife Sarah Ferguson wrote of her support for him on social media.

She said: “I am deeply supportive and proud of this giant of a principled man, [who] dares to put his shoulder to the wind and stands firm with his sense of honour and truth.”

‘Sign of arrogance’

But other royal experts also questioned the prince’s decision to speak so publicly about his relationship with Epstein.

Royal biographer Angela Levin said she was gripped by the interview but felt it was “ill-judged” to offer insights into his life with Epstein.

“Unfortunately it was a sign of his arrogance,” she said. “He has always been arrogant.

“The Queen’s motto is don’t complain don’t explain. I think in her heart she will be extremely embarrassed.

“I know for a fact Prince Andrew does not listen to his advisers.

“A very senior member of the press team left suddenly two weeks ago and the implication is he would not have approved of what Prince Andrew did.”

Image copyright News Syndication
Image caption Prince Andrew said this meeting with Epstein in 2010 was to end their relationship

Another royal biographer, Catharine Mayer, spent time with Prince Andrew in 2004 in China on a trade mission and said the interview was “terrible because it erased the victims of Epstein”.

“It was as bad as I expected,” she said. “Probably worse.

“He did not mention those women once.”

Former BBC royal correspondent Jennie Bond said the interview reminded her of one Princess Diana gave to Panorama in 1995 where she “spilled her soul”.

Mrs Bond added that Princes Andrew’s lack of remorse in his interview was a “glaring hole”.

‘Speak to FBI’

Gloria Allred, who is representing some of the young women who say they were victims of Epstein said “there is so much truth that is yet to be revealed”.

She added: “I would say to Prince Andrew: the charges made by [Virginia Giuffre] against you are very, very serious charges.

“I think the right and honourable thing to do would be for you to say unequivocally ‘I will voluntarily speak to the FBI, I know it is the right thing to do, I have nothing to hide’.”

In the lengthy interview, which UK viewers can watch in full on BBC iPlayer or on YouTube elsewhere in the world, the duke said that:

  • On the date Virginia Giuffre says he had sex with her – 10 March, 2001, he had taken his daughter to Pizza Express in Woking for a party before spending the night at home
  • He dismissed claims he was sweating profusely because he had a “peculiar medical condition” meaning he cannot sweat, caused by an overdose of adrenaline in the Falklands War
  • He had commissioned investigations into whether a photograph of him with Ms Giuffre had been faked, but they were inconclusive
  • Speaking out about his relationship with the financier had become almost “a mental health issue” for him
  • He would testify under oath about his relationship with Ms Giuffre if “push came to shove”, and his lawyers advised him to
  • He was unaware of an arrest warrant against Epstein when he invited the financier to Princess Beatrice’s 18th birthday party at Windsor Castle
  • He did not regret his friendship with Epstein because of “the opportunities I was given to learn” from him about trade and business


BBC’s Royal correspondent Jonny Dymond

Image copyright Virginia Roberts
Image caption The duke was pictured with his accuser in Ghislaine Maxwell’s London home in 2001

“Car crash” and “disaster” are some of the kinder words that spring to mind about Prince Andrew’s misbegotten foray into the long-form interview.

The reaction of the press and commentators is withering. Social media is burning with mockery, ridicule and a fair amount of anger.

To a fair number of people doubtful about the worth of the monarchy, Prince Andrew has emerged as an avatar of all that is wrong with the institution.

There is a reason the Royals don’t do ‘no-holds-barred’ interviews. Unsurprisingly, given that they live in Palaces and have servants, they are somewhat out of touch.

Which is why Prince Andrew spoke of “a straightforward shooting weekend” and appeared to smirk at the idea of going for a pizza in Woking.

Neglecting to even mention the victims of his friend Jeffrey Epstein compounded the impression of a man who entirely fails to grasp the spirit of the times.

Defending his friendship with a convicted child sex offender on the grounds that he had met lots of interesting people because of him suggested a degree of self-absorption that would not survive exposure to the outside world.

Who in his staff thought this interview would be good idea and what does Prince Andrew do next?

He is very damaged. The interview was an opportunity to clear his name and rescue his reputation. It has failed, badly.

Bolton flats blaze: Students to be re-housed as £10,000 raised

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Media captionHow students Leah Mckee-Hearne and Courtney Peaker spotted the Bolton fire and raised the alarm

Students who were forced to flee a block of flats hit by a major blaze in Bolton are to be re-housed.

An investigation is under way after the fire ripped through The Cube on Friday, leaving dozens of students with “no personal possessions”.

More than £10,000 has been raised for the University of Bolton students through a crowdfunding appeal.

Two people were injured in the fire, amid confusion among residents because fire alarms go off “almost every day”.

Image copyright GMFRS
Image caption The blaze at The Cube in Bolton broke out on Friday and took more than nine hours to bring under control

Concerns have also been raised about the cladding on the outside of the building, although it is different to the material used at Grenfell Tower, where a blaze killed 72 people in London, in 2017.

The Cube, which is managed by private firm Valeo Urban Student Life, accommodates about 220 people.

Kyra Rivett, who lived in the six-storey building, told BBC Breakfast: “Most of us have [lost belongings], especially those who lived on the top and fifth floor – all their belongings have gone.”

Prof George Holmes, vice-chancellor of the university, said affected students could access £500 for emergency provisions.

“We’ve made sure all students have accommodation for next week,” he said.

Many international students were left without their passports after the blaze, but Prof Holmes said the government had “assured me they will fast-track those student passport and visa requirements”.

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Media captionA number of students have been left with “no personal possessions”

Ms Rivett had just returned from work when she heard the alarms going off.

“[But] because it goes off so often, I just thought it’s another false alarm, it’s not a problem,” she said.

Beverley Hughes, deputy mayor of Greater Manchester, said the fire “spread very, very rapidly indeed and it needed very aggressive firefighting tactics to bring it under control”.

Friday’s blaze was tackled by up to 200 firefighters after it broke out at 20:30 GMT.

“The immediate evacuation clearly made an incredible difference… students ambassadors were going about banging on doors, getting everybody out,” David Greenhalgh, leader of Bolton Council, said.

“We have been assured that all alarms were working so that building was evacuated in the time that was needed.”

Image copyright GMFRS
Image caption About 220 students lived at The Cube in Bolton

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said the fire service had learnt from the Grenfell fire and had also sent a team “to focus on the evacuation rather than fighting the fire”.

A spokeswoman for Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) said: “It is not yet known when the students will be able to get back into their homes but work is ongoing to assess the safety of the building and access will be reviewed on Monday.”

The service said residents at four nearby properties would also be unable to return to their homes due to safety concerns.

The GMFRS spokeswoman confirmed that The Cube was inspected along with other high-rise buildings in 2017 following the Grenfell tragedy.

She said a letter was sent to the building’s management “requiring the fire risk assessment to be updated to consider the risk of internal and external fire spread”.

“As part of this assessment, the building was operating an evacuation strategy,” a spokesman said.

Valeo USL said it was “not responsible for the construction of or subsequent amendments to the construction of the Cube buildings”, adding that the site’s landlord was the firm Idealsite Ltd.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Prime Minister Boris Johnson met students during a visit on Saturday

The latter company, which is registered in Lincolnshire and has a board of directors based in the Republic of Ireland, is yet to comment.

The high-pressure laminate cladding used at The Cube is not the same as the now-banned aluminium composite material (ACM) at Grenfell, Salford mayor Paul Dennett said.

“We have a bit of a cladding lottery,” he added.

“The government has made resources available for ACM but this is high-pressure laminate, so we will be asking government for more funds to really deal with what is an industrial crisis.

“We need to do a full investigation of this building because it’s not just about the cladding, it’s about the actual structure of the cladding system and we need to investigate whether compartmentation has been breached and a whole host of different issues”.