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    Nicola Sturgeon claims she alone offers ‘serious leadership’ as poll says SNP on course for Holyrood majority

    Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that she alone offers “serious leadership” for Scotland, as a new poll indicated her Scottish National Party is en route to seizing a slim majority in next week’s crucial Holyrood elections.The incumbent first minister – and strong favourite after seven years in power – attacked her opponents on Sunday as “vying for second place, openly saying they have got no plan for government”, as she continued her bid to claim a mandate for a fresh “legal” referendum on Scottish independence if her party wins a majority.Her hopes were likely buoyed by a new BMG Research poll, published in The Herald on Sunday, which suggested the SNP is on course to win 68 seats, giving them a majority of seven – a prospect the pollsters said “remains on a knife-edge”. Ms Sturgeon has faced fresh competition for seats at this election from former mentor-turned–“nuisance” Alex Salmond, who hopes to create a “supermajority” for independence with his new Alba Party’s regional-list-only campaign – a tactic that plays on Scotland’s Additional Member voting system and which saw the UK’s first ever Green Party politician elected back in Holyrood’s nascent 1999 election.While BMG’s survey gives the Alba Party two seats, the firm’s head of polling Robert Struthers said the majority forecast for the SNP – which is running a “Both Votes SNP” campaign – was “thanks to a close to clean sweep of constituencies”.The poll also suggests the Greens will pick up nine seats – meaning Holyrood would have 79 pro-independence MSPs out of 129.Despite Ms Sturgeon having indicated her willingness to hold a consultative “wildcat” referendum in the event that Boris Johnson refuses to acknowledge a mandate for another vote, she has rejected pressure from Mr Salmond’s party to start negotiations with Westminster for a fresh plebiscite “immediately” after the 6 May election, saying she will wait until the coronavirus pandemic has abated before doing so.However, Ms Sturgeon suggested independence and the success of Scotland’s post-pandemic future were interlinked as she told BBC Scotland on Sunday: “Recovery is not separate to who takes the decisions and where power lies.“If we don’t decide to take the longer-term recovery into our own hands, the real risk, just as was the case after the financial crash, is we have got another decade of Tory austerity.”“It shouldn’t be me as an individual politician, no more than it should be Boris Johnson as an individual politician who decides Scotland’s future, it should be the people of Scotland, it is a basic principle of democracy,” she said, adding: “I don’t want Boris Johnson making the decisions about the country Scotland will become.”Her comments came as Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross – who on Sunday said Mr Johnson must resign if he is found to have broken the ministerial code with the funding of his Downing Street redecoration – warned Ms Sturgeon “wants to drive our economy off the edge of a cliff”.Writing in the Scottish Sunday Express, Mr Ross said the SNP would be “making foreigners out of friends and family” if it managed to win a majority.“Scotland stands on the brink,” he wrote. “This election is not about just the next five years but a generation that has been hit hard by a global pandemic and a vote that could change Scotland’s future forever.“If the SNP win a majority, they will not just be focused on delivering an independence referendum, but also building the case to persuade us of the need for separation.“That can only distract attention and divert resources away from our recovery.”In addition to the years of soaring drug deaths presided over by the SNP, another key criticism of Ms Sturgeon’s government is its failure to close the gap in performance between rich and poor children in Scotland’s schools.With the first minister previously having asked voters to judge her on this issue, she conceded on Sunday that her party had “not yet done enough” in dealing with Scotland’s attainment gap, admitting: “It is not yet where I want it to be.”As BMG’s poll suggested that 39 per cent of voters believed the SNP had handled education badly – versus just 34 per cent with a favourable view, Ms Sturgeon insisted progress has been made, pointing to “record numbers” of young people from deprived areas going to university. She claimed the SNP would do more to tackle the “driver of the attainment gap, which is child poverty”, if re-elected for a fourth term – decrying the “unacceptable” fact that around one in four Scottish children are calculated to live below the poverty line, with that figure having risen since the early 2010s, according to the Scottish Government.“We are not saying there are not big challenges to address in this country, but we are the only party doing the work and putting forward the plans to actually do that,” Ms Sturgeon said.“And that’s the choice people have on Thursday, do you want to vote for parties that are vying for second place, openly saying they have got no plan for government, or do you want a serious first minister – an experienced first minister– that is leading a government that is serious about tackling the challenges.”Ms Sturgeon, who said she would serve out the full five-year term if re-elected as first minister, added: “This country needs serious leadership because it is a serious time, and that is what I offer.“It seems that I am the only one in this campaign offering that.”Additional reporting by PAThis article was updated on 5 May to correct the description of Alba’s election campaign to regional-list-only, and not constituency-only as originally reported. 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    Priti Patel announces immigration fast-track for winners of Oscars, Nobel prizes, and Golden Globes

    People who win Oscars, Grammys and Nobel Prizes are to be fast-tracked through the UK immigration system under reforms unveiled by the Home Secretary. Priti Patel said the policy change was an example of how the government’s points-based immigration system could attract “the best and brightest”.The list of fast-track prizes, which the government says will be kept under review, includes the Golden Globes, Baftas, Brit Awards and the Mobos.And mathematicians who in the Fields Medal as well as scientists awarded the Fyssen international prize will also benefit.The new approach streamlines the existing “Global Talent route”, which requires people to receive an endorsement from one of six bodies.But from Wednesday the new system will allow people who hold a qualifying prize to make a single visa application.The announcement is unlikely to assuage concerns from the cultural industries that government policy is harming their sector, however.Musicians and actors have warned that the end to free movement with the EU will seriously undermine their ability to tour – one of artists’ main income streams.The new exemptions effectively only apply at an elite level.Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “Winners of these awards have reached the pinnacle of their career and they have so much to offer the UK.”These important changes will give them the freedom to come and work in our world leading arts, sciences, music, and film industries as we build back better.”This is exactly what our new point-based immigration system was designed for – attracting the best and brightest based on the skills and talent they have, not where they’ve come from.” More

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    Nicola Sturgeon rules out ‘wildcat’ referendum on Scottish independence

    SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has insisted she would not attempt to stage a “wildcat” referendum on Scottish independence if her party wins a majority at the Holyrood election.Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross claimed Ms Sturgeon was ready and willing to hold an “illegal” referendum if Boris Johnson refused to agree to another vote on separation.Scotland’s first minister accused her Tory rival of “smears and mistruths” about her plans, as the pair clashed over the issue on Tuesday’s night BBC election debate.“I would not countenance an illegal referendum – not least because it would not deliver independence,” Ms Sturgeon during the TV debate.She added: “I will be responsible about that and I will build, and ultimately I think win, the case for independence through patient persuasion of people across the country.”Mr Ross claimed the SNP leader would demand the prime minister grants a section 30 order ((a provision in the Scotland Act of 1998) so the Scottish government can legally stage a so-called “indyref2” vote.The Tory leader predicted Ms Sturgeon would “go ahead with an illegal wildcat referendum” when Mr Johnson’s refuses the request after the election.“I know Douglas that your campaign has perhaps not been the most successful campaign, but don’t start to issue smears and just tell untruths about my position and what I’ve said,” the SNP leader fired back.Ms Sturgeon’s has previously pledged to stage a “legal” referendum by the end of 2023. But some SNP politicians have struggled to stay completely on message.SNP MP Richard Thomson last month claimed that Ms Sturgeon’s government would “simply go ahead with a referendum” if Downing Street refused to agree to one. He argued that the powers of the Scotland Act of 1998 would allow a “consultative” referendum to take place.Any attempt to stage a “consultative” referendum on Scottish independence, without a section 30 order agreement, would likely spark a legal challenge from the UK government.Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar claimed the referendum row was a distraction from the Covid recovery during Tuesday’s final live TV debate.“I do not support a referendum,” he said. “I don’t support independence and I want people to choose something different. I want them to choose us to focus on a national recovery in the next parliament.”The SNP looks set to win a slim majority at Thursday’s Holyrood election, according to the latest polls by YouGov, Survation and Opinium.YouGov also found support for independence slipping among Scottish voters. Some 55 per cent support for remaining part of the UK, while backing for a breakaway is down at 45 per cent. The Survation survey found a 52-48 split in favour of the union. More

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    Scottish Greens set to help form pro-independence ‘supermajority’, poll finds

    The Scottish Greens could more than double their number of MSPs and help form a large majority in favour of Scottish independence at Holyrood, a new poll suggests.The latest modelling by polling guru Professor Sir John Curtice has the SNP on 68 seats, a slim majority, while the Greens will take 13 seats – more than double their current haul of five.It follows the final Scottish election survey by YouGov, which put Nicola Sturgeon’s party on 52 per cent in the constituency vote, with the Scottish Greens set to take 13 per cent of the regional vote.Alex Salmond’s pro-independence Alba party is also forecast to pick up a seat in the Mid Scotland and Fife region, where it received 7 per cent of the vote in the YouGov study.If replicated this Thursday, the result would see 82 pro-independence MSPs elected. It would means almost two-thirds of the Scottish parliament backing another vote on separation from the UK.Mr Salmond and his allies have talked about creating a “supermajority” of 80 to 90 MSPs for independence – although he has said there is no “exact number” for what defines a supermajority.The latest surveys by Opinium and Survation also put the SNP on course to win a majority at Holyrood. A Savanta ComRes poll for The Scotsman suggests Ms Sturgeon’s party could narrowly miss out on a majority.However, there would still be a clear pro-independence majority, with the Scottish Greens projected to return nine MSPs, with 9 per cent backing on the list vote.The Scottish Greens are increasingly optimistic about growing the size of their group at Holyrood. Most recent opinion polls point to a larger vote share for Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater’s party than in 2016.Many commentators have suggested the Scottish Greens could be the big beneficiary of Mr Salmond’s focus on the Scotland’s PR voting system and the supermajority concept.Many pro-independence SNP voters appear to keen to back Ms Sturgeon’s party on the constituency vote, but are willing to give the Greens their list vote.Backing a second independence referendum during Tuesday night’s BBC election debate, Mr Harvie said the possibility of an independent Scotland would allow the country to shape a more radical future.“I don’t think we can afford to pass up the opportunity to shape our own recovery,” he said. “This is a moment of incredible opportunity to decide what kind of country is going to emerge from Covid.” More

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    France threatens to cut off Jersey’s electricity as ‘retaliation’ amid Brexit fishing row

    France has threatened to cut off Jersey’s electricity supply amid an ongoing row over post-Brexit fishing rights.Maritime minister Annick Girdardin suggested the move during a speech in the French Parliament, warning Paris was ready to use “retaliatory measures” following claims French fishermen are being blocked from operating in the Channel Islands.“I am sorry it has come to this [but] we will do so if we have to,” she said on Tuesday.Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, relies on France for 95 per cent of its electricity supply, which is fed through three underwater cables.The minister’s comments mark the latest escalation in a row over access to British fishing waters.French seamen have accused the UK of dragging its feet over issuing new licences needed to fish in its waters.Following the UK’s departure from the European Union, French fishing boat operators must now prove they have fished in UK waters for five years before the 2016 referendum to obtain a licence – which only Jersey can issue.On Friday, Jersey authorised 41 French fishing vessels – equipped with technology enabling their location to be tracked – to fish in waters off the island. But the French government claimed there were other new rules the country had not been informed about and complained its fishermen were being limited to where and how long they could fish for.Last month, French fishermen blockaded a Channel port to hold up British catches arriving by lorry in protest against the new rules, which they believe to be overly bureaucratic.At the time, Bruno Margolle, who leads the main fishermen’s cooperative in Boulogne-sur-Mer, told Reuters news agency: “We thought it would be a matter of days. Four months on, we’ve barely moved forwards.”The British government has previously denied responsibility for the licence delays, with the prime minister’s official spokesman saying it takes an “evidenced-based approach” to licensing EU fishing vessels using the information supplied by the European Commission. More

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    Visa deal to speed return of migrants to India

    A new system of work visas for young Indian professionals risks fuelling discrimination against Indian nationals already in the country, while creating a new group of future undocumented migrants, campaigners have warned.The Migration and Mobility Partnership signed by home secretary Priti Patel and Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will allow 18 to 30 year-olds to work or study in the UK for up to 24 months, while accelerating the process of deporting Indian nationals deemed to be here illegally.Ms Patel said the deal would help the UK to attract the “brightest and best talent” from overseas, while allowing immigration authorities to “crack down” on those abusing the system.But the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants warned that those taking advantage of the scheme risked themselves becoming the target of deportation action if they try to stay on after the two-year period ends.Many of those now at risk of removal ended up with undocumented status because they stayed on after arriving in the UK as students, said JCWI legal policy director Chai Patel.“What inevitably happens with these sorts of schemes is that people come to live here and they fall in love and start families or build professional lives which they don’t want to bring to an end and they are not prepared to go back after two years,” Mr Patel told The Independent.“The government tries to shift people in for a short period because it is economically convenient and to get the PR hit of attracting professionals and getting rid of illegal migrants. But that’s not the way life works. “It’s the wrong approach. It discourages integration and it creates a new group of undocumented people for the future.”Agreements of this kind encourage immigration enforcement to target people on the basis of their nationality, said Mr Patel, something which he described as “wrong from a moral point of view”. He warned it could force Indian nationals of long-standing UK residency into the “hostile environment”.The agreement follows pressure over many years from New Delhi for greater access for its nationals to work in the UK.And it forms part of the post-Brexit shift to a points-based system designed to allow entry to those with sought-after skills, rather than simply on the basis of residence in the EU.It was signed as Boris Johnson and Indian premier Narendra Modi held virtual talks on a long-term “2030 roadmap” to build ties between the countries on trade, defence, health, climate change and science.Ms Patel described the agreement as “an important milestone” on delivering her pledge to attract the “best and brightest talent” to the UK while clamping down on those who are abusing the system. “This landmark agreement with our close partners in the government of India will provide new opportunities to thousands of young people in the UK and India seeking to live, work and experience each other’s cultures,” said Ms Patel. “This agreement will also ensure that the British government can remove those with no right to be in UK more easily and crack down on those abusing our system.”Today’s talks replaced the prime minister’s planned visit to India, which was cancelled due to the escalating Covid crisis in the south Asian country, which has seen cases rise to more than 350,000 a day within the past few weeks.Mr Johnson said they would deliver a “quantum leap” in the UK-India relationship, as Britain became the first European country to be granted “comprehensive strategic partnership” status by Delhi.The 2030 Roadmap will expand the UK-India health partnership, including by firming up international supply chains for critical medicines, vaccines and other medical products.And it envisages increased co-operation between British and Indian universities on research in areas like health, emerging technologies and climate science, as well as common work on measures to tackle climate change and preserve nature. The UK’s Carrier Strike Group will visit India later this year to undertake joint naval and air force training exercises.Mr Johnson said:“The UK and India share many fundamental values. The UK is one of the oldest democracies, and India is the world’s largest. We are both committed members of the Commonwealth. And there is a living bridge uniting the people of our countries.“In the last week the British people have stepped up in their thousands to support our Indian friends during this terrible time in a demonstration of the deep connection between the UK and India.“This connection will only grow over the next decade as we do more together to tackle the world’s biggest problems and make life better for our people. The agreements we have made today mark the beginning of a new era in the UK-India relationship.” More

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    Scottish election: How the leaders did in their last debate

    Asked politely not to talk over each other for the next 70 minutes, the leaders of Scotland’s five largest parties all agreed – and for the first 40 minutes or so, they mostly behaved themselves.Their last debate before Thursday’s elections began with the all-engulfing Covid-19 response and incipient recovery, moved into the weeds of social care policy, and then detoured via a bizarre question on a mooted Royal Yacht to the constitutional question, at which point the evening’s politesse disintegrated.None of those on stage said anything deeply surprising, something none of them will count as a personal failure. What really matters is the impression they’ll leave in the minds of the electorate. So with their final chance, what kind of performances did they give?Nicola Sturgeon, SNPThe incumbent first minister is renowned for her ability to hold it together on a debate stage, and essentially succeeded in the same feat this time around. Still, she found herself in a few awkward spots, many of them unavoidable at this point.“Let’s not forget that out of the trauma of the Second World War,” she said early on, “the National Health Service was born” – only to be challenged on why it took a pandemic to force the improvements she and her party are promising when they’ve been running the country for years.It was clear she had prepared to head off that particular line of attack by describing her own answers as “candid”, a word she carefully deployed when talking about the mistakes of the pandemic and the possibility of raising taxes in the next parliament.But even though she has a lot to answer for after more than a decade at the top of the Scottish power elite, Ms Sturgeon only found herself held close to the fire on independence, a subject where she could not be more practiced. Insisting she would not act precipitately and insist on a referendum as soon as possible – instead promising to make the nationalist case via “patient persuasion” – she said voters who support her but don’t want a second referendum should be “safe in the knowledge that getting us through this crisis is my priority”.Whether the voters in question will believe her is another matter.Douglas Ross, ConservativesAs an ambassador for Boris Johnson’s government and a Westminster MP to boot, Douglas Ross is not in a comfortable position – not given the prime minister’s spectacular unpopularity in Scotland and the fallout from Brexit, which he was reminded by the moderator has hit Scottish food and drink exporters hard.“Would you like to apologise to those, particularly in the fishing industry, who were promised a sea of opportunity?”, he was asked; he didn’t say no, but nor did he apologise, saying instead that the government needs to “work with” them. Many of his answers were just as circuitous. Why not guarantee a minimum income for carers, he was asked “Because we’ve got to look at that in the round,” came the reply.Clearly, he was waiting for his chance to drag Ms Sturgeon into an independence brawl, and when he finally got his chance, he went in hard on the idea that if Mr Johnson will not grant the section 30 order she needs for a full-blown referendum, she and her party will hold a “wildcat” one of their own. This hardly rattled her, as all she needed to say in response was “no”; the real question, as with all things independence, is which leader voters want to believe.A slightly more subtle point he managed to push was that given the first minister has spent her career pursuing the independence cause in one way or another, she is surprisingly evasive when asked about the most basic issues that would confront a newly independent country. To the extent this is true, it’ll be a serious problem for any future independence campaign.But the obstacle Mr Ross ran into again was that Ms Sturgeon is just about good enough under pressure that where she does become evasive or vague, she still comes across as more pragmatic than furtive. If Mr Ross’s aim was to make the first minister seem suspect in her motives, he didn’t get far.Patrick Harvie, Scottish GreensSometimes coming off almost jittery, the joint leader of the Scottish Greens positioned himself as an ideological cheerleader for independence who had no patience for the moderating impulses of the nationalists actually running the country.This didn’t help Douglas Ross in his effort to frame Ms Sturgeon as Machiavellian, and it actually seemed to take pressure off her – this during what might have been the other parties’ last chance to tarnish her as an insatiable nationalist.As he explained it from his lectern, Mr Harvie’s zeal for independence is actually rooted in internationalism. He waxed mournfully about how, in 1945, a project commenced on the European continent that saved generations of young people being sent to the trenches to kill each other, and raged that Scotland had been taken out of it.He told the story with passion and emotion. But when asked about what currency an independent Scotland would use, he sounded a note of go-it-alone optimism: “The purpose of independence is about giving Scotland the ability to make big economic choices…and without an independent currency, I think you lack the ability to make those decisions.”Striking out much more boldly than the SNP, those words could’ve been ripped from the mouth of Michael Gove in the summer of 2016.Mr Harvie actually introduced the Brexit-independence comparison himself at one point, albeit the other way round, insisting that the 2014 independence case was far more specific than the one made for Brexit two years later. Pushed on whether the message of “take back control” wasn’t just a little too similar for comfort, he insisted the two had nothing in common.Willie Rennie, Liberal DemocratsBy far the most relaxed of the leaders both physically and vocally, Mr Rennie also had the least to lose given how low the expectations for his party currently are.Pointing to the many ways the SNP have supposedly let Scotland down by their own standards – particularly on health and education – he time and again drove home his point that a pro-independence majority would waste the post-Covid recovery period by obsessing over the constitutional question.Instead, he seemed to be arguing, this is a time for technocratic skill and political moderation as Scotland’s public systems are restored and rebuilt. This zeal for level-headedness sits rather oddly with the Liberal Democrats’ penchant for big ideas, not least their current signature proposal of a universal basic income. Given the chance to bang that drum, Mr Rennie again to caution and patience. “An awful lot of work needs to be done to make sure that can be implemented effectively.”If the Lib Dems are going to stand out (and climb out of the single digits in the polls), they’ll need to punch harder than that.The best line Mr Rennie landed all night was probably on independence, where he tried to speak for the millions of viewers sitting dutifully through the Sturgeon-Ross sniping match. “I don’t want this to be the argument for the next five years,” he declared mournfully. But as with most of the night, he forgot to immediately and explicitly remind everyone they could vote Liberal Democrat instead.Anas Sarwar, LabourAnas Sawar has only been in the job for two months, but he looks just as assured as Douglas Ross – that is, steady on his feet but detectably nervous under pressure. But he is outclassed by Mr Ross when it comes to actual debating. He didn’t manage to put the current first minister under as much pressure as he wanted: one of his rehearsed anti-Sturgeon lines, “you can’t lead the recovery and lead half the country at the same time”, made less sense in the room than it must have on paper, and it didn’t turn the discussion his way.At one point, he used a chance to weigh in on independence to lay into Mr Ross. “He’s only interested in saving his skin,” he said, “not saving the union”. A sharp line, maybe – but all it really did was give Ms Sturgeon a break just as the evening’s hardline unionist was starting to tangle her up.His real problem, it must be said, isn’t of his own making. Scottish Labour is trying to claw its way back to centre stage after years adrift, and hasn’t yet been able to stake out a patch of its own. But on a crowded stage where all the parties are forced to come up with their own triangulation between Scottish, UK-wide and international issues, Mr Sarwar delivered nothing distinctive.When he insisted that “I don’t care if someone votes yes or no”, he probably meant to sound daring and assertive – but instead, he sounded to be backing away from the biggest question in Scotland, one that Labour has long struggled to handle. More

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    Care homes breaching human rights with blanket bans on visits, MPs say

    The government should make it illegal for care homes to impose blanket bans on visits in the name of Covid-19, a cross party group of MPs has said. MPs on parliament’s human rights committee said it was “completely unacceptable” for care homes to deny residents access to their families even when risks were low, and said the approach breached human rights.The committee has drawn up a draft statutory instrument that would change the law around visits and secure legal protection to ensure elderly residents are not left isolated. More