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    Education secretary sends his children to private schools but suggests it was wife’s decision

    The education secretary has acknowledged that he sends his children to private schools – but suggested his wife was behind the decision.Nadhim Zahawi, who is responsible for state schools across England, was asked why he – like Boris Johnson – chose to pay to send his three children to independent schools instead.The question came as Mr Zahawi hailed private schools as a tool to help “level up” the country and criticised universities that admit state pupils with lower A-level grades.After saying the country has “brilliant state schools and they’re getting better every day”, he was asked: “You still sent your children to private school though?”“That was a parental decision; I had to make that with my wife. I don’t make that on my own,” 54-year-old Mr Zahawi told Sky News.It was put to him that a major study of 132,000 students had found that those from state schools with slightly lower grades than their private school peers are more likely to achieve a top degree.But Mr Zahawi attacked the idea of “tilting the system”, arguing: “You don’t level up by dragging people down.” He pointed to state academies being run by the likes of Eton College as an example of “bringing everybody together”, adding: “You don’t succeed by delivering a great outcome for every child by actually attacking a part of the system. I don’t want to attack independent schools – they do a great job.”Mr Zahawi is one of the cabinet’s richest members, boasting a £10m property portfolio having made his fortune as co-founder of the polling organisation YouGov.When the Conservatives came to power in 2010, spending in state and private schools was about the same – but a huge gap has emerged since, as spending in state schools was squeezed.Mr Zahawi, who was educated in both the state and the private sector, also recalled being racially abused and dunked head-down in a pond by bullies during his own school days.He spoke as he described the case of 11-year-old Raheem Bailey – who had to have a finger amputated after he was injured while fleeing from school bullies – as “sickening”.“I suffered bullying when I first arrived on these shores,” Mr Zahawi recounted, adding: “I couldn’t speak English and it was hard.“I remember my first experience, being chased around the park as a sort of entertainment for bigger boys, and them throwing me in the pond, or dunking my head down in the pond – pretty horrific for a child who has just arrived on these shores.”Asked if there was a racist element to the bullying, the education secretary replied: “I don’t know, it was a long time ago, but I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of other racist slurs.” More

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    Energy boss warns 4 in 10 households facing fuel poverty

    A staggering 40 per cent of households will be living in fuel poverty if the government sits on its hands while bills soar, an energy firm chief is warning.“Some people are at the edge, and that will get worse,” Michael Lewis, the chief executive of E.ON, said – also revealing that one-third of its customers are slashing spending on food.Mr Lewis called for immediate government intervention, but declined to say whether that should be a windfall tax on the profits of the energy producers, amid a cabinet row over the controversy.He called for the “broadest shoulders” to bear the burden, telling the BBC: “The most important thing is that the government intervenes – it is up to the government to decide how they fund that.”Mr Lewis suggested the annual energy price cap could reach as high as £3,000 in the autumn, compared with the £1,277 that families were paying before April.Rishi Sunak has rejected calls to reverse his £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit payments, forced through last year despite warnings that inflation was about to soar.Asked if increasing the benefit was a solution, Mr Lewis replied: “Absolutely, it will help the people at the bottom of the income range who are most affected by this.”Analysts have warned that the UK is heading for the worst plunge in living standards since the 1950s, and an explosion in poverty that will push 500,000 more children below the breadline.Boris Johnson and Mr Sunak have been locked in talks about how to tackle the crisis, examining a second council tax rebate and higher warm home discount payments for the most vulnerable people.No 10 has suggested it opposes a windfall tax as “ideologically unconservative”, but the chancellor appears keen to press ahead with what has been dubbed “windfall tax lite”.It would impose a lower rate on energy firms prepared to invest billions of pounds in the economy, possibly in new nuclear power stations and offshore wind farms.The many weeks of confusion and cabinet backbiting over how to deal with soaring household bills have hurt the government, leaving Tory MPs frustrated by the impasse.Fuel poverty is a term used to describe households who have to spend more than 10 per cent of their disposable income on home energy.“That’s risen to around 20 per cent and, in October, our model suggests that could rise to 40 per cent if the government doesn’t intervene in some way,” Mr Lewis warned.Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, said Mr Sunak would “look at all the options” ahead of an expected support package before the new price cap is unveiled in August.“The chancellor will see how he can target help to those who need it most,” Mr Zahawi said.“He is on people’s side and he will deliver that help,” he insisted, adding: “He will go even further.” More

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    Partygate: Minister refuses to say if No 10 called ‘secret meeting’ with Sue Gray

    A cabinet minister has refused to say if No 10 called a controversial “secret meeting” with Sue Gray about her Partygate investigation or what was discussed.Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, ducked multiple questions about who requested the talks, which have prompted fears that the “independent” investigation will be “a stitch up”.The revelation that the meeting took place has also triggered an embarrassing clash between Downing Street and Ms Gray’s team, which is furious at the suggestion that she asked for it.But Mr Zahawi insisted he did not know who called the meeting, while declining to say whether No 10 had refused to give him the information.“The prime minister does not, did not, and would never, intervene in this report,” he told Sky News.Labour has warned what it calls a “secret meeting” will further damage confidence in the investigation of the scandal, while the Liberal Democrats raised fears of “a stitch up”.Mr Johnson is among around 30 people who have been told by Ms Gray that her report is likely to name them – with a deadline of 5pm on Sunday to lodge any objections.Publication is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday, after the police investigation concluded with a total of 126 fines issued to 83 people, followed by a statement to the Commons by the prime minister.No 10 also suggested the meeting – around one month ago – focused on whether any of 300 photos of the parties should be included in Ms Gray’s report, something else her team rejected.Mr Zahawi suggested it did not matter what Mr Johnson discussed with Ms Gray, because her “integrity is beyond question”.“What’s important, what is material to your viewers is the Sue Gray has conducted her report independently. That is what your viewers should be concerned about,” he argued.In a partial climbdown, No 10 later appeared to accept that the meeting could have been instigated by an aide to Mr Johnson – and not by the inquiry head.Although Downing Street calls the inquiry “independent”, in reality it is an internal process, carried out by a person employed by the government.The pressure on Mr Johnson has eased, after he escaped further fines for the No 10 parties on top of the one handed down for his cabinet room birthday celebration, in June 2020.However, the full Gray report could still lift the lid further on what her interim report called the “failures of leadership and judgement”, by revealing the communications leading up to the lockdown-busting events.The prime minister then faces an inquiry by the Commons’ privileges committee to determine whether he lied to parliament when claimed that no laws had been broken in Downing Street.Under the ministerial code, any minister who knowingly misleads the House of Commons is expected to resign. More

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    Priti Patel to grab new powers to stamp out ‘mob rule’ of Just Stop Oil protests

    Priti Patel will grab new powers to stamp out the Just Stop Oil demonstrations when a controversial crackdown on protesting returns to the Commons on Monday.The Public Order Bill has already sparked criticism for creating a new criminal offence of “locking on” and orders to ban people who have not committed a crime from demonstrating.Police would be able to stop and search peaceful protesters without suspicion and check for items – such as glue, handcuffs or chains – they could use to attach themselves to objects or each other.Now the home secretary will go further by extending planned Criminal Disruption Prevention Orders from stopping activists travelling to repeat protests to their presence at “key national infrastructure” such as oil terminals.The target is the Just Stop Oil protests, blamed for petrol shortages across parts of England and part of a hoped-for global “spring uprising” over unchecked climate change.The group is demanding that the UK government halt all new oil and gas licencing and production immediately – as Boris Johnson plans an expansion in the North Sea.Ms Patel will accuse climate activists of trying to “make policy through mob rule” and insist she is “standing up for the law-abiding majority”.“I will not stand by and let anti-social individuals keep causing misery and chaos for others,” she will tell MPs, at the bill’s second reading on Monday.“The Public Order Bill will empower the police to take more proactive action to protect the rights of the public to go about their lives in peace.”But the civil liberties group Liberty is accusing the home secretary of “yet another power grab from a government determined to shut down accountability”.“Protest is a right, not a gift from the state, and measures like these are designed to stop ordinary people from having their voices heard,” said Sam Grant, Liberty’s head of policy.“From restrictions on protest to scrapping the Human Rights Act, this is all part of the government’s continued attempts to rewrite the rules so only they can win.”The measures are being brought forward for a second time, despite being thrown out by the House of Lords last year when they were branded “draconian and anti-democratic”.Police fear the crackdown on protests could put them in danger and damage public confidence, revealing they have not sought the powers.The bill would introduce:Serious Disruption Prevention Orders – banning anybody from a protest who has attended more than two in the last five years, regardless of whether they have committed any crimeTougher stop and search measures – despite a Home Office assessment warning they disproportionately affect ethnic minorities with a risk of “indirect discrimination”Locking on offences – with a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or bothThe new offence of “interference with key national infrastructure” would allow offenders to be jailed for up to 12 months. More

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    Rishi Sunak spends £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash on focus groups ‘to repair his image’

    Rishi Sunak is spending a further £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash on focus groups and polling, new Treasury contracts reveal, sparking a claim that he is trying to “repair his image”.Researchers have been hired to carry out two focus groups and one national online poll each week until February 2023 – taking the total outlay over two years to more than £1.35m, Labour has said.Angela Rayner, the party’s deputy leader, said the chancellor had shifted from testing public opinion about the Covid pandemic to making such spending “a permanent fixture”.The new contracts were awarded after Mr Sunak “told the British people he has no money to ease the cost of living crisis and that cutting their energy bills would be ‘silly’,” she alleged.“The government apparently has half a million to spend on spin doctors while Jacob Rees-Mogg is threatening to axe thousands of civil service jobs in the name of cost saving,” Ms Rayner said.“At the start of the pandemic, the Treasury justified their spending on focus groups and polls as an emergency measure to test the impact of different policy options. But now this is little more than a taxpayer-funded vanity exercise for a chancellor desperate to repair his image.”There was controversy when the first contract, worth £81,600, was handed to a Tory-run PR firm called Hanbury Strategy, founded by David Cameron’s former director of strategy.The government said the purpose was “to inform immediate policy-making decisions and communications”, after Covid struck in 2020.Two further contracts worth £205,680 and £552,862 were given to Hanbury in August and December 2020, again to test public opinion on the Treasury’s response to the continuing crisis.But a new £500,000 contract with Deltapoll, described as being for the “provision of public opinion focus groups and online polling”, makes no mention of the pandemic, Labour pointed out.A Treasury spokesperson said: “The Treasury conducts regular polling to help develop and measure the impact and understanding of its policies. All polling is subject to the usual tender process, ensuring the best value for taxpayers’ money.”The row comes as Mr Sunak is locked in a battle with Boris Johnson over whether to impose a windfall tax on the excess profits of energy companies – a major U-turn the chancellor is said to favour.He is also under pressure from Tory right-wingers to bring forward income tax cuts planned for 2024 – an idea that former chancellor Ken Clarke dismissed as badly misguided.After a disastrous few months, marked by the failure of his spring statement to deal with the cost of living crisis as well as the revelation of his wife’s non-dom status, Mr Sunak’s fortunes have plummeted.He has gone from being Mr Johnson’s heir apparent to languishing in the polls of Tory grassroots members – increasing the prime minister’s chances of surviving the Partygate scandal. More

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    Boris Johnson and Sue Gray clash over ‘secret meeting’ about Partygate report

    Boris Johnson and Sue Gray have clashed over a controversial “secret meeting” between the pair, just days before the publication of Ms Gray’s final report into the Partygate scandal.The senior civil servant’s team are furious about a No 10 claim that she initiated the get-together and that it focused on whether some of 300 photos of the lockdown parties should be included in her report.A spokesperson for the Gray inquiry rejected both suggestions and denied that the meeting was for the report’s author “to clarify her intentions” prior to its publication once the police investigation was concluded.The extraordinary briefing war will increase pressure on Downing Street to explain why the meeting was held at all in relation to an inquiry it has described as “completely independent”.Labour has warned that what it calls a “secret meeting” will further damage confidence in the investigation of the scandal, while the Liberal Democrats raised fears of a “stitch-up”.The prime minister is among as many as 30 people who have been told by Ms Gray that the report is likely to name them and given a deadline of Sunday evening to lodge any objections.Publication is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday next week, after the Metropolitan Police announced on Thursday that it had concluded its investigation with a total of 126 fines having been issued to 83 people.No 10 has suggested that the meeting – which took place around a month ago – discussed whether the photos handed over to the Metropolitan Police should be included in Ms Gray’s report.This suggestion was rejected by those working for Ms Gray, who were astonished that Downing Street had sought to give the impression that Ms Gray had initiated the discussion, The Independent understands.Mr Johnson has said he wants as much information to be disclosed as possible, but No 10 has said that “data protection” requirements might require some to be held back.The issue of releasing the photos is said to be a “live question”, but regardless of the outcome, access to the images is likely to be demanded by those working on the Commons inquiry into whether the prime minister lied to MPs.Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “Boris Johnson must urgently explain why he held a secret meeting with Sue Gray to discuss her report, despite claiming her investigation was completely independent.“Public confidence in the process is already depleted, and people deserve to know the truth. The Sue Gray report must be published in full and with all accompanying evidence.”Christine Jardine, a Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson, said: “Any whiff of a stitch-up would make an absolute mockery of the report. This meeting must be explained.”A No 10 spokesperson said: “The PM did not request the meeting and hasn’t tried to influence the outcome in any way. It’s right for Sue to decide, and it’s all done independently.”However, the phrasing of the statement appeared to leave open the question of the meeting having been requested by a Downing Street official, if not by the prime minister himself. More

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    Parliament could burn down ‘any day’, says Andrea Leadsom

    A former cabinet minister has urged MPs to “get on” with renovating parliament as she warned the ageing estate could burn down “any day” in a blaze similar to that which destroyed France’s Notre Dame cathedral in 2017.Andrea Leadsom, the MP for South Northamptonshire and former business secretary, said her colleagues must make a decision soon on how to proceed with repairing the Houses of Parliament.Built between 1860 and 1860, parliament requires major repairs including restoration work, asbestos removal, fire safety improvements, renewal of wiring and conservation work.A report published earlier this year showed that restoring the Palace of Westminster without finding a new home for MPs could take up to 76 years, with the repairs bill reaching £22 billion.The project’s sponsor body and delivery authority said the cheapest option would involve a “full decant” of the palace for between 12 and 20 years, with the work costing in the region of £7 billion to £13 billion.But some politicians have pushed back against plans to move them off the estate – a Unesco World Heritage site. They vetoed proposals that would have seen them moved to Richmond House in central London. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster programme, Ms Leadsom, a former leader of the Commons, said MPs must get on with finalising plans to avoid a disaster such as the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire. “That is so ‘there but for the grace of God’,” she said. “It could burn down today, tomorrow, any day and we’ve got to make that decision and get on with it,” adding that a blaze was only avoided in 2017 because the estate has 24/7 fire patrols.Peers in the House of Lords, meanwhile, have voiced their opposition to a plan floated by Michael Gove recently to move them out of London while the renovation takes place.Mr Gove, the levelling up secretary, said he would “not support” a plan for peers to use the Queen Elizabeth II Centre as an alternative location.Peers said the House of Commons and House of Lords should not be separated while the work takes place.Mr Gove wrote to the lord speaker saying the House of Lords should relocate outside of London rather than moving to the nearby Queen Elizabeth II Centre.The Levelling Up Secretary is said to have written to Lord McFall of Alcluith suggesting locations including Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley and Sunderland.In the letter, reported in The Sunday Times, Mr Gove said he knows “cities and towns across the United Kingdom would be pleased to extend their hospitality to peers”.He is quoted as saying that having “carefully reviewed the proposed arrangements”, he “will not support the use of the QEII Centre as an alternative location”.The Queen Elizabeth II Centre space is just a few minutes’ walk from the Palace of Westminster in London.In the letter, which The Sunday Times said was also sent to prime minister Boris Johnson and cabinet secretary Simon Case, Mr Gove suggested a move elsewhere in England, Scotland or Wales.He is reported to have written: “As the minister responsible for levelling up, it is clear to me that the House of Lords moving elsewhere, even for a temporary period, would be widely welcomed.“I have carefully reviewed the proposed arrangements and…I will not support the use of the QEII Centre as an alternative location.“I propose to establish dedicated liaison points for you in my department to support you in identifying a suitable location for the House of Lords in the North, Midlands, South West, Scotland or Wales. I would, of course, be happy to meet you to discuss this.”A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities declined to comment at the time.Peers said separating parliament’s two houses geographically seemed “highly questionable”.In a letter to fellow peers, Lord McFall wrote the Lords’ law-making role was “indivisible” from that of the House of Commons.”Whilst I agree with the secretary of state that politics can be too London-centric, I don’t believe moving locations in and of itself would address these concerns,” he said. More

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    Conservative peer who helped to set up universal credit system calls for urgent benefits increase

    A Conservative peer who helped set up the universal credit system has called on the government to urgently increase benefits in line with inflation as the cost of living crisis bites.Baroness Stroud, a former adviser to Iain Duncan Smith, also told The Independent that she thought the £20-per-week uplift, which was removed last autumn, should be restored by the Treasury.“We’re sitting on a cost of living crisis; we have the opportunity to intervene; we have done so in the past under difficult situations when it affected everybody,” the Tory peer said. “But if governments have a responsibility to do anything, it is to act on behalf of vulnerable people. This is a moment to do that.”Lady Stroud’s comments come amid escalating pressure on Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to introduce further support for families struggling with surging energy bills and food prices.On Wednesday it was revealed that inflation had soared to 9 per cent in the 12 months to April, hitting a 40-year high, as the chancellor admitted: “The next few months will be tough.”Last month, however, Mr Sunak came under intense fire for rejecting calls to raise benefits by more than 3.1 per cent – a figure based on inflation rates in September 2021 – as prices surged. Without ministerial intervention, benefits will not be increased again until April 2023.Speaking to The Independent, Lady Stroud, who is CEO of the Legatum Institute think tank, said: “I just genuinely think the benefits should be uprated in line with the current inflation – they should be brought forward.“That would be entirely possibly to do. The defence has been made that it can’t be done immediately. I have spoken with DWP officials, who’ve said [an increase in] universal credit can be done immediately.“I know the legacy benefits are much harder to do,” she added. “You could do a one-off payment for the equivalent value for those on legacy.”Without action, Lady Stroud said households in which people receive out-of-work benefits, have disabilities, or are single parents with young children “will have to start making choices”.“We’re going to start seeing very, very difficult choices being made. We’ve already started seeing very difficult choices being made,” she said.Last year, the Conservative peer was among a chorus of voices urging the government not to remove the £20-per-week uplift to universal credit – a measure introduced at the onset of the Covid pandemic. More