News & Current Affairs

September 10, 2008

Narrow UK class gap, urges Harman

Narrow UK class gap, urges Harman

The class gap must be narrowed in an effort to improve people’s life chances, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman has said.

She told the TUC annual conference that “equality matters more than ever” and “is necessary for individuals, a peaceful society and a strong economy”.

Ms Harman called for more “clarity of evidence” to suggest the government was making progress on the issue.

But the Conservatives accused her of re-opening the “class war”.

Union criticism

Ms Harman’s comments come after Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in an interview with Monitor magazine that “social mobility has not improved in Britain as we would have wanted”.

They will be seen by many as an attempt by the government to rally the unions to Labour, after widespread criticism over the level of public sector pay and demands for a windfall tax on energy firms’ profits.

Ms Harman, who is also Commons leader and minister for women and equality, told delegates at the TUC conference in Brighton: “Equality matters more than ever and it is necessary for individuals, a peaceful society and a strong economy.

“We have made great progress on tackling inequality but we know that inequality doesn’t just come from your gender, race, sexual orientation or disability. What overarches all of these is where you live, your family background, your wealth and social class.

“While we have helped millions of people over the last ten years through policies like Sure Start, tax credits and the national minimum wage, we want to do more.

“To advance equality through our public policy, we need clarity of evidence and focus on the gaps in society and how they have changed over the last 10 years.”

Ms Harman announced that the government’s National Equality Unit would be headed by Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics.

She said: “The robust evidence base that the panel will produce will help us properly target measures to address persisting equality gaps and build on the good work that we have already done.”

‘Sidling up’

Ms Harman accused the Conservatives of being “false friends of equality” and of “sidling up to the unions”.

For the Conservatives, shadow leader of the Commons Theresa May said: “I am astounded that Harriet Harman is dismissing the equality issues around race and gender.”

She added: “I also find it surprising that she should raise issues of social equality when she’s part of government that has been in power for over 11 years, presiding over a 900,000 growth in the number of people living in severe poverty and over a country that has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.

“Labour has made poverty more entrenched and returning to the class warfare rhetoric of 20 years ago is neither helpful nor realistic.”


Do you agree with Harriet Harman? Has your child suffered due to a class gap? Has your family benefited through policies like Sure Start or tax credits?

Send your comments

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September 8, 2008

Three guilty of bomb conspiracy

Three guilty of bomb conspiracy

Tanvir Hussain, Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Assad Sarwar

Tanvir Hussain, Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Assad Sarwar were found guilty

Three men have been found guilty of a massive terrorist conspiracy to murder involving home-made bombs.

Abdulla Ahmed Ali, Assad Sarwar and Tanvir Hussain’s convictions follow a huge terrorism inquiry, which led to sweeping airport restrictions.

The three, on trial with another five men, had pleaded guilty to plotting to cause an explosion. Seven admitted plotting to cause a public nuisance.

The eighth man, Mohammad Gulzar, was cleared at Woolwich Crown Court.

The group had been accused of plotting to bring down transatlantic airliners with home-made liquid explosives, disguised as soft drinks.

But after more than 50 hours of deliberations, the jury did not find any of the defendants guilty of conspiring to target aircraft.

The jury was also unable to reach verdicts against four of the men in the six-month trial, all of whom were accused of recording martyrdom videos.

‘Inspired by al-Qaeda’

The court heard prosecutors allege that the eight men were planning to carry liquid explosives on to planes at Heathrow, knowing the devices would evade airport security checks.

Police said the plot had been inspired by al-Qaeda in Pakistan – and the August 2006 arrests caused chaos at airports throughout the country.

The court heard that the alleged plot could have caused unprecedented casualties, with a global political impact similar to the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

But in their defense, the seven men who had recorded videos denouncing Western foreign policy said they had only planned to cause a political spectacle and not to kill anyone at all.

The ringleader, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 27, of Walthamstow, east London, created home-made liquid explosives in a flat which prosecutors said were designed to evade airport security.

He and five of the others – Ibrahim Savant, 27, of Stoke Newington, north London, and, from east London, Umar Islam, 30, of Plaistow, Hussain, 27, of Leyton, and Waheed Zaman, 24, and Arafat Waheed Khan, 27, both of Walthamstow – had recorded what the prosecution alleged were “martyrdom videos” denouncing the West and urging Muslims to fight.

Prosecutors said the bombers would then have completed and detonated the devices during their flights once all the targeted planes had taken off.

‘Political spectacle’

Sarwar was said in court to be the quartermaster of the plot, buying supplies needed to make the bombs.

Prosecutors said that Mr Gulzar, cleared by the jury, had flown into the country to oversee the plot’s final stages – something he vehemently denied during the trial.

The plot came to light after the largest ever surveillance operation involving officers from both MI5, the Metropolitan Police and other forces around the country.

Ali, Sarwar and Hussain told the jury they had wanted to create a political spectacle in protest over foreign policy. It would have included fake suicide videos and devices that would frighten rather than kill the public.

Ali, Sarwar and Hussain, along with Savant, Islam, Khan, and Zaman, also admitted conspiring to cause a public nuisance by making videos threatening bombings.

September 5, 2008

Pakistan ‘needs help’ on economy

Pakistan ‘needs help’ on economy

Asif Ali Zardari, head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party

Asif Ali Zardari faces huge challenges if he becomes president

Pakistan needs a “substantial” injection of external funds if it is to improve its worsening economic situation, an IMF official has said.

Mohsin Khan said Pakistan had not yet requested help from the IMF, which some economists have called for, to address a growing balance of payment crisis.

A falling rupee, soaring inflation and dwindling currency reserves are among Pakistan’s mounting economic problems.

Mr Khan said ministers planned to cut borrowing and tap donors for support.

Economic distress

Stabilizing Pakistan’s faltering economy will be one of the main priorities for Asif Ali Zardari, who is widely expected to be elected president following elections this weekend.

Pakistan’s public finances have deteriorated in the past 18 months amid political instability and violence which culminated in the resignation of former President Musharraf last month.

It seems the government is not getting its act together
Yang-Myung Hang, Lehman Brothers

The rupee has fallen to a record low against the dollar while currency reserves have shrunk from $16.5bn ten months ago to $9.38bn.

The soaring cost of oil imports has eaten into the country’s reserves while the spiraling rate of inflation, which has risen to 25%, has sparked public anger.

Growth in the economy, which performed strongly in the early years of the Musharraf era, is expected to fall to a six-year low this year.

Pakistan’s fragile coalition government is pursuing a range of options to bolster confidence in the economy, including seeking $1bn in loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

It is also in talks with Saudi Arabia to defer payment on an estimated $5.9bn of oil it has purchased.

Policeman in Lahore

Security concerns have put off some investors

Some economists believe it is inevitable Pakistan will have to turn to the IMF for help should it find itself struggling to pay its creditors.

Such a move could prove unpopular as any IMF funding would likely require undertakings to slash government borrowing and spending.

On the other hand, such a scenario is unlikely to materialise given the level of US financial and logistical support for Pakistan, a key ally.

Seeking stability

The IMF said it was encouraged that the government was committed to measures to improve its financial position, including privatizing assets and raising funds from the international markets.

“If measures outlined are implemented and sufficient financing is secured quickly,” Mr Khan – director of the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia Department said, “the authorities could stabilize the economy this year and start to build up reserves.”

Despite attempts by the country’s central bank to reassure foreign investors, concerns remain about the new government’s ability to tackle multiple security and economic challenges.

“It seems the government is not getting its act together, making it difficult to actively address the decline in forex reserves,” said Yang-Myung Hang, a sovereign rating analyst at Lehman Brothers.

September 1, 2008

MoD to hold bearskin hat meeting

MoD to hold bearskin hat meeting

Soldiers at Trooping the Colour

Bearskin-hatted guardsmen at this year’s Trooping the Colour

The Ministry of Defense is to meet an animal rights group to discuss alternatives to the bearskin hats worn by guards at Buckingham Palace.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) has approached Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney to design a new shape for the 18in hat.

The charity has previously called for fake fur to be used, but said the MoD was not happy with prototype designs.

Baroness Taylor, minister for defense procurement, will meet Peta on Tuesday.

Tourist sight

The MoD says it is open to alternatives to real bearskin, but that previous attempts to replace it with synthetic fur have failed because the material has not been durable or weatherproof enough.

The ministry also wants to avoid if possible any change in the look of the red-coated sentries guarding Buckingham Palace, whose uniforms have long been one of the top tourist sights in London.

However, Peta is proposing a new hat shape and has also approached designer Marc Bouwer as well as McCartney and Westwood.

Robbie LeBlanc, Peta’s director for Europe, said that although the group was proposing a different shape for the hats it did not mean the new design could not become “iconic”.

“Most people think it’s fake fur and when they find out it’s real and it takes one bear to make a hat, they are appalled,” he said.

‘Inexcusable’

The meeting is the culmination of a media campaign by Peta that has included a naked protest outside Buckingham Palace.

More recently, comedian Ricky Gervais sent an open letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, calling the continued use of real fur inexcusable.

“I understand and appreciate the importance of uniforms, but continuing to use real fur in the 21st century is inexcusable, regardless of ‘tradition’,” the letter said.

“The public are relying on you to bring about a humane changing of the guards.”

August 30, 2008

Two bodies found at arson house

Police have revealed that two bodies have been recovered from the burnt-out Shropshire home of a millionaire and his family.

Christopher Foster, 50, his wife Jillian, 49, and daughter Kirstie, 15, who lived at Osbaston House, near Maesbrook, are all missing.

The building was deliberately set alight early on Tuesday, police said.

The remains will be examined by a Home Office pathologist and postmortem examinations will be carried out later.

West Mercia Police said the bodies were found in the main part of the house overnight on Friday, but the search of the property is likely to take some days, possibly several weeks.

It is going to be a painstaking and lengthy process before the full examination of the house and its surrounds is completed
Supt Gary Higgins

Police said they were not able to give any further details such as the gender or age of the bodies which were found.

Formal identification would take place in the future and there were a range of techniques which could help, such as dental records and DNA profiles, Supt Gary Higgins said.

He added: “It is going to be a painstaking and lengthy process before the full examination of the house and its surrounds is completed.

“In the meantime, we will keep an open mind concerning what we may, or may not find.”

Mr Higgins said all possible lines of inquiry were being followed up.

Christopher, Jillian and Kirstie Foster

Special prayers will be said for the family at a church service on Sunday

Police have retrieved two computers from the house and are examining them as part of their inquiries.

Forensic teams were able to move into the main part of the house by mid-afternoon on Friday after access was delayed by falling debris.

Three horses found dead in a stable block, which was also gutted in the fire, have now been examined and police are awaiting test results.

Detectives also confirmed the bodies of three dogs had been found close to the horses and a large horse box, parked close to the gates of the property, had been removed from the site for forensic examination.

CCTV cameras from the property have also been taken away by police.

Firm in administration

Special prayers will be said for the Foster family at a church service in Maesbrook on Sunday.

The service, at St John’s Church at 1000 BST, will be open to members of the public and the media.

The Fosters had been at a friend’s barbecue on Monday evening before returning home later.

The fire in the house, thought to be valued at £1.2m, started at about 0500 BST on Tuesday.

Mr Foster, who made his fortune developing insulation technology for oil rigs, is listed as the director of Ulva Limited – a thermal insulation manufacturing company in Telford – with Mrs Foster named as company secretary.

The firm went into administration in August last year and a court order was issued in November for the company to be wound up.

A judge later found Mr Foster had spent the previous months stripping Ulva of its assets and transferring them to a new firm he had set up called Ulva International.

Anyone with information has been asked to contact West Mercia Police’s incident room at Shrewsbury or Crimestoppers.

Website maps surnames worldwide

Website maps surnames worldwide

David Beckham

There are more Beckhams in the United States than Britain

A website which maps global surnames has been launched to help people find the origins of their name and how far it may have spread.

The Public Profiler site plots eight million last names using data from electoral rolls and phone directories.

The site covers 300 million people in 26 countries, showing the origins of names and where families have moved to.

David Beckham, for example, has an English name, but there are more Beckhams in the US than Britain.

But the region of the world with the highest concentration of people called Beckham was even further from the footballer’s east London origins – in the New Zealand province of Northland.

The site – http://www.publicprofiler.org/worldnames – also reveals which of the five million forenames are most closely associated with different surnames and lists the top regions and cities for each surname.

A name is now not just a statement of who you are but where you are
Professor Paul Longley

It was developed by a team of geographers from University College London.

Professor Paul Longley, one of the researchers, said: “The information is not just historical but geographical.

“We can link names to places – a name is now not just a statement of who you are but where you are.”

Most surnames originated in specific places in the world and remain most frequent in those areas, but have often spread to other countries because of migration, the research showed.

Searches for Britain’s three multi-gold medallists at the recent Olympics and the leaders of the three main political parties revealed some mixed results.

• Swimmer Rebecca Adlington’s surname is most prevalent in New Zealand

• Cyclist Chris Hoy’s surname is Irish but more common in Denmark

• Cyclist Bradley Wiggins’s surname is most popular in the US

• Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s surname tops the list in Australia

• Conservative leader David Cameron’s surname is most prevalent in New Zealand

• Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s surname is still most common in Britain

Prof Longley said that the site was currently struggling to cope with demand.

“We are being deluged with requests and we ask people to be patient. There is obviously a lot of interest in family names and family history globally,” he said.

Manila ferry blast suspect held

Manila ferry blast suspect held

Superferry 14 on fire in Manila Bay in February 2004

The 10,000-tonne Superferry 14 was heading for Bacolod

A leading suspect wanted over the Philippines’ worst militant attack has been arrested in Bahrain and returned to Manila, officials have said.

Ruben Pestano Lavilla Jr, 35, is wanted for alleged involvement in the bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 that led to 116 deaths in a subsequent fire.

He was the “brains” behind an Islamic group allied to two al-Qaeda affiliated organizations, Manila officials say.

They say he was detected after document checks by Manila’s embassy in Bahrain.

The arrest had not been made public while Philippine officials prepared deportation papers.

‘Fled’ country

Marcelino Libanan, head of the immigration commission, told Reuters news agency that Mr Lavilla was checked after trying to get a bank loan and had been working as an interpreter at the Philippine embassy.

However, Justice Undersecretary Ricardo Blancaflor told the AP agency that the arrest came after Mr Lavilla submitted documents for a job at the embassy.

Mr Lavilla is alleged to have fled the Philippines a month after the ferry attack.

He is accused of being the mastermind behind the Rajah Solaiman Movement, blamed for several bomb attacks in Manila in 2004 and 2005.

The movement is said to be linked to the Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf Muslim militant groups, based in the southern Philippines.

Mr Blancaflor said: “If you are a terrorist, wherever you are, wherever you hide, the law will catch up with you – that’s the most important thing here.”

The ferry blaze was South East Asia’s second-worst militant attack after the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, that killed 202 people.

The 10,000-tonne Superferry 14 was heading for Bacolod in the central Philippines when it caught fire on 27 February 2004.

August 25, 2008

Obama sets out to sell his vision

Obama sets out to sell his vision

Barack Obama has a hard act to follow at this convention: himself.

Barack Obama speaks in Wisconsin

Barack Obama faces a career-defining moment

Four years ago, when Democrats gathered for their national convention in Boston to nominate John Kerry, the then-US Senate candidate made a much-lauded, career-defining speech. His message of a unified America, coming from the mouth of a young, mixed-race politician, marked the effective launch of the history-making Obama phenomenon.

It also brings a level of expectation ahead of his speech on Thursday, which the last Democratic candidate, who went on to become president, did not have to face.

When nominee Bill Clinton spoke at the 1992 Convention in New York, it was four years after he had made a convention speech that was widely seen (including by Clinton, himself) as rather long-winded and boring.

He did not repeat his mistake. With his “I still believe in a place called Hope” speech, the Arkansas governor defined himself in a way that resonated with the country at large.

Weight of history

Barack Obama needs to do something similar. With opinion polls placing him in a tight race with Republican John McCain and suggesting that sections of the public still do not have a clear impression of who he is, his goal is to come out of the week having defined himself as someone whom Americans can feel comfortable about as a leader.

He needs to sell his vision, his experience and his unconventional background.

Pepsi Center, Denver

Mr Obama must unite the Democrats behind his campaign

He will be selling that vision of himself on an auspicious date: the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

But, while that may add to the weight of history on his shoulders, the location of his speech represents a break with history.

Obama will not accept the nomination in the Convention Hall, but at the 70,000-seater Invesco Field, home of the Denver Broncos Football team. This will provide a unique spectacle, but it also presents a certain danger of perception for a candidate who – since securing the Democratic nomination in June – has faced accusations of being too presumptuous about his chances of winning the November election.

Clinton tensions

And while the 1992 Clinton experience offers him a something of a blueprint for success, the 2008 Clinton presence, on the other hand, presents him with potential pitfalls.

Both Hillary and Bill Clinton will be speaking at the Convention. Their performances – on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively – will be watched closely for signs of party disunity, that could harm not only Barack Obama’s chances, but those of Democrats running for Congress in November.

Despite a joint appearance with Senator Obama in Unity, New Hampshire earlier this summer, Hillary Clinton is still dogged by questions about her level of support for the man who narrowly beat her to the nomination. Many of her supporters are still unhappy about the manner of her defeat. There is also concern that she was not seriously considered for the position of running mate, which Senator Joe Biden has secured.

Bill Clinton, file picture

Observers will be closely watching Bill Clinton’s mood

By allowing Senator Clinton’s delegates to participate in a formal nominating roll call vote – recognising the historical nature of her campaign – the Obama team hopes to defuse some of the remaining tensions and shore up the support of the millions who voted for the former First Lady. Neither outcome is a foregone conclusion.

John McCain’s campaign is doing its mischievous best to stir things up: releasing an advert, showing Hillary Clinton asking some of the same questions about Barack Obama’s experience and judgment during the primary campaign which they are asking now.

But, perhaps, it is Bill Clinton’s speech that will be the most closely dissected; both for its words and for the body language of the man delivering it. By his silence, the former president has given the impression that he is still sulking about Obama’s victory over his wife.

Many Convention-goers will be looking for him to swallow his pride and give the sort of full-throated endorsement of the party’s nominee, that will sway Democrats flirting with John McCain, and help to repair some of the damage done to President Clinton’s own reputation during the primaries.

As he effectively hands over the role of party leader to a younger man, he can still play the role of party healer.

How to measure the success of this? The time-honoured tradition has been to look at the “convention bounce” – the boost in the opinion polls which a candidate gains from his moment engulfed in balloons and ticker tape. Bill Clinton, for example, got one in 1992 and never relinquished his lead over George H W Bush.

Time is not Barack Obama’s side, though. No sooner has the Democratic Convention finished, than the Republicans meet in St Paul, Minnesota.

So the onus is on Senator Obama to make the most of his time in the spotlight, before the spotlight quickly turns to his Republican rival, John McCain.

August 7, 2008

Anwar Ibrahim charged with sodomy

Anwar Ibrahim charged with sodomy

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim waves as he leaves court

Mr Anwar was mobbed by supporters as he arrived in court

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been formally  charged with sodomising a former male aide.

Appearing in court in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Anwar pleaded not guilty and called the accusation “malicious”.

He has said the allegation is politically motivated. The 60-year-old was jailed after facing similar accusations 10 years ago.

Since his release he has been active in politics but, until recently, not able to officially run in elections.

Mr Anwar arrived at the main court in Kuala Lumpur amid chaotic scenes.

Dozens of supporters gathered as he emerged from his car – some shouting “reformasi”, the slogan of the movement he founded.

Revival

In court, Mr Anwar was charged with “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”.

Sodomy is illegal in Malaysia and he could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted.

After Thursday’s hearing, he was released on bail.

Mr Anwar led the new opposition coalition to strong gains in a general election earlier this year, and had said the claims are aimed at derailing his political revival.

The accusation is the same as the one he faced in 1998 – after he had been sacked as deputy prime minister.

He was convicted and served six years before the guilty verdict was overturned.

A recent opinion poll suggests that few Malaysians believe Mr Anwar committed the crime.

Mr Anwar has accused Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi of orchestrating a campaign against him – Mr Abdullah has denied this.

The charges was made just as Mr Anwar prepared to fight for a seat in parliament, after a ban on his seeking public office expired.

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