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INTERNATIONAL

The Independent Group: Who are they and what do they stand for?

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The Independent Group UK

The Independent Group, from Labour, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Ann Coffey, Gavin Shuker, and Joan Ryan have all left.

It wasn’t long before Conservative MPs Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston followed.

Here we answer some of your biggest questions about what is now the fourth-largest group in Parliament.

Are there going to be by-elections?

Jeremy Corbyn has said the Labour MPs who have quit the party should “resign and put themselves up for election”.

In a video posted on Twitter, the Labour leader said it was the “decent and democratic thing to do” because the MPs wanted to “abandon the policies on which they were elected”.

If an MP changes or leaves the party they were elected under, there does not automatically have to be a by-election.

This is because at the ballot box voters chose the individual they wanted as their MP, not the party they wanted running the country.

However, the defectors could trigger a by-election by resigning as MPs.

They could then immediately stand for election in the same constituency – that’s what Conservative Zac Goldsmith did in 2016. (He lost his 23,015 majority and was ousted).

But these MPs don’t want to face a by-election right now.

Voters can also call for a petition to recall their MP – and trigger a by-election.

But this can only happen under specific circumstances, such as an MP being convicted of an offence and receiving a custodial sentence. And none of these conditions apply to the members of the Independent Group.

As it stands, if they were to run in a by-election (or any general election) the name the Independent Group wouldn’t appear on the ballot paper because they’re not registered as a political party.

Who funds them?

On their website, the group of MPs say they are “supported” by a company called Gemini A Ltd, which was set up last month by Labour defector Mr Shuker.

Since they launched, they have been crowd-funding via their website.

But because they are not a registered political party, they don’t have to play by the rules of the Electoral Commission and disclose their financial backers.

However, they say they intend to do so anyway and will publish all donations over £7,500 alongside donors’ names.

If the group registers with the commission, the MPs would be entitled to “short money” – that is funding given to opposition parties in Parliament to support them in their parliamentary business, expenses and costs of running.

Which one is the leader?

Because it is not a political party – yet – the Independent Group does not have to have a leader.

But it is thought they will choose one at some point.

Chuka Umunna – who briefly stood to be the leader of the Labour Party and is seen as the driving force behind the Labour MPs – is most often touted as a potential leader.

Anna Soubry, who has a high media profile, might also be seen as a candidate.

But, sources say, they are still trying to recruit new members so it would not be a good idea to select a leader at this stage.

The group is due to meet next week to work out who will speak for them at Parliamentary occasions, such as responding to the Chancellor’s Spring Statement, and who will take on the job of whip, to organise their voting in Parliament.

What do they stand for?

The group has not published a manifesto – but it does have a list of 11 “values”, which it claims the main political parties have forgotten.

Top of the list is the belief that Britain is a “great country of which people are rightly proud” – and the government must do “whatever it takes” to protect national security.

Notably, there is no sign of Brexit on the list, although it mentions “maintaining strong alliances with our closest European and international allies on trade, regulation, defence, security and counter-terrorism”.

On inequality, the group calls for the “barriers of poverty, prejudice and discrimination” to be removed – and says everybody should make a contribution to society.

It also says it believes that:

“Paid work should be secure and pay should be fair”

“We have a responsibility to future generations to protect our environment”

Britain “works best as a diverse, mixed social market economy” with “well-regulated private enterprise”

“The collective provision of public services and the NHS can be delivered through government action”

“Our free media, the rule of law, and our open, tolerant and respectful democratic society should be cherished and renewed”

It remains to be seen which policies the Independent Group would adopt to enact their values.

What are the potential tensions?

The Independent Group have bonded over their shared desire to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

Some of them have been working together for months as members of the cross-party People’s Vote campaign for another EU referendum.

Former Conservative Heidi Allen said they had been “clinging to each other like on a shipwreck” during the “chaos” of Brexit, and had begun to realise they had “quite a lot in common” with each other.

They do come from different sides of the traditional political divide – and there may be tensions over issues such as austerity and the privatisation of public services.

Last year, Luciana Berger, then a Labour MP, blamed austerity for having a “devastating cumulative impact” on her constituents and Chuka Umunna has said austerity “failed” and “disproportionately hit the poorest”.

Anna Soubry – a minister in the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government – has defended then Chancellor George Osborne’s public spending cuts and welfare freeze.

But Heidi Allen has been highly critical of welfare cuts too, and Universal Credit in particular.

Asked on BBC Newsnight if they could all agree on issues such as this, Ms Allen said “probably not, but it doesn’t matter because this is a fresh start”.

All 11 have signed up to the broad principles in their founding statement – and share a socially liberal outlook and a belief in a “mixed economy” with free markets and publicly-owned services.

How powerful will they be in Parliament?

With 11 members, they are the fourth largest group of MPs – behind the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP, and equal to the Lib Dems.

They are bigger than Plaid Cymru and the DUP – the party on whom Theresa May depends to pass legislation.

As the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg explains: “When a government has no majority on its own, even shy of a dozen MPs can wield political strength.

“The defections change not just the official arithmetic in Parliament, but its alchemy and atmosphere.”
If they were to surpass the SNP’s Westminster cohort – which would require 24 more MPs – the party would become Parliament’s third largest.

That would then entitle them to various privileges, including getting a guaranteed two questions at Prime Minister’s Questions.

How will it impact Brexit?

In terms of the parliamentary votes, it won’t. These MPs were defying their former party whips on Brexit long before they quit.

But if enough Tories leave, Mrs May’s slim majority will be wiped out, throwing her plans to get a tweaked version of her Brexit deal through Parliament into even more doubt.
BBC

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INTERNATIONAL

UK makes citizenship offer to Hong Kong residents

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Hong Kong British citizenship

Up to three million Hong Kong residents are to be offered the chance to settle in the UK and ultimately apply for citizenship, Boris Johnson has said.

The PM said Hong Kong’s freedoms were being violated by a new security law and those affected would be offered a “route” out of the former UK colony.

About 350,000 UK passport holders, and 2.6 million others eligible, will be able to come to the UK for five years. And after a further year, they will be able to apply for citizenship. British National Overseas Passport holders in Hong Kong were granted special status in the 1980s but currently have restricted rights and are only entitled to visa-free access to the UK for six months.

Under the government’s plans, all British Overseas Nationals and their dependents will be given right to remain in the UK, including the right to work and study, for five years. At this point, they will be able to apply for settled status, and after a further year, seek citizenship.

The PM said Tuesday’s passing of a new security law by the Hong Kong authorities was a “clear and serious breach” of the 1985 Sino-British joint declaration – a legally binding agreement which set out how certain freedoms would be protected for the 50 years after China assumed sovereignty in 1997.

‘New route’
“It violates Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and threatens the freedoms and rights protected by the joint declaration,” he said.
“We made clear that if China continued down this path we would introduce a new route for those with British National (Overseas) status to enter the UK, granting them limited leave to remain with the ability to live and work in the UK and thereafter to apply for citizenship. And that is precisely what we will do now.”

Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon McDonald expressed the government’s “deep concern” about the new law to China during a meeting with the country’s ambassador Liu Xiaoming.

The UK government has been raising concerns about the national security law and very publicly trying to pressure Beijing into a change heart.
That has clearly failed – so ministers are now fulfilling their promise to allow some three million British Overseas Nationals to come to the UK. This is a significant move and the government wants to send a strong message.

But there will be more pressure now to rethink other elements of our relationship with China – not least the deal to allow Huawei to build parts of the UK’s 5G structures.

Many Tory MPs have been lobbying against that for some time – and this will only add to their concern. Updating MPs on the details, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there would be no limit on numbers or quotas and the application process would be simple.

“This is a special, bespoke, set of arrangements developed for the unique circumstances we face and in light of our historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong,” he said.

Speaking to ITV’s Peston programme, Mr Raab acknowledged there “would be little we could do to…cohesively force” China to allow British Overseas Nationals to come to the UK.

Downing Street said further details of the scheme will be detailed “in due course”.

In the meantime, British National Overseas Passport holders in Hong Kong will be able to travel to the UK immediately, subject to standard immigration checks, the prime minister’s official spokesman said.

They will also not face salary thresholds to gain their visas, he added. Hong Kong’s new national security law, which targets secession, subversion and terrorism with punishments up to life in prison, came into effect on Tuesday.BBC

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CRIME

Ghislaine Maxwell arrested by FBI

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Ghislaine Maxwell arrested by FBI

British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, an ex-girlfriend of convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein, is facing charges in the US after being arrested by the FBI. She is accused of assisting Epstein’s abuse of minors by helping to recruit and groom victims known to be underage.

She was reportedly arrested in New Hampshire and is due in federal court later on Thursday. Ms Ghislaine Maxwell has previously denied any involvement in or knowledge of Epstein’s alleged sexual misconduct. Jeffrey Epstein died in prison on 10 August as he awaited, without the chance of bail, his trial on sex trafficking charges.

He was arrested last year in New York following allegations that he was running a network of underage girls – some as young as 14 – for sex. His death was determined to be suicide.

Four of the six charges relate to the years 1994-97 when Ghislaine Maxwell was, according to the indictment, among Epstein’s closest associates and also in an “intimate relationship” with him. The other two charges are allegations of perjury in 2016.

The indictment says Ms Maxwell “assisted, facilitated, and contributed to Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of minor girls by, among other things, helping Epstein to recruit, groom and ultimately abuse victims known to Maxwell and Epstein to be under the age of 18”.

Specifically, she is charged with: Conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts. Enticing a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and transporting a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity.

She is accused of grooming multiple minor girls to engage in sex acts with Epstein. She allegedly attempted to befriend them by asking about their lives and families and then she and Epstein built the friendships by taking minor victims to the cinema or shopping.

Having built a rapport, Ms Ghislaine Maxwell would “try to normalise sexual abuse for a minor victim by discussing sexual topics, undressing in front of the victim, being present when a minor victim was undressed, and/or being present for sex acts involving the minor victim and Epstein”.

“Maxwell and Epstein worked together to entice these minor victims to travel to Epstein’s residences – his residence in New York City on the Upper East Side, as well as Palm Beach, Florida, and Santa Fe, New Mexico,” Audrey Strauss, acting US attorney for the Southern District of New York, told reporters.

“Some of the acts of abuse also took place in Maxwell’s residence in London, England.”The perjury counts relate to depositions she gave to a New York court on 22 April and 22 July 2016. The charge sheet says she “repeatedly lied when questioned about her conduct, including in relation to some of the minor victims”.

“Maxwell lied because the truth, as alleged, was almost unspeakable,” said Ms Strauss.”Maxwell enticed minor girls, got them to trust her, then delivered them into the trap that she and Epstein had set for them. She pretended to be a woman they could trust. All the while she was setting them up to be sexually abused by Epstein and, in some cases, by Maxwell herself.”

What is the background?
Allegations against Epstein had dated back years before the parents of a 14-year-old girl said he had molested her in 2005. Under a legal deal, he avoided federal charges and since 2008 was listed as level three on the New York sex offenders register.

But he was arrested again in New York on 6 July 2019 and accused of sex trafficking of underage girls over a number of years.
Some of Epstein’s alleged victims have accused Ms Ghislaine Maxwell of bringing them into his circle to be sexually abused by him and his friends.
One told the BBC’s Panorama that Ms Maxwell “controlled the girls. She was like the Madam”.

Ms Maxwell has denied any wrongdoing. Earlier this year she sued Epstein’s estate seeking reimbursement for legal fees and security costs. She “receives regular threats to her life and safety”, court documents in that case said.

Another of Epstein’s alleged victims, Virginia Giuffre, has accused Ms Maxwell of recruiting her as a masseuse to the financier at the age of 15.
Details of that allegation against Ms Maxwell emerged in documents unsealed by a US judge last August in a 2015 defamation case but are not part of the charges against Ms Maxwell unveiled in July 2020.

Who is Ghislaine Maxwell?
Ms Maxwell is the daughter of late British media mogul Robert Maxwell. A well-connected socialite, she is said to have introduced Epstein to many of her wealthy and powerful friends, including Bill Clinton and the Duke of York (who was accused in the 2015 court papers of touching a woman at Jeffrey Epstein’s US home, although the court subsequently struck out allegations against the duke).

Buckingham Palace has said that “any suggestion of impropriety with underage minors” by the duke was “categorically untrue”.
Ms Ghislaine Maxwell has mostly been out of public view since 2016. In a BBC interview last year, the Duke of York said he had met Ms Maxwell last year before Epstein was arrested and charged. However they did not discuss Epstein, he said.

Last month a US prosecutor said Prince Andrew had “sought to falsely portray himself” as eager to co-operate with the inquiry into Epstein.
US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said Prince Andrew had “repeatedly declined our request” to schedule an interview.

The duke’s lawyers previously rejected claims he had not co-operated, saying he offered to help three times. Prince Andrew stepped away from royal duties last year. Asked about the prince on Thursday, acting Attorney Strauss said: “I am not going to comment on anyone’s status in this investigation but I will say that we would welcome Prince Andrew coming in to talk with us, we would like to have the benefit of his statement.”BBC

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HEALTH

US buys nearly all of Gilead’s Covid-19 drug Remdesivir

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Remdesivir Covid 19

The US is buying nearly all the next three months’ projected production of Covid-19 treatment Remdesivir from US manufacturer Gilead.

The US health department announced on Tuesday it had agreed to buy 500,000 doses for use in American hospitals. Tests suggest Remdesivir cuts recovery times, though it is not yet clear if it improves survival rates.

Gilead did sign a licensing deal in May for production outside the US but it is still in its early stages.

“President Trump has struck an amazing deal to ensure Americans have access to the first authorised therapeutic for Covid-19,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. A course of treatment in the US will cost $2,340 (£1,900).

Nine companies can make the drug under licence outside the US for distribution in 127 mostly poorer countries, and the cost is lower. But the project is still in its early stages.

Additional quantities are being manufactured for use in clinical trials. But critics say the US move to buy up so much stock from Gilead itself undermines international co-operation on COVID, given that other countries have taken part in trials of Remdesivir, originally an anti-viral against Ebola.

“The trial that gave the result that allowed Remdesivir to sell their drug wasn’t just done in the US. There were patients participating through other European countries, in the UK as well, and internationally, Mexico and other places,” Oxford University’s Prof Peter Horby told BBC Radio 4.

He said the move also had implications for any possible future vaccine, with the need for “a much stronger framework if we are going to develop these things and they’re going to be used for national emergencies”.

Senior Sussex University lecturer, Ohid Yaqub, said: “It so clearly signals an unwillingness to co-operate with other countries and the chilling effect this has on international agreements about intellectual property rights.”Some in the US have criticised the purchase price, as taxpayer money had helped fund Remdesivir’s development.BBC

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