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Nicola Sturgeon says claims of conspiracy against Alex Salmond ‘absurd’

Nicola Sturgeon has insisted she had no reason to want to “get” Alex Salmond as she dismissed claims of a plot against him as “absurd

Nicola Sturgeon apologises for ‘catastrophic’ error in Alex Salmond affair

Scottish First Minister said she had a “profound concern” that the debacle would prevent women from reporting similar claims in the future and that she ultimately bore the responsibility.

Nicola Sturgeon has apologised to the Scottish public for the “catastrophic” mistake at the heart of her government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against former First Minister Alex Salmond.

The First Minister said she had a “profound concern” that the debacle would prevent women from reporting similar claims in the future and that she ultimately bore the responsibility.

Giving evidence to MSPs examining the affair, she said she was “very, very, very sorry” that more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money had been lost on the judicial review case.

She also gave a detailed account of her dealings with Mr Salmond during the investigation, which are the focus of a separate inquiry into whether she broke the ministerial code.

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Nicola Sturgeon faces calls to resign after Alex Salmond documents published

If the independent investigation judges that she misled MSPs and breached the rules, she is likely to be forced to resign, bringing to an end her decades-long political career.

It would also have profound implications for Scottish independence, with any successor unlikely to enjoy the level of popularity among the public earned by Ms Sturgeon.

The First Minister spent more than eight hours in front of MSPs at Holyrood, going into the events that led up to the collapse of the judicial review in 2019 in exhaustive detail.

As well as mounting a staunch defence of her conduct, she attacked Mr Salmond, sometimes growing emotional as she recounted the dramatic end of their 30-year friendship.

Taking responsibility

In her opening statement, Nicola Sturgeon apologised to the nation for what she described as a “very serious mistake” in the Scottish Government’s investigation into allegations into Alex Salmond, which ultimately led to the loss of a judicial review and £500,000 of public money.

Later, she said she had “profound concern” that the events might dent the confidence of other women in coming forward and that her government bore a “big responsibility” for this.

She was unable to say why nobody has resigned over the affair, telling MSPs that the process of “investigation and inquiry” is still ongoing two years later.

Her meetings with Mr Salmond

Ms Sturgeon was asked repeatedly about how she could have forgotten a meeting on 29 March 2018 at which she was first told of the harassment allegations facing Mr Salmond.

She said that at that meeting with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, what stood out was “how worried” he appeared to be about the former First Minister’s welfare.

She also said she had harboured a “lingering suspicion” about such issues after an inquiry from Sky News the year before, so the suggestion did not come as a “massive shock”.

Asked if she agreed that her memory lapse sounded totally unbelievable, she said she could see why people might think this, but it “just happens to be the case”.

She also claimed that she believed another meeting set up for 2 April was “firmly in the personal and party space” given her concerns over Mr Salmond’s wellbeing.

She said she did not report it because she thought merely alerting civil servants that she knew about it could “compromise the independence” of the ongoing investigation.

Denying a plot against him

Ms Sturgeon dismissed suggestions that the allegations against Mr Salmond had been concocted, saying this was “not based on any semblance of fact or credible evidence”.

Asked about text messages sent between SNP officials discussing the case, which Mr Salmond has claimed proves the existence of a plot to jail him, she said she had seen some of them and that all they showed was a group of people trying to support one another.

She added that people were “upset” and “angry” in the wake of the charges being announced against their former leader. Mr Salmond was eventually cleared of all charges at his trial.

She claimed he was furious with her because she “refused to follow the age old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants”.

Describing his behaviour towards women as “not always appropriate”, she noted that he had uttered “not a single word of regret, reflection or even simple acknowledgment of that”.

During her appearance, Ms Sturgeon was pressed on a series of meetings she held with Mr Salmond while the Scottish Government investigation was ongoing.

He has claimed she has repeatedly misled MSPs about a number of issues, including when she first knew about the claims, and has broken the ministerial code multiple times.

Much of the key questioning focused on why Ms Sturgeon had “forgotten” about a meeting on 29 March 2018 with Geoff Aberdein, Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff.

Mr Salmond has claimed she deliberately hid the meeting from MSPs because it undermined her claim that their second meeting on 2 April was about SNP business.

The distinction is important because while Ms Sturgeon was not obliged to declare a meeting on party matters, one involving Scottish Government business should have been recorded.

Ms Sturgeon said the earlier meeting had not stuck in her mind as she had already been aware of an allegation made about Mr Salmond in 2017, so it did not come as a “massive shock”.

She added that she had initially believed the second meeting was “firmly in the personal and party space” and that she did not disclose it afterwards because she did not want to influence civil servants conducting the investigation.

“I didn’t want to take the risk that they might be influenced, even subconsciously, by any assumption of how I might want the matter handled,” she said.

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TEXAS reopened !

Texas Drops Coronavirus Restrictions, Opens All Businesses 100%, Ends Statewide Mask Mandate


Texas is fully reopening and the statewide mask mandate will be rescinded this week, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced Tuesday.

“Effective next Wednesday, all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%,” the governor said at a news conference announcing an end to restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Abbott said declining hospitalization rates across the state and increased distribution of virus vaccines were reasons to end the coronavirus restrictions.

Texas is in a far better position now than when I issued my last executive order back in October,” Abbott explained.

He indicated that if a private business still wishes to limit its capacity or enforce other virus safety precautions, the business would be free to do so without a government mandate.

“It is their business, and they get to choose to operate their business the way they want to,” Abbott said. “At this time, however, people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”

Under Abbott’s previous executive orders, Texas businesses were required to keep their occupancy at or below 75%. In areas where 15% of available hospital bed occupancy were taken up by coronavirus patients, legal max occupancy was reduced to 50%.

The new executive order will permit businesses to open at 100% occupancy, though it gives local officials in areas where COVID-19 cases are high the ability to implement “COVID mitigation strategies” at the local level.

“If COVID hospitalizations in any of the 22 hospital regions in TX rise above 15% of the hospital bed capacity in that region for 7 straight days, then a county judge in that region may use COVID mitigation strategies in their county,” Abbott said.

“However, under no circumstance can a county judge put anybody in jail for not following COVID orders,” he added. “And no penalties can be imposed for failing to wear a mask.”

As Texas moves to reopen, federal health officials are warning states that it is still too early to lift coronavirus restrictions as new variants of the contagious disease are not fully understood by health experts.

“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Monday. “I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from Covid-19.”

According to the Austin American-Statesman, more than 3.5 million Texans have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, amounting to about 12.7% of the state’s total population. Nearly 1.9 million people are fully vaccinated.

State Democrats are begging the governor to keep the statewide mask mandate in place.

“To prevent additional struggles and suffering, we need consistency and clarity, not carelessness and confusion,” said state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond in a letter addressed to Abbott. “If we all do our part to wear face coverings, we can ultimately get back to business and realize a return to normalcy.”

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) applauded the governor’s decision.

“With greater access to vaccinations, better treatment options, and decreasing hospitalizations rates, the Texas approach empower citizens to exercise personal responsibility about their health in the fight against COVID-19,” Phelan said in a statement.

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Budget 2021: Furlough set to be extended – Kwasi Kwarteng

Kwarteng: Chancellor to extend furlough scheme
Kwarteng: Chancellor to extend furlough scheme

Business support including furlough and the VAT cut for hospitality firms will continue “while lockdown persists”, the business secretary has said.

With Covid restrictions set to end by June at the earliest, Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC it was important not to “crush” any potential recovery.

Ahead of Wednesday’s Budget, Rishi Sunak said he would protect jobs using the “full firepower” at his disposal.

But he also promised honesty about what was need to “fix” the public finances.

He faces a potential row with some Conservative MPs if he imposes tax increases, amid warnings they could stifle economic growth. And Labour is urging him to abandon the planned council tax rises in England.

In his statement to MPs, the chancellor will commit the government to doing “whatever it takes to support the British people and businesses through this moment of crisis”.

He is set to extend the £20-a-week top up to universal credit for six months to help struggling households, a government source told the BBC.

Image copyrightITNRishi Sunak takes call
Image captionThe chancellor spoke to people who have benefitted from government schemes to support employment from the Treasury

Other support is expected to include £408m for museums, theatres and galleries in England to help them reopen when Covid restrictions ease and £150m to help communities take over pubs in danger of closing.

He is also expected to set out his plans to tackle the huge hole in the government’s balance sheet – caused by the high levels of borrowing and debt built up during the pandemic and the hit to tax revenues from the closure of many sectors of the economy.

“Once we are on the way to recovery, we will need to begin fixing the public finances – and I want to be honest about our plans to do that,” he is expected to say.

The Budget comes at a very difficult time for businesses and government finances.

Official figures show the UK economy contracted by 9.9% last year and unemployment rose to 5.1% in the three months to December – the worst rate since 2015.

With its takings down and its spending up, the government is expected to borrow £394bn during the current financial year – the highest figure seen in peacetime.

The furlough scheme, currently paying up to 80% of six million people’s salaries, is scheduled to stop at the end of April.

But the prime minister’s “roadmap” for easing Covid restrictions says the final legal limits on social contact and business activity will end no earlier than 21 June.

What factors could shape Rishi Sunak's thinking in his 2021 Budget?
Video captionWhat factors could shape Rishi Sunak’s thinking in his 2021 Budget?

Asked on BBC Breakfast if the job support scheme would continue, Mr Kwarteng said the chancellor had “already indicated that we will be extending furlough”.

And he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think it’s a fairly good assumption that, while lockdown persists, there will be additional support.”

He added: “It’s really important that we don’t crush the recovery before it’s happened and… in order to keep people’s jobs going… to keep companies going, we need to continue providing support.”

Mr Kwarteng said there would “perhaps be an extension” of the reduced – 5% – rate of VAT for the hospitality sector, also due to end in 31 March.

If vaccines continued to be rolled out “efficiently” and the roadmap was followed, there was “every chance that the economy can bounce back”, he argued.

“We can see strong growth at the end of 2021, and that will be the best way to deal with the growing deficit or to try and reduce it,” Mr Kwarteng said.

Image copyrightGOOGLEPub
Image captionThe chancellor will promise help to save endangered pubs

Mr Sunak is reportedly planning to increase corporation tax to as much as 25%, from the current 19%, to reduce pressure on public finances.

But some Conservative MPs, including former Brexit Secretary David Davis, say this would impede recovery and are warning they will resist this or any similar moves. They have been told they risk expulsion from the parliamentary party if they vote against the Budget.

Mr Sunak said the culture sector, employing 700,000 people, would be a “significant driver” in any recovery.

He is expected to put an extra £300m into the £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund, with England’s museums and cultural bodies also receiving £90m to keep going until they can open their doors on 17 May at the earliest – plus £18.8m provided for community cultural projects.

The chancellor will also use his Budget speech to deliver a £150m Community Ownership Fund so communities can bid for up to £250,000 to save pubs and sports clubs in danger of going out of business.

And English cricket will receive a “significant chunk” of a new £300m summer sports recovery package .

But former Conservative leader Lord Hague wrote in the Daily Telegraph that, after 12 months of heavy public borrowing to pay for furlough and other schemes, “at least some business and personal taxes” would have to rise.

For Labour, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds used a speech on Monday to argue that now was “not the time” for tax rises, but signalled she could support an increase in corporation tax in the future.

She has said the planned council tax rise of up to 5% in England in April should not go ahead at a time “when people are losing jobs”.

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