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Liberal Democrat conference: Five things to look out for

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The Liberal Democrats gather for their annual conference in Bournemouth on Saturday with a real spring in their step.

The venue may be familiar – it’s their third visit to the south coast in the past five years – but in every other respect things look rather different.

The resurgent party has a new leader, quite a few more MPs, growing political momentum and a new-found hope of playing a pivotal role in the unfolding Brexit drama.

So what can we expect over the four days?

1) Jo Swinson’s big debut

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Reuters

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Jo Swinson will be in the spotlight on Tuesday

Whatever else happens, the event will ultimately be defined – in terms of press coverage anyway – by Jo Swinson’s leader’s speech on Tuesday.

Her predecessors – Tim Farron and Vince Cable – struggled to achieve a real breakthrough beyond the conference hall, as the party languished in the doldrums.

This is unlikely to be the case this time, when Ms Swinson takes the stage at about 14.30 BST.

The 39-year old is a fresh face – despite being a relative veteran in Westminster. She is the party’s first female leader, as well as its youngest.

There will be a lot of interest beyond Lib Dem circles as to how she performs, the degree to which she reaches out to other parties on Brexit and her positioning on key issues.

After all, many people think a general election is inevitable before the end of the year – an election which could offer the party the best chance of progress in nearly a decade.

2) More defections?

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Will there be a surprise defection?

Following the 2015 election, the jibe that you could fit all the Lib Dem MPs into the back of a taxi was heard for the first time in a generation.

After five years of governing in coalition with the Conservatives, the party had been reduced to a rump of eight MPs in Parliament.

But now things are moving in the opposite direction, with the party’s ranks swelling to 17 (or 18 if you include one MP who has lost the whip).

Since June, two former Labour MPs, one former Conservative and a serving Conservative, Phillip Lee, have joined the party. Mr Lee’s defection, which came as Boris Johnson was addressing MPs in Parliament, was particularly dramatic.

Could we see others join them this week? There’s a reasonable chance, as parties love to unveil high-profile converts with a flourish in the glare of the TV cameras.

There are more than 20 ex-Conservative MPs sitting as independents in the Commons who are opposed to a no-deal Brexit and, in some cases, opposed to any kind of Brexit.

As it stands, they have been told they cannot represent their old party at the next election. Will some be tempted to throw their lot in with the Lib Dems?

3) Stop Brexit calls

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EPA

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Stop Brexit is set to become the party’s election slogan

The party’s strong opposition to Brexit – it has supported another referendum for the past two years – has hardened in recent weeks.

Ms Swinson now says that if the Lib Dems win power after the next election – a long shot admittedly – they would revoke Article 50. This would halt the legal process underpinning the UK’s departure, and nullify the 2016 Brexit referendum vote.

The leadership will ask party members to endorse this position in a debate on Sunday.

It will also seek a mandate to campaign on a Stop Brexit ticket at the next election and for the party’s backing for giving all EU nationals in the UK settled status automatically.

Expect the motion, which states there is “no negotiated deal that could be more beneficial than continued membership”, to receive overwhelming backing.

But it will be interesting to see how many dissenting voices there are, perhaps worried about the message it sends to Leave voters.

Among them could be Eastbourne MP Stephen Lloyd, who lost the whip after backing Theresa May’s Brexit agreement, and ex-minister Norman Lamb, who is standing down at the next election but who has joined the cross-party “MPs-for-a-deal” group.

4) Hellos and goodbyes

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Chuka Umunna will make his conference debut for his new party

This is a party in transition and this year’s event will reflect that.

This is likely to be Vince Cable’s last conference as a Lib Dem MP, the former leader having said he won’t contest his Twickenham seat at the election.

It will also be Chuka Umunna’s first as a Lib Dem. The former Labour politician has been given the plum Monday morning speech slot – second only in prestige to the leader’s closing address – and he is likely to command plenty of attention.

There are also speaking slots for Jane Dodds, the newly elected Brecon and Radnorshire MP and Welsh party leader, and Siobhan Benita, the party’s London mayoral candidate.

There are likely to be a few tears and quite a few cheers during the party’s tribute to its beloved former leader Paddy Ashdown, who died last December.

Expect some big names on the fringe, although it is not clear whether ex-deputy PM and now Facebook exec Nick Clegg – normally one of the week’s biggest draws – will be among them.

5) Making policy

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PA Media

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The party will debate a ban on single-use plastic

Unlike other parties, Lib Dem members have a say in policy-making, which makes debates – even on obscure subjects – worth keeping an eye on.

Activists will debate motions calling on the government to pass a law to scrap the “gender price gap” on all consumer items and extend equal marriage to Northern Ireland.

Far-reaching reform of the tax system will also be on the agenda, with a proposal to scrap corporation tax in favour of a new British business tax, while measures to tackle poverty and job insecurity include a 20% minimum wage for workers on zero-hours contracts.

Increased focus on prisoner rehabilitation would see only women convicted of the most serious and violent crimes sent to prison, and an end to custodial sentences for personal drug use. There would also be tax discounts to encourage firms to employ ex-offenders.

On education, the party wants to extend the pupil premium to 16 to 19-year-olds and – on the environment – to ban all non-recyclable single-use plastic within three years.

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ConCourt ruling to assist in combating child abuse: Ramaphosa – SABC News

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President Cyril Ramaphosa says the Constitutional Court ruling – that confirms that corporal punishment at home is unconstitutional – will further assist in combating the abuse of children.

Ramaphosa had called a joint sitting of Parliament to discuss violence against women and children.

 

The President says the many forms of child abuse must be fought on all levels.

“ConCourt handed down extremely important judgment. When talk about violence against children, focus on sexual abuse but battering of children is a very serious problem that must also get attention. Children must be protected from all forms of violence, in home, streets or schools,” explains the President.

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Apples rot in Kashmir orchards, as lockdown puts economy in tailspin

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SOPORE, India (Reuters) – It’s harvest time, but the market in the northern Kashmiri town of Sopore – usually packed with people, trucks and produce at this time of year – is empty, while in orchards across India’s Jammu and Kashmir state unpicked apples rot on the branch.

FILE PHOTO: Rotten apples are seen on a tree at an apple orchard, in Sopore, north Kashmir, September 13, 2019. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

In one of the world’s largest apple growing regions, a weeks-old lockdown imposed after Prime Minister Narendra Modi dramatically abolished the state’s special constitutional status has cut transport links with buyers in India and abroad, fruit growers and traders say, plunging the industry into turmoil.

Modi sold the move as a way to spur growth by integrating the state with the rest of India. But, for now, the unrest that has come in the wake of his government’s action has upended the economy, further fuelling resentment in the Muslim-majority territory where an armed revolt against India rule has ebbed and flowed over 30 years.

At dawn late last week the market in Sopore, a town known locally as “Little London” for its lush orchards, big houses and relative affluence, was deserted, its gates locked.

“Everyone is scared,” a lone trader, rushing to an adjoining mosque for morning prayers, told Reuters. “No one will come.”

Apples are the lifeblood of Kashmir’s economy, involving 3.5 million people, around half the population of the state.

In a surprise move on Aug. 5, just as the harvest season as getting under way, the government abrogated provisions in India’s constitution that gave the Jammu and Kashmir partial autonomy and stipulated only residents could buy property or hold government jobs. Strict movement restrictions were imposed simultaneously, and mobile, telephone, and internet connections snapped.

The government said the immediate priority was to prevent an eruption of violence in Kashmir, where more than 40,000 people have been killed since 1989, and that curbs are slowly being eased, including the opening up of landline phones.

Further out, the government has promised rapid economic development and plans an investor summit later this year to attract some of India’s top companies to the region, create jobs and lure young people away from militancy.

In the short-term, however, farmers and fruit traders say the clampdown is stopping them from either getting their produce to market or shipping it out to the rest of India. Some say they have also been threatened into stopping work by militant groups.

In orchard after orchard surrounding Sopore, apples hung rotting on trees. “We are stuck from both sides,” said Haji, a trader, sitting inside a sprawling two-story house in Sopore. “We can neither go here, nor there.” 

BUSINESSES REELING

Business people who spoke to Reuters say it is not just the fruit industry that is reeling – two other key sectors of Kashmir’s economy, tourism and handicrafts, have also been hit hard.

Shameem Ahmed, a travel agent who owns a houseboat in the summer capital Srinagar, said this year’s tourist season was completely wiped out.

“August was peak season, and we had bookings up to October,” he said. “It will take a long time to revive, and we don’t know what will happen next.”

The near complete lack of tourists has also hit carpet traders such as Shoukat Ahmed.

“When there are no tourists, there are no sales,” he said. “We are also unable to sell across India because communication is down.”

At a major chamber of commerce in Srinagar, some members said the continuing lack of internet and mobile connections had paralyzed their work, including the ability to file taxes and make bank transactions.

Some businessmen have also been among the hundreds of politicians and civil society leaders detained by the authorities since early August to dampen any backlash.

While many of those arrested across the region have since been released, Haseeb Drabu, a former state finance minister from a local party once allied with Modi’s ruling BJP, said outsiders were now balking at doing business with Kashmiris.

“With a few businessmen raided and more under detention, why would anyone from the rest of the country engage with them and subject himself to a possible enquiry of his transaction and opening of his books?” Drabu said.

“IT’S HOPELESS”

India and Pakistan have twice gone to war over Kashmir, which is divided between them but both claim in full, and it remains at the heart of decades of hostility.

In February, the nuclear-armed neighbors engaged in an aerial duel after a deadly militant attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Kashmir, raising the fear of a broader conflict.

The latest bout of instability has been devastating to the likes of Manzoor Kolu, who runs a five-roomed houseboat on Srinagar’s mirror-calm Dal lake, framed by snow-clad mountains.

Days before Aug. 5, Kolu said police had come asking him to move tourists out of the property, fearing unrest.

“They told me that if anything happens, I would be responsible,” he said. His four guests, all Indian tourists, left shortly after. No guest has come since.

“Now we have to wait until next April. It’s hopeless,” he said, sitting inside the living room of the 35-year-old boat, packed with intricately carved wooden furniture and traditional Kashmiri carpets. “So many times, I’ve thought of selling, but this is my father’s whole life’s achievement.”

Kashmir’s tourism industry has lost momentum in recent years, starting with devastating floods in 2014 and followed by a sustained period of unrest in 2016.

Tourist numbers had begun improving between April and July this year, government data showed, only to drop off a cliff in August. Only 10,130 tourists came last month, compared with nearly 150,000 in July and more than 160,000 in June this year.

Slideshow (4 Images)

In a one-story house in Srinagar’s working-class Zoonimar neighborhood, Abdul Hamid Shah sits beneath a window quietly embroidering a Kashmiri shawl. Each shawl is at least three months’ work, and some take a whole year to complete.

Shah is typically paid 35,000 Indian rupees ($490) per shawl, which he often gets in monthly instalments of around 10,000 rupees. Since August, his payments from a shawl trader he has worked with for a decade have shrunk.

“He’s telling me he doesn’t have money because there is no business,” Shah said.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Alex Richardson

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C-Section Babies Have More Potentially Infectious Gut Bacteria

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Scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, UCL, the University of Birmingham and their collaborators discovered that whereas vaginally born babies got most of their gut bacteria from their mother, babies born via caesarean did not, and instead had more bacteria associated with hospital environments in their guts. Science Daily reports: The exact role of the baby’s gut bacteria is unclear and it isn’t known if these differences at birth will have any effect on later health. The researchers found the differences in gut bacteria between vaginally born and caesarean delivered babies largely evened out by 1 year old, but large follow-up studies are needed to determine if the early differences influence health outcomes. Experts from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists say that these findings should not deter women from having a caesarean birth.

Published in Nature today, this largest ever study of neonatal microbiomes also revealed that the microbiome of vaginally delivered newborns did not come from the mother’s vaginal bacteria, but from the mother’s gut. This calls into question the controversial practice of swabbing babies born via caesarean with mother’s vaginal bacteria. Understanding how the birth process impacts on the baby’s microbiome will enable future research into bacterial therapies.

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