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Cherie Blair accused of reinforcing stereotypes of African women

Cherie Blair has been criticised for “usurping” the voice of African women and reinforcing stereotypes by telling school children during a talk that “most African ladies’ first sexual experience is rape”.

The barrister and women’s rights campaigner was giving a talk about women and leadership at the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in London, with around 100 people in attendance when she made the comment.

The Leadership Lecture, as the event was called, took place on 20 March. In an email about it, the school said: “We are delighted that this talk has been very popular.”

One audience member, Caitlin, who did want not to give her surname, said she was surprised by the comment: “No one seemed to react and I was shocked because I felt like she was in a position of authority and should take responsibility for saying things like that without any evidence to support it.”

Caitlin emailed the Cherie Blair Foundation – a charity that aims to empower women in developing and emerging economies through entrepreneurship – who replied to say they believed Blair’s comment referred “to the women she had met and heard directly from in the initial years of the Foundation’s work rather than a specific research piece.”

The email from the foundation said: “As I’m sure you know, forms of exploitation – including rape – are a huge barrier to gender equality and impact the ability of women to learn skills, grow businesses and can stymie their overall empowerment.”

The Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah, who is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, said: “Ms Blair should enable African women to speak for themselves instead of usurping their voice and their experience.”

Onwurah said Blair, the wife of the former prime minister Tony, should pay the fares and visas for a diverse group of African women to come to the UK and talk for themselves to help “undo the insult and injury” her words had caused.

She added: “Violence against women is a huge problem in many African countries – as it is here – but to characterise African women’s sexual experience as rooted in rape undermines the hard work of many to tackle this issue while playing to and indeed stoking stereotypes of sexually aggressive African men and passive women.”

Judy Gitau Nkuranga, the regional coordinator for Africa at Equality Now, said: “Between the ages of 15 and 49, 43% of women have reported having experienced gender-based violence, including sexual violence or abuse. It’s not all or a majority but a large number … It’s not a unique phenomenon to Africa but it is widespread and that must be acknowledged.”

Blair said: “My comments were in answer to a question about adolescent African girls – not African women – missing out on their education for a variety of reasons including early pregnancy. In that context I said that for the vast majority of young girls – who are often 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds – their first experience of sex was rape.

“There are studies that back this up, including a WHO report in 2002 that concludes: ‘A growing number of studies, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, indicate that the first sexual experience of girls is often unwanted and forced.’ In one case control study of 544 adolescent girls it noted that ‘when asked about the consequences of refusing sex, 77.9% of the study cases and 72.1% of the controls said they feared being beaten if they refused to have sex.’

“It was not my intent to offend or undermine anyone with my comments, and I would welcome more recent stats that showed these findings are outdated. But the sad truth is that too many young African girls continue to experience sexual assault, become pregnant and in consequence fall out of education. I believe it’s important to shed light on this, as the role of education is crucial to empower girls and the importance of investing in young people cannot be overstated.”

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Ex-football coach Bob Higgins was 'predatory paedophile', court told

A former Southampton FC youth football coach was a “predatory paedophile” who used his power as one of the sport’s “kingmakers” to carry out a 25-year campaign of sexual abuse against boys as young as 11, a jury has been told.

Bob Higgins was seen as a “godlike” figure who coached players who went on to achieve national and international success but he was also a serial abuser of young teenagers, Bournemouth crown court heard on Tuesday.

Higgins, 66, who also worked at Peterborough United and for the Maltese FA, as well as running his own football academy, denies 51 counts of indecent assault against 24 boys between the early 1970s and mid-1990s. The alleged assaults took place in a variety of settings including training camps and Higgins’ home and car.

One boy, who can only be identified as “X”, was allegedly indecently assaulted at least 50 times between the ages of 13 and 16 when he stayed overnight at Higgins’ home. The abuse allegedly included Higgins forcing the teenager to take part in oral sex after the coach’s wife, Shirley, had gone to bed.

“X” was shocked when first asked to perform a sex act on Higgins, the court was told. But Adam Feest QC, prosecuting, said: “Fearing that if he refused the defendant would take revenge by ruining his football career, he eventually succumbed.”

Feest said: “Although he felt disgusted by the idea, the emotional pressure upon him to comply with the instructions of someone he regarded as a father figure and mentor was such that he did as he was told.”

The jury was told X finally came forward 40 years on and would tell his story in court but still had not even told his wife what occurred due to feelings of shame and confusion.

It is not the first time Higgins has been accused of offences against boys, the jury was told. He was investigated in 1990 for similar alleged offences but cleared at trial, the court heard.

Feest said police began investigating Higgins again after the former Crewe Alexandra footballer Andy Woodward came forward in 2016 to make disclosures about abuse he suffered at the hands of a coach – not Higgins – when he was younger. Children’s charity, the NSPCC, set up a hotline to field calls from anyone who had encountered childhood sexual abuse within football.

“The telephone started to ring and one name was mentioned over and over again – that of Bob Higgins,” said Feest. Last year, Higgins was put on trial after the new allegations. He is facing a retrial, the jury was told.

Higgins had been involved with youth team training at Southampton from the mid-1970s until the late1980s. He had a spell running his own academy and spent time with the Maltese football association. He then worked with Peterborough United FC until 1996.

Feest said Higgins was a talented coach and boys turned down more prestigious clubs so they could work with him, the court heard.

The prosecutor continued: “However, it is the crown’s case that during this time there was a much darker aspect to this defendant’s character and behaviour. Throughout this period this defendant was carrying out a widespread campaign of sexual abuse against many of those in his charge.”

Feest added: “For some boys he appears to have developed a real, if somewhat perverse, affectionate attachment, telling them that he loved them and getting them to display signs of affection towards him.

“Behind all this abuse lay a systematic and all-pervasive pattern of grooming behaviour. He gained the trust of the boys and of their parents. The young footballers idolised him.”

Feest said particular types of behaviour were repeatedly mentioned by the complainants, such as being sexually assaulted under the pretext of being shown a training drill or while having a massage. Alleged offences took place in Hampshire, Kent and the north-east of England.

The trial continues.

Theresa May Faces Heavy Pressure to Step Down to Save Brexit

Theresa May Faces Heavy Pressure to Step Down to Save Brexit

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British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after addressing a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels, Friday, March 22, 2019. Worn down by three years of indecision in London, EU leaders on Thursday were grudgingly leaning toward giving the U.K. more time to ease itself out of the bloc. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Embattled Prime Minister Theresa May was scrambling Sunday to win over…

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How May’s Brexit deal laid bare Tories’ deep divisions over Europe

Throughout yet another neuralgic day of Brexit debate at Westminster, the deep divisions in the Conservative party were again on excruciating display.

Collective responsibility has long been suspended, as shifting groups of ministers and backbenchers pursue their own favoured Brexit outcome. But the chaotic votes of Wednesday night smacked of a government falling apart.

First, six cabinet ministers most notable for their leadership ambitions – Gavin Williamson, Jeremy Hunt, Alun Cairns, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Sajid Javid – supported the Malthouse compromise, a policy that would involve junking the deal their own government had spent two years negotiating.

7pm Caroline Spelman declines to move her amendment aimed at taking a no-deal Brexit off the table for good - but Yvette Cooper, one of the other signatories, moves it instead. 

7.16pm MPs back the amendment by 312 votes to 308, defeating the government. 

7.21pm Word gets out that the government now plans to whip against its main no-deal motion because it has been amended to rule out no-deal in all circumstances. Rumours begin to fly of ministers being ready to resign to defy the whip. 

7.33pm MPs reject the Malthouse compromise - an amendment in favour of a managed no-deal Brexit - by 374 votes to 164.

7.42pm Tory whips attempt to force MPs to vote against the amended motion they had effectively already backed. A number of cabinet ministers now reported to be abstaining. 

7.49pm May is defeated again - with the blah of loss increasing from four to 43. 

7.55pm May tells MPs that if they do not back a deal soon she will have to seek a long article 50 extension. 

8.01pm Names emerge of government ministers - including Amber Rudd and David Gauke - who abstained on the vote, amid continuing rumours that they could be forced to resign. 

8.09pm Sarah Newton, a junior pensions minister, resigns after defying the whip to vote against the government.

And then a separate group of cabinet ministers, David Mundell, Greg Clark, Amber Rudd and David Gauke, abstained in the face of a three-line whip, rather than vote against the amended motion taking no deal off the table.

Sources close to the group later claimed that when ministers gathered for an informal cabinet meeting shortly before the votes, neither the chief whip, Julian Smith, nor Theresa May herself were aware of the risk of a defeat.

The European Research Group’s Jacob Rees-Mogg later called for the abstainers to resign or be sacked. “Collective responsibility requires ministers to support government policy or to resign. It is a basic constitutional point,” he said.

Several more junior ministers opted to vote for the motion, in defiance of the whips. One, Sarah Newton, a junior minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, immediately resigned.

A grim-faced Smith was spotted shortly afterwards on the corridor next to the whips’ office, consulting with May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell.

Related: May’s final warning to Tory rebels: back me or lose Brexit

The PM’s chief Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins, who last month let slip in a Brussels bar her plan of presenting MPs with the alternative of backing her deal or facing a long delay to Brexit, was seen leaving parliament 45 minutes after the vote.

The language of both sides has become increasingly strident, as the deadline for leaving the EU has approached. One MP described the prime minister’s deal during Tuesday’s debate as a “turd”.

The Brexiter Bernard Jenkin responded to Wednesday’s fresh humiliation for the government by blaming “anti-Brexit MPs”, and calling it “a sad day for democracy”.

Mark Francois, one of the cabal of Brexiter backbenchers who have made themselves freely available to commentate on the prime minister’s travails in recent days, insisted on Sky News: “I was in the army; I’m not trained to lose.”

Ben Bradley, the Brexiter MP for Mansfield who voted for May’s deal, said: “We have just betrayed the promise we made to the electorate. I am angry, quite emotional to be honest.

17 Tory MPs voted against the government 
Guto Bebb
Kenneth Clarke
Justine Greening
Phillip Lee
Sarah Newton
Sir Nicholas Soames
Richard Benyon
Jonathan Djanogly
Dominic Grieve
Oliver Letwin
Mark Pawsey
Edward Vaizey
Nick Boles
George Freeman
Sam Gyimah
Paul Masterton
Antoinette Sandbach

30 Tory MPs abstained
Bim Afolami
Robert Buckland
Alistair Burt
Greg Clark
Alberto Costa
Stephen Crabb
Tobias Ellwood
Vicky Ford
Mike Freer
David Gauke
Richard Graham
Damian Green
Stephen Hammond
Richard Harrington
Oliver Head
Peter Heaton-Jones
Simon Hoare
Nigel Huddlestone
Margot James
Jo Johnson
Eleanor Laing
Jeremy Lefroy
Anne Milton
David Mundell
Claire Perry
Victoria Prentis
Amber Rudd
Keith Simpson
Caroline Spelman
Gary Streeter

“It is incredibly difficult to justify that we said we were going to leave on the 29th. Parliament just said we are not going to leave, effectively. I think tomorrow we will vote to extend article 50.

“This is the reason I voted for the deal yesterday, because I thought this was going to happen today. But I am just shocked that it has and I’ve just seen ministerial colleagues come out of that lobby voting to take no deal off the table to prevent us from leaving.

“The trust in government is evaporating. We have got to the point where if cabinet ministers can’t vote for a long-term government position on Brexit on a three-line whip they have to go, frankly. If May doesn’t [sack them] I think we are in total freefall.”

Bradley added: “The prime minister needs to lead, frankly and show that there are consequences for defying the whip.”

Simon Clarke, another Brexiter, said he was “angry and bewildered at having a gun to my head for a wretched deal. There was real anger in the house tonight … it is galling beyond words.”

George Freeman, who abstained on the amended motion, defying the government’s orders, said the party was heading for a general election.

“We lost three MPs last month, we lost 30 MPs in the last election. This is only going in one direction and we need to start to prepare for that,” he told the BBC.

Despite the thumping defeat of the Malthouse compromise, which was rejected by a majority of 210 votes, the ERG’s lieutenants appeared unbowed. Steve Baker urged the prime minister not to bring back her deal for a third meaningful vote in the coming days.

One ERG MP, Andrew Bridgen, said May could still ignore parliament and pursue a no-deal Brexit. On the ministers who abstained, he said May “should have sacked them weeks ago”.

Also clearly evident as Wednesday’s chaos unfolded was the horror with which some Conservative MPs view the damage inflict on the reputation of their own party by the Brexit crisis.

Related: Brexit chaos in the Commons: what just happened?

The junior minister Sam Gyimah asked the environment secretary, Michael Gove, who wound up the debate for the government, “the overwhelming view of business is that no deal should be taken off the table.

“Given that those of us on the government benches know that the success of our party and our country is based on backing the job creators and the wealth creators, how does he think the Conservative party of the 1980s would look at our response to business at the moment?”

When David Cameron suspended collective cabinet responsibility at the outset of the EU referendum campaign, he fondly imagined his colleagues could all be brought back together again a few weeks later.

But almost three years on, the bitter divisions opened up during that campaign have solidified and the Conservative party is now divided into fiercely opposed tribes.

When Anna Soubry quit the Tories last month to join the breakaway Independent Group, she warned that, “the right wing, the hardline anti-EU awkward squad that have destroyed every leader for the last 40 years, are now running the Conservative party from top to toe. They are the Conservative party.”

Some of her more remain-minded colleagues, perhaps partly emboldened by the departure of Soubry and two other Tory MPs, are now fighting back – and the result has been civil war.

Yvette Cooper: amendment was a 'vote against chaos of no deal'

Yvette Cooper said that she decided to press an amendment that ruled out no deal because Theresa May “has refused to consult or build consensus” and “refused to allow votes on other Brexit options”.

It fell upon the Labour backbencher to push the “no to no deal” amendment to a vote after its initial sponsor, Conservative MP Caroline Spelman, had said she wanted to let it drop in favour of the government’s weaker proposal that only ruled out exiting without a deal on 29 March.

As a result, Cooper said, “the House of Commons has voted decisively tonight against the chaos of no deal”, a defeat that she said will force the prime minister to resolve the Brexit crisis, or leave backbenchers to try to take control of the process.

Cooper has been at the heart of two months of cross-party backbench efforts to come up with an alternative Brexit strategy, and now wants parliament to hold a series of “indicative votes on different options, including a customs union, so we can get on with this”.

Related: Brexit chaos in the Commons: what just happened?

The former shadow home secretary has worked closely with Labour colleague Hilary Benn, plus Nick Boles and Oliver Letwin in pushing for an extension to article 50 that would allow time to negotiate an alternative Brexit.

But not everybody was happy with Cooper on Wednesday night. A source close to Conservative cabinet remainers said that they wanted Cooper to drop Spelman’s motion, saying it would have been better to coalesce around May’s amendment. It was “self-centred, she played a very dangerous game there”, they said.

However, by pressing Spelman’s stronger anti no deal motion to a vote, the effect of Cooper’s action was to magnify splits in the Conservatives over Brexit, as 17 Tories ultimately voted for the motion she put while Labour splits were minimal.

May’s final warning to Tory rebels: back me or lose Brexit

Theresa May will attempt one final desperate roll of the dice on her Brexit deal, issuing a stark warning to mutinous Brexiters that they must approve her offer by next week or face a long article 50 extension.

The prime minister was humiliated yet again amid chaotic scenes on Wednesday night in parliament, as her cabinet ruptured three ways and MPs inflicted two more defeats on the government to demand no deal should be taken off the table permanently.

In an unprecedented night of Tory splits, four cabinet ministers, Amber Rudd, David Mundell, David Gauke and Greg Clark, defied their party’s last-minute whip and refused to vote against the government’s own motion, after it was amended to rule out any prospect of no-deal Brexit.

7pm Caroline Spelman declines to move her amendment aimed at taking a no-deal Brexit off the table for good - but Yvette Cooper, one of the other signatories, moves it instead. 

7.16pm MPs back the amendment by 312 votes to 308, defeating the government. 

7.21pm Word gets out that the government now plans to whip against its main no-deal motion because it has been amended to rule out no-deal in all circumstances. Rumours begin to fly of ministers being ready to resign to defy the whip. 

7.33pm MPs reject the Malthouse compromise - an amendment in favour of a managed no-deal Brexit - by 374 votes to 164.

7.42pm Tory whips attempt to force MPs to vote against the amended motion they had effectively already backed. A number of cabinet ministers now reported to be abstaining. 

7.49pm May is defeated again - with the blah of loss increasing from four to 43. 

7.55pm May tells MPs that if they do not back a deal soon she will have to seek a long article 50 extension. 

8.01pm Names emerge of government ministers - including Amber Rudd and David Gauke - who abstained on the vote, amid continuing rumours that they could be forced to resign. 

8.09pm Sarah Newton, a junior pensions minister, resigns after defying the whip to vote against the government.

Six other cabinet ministers also splintered to back a separate proposal for a “managed no deal”, despite the prime minister’s warning that the plan was doomed.

After her defeat, May signalled she would gamble one last time on forcing through her Brexit deal, bringing forward a motion on Thursday on delaying Brexit which would “set out the fundamental choice facing this house”.

If MPs agreed a deal, she said, the government would request a “short, technical extension” to article 50, a hint that May plans a third meaningful vote next week.

Without an agreed deal, she said, there would be a “much longer extension” that would require the UK to take part in European parliament elections. “I do not think that would be the right outcome,” May said.

In a defiant reply, Steve Baker, the vice-chair of the European Research Group of hard Brexiters, said rebel Eurosceptics would not be cowed. “I’ll say to the government now, when meaningful vote three comes back I will see to it that we keep voting this down however many times it’s brought back.

“Whatever pressure we’re put under and come what may, please don’t do it, keep going back to the EU and say: ‘It won’t pass.’”

Other Tory rebels sounded far less certain. Simon Clarke said there was “a gun to my head at this point” and suggested he could back the deal next time.

“I think voters will appreciate we have a very, very limited range of options left if we want to actually honour the manifesto commitment to leave at all. Now it’s effectively a bad Brexit deal or no Brexit at all, which is absolutely ghastly.”

The prime minister’s warning of an extended Brexit delay followed a disastrous night in parliament for the government. MPs amended May’s motion ruling out no deal on 29 March to a much more radical proposition, ruling out no deal altogether.

Related: Brexit chaos in the Commons: what just happened?

That amendment, originally proposed by the Tory backbencher Caroline Spelman but brought to a vote by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, passed by four votes.

After a frantic conference on the floor of the Commons, panicking whips demanded that Tory MPs now vote against the government’s own amended motion – but were still resoundingly defeated by a majority of 43.

The minister for disabled people, Sarah Newton, resigned from the Department for Work and Pensions in order to vote in favour of the amended motion and a slew of other ministers also abstained, including the energy minister Claire Perry, solicitor general Robert Buckland, defence minister Tobias Ellwood, business minister Richard Harrington, digital minister Margot James and foreign minister Alistair Burt.

Sources close to the abstaining ministers claimed they had been given the nod to skip the vote. It was indicated by sources on Wednesday night that cabinet ministers who abstained did not intend to resign and Downing Street said they would not be pushed.

Mundell, the Scotland secretary, said he could not in conscience have opposed the amendment. “I’ve always opposed a no-deal Brexit. The house made its view clear by agreeing the Spelman amendment. I didn’t think it was right for me to oppose that,” he said. “The PM has my full support in her objective of leaving the EU with a deal to deliver an orderly Brexit.”

Remainer cabinet ministers urged their colleagues not to back Spelman’s amendment, believing a thumping victory for the government motion would send a strong signal to Eurosceptics.

An alarmed Spelman then attempted to withdraw her amendment but was barred by the Speaker, John Bercow, who said the amendment could be moved by other supportive MPs. Cooper moved the amendment instead and the government was defeated by four votes.

The vote does not definitively preclude a no-deal Brexit – MPs must still agree a deal, or extend or revoke article 50 in order to do that – but it underlined both the strength of feeling at Westminster and the government’s loss of control.

May’s warning about a potentially lengthy delay to Brexit came as it emerged the DUP is back in talks with senior government figures about what it would take for them to back May’s deal at a third Commons vote. A party source said “channels are open”.

Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Guardian’s Today in Focus that his opposition to the government deal was “not a cunning plan to get us to no deal by default” and said he could vote for the deal if it was backed by the DUP.

Discussions are taking place around a point that Rees-Mogg, the ERG chair, raised in the House of Commons before Tuesday’s vote, relating to “how article 62 of the Vienna convention could be used”.

Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, replied that the UK would have the ability to terminate the withdrawal agreement “if the facts clearly warranted that there had been an unforeseen and fundamental change of circumstances”.

An ERG source said this had been written by the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, but had not made it into his final legal advice on Tuesday. “If we’d had it earlier in the day it could have changed the vote,” the source said.

Earlier on Wednesday night, May was also forced to allow a free vote on an amendment by Tory backbenchers based on the so-called Malthouse compromise, which suggested a 21-month transition to no deal.

The amendment was comfortably defeated by Conservative MPs and opposition parties, 374 votes to 164, but the vote drove an even deeper wedge into May’s fracturing cabinet.

Six cabinet ministers voted in favour of the proposal: Gavin Williamson, Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt, Andrea Leadsom, Sajid Javid and Alun Cairns – many of them tipped as future leadership candidates.

In the aftermath of the vote, Brussels warned that the Commons vote blocking a no-deal Brexit was meaningless. A senior EU negotiator described it as “the Titanic voting for the iceberg to get out of the way”.

A commission spokesman said it was “not enough to vote against no deal – you have to agree to a deal … We have agreed a deal with the prime minister and the EU is ready to sign it.”