Australia bushfires: Pregnant firefighter defends decision to fight fires


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Kat Robinson-Williams

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Kat Robinson-Williams is the third generation in a family of volunteer firefighters

A 23-year-old pregnant volunteer firefighter has fiercely defended her decision to fight dangerous bushfires that have swept across Australia. Kat Robinson-Williams, who is 14 weeks pregnant, said she received many appeals from worried friends to stop.It prompted a powerful post from her on Instagram where she said she would not “just stay behind”. Ms Robinson-Williams has been volunteering with the New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service for 11 years.”I’m not the first pregnant firefighter and I’m not going to be the last one,” she told the BBC. “I’m still in a position where I’m able to help so I will.”Australia is enduring a bushfire crisis that has left three people dead since Friday and burnt more than 200 homes.’I don’t care if you don’t like it’Ms Robinson-Williams first posted on Instagram on Monday, putting up several pictures of herself in firefighting gear on the way to an incident. The post was captioned: “Yes I am a firefighter. No I’m not a man. Yes I am pregnant. No I don’t care if you don’t like it.” Her post was met with an outpouring of support, with many calling her “an inspiration to all girls”.

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Kat Robinson-Williams

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Ms Robinson-Williams has also received many messages of support

The volunteer firefighter, who comes from the Hunter Valley in NSW, told the BBC she had posted the picture after several friends had told her “you shouldn’t be doing this”.”I wanted to tell them I’m okay and that I’m not just going to stop,” she said. “I’ll stop when my body tells me to stop.”She added that her doctor had given her the all-clear “as long as I wear the right equipment”.

Ms Robinson-Williams, who works in childcare, is the third generation in a family of volunteer firefighters. “My mum was also pregnant during the fire season of 1995. It kind of runs in the family,” she said. “When I was young, my grandma made a toddler size firefighter outfit for me.”A large number of her family members are still firefighter volunteers, including her grandmother. “It’s a family thing, we’ve always done it. My grandmother is still volunteering, has been for 50 years, and my mum has been doing it for over 30 years,” she said. Her husband is also a volunteer firefighter, as are her in-laws.”I’m hoping my child will follow, though that’s up to them,” she said.

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Kat Robinson-Williams

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The NSW Rural Fire Services team in action

When asked if she felt scared at all while battling the fires, Ms Robinson-Williams was quick to say “no”.”I was in the thick of a fire yesterday, the houses were alight and backyards were on fire – we were there putting it out. It’s just what I’ve always been doing.”About six million people live in the state of NSW.Fire crews have been battling a front spanning 1,000km (620 miles) with several blazes “exceeding 100,000 hectares alone”, according to officials.On Wednesday, bushfires briefly spread to suburbs of Sydney.

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Bushfires are burning across New South Wales

Authorities have said the region is in for a particularly dangerous bushfire season due to a severe drought and other factors.



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A Taliban escapee, a baby and the story that followed their chance meeting


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Shams Hussaini

Francis Amos has wide eyes, round cheeks and a bright smile that reveals a solitary front tooth. He is eight months old and is better at making friends than his dad.On a warm Saturday afternoon, my son and I swam in a hotel pool in Batam, Indonesia. The resort overlooked the sea; the skyscrapers of Singapore, about 10 miles away, lined the sky blue horizon.At the end of the pool, a young man with black hair noticed my son’s solitary tooth. He shook his hand and smiled. “Where are you from?” he asked.”He’s from England,” I replied. “And you?””Afghanistan,” he said. “I’m a refugee.”Then, as the sun dipped and the sky turned orange, the refugee told me his story. It involved death threats, a Taliban hijacking, a mystery saviour and years of detention.Lots of refugees have similar stories – or far worse. But this is his. And it’s here because of a chance meeting in an Indonesian pool.

Shams Hussaini (also known as Erfan) is 21 and grew up in Sang-e-Masha, a highland town overlooked by the Hindu Kush mountains.He has two younger brothers and a younger sister, and comes from an ordinary, poor family. His father made shoes and farmed the small plot of land by their mud-and-stone house.Shams is too young to remember life before the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but he knows what it was like. The school was closed, he says. People did not have access to education.Shams is a Hazara, the third biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan. They are Shia Muslims, look different to other Afghans, and have suffered decades of persecution, not least from the Taliban. So after 2001, things improved. They could barely get worse.”Hazara people are supporters of education,” says Shams. “They are supporters of knowledge and light. People started going to school, people started going to university.”They taught English at Shams’ school, but only one hour a week. So, aged 12 and encouraged by his uncle and other relatives, he went to a private centre. When he finished the advanced class, aged 15, the director offered him a job.The role involved teaching basic classes and travelling to the capital, Kabul, to pick up materials – books, paper and so on. The money wasn’t great but Shams needed to earn. His parents had died leaving him, a teenager, as head of the family.”When I looked at my younger brothers and sister, I thought I must do something to change their lives,” he says. “I had to do everything in my ability to bring a little positive change.”On 10 December 2014, Shams left his house and took a bus to Kabul to pick up materials for his English centre. He hasn’t seen his family since.

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Shams Hussaini

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Shams at his English learning centre in Afghanistan

The Taliban may have been ousted in 2001, but they never went away. In Sang-e-Masha, they targeted the English school’s staff and students.”For them, English is the language of infidels,” says Shams.The school would receive threatening letters, both from the Taliban and local mullahs. Some mullahs would come from the nearby masjid (mosque) to argue. “This is not an English learning centre,” they would say. “This is a place for misleading the people.”For the mullahs, the sin of teaching English was compounded by teaching boys and girls under the same roof. They bullied Shams – and his family – but he was undeterred.”We felt scared, but the hunger to help people who lived in illiteracy for decades was higher than the intimidation,” he says. And so, on that cold Wednesday in December, he boarded the bus to Kabul.

It was the third time Shams had gone to Kabul since taking the job and every time, he was scared.The capital is about 275km (170 miles) from Shams’ home and passes through Qarabagh, a place Shams calls the Slaughterhouse.”The Taliban have killed and kidnapped hundreds and thousands of Hazaras on that highway,” he says.After three hours, the bus reached Qarabagh, and Shams’ worst fears were realised. Two Taliban, armed with guns, stopped the bus. They ordered Shams off.Once outside, the Taliban slapped Shams and yelled in his face. Shams didn’t speak their language, Pashto, but the bus driver was able to translate, fearfully and frantically.”Where is the English teacher?” the Taliban demanded, hands on their guns, eyes boring into him. “Are you the English teacher?”

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Shams Hussaini

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Shams teaching English in Indonesia

Each time Shams denied it, he got slapped. He shook with fear. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Eventually, he became speechless. He was convinced he was about to die. “The fear conquered all parts of my body,” he says.Then a woman left her seat, walked off the bus, and saved his life.”Stop,” she said, herself crying. “He’s not the person you’re searching for. He is my son.”Shams did not know the woman, but he did not say anything. The Taliban looked at Shams. He was 15, small, and seemed an unlikely teacher. Eventually, they let him – and the bus – on their way.Shams had survived. But there was no celebration or near-miss euphoria. “I felt shattered on the inside,” he says. So, when he reached Kabul, he made a decision. He was not going back to the Slaughterhouse, and he was not going back to Sang-e-Masha.

In a Kabul motel, Shams spoke to a driver who often took people from Shams’ district to the capital. Shams’ story was common, the driver said: many people reached Kabul and never went back.Shams said he wanted to escape, so the driver found a smuggler who could help. The smuggler said he could send Shams to Indonesia, via India and Malaysia.Once in Jakarta, the smuggler said, Shams could register with the UNHCR, the UN’s Refugee Agency. Shams did not know Indonesia – he had never left Afghanistan – but anything was better than home.He phoned his uncle (a small-scale farmer), who agreed to pay the smuggler $5,000 in instalments, and waited a week. Then, with his new passport in hand, he flew to Delhi then Kuala Lumpur. From there, he went to the coast to sail overnight to Indonesia. Compared to some Afghan refugees, it was a quick escape. Those who flee to Europe, for example, often go overland, crossing thousands of miles in the backs of lorries. But Shams’ journey – though quicker – was not easy or safe.When he reached the Malaysian coast, he expected a ferry. Instead he boarded a wooden boat, overcrowded with families, young couples and teenage boys. The sea was rough, the sky was dark, and, after an hour, it started to rain. Water crashed over the side of the boat. For the second time in a month, Shams thought he was going to die, this time in the Strait of Malacca.

Shams’ stop-off points in Indonesia

“It was not supposed to be the place to die,” he says. “I survived war in Afghanistan, the Taliban, and now I’m going to sink in the water? “Negative thoughts were coming into my head. What would happen to my family? What would happen to my dreams? And these thoughts were coming into the heads of other people, too.”I looked at their faces – it was obvious. They were all in a terrible state of fear.”Somehow they stayed afloat. They reached Medan, Indonesia, and drove to Jakarta, 1,900km (1,200 miles) away. There were six passengers in the car, and they were only allowed out at night – even if they needed the toilet.After three days without food, and barely any water, they reached the capital. Shams found the UNHCR office and walked in. This, he thought, was the start of a new life. It was. But not the way he imagined.

Shams thought the UNHCR would listen to his story and offer him a place to stay. Instead, they registered him and asked him to leave the office.”They said many people are like you – leave your number, go outside, talk to your friends,” he remembers. “But I had no friends. I knew no-one in Indonesia.”After two nights on the street he met some Hazara boys from Afghanistan, hanging round near the UNHCR. They told him there were detention centres near Jakarta but they were full. Instead, they said, he should go to Manado.The city was a three-hour flight from Jakarta, but the detention centre had space, the Hazara boys said. They also knew a woman who could arrange the flight. Shams didn’t want to be locked up – who would? – but he had no alternative. The streets of Jakarta were bleak – no food; no water; no hope.He didn’t have enough money for the flight, but he begged the woman and she relented. When he arrived in Manado he went to the immigration office and asked for somewhere to stay.Like the UNHCR, they asked him to leave.

GettyAfghan refugees: In numbers92%Are in Iran or Pakistan13,600Are in Indonesia (asylum seekers and refugees)56%Of Indonesia’s asylum seekers and refugees are AfghansSource: UNHCRAfter another night on the street, the immigration staff sent him to a house used as a “waiting room” until a detention centre had space. Shams lived there for 16 months.The house had seven bedrooms with up to 14 or 15 people sleeping in each. There was one toilet and one shower, but not enough water for both. Instead, they washed in a nearby river with buckets.There was drinking water and food, but it was basic – rice, potatoes, occasionally a chicken wing. “For 16 months, I don’t remember any vegetables,” says Shams.But worse than the lack of vegetables was the lack of freedom.As an asylum seeker, he couldn’t study, couldn’t work, and couldn’t travel. He was trapped in the house; trapped in Indonesia; and trapped by his memories of Taliban gunmen.”It felt like somebody had injected that fear into my mind, into my whole body,” he remembers. “It was disturbing me all the time. I was hitting my head with my hands.”Then, in 2016, he had some good news, of sorts. He was being locked up.

The detention centre in Pontianak – on the other side of Indonesia to the house in Manado – was like a prison, with high fences, barbed wire and a leaking roof. So why was it good news?Because in Pontianak his application for refugee status would be considered. “Refugee” is a step-up from “asylum seeker” as it allows relocation to third countries, even if the chances are slim.But – while there was hope – it was a long, endless tunnel, with only a faint, flickering light at the end. “Even criminals, there is a specific period of time for their confinement,” says Shams. “But for refugees there was no such date. We had to wait and wait and wait.”

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Shams Hussaini

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The detention centre in Pontianak

Shams tried to be positive. He taught English to the inmates, acted as a translator, and completed a basic counselling course, organised by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). In 2017 he received refugee status and, on 27 July 2018, was finally released from the detention centre, as the Indonesian government began to close them down across the country.The UNHCR does not comment on individual cases, but said that before December 2016, about 30% of the refugee population in Indonesia was in detention. Since a regulation from Indonesia’s president came into force, most have been transferred out of these centres.Shams new home was “community housing” in Batam. It is the preferred model for the IOM, which supports about 80 such facilities in Indonesia, home to more than 8,200 people.”As Shams noted, living conditions in Indonesian immigration detention centres are extremely basic,” the IOM told the BBC. “IOM’s role is to help asylum seekers and refugees detained in these facilities by improving living standards, including health and nutrition, while advocating with the Indonesian authorities to move detainees – particularly families – to community accommodation.”

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In his community housing, Shams quickly led by example. As well as English lessons, he attended peaceful protests, calling on third countries – especially Australia – to accept more refugees from Indonesia.Through this work, which was publicised on social media, he met an Australian woman on Facebook who worked as a refugee advocate. When she came to Batam as part of her work, she invited Shams to use the pool at her hotel.And that is why Shams Hussaini – 21-year-old Afghan refugee; English teacher; Taliban survivor – was able to smile at Francis Amos – round cheeks; one tooth; born eight months earlier in south London – as they passed each other on a Saturday afternoon in Batam.

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Shams Hussaini

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Shams with friends at the Batam community accommodation

So that is Shams’ story (relayed in the pool, with more details on the phone later). But it is also a story of the 21st Century – because he is one of millions of displaced people surviving on its margins.There are 26 million refugees globally and what drove them from their home – the war in Syria, for example – is often well-reported. What happens next can be forgotten.Every year, fewer than 1% of refugees are resettled to third countries, which means vast numbers are left in limbo. They spend their days waiting, then hoping, then finally just waiting, and waiting, and waiting.Other options include private sponsorship from third countries – which is rare – or returning to country of origin, which often isn’t safe (Shams will not return to Afghanistan as he thinks he will be killed). In the meantime, the camps get fuller, and the waiting lists get longer.Shams’ new home in Batam is better than Pontianak or Manado, and he is grateful for it. But he still has an 8pm curfew; still survives on $99 a month from the IoM; still can’t travel. For him, this isn’t living; it’s surviving.He dreams of becoming a humanitarian lawyer, and of seeing his family again. Their situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, he says – but he can’t help until he is settled outside Indonesia.”Any country that will accept me, I will go – no problem,” says Shams. Until then, the waiting goes on: five long and lonely years since he boarded the bus in Kabul, and counting.But thanks to his spirit – and the mystery woman on the bus in Qarabagh – he is still here. And he is still hopeful.”To the woman who saved my life, thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he ends with. “I will never forget your kindness. I hope some day I could repay you.”



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Arctic blast: US temperatures plummet to record lows


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Michigan is among the US states affected by heavy snowfall

An Arctic air mass has brought record-breaking low temperatures to several places in the US. The Arctic blast, which began in Siberia, has brought heavy snow and ice to many areas. Daily records have been set in states including Kansas and Illinois. Forecasters say hundreds of records could be matched or broken this week. Four traffic deaths have been linked to the bad weather and more than 1,000 flights have been cancelled.Schools have also been closed in some areas.The National Weather Service (NSW) said the air mass was continuing to spread from the Plains towards the East Coast.It warned that the cold front would make it feel like “the middle of winter” rather than November for much of the eastern two-thirds of the country. Several cities in Kansas set record low temperatures on Tuesday, when compared to the same date in previous years. The lowest temperature was recorded in Garden City, where it dropped to -1F (-18C), breaking the record of 7F set last year.Chicago recorded a low of 7F, breaking the previous record of 8F set in 1986, the NWS said. The city also set a daily record for snowfall on Monday.A recording of 8F in Indianapolis marked the city’s earliest recorded autumn temperature in single digits.

Rare snowfall was even seen in the Texas town of Brownsville, on the US-Mexico border. NWS meteorologist Kevin Birk said the air mass was “more typical for the middle of January than mid-November.””It is pretty much about the coldest we can be this time of year [and] it could break records all over the region,” he added, according to AP news agency. Numerous schools and businesses remained shuttered on Tuesday because of the unusual cold weather. The cold weather has also affected road conditions. An eight-year-old girl was killed in Kansas on Monday after a truck lost control on an icy highway, officials said. In Michigan, three people were killed in a crash thought to be caused by poor road conditions, according to the local sheriff’s office.

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Bolivia crisis: Jeanine Áñez declares herself interim president


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Jeanine Áñez proclaimed herself interim president

Bolivian opposition senator Jeanine Áñez has declared herself interim president of the South American country following Evo Morales’ resignation.Lawmakers from Mr Morales’ party boycotted the session, meaning there was no quorum for the appointment.But Ms Áñez said she was next in line under the constitution and vowed to hold elections soon. Mr Morales condemned the announcement, describing Ms Áñez as “a coup-mongering right-wing senator”. The former president has fled to Mexico, saying he asked for asylum there because his life was in danger. He resigned on Sunday after weeks of protests over a disputed presidential election result. He has said he was forced to stand down but did so willingly “so there would be no more bloodshed”.How did the senator become interim president? Ms Áñez took temporary control of the Senate on Tuesday, putting her next in line for the presidency. The former deputy Senate leader assumed the position following a series of resignations. While lawmakers from Mr Morales’ Movement for Socialism party were not present at the legislative session, Ms Áñez declared herself as interim leader.Taking to Twitter, Mr Morales condemned the “sneakiest, most nefarious coup in history”.How did we get here? Mr Morales, a former coca farmer, was first elected in 2006, the country’s first leader from the indigenous community.He won plaudits for fighting poverty and improving Bolivia’s economy but drew controversy by defying constitutional limits to run for a fourth term in October’s election. Pressure had been growing on him since his narrow victory in last month’s vote. The result was called into question by the Organization of American States, a regional body, which had found “clear manipulation” and called for the result to be annulled.In response, Mr Morales agreed to hold fresh elections. But his main rival, Carlos Mesa – who came second in the vote – said Mr Morales should not stand in any new vote.The chief of the armed forces, Gen Williams Kaliman, then urged Mr Morales to step down in the interests of peace and stability.Announcing his resignation, Mr Morales said he had taken the decision in order to stop fellow socialist leaders from being “harassed, persecuted and threatened”. He also called his removal a “coup”.

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He fled to Mexico as unrest erupted on the streets of the Bolivian administrative capital, La Paz, with angry supporters of the socialist leader clashing with security forces.After arriving in Mexico City on Tuesday, he thanked Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whom he credited with saving his life.”While I have life I’ll stay in politics, the fight continues. All the people of the world have the right to free themselves from discrimination and humiliation,” he said.



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Election 2019 in maps: Where are the seats that could turn the election?


There are 650 constituencies in the UK but most of the campaigning for the general election will take place in a smaller number. As ever, much of the focus will be on marginal constituencies – places where the winning majority in 2017 was small.However, at this election the parties will also be targeting a large number of constituencies beyond the marginal seats.There will be a lot of focus on areas that voted strongly to Leave or strongly to Remain in the EU referendum – even where the majorities are large. Big swings cannot be ruled out.Marginals and ultra-marginals

A striking aspect of the 2017 general election was that the result in lots of constituencies was very close.The normal working definition for a marginal seat is one where the majority is under 10%, which usually means under about 5,000 votes – although that does depend on turnout and the size of the constituency.Then, within that group of seats, there are the ultra-marginals: places where the majority is under 2% – about 1,000 votes.

In 2017 there were 51 of these ultra-marginals – considerably more than in previous elections. In fact there were eight seats with a majority under 50.All those will be hotly contested. The Conservatives will be hoping to win back some of the seats they lost last time – like Canterbury, Keighley and Kensington – while Labour will try to take seats where it got within a whisker – such as Arfon, Pudsey and Southampton Itchen. And the Lib Dems will hope to win seats they’ve previously held like Richmond Park, St Ives and Sheffield Hallam.

ScotlandIn Scotland there are 46 marginal seats, using the 10% definition, out of a total of 59. So almost all the constituencies are potentially in play.

Of particular interest will be the 21 seats lost by the SNP in 2017. Nearly all voted Remain in the EU referendum so the SNP hopes its anti-Brexit stance will help it to recapture as many of them as possible.In many cases it would only take a small shift – places like Stirling and Gordon, held by the Conservatives, and Rutherglen & Hamilton West and Midlothian, both held by Labour.Another seat to keep an eye on is Fife North East. It’s the most marginal constituency in the whole country with an SNP majority over the Liberal Democrats of just two votes. In fact, that’s the smallest majority in any seat this century.Leave and RemainIt’s not just Scotland where Brexit will influence which seats are targeted. Strongly Leave and strongly Remain areas are likely to be crucial.

The Conservatives are hoping to capture longstanding Labour constituencies that voted heavily to Leave – even those outside the normal marginal range. The map shows that these are concentrated in the Midlands and parts of the north of England – seats like West Bromwich West, Bolsover, and Hyndburn.However, the Brexit Party has a similar goal. It describes Hartlepool as its number one target.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats are targeting heavily-Remain seats, mostly in the south of England, even though some have quite big majorities. Places like St Albans, Winchester, and Cambridge.Remain pact

Another feature of the Brexit battle at this election is the agreement made by the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and Green Party to stand aside for one another in 60 seats across England and Wales.It’s impossible to know whether this will affect who wins any of the constituencies but it should give a boost to Plaid in places like Llanelli and Ynys Mon and to the Lib Dems in seats including Hazel Grove and Thornbury & Yate.

Where parties choose to put up candidates could have a bigger impact in Northern Ireland than anywhere else.In Belfast South, for example, Sinn Fein is standing aside in favour of the SDLP to increase its chances of ousting the DUP. The SDLP will return the favour in Belfast North.Meanwhile in Fermanagh & South Tyrone the DUP will stand aside to assist the UUP, as it did in 2017.Another seat to keep an eye on is Foyle where it’s a different story. It’s the most marginal constituency in Northern Ireland and was a Sinn Fein gain from the SDLP last time.

One of the features of recent general elections has been Labour’s increasing dominance in London.As a region it used to be fairly representative of the whole country, politically speaking, but over time that has changed. In 2017 Labour won 49 of the 73 seats across the city.There’s also evidence that the effect has started to spill out from central London to the outskirts and to constituencies in the surrounding areas.That seems to be linked to an increase in the number of people leaving London – especially people in their 30s and 40s.Labour will be hoping that this demographic change could help it in seats like Chingford & Woodford Green, Crawley, and Milton Keynes South – all popular destinations for people leaving London.



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General election 2019: Chris Davies to stand for Tories


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Chris Davies lost his seat in Brecon and Radnorshire after he was convicted of a false expenses claim

A former MP who lost his seat after he was convicted of a false expenses claim has been selected by the Conservatives to stand in the general election. Chris Davies lost his Brecon and Radnorshire seat after 10,005 people signed a recall petition.He stood again but lost a by-election to the Liberal Democrats and will now contest the Anglesey seat of Ynys Mon.Welsh Conservative chairman Byron Davies said Mr Davies “must now be allowed to move on”.Mr Davies admitted two charges of a false expenses claim in March after trying to split the cost of £700 worth of pictures between two office budgets by creating fake invoices, when he could have claimed the amount by other means.He made an “unreserved apology”, was ordered to complete 50 hours of unpaid work and was fined £1,500.Angela Burns, Welsh Conservative AM for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, referring to events surrounding independent politician Neil McEvoy, said: “I thought that today we had reached a nadir in Welsh politics.”She claimed that Mr Davies had been imposed by the party: “You couldn’t make it up!”

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Chris Davies had been MP since 2015 but was unseated by a petition after admitting submitting two false expenses invoices for photographs

Another Conservative source in Wales said it was a “surprising choice, given the experience in Brecon and Radnorshire” and the chances for the party in the seat were slimmer than yesterday: “It is inexplicable.”But Welsh Conservatives chairman, Lord Davies of Gower, said: “Chris made a mistake and has paid the price. He must now be allowed to move on. The details of his selection are an internal party matter.”Labour has selected Mary Roberts for the 12 December poll, while Plaid Cymru has picked Aled ap Dafydd.Mr ap Dafydd said: “This is unbelievable from the Tories. By imposing a convicted former MP who was found guilty of a false expenses claim as the candidate for the island shows how little they care about Ynys Mon.”This makes a mockery of the people of the island.”The Brexit Party intends to stand Helen Jenner.Deputy leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Baroness Christine Humphreys, said the Conservatives “have demonstrated their utter contempt” for Ynys Mon voters.She added: “This shows they can offer nothing more than an MP who has admitted to providing false information about his expenses claims.” Labour candidate Mary Roberts said the people of the constituency “deserve better”.”It’s insulting to the people of Ynys Mon for the Conservatives to now parachute him in as a parliamentary candidate,” she added.The summer by-election cut the Conservative working majority to just one when Jane Dodds overturned Mr Davies’s 8,038 majority to beat Conservative Chris Davies by 1,425 votes.



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HS2 should happen despite rising cost, says review


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A draft copy of a review into the HS2 high-speed railway linking London and the North of England says it should be built, despite its rising cost.The government-commissioned review, launched in August, will not be published until after the election.It says the project might cost even more than its current price of £88bn. Members of the panel which produced the review have told the BBC that the draft recommends that HS2 should be built with only relatively minor alterations.These include reducing the number of trains per hour from 18 to 14, which is in line with other high-speed networks around the world.The document says that even the most controversial stretch of the railway – linking west London to central London – should go ahead.

Business leaders and politicians in the North of England have welcomed the review’s preliminary findings. But the draft does not have the support of the review’s deputy chair, Lord Berkeley. In a letter seen by the BBC, he criticised the review’s “lack of balance” and said the cost of the scheme had not been properly scrutinised. In the letter, sent to Doug Oakervee, the chairman of the review panel, Lord Berkeley said about the review: “I cannot support its conclusions or recommendations.”My concerns are about the process of the report’s preparation and its outcome.”We had to complete the work in a very short time. I also detected a trend in may of the discussions within the review to accept that HS2 will go ahead…. rather than look at the pros and cons of alternative options.”I reserve the right to publish my own alternative report in due course.”Mr Oakervee said he regretted that Lord Berkeley “feels unable to give his support.””He participated fully in panel discussions that have seen all other members converge their views, based on the extensive evidence considered,” Mr Oakervee added.A report in The Times says that the review found that without HS2, “large ticket price rises” would be needed to discourage people from travelling at peak times.Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, said: “The Northern Powerhouse Independent Review on HS2 said that there were no identified credible alternatives to HS2 in order to deliver the same capacity, and that it has the potential to unlock greater growth in the North and Midlands. “It is welcome that their recommendations are mirrored by the government’s own Oakervee Review.”However, Penny Gaines, chairwoman of the Stop HS2 campaign, said: “HS2 was a bad project when it was originally announced and was supposed to cost £33bn, it was a bad project when it was supposed to cost £55bn and it is a bad project now the cost is expected to be more than £88bn. “It should be cancelled as soon as possible, so the government can focus on the real transport priorities.”



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England need late goal to beat Czech Republic


Mead’s fine finish puts England ahead

Leah Williamson’s first international goal rescued a late win for England in a friendly against the Czech Republic to ease the pressure on boss Phil Neville and his side.Coming into the game with just one victory in seven games, England trailed to Tereza Szewieczkova’s finish.A Beth England volley and Beth Mead’s curled shot put the Lionnesses in front, only for Szewieczkova to level.But Williamson’s deflected effort in the 86th minute secured the win.It means England end 2019 on a high note, although this display in Ceske Budejovice was strewn with the same sloppiness that has become too familiar since losing a World Cup semi-final to the USA in the summer.Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Germany, in front of a record crowd at Wembley, was a fifth defeat in seven outings and the two goals conceded against world number 28 side the Czech Republic mean England have now leaked 15 goals in their past eight games.More to follow.



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England flooding an absolute tragedy, says Boris Johnson


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Media captionThe BBC’s David Shukman views the scale of the flooding in the Doncaster area from a helicopter
The prime minister has announced more support for communities in parts of Northern England that have been affected by flooding.Boris Johnson made the commitment following a meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee earlier.He said the situation was “an absolute tragedy” for those who have seen “such damage to their homes and livestock” .Labour and the Lib Dems have criticised the government for its handling of the severe flooding.But Mr Johnson said authorities were working “flat out” and a request had been made for “a little bit more help” from the military in getting sandbags and other defences to some of the areas affected.Severe flood warnings remain in place on five areas on the River Don – which means there is a risk to life.Among the measures announced by Mr Johnson are:
An extra 100 Army personnel deployed from Wednesday to support the recovery effort in South Yorkshire
Funding for local councils where households and businesses have been affected – equivalent to £500 per eligible household
Up to £2,500 for small and medium-sized businesses which have suffered severe impacts not covered by insurance
Community rallies to help flood-hit villagersWhat are the factors making floods worse?How do you stop flooding?Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had earlier said the government’s response was “woeful” while Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson called for “long-term policy changes”.They both urged the prime minister to declare a “national emergency”.Referring to the response for people affected by the flooding, Mr Johnson added: “I know there will be people who feel that that isn’t good enough.”I know there will be people who are worrying about the damage to their homes, who will be worried about the insurance situation, worried about the losses they face.”All I want to say to those people is that there are schemes to cover those losses.”The Environment Agency has 30 flood warnings in place as well as five severe warnings on the River Don in South Yorkshire.About 500 homes have been flooded in Doncaster with more than 1,000 properties evacuated in areas hit by the floods.The Met Office has issued yellow weather warnings for rain covering large parts of the country on Tuesday and Thursday.Last week extensive downpours meant several areas were struck by a month’s worth of rain in a single day.



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Bolivia crisis: Evo Morales says he fled to Mexico as life was at risk


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Media captionEvo Morales steps off the plane after being granted political asylum in Mexico
Former Bolivian President Evo Morales has arrived in Mexico City saying he asked for asylum because his life was in danger.Mr Morales resigned on Sunday after weeks of protests over a disputed presidential election result.The Mexican jet carrying him landed at an airport in Mexico City, where he gave a brief news conference.Mr Morales said he was forced to stand down but did so willingly “so there would be no more bloodshed”.The left-wing leader said he and the Bolivian government were “very grateful” to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whom he credited with saving his life.”While I have life I’ll stay in politics, the fight continues. All the people of the world have the right to free themselves from discrimination and humiliation,” he added.Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Mr Morales had arrived “safely” in the country, tweeting a picture of the jet that carried him.

The plane was denied access to Peruvian airspace, forcing it to make an unscheduled stop in Paraguay to refuel. It was then denied permission to return through Bolivian airspace and had to detour through other countries to reach Mexico.Mr Morales, a former coca farmer, was first elected in 2006.He has won plaudits for fighting poverty and improving Bolivia’s economy but drew controversy by defying constitutional limits to run for a fourth term in October’s election. The poll is alleged to have been rife with irregularities.What’s the latest in Bolivia? The deputy head of the Senate, Jeanine Áñez, has said she will take over as interim president until new elections are held.The Senate met on Tuesday to fill the power vacuum, with lawmakers summoned to ratify Mr Morales’s resignation and appoint Ms Áñez as interim leader.She said she was confident senators would vote to appoint her in order to “end this uncertainty, vandalism and instability that we have in the country”.But Ms Áñez’s plans have been thrown into doubt by Mr Morales’s Movement for Socialism (MAS), which said it would boycott the vote.

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Mr Morales, speaking at Mexico’s international airport, vowed to continue his political “fight”

As Mr Morales prepared to leave for Mexico, unrest again erupted on the streets of the Bolivian capital, La Paz, with angry supporters of the socialist leader clashing with security forces.Bolivia’s military commander ordered troops to support the police, who urged residents to stay indoors in a bid to quell the violence.Mr Morales had urged his supporters to resist the “dark powers” that had forced him to step down.On Tuesday, Bolivia’s main federation of unions warned it would hold an indefinite strike if the country’s leaders did not restore constitutional order and peace within 24 hours.How did we get here?Pressure had been growing on Mr Morales since his narrow victory in last month’s presidential election.The result was called into question by the Organization of American States, a regional body, which had found “clear manipulation” and called for the result to be annulled.In response, Mr Morales agreed to hold fresh elections. But his main rival, Carlos Mesa – who came second in the vote – said Mr Morales should not stand in any new vote.The chief of the armed forces, Gen Williams Kaliman, then urged Mr Morales to step down in the interests of peace and stability.

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Media captionWatch Evo Morales announce his resignation
Announcing his resignation, Mr Morales said he had taken the decision in order to stop fellow socialist leaders from being “harassed, persecuted and threatened”. He also called his removal a “coup”.



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