Bolton fire: Government warned over laminate cladding risk before student flat block blaze

An investigation is under way into the cause of a fire that “spread rapidly” at a student accommodation block in Bolton covered in cladding.

Safety campaigners have warned the blaze on Friday night had echoes of the Grenfell Tower disaster after eyewitnesses blamed the spread of the fire on the cladding.

The blaze quickly gutted the top floor of the building and caused substantial damage through the following two stories of the student flat complex known as The Cube – leaving 220 students homeless.

And while it has been confirmed the building did not have the same aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding that led to the deaths of 72 people at Grenfell Tower in 2017, the local authority was aware the building had been covered with a high pressure laminate (HPL) variety of the building material.

In July government experts said HPL cladding should be removed from any high-rise building more than 18m tall over concerns that some varieties of the material are unsafe – with an advice note saying some grades of the panelling were “very unlikely to adequately resist the spread of fire”.

It is not yet known what type of HPL cladding had been fitted to the student building.

Witnesses had described the fire as rapidly spreading up the cladding as more than 200 firefighters battled flames through the night and into the morning.

Ace Love, 35, who described the fire as “crawl[ing] up the cladding like it was nothing”, said: “The fire kept getting more intense, climbing up and to the right because the wind was blowing so hard.”

Manchester metro-mayor Andy Burnham told Sky News: “It does not have the ACM cladding which is now banned, but it does have a type of cladding which does cause concern.

“There will be many people living in buildings with this cladding today who will be very worried.”

Referring to a visit to the building by Boris Johnson, he added “we will see if we now need to go further to remove the cladding and give these families peace of mind.

“The response from the community in Bolton has been fantastic. We want to pay tribute to everybody involved.”

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn was more direct in his call for action from Downing Street, writing in a tweet that if “flammable cladding contributed to the fire, it shows the government’s shameful inaction since Grenfell”.

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On his arrival Mr Johnson praised the “incredible response” from the community after donations of clothing, food, toiletries and other essentials including phone chargers were handed in for students who had left their belongings behind.

Professor William Morris, the university’s deputy chair of the board of governors, told the prime minister: “It’s been a terrific response, just marvellous.

“Luckily nobody was badly hurt, the fear here was tangible.”

Pressure group Grenfell United said the fire in Bolton “brings back memories” of the disaster in west London and called for government action.

“Devastating to see images of such quick fire spread last night in Bolton,” tweeted the group, which represents bereaved and survivors from the fire.

“It brings back memories of Grenfell [and] we can’t believe that over 2.5 years later this is happening. Our hearts go out to all the students affected.”

The group said “answers and urgent action” are now needed from Downing Street and the Ministry of Housing.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) sent 40 engines to the scene after the blaze broke out at about 8.30pm on Friday.

Paramedics treated two people at the scene, including one person who was rescued by crews via an aerial platform.

No one is believed to have been seriously hurt in the incident – while pets including a rabbit and a hamster have been rescued from the building by firefighters.

Meanwhile the government has set up an emergency hardship fund for the students affected.

Secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick, said in a tweet that the government was ready to offer assistance to those affected by the Bolton fire.

“While it is too early to speculate on the cause of the fire, we will be following Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Services’ investigation very closely,” he wrote, adding “I have asked building safety experts BRE to attend and support GMFRS and report urgently.”

John Healey, the shadow housing secretary, said the blaze should act as a “wake up call” as it emerged that ministers are on course to miss their target for removing the deadly materials by 13 years.

Despite several types of cladding having been found to be dangerous in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, which killed 72 people, 267 blocks have still not had the materials removed.

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said it is important an investigation into the fire takes place. She said: “Looking at those terrifying images of that fire in Bolton, I am in awe to our emergency services, the firefighters who bravely got that under control, and I’m so pleased that it seems nobody was hurt and that everybody has been rescued and got out alive.

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Bolton fire: Flames ‘crawling up cladding’ at block of student flats as 200 firefighters battled blaze

A fire at a block of student flats in Bolton was “crawling up the cladding like it was nothing,” witnesses have said after the blaze left two people injured.

More than 200 firefighters battled flames through the night as the fire tore through all six floors of The Cube private university accommodation.

Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) sent 40 engines to the scene after the blaze broke out at about 8.30pm on Friday. Paramedics treated two people at the scene, including one person who was rescued by crews via an aerial platform.

Six fire crews still at the scene on Saturday morning tackling “the last few fighting pockets of fire” in the building, which was evacuated as the flames spread.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said most of the block’s residents had been accounted for but “not everyone”.

One witness said they saw the fire “crawl up the cladding like it was nothing”.

Ace Love, 35, added: “The fire kept getting more intense, climbing up and to the right because the wind was blowing so hard.

“We could see it bubbling from the outside and then being engulfed from the outside. A lot of students got out very fast, someone was very distressed, the rest were on phones calling for help.

“The fire got worse and worse, to the point where you could see through the beams, it was just bare frame.”

University of Bolton student Shannon Parker, 22, who lives in the building, described fleeing her flat as flames tore through the block.

She said: “I was in my room whilst it was happening. I heard the fire alarm going off but it kept on going off so I just thought it was a drill at first until one of my flatmates shouted down the corridor that it was a real fire.

“So I ran out the flat as quickly as I could and I saw that it was one of the flats below mine and we went out by the fire exit.”

She said she was being relocated to either a nearby hotel or another student accommodation building.

Authorities have asked anyone who was living at or visiting The Cube to register at the nearby Orlando Village student accommodation facility.

“We have divided the fire itself into four sectors of firefighting, allowing us to target our efforts on particular hotspots,” GMFRS area manager Jim Hutton said.

“While the building does remain on fire, we are doing all we can to stay on top of this situation and soon extinguish the flames.”

Assistant chief fire officer Tony Hunter praised crews for stopping the blaze from spreading to other buildings, and for controlling the fire “in very challenging circumstances”.

Mr Burnham said the fire service had “implemented one of their own learnings from Grenfell” by sending a second command team to deal specifically with the evacuation of the building.

Jeremy Corbyn also linked the blaze to the Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 people died after flammable cladding allowed flames to tear rapidly through the west London block.

The Labour leader said: “If reports are correct and flammable cladding contributed to the [Bolton] fire, it shows the government’s shameful inaction since Grenfell.”

GMFRS sought to reassure residents living in tower blocks, in particular those which had been identified as having potentially dangerous cladding, and reminded residents to familiarise themselves with their building’s evacuation strategy.​

Secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, Robert Jenrick, said in a tweet that the government was were ready to offer assistance to those affected by the Bolton fire.

“While it is too early to speculate on the cause of the fire, we will be following [GMFRS’] investigation very closely,” he wrote. “I have asked building safety experts, BRE to attend and support [GMFRS] and report urgently.”

The University of Bolton‘s vice-chancellor, Professor George Holmes, said: “Supporting the welfare of our students is our number one priority and we have moved swiftly to assist in any way we can.”

“University colleagues have worked through the night to make sure support is in place for students over the weekend.

“We have assisted in ensuring students have been given temporary alternative accommodation at the Orlando student halls and in some Bolton hotels.

“We have also arranged to provide necessities such as toiletries for all students affected and are opening the University over the weekend so students can be supported. We will also provide food for them.

“I would like to stress that The Cube is not owned by the University of Bolton. It is owned and managed by a private landlord and the students were not on our premises when during this incident.”​

Additional reporting by PA

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Royal Mail strike: Postal service seeks injunction to block proposed walkout

Royal Mail bosses are seeking an injunction to block a planned strike by postal workers, claiming there are “potential irregularities in the ballot” making the vote unlawful.

The company will go to the High Court for an interim order against the Communication Workers Union (CWU), whose members voted overwhelmingly for walkouts.

The Royal Mail said: “The company is making this High Court application because the integrity and legal soundness of any electoral process is vital. This is particularly the case in relation to potential industrial action around the general election on 12 December 2019. Royal Mail is also making this application because of the damage industrial action would do to the company and its customers in the run-up to Christmas.”

The dispute between workers and management stems from a dispute over job security and employment terms and conditions.

Last month members of the CWU backed action by 97 per cent in a turnout of almost 75 per cent.

But Royal Mail said: “The company believes the evidence demonstrates that CWU officials, including coordination and direction at a senior level, have planned and orchestrated breaches of their legal obligations.”

It added that bosses have found “at least 72” UK sites where staff were being asked to intercept and remove their ballot papers from mail coming into their delivery offices, before they were delivered to their homes.

The company added it had evidence of workers “being instructed to vote ‘yes’ and being encouraged to do so in groups; and being encouraged to open their ballot papers on site, mark them as ‘yes’, with their colleagues present and filming or photographing them doing so, before posting their ballots together at their workplace postboxes”.

Royal Mail’s procedures state employees cannot open their mail at delivery offices without the authorisation of their manager.

Industrial relations at the company have worsened this year, with widespread unofficial strikes breaking out virtually every week.

The CWU previously said the result of the ballot, which was open between 24 September and 15 October, represents the largest “yes” vote for national industrial action since the passing of the Trade Union Act 2016.

Unions claimed up to 50,000 jobs were at risk at Royal Mail, as well as at Parcelforce under plans to separate it from the postal business.

Industrial relations have been declining since the beginning of 2019 (PA)

A CWU spokesperson said: “Royal Mail have made an application to take us to the High Court. They claim there are irregularities with our ballot. We clearly refute this and will be represented. This is nothing but a desperate and sinister move.”

Dave Ward, CWU general secretary, added: “It will be clear to all our members and everybody connected with Royal Mail and this dispute, that the chief executive and his board will go to any lengths to deny the democratic mandate of our members to stand together and fight for their future and the very future of UK postal services.

“Instead the company are pressing on regardless with their asset-stripping plans to set up a separate parcels business and let thousands upon thousands of jobs wither on the vine.

“At the same time, the company refuses to engage in any meaningful discussions on their plans. We have made it clear that the union is available, including through the weekend, to meet Royal Mail anytime.”

Shane O’Riordain, Royal Mail’s managing director of regulation and corporate affairs, said: “Royal Mail has written to CWU on a number of occasions. On each occasion, we have said that if the union provides a binding commitment to remove the threat of strike action for the rest of 2019, we will enter into discussions without preconditions.

“We will also extend the life of the ballot result by the same amount of time as the pause on industrial action. The CWU has so far declined to take up this offer. We continue to stand ready to engage with the CWU, on the basis that it makes this binding commitment.

“We continue to believe a binding commitment from the CWU to remove the threat of strike action during the period of any general election is vital to ensuring a seamless electoral process in relation to postal votes.”

Press Association

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Trump news live: Latest impeachment updates as White House fails to block testimony by Pence aide

Bill Taylor set to be impeachment inquiry’s first public witness


As the House impeachment inquiry progresses, Bill Taylor, acting US ambassador to Kiev, is set to become its first televised witness when the hearings go public next week, ending weeks of Republican gripes about their Democratic rivals carrying out “Soviet-style” behind-closed-doors testimony.


Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee leading the probe, said that with two days of hearings next week, Americans will have a chance to decide for themselves.


“The most important facts are largely not contested,” the California Democrat said. “Those open hearings will be an opportunity for the American people to evaluate the witnesses for themselves, to make their own determinations about the credibility of the witnesses, but also to learn firsthand about the facts of the president’s misconduct.”


Along with Taylor, the public will hear from former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump fired after what she and others say was a smear campaign, as well as career State Department official George Kent.


Taylor and Kent will appear on Wednesday, Yovanovitch on Friday.


A 324-page transcript of Taylor’s deposition to investigators was also released on Wednesday, in which Mr Taylor agrees a quid pro quo was in play and frets about the administration’s strategy of withholding military assistance.


Taylor, a career envoy and war veteran with 50 years of service to the US, told investigators that an “irregular channel” operated by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was set up to handle Ukraine diplomacy in the wake of the ousting of Yovanovitch and how the White House was holding up almost $400m (£311m) in aid.


This exchange with Chairman Schiff was particularly revealing:


Taylor: “That was my clear understanding, security assistance money would not come until the president committed to pursue the investigation.”
Schiff: “So if they don’t do this, they are not going to get that was your understanding?”
Taylor: “Yes, sir.”
Schiff: “Are you aware that quid pro quo literally means this for that?”
Taylor: “I am.”

The acting charges d’affaires also discussed the president’s unsuccessful and much derided proposal to buy Greenland. “It took up a lot of energy in the [National Security Council],” he lamented.


Here’s Clark Mindock’s report.


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Vince Cable: People should abandon ‘tribal loyalties’ and vote tactically to block Brexit, says ex-Lib Dem leader

Voters should abandon “tribal loyalties” and cast their ballots tactically to block Brexit at the first December election for almost a century, former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable has urged today.

In his regular column for The Independent, the ex-coalition cabinet minister has reluctantly suggested that in some constituencies it may be necessary for Lib Dem supporters to back a different party.

Preparing to contest his 11th general election, Sir Vince, who led his party between 2017 and 2019, said the upcoming vote will represent a “challenge for all of us in the political world” and the last chance to stop Brexit. 

“I am very anxious to see my party fully recover from the depths of 2015 and 2017 and to build on our two successful elections – local and European – this year and make big gains at the expense of the two major parties,” Sir Vince wrote.

He added: “But I also want to save the country from Brexit. My ambition for the former will be tempered by the latter. Fortunately, these aims coincide in large parts of the country.  

“But they do not yet do so everywhere. Remain vs Leave is the new dividing line in British politics, along with the issues of identity that lie behind it. Voters are smart enough to get what they want.”

While his successor Jo Swinson has discussed pro-Remain pacts in certain constituencies at the general election, she has not gone as far to suggest potential Lib Dem supporters should tactically vote Labour in any areas. 

Despite having just 20 MPs, Ms Swinson has claimed to be running to become the next prime minister, and has insisted both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson are not fit to lead the country. 

Sir Vince added: “Party leaders will, quite understandably, be appealing to tribal loyalties in the usual way: all three major party leaders are seeking a majority.”

His remarks come after the pro-EU Best for Britain group produced a new tool advising individuals how to vote tactically across constituencies in the UK in order to elect a Final Say supporter in each area to parliament.

Citing the research, the ex-Lib Dem leader claimed: “Without tactical voting, Johnson wins a clear majority in parliament to press ahead with his damaging ‘hard Brexit’.

“However, if 30 per cent of Labour, Lib Dems, Green and nationalist voters vote tactically in their constituencies, any majority for Johnson is wiped out and there is a majority for a people’s vote in the next parliament.”

Best for Britain’s research shows the Conservatives could emerge on 13 December with a 44-seat majority, with 346 MPs, compared with 189 for Labour and 23 for the Liberal Democrats.

If 30 per cent of British voters cast their ballot tactically it could swing the election to give pro-referendum parties a majority of four in the House of Commons, according to the seat-by-seat analysis of 46,000 people over September and October.

But the organisation was forced to defend its tool earlier this week after drawing criticism for advising voters to back the Lib Dems in some seats where the party trails behind Labour.

“The only person who benefits from this bogus advice is Boris Johnson and the vested interests he protects,” a Labour source told The Independent

They added: “This false information makes Johnson’s sell-out Brexit deal more likely and its peddlers should be ashamed of themselves. A vote for the Lib Dems in almost every seat in the country helps put Johnson in Downing Street.”

But Best for Britain chief executive Naomi Smith said: “Our methodology is data driven. This data is from October 2019 and factored in responses from 46,000 Brits. There’s no organisation in the UK with such sophisticated seat-by-seat data.

“Criticism based on the 2017 general election, while understandable, is therefore outdated. As pollster Lewis Baston said, nearly a third of voters changed parties between 2015 and 2017. And it’s pretty well accepted that a lot has changed since then.”

Speaking on Saturday, as the election campaign entered its first weekend, Ms Swinson also acknowledged her party “didn’t get everything right” in its support of austerity during the Tory-Lib Dem coalition years. 

“When it comes to having been in government, as Liberal Democrats we achieved significant successes – more money for the poorest pupils, taking people on low pay out of paying income tax and securing better rights such as same-sex marriage. 

“We didn’t get everything right. I’ve been upfront about that and we need to learn from the things we didn’t get right. The bedroom tax would be an example of that. But I’m confident I’ve learned from experience.”

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Tony Blair calls for new law to block no-deal Brexit after Tory minister admits it will ‘always’ be option

Tony Blair is urging MPs to pass a fresh law to prevent a no-deal Brexit, after a government minister admitted the option will “always” be on the table.

Kwasi Kwarteng’s comments were “a revelation” that made it essential Boris Johnson did not succeed in triggering a pre-Christmas general election, the former prime minister said.

They exposed the real risk of the UK crashing out of the EU at the end of 2020 – the planned end of the transition period – if the Brexit deal is passed in its current form, he argued.

“Kwasi Kwarteng’s words are a revelation that no deal is still a real possibility in the negotiation over Britain’s future relationship with Europe,” Mr Blair warned.

Suspicions that a no deal at the end of 2020 remains the aim of hardline Tory MPs were first prompted when one said it was their reason for backing Mr Johnson’s deal.

Now Mr Kwarteng, the business minister, has put rocket boosters under the fears of “a trapdoor” little more than one year away, by saying: “No deal can’t be taken off the table because it helps with the negotiation.”

He made clear the threat would remain even if the divorce deal passed, telling BBC Radio 4: “It’s always got to be something which may well be a possibility.”

The comments are certain to fuel Labour determination to oppose the trigger motion for the 12 December election Mr Johnson craves, in the vote on Monday.

Mr Blair said: “This statement should transform Labour’s position. To take no deal off the table, it has to be taken off not only in respect of the withdrawal negotiation but also of the subsequent negotiation around the future relationship due to finish by end 2020.”

And he added: “This is why Labour must not agree to this election ploy until the situation is clarified and dealt with.”

The row came as Sadiq Khan piled pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to be “braver” by telling Leave voters they are “wrong” on Brexit, instead of sitting on the fence.

In an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, the London mayor said “all forms of Brexit are worse than remaining in the EU”.

“I’d like the Labour Party to be braver and provide leadership on this issue,” Mr Khan said, ahead of vying for a second term at City Hall in May.

“Sometimes, saying to people who may want to leave the EU, ‘Listen, I respect you, but let me explain to you I think you’re wrong and why I think we should campaign to remain in the EU’.”

Mr Khan added: “That’s the conversation we should be having rather than trying to be all things to all people.”

The new divorce deal retains the clause from its rejected predecessor allowing an extension to the transition period until December 2022.

However, the risk of a no-deal Brexit will only be delayed, not removed, because of Mr Johnson’s insistence that it must end at the close of 2020.

Experts believe there is little chance of negotiating a permanent deal with the EU by then – which would mean the UK losing its trading and security ties with the bloc.

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Government approach to aid could block efforts to tackle poverty, watchdog warns

The government’s approach to aid spending risks undermining efforts to tackle poverty, a report from an official watchdog has warned.

Ministers’ new focus on spending aid in ways that will deliver trade and investment benefits for the UK means attempts to alleviate poverty could be “diluted”, according to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), a government body responsible for scrutinising developing spending.

The “mutual prosperity” approach adopted by ministers in recent years says that efforts to help people in developing countries should, where possible, also be used to help the UK.

In practice, this means focusing more on economic development and boosting trade than on efforts to reduce poverty abroad.

The government is also trying to convince international bodies to count the profits of its development finance arm, CDC, as aid, in a move that experts have warned could cut the total amount of aid spending.

In a report on the “mutual prosperity” approach, the ICAI warned: “There are risks that the poverty focus of UK aid may be diluted.”

It continued: “There is a risk that if those responsible for spending aid are under pressure to identify ‘win-win’ opportunities, they may not choose the most effective development interventions. Faced with a trade-off, they may choose to maximise secondary benefits to the UK at the expense of poverty reduction.”

The watchdog said the new approach would “create pressures to spend aid in the developing countries that are most likely to be important trading partners”, adding: “There are risks that this could lead to the global allocation of UK aid becoming less pro-poor, and less focused on the most marginalised.”

It warned that advice issued by the Department for International Development (DfiD) on how officials should choose where to invest money “leaves open the possibility that staff might prioritise interventions with a relatively lower poverty reduction benefit in order to secure benefits to the UK”.

The ICAI said there had been a marked shift in aid priorities since the Tories came to power, with a move away from reducing poverty and towards economic development.

The report said: “During the first decade of the 21st Century, UK aid had a strong focus on poverty reduction and promoting basic services such as health, education and clean water. This was in keeping with the development agenda set out in the UN Millennium Development Goals. Since the 2010 election, there has been a rebalancing of UK aid back towards economic development.”

Responding to the report, Alex Norris, Labour’s shadow international development minister, said: “The Tories clearly can’t be trusted to use the country’s aid budget in the way it should be.

“They are using aid to support post-Brexit trade and investment deals which help their privileged friends in big business, rather than tackling poverty and helping the world’s poorest people.”

The government has been contacted for comment.

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Brexit: Blair and Major urge MPs to block deal which ‘threatens peace process’ in Northern Ireland

Two former prime ministers have issued a plea to MPs not to “wreck” the Northern Ireland peace process and risk the break-up of the United Kingdom by approving Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.

Tony Blair and Sir John Major said that the withdrawal agreement – due to be put to a vote in the Commons on Saturday – represents “a reckless gamble with people’s lives and a fragile peace”.

In a video message to Saturday’s Together for the Final Say rally in London, the two ex-premiers will restate their full support for the demand of hundreds of thousands of marchers for a referendum on any deal.

Mr Blair, who was PM when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, said it was “a shame and an outrage” that peace in Northern Ireland was being treated as “some disposable inconvenience to be bartered away in exchange for satisfying the obsession of the Brexiteers with wrenching our country out of Europe”.

And Sir John, who began the talks process which led to the historic agreement, said he found it “extraordinary” that the Conservative and Unionist Party which he once led was now ready to take a course which “may in the future break apart the United Kingdom”.

“I cannot imagine any previous generation of Conservatives putting at risk the Union in the way that has now happened,” said the former Tory PM.

“Leaving Europe, carrying Brexit through, will raise strains we know of and strains we haven’t yet thought of. That may well end up with dividing a United Kingdom that has been together for a very long time. It is a thoroughly bad idea.”

Once adversaries in the House of Commons, Blair and Major paid a joint visit to the Irish border during the 2016 EU referendum campaign to highlight the risk that Brexit poses to the peace which they played a significant role in achieving.


Mr Blair said that the deal proposed by Mr Johnson would create “either a hard border between Northern Ireland and Britain or a hard border between the north and south of Ireland.

“It is a shame and an outrage that peace in Northern Ireland is now treated as some disposable inconvenience to be bartered away in exchange for satisfying the obsession of the Brexiteers with wrenching our country out of Europe,” said the former Labour premier.

“Either Northern Ireland and its hard-won peace is sacrificed on the Brexit altar. Or we end up in the bizarre situation where Northern Ireland stays in Europe’s trading system and Great Britain leaves with a hard Brexit which itself requires years more of Brexit negotiations and distraction from the real issues facing the country.”

Sir John said a customs border in the Irish Sea would play on the fear of the people of Northern Ireland that they are being “ignored and maltreated”.

“Those fears are very real. And they need to be addressed and they need to be assuaged,” he said.

“There’s a whole generation of people in Northern Ireland who have no memory of what life was like before the Good Friday Agreement.

“No-one under the age of 20 would have any memory of the violence and death that once engulfed their neighbourhoods. I hope and pray they never do.”

Sir John said that another “powerful” reason for a confirmatory referendum on any deal was changes in the electorate over the three and a half years since the 2016 vote.

“There are two million people who voted in that referendum who sadly are no longer with us,” he said. “And two and a half million young people who are now on the register who may have very different views about our future in Europe.

“Now they are old enough wish to express their views in a referendum as to the future of their country and their prospects and their life.”

Mr Blair said: “Whatever is the outcome-  no deal or bad deal – it should not pass without the final say resting with the people.

 “These Brexiteers talk about the will of the people.  But in 2016 our knowledge was necessarily limited. Now, three years on – three years of mess, misery and mayhem – when our knowledge is vastly expanded by experience, how can it be undemocratic to ask the British people their final opinion?

 “The truth is these demagogues talk of ‘the will of the people’ but are terrified of seeking it. Their worry is not that a Final Say referendum is a blow to democracy, they worry that if we have one, instead of the fantasies they peddled in June 2016, this time we will have a debate on the facts, and they will lose.”



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Australian Booksellers Block Sales of Ronan Farrow’s Book

Tony Nash, the chief executive of Booktopia, said there was no intention to restore the book to the website “unless there is clear direction that there will be no legal action.”

Keeping the book on the site with the specter of a potential defamation suit would be an “unnecessary nuisance,” he said, adding that this was not the first time Booktopia had complied with threats.

Amazon Australia declined to comment.

The dispute comes at a time when Australia is increasingly being called the defamation capital of the world because of its strict and complex laws that favor complainants.

“Australia is really a plaintiff playground,” said Matthew Lewis, a Sydney-based lawyer specializing in media law. “All it takes is a general complaint to have a chilling effect on free speech on important matters.”

“Ultimately, it’s a question of risk,” Lewis added. “If there’s a potential risk of defamation, then it is a business decision ultimately of whether or not they want to promote that book, or alternatively err on the side of caution.”

Mark Rubbo, the managing director of Readings, an independent book retailer in Melbourne, confirmed that he also received a letter of notice from Howard’s lawyers but has continued to sell the book in his stores and online, saying he “acted on the advice on the publisher.”

“It smacks a little of censorship, which I hate,” he said.

Multinational attempts to suppress book sales are not unprecedented. In 2018, threatening letters were sent to booksellers around the world, including in Australia and the United Kingdom, in an attempt to quash sales of “Billion Dollar Whale,” an exposé by two Wall Street Journal reporters about the Malaysian financier Jho Low, who prosecutors say helped steal billions of dollars from a government investment fund.

Follow New York Times Books on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, sign up for our newsletter or our literary calendar. And listen to us on the Book Review podcast.

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UK ‘porn block’: Government drops plan to stop children watching sex videos online

Controversial plans for a “porn block” to stop children viewing adult material online have been dropped, the government has announced.

The long-delayed measure – first promised in 2015 and first due to come into effect last year – “will not be commencing” after running into trouble and after repeated delays.

“The government’s commitment to protecting children online is unwavering,” Nicky Morgan, the digital secretary, insisted, in a statement revealing the climbdown.

The policy would have required all adult internet users wanting to watch legal pornography to prove they are over 18 by providing some form of identification.

Websites that refused to implement the checks faced being blocked by UK internet service providers or having their access to payment services withdrawn.

However, the idea – one of the first of its kind in any democratic country – ran into legal, practical and technical difficulties.

Privacy campaigners protested that – despite the reassurances of age-verification sites – it would be possible to connect an individual’s browsing habits to their identity, which could then be leaked.

The government was also forced to exempt large social media sites from the ban over fears that it would result in the likes of Twitter and Reddit being blocked for adult content.

In June, implementation was delayed for a further six months because the government failed to inform the EU of its proposals.

Labour attacked that announcement as “proof that an important policy issue has descended into utter shambles”.

At the time, then-culture secretary Jeremy Wright insisted the hold-up did not mean the government was backing down from its policy.

“It is not a change in policy. Age verification needs to happen, and in the interest of the needs of children, it must,” MPs were told.

But, in a written statement, Ms Morgan, his successor, said: “The government has concluded that this objective of coherence will be best achieved through our wider online harms proposals.

“As a consequence, will not be commencing Part 3 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 concerning age verification for online pornography.

“The Digital Economy Act objectives will, therefore, be delivered through our proposed online harms regulatory regime. This course of action will give the regulator discretion on the most effective means for companies to meet their duty of care.”

She pointed to the loophole created because “the Digital Economy Act does not cover social media platforms”.

Ms Morgan also backed the principle of age verification tools, adding: “We expect them to continue to play a key role in protecting children online.”

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children made clear its concern. Tony Stower, the charity’s head of child safety, said: “We know that viewing this explicit material can harm children’s perceptions of sex, body image and healthy relationships.

“This delay is disappointing, but it is also imperative that the vehicle used to achieve protection for children from pornography is robust and effective. The government cannot drag its feet on this.”

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