The government is planning to push ahead with local elections despite concerns that it would be too dangerous to proceed during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Chloe Smith, the Cabinet Office minister with responsibility for elections, said a “high bar” that would need to be crossed to delay elections due to be held in May but said the position is being kept “under review”.
The elections, which include those postponed last year, will represent the first major electoral test of the country’s political leaders since the start of the pandemic.
Reports have claimed that the government was planning to suspend the elections for at least a month.
Smith told the Commons the government is looking to introduce new measures to extend proxy voting before the elections.
Voters have a choice as to how they participate in elections. At the polling station, by proxy or by post. We want to maintain that choice but we recognise that the pandemic may change people’s needs and preferences …
We will be bringing forward additional measures to support absent voting including extending the ability to appoint a proxy so that anybody who might be affected by Covid-19 in the days before the poll is still able to make their voice heard.
Smith, in her first appearance at the despatch box since disclosing in December that she was being treated for breast cancer, said the government is minded not to work towards all-postal ballots. “I would rather give people a choice about how to vote,” she said.
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Disabled people are being unlawfully targeted by police demanding they prove they are exempt from face mask requirements, disability charities have warned.
Charities including Mencap, Disability Rights UK and the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNI) have written to the National Police Chiefs Council calling on it to make clear to rank-and-file officers that they do not have the power to demand that individuals show proof they do not have to wear a mask.
“This has no basis in law and risks discriminating against those with disabilities,” the charities told Martin Hewitt, the NPCC’s chair, in a letter sent today.
The letter comes after several high-profile incidents in which police have been forced to apologise or rescind fixed-penalty notices after targeting disabled people for not wearing masks. However, the letter says: “More recently, police have not apologised for their misunderstandings on this issue.”
Last week, Ken Marsh, chief of the Metropolitan police federation, told LBC radio that police should “carry on the enforcement” in cases where people claimed an exemption. In comments to the Daily Mail he said that those with a valid medical reason for not wearing a mask “have to print off a clarification that proves you have an exemption.”
Among those potentially exempt are survivors of rape and sexual assault. Kate Hardy, a spokesperson for the Survivors Trust, another signatory to the letter, said: “For these individuals, being pressured to disclose their trauma to prove exemption could cause severe distress. An unjust, and overzealous enforcement of regulations may exacerbate anxiety and isolation for survivors.”
Madeleine Stone, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, which also signed, said:
Police requiring people to ‘show their papers’ to prove their disability is discriminatory, wrong and has no basis in law. Likewise, when police challenge people who have survived trauma to disclose the details of their exemption in public, it can be an intrusive and terrifying ordeal.
It must be the highest priority of officers to ensure that restrictions are enforced lawfully and fairly, without perpetuating discrimination.
Scottish councils are getting an extra £45m to spend on hiring teachers, computer tablets and family support staff after ministers responded to intense pressure to alleviate the impacts of school closures.
The money was unveiled by John Swinney, the Scottish education secretary, after opposition parties had pressed the devolved government to hire staff, improve teaching support and also ensure remote learning was effective.
Swinney said alongside the funding, which would be enough to hire up to 2,000 extra teachers, Scotland’s schools inspectorate would investigate whether remote learning policies and systems across the country were good enough.
Private and third sector childcare operators would get an extra £4m in emergency support. Swinney said Scottish ministers, who have had around £9bn in extra financing from the Treasury, had already funded the recruitment of 1,400 extra teachers and 200 support staff.
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