The rise of the dog-napper

sleeping puppy Image copyright Getty Images

The popularity in owning “designer dogs” popularised by celebrities from Cheryl Cole to The Rock has been blamed for a rise in dog thefts. Some breeds can fetch hundreds or even thousands of pounds on the black market – and criminals are taking advantage, according to campaigners and insurance companies.

Dog theft has been rising since 2012.

And insurance firm Direct Line is the latest to publish figures, from police forces in England and Wales, showing that 121 more dogs were stolen in 2017 than the year before with almost 2,000 reported to the police last year.

These numbers were released under Freedom of Information legislation from 38 police forces in England and Wales.

There are 44 police forces around the UK with Scotland and Northern Ireland each having a single centralised force.

A similar exercise was carried out by another firm, the Insurance Emporium. It also obtained data under FOI from 38 forces, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The Insurance Emporium looked at dog thefts between 2015 and 2017 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, finding a rise from about 1,700 to 2,000 a year in that time period, although the average number in Northern Ireland actually fell by a quarter.

Neither company managed to get hold of Scottish data.

And animal charity Blue Cross, which provides advice for people on how to prevent their animals being stolen, has been carrying out similar research since 2010.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption About 200 cats were stolen in England and Wales 2015

Blue Cross’s Louise Lee said that it’s “impossible to say why there was a drop and worryingly now a rise in crimes involving pet theft”.

She added: “Perhaps more forces are better at recording this sort of data or more owners feel like they can come forward and report their pet as stolen, not just missing.”

This is a sense shared by the Insurance Emporium, whose spokesperson said: “Dog thefts are rising due to more accurate reporting of crime statistics by regional forces, we think.

“This means the public are able to get a more fair reflection of the problem of dog theft.”

Pedigree cats are also stolen but in much smaller numbers, with certain breeds far more likely to be targeted.

The top five most commonly stolen dog breeds in 2017 according to police reports, were:

  1. Staffordshire bull terrier
  2. Crossbreed
  3. French bulldog
  4. Chihuahua
  5. Jack Russell
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Crossbreeds like cockerpoos and sproodles are popular pets

And according to the Royal Veterinary College, the most commonly-owned breeds in the UK are:

  1. Crossbreed
  2. Labrador retriever
  3. Staffordshire bull terrier
  4. Jack Russell
  5. Yorkshire terrier

Direct Line says the fact that specific breeds are stolen suggests the influence of celebrities driving up the popularity – and therefore the value to criminals – of “designer dogs”.

Head of pet insurance at the firm, Prit Powar, said: “The fashion for certain types of dogs means people are willing to pay thousands for an animal, which unfortunately makes them prime targets for thieves.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Socialite Paris Hilton is frequently seen with her pet chihuahua by her side

The insurance company said the rise in the numbers of crossbreeds being stolen coincided with the rise in popularity of breeds like cockerpoos and puggles.

And another commonly stolen breed, French bulldogs, may have been popularised by celebrity owners like Leonardo DiCaprio, Lady Gaga and Madonna, it claims.

The company also puts the rise in ownership of huskies and “other wolf-like breeds” in part down to “the Game of Thrones effect” although this is hard to pin down.

In some cases these dog-nappings are thought to be carried out by organised criminal gangs who sell the animals on the black market or demand a ransom.

While on average, thefts are rising, that’s not the case throughout the UK. Dog theft is far more common in certain parts of the country than in others.

In the West Midlands police force area there’s been a 24% fall in thefts between 2016 and 2017 while in the East Midlands there was a 43% rise in the same period.

We’re talking about relatively small overall figures so these changes aren’t quite as dramatic as they sound, but that still equates to the difference between about 40 more, or fewer, animals being stolen from their owners.

Richard Jordan, from campaign group Pet Theft Awareness, said: “We actually want to pay tribute to the police for starting to take this type of crime more seriously.

“Some of the regions with the highest figures are actually the ones we know are taking steps to tackle it, which include more effective recording of data.”

He added that an estimated one in three people who have their pets stolen report the incident to the police.

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Britons are known as animal lovers and dogs are the most popular choice of pet in the UK, while in the rest of Europe, cats take the lead.

And we favour animal charities with our pennies, too.

When people who have donated to charity in a previous month were asked which causes they gave to in a 2016 survey, animal charities were the second most popular recipient after medical research charities.

They came in ahead of charities for children and young people according to the Charities Aid Foundation. Combined, those three categories accounted for three-quarters of all causes donated to in the UK last year.

There was some seasonal variation, however. Homelessness charities don’t appear in the top five causes people gave to throughout the year but accounted for almost a quarter of giving in December around the Christmas period.

But that’s just looking at what proportion of donors gave to those causes, not how much they gave.

Once you look at that, the proportion of all donations going to animal charities fell to only 7%, and medical research charities to 8%, while 20% of all money donated in 2016 went to religious organisations despite far fewer people donating to them.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this pet-loving culture, the RSPCA says it receives more than a million calls a year reporting concerns about an animal’s welfare.

They say that on average every 30 seconds someone in England and Wales dials their helpline.

About a tenth of these calls lead to an animal being rescued and around half of these go on to be re-homed.



The strawberry-picking robots doing a job humans won’t

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Media captionCome strawberry-picking with robots

With strawberry picking season well under way – but migrant labour in short supply in several countries – we look at the various robots being developed around the world to help producers harvest this most popular fruit.

Next time you buy strawberries take a look a good look in the punnet. Do the berries still have the stem attached or has it been plucked off leaving only the green hat of leaves called the calyx?

You may not think that matters, but it’s a key consideration for growers as they contemplate the merits of a range of robotic prototypes that promise to pick strawberries as fast and as carefully as humans.

Whether the berry is plucked or whether the stalk is snipped through and kept attached is one critical difference between the concepts that Spanish, Belgian, British and US engineers are testing, ready to roll out in fields as soon as next year.

Fragile fruits

Harvesting soft fruit mechanically represents a huge challenge – each berry needs to be located, even if it’s behind a leaf, assessed for ripeness and then harvested and boxed with enormous care to avoid bruising.

But recent developments in visual sensor technology, machine learning and autonomous propulsion have brought the goal within reach.

“If you can put a man on the moon you can get a machine to pick a strawberry,” says Tom Coen, founder of Octinion, a Belgium-based start-up conducting a final phase of field trials this summer in partnership with growers in the UK and continental Europe.

Image copyright Octinion
Image caption Octinion’s robotic arm gently grasps the strawberry, snaps it off, and drops it in the punnet

“Today we can say we have a [robotic] arm that is competitive with a human in terms of price and speed,” he says.

Octinion’s arm is mounted on a self-driving trolley. It reaches up from below and, using 3D vision, grips a ripe berry between two cushioned plastic paws. The gripper then turns the fruit by 90 degrees to snap it off its stalk, mimicking the technique a human picker would use.

The prototype is picking one strawberry every four seconds, says Mr Coen, and depending on the cultivar, will collect between 70% and 100% of the ripe fruit – results that he says make it competitive with human pickers.

The berry is left with only the calyx, which is the way European consumers are accustomed to buying their berries.

“We don’t believe in cutting,” he says. Stalks risk bruising other berries in the punnet, he argues.

Stem subject

But Cambridge-based start-up Dogtooth is taking a different approach.

Founders Duncan Robertson and Ed Herbert have just returned from Australia where they’ve been testing a picker that delivers berries with a centimetre or so of stem still attached, the way UK retailers prefer, because it extends shelf life.

Dogtooth is cautious about giving away too much about how its robot works, but like Octinion it is based around robotic arms mounted on a mobile platform.

Image copyright Dogtooth
Image caption Dogtooth’s mobile robotic picker leaves some stem attached to the strawberry

It uses computer vision to identify ripe fruit and machine learning to evolve efficient picking strategies. After picking, the robot grades berries to determine their size and quality, and places them directly into punnets.

Dogtooth also prides itself in working around the needs and current practices of UK growers.

So while Octinion’s machine will only work on fruit grown on raised platforms, usually in polytunnels, Dogtooth’s will pick traditional British varieties in the field.

“Adopting robotic practice will be a big ask, so I don’t want to ask growers to pull out existing infrastructure to support our robot,” says Mr Robertson.

“We’re trying to reinvent an important part of how soft fruit is grown, not reinvent the whole thing.”

Rotting fruit

Robots can operate at all times of the day or night – harvesting during the chillier night hours can dramatically lengthen shelf life and avoid bruising.

But developers emphasise the motivation is not to replace migrant labour with cheaper, more efficient robots. In fact, it’s not proving easy to replicate the standards that human pickers deliver.

Strawberry farmers say they are increasingly struggling to find people to do the work. They need the robots.

Image caption Strawberry picking is traditionally done by seasonal migrant workers

In the UK, the fall in the value of sterling following the EU referendum vote has made it increasingly difficult to recruit overseas workers. UK citizens seem reluctant to do such seasonal, physically laborious work.

In the US, growers say they have had to let fruit rot in the fields. Tighter immigration rules, a rise in the minimum wage, and a dwindling birth rate in Mexico, have all meant there just aren’t the workers available to harvest them.


So producers will have to scale up robotic picking if they’re to survive, many argue.

Agrobot, built by Spanish entrepreneur Juan Bravo, should be commercially available in California next year. And in Florida, the Harvest Croo team, led by former Intel engineer Bob Pitzer, is also close to launch.

Both of these are much bigger than the robotic arms being developed by Dogtooth and Octinion.

Image copyright Harvest Croo
Image caption Harvest Croo’s large-scale harvester can span several rows of plants

Both boast tractor-like vehicles spanning several rows of plants with arms that reach down to locate and pick fruit.

Each Agrobot arm grabs a stalk and snips, carrying the fruit off by its stem to minimise damage.

The Harvest Croo (Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer) uses paddles to gather up the plant’s leaves to expose the fruit. Rotating grippers then grasp and snap the berries off the stalk. Americans, like most Europeans, are accustomed to stemless fruit.

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Image copyright Magnum Photos

Mr Pitzer says two thirds of the country’s strawberry production is backing the move to mechanisation.

“Growers advertise and pay a lot of money – a good picker can make $30 (£22) an hour [in Florida]; in California it’s $50 an hour,” he says.

But they still can’t recruit enough workers.

“People like to say if you paid them more they’d do the job, but it’s just not true. We know in future that labour won’t be available.”

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Parachute murder plot: The woman who walked away

Emile Cilliers Image copyright Ben Birchall
Image caption “All the girls adored him”, says his first long-term partner of attempted murderer Emile Cilliers

Emile Cilliers tried to murder his wife by sabotaging her parachute. To get what he wanted, he was willing to condemn Victoria Cilliers to a terrifying death: the unimaginable panic as she cut away her main canopy and waited – in vain – for the reserve to deploy.

But as she fell to earth, it was her husband’s life that was unravelling.

It was the second time in the space of a few days he’d tried to kill Victoria, and the culmination of years of emotional and financial abuse.

One person who is well aware of the dangers the charismatic South African poses to women is the mother of his first two children, Nicolene Shepherd.

Image copyright Nicolene Shepherd
Image caption Nicolene Shepherd got together with Cilliers when she was 13

At his trial at Winchester Crown Court, Cilliers told the court he had not been in contact with his oldest two children – he has six – and their mother since he left South Africa in 2000.

According to Nicolene, that is not quite true.

She got together with Cilliers when she was 13 and he was 16. She gave birth to their first child shortly after her 16th birthday.

She was delighted by the attention of an older boy, especially one so handsome, confident and manly.

“He was charismatic and romantic. We used to go out for our monthly ‘anniversary’ and he would give me a long-stemmed rose every time.”

Ms Shepherd told the BBC that even at a young age he had an easy charm.

“All of the girls adored him.”

And he adored the girls.

“You’re young, you think you’re in love. He cheated on me time after time and I always took him back,” Ms Shepherd says.

“He proposed to me using his grandmother’s ring. We never made it to the altar, though. He was cheating on me with my best friend.”

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption As a young man Cilliers, pictured her with mother Zaan and father Stolz, worked for the family construction business

Cilliers came to the UK on a working holiday visa and found employment in pubs and bars.

As far as Nicolene was concerned, the two were still in a relationship.

They had two young children and had recently moved into rented accommodation together in South Africa. Emile was simply going on a working holiday and would then return.

On a trip home to visit his family at the end of 2000, he had not said anything to suggest otherwise.

It was a bolt from the blue when Cilliers’ mother told Nicolene he had married a British woman called Carly Taylor.

Several years later, Nicolene had followed her ambition and moved to the UK as well.

Image caption Emile Cilliers repeatedly cheated on his wife Victoria – and all the other women he was involved with

One day her daughter asked if she could get to know her father.

Nicolene contacted Cilliers via his mother and he was keen to meet. They went out as a family to a water park.

The spark between Nicolene and Cilliers was still there – and it just so happened, Cilliers claimed, that he and Carly were getting divorced. Nicolene, still under Cilliers’ spell, got back together with him.

One morning, as Cilliers left Nicolene’s house, he left his phone behind. It rang. She answered and asked who it was.

“It’s the wife,” Carly replied. They were actually still together.

Nicolene and Carly, who each had two children with Cilliers, met at the Cilliers family home at Larkhill Barracks in Wiltshire. They waited for him to arrive.

“He came in and spoke to me in Afrikaans as he knew Carly wouldn’t understand,” Nicolene says.

“He asked what the hell was I doing, and we confronted him.

“He was as calm as anything. He looked from one of us to the other, as if he was thinking ‘who wants me the most?’

“He chose me. And I knew then that I needed to walk away. Carly could have him.”

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Cilliers enjoyed high-risk physical activities, including rock-climbing

Nicolene says that in South Africa, she was struggling to afford nappies for their baby son. She asked Cilliers for help, but he said he had no money.

The same day, he bought himself a pair of expensive golf shoes.

Treating himself to luxury items when his money could be better spent elsewhere was a continuing pattern in his life. His father was unwell in South Africa and needed money for medical treatment, Cilliers told Victoria.

She gave him the money – which he kept for himself.

He was about £24,000 in debt but would splash out on skiing equipment, golf clubs and gadgets.

Image copyright facebook/twitter
Image caption Emile Cilliers had a relationship with Stefanie Goller (left) and continued to sleep with his ex-wife Carly Cilliers

The British Parachute Association investigated Victoria’s fall and discovered both her main and reserve parachute had been sabotaged. They handed the inquiry to the police who seized Emile Cilliers’ mobile phones and computers.

They discovered he was having an affair with a woman called Stefanie Goller. He was planning to leave Victoria for the Austrian woman, and sent her texts including: “I will sacrifice and give up so much for you… From April onwards I can do random and spontaneous.” He later adds: “To be with you I would do anything.”

According to the prosecution barrister, Michael Bowes QC, much of Cilliers’ behaviour as a witness showed signs of having been “learnt” rather than being a display of genuine emotions.

When giving evidence, Cilliers stayed completely calm, a trait various other witnesses at his trial mentioned. He was not a demonstrative man, and kept any emotions tightly in check.

When Victoria asked her husband not to smoke in her car, he didn’t rant, instead his face “went blank with fury”, she told police during an interview.

A colleague who was owed money by Cilliers was so enraged by him he “grabbed him by the scruff of the neck”. Cilliers did not react. He just said he didn’t want to talk about the loan.

Nicolene agrees that Cilliers would not get roused in anger but once, while they were dancing, he leant over to her and whispered in her ear: “If you ever hurt me I will hurt you 10 times over” before carrying on as if he had merely whispered sweet nothings.

Nicolene, now happily married and with five children and one grandchild – a grandchild she shares with 38-year-old Emile Cilliers, although they’ve never met – is relieved she managed to walk away when she did.

“I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet.

“He doesn’t know how to tell the truth; he’s too arrogant to believe he’s not the most intelligent person in the room.”

Speaking before the verdict, Nicolene said: “Unfortunately, he’s always had the ability to make you believe that black is white. He’s controlling and manipulative,

“I wouldn’t be surprised if gets acquitted. Some people just manage to get away with anything.”

Cilliers is due to be sentenced for two counts of attempted murder and one count of reckless endangerment on 15 June.

Image copyright Wiltshire Police
Image caption Cilliers after his arrest



Game of Thrones concert goes on tour

Composer Ramin Djawadi will use local orchestras alongside his own soloists as he travels across Europe



Breast screen error ‘could have been spotted earlier’

A patient has a mammogram Image copyright AFP
Image caption Breast cancer screening is offered once every three years to women aged 50 to 70 in England

Thousands more women in England may have missed out on breast screening invitations dating back further than previously thought, according to a leading cancer expert.

Earlier this month, the health secretary said a 2009 computer failure may have shortened up to 270 lives.

But Prof Peter Sasieni said the problems go back to 2005, and could have been spotted earlier.

Public Health England said the analysis was “flawed”.

And it said an independent review would look at all aspects of the breast screening service.

PHE discovered in January that some women aged 68-71 had not received their final invitation for breast screening.

Jeremy Hunt told the Commons that 450,000 women were affected between 2009 and the start of 2018.

Prof Sasieni, professor of cancer prevention at King’s College London, looked closely at data from the breast cancer screening programme in England from 2004 to 2017 in a letter published in The Lancet.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Early detection of breast cancers offers the best chance of survival

He found that the proportion of 65-70 year old eligible women invited for screening was consistently less than those invited aged 55-64, dating back to 2004-05 when the programme was first extended to include women up to their 71st birthday.

A third of eligible women should have been invited every year – but the data shows it was 31% in 2006-07, increasing to nearly 35% in 2016-17.

In comparison, more women in younger age groups were invited each year.

The difference amounts to 140,000 between 2005 and 2008 – adding up to a total of more than 502,000 missing out since 2005, Prof Sasieni concluded.

Prof Sasieni, who is also lead investigator of the Cancer Research UK programme in cancer screening and statistics, said: “Data that could have alerted people to the lack of invitations being sent to women aged 70 was publicly available, but no one looked at it carefully enough.”

Although the error should not be seen as “a major public health failure” and women should not feel anxious, he said it was right “to investigate how this error occurred and why it was not spotted for so long”.

He added: “It is important that the computer systems used to run our cancer screening programmes are reviewed and, if necessary replaced – and that detailed anonymous data are made available for independent scrutiny.”

‘Important facts’

Prof John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England, said: “This is a flawed analysis which fails to take into account some important facts, such as when the breast screening programme was rolled out to all 70 year olds in England or when a clinical trial was started called Age X.”

This trial looked at offering screening to women from 47 up to the age of 73 to see what the risks and benefits would be.

Prof Newton said their top priority was making sure that all women who did not receive an invitation for a screen were supported.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said it was “concerning” to hear that even more women could have been affected by missed screening invitations.

“We urge Public Health England to make clear the full extent of the error as soon as possible,” she said.

The risk of breast cancer increases with age and screening helps early detection of cancers, offering the best chance of survival.

But it is not yet known whether for women over 70 the long-term benefits of screening outweigh the risks.



Six acts to discover at Biggest Weekend

Dream Wife Image copyright Joanna Kiely
Image caption Dream Wife are one of the bands playing Belfast’s Titanic Slipway

The biggest names in pop, rock, grime and classical music will be playing at BBC Music’s Biggest Weekend over the next four days.

The likes of Taylor Swift, Liam Gallagher, Camila Cabello, Beck and Snow Patrol will play on stages across the UK, with full coverage on TV, radio and online.

But dig a little deeper into the running order and you might find your new favourite band among the up-and-coming acts BBC Music Introducing are showcasing.

Here are a few names to look out for, whether you’re attending a show or catching up on the Biggest Weekend website.


Welsh rock trio Trampolene get to headline the BBC Introducing stage in their hometown of Swansea, looking out at the school they attended just a few years ago.

“We’re headlining, but everyone’ll probably be watching Taylor Swift, won’t they?” says frontman Jack Jones.

“Our mates don’t come to watch us anyway. We played in Swansea the other day and I couldn’t get my mate to come from Townhill.

“I rang him and said ‘Look man, there’s people here from Japan and you can’t be bothered to walk two minutes down the road.’

“He said ‘Yeah, sorry mate, I’ve got alloys to put on my car and go and get a tattoo.’

“I was like, ‘Fair enough. Get your priorities right, son.'”

Dream Wife

Dream Wife have evolved from an art school project to a jaw-dropping live act and one of the most talked-about new bands of 2018.

Their glittering pop-punk anthems bristle with attitude and bloom with melody. Lyrically, the band tackle oppression of women in Act My Age and gender equality on Somebody (“I am not my body/I’m somebody”).

Icelandic frontwoman Rakel Mjoll says the band have already started to see a change in how women are treated at their gigs.

“In America, everyone is talking about enforcing safe spaces at shows,” she says. “That’s incredible that it’s become the norm.

“But it comes in highs and lows. So don’t let this conversation die down again.”


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Media captionMahalia performs Proud of Me for BBC 1Xtra

“Being able to stand on stage and chat with people and laugh with them, that’s my favourite thing,” says Mahalia Burkmar.

The Leicester-born singer-songwriter has been working towards that goal ever since she wrote her first song at the age of eight.

She signed a major label record deal when she was 13 and was named one of BBC 1 Xtra’s “Hot for 2018” artists at the start of the year.

Her calling card was the debut single Sober, a song she wrote after drunk-calling her boyfriend.

“This guy was being a bit of an idiot,” she recalls. “I went out one night, got drunk and called him. Then I went home and wrote the chorus – drunk.”

The Guardian described her intimate, futuristic R&B songs as “emotional diary entries, full of relatable crises, rejections, parental advice and daydreams.”

For her part, the 19-year-old says she writes with “her heart on her sleeve” about love and break-ups. “Not that I’ve had loads of fellas!” she adds.

The Orielles

The Orielles are a young three-piece from Halifax comprising sisters Sidonie and Esme Hand-Halford and their friend Henry Wade.

They first met at a house party – although it wasn’t as cool as that sounds. “It was for a family friend,” says Henry. “I think it might have been a 40th birthday.

“It wasn’t like a raging, Skins-style house party.”

The band play the 6 Music stage in Belfast this weekend after releasing their debut album, Silver Dollar Moment, to rave reviews.

Packed with light-hearted stories (Let Your Dogtooth Grow is about the vagaries of dental surgery) and shuffling guitar riffs, it will instantly appeal to fans of ’90s indie bands like Lush, Kenickie and Blur.

Blur frontman Damon Albarn is a fan and recently turned up to see the band in London, only to nearly get turned away at the door.

“We were trying to make space on the guest list,” says Henry. “So we took Damon off as we didn’t think he was going to come!”

Interviews with other Biggest Weekend artists

Connie Constance

Watford-born Connie Constance is a former dancer who abandoned her training when she realised music would give her a better form of self-expression.

At first she felt (self-imposed) pressure to fit the template of “an R&B girl” – before realising she didn’t listen to R&B and would be better off exploring her love of punk, indie and the Spice Girls.

The result is a quirky, elastic take on soul, with Connie’s husky voice front and centre.

After being championed by BBC Radio 1’s Annie Mac, she’ll play the station’s Introducing stage in Swansea for Biggest Weekend.

Connie says she can’t wait to share the bill with fellow female soulsters Jorja Smith and Mabel.

“It’s a good feeling being part of this new British sound,” she says.

“Its nice to have unity, making music, and we all back each other when we put stuff out. It’s very exciting.”

Isaac Gracie

Isaac Gracie triggered a record label bidding war with a series of lo-fi demos he recorded in his bedroom in 2016.

Two years later, he’s toured the UK, scored a top 40 album and been compared to Jeff Buckley (with whom he shares a delicate, haunting falsetto) and Nick Cave (for the full-throated onslaught of his single The Death of You and I).

But the strangest comparison came in a live review by the Telegraph, who likened the singer to “a messianic Macaulay Culkin”.

“Oh my god! Can you imagine?” he says when reminded of the article. “My first ever review in the papers, and they put that in the frickin’ headline!

“But now I look at it I can kind of see why. We’re [both] blonde and slightly jaded. It’s all good.”

Decide for yourself when Isaac performs in Swansea on Saturday.

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Angelina Jolie’s Breadwinner spotlights Afghan girls’ plight

Breadwinner Image copyright Studio Canal
Image caption Parvana’s father is wrongly arrested

First, Angelina Jolie directed a film about the effect of war on a young girl in Cambodia, First They Killed my Father. Now, she has produced a film set in Afghanistan, saying at the premiere: “There are few countries in the world where it’s harder to be a young girl.”

The Breadwinner, made by Irish film-maker Nora Twomey, is an animation written, produced and directed by women, and adapted from the Canadian bestseller by author Deborah Ellis.

It features the voice of teenage Canadian actor Saara Chaudry as Parvana, an 11-year-old growing up under the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

When her father is wrongfully arrested, Parvana disguises herself as a boy to save her mother and sisters from starvation, as women are unable to leave their house without a male relative.

Although it’s a story for children, it doesn’t disguise the details of life under the Taliban – including what happens when a woman is caught in the street without a burka.

Image copyright Studio Canal
Image caption Parvana dresses as a boy to try to get food for her family

After its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the movie was nominated for Best Animation at this year’s Oscars, with Jolie, its executive producer, urging a younger generation attending the festival to promote tolerance by “getting to know people in your neighbourhood who have different backgrounds”.

“Diversity is the most wonderful part of our world,” she said.

Twomey had already been nominated twice for Oscars, for her work on Irish animations Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, when she was approached to direct The Breadwinner.

“The idea of Parvana started to rise within me,” she says.

“You don’t get many stories like this for the screen, particularly with animations, and Deborah Ellis has a way of writing for a young adult which is very unique – she doesn’t talk down to children, she writes in a very matter-of-fact way, and her stories are based upon her experiences in refugee camps in Pakistan during the Taliban era.”

Image copyright Studio Canal
Image caption Director Nora Twomey didn’t want the film to come across as didactic

The other great help, according to Twomey, was Jolie, who came in very early on when the writer, Anita Doron, was working on a draft of the script.

“She had more than a decade of experience with Afghanistan. She supports the education of girls there. She also encouraged me to employ as many Afghan voice actors as possible. And she helped me understand the way in which the world has changed since 2001 and how we in the West view these parts of the globe,” says Twomey.

The film-makers also employed Afghan artists and musicians. And the film has been translated into Dari and Pashto, the languages of Afghanistan. The film was screened in Kabul before the Oscars.

“But I don’t want young people to be hit over the head with a ‘message’ film about what girls face in some societies. In many ways I hope the character of Parvana transcends gender,” says Twomey.

Image copyright Studio Canal
Image caption The story had a big impact on the young voice actress who played Parvana

“She’s looking at a very serious situation in a very childlike way that I think both girls and boys can relate to. It’s a universal film like that – even as an Irish woman, the conflict in Northern Ireland when I was growing up gave me an outlook on the complexity of war and the vulnerability of peace, and how we should cherish it where we have it.”

Saara Chaudry, who was not much older than the character of Parvana when she played her, says The Breadwinner “opened my eyes to my privileges”.

“I have food, water, education and healthcare that I take for granted and yet other girls around the world don’t have access. I was nine years old when I first read the books and I loved Parvana for her determination and her optimism, I just wanted to have her spirit.

“Since playing her, I have been passionate about trying to help other young girls around the world even if it’s just by donating online to charities or spreading awareness, in whatever small way girls my age can help. It’s just hard to hear of other girls facing problems I could never dream of.”

But Twomey says: “I don’t think The Breadwinner offers any easy answers to the situation of women in Afghanistan, and nor should it.

Image copyright Studio Canal
Image caption The director says Parvana’s story is one of hope

“The story is a symptom of a situation which has become ingrained in that society. And it’s from generations of hurt. You can’t just come in and impose what you think, you have to empower those young women to transform their own society.

“Right now, standing up to those societal restrictions, you are asking a great deal of women and families and fathers who love their daughters, who wouldn’t want them to lose their lives over a principle. Standing up would have an impact on you, your family and your community.

“These are things we don’t take lightly. We just provide a character in the film who is an embodiment of hope. And hope is what we need to hang on to.”

The Breadwinner is released in the UK on Friday, 25 May.



Poor white schools ‘destroyed’ by rankings

Pupil in school Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Head teachers say that league tables are skewed against schools in deprived, white areas

The way secondary school league tables in England are now devised is unfairly stigmatising schools in white working class areas, head teachers say.

They say the format is “toxic” for schools with a combination of high levels of deprivation and few pupils speaking English as a second language.

“Disenfranchised” communities will be even more disillusioned if their schools are unfairly blamed, say heads.

The Department for Education says the revised rankings have become “fairer”.

Geoff Barton, leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union, said the league-table changes had been welcomed as an improvement but the patterns emerging meant it was “definitely time to look at it again” and talks with the Department for Education were expected.

‘Isolated and disenfranchised’

Hundreds of thousands of teenagers are currently taking their GCSEs – and the results will be used in the next round of school league tables.

But there are complaints from heads in the North West that the measure for comparing schools, known as Progress 8, is skewed against schools serving deprived white communities.

Image caption James Eldon, principal and academy trust chief executive, says some schools are being set up to fail by the ranking system

“If this was any other ethnic group at the bottom, people would be unsettled,” says James Eldon, principal of the Manchester Enterprise Academy, where 90% of the GCSE year are eligible for free school meals.

“But because it’s the white working-class, it’s somehow less controversial,” says Mr Eldon, who chairs the secondary head teachers group in Manchester and is chief executive of an academy trust.

He warns of the “disillusionment” for communities already feeling “socially isolated and disenfranchised”.

White working-class boys have one of the lowest rates of entry to university of any group.

Winners and losers

Mr Eldon says the new league table measurements were brought in with good intentions, but are having unintended consequences.

Progress 8 was meant to move beyond comparing only final results – and instead measures the progress that pupils make between primary school and GCSEs.

Image caption Heads have analysed the link between deprivation and scores in schools with few EAL pupils

It was introduced to be fairer, so that pupils who began secondary school from a low base would be measured on how much progress they had made.

Ian Butterfield, head of Hindley High School, in Wigan, says the flaw in the system is not taking deprivation into account.

Pupils in schools with a more deprived intake make less progress through secondary school – and will therefore be given a negative score in the league tables, he says.

Image copyright Getty Images

Another factor is that “English as an additional language” (EAL) pupils, sometimes starting from a lower base, are likely to score higher on the measure of progress.

There are also cultural factors – with EAL pupils often migrants from families with strong support for their children’s education.

The “winners” in this system are more affluent schools, where pupils on average make better progress, and those with more EAL pupils, Mr Butterfield says, with London the most successful example.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption League tables are based on progress rather than final results

But for white working-class schools, such as in parts of the North West and North East, with a very poor intake and few EAL pupils, Mr Butterfield says, it is “almost impossible” for them not to have a negative score.

He says the league tables are not measuring the achievements of schools in adversity but describing the demographics of their intake.

‘Not special pleading’

Jon Andrews, deputy head of research at the Educational Policy Institute, defends the new way of drawing up league tables as fairer.

But he says there do seem to be “systematic differences between different groups of pupils”.

Disadvantaged white British pupils are particularly likely to do badly when measured on progress, and their schools are more likely to have negative results.

In contrast, EAL pupils might begin with lower results at primary school, held back by a lack of language skills, but then make up more ground in secondary school and show greater progress.

Image copyright UK Parliament
Image caption Mike Kane, shadow schools minister, has asked whether the rankings will be amended

The head teachers’ concerns have been backed by Dr Terry Wrigley, of the University of Northumbria, who has written a report for the National Education Union about why so many schools in the North East are appearing to do so badly.

Almost twice as many are below the minimum “floor” standard, compared with the national average.

“This is not special pleading or complacency,” says Dr Wrigley. “Poorer areas are being unfairly penalised.”

As pupils go through secondary school the impact of deprivation grows, with less well educated parents not able to help as much with homework and higher risks of disaffection. The gap in vocabulary can also widen and poorer youngsters are less likely to have families making sure they are on course for university.

Dr Wrigley says that Progress 8 seems to mirror levels of affluence and poverty and is “an unreliable identifier of school ineffectiveness”.

Recruiting staff

Head teacher Mr Butterfield says there are serious consequences for schools – with Ofsted likely to intervene and schools leaders at risk of losing their jobs.

He warns it is becoming a serious disincentive when trying to recruit staff.

Image caption Ian Butterfield says rankings need to take into account levels of deprivation

“Start labelling all these schools as failing and you begin to destroy local communities and the confidence of those dedicated to improving the lives of these youngsters,” says Mr Butterfield.

Mr Eldon says teachers in such areas have worked hard to turn around attitudes where it was “soaked into the bones” that local schools were bad.

Labour’s shadow schools minister and MP for Wythenshawe, Mike Kane, has asked the government whether it will amend the league tables in the light of the impact on schools serving white working-class pupils.

A Department for Education spokesman defended the league tables as making sure that schools focused on the results of all pupils, including low performers.

“Far from being unfair, our Progress 8 measure means that schools are now recognised for the progress made by all pupils, as every grade from every pupil contributes to the school’s performance – taking into account their ability when they started school,” said the spokesman.

“The measure has been broadly welcomed by the sector as it is a fairer way to assess overall school effectiveness as it doesn’t focus on the attainment at a particular grade threshold.”



Met Police ‘use force more often’ against black people

Metropolitan Police officers set up a stop and search operation Image copyright PA
Image caption The use of force was equivalent to once for every 50 black people in Greater London and once for every 200 of the white population

Metropolitan Police officers are four times more likely to use force against black people compared with the white population, new figures suggest.

The Met used force 62,000 times in 2017-18 with more than a third of incidents involving black people.

Techniques such as verbal instructions and using firearms were recorded.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said the “disproportionate use of force is discriminatory”. The Met has been approached for comment.

Police forces in Britain have been required keep a detailed record of each time an officer used force since 1 April 2017.

According to the data, a black person in London is four times more likely than a white person to have force used against them by a Met Police officer, as a proportion of the population.

‘Demonised, penalised, criminalised’

Image caption Dijon Joseph (l) was handcuffed and forcibly searched after police saw him fist bump his brother Liam (r)

Dijon Joseph, 28, was arrested after he bumped fists with his brother outside a shop in Deptford.

“Before I knew it a large van of police officers came out. It all happened quite abruptly” said Mr Joseph’s 27-year-old brother Liam.

Police accused the pair of exchanging drugs and officers said Dijon, who filmed the encounter, was being aggressive, and handcuffed him.

One officer restrained Liam, while a second rifled his pockets. Finding nothing illegal, the officer took his keys and searched his car.

Dijon said: “It just seemed like a typical case of profiling.

“I felt demonised, I felt penalised, I felt criminalised. It’s not just our own perceptions, it’s the perception of our community.”

The Independent Office for Police Conduct is investigating.

London’s black population at the last census was 1,088,447. In 2017-18 the Met used force 22,989 times against black people.

Based on population figures, the use of force was equivalent to once for every 50 black people in Greater London and once for every 200 of the white population.

This is higher than in other police forces covering large urban areas such as Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

Ms Abbott said: “These figures are truly shocking. The disproportionate use of force is clearly discriminatory.

“This is not a recipe for good police-community relations

“The government should step in and demand that all forces publish this data. But, then it quickly needs an action plan to end it.”

Liam Joseph said: “Before you can create solution it’s first best to isolate and highlight the problem.

“Then we can all work together to do something to change it.”

The Home Office said government reforms in 2017 meant police across England and Wales now recorded the reason force was used and details about the person involved.

A spokesman added: “Data on officers’ use of force will provide unprecedented transparency and accountability and, in the longer term, will also provide an evidence base to support the development of tactics, training and equipment to enhance the safety of all.”

Use of force figures at a glance

  • The Met Police recorded 62,153 use of force figures in 2017-18
  • Two thirds of incidents resulted in an arrest
  • White people were nearly twice as likely to be hospitalised than black people
  • Under 5% of all use of force incidents led to an injury, the second lowest of all police forces
  • Met officers were injured 3,315 times while carrying out use of force techniques, including 50 severe injuries



Tax rises needed ‘to prevent NHS misery’

Nurses giving out medications Image copyright Getty Images

Taxes are going to have to rise to pay for the NHS if the UK is to avoid “a decade of misery” in which the old, sick and vulnerable are let down, say experts.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies and Health Foundation said the NHS would need an extra 4% a year for the next 15 years – or £2,000 per UK household.

It said the only realistic way this could be paid for was by tax rises.

It comes as ministers are arguing behind the scenes about NHS funding.

The prime minister has promised a long-term funding plan for the NHS.

This is expected to cover the next decade and could be announced as soon as next month, in time for the 70th anniversary of the creation of the NHS.

The Treasury is believed to want to keep average rises at about 2% a year, but other ministers, including Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, are arguing for more, the BBC understands.

If you can’t see the NHS Tracker, click or tap here.

As those discussions continue, the IFS and Health Foundation have revealed the findings of their review, commissioned by the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS trusts.

It warned the ageing population and rising number of people with long-term conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, meant the health service needed more than it had been getting in the past decade.

In recent years the annual rises once inflation is taken into account have been limited to just over 2%.

But continuing in this vein would lead to a continued deterioration in performance, the report warned.

Instead, it said, 5% extra was needed in the next five years, and then just under 4% for the following decade if it was going to improve.

That would work out at an average of 4% a year over the period, while 3.3% would simply maintain services.

On top of that, extra money would also be needed to fund council-run social care for the elderly.

That would mean spending as a proportion of national income rising from 8.4% currently to 11.4%.

Ministers still wrestling with long-term cash needs

By Laura Kuenssberg, BBC political editor

Image copyright PA
Image caption Theresa May is grappling with ministers over NHS funding

There’s no coincidence at all that the independent number crunchers, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Health Foundation, have come forward with calls for significantly more cash for the NHS England today.

It matters right now because behind closed doors in Whitehall, the Department of Health, Downing Street and the Treasury are grappling to agree, not just how much the NHS really needs, but also what the government can really afford.

Any eventual long term settlement involves extra billions of taxpayers’ money – but if the government falls short, there’s a heavy potential cost.

What to do next is an intensely political choice.

Read more of Laura’s blog here.

The report said it was “hard to imagine” raising that sort of money without increases in taxes.

To increase spending by that amount, it would require rises of 3p in the pound on each of income tax, VAT and National Insurance by 2033.

Although the report said other options, including taxes on property and businesses, could be explored too.

NHS Confederation chief executive Niall Dickson urged ministers not to rush into a quick fix, but warned any attempts to limit rises to 2% would backfire and lead to a “decade of misery”.

“It is now undeniable that the current system and funding levels are not sustainable,” he said.

The Department of Health and Social Care said plans were being put in place to agree a multi-year settlement.

Meanwhile, a report from the Care Quality Commission on A&E performance warned that some patients received care that was “wholly unsatisfactory”.

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