Liberal Democrats

The Telegraph leads with “Nick Clegg shut out of television debates as Labour join minor parties

David Cameron has been hailed the victor in the long running saga over the proposed televised election debates after he avoided a head-to-head contest with Ed Miliband and blocked Nick Clegg from appearing in two of the four events.

The Prime Minister will now take part in just one actual debate, in the form of a seven-way joust on ITV on April 2. Before then he will appear in a two-way show hosted by Jeremy Paxman and Kay Burley on Sky and Channel 4 on Thursday also featuring Mr Miliband. Labour accused him of “running scared” after insisting the two men be questioned separately.

Mr Cameron has also avoided a two or three-way debate involving Mr Clegg, widely seen as having won the contests the last time the debates were held in the run up to the 2010 election.

The Guardian adds that David Cameron ‘blocked Nick Clegg from TV debate’

NHS

The Independent reports that NHS feels the strain as hospital bed-blocking by elderly patients hits record levels

Bed-blocking is causing a huge strain on the NHS, with more than one million hospital bed days lost because of delayed discharges in the past year, new figures revealed last night.

The number of days health managers are forced to keep patients in hospital because they cannot be transferred into the community has risen by nearly 20 per cent in a year and is now at a record level, at a cost to the NHS of £287m.

Labour blamed the delays and bed-blocking on cuts to social care budgets, which have been reduced by £3.5bn since 2010. They argued it was a false economy to cut social care because it meant more elderly people were being admitted to hospital instead of being cared for at home. In turn, the same group of patients were being transferred back home less quickly because of reductions in social care services.

Penal Reform

The Express claims that Ministry of Justice scores an ‘own goal’ in Penal Reform visit withdraw

THE Ministry of Justice “scored a remarkable own goal” after overturning an invitation for the Howard League for Penal Reform to visit two private prisons, it was claimed last night. France Crook, the League’s chief executive, was due to visit Birmingham and Oakwood prisons at the end of this month after accepting the offer by G4S, which runs the private facilities.

She had “already bought her railway ticket” when, on Friday, she received the remarkable missive from the National Offender Management Services, run by the MoJ, rescinding the invitation. ‘I understand why G4S invited you – they are proud of what they are achieving,” wrote Ian Blakeman, Director of Custodial Services.”Given your comments about private prisons I do not feel your visits would be appropriate at this time and I have informed G4S that they should withdraw the invitation.”

ISIS

The Guardian reports that nine British medics enter Isis stronghold to work in hospitals

Nine young British medical students have travelled illegally to Syria and are believed to be working in hospitals in Islamic State-controlled areas, the Observer can reveal. Their families were mounting a desperate effort on Saturday at the Turkish-Syrian border to persuade them to come home.

The group of four women and five men crossed the border last week, apparently keeping their plans secret from relatives until just before entering Syria, when one woman sent her sister a brief message and a smiling selfie.

“We all assume that they are in Tel Abyad now, which is under Isis control. The conflict out there is fierce, so medical help must be needed,” Turkish opposition politician Mehmet Ali Ediboglu told the Observer, shortly after meeting the families.

Conservatives

The Guardian reveals that Tory candidate suspended for allegedly colluding with EDL for election votes

The Tory candidate in a key general election marginal has been suspended after allegedly hatching a plot with far-right extremists to win votes by stirring up racial tensions.

Afzal Amin is accused of scheming with the English Defence League (EDL) to announce an inflammatory march against a new ‘mega-mosque’ in the constituency of Dudley North, in the West Midlands. The idea, according to the Mail on Sunday, was for the protest to be scrapped, with Amin taking the credit for defusing the situation.

In return he allegedly promised that he would be an “unshakeable ally” for the EDL in parliament and help bring their views to the mainstream. A Conservative party spokesman confirmed that Amin – who was apparently filmed covertly talking about the deal – had been suspended.

Also in The Independent and The Mail on Sunday.

Rochester and Strood

The Independent reports that Conservatives charge in to reclaim Rochester and Strood from Ukip.

Nigel Farage lets rip the deepest of guffaws, cigarette nearly slipping from his fingers: “It’s very funny! Haven’t they got better things to do?”

About 20 yards from Ukip’s purple-painted headquarters in the Grade II-listed high street of Rochester in Kent, where the party raises funds selling purple-and-yellow branded rock at £1 a stick, Europhile Conservative MPs are lunching at the George Vaults pub.

Sir George Young, the former Tory chief whip, sips a pint of lager as he claims: “Half-a-dozen Conservative MPs coming down here to campaign sends a signal to the local party that we’re taking this seat really seriously.”

(Editor: Do you know anyone who would vote for Kelly Tolhurst and her party? If you went to canvass in Rochester, you’ll know how solid our vote is there)

Gay Rights

Charles Moore in the Telegraph reckons that “In the headlong rush for ‘rights’, children are an afterthought

It is a cunning feature of general elections, designed by the parties who compete in them, that most issues which matter cannot be discussed. The two main parties narrow down the subjects they are prepared to debate and then make a tremendous show of disagreement about what little remains. We saw it in the Budget debate on Wednesday.

So this column is more interested in whatever our leaders don’t want to talk about. In recent weeks, I have therefore written about our defence, lack of. Today I want to write about children.

The word “children” – or, more likely, “kids” – is seldom off the lips of politicians (“our children’s future”, “We all want to do what’s best for our kids”). There are innumerable policies about child care, schools, child benefit, and so on. I mean something else: who do we think children are?

France

The Guardian reports that ‘abandoned’ French working class ready to punish left’s neglect by voting for far right. (Sounds a bit familiar, not that UKIP can be described as ‘far right’)

At an election meeting just days before France’s regional elections, a Japanese journalist asked Marine Le Pen a question: why was her far-right Front National party tipped to do so well?

Polls suggest that the FN vote will reach unprecedented levels, with up to 30% of the vote, just ahead of the opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party and leaving the ruling Socialist party trailing.

“The Front National is alone against everyone. The French people have realised for some time now that the Front National’s analysis is right, and the other political parties have failed,” Le Pen responded. The FN had gone from “a party of opposition … to a movement of government” by addressing “the economy, immigration and Islamic fundamentalism”, she added.

Alternative Budgets

Michael Deacon in the Telegraph asks “Why only a Lib Dem Budget? Let’s give everyone a go

This week, George Osborne presented the Budget. But he wasn’t alone. The next day, in a parliamentary first, Danny Alexander – clutching a school lunchbox resprayed in a fetching canary yellow – presented his own “Liberal Democrat Budget”.

Naturally this caused quite a stir. After all, if the Lib Dems were allowed to present a Budget, why shouldn’t the other minor parties?

Last autumn in this column I exclusively introduced a number of new political parties all aiming to upset the Westminster apple cart. Today, just as exclusively, I report on their respective Budget plans.

(It’s more a spoof… read on)

General Election

More light-hearted election news from The Independent with meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

From a ‘reincarnation’ of King Arthur to a man offering free neutering for Boris, the election will see more marvellously British no-hopers bidding for your vote than ever before. Here are the top 12 wacky electoral eccentrics

The Express looks at it from the point of view of the bookies with an exclusive on Bookmakers: You can bet on a General Election upset

Paddy Power estimates the party has a 70 per cent chance of winning the most seats, up from 40 per cent in December 2013. Labour has gone from a high of 65 per cent to about a 30 per cent chance of being the biggest party.

A quarter of the bets are for a Tory majority. Second favourite is a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, followed by a Tory minority government. Meanwhile the odds on a Labour-Scottish National Party coalition have been slashed from 40/1 to 5/1.

The betting pattern points to the Conservatives winning the most seats but Paddy Power said this would not necessarily secure them power.  A spokesman said: “It looks too close to call at the moment.”

Education

The Mail reports that secret notes and whispers among tricks used by TEACHERS to help pupils cheat in desperate measure to boost grades

The shocking lengths cheating teachers go to in order to boost their schools’ exam grades has been exposed in a new report. Blatant cases include staff suggesting the correct answers to pupils during exams, scribbling them in pencil on completed coursework so that pupils can then write over them in pen, and whispering to candidates in spoken language tests.

Some academics say such cheating is on the increase because schools are under huge pressure to improve their national league table positions. In one extreme case last year, unconnected to the new report, the entire governing body of a school was dissolved and eight members of staff were suspended over allegations of exam irregularities, although five have since been reinstated.

Jeremy Clarkson

The Mail reports that the BBC is offering a fig leaf to Clarkson, if he’ll offer one back: “‘Sort yourself out, Jeremy, and you can come back’: BBC source says Clarkson could return to Top Gear if he admits fault

Jeremy Clarkson could return to Top Gear if he faces up to ‘his own shortcomings’, a senior BBC source hinted last night. The insider said the 54-year-old presenter, who is currently suspended after allegedly assaulting assistant producer Oisin Tymon, might be allowed to come back if he ‘sorted himself out’.

The source, who asked not to be named, said: ‘Jeremy wants to stay with the programme and one possible way of him doing that would be if he could face up to his own shortcomings. He has a great deal of public support and of course that shouldn’t be ignored. But he does needs to rest and sort himself out.’

UKIP

The Mirror has a smear piece on UKIP: Tape recording reveals UKIP’s internal war over race row candidate Victoria Ayling

A vicious feud between UKIP members is threatening to derail Nigel Farage’s hopes for taking a key election target. In an explosive 111-minute tape heard by the Sunday Mirror, activists trade a barrage of insults while a key party strategist threatens to “lay waste” to an entire branch.

The eruption centred around the alleged racism of would-be MP Victoria Ayling – and fears that compromising photos of her could be enough to destroy their support. Ms Ayling is standing for the party in the Labour seat of Great Grimsby, where she lost out by just 700 votes as a Tory candidate in 2010.

The seat is second on UKIP’s target list after Clacton, where Tory turncoat Douglas Carswell is the UKIP MP. It is seen by Mr Farage as a key chance to show UKIP can take seats from Labour as well as the Tories.

(Ed – Read the whole thing and draw your own conclusions)

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