Backstop Is ‘Indispensable’, Says Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron described the Irish backstop arrangement as “indispensable” ahead of talks with Boris Johnson. The prime minister, who has insisted the backstop must be dropped to avoid a no-deal Brexit, met with the French leader for talks in Paris yesterday. In a letter to the EU on Monday, Johnson described the backstop as “undemocratic” and said it must be ditched if any deal between Britain and the EU is to be agreed. However, speaking to reporters yesterday, Macron said the backstop plan was an "indispensable guarantee" for preserving the EU’s single market and political stability in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Despite his strong stance, Macron appeared optimistic. Greeting the prime minister at Paris's Elysee Palace, the French leader said he was “very much confident” that a solution for averting a no-deal Brexit could be found within the next 30 days – a timescale suggested by German chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday. However, he warned it would not be possible to devise a new Brexit deal “very different” from the one already agreed by Theresa May, given the current Brexit deadline of 31st October. Johnson, who will return to France tomorrow to attend the G7 summit in Biarritz, insisted he had been “powerfully encouraged” by his meetings with the European leaders.
PASS RATES RISE UNDER ‘TOUGHER’ GCSES
The proportion of pupils passing their GCSEs and achieving top grades has risen slightly this year, despite concerns surrounding the more rigorous exams. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, this year’s GCSE pass rate increased by 0.4% to reach 67.3%. The proportion of exam papers achieving a top grade – a 7 or A and above – also increased 0.3% on last year, reaching 20.8%. The increase comes amid concern the reformed GCSE examinations were demoralising some lower-attaining pupils. General secretary of the heads' union ASCL, Geoff Barton, has called for a more “humane way” of assessing pupils, arguing that the tougher courses had come at the expense of more vulnerable young people.
Overall, the introduction of the reformed GSCEs appears to have benefited girls more than boys. Girls achieved top grades of 7 or A and above in 25.3% of exam entries, compared with just 18.6% of entries by boys. Considerable progress has also been made towards closing the performance gap between girls and boys in maths, the largest single GCSE subject. While the proportion of boys achieving top grades in this year’s maths exams rose slightly to 20.6%, the proportion of girls jumped by nearly a percentage point from 19% to 19.9% – more than halving the gap between the two groups.
A report from the Science and Technology Select Committee considers the future of UK car use in light of Britain’s zero-emissions climate targets. MPs have warned that technology alone will not be able to solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions from transport. The committee has argued that the government’s focus should be on reducing the overall number of vehicles on Britain’s roads, rather than increasing the number of greener electric cars.
The report follows warnings from the government’s Air Quality Expert Group stating that brake, tyre and road surface wear directly contribute to over half of particle pollution on Britain’s roads, regardless of whether vehicles are petrol or electric powered. MPs have suggested the overall number of vehicles on Britain’s roads could be reduced by improving public transport and encouraging walking, cycling and car-sharing. The government said it would consider the committee’s findings.
In other news...
IRISH HARD BORDER RISKS REVIVING EXTREMISTS
The chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland has spoken out about the threat posed by the potential return of a hard border in Ireland. Simon Byrne said the possibility of a hard border in the event of a no-deal Brexit could risk the revival of paramilitary groups. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Byrne warned a hard border could become a “trigger and a fuelling point” for a rise in extremist groups in Northern Ireland. “If we get this wrong we could drift back to almost a paramilitary style of policing”, he added. Byrne’s comments come amid fresh violence in Northern Ireland this week. On Monday, a man with loyalist paramilitary links was fatally shot at a petrol station in County Down and a second man was shot in the legs in a “paramilitary-style” shooting in north Belfast on Wednesday.
MAN ARRESTED FOR MURDER OF STUDENT
A 25-year-old man arrested on suspicion of murdering Libby Squire has been released, Humberside police have confirmed. A Hull University student, Squire disappeared following a night out with friends in February. Hundreds of police officers and volunteers joined the search for the missing 21-year-old in the days after her disappearance. Squire’s body was recovered from the Humber Estuary almost seven weeks later on 20th March. According to Humberside Police, a man has been arrested in connection with her death and was questioned by detectives before being released under investigation. The force said Squire’s family were continuing to receive support from specially trained officers and had been updated on the developments.
'A LITTLE EXERCISE' BOOSTS LONGEVITY
Even light activity can boost longevity among older adults, a new study has found. Research from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences has revealed even small reductions to the amount of time spent sedentary, through light activity such as housework or gardening, can help ward off an early death. Studying more than 36,000 older people over five to six years, the research found those doing 258 minutes of light activity a day had a 40% lower risk of death than those doing the least amount of activity – around 200 minutes a day. Author of the study, Ulf Ekelund, said it was important that elderly people who might be unable to do moderate-intensity activity were made aware of the “strong effects” and benefits of simply “just moving around”.
FRACKING PAUSED AFTER BIGGEST TREMOR YET
Oil and gas firm Cuadrilla was forced to suspend its fracking activity at a site in Lancashire on Wednesday after it recorded the largest tremor seen at the location to date. Fracking operations were closed down at the Preston New Road shale gas site after the tremor was detected at 8.46pm on Wednesday. While Cuadrilla described the 1.55ML “microseismic event” as similar to “a large bag of shopping dropping to the floor”, it considerably breached the government’s 1.5ML limit on seismic activity. Friends of the Earth campaigner Jamie Peters has warned even small tremors could indicate damaging impacts deep underground. “It’s obvious that fracking can’t be done without triggering earthquakes,” he added.
MICROPLASTICS IN WATER POSE ‘MINIMAL RISK’
Microplastics found in drinking water do not currently pose a threat to human health, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said. The organisation’s first report on the issue found most microplastics – including larger particles – are able to pass safely through the body without being absorbed. While WHO states that at current levels microplastics in drinking water do not appear to pose a health risk, it has warned its findings were based on “limited information”. WHO’s Dr Bruce Gordon has admitted the organisation’s study methods “were quite weak” and further research needed to be done. However, he insisted more pressing issues were affecting the safety of water supplies, such as faecal contamination, which is estimated to cause one million deaths worldwide each year.
The UK is on track to reach record-breaking bank holiday temperatures this weekend, the Met Office has said. With south-easterly winds expected to draw in hot air from Europe, the weather agency has predicted highs of 30°C in the south-east on Saturday and Sunday, rising as high as 33°C on Monday – a potentially record-breaking temperature for the August bank holiday weekend. The current record for the August long weekend is 31.5°C, recorded in 2001 at Heathrow airport.