The Spectator

Portrait of the Week - 19 March 2005

A speedy round-up of the week's news

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In a widely leaked tinkering Budget, Mr Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, raised the threshold for stamp duty to be payable on houses from £60,000 to £120,000 and the threshold on inheritance tax from £260,000 to £275,000; slightly increased pensions; deferred petrol duty rises until September; increased excise on cigarettes by 7p a packet ‘for health reasons’; and announced plans for stem-cell experiments and a memorial to the Queen Mother in the Mall. A Downing Street official said that Mr Brown’s part in the election campaign would be equal to that of Mr Alan Milburn’s, if not more important. The five sisters and the fiancée of Robert McCartney, murdered by Irish Republican Army men in Belfast in February, visited Mr George Bush, the President of the United States, in Washington, taking with them a dossier naming 12 men they said were involved. Mr Martin McGuinness, the chief negotiator of Sinn Fein, in response to the sisters’ plans to stand against Sinn Fein candidates in the general election, said, ‘The McCartneys need to be very careful.’ Later he denied this was a threat, saying, ‘It was intended to be a word of friendly advice from someone who is 100 per cent behind their campaign for truth and justice.’ Members of the Commons defence committee concluded that officers were responsible for some of the bullying at the army’s Deepcut training base in Surrey, where four soldiers had been found dead with bullet wounds. After 30 hours in continuous session the Commons and Lords voted for a much amended Prevention of Terrorism Bill, which had been passed from one house to the other nine times before gaining the royal assent. The government conceded a review of the law next year. Four days later the Lords twice defeated the government to stipulate that the post of Lord Chancellor should continue to be held by a member of the House of Lords and by a lawyer. Mr Paul Boateng, the chief secretary to the Treasury, will not stand again for Parliament but become ambassador to South Africa, if Labour wins. Humphrey Spender, the photographer, died, aged 94. Lady Strange died, aged 76. Dave Allen, the comedian, died, aged 68. Scientists mounted a national survey of ladybirds to discover the effects of the voracious Harlequin ladybird interloper on the population of the 46 species already present in Britain.

The civil war in the Sudanese region of Darfur has led to 180,000 deaths from disease and starvation, more than twice as many as previously thought, according to Mr Jan Egeland, the UN’s under-secretary for humanitarian affairs; the figure did not include deaths from violence. A crowd put at 400,000 demonstrated in Beirut against continued Syrian presence in Lebanon, after the pro-Syrian Prime Minister, Mr Omar Karami, was reappointed until elections scheduled for May. The Iraqi Parliament met for the first time, but still no government was agreed. Italy announced a ‘progressive reduction’ of its 3,000 troop strength in Iraq from September, but the number staying would ‘depend on the capacity of the Iraqi government to give itself an acceptable security structure’, according to Mr Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister. On the island of Lampedusa, the most southerly point of Italy, off Sicily, 1,300 asylum-seekers arrived by boat from North Africa in two days. Four Russian guards on the Chinese border shot dead three army officers and three policemen in an apparent attempt to escape prosecution for bullying new recruits; one of the guards was also shot dead and the others taken captive. The Russian security service, the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, admitted having paid a bounty of more than £5 million for information leading to their killing of Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen rebel leader, the week before. In New York, Bernie Ebbers, the former chief executive of WorldCom, was found guilty of leading an $11 billion accounting fraud and faced a long prison sentence. A 180-place crèche being built in Brussels for the Council of the European Union, made up of government ministers from each member state, will cost taxpayers £20,000 a year per child to run.