The Spectator

Portrait of the Week - 5 July 2003

A speedy round-up of the week's news

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The government set out some pretty rum plans for homosexual partnerships, securing tax benefits and severance by 'divorce', in a paper called 'Civil Partnership: A framework for the recognition of same-sex couples'. After a last-minute procedural concession by the government, the Commons voted by 362 to 154 for an outright ban on hunting. A High Court judge criticised the Health and Safety Executive for wasting public money by pursuing a £3 million prosecution, now dropped, of the Metropolitan Police for failing to warn policemen of the dangers of climbing on to roofs. The High Court upheld action by Oftel to reduce charges for telephoning from British Telecom to mobile telephone networks and between networks. Connex, the train operator, had its franchise removed by the Strategic Rail Authority. Network Rail, the successor to Railtrack, said it hoped to make savings of 20 per cent by 2007, mainly by cutting staff from 14,000 to 12,000. Mr Alastair Campbell, the director of communications and strategy at the Prime Minister's office, used the opportunity of his appearance before the Commons foreign affairs select committee to launch into a perplexing argument with the BBC, focusing on a report on Today on 29 May by Andrew Gilligan, who had quoted an unnamed 'British official' as saying of the government dossier on Iraq published on 24 September: 'It was transformed in the week before it was published to make it sexier. The classic example was the statement that weapons of mass destruction were ready to use within 45 minutes.' Mr Gilligan had added: 'This official told us that the transformation ...took place at the behest of Downing Street.' Mr Campbell told the committee: 'He said I sexed it up and I made changes against the wishes of the [intelligence] agencies. That is a lie.' In following days the BBC was asked to apologise and refused to. Sir Denis Thatcher died, aged 88. A paper in the British Medical Journal proposed giving everyone over 55 a 'polypill' containing aspirin, a statin, folic acid and some anti-blood pressure drugs, to cut strokes and heart attacks in the age group by a third. An unfamiliar Russian, Mr Roman Abramovich, agreed to buy Chelsea Football Club. A Liberal Democrat Urdu-speaking Pakistani Manchester city councillor, who has applied for asylum, is using a translator costing taxpayers £20 an hour because his English is poor; Labour opponents say his party should pay.

European Union agriculture ministers agreed to a great change in the Common Agricultural Policy by unlinking subsidies from production; to placate France, minimum cereal prices were retained. Mr Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, visited Iran to say that if it did not allow inspection of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency a trade deal with the European Union would be withdrawn. Mr Straw then flew to Afghanistan in a gesture of support for the government. 'Ninety per cent of the heroin on the streets of my Blackburn constituency is grown here,' Mr Straw said. 'The problem requires action on all fronts.' Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani, an influential Shia authority in Iraq, declared in a fatwa that a general election should be held before a new constitution be drawn up for the country. Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip in accord with the 'road-map' peace plan; Hamas and two other violent Palestinian groups announced a conditional three-month ceasefire. President Charles Taylor of Liberia refused American requests to resign while war-crimes charges stand against him; hundreds of civilians in Monrovia have died in fighting between government and rebel forces. Katharine Hepburn, the film actress, died, aged 96. Catalonia passed a law prohibiting children under 14 from going to bullfights.