Unexplained: What happens when families and police disagree on cause of death?

Norah Connelly and Stephanie Bonner have become firm friends since the deaths of their sons - and they want answers.

The sudden death of a child is unimaginable.

But two mothers believe they are living through something even more painful — not knowing why their sons never came home.

Norah Connelly and Stephanie Bonner have become friends; bonded by the shared tragedy of losing their beloved boys in circumstances they fear may never be explained.

Trainee chef Johnny Connelly, who had mild learning difficulties, was walking home from work when he disappeared. A week later, the 28-year-old’s body was recovered from a canal.

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Two days after Johnny’s death, 19-year-old “gentle giant” Rhys Bonner was reported missing. His half-naked body was found in marshland a fortnight later.

Norah and Stephanie are convinced some people know what happened and have vowed to never give up until they get justice for their sons.

With the first anniversary of their deaths this month, the grieving mums spoke with Kelly-Ann Woodland for a Scotland Tonight report to be broadcast on STV at 7.30pm on Thursday.

Stephanie said: “He was a big gentle giant. He loved life. I’ve got his ashes but I’m never going to do anything with them until I’ve got answers.”

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Norah said: “Help me get a wee bit of closure. If my son’s death had been an illness or an accident, I could grieve naturally. But I can’t grieve until I get some peace in my heart.”

Rhys Bonner, 19 years old

Disappeared: July 24, 2019 from Barlanark, Glasgow.

Body found: August 8, in marshland three miles away.

Death certificate: “Unascertained”

Rhys Bonner’s badly decomposed remains were found semi-submerged in marshland on the outskirts of Glasgow’s east end. He had no obvious reason to be there. He had no shoes or socks on and was naked from the waist down.

Mum Stephanie believes someone was either directly responsible for killing Rhys, was involved in somehow causing his death or, at least, knows what happened.

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She and her family are highly critical of Police Scotland and have made an official complaint.

Rhys Bonner’s family have been highly critical of the police.

When Rhys did not return home, Stephanie discovered he was last seen in the company of an older woman.

His family reported Rhys missing — and shared their concerns — but felt Police Scotland were dismissive. A year later, the family’s opinion has sunk even further. All trust has gone.

Using their own initiative, the family secured CCTV of Rhys and learned he had been with the woman a few miles north of their home in Barlanark.

A witness spotted them on a path behind modern, red-brick houses on Blacader Drive in Gartloch Village, which is set in a semi-rural swathe of green on the map, belying its proximity to the inner city.

The family couldn’t convince police to search with sniffer dogs or a helicopter. Instead, they and friends mobilised to comb the dense, waterlogged expanse.

Stephanie Bonner visited the site where Rhys’ body was found.

Around a week after going missing, items of Rhys’s clothing were found in the marshland but another week passed until a police drone spotted his bright yellow Celtic top in a cluster of trees.

Stephanie said: “They found his clothes and a trainer was up a tree. Then they found a sock. Then they found his other trainer and then his jogging trousers.

“How did they not find his body until a week later? Did they not search in the same area to find him that day?”

When Rhys left home he had been wearing a baseball cap. The family found it in the women’s close and handed it to police who, they say, appeared uninterested.

In their complaint, the family allege the police failed to conduct basic enquiries, before and after his body was found, and did not publicly appeal for witnesses.

For weeks, Stephanie’s parents gathered to lay flowers at the spot where they had been led to believe Rhys was found — until a local resident approached them.

The resident had filmed phone footage of four police marine unit officers in distinctive red uniforms using ropes to remove Rhys’s remains.

Not only was the clip hugely distressing, the family realised their floral tributes were 800 feet from where his body had actually been found.

Stephanie said: “A concerned neighbour said ‘the police are showing you the wrong bit; your mum and dad are laying flowers and we just feel so sorry’.

“Every time I go to bed, that’s all I see at night, that’s my son, my wee child. It’s just devastating.”

Stephanie believes the police prematurely dismissed Rhys’s death as non-suspicious and, having done so, any potential evidence of criminality was lost forever. It also means they cannot back down.

She said: “They said it wasn’t criminal — they said that straight away. I was trying to figure out how they’re saying it’s not criminal. And when the video came, I said that’s how it’s not been criminal, because they’ve not acted, they’ve not tried to get any evidence.

“It doesn’t matter what happened to Rhys, they weren’t going to do anything about it.”

This apparent misinformation about the location of where Rhys’s was found, the “disrespectful” treatment of his body and alleged failures to secure evidence are central to the family’s complaint.

Stephanie, aged 17 when Rhys was born, says he was a “family boy” who loved basketball and would often go shopping for her and take his wee sisters to the park.

He was tall and handsome, but scared of spiders and the dark. Stephanie says he would never have gone into the area where he was found.

For Scotland Tonight, Stephanie made her first visit to where Rhys was found and appealed to anyone with information, adding: “Just don’t be scared. Please come forward and just tell me anything at all, it doesn’t matter if it’s just a wee thing.”

Chief inspector Patrick Murphy says Rhys’s death was “fully investigated” with “no criminality” established and that a report was submitted to the Crown Office.

He added: “We are in regular contact with his family to keep them updated on any new information and keeping them fully informed is a priority for us.

“A complaint about the police has been received from Rhys’s mother which is under consideration by our Professional Standards Department, therefore we are unable to comment further at this stage.”

Johnny Connelly, 28 years old

Disappeared: July 15, 2019, from Glasgow city centre

Body found: July 22, in canal on route home.

Death certificate: Blank

When Norah Connelly gets up each day she has a chat with her son Johnny, who died one year ago.

She told Scotland Tonight: “Every morning I wake up and look at Johnny’s photo and say ‘maybe today’s the day we’re going to get justice Johnny’.”

The trainee chef, kids’ football coach and amateur goalkeeper had gone into Glasgow city centre one evening last July to ask his boss about overdue wages.

Having left with an assurance his pay would be deposited in the bank, he had no option but to walk home to Milton in north Glasgow.

When he did not return to Norah that night, she instinctively knew something had happened. A week spent anxiously watching every stopping bus was in vain. Then came the devastating confirmation from a police officer.

Johnny Connelly with his twin sister Norah and elder sister Michelle.

Johnny’s body was found in the canal beside the Speirs Wharf, a residential development at Port Dundas, perched above the M8 motorway and central Glasgow.

The following month, Police Scotland appealed for information, saying they believe he was injured during “an incident” in an underpass at nearby Garscube Road. They later said there may have been “some sort of altercation”.

Such was her devastation, Norah says she “wanted to jump in” to the canal, adding: “I thought my life was over. I wanted to be with my boy. Johnny had been with me for 28 years.”

Norah says that due to his learning difficulties Johnny was vulnerable, with little sense of danger. She said: “Because he was such a nice person, he thought everybody was like him. He was very trusting.”

For three months, the authorities withheld Johnny’s body before finally allowing his family to lay him to rest.

Last week, on the first anniversary of his disappearance, Norah visited the canal for the first time since the funeral. Joined by family and friends, she laid flowers and wept.

A friend gifted her a DVD in which Johnny plays Greg Hemphill’s character Victor McDade in a college production of sitcom Still Game.

Norah, who had never before seen her son’s comedy acting, said: “I’m gong to treasure that.”

Norah Connelly and Stephanie Bonner have formed a bond.

Speaking after the emotional gathering under dark grey skies, she said: “I feel as if my son’s not at peace because he knows his ma’s not at peace. And maybe when I’m at peace and get to know what’s happened, my son will get peace.”

In January this year, police released new information in a fresh public appeal. They said three white men, aged 30 to 45 and wearing jeans and sports clothing, could have “vital information”.

Norah does not know if Johnny was attacked and fell into the canal while trying to escape or whether he was assaulted then thrown in.

She added: “I believe the people who were involved knew he was in that water and they’ve left him there. They’ve never phoned any emergency services. They’ve just walked away.

“I hope they have nightmares about it because I have nightmares of my son lying in that canal for a week.”

Unlike the family of Rhys Bonner, she is mostly satisfied with the police response, singling out a sergeant who attended Johnny’s funeral while off duty and left flowers at a memorial bench.

However, she struggles to understand why a blank space remains on his death certificate.

She said: “They can’t tell me how my son died. I can’t get my head around how this day and age a pathologist can’t tell how somebody died. I’m left in limbo.”

She hoped to learn more at a meeting with Crown Office officials and police officers on March 31. But it was cancelled due to coronavirus lockdown and is due to be rescheduled.

Many people have struggled with lockdown. For Norah, it was “a total nightmare”. She said: “I was sitting in that house for three months on my own with the mental torture because I’ve not got any answers.”

She and her two daughters remain cautiously optimistic that a breakthrough will come one day.

She said: “I keep praying for a miracle that somebody comes forward with information because I do believe that whatever happened to Johnny has been spoken about. There are people who do know and I plead with them — please come forward.

“I could be your mother sitting her today. Your mother would want justice for you. It’s a living hell. He was a good boy who never deserved that.”

Radiating maternal love and pride, she added: “He’ll never be forgotten. Johnny touched a lot of people’s hearts when he was living and he’s still touching people’s hearts today. That’s the kind of boy he was. Once you met him you never forgot him.”

Police Scotland say their investigation is ongoing. Detective Inspector John Morrison added: “A team of officers continues to work on the John Connelly inquiry and we are in close contact with his family, who are kept up to date with any relevant developments.”


First Minister set to ease restrictions on outdoor meet-ups

The First Minister will make a statement in Holyrood on Tuesday afternoon.

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon could announce an easing of restrictions on outdoor meetings.

An easing of the restrictions on outdoor meetings could be announced by Nicola Sturgeon in her latest coronavirus update.

The First Minister is due to give a statement on the ongoing fight against Covid-19 to MSPs in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday afternoon.

She has already indicated a change in the rules on outdoor meetings – which at the moment only allow for two people from two different households to get together – could be coming.

On Friday, Sturgeon indicated “good progress” with the vaccination programme and the falling number of infections could mean that “greater normality is firmly on the horizon”.

“The First Minister has been clear that we will try to relax lockdown as quickly as we possibly can do, but we have to do it in a sustainable manner.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney
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She said then she was “hopeful” the Scottish Government may be able to make some “relatively minor, but I think important, changes in our ability to meet outdoors and also how young people are able to interact with their friends outdoors”.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney confirmed on Monday any changes to the current lockdown regime would be set out by Sturgeon.

He added: “The First Minister has been clear that we will try to relax lockdown as quickly as we possibly can do, but we have to do it in a sustainable manner.

“That means taking the appropriate steps in the appropriate sequence to make sure we don’t run the risk of the virus running away from us again.”

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The easing of lockdown restrictions began in February when children in the first three years of primary, as well as nursery youngsters, were able to return to the classroom.

Older primary children are expected to return to school full time from next Monday, March 15 – with secondary school pupils also to get some time back in the classroom from this date, before returning full-time after the Easter holiday.


Reaction to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Oprah interview

A series of shocking claims were made by the couple during a two hour interview covering racism, mental health and the Royal Family.

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The interview with Oprah Winfrey was broadcast on STV on Monday night.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have said the institution of the Royal Family failed to care for them while their mental health suffered or protect them from racism in the tabloid press.

Harry and Meghan made a series of shocking statements during their interview with Oprah Winfrey broadcast on STV on Monday night.

Meghan said she had suicidal thoughts and was refused help by senior staff in the Royal household.

She also told Ms Winfrey that Harry had been asked about “how dark” their son’s skin would be. The Duke said he would never reveal the details of the conversation had with an unamed family member, but Ms Winfrey later said that it was not the Queen or Prince Philip.

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During the two hour interview, which was first aired in the US overnight on Sunday, the couple revealed their second child, due in the summer, is a girl.

Harry and Meghan moved to the US in 2019 after deciding to “step-back” as working royals. Meghan said that the Royal Family institution failed to protect her and Harry from false stories in the tabloid press.

In a previously unseen section of the interview, Harry said the British tabloid media is “bigoted” and that this filtered out to the rest of society.

Asked about the Royal Family, Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to comment beyond praising the Queen.

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At the Downing Street press conference on Monday, he said: “I have always had the highest admiration for the Queen and the unifying role that she plays in our country and across the Commonwealth.”

But on “all other matters to do with the royal family, I have spent a long time now not commenting on royal family matters and I don’t intend to depart from that today”.

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour party, said: “The issues that Meghan has raised of race and mental health are really serious issues.

“It’s a reminder that there’s a lot more to do. Nobody but nobody should be prejudiced because of the colour of their skin or mental health issues.

“Well they’re serious allegations, and we’ll have to see how the institution reacts to this.

“It’s bigger in a sense than just the Royal Family, because that experience of racism, I’m sad to say, is too prevalent still in the 21st century. We have to take that very, very seriously.”

The Society of Editors said the UK media “is not bigoted and will not be swayed from its vital role holding the rich and powerful to account”.

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Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “It is not acceptable for the Duke and Duchess to make such claims without providing any supporting evidence.”

Buckingham Palace is yet to publicly respond to the interview.

If you or someone you know needs help, Samaritans operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year, by calling 116 123. Or, if you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org

Man accused of murdering woman and two-year-old girl

Andrew Inness is accused of murdering Bennylyn Burke, 25, and two-year-old Jellica Burke.

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The charge states that Bennylyn Burke was repeatedly hit with a hammer.

A man has appeared in court charged with murdering a woman and her two-year-old daughter.

Andrew Innes, 50, appeared at Dundee Sheriff Court on Monday.

He was charged with repeatedly hitting 25-year-old Bennylyn Burke with a hammer and murdering her.

Innes is also accused of assaulting Jellica Burke by “means unknown” and murdering the two-year-old.

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It’s alleged both murders took place at a property in Troon Avenue, Dundee, between February 17 and March 5.

Innes, who made no plea, was held in custody following the hearing while the case was continued for further examination.


Teen charged after ‘attempted murders’ at football pitches

Three men were taken to hospital after being stabbed in Glasgow.

Police Scotland
The stabbings happened at Greenfield Football Centre on Duror Street.

A teenager has been arrested and charged in connection with two attempted murders and a serious assault in Glasgow.

Three men, two 21-year-olds and a 19-year-old, were stabbed at Greenfield Park football pitches on Duror Street, in the east of the city, on Saturday, February 27.

A 19-year-old has been charged in connection with the incident which happened at around 8.20pm and resulted in the three men being taken to Glasgow Royal Infirmary with serious injuries.

Detective sergeant Stephen Greenshields, of Shettleston CID, said: “We would like to thank the local community for helping us with our investigation and providing information.”

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Greenfield Football Centre on Duror Street (Google Maps)
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The 19-year-old is due to appear at Glasgow Sheriff Court on Tuesday, March 9.


Medieval skull removed from auction after ‘unethical’ warning

Antiquarians say human remains should be 'treated with respect' as skull recovered from excavation is pulled from sale.

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Skull was due to be put up for auction in Edinburgh.

A medieval skull expected to fetch £700 when it went under the hammer was removed from auction – after experts warned it was unethical to sell human remains.

The skull, recovered from a Victorian-era excavation near Durham, was pulled from sale at Ramsay Cornish Auctioneers in Leith, Edinburgh.

Antiquarians had raised concerns about the skull, due to be sold on Saturday, claiming the sale of human remains raised ‘ethical and moral’ issues.

Dr Simon Gilmour, director of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, said while it’s not illegal to sell human remains, they should be ‘treated with respect’.

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He said it was a grey area but that he wanted to work with auction houses to stop the sale of human remains, and close the “loophole” which allowed it.

Dr Gilmour said: “The key thing herd is that selling such an item is legal – that is the core thing.

“There is a blind spot where human remains are concerned. You cannot own a human body or remains so we find it odd that you can sell them.

“It is a grey area and it is one that we want to tackle and close the loophhole.

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“For us, it is an ethical issue.

“You are talking about part of a human body, a person, someone’s son or daughter and it should be treated with respect.

Dr Gilmour said archaeologists and those working with human remains were bound by a strict code of ethics with disturbed remains to be reburied following analysis.

He added: “If remains end up being sold, then it is very unlikely that it will be re-buried.”

A skull which belonged to the Edinburgh artist Sir William Mactaggart and which was used as a studio prop fetched £900 at the auction house in December.

A spokeswoman for the auction said a market existed among those with an interest in the macabre, as well as oddities and curiosities.

But she added they would not auction off any more skulls until “a wider debate can be had”.

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The British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology (BABAO), described the sale of human remains as unethical.

They said there have been “numerous cases” in recent years where human remains have been bought and sold for financial gain.

A statement said: “It is ethically objectionable to commodify the remains of people as objects, and the concept of ‘ownership’ of most human remains is not recognised in law.”

It said there was a wider concern that trade encouraged looting of both archaeological and contemporary burial sites.

A spokeswoman for Ramsay Cornish Auctioneers said the item was removed soon after contact was made by Dr Gilmour.

She added: “The skull came from a dig, a burial site, and that is why we wanted to remove it.

“A skull which comes from a medical provenance might be viewed differently. It is very delicate territory but I am comfortable with the decision.

“There is a lot of censoring of objects and there are debates to be had, with each side listened to.

“Some might question whether it is legitimate to excavate a burial site. The reality is these are very important issues.

“Our leaning would be not to include any more skulls until a wider debate has been had.”

Driver attacked as teenagers ‘tampered’ with bus

The number 26 bus was travelling along towards Corstorphine Hill in Edinburgh on Friday when the gang targeted the vehicle.

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Lothian Buses confirmed services including the number 26 would return to Clermiston as scheduled with an increased police prescence.

A bus driver was assaulted by a teenager as he tried to stop a gang from tampering with his vehicle in Edinburgh.

The number 26 bus was travelling along Drum Brae Drive towards Corstorphine Hill at about 10pm on Friday.

As it came to a halt at a bus stop, police say the group of youths – three males and a female aged between 15 and 18 – tried “tampering” with the vehicle from the outside when the driver got off.

He was attacked by one of the group, who is described as 6ft tall, of slim build and wearing a black jacket.

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Inspector Johnny Elliott said: “This was an unprovoked assault on a man who was simply trying to do his job and it is vital we trace the individuals involved.

“I am appealing for anyone who was in the area on Friday evening and either witnessed the incident, or noticed a group of youths matching the above description behaving suspiciously, to get in touch.

“I would also ask any motorists with dashcams who were on the roads at the time to please check their footage in case they have captured anything which could be of significance.

“Anyone with information should contact police on 101, quoting incident number 3774 of March 5. Alternatively, you can contact the Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.”

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Lothian Buses initially removed services, including the number 26, after “a serious incident of anti-social behaviour”.

But on Monday the operator confirmed services would return to Clermiston as scheduled with an increased police presence.

Operations director Sarah Boyd said: “Our drivers have played a critical part in keeping services operating for keyworkers and those that require to make essential journeys across the last 12 months and it is extremely disappointing that we are being targeted at various locations across Edinburgh and the Lothians.

“Following a serious incident on Friday evening and a significant increase in instances of antisocial behaviour, we made the difficult decision to remove services from the Clermiston area on Saturday and Sunday evenings.

“While we offer our sincere apologies to any of our customers who were inconvenienced, the safety of our drivers and customers remains our absolute priority and we will not hesitate to take similar action again if necessary.

“Working closely with Police Scotland we will continue to monitor the situation as our services return to Clermiston this evening.”


Autistic teen sends almost 700 thank you cards to NHS staff

Paddy Joyce hopes to send more than 5,000 letters by the end of the year.

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Paddy Joyce has sent almost 700 thank you letters to hospital staff.

An autistic teenager has sent almost 700 thank you cards to staff at a hospital to share messages of support with those on the front line dealing with Covid-19.

Paddy Joyce, 17, from Glasgow, began writing to healthcare staff in mid-January as a way to help with his anxiety after he became very upset over the death statistics.

With the assistance of staff at Glasgow Royal Infirmary (GRI), he has now been able to hand-write 663 individually named cards to members of the team.

So far Paddy, who has autism with significant global development delays, has written more than 1,000 cards and hopes to send more than 5,000 by the end of the year.

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Hospital staff have been touched to receive the cards (NHSGGC/PA)
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He said: “I saw how sad and upset they were on the news. My mum said I should write to someone, so I asked her to find someone and lots of people wanted one, so I want to write to everyone.”

His mother Indra said writing the letters helps with Paddy’s concerns about Covid.

She said: “Statistics make sense to him because they are numbers and organised.

“He honed in on Covid death stats and they made him very upset, but he couldn’t stop looking at them.

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“Now, he’ll read them, and they make him determined to write more cards so he can help make the doctors and nurses happy.

“And because a fair few respond to him, he feels he is making a difference. He now feels he has purpose.”

The first of the cards were opened by people working in the intensive care unit (ICU) at GRI and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC) said staff have been touched by Paddy’s gesture of kindness.

Pat Cruickshanks, charge nurse within the ICU, said: “This last year has been so different to anything we’ve known and it’s not over yet.

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The cards have been sent to staff at Glasgow Royal Infirmary (NHSGGC/PA)

“We’re still very busy with both Covid and non-Covid patients and gestures like these provide something of a boost to keep us going.

“I know that everyone in the team and across the hospital is really grateful and I hope, at some point, we all get to meet Paddy to say thanks to him in person. He should be so proud of what he has done.”

Margaret Cooper, an auxiliary within the ICU, said: “You sometimes think that no-one else cares or sees what you are going through, so it’s just nice to feel that we’re not forgotten.

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“It’s amazing that he’s thought of all of us and the amount of work he’s put in is just fantastic. I really do appreciate it. He sounds like a very kind young man and I hope we can see him soon.”

Paddy will soon be starting sixth year at secondary school and despite his complex needs, he hopes to follow a pathway which could lead to him working within the NHS.

Dr Barbara Crooks, consultant anaesthetist at the GRI, who helped to co-ordinate the task of getting names together for Paddy to write the cards, said: “I know this was a tremendous effort from Paddy to write an individual thank you to so many of our team.

“They have been blown away by Paddy’s heartfelt messages, which have been quite touching and certainly lifted our spirits.

“Thank you to Paddy and his mum Indra for providing a much-needed morale boost.”

Cancer patients ‘relying on handouts for heating and clothes’

Figures show Macmillan Cancer Support provided £1.2m in grants last year to almost 3700 people.

Rui Vieira via PA Wire
Necessities: Figures show Macmillan Cancer Support provided £1.2m in grants last year to almost 3700 people.

Scots cancer patients are relying on “handouts” to pay for essentials such as heating and clothes, according to a charity.

Figures show Macmillan Cancer Support provided £1.2m in grants last year to almost 3700 people to help them pay for necessities.

The charity says this highlights the financial stresses cancer causes and called on political parties in Scotland to pledge their support for the rapid rollout of a model of support, ahead of the Holyrood elections in May.

Janice Preston, head of Macmillan in Scotland, said: “No one dealing with a life-threatening illness should have to worry about how to pay their rent or heat their home.

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“While I’m pleased Macmillan was able to give one-off grants to so many people in urgent need, these figures show just how badly cancer can affect people financially.

“That’s why it’s vital everyone with cancer in Scotland is offered an in-depth assessment of their needs, followed by the right support, from benefits advice to counselling.

“In 2019, Macmillan and the Scottish Government pledged £9m each to fund the Transforming Cancer Care programme which aims to make this a reality, and the need for the programme in a post-Covid world was made clear in the recent cancer recovery plan.

“We’re calling on all political parties and candidates to pledge their support for the programme and its rapid rollout across the country.”

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Derek McKeown and Jacqueline O’Neill (handout)
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About £150,000 was given to people with cancer to help them afford new beds, mattresses and bedding, while about £85,500 went to cover hospital travel costs.

The charity also provided almost £457,000 to help pay for heating, while another £370,000 was awarded to help them buy new clothes, often needed due to a change in body shape resulting from treatment.

Derek McKeown, a security guard from Inverclyde, was diagnosed with kidney cancer in October.

The 55-year-old was given a £350 Macmillan grant to buy new clothes, which he used to buy a suit for his wedding with Jacqueline O’Neill after losing three stone.

He said: “We are able to sleep at night a little easier thanks to all the help. I’m now two sizes smaller than I was, so the Macmillan grant has also helped to buy a new suit for the wedding.”


Call for school starting age to be raised to seven

The Liberal Democrats want youngsters to have a 'truly play-based' education.

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School: The Liberal Democrats want youngsters to have a 'truly play-based' education.

Liberal Democrats have called for the age youngsters start formal schooling to be raised to seven in an “historic change” in Scotland’s education system.

Until then, Lib Dems want youngsters to have a “truly play-based” education.

The party insists the change could be part of improving Scotland’s education, tackling the attainment gap and giving youngsters the best start in life.

The issue is being raised at Holyrood after Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie used his party conference speech to call for every available teacher to have a guaranteed job, in a bid to cut class sizes and boost learning after the coronavirus pandemic saw school closures and disruption to learning.

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Currently, youngsters start primary school when they are just four or five-years-old – with Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Beatrice Wishart saying this practice dated back to the Victorians.

She insisted that raising the starting age for formal schooling was “an important part of our plans for the next parliament to make Scottish education the best again”.

Wishart will use the Holyrood debate to set out the party’s “commitment to making education truly play-based until the age of seven”.

She insisted education will “still be mandatory” under their proposals, but would “focus on child development, social skills, outdoor learning, and physical and mental health”.

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She said: “Countries excelling in education and equity show that this approach better prepares children to shine in literacy and numeracy.

“They might start a bit later but they quickly surge past us. By learning together through play, children develop the critical skills needed for better long-term development and outcomes. I want Scotland’s children to get the same long-term benefits.”

The Liberal Democrat continued: “The best way to close the attainment gap is not to open it in the first place.

“The Victorians didn’t give us the best way to start school. Now we have the SNP conducting national testing of four and five-year-olds against the will of parliament.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats will always be the party of education. It’s time for a historic change to give our children the best start in life.”

But a Scottish Government spokeswoman said there were no plans to increase the school starting age.

She said: “We want Scotland to be the best place to grow up and have almost doubled the entitlement to high quality, funded early learning and childcare to 1140 hours from this August – a transformational policy that will benefit children and families, with quality of children’s experiences and supporting wellbeing at its heart.

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“Scotland’s curriculum is already rooted in play for the early years, with a strong focus on ensuring all children benefit from rich outdoor learning experiences. We have no plans to change the school starting age.”


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